Hope – Rethinking with Benjamin
Conference of the International Walter Benjamin Society
There is no moment, writes Walter Benjamin, which cannot become revolutionary and does not have “the chance for a completely new solution to a completely new problem.” This wording describes revolution less as a rupture in the continuity between past and present, but as an arising possibility for a (different) future. Revolution, for Benjamin, presents radical new challenges, and yet it is also permanent, omnipresent, and miniscule in aspiration and effect. That is, revolution does not only manifest itself in a radical break, as any solution or response—and truly any moment—can take on a revolutionary character.
Such thoughts challenge our familiar image of Benjamin as a melancholic and skeptic and show him as a pragmatic and practical thinker, constantly on the lookout for new ways and means of intervention. His radicality, then, is less the product of an apocalyptic vision of the future, but can rather be attributed to a clear-sighted engagement with the here and now. Benjamin’s source of hope is not grounded in an unspecified time to come, but in a critical energy aimed at the “completely new problem.”
When viewed from this perspective, Benjamin’s works allow us to think about hope—even and especially today, in the face of challenges that were impossible to foresee. Hope raises a number of questions: What is hope, and where is it situated? With whom or what is hope associated? How can we think of hope, and when thinking it with Benjamin, what can we hope to achieve? To what extent does Benjamin’s notion of hope diverge from both the model of gradual development and from those of radical rupture? What are the political, epistemological, or moral implications of moments of crisis which cannot be understood in the context of the grand narratives of progress or revolution? And finally, how can Benjamin’s “rescuing impulse” open up new modes of thinking and acting? What new ways of thinking about time—about pasts, presents, and futures—does this impulse introduce? Crucially, Benjamin’s notion of “the new”—of new challenges and solutions—does not only refer to the present, the future, or an extratemporal utopia. It also manifests itself as the revolutionary power of the current moment to unlock “a quite distinct chamber of the past, one which up to this point has been closed and locked.” Such a process recalls Benjamin’s historical work, where he hopes to “fan the spark of hope contained within the past.” If hope, according to the phrase initially quoted, opens up the present moment towards its inherent possibilities, we should not abandon it.
Fig. above: Walter Benjamin, detail from Berliner Kindheit um neunzehnhundert. AdK, Berlin, WBA 363/12
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