THE ANGEL OF HISTORY AND THE RUINS OF PARIS: WALTER BENJAMIN IN FRANCE OR THE PROGRESS AS CATASTROPHE

Emma Barrett Fiedler

Abstract


If Walter Benjamin's writings have been mostly interpreted in the fields of art and literature critique, we would like here to take his philosophy of history more seriously, despite its acknowledged lack of unity (Habermas 1988: 32) and systematicity (Arendt 1960: 248). Drawing from the well-known allegory of the “Angel” developed in his theses on the concept of history written at the beginning of the Second World War and just before his death in Port-Bou, we will further analyze his genealogical critique of Parisian modernity contained in the Arcades Project, a work undertook more than a decade before, during his exile in France. In echo with the imagination of prospective ruins which florished during the modernization of the French capital after the 1850's, Benjamin's conception of progress, understood as a catastrophe submitting industrial capitalist societies to a permanent “state of emergency”, is thus combined with the theorization of a “Copernician revolution in the field of historical method” (Benjamin 1999: 348). Beyond Benjamin's phenomenological enterprise of a physiognomy of material modernity, and the romantic and surrealistic sensibility of his “anthropological materialism”, his philosophy of progress inscribes itself in a radical paradigm rendering its centrality to the idea of catastrophe (Anders 1972; Dupuy 2004; Stengers 2009), against the accidental role it holds in the principles of precaution and “responsibility” (Jonas 1979) and in the nowadays dominant paradigm of “risk” (Beck 1986); furthermore, “our” catastrophes would have in a Benjaminian perspective to be diagnosed in the past and the present rather than anticipated for the future.

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philosophy of history, catastrophism, Haussmannization, modernization

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References


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DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.46827/ejsss.v7i1.1154

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