Walter Benjamin: Images, the Creaturely, and the Holy

Walter Benjamin: Images, the Creaturely, and the Holy

by Sigrid Weigel

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Arguing that the importance of painting and other visual art for Benjamin's epistemology has yet to be appreciated, Weigel undertakes the first systematic analysis of their significance to his thought. She does so by exploring Benjamin's dialectics of secularization, an approach that allows Benjamin to explore the simultaneous distance from and orientation towards


Arguing that the importance of painting and other visual art for Benjamin's epistemology has yet to be appreciated, Weigel undertakes the first systematic analysis of their significance to his thought. She does so by exploring Benjamin's dialectics of secularization, an approach that allows Benjamin to explore the simultaneous distance from and orientation towards revelation and to deal with the difference and tensions between religious and profane ideas. In the process, Weigel identifies the double reference of 'life' to both nature and to a 'supernatural' sphere as a guiding concept of Benjamin's writings. Sensitive to the notorious difficulty of translating his language, she underscores just how much is lost in translation, particularly with regard to religious connotations. The book thus positions Benjamin with respect to the other European thinkers at the heart of current discussions of sovereignty and martyrdom, of holy and creaturely life. It corrects misreadings, including Agamben's staging of an affinity between Benjamin and Schmitt, and argues for the closeness of Benjamin's work to that of Aby Warburg, with whom Benjamin unsuccessfully attempted an intellectual exchange.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Weigel (director, Center for Literary and Cultural Research, Berlin) offers a meticulous exploration of the German writer Walter Benjamin's take on creaturely existence, law, sovereignty, secularization and holiness, language, and art."—M. V. Marder, CHOICE

"Weigel's readings, which are steeped in philological detail and hermeneutic insight, brilliantly exhibit the stakes involved in approaching Benjamin's work anew. Her impeccable sense for intertextual trajectories coupled with broad erudition not only results in sophisticated exegeses, but also amply demonstrate the continued if not urgent relevance of Benjamin's interventions for our current intellectual and cultural concerns."—John T. Hamilton, Harvard University

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Stanford University Press
Publication date:
Cultural Memory in the Present Series
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5.90(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.90(d)

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Walter Benjamin

Images, the Creaturely, and the Holy

By Sigrid Weigel, Chadwick Truscott Smith


Copyright © 2008 S. Fischer Verlag GmbH, Frankfurt am Main
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8047-8060-5


The Creaturely and the Holy

Benjamin's Engagement with Secularization

It is characteristic of Walter Benjamin's simultaneously fascinating and difficult writing that he neither presents his thoughts in a discursive continuity—ordering them in terms of subject matter, themes, and aspects—nor provides his readers with a conceptual résumé. Although the composition of his texts is founded on a conceptual systematic, he rather unfolds his arguments and his work on concepts and theorems by means of readings, quotations, and thought-images. This manner of writing means that even after multiple readings certain passages may always catch one's eye that hitherto have largely escaped the notice of scholars and that launch new and different ways of reading his works. An example of this is a long quotation from Adalbert Stifter, taking up more than half a page in his 1931 essay Karl Kraus, which has up to now attracted little attention. It is one of the few places in Benjamin's writings in which he talks overtly about secularization. For the purposes of my reading, it is the point of departure for an investigation of his concept of secularization, or rather, his way of dealing with secularization. Benjamin does not so much work with a theory of secularization, a term he seldom uses explicitly; instead his approach to language, concepts, and images involves a rhetorical and epistemological practice that presents scenes of secularization.

"This insolently secularized thunder and lightning": The Holy, the Law and the Creaturely

The aforementioned passage is a commentary on a lengthy quotation from the preface to Stifter's Bunte Steine (Colored Stones, 1853) in which Stifter describes natural phenomena as the "effects of far higher laws" and compares the "wonder" felt in relation to them with the reign of the moral law in the "infinite intercourse of human beings." Benjamin comments on this passage as follows:

Tacitly, in these famous sentences, the holy has given place to the modest yet questionable concept of law. But this nature of Stifter's and his moral universe are transparent enough to escape any confusion with Kant, and to be still recognizable in their core as creature.

Though appearing harmless at first glance, Benjamin singles out the fact that Stifter describes natural phenomena as the effect of "far higher laws" and thus discovers therein a far-from-harmless operation: a tacit substitution of the holy with a concept of law whose origin in religion is to be discerned only in the attribute "higher." He continues:

This insolently secularized thunder and lightning, storms, surf, and earthquakes—cosmic man has won them back for Creation by making them its answer, like a statement of the Last Judgment, to the criminal existence of men; only that the span between Creation and the Last Judgment finds no redemptive fulfillment here, let alone a historical overcoming. (II.I/340; SelWr 1.437; emphasis S.W.)

What instantly catches one's attention here is the word 'insolently' (schnöde). It separates Stifter's version of a poetic secularization of natural phenomena both from a secularization that would somehow not be insolent, and from one that would be more than insolent, perhaps contemptible. Notable, too, is the characterization of the concept of law as "modest yet questionable" (dem bescheidenen, doch bedenklichen Begriff des Gesetzes). The ambiguity of the attribute bescheiden, which means 'moderate' but might also be read as 'scanty' or 'insufficient,' is echoed in the oscillation of bedenklich between 'requiring interrogation' and 'dubious,' even 'discreditable.'

Benjamin's commentary on this insolent secularization consists of two arguments. The first is that in speaking of the 'effects of far higher laws,' Stifter replaces the concept of the holy with the concept of law, a substitution that, since it has occurred 'tacitly,' remains concealed. The questionable (bedenkliche) character of the concept of law is not least the result of the tacit substitution through which the formulation 'higher laws' can continue to profit from the allusion to the holy even as law seems to have left the sphere of the holy behind. The second argument is initiated with the word 'but' and highlights the transparency of Stifter's concept of nature and of his moral universe, through which their creaturely status remains discernible: this is why they therefore cannot be confused with the Kantian moral universe. Benjamin does not undertake a closer examination of the opposite form, that is, of a form of appearance that would be obscure and not transparent, so that the creatureliness of Stifter's nature would then not be recognizable. At most, such a contrast is hinted at through the reference to the Kantian moral universe, lest it concern Stifter's nature alone. The pathos formula of the "two things" that "fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe" that we find in the Critique of Practical Reason in the form of the much-quoted phrase "the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me" is contradicted in Bunte Steine by the way in which Stifter distinguishes between these "two things." Stifter views "conspicuous events" in nature as manifestations of general laws that act silently and incessantly, while "the miracles of the moment when deeds are performed" are for him only small signs of a general power. This power is the moral law, which, in Stifter's view, "acts silently, animating the soul through the infinite intercourse of human beings" (SelWr 1.437). Hence admiration in the face of natural laws is distinguished from admiration owing to moral laws. By means of his commentary on Stifter, Benjamin indirectly criticizes Kant's ethics, which, in assuming a life of 'intelligence' independent of the entire world of the senses,5 fail to recognize the creaturely core of nature—including human nature. Although Benjamin emphasizes the greater transparency in Stifter's differentiation between nature and moral universe, what still troubles him in the text is the use of the concept of law to function as a term projected onto nature that, like a screen, conceals the notion of the holy.

The definition of a form of non-insolent secularization remains a void in Benjamin's text, and the task of imagining it is left to his readers. This much is clear, however: the question concerning the possibility of different forms of secularization that is automatically posed by the word 'insolently' points toward the issue of the cognizability of the substitutions through which secularizing operations take place. Benjamin's observation that Stifter's substitution has taken place 'tacitly' implies that another linguistic or rhetorical mode would be required if it were to become cognizable. Secularization that does not operate insolently is thus implicitly defined as a reflexive stance in one's dealings with the legacies of religion in the modern age. The argument up to this point may be summarized as follows: in the context of secularization, Benjamin criticizes the concept of the law as a screen term to the extent that it conceals within it the precise relationship between the holy and the creaturely. Thus the passage gathers together the three central terms—the law, the holy, and the creaturely—that have been the object of widespread interest in recent Benjamin scholarship.

In order to clarify the importance of insolent secularization for the work on Karl Kraus, the context of the passage needs to be explained. The quoted sentences occur in the first part of the essay Karl Kraus of 1931, which is composed as a triptych whose three chapters are titled Allmensch, Dämon, and Unmensch. Translated in the English edition as 'Cosmic Man,' 'Demon,' and 'Monster,' the pair of ambiguous words All- and Unmensch (profiting from the tension between the prefixes all and un, and literally meaning 'every men' and 'an a-human being') is strongly determined since 'cosmos' (stemming from Greek [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], the order of the world or the state) emphasizes the aspect of order or universe and 'monster' carries a negative connotation. Unmensch, on the other hand, personifies the lack of all ordinary human attributes and attitudes; he is less a monster than an a-human being similar to the angel and the envoy (Bote).

In Benjamin's essay, Kraus is presented as a polemicist with an attitude that Benjamin characterizes as noblesse in armor. Kraus's criterion for world-historical villainy, according to Benjamin, lies beyond any bourgeois respectability, which he sees as only being capable of plain (home-made) villainy. His criterion is instead described by Benjamin as a 'theological tact.' Tact is thus understood not as a skill that eases social interaction but as "the capacity to treat social relationships, though not departing from them, as natural, even paradisiac, relationships, and so not only to approach the king as if he had been born with the crown on his brow, but the lackey like an Adam in livery" (II.1/339; SelWr 2.436ff.) This means that tact is, far from adherence to a social norm, a means of treating the creature as a divine Creation.

Kraus "In the temple of the creature"

In order to clarify what the theological means in this context, Benjamin interprets Kraus's concept of the creature as an inheritance from theology. Kraus's "concept of creature contains the theological inheritance of speculations that last possessed contemporary validity for the whole of Europe in the seventeenth century" (339, 437; emphasis S.W.). These speculations have not been able to maintain their validity in unchanging form; rather, the theological legacy in the concept of the creature has undergone a transformation in order for it to find expression, for example, in the "ordinary (all)-human (allmenschlichen) credo of Austrian worldliness" (339ff., 437). Benjamin expresses this article of faith in a telling image: the fog of incense that occasionally still recalls the rite in church into which Creation has been transformed. Incense and church are here interpreted as the zero degree of rite and Creation. For Benjamin, then, Kraus's concept of creature is a symptom of theological legacy in a world in which the idea of Creation has been transformed into an ecclesiastical order, or in other words, in which the cult has been institutionalized. This is the constellation that constitutes the insolent secularization for which Stifter has been introduced as representative.

In contrast to the unambiguous positioning of Stifter as an exponent an allmenschliche "credo of Austrian worldliness" or, alternatively, of a "patriarchal (altväterliches) credo" (SelWr 2.437ff.), the status that Benjamin ascribes to Kraus is more ambivalent, although the reading of Stifter leads immediately to his portrait of Kraus. The diagnosis that he operates in "the span between Creation and Last Judgment" without finding any "redemptive fulfillment" (437) remains valid, however, for Kraus as well. Landscape is for Stifter's prose what history is for Kraus, so that "for him, Kraus, the terrifying years of his life are not history but nature, a river condemned to meander through a landscape of hell." This image makes it clear that Benjamin's critical gaze is not just directed at the mythologizing process, at the perception of history as nature; what particularly interests him is the virulently theological topology (the "landscape of hell"). For Kraus, Benjamin writes, history is "merely the wilderness wasteland (Einöde) separating his genus (Geschlecht) from Creation, whose last act is world conflagration" (II.I/341; SelWr 2.438). And further: "As a deserter to the camp of the creaturely—so he measures out this wilderness (wasteland)." An apocalyptic worldview and devaluation of history are therefore not just two sides of the same coin. In Benjamin's perception, they also evoke an attitude in which the human subject allies itself with the animal creature and finds itself mirrored in it. The role of the animal creature thus becomes a symptom of an anti-historical theological mythologization of modernity, an attitude Benjamin describes as a legacy of the Baroque.

Benjamin elaborates the stance toward the creature from both of its sides: in terms of affection toward animals, and of their transformation into Creation's mirror of virtue, which is an act of imagination. He sees an echo of the "all-human credo" wherever "Kraus concerns himself with animals, plants, children" (340, 437). Benjamin treats the way in which Kraus "inclines toward" the animal "in the name of creature" with undisguised irony. For Kraus, writes Benjamin, the animal is "Creation's true mirror of virtue, in which fidelity, purity, gratitude smile from times lost and remote" (SelWr 2.438). His irony is directed at the projection involved when virtues that have emerged only in the course of human cultural history are mistaken for the innocence of paradise and where "purity" is discerned in, of all things, animals. The name 'creature' stands precisely for this projection of the state of Creation onto history. When the human being sees its own face in the mirror image of the animal creature, Creation and history merge into one. As emblems of Kraus's attitude, Benjamin discovers something "infinitely questionable" in the animals, above all because they are his own creations, "recruited solely from those whom Kraus himself first called intellectually to life, whom he conceived (zeugte) and convinced (überzeugte) in one and the same act" (438). Here Benjamin takes Kraus's work as an example of an autopoetic system wherein his own imaginative projections are regarded as the embodiments of Creation, and in whose mirrorings a reflection of the Creation falls back upon the author. The critique is then intensified in Benjamin's image of the "temple of creature." Benjamin poses a grave objection against such a procedure, one central to present-day debates about fictionalized works of Holocaust witness: "His testimony can determine only those for whom it can never become an act of procreation (Bestimmen kann sein Zeugnis nur die, denen es Zeugung nie werden kann)" (II.I/341; SelWr 2.438). With this statement, Benjamin criticizes reference to animals as the representatives of a creaturely state of innocence, as if conferred upon them by divine Creation, a reference that disregards the real living animals. Instead Benjamin reserves the act of witnessing (Zeugnis) for a constellation free of 'intellectual' procreation (Zeugung), that is, the generation of 'life' through an act of imagination.

His commentary on the ambiguity of meaning that is characteristic of Karl Kraus's speeches and writings cannot be discussed in detail here. However, in the course of his discussion of the concrete themes, objects, and motifs in Kraus's texts, Benjamin comes back again and again to the basic structure of a significant historico-philosophical topography: the "span between Creation and Last Judgment." For Benjamin, Kraus embodies a stance that—in the midst of modernity and its technological features—takes up a relation to the theological inheritance through such concepts as that of creature, although without leading into a redemptive history. He presents Kraus to us as a persona operating in a complex and complicated intermediate space between the world of Genesis and the present. By neglecting history, which would fill this intermediate space in the form of a time-span, Kraus finds himself in a position on "the threshold of the Last Judgment" (SelWr 2.443). Benjamin compares this perspective to the foreshortening found in Baroque altar painting. Where Creation and Last Judgment abut one another in a relation of immediacy (that is, with no intervening historical time), their orders come into conflict, a conflict of principles: "If he ever turns his back on Creation, if he breaks off lamenting (Klagen), it is only for accusing (anzuklagen) at the Last Judgment" (II.I/349; SelWr 2.443, emphases S.W.). Anklage, the language of the law, and Klage, the language of creatures, are directed at different authorities; they are not only incompatible but in direct conflict with one another. This conflict finds expression in a multiplicity and polyphony of linguistic and bodily gestures. Polemicism, headstrong stubbornness, biblical pathos, theological tact, lamentation, and demonic voice are all the effects of a stance in which the speaker, maintaining his position on the threshold, turns first in one direction, then in the other, addressing himself as he does so to different authorities. At issue in the Kraus essay (first published in four parts in the Frankfurter Zeitung in 1931) is not so much the historical figure of Karl Kraus as the illumination of this intermediate space and the clarification of the aftereffects of the theological inheritance in specific present concepts. Benjamin's commitment is directed at a precise analysis of the various overlays, substitutions, transformations, and references that connect contemporary concepts to ideas derived from a divine order.


Excerpted from Walter Benjamin by Sigrid Weigel, Chadwick Truscott Smith. Copyright © 2008 S. Fischer Verlag GmbH, Frankfurt am Main. Excerpted by permission of STANFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Sigrid Weigel is Director of the Center for Literary and Cultural Research in Berlin.

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