, Volume 28, Issue 1, pp 177–194 | Cite as

The Arrested Moment in Benjamin's “Theses”: Epistemology vs. Politics, Image vs. Story

  • Darko Suvin


Walter Benjamin's (WB) final important work, left untitled andusually called “[Theses] On the Concept of History” (CH) is an attempt ata philosophy of history, which is constituted by a refusal of systematicconceptuality and a great reliance on images such as the figural tableauxof the Angel of (catastrophic) History and the Chess-Player. Its foundingmove is to transfer the arrested epistemological moment to politics, whichis of a piece with the absence of any positive Subject, of the future, andof narrative. This article discusses then

“1. Intellectuals and Politics, Images and Structure”, identifying WB's root experience of life underthe bourgeoisie as the Modernist topos of lay Hell. The dialectic of long-range understanding vs. short-range militancy of the anti-bourgeois intelligentsiaunderlies the strengths and gaps in CH. Its genre is seen as nearer to acompressed tractate than to theses. Its central method is the reliance onstriking images as architectonic bearers of meanings, in a Surrealist braidingwith some new or revalued concepts: WB is perhaps the Magritte of criticaltheory. CH focusses on the Chess-Player, the Angel, and the absent but necessaryMessiah, but the precise meaning and the figural status of these key mentionsare debatable. Based on this,

“2. A Pointer Toward Analyzing ‘CH’”puts forth a counter-proposal to G. Kaiser's analysis of its thematics(how is history to be understood as happening?) and its structure by meansof a new grouping of its 18 sections, arguing that the ending may be readas the place where the incompleteness emerges.

“3. Time and History, Image and Story” focusses on WB's refusals of the future and of story-telling, which prefigure most attempts today to understand catastrophic history. They culminate in WB's privileging of the arrested moment. It seems to confuseepiste- mology of cognition with ontology of history: if so, the price ofWB's brilliant devices may prove too high.


Impossible World Prose Fetishism Upward Arrow Vivid Image 
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© Kluwer Academic Publishers/Akadémiai Kiadó 2001

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  • Darko Suvin

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