Benjamin in Jerusalem
The Middle East as crisis and critique
This month, two conferences and one exhibition dedicated to Walter Benjamin’s legacy are descending on Ramallah, Jerusalem, and Tel Aviv. Because of an unhealthy mix of political considerations, security measures, and academic snobbery, I will partake in none of them, despite my roots in this troubled land and my recent book on Benjamin. Seventy-five years after he committed suicide while fleeing the Nazis, I am publishing this essay with the belief that even when a body cannot gain access to a place, a discourse, or a future, there are always alternative ways to get through the tightest borders and past the coldest gatekeepers.
In his eighth thesis on the concept of history, Walter Benjamin alerts us of a rhetorical trap into which too many of us too often fall. First we see something: rights trampled, freedoms snatched, humans oppressed, laws overlooked, brutality unleashed. Amazed by these horrors, we then feel compelled to say something: how can this still be possible today?
Aristotle claimed that philosophy begins with wonder, but Benjamin assures us that no deep insight ever arose from the above knee-jerk reaction. Unless, that is, by lingering on it for a second, we will eventually be led to rethink a deeply-engrained conviction.
What stands behind this fake wonder? It is a simple assumption, hovering between the words still and today. Back in the day, we reckon, it was more common for such atrocities to happen. People probably didn’t even bother to bat an eyelash. But things changed. The world advanced. Progress rules, even though it remains an uphill battle.
And this battle is real. We know that an eyelash batted in America will not release a political prisoner in China. So petitions are signed, marches organized, boycotts enforced, legislations repealed, and yes, sometimes even force has to be used for the good cause. And look how far we have come!
But then, like a stock-exchange bubble, the situation blows up in our faces. And we can’t believe that this is even happening. Again. Still. Given all that we’ve already achieved. So we don’t hesitate. We barely stop to think, and spring back into action. We try to right the wrong. Bring the aberration back to a healthy state. Restore the peace. Reconcile the rift. This is just an exception to the rule, we surmise. The just rule can still rule.
Think of a real example of grave injustice, like the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories. How can this conflict remain unresolved for so many years? What part of “basic human rights” does the Israeli government fail to understand? How much suffering do the Palestinians have to endure before the world will really, truly wake up? How can this still be possible today? How can this misery continue on and on without concrete hope for a better future?
Add to this the civil wars and occasional uprisings and recurrent regime changes and random acts of violence that are spreading throughout this whole volatile region, and our previous amazement can no longer even be expressed through stock phrases. We simply feel stumped. And whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent, melancholically resigned. The only choice left seems to be the one between pessimism and nihilism.
Can we mend the broken pieces? Can we save the ship from its wreck? Can we perceive with good faith this predicament as a temporary exception to the dominant rule? Benjamin doesn’t think so. He writes in an oft-quoted passage that is still wildly misunderstood: “The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule. We must attain a conception of history that accords with this insight. Then we will clearly see that it is our task to bring about a real state of emergency, and this will improve our position in the struggle against fascism.”
Now, the problem is that fascists are a bit like hipsters. They are usually not self-identified. It is almost always another party that considers them as such in a pejorative sense. Taking the outsider’s position just for the sake of this argument, and taking some liberty with the strict definition of fascism, let me say that currently the authorities in the Middle East, whether sovereign or not, religious or not, democratic or not, armed or not, Zionist or not, are all fascists in different ways and to different degrees, all of which are alarming.
Benjamin, however, insists that we will only facilitate the survival of fascism by treating it as an anomaly that demands localized treatment, benevolently administered by the more orderly or simply more sane corners of the earth. He asks us instead to approach this so-called exception as the very rule of our shared world. But this is more easily said than done.
Even with Hannah Arendt’s Origin of Totalitarianism at hand, people continued to think of fascism as a dark force that can be vanquished, of the Nazis as monsters, and of the Holocaust as a historically and geographically circumscribed occurrence that shall never return. It is only after the publication, fifty years after WWII ended, of Giorgio Agamben’s Homo Sacer, that at least some of us learned to see the concentration camp as the nomos of the modern, as the insidious matrix of our politics, as the secret law that can still manipulate our lives today. Hitler’s actions were not a slap in the face of modern politics but its naked truth, drawn to its logical conclusion.
In this (rather disturbed) spirit, I suggest that we begin to attain a conception of the Middle East not as an exception but as the most potent and most painful manifestation of the planetary rule. We need to formulate ways to approach this never-ending crisis as the coordinates of a cataclysmic critique. (Crisis comes from krisis in Greek and critique arises from kritike, while both relate to krino, “to decide”.)
This, however, is not the usual critique that applies well-rehearsed ideological positions, theoretical tools, and conceptual schemes to a localizable reality. Such a deductive approach is precisely what fueled the crisis to begin with. No known rule can be applied to this exception. As scary as it may sound, the Mideast can become the paradigm that informs a novus ordo seclorum, a new and lasting order.
There is something in the mangled logic of this place, buried in its ruins, that is clamoring for a good archaeologist. I don’t mean the orientalist kind, or the one who confiscates lands in search of biblical rights. I mean the Foucauldian kind, the one who still believes in the power of sifting through texts and artifacts in an attempt to formulate a history of the present.
As Foucault used to say, it is only by standing in the fractured here and now that we can cast our shadows on the debris of what was. Where exactly should our shadows fall is anybody’s guess. It could be an utterance made yesterday or one made millennia ago. For me, today, the Cain and Abel story seems like an obvious starting point. But this is only my shadow. What is yours?
And remember: there is no time to waste. The bloody sun is setting in the West. The shadows are growing longer, darker, and more imposing with every second that passes. Very soon it will all be gone.