Terry Eagleton’s landmark study Walter Benjamin: Or, Towards a Revolutionary Criticism is part of Verso’s new set of Radical Thinkers. He will take part in the panel discussion to launch Set 4 Don’t Look Back: Radical Thinkers and the Arts Since 1909 on 26 November at Tate Britain, London SW1.
Terry Eagleton’s latest book The Task of the Critic: Terry Eagleton in Dialogue is forthcoming from Verso
Terry Eagleton has contributed ‘Waking the Dead’ to the New Statesman, reflecting on what Benjamin’s approach to history and memory can tell us about America in the 21st century:
In one of his shrewdest sayings, Benjamin remarked that what drives men and women to revolt against injustice is not dreams of liberated grandchildren, but memories of enslaved ancestors. It is by turning our gaze to the horrors of the past, in the hope that we will not thereby be turned to stone, that we are impelled to move forward.
Benjamin was greatly interested in the work of a fellow Jew, Sigmund Freud, who also saw remembrance as the key to emancipation. In Freud’s view, human beings are naturally amnesiac animals. It is forgetfulness that keeps us going. We survive only by repressing a great deal of unpleasant material from our past. For Freud, it is oblivion that is natural to us. Remembering is just forgetting to forget. It can be an extraordinarily painful process, which is one reason why we tend to avoid it.
There is a parallel here between individuals and nations. Nations sometimes flourish by denying the crimes that brought them into being. Only when the original invasion, occupation, extermination or usurpation has been safely thrust into the political unconscious can sovereignty feel secure.
It is enslaved ancestors, as Benjamin calls them, whom Barack Obama has in his keeping. He may not himself be a descendant of slaves, but he is a child of the continent from where they were shipped. Obama is not especially keen on advertising this fact, given his scrupulously crafted “post-racial” persona. We can certainly expect little from his administration in the way of real change. The US will remain a one-party state, whatever name the capitalist party happens to go under. Even so, with a black man in power, the country still has within its grasp a momentous opportunity to redeem its dead. It has a chance to write an unexpected epilogue to the sordid tale of slavery and racial conflict.
Read the full article here.
Walter Benjamin working in the library. Image from Walter Benjamin’s Archive: Images, Texts, Signs.