- “On the Concept of History” is an abstruse, enigmatic, and beautiful essay. I think it’s a misreading to try to make the twenty theses cohere. Still, what do we get from their cumulative impact? Perhaps we can summarize it as “against progress”: Benjamin is writing at the edge of fascism’s total immiseration of the European continent, having seen all possibility for Marxian dialectical revolution snuffed out. Both historicism and historical materialism seem exhausted: both marshal the past and the present into a smooth map of the possibility of a perfected future. But progress is bunk: “A critique of the concept of such a progression must underlie any criticism of the concept of progress itself” (395). Of course the most famous part of this essay is the thesis on the Angel of History: here I follow Jackson’s reading in “Rethinking Repair,” that we need to accept a living-in-the-rubble approach to historical analysis.
- The nonlinear time of “weak messianism”: “The past carries with it a secret index by which it is referred to redemption” (390). We carry forward the dreams of past revolutions and live in their debt and the fulfillment of their promise. This nonlinear time becomes one of the key features of media archaeological thinking.
Archive and Impact
- Given how difficult it was for me to mount a straightforward summary of this essay, it’s clear I need to do more thinking with it as I read through media archaeological work. Benjamin and Foucault are the most important forerunners of media archaeological methods; generally folks cites the Arcades project more so than this essay. But I’m interested in how this essay mounts a challenge to historical materialism at the cusp of a disaster—at the end of things. In this essay, Benjamin is trying to teach us a different approach to the possibility of progress: how to nourish the fight against fascism and toward a better world even as that fight gets more and more exhausted.
- The two chief concepts to take from this essay are nonlinear time and the importance of rubble.