Does it affect our view of this text that it was written in the same year that Benjamin was forced to flee from France into Spain, and committed suicide after learning that he and his group would be turned over to the German authorities? What urgencies might reasonably preoccupy a man fleeing Fascism?
1. In his first "thesis," to what type of history does Benjamin object? What does he find lacking in the "historical materialist" positions of his day? (too positivist, too deterministic, too optimistic, too willing to believe in inevitable "progress")
Is he himself a Marxist? (yes, though of a less normative sort)
2. In the second thesis, what does Benjamin claim is our relationship to voices of the past? ("we have been expected upon this earth") To what view is this a mistaken response? (the view that our time period is quite different; presumably this would encourage a view that "it can't happen here")
What can it mean to say that we are conscious of a "weak messianic power," on which the past has a claim? (possibly: we must alter history, in loyalty to the past)
3. In thesis three, how does he describe the practice of "chronicling"? If we could totally record the past, what would be the result? (only at the resurrection [conceived metaphorically] could so much be known)
4. In thesis four, what does he find limiting about a narrow materialistic Marxism? (emphasizes only material change, ignores importance of steadfastness and courage in conducting the class-struggle)
5. In thesis five, why does he describe the past as a picture flashing by? Does this remind you of any of the later statements by Wolfgang Iser and others? (or for that matter, Walter Pater)
6. Against what views of "tradition" does he argue? (the view that there is/was an "objective" reality, and/or that we can derive it) What must each generation of thinkers do as they consider past traditions? (must deliver them from the conformism which threatens to overwhelm them)
Do you agree with him? Can you think of examples?
Who tends to "own" history, and why must we fight against this? (the victorious enemy) Is Benjamin optimistic that the opposition can be defeated? ("And this enemy has not ceased to be victorious.") Was this a reasonable view in the Europe of 1940?
7. In thesis seven what does Benjamin believe we should do to reexperience a past epoch? (removed everything one knows about the later course of history) Which earlier philosopher of the human sciences had recommended this? (Dilthey)
What emotions are associated with empathy toward those of the past? (melancholy) Why do you think this is the case?
With whom do identify and sympathize with as the subjects of our cultural heritage? (the victors)
What prompts him to say, "There has never been a document of culture which is not simultaneously one of barbarism?" Since Benjamin was a cultural critic and writer on literature, the theater, and cinema, what stance toward history would this view presumably motivate him to take?
What is the significance of the process of transmission in preserving our cultural heritage? (presumably selective, arbitrary, carrying biases and reflecting censorship)
8. What false view of the past does he attack in thesis 8? (that it is surprising that evil and violence should recur in the 20th century) Instead, how should we view both present and past? (always in a state of emergency)
What negative events can ironically herald a potential success in the struggle against Fascism? (the serious opposition to any form of resistance)
9. What is the significance of Benjamin's allegorization of the figure of the angel in a Klee painting as the Angel of History? What is the attitude of the angel when turned toward the past (astonished by one single catastrophe, not a series of events) What draws him into the future? (a storm from Paradise)
In Benjamin's summary, "The storm drives him irresistibly into the future, to which his back is turned, while the rubble-heap before him grows sky-high. That which we call progress, is this storm," are there hopeful elements? What can we expect from the future? (more catastrophe)
10. On what grounds does Benjamin blame the current leaders of the opposition to Fascism? (have been complacent, have believed in their popular support, have been complicitous with "an uncontrollable opposition) What may he have in mind? (Hindenburg, the French Vichy regime)
11. What attitudes in the German working-class does he think have contributed to the fall of social democracy? (faith in technology as a substitute for political control) What have they missed? (what is important is who owns the labor of others)
What has been especially dangerous in this view? (has helped lead to Fascism, in which the state controls labor)
What does Benjamin oppose to this techno-centric view? (desire for accord with nature) What does he praise in Charles Fourier's thought? Can Benjamin be said to be a proto-environmentalist?
12. In thesis twelve, what according to Benjamin is the appropriate subject of history, and why has this view been rejected by social democratic historians? (the battling, oppressed working class, seen by these non-revolutionaries as the saviors of future generations rather than active agents for their own) On what should they have focusing? ("the picture of enslaved forebears, not on the ideal of the emancipated heirs") Is he perhaps overgeneralizing here?
13. In thesis thirteen, what dogmatic claims does Benjamin ascribe to contemporary social democratic theory? (progress unstoppable and predetermined, unending and affecting all of humanity) What does Benjamin mean by "a homogeneous and empty time"?
14. What importance within history does Benjamin ascribe to the "here and now" (jetztzeit)? What had been the relationship of the French Revolution to the past? (Robespierre saw Roman history as a precursor) With what metaphors does Benjamin describe action in the present? ("It is the tiger's leap into that which has gone before"; "The same leap into the open sky of history is . . . as Marx conceptualized the revolution.")
Would Benjamin's words have suggested any particular course of action to a contemporary European reader?
15. What interpretation does Benjamin give of holidays and memorials? (the remember past revolutionary moments) What holiday in particular does he seem to allude to? (possibly Bastille Day) What had happened during the "July Revolution" (of 1830)? (clocks were shot--time stopped)
16. What should the historian of the past do? Why does he call those who can't accept that time can come to a standstill as giving themselves "to the whore called 'Once upon a time' in the bordello of historicism"? How can you account for his enraged tone? Has he stated similar views in earlier "theses"?
17. What do conventional histories do? (offer a mass of facts, in order to fill up a homogenous and empty time) What does Benjamin mean by a "homogeneous and empty time"? What happens to thought when halted by "a constellation overflowing with tensions"? How does he define this "jetztzeit"? ("a revolutionary chance in the struggle for the suppressed past") What will be the result?
How would you describe Benjamin's style? To what traditions is he indebted? How are the theses organized?
18. What reflection on time does Benjamin make in his final thesis? (human time extremely brief in the history of organic life) Why may this have seemed a profound or comforting thought?
19. In the addenda, what does Benjamin advocate as the path to "messianic time"? What significance does he ascribe to the fact that the ancient Jews were forbidden to consult soothsayers?