Experience and the crisis of tradition : history, memory and practice in the philosophy of Walter Benjamin

Jimenez Monroy, Mijael (2017) Experience and the crisis of tradition : history, memory and practice in the philosophy of Walter Benjamin. (PhD thesis), Kingston University, .


This thesis examines the notion of experience in the philosophy of Walter Benjamin. It focuses on the relationship between its constructive and disruptive features in four facets of Benjamin’s work, starting with the early writings dedicated to history and tradition and then moving towards different analyses of the reception of the work of art in modernity. Chapter I examines Benjamin’s early characterisation of experience on the basis of the transmissibility of tradition and suggests that the constructive character of experience manifests in the historical development of knowledge and truth in language. Chapter II is dedicated to The Origin of the German Mourning-Play and the shift towards an examination of the development of language from the perspective of the moments of rupture, forgetting and those deviations inherent in the transmissibility of tradition. I argue that experience appears immanently in the momentary suspension or interruption of the transmissibility of tradition: origin and allegory serve to characterise the double movement of concentrating the totality of tradition and suspending its objectivity. The ‘shattering of tradition’ that Benjamin regards to be the hallmark of modernity in his later writings is located within this dynamics. This shattering undermines the conditions for understanding the conflict out of which the present emerges, thereby producing a historiographic crisis which unsettles experience. Chapter III examines modern epic narration and the resources it develops to contests the forgetting which informs late capitalism. I specifically discuss the method of montage and the fragmentary memory associated with it to suggest that Benjamin looks at history from the standpoint of memory rather than from the perspective of tradition. Chapter IV discuses the radicalisation of the forgetting informing modernity and the possibility of developing, though momentarily, an equilibrium or interplay between technology and sensibility by means of long-term practice formed according to technical reproducibility and the principle of montage. It is finally argued that despite Benjamin’s constant emphasis on its destructive character, experience necessarily entails a cumulative or constructive dimension which Benjamin reformulates throughout his authorship in terms of tradition, memory and practice.

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