Anti-fetishism: Notes on the Thought of Walter Benjamin

Although Walter Benjamin doesn’t always directly reference the notion of political fetishism, it can be argued that this concept underlies everything that he writes. Benjamin’s concept of the “phantasmagoria,” that miasma of misrepresentation that stands for reality in our time, is basically a statement about political—among other forms—of fetishism. For Benjamin, this mass practice of fetishism has both political economic and theological origins. In the short run the phantasmagoria is the offshoot of commodity fetishism and the rise of capitalism. More profoundly, fetishism is, for Benjamin an offshoot of the fall of Adam, as well as the less often mentioned Eve. Benjamin tells us that whereas in paradise, Adam had a direct and unmediated relationship to the objects he found there (his job was to give them spoken names), after the fall, human beings have lost this connection to plain, self-evident truth. In “On Language as Such and the Language of Man,” Benjamin writes:

The knowledge to which the snake seduces, that of good and evil, is nameless. It is vain in the deepest sense… Knowledge of good and evil abandons name; it is a knowledge from outside, the uncreated imitation of the creative word.1

For Benjamin, the fall represents human beings choosing false knowledge (“the knowledge to which the snake seduces”) over divine truth. Since this time, human beings have had no recourse but to representation, to the “uncreated imitation of the creative world.” Representation is the human attempt to reproduce or replace divine truth. Instead of such truth(s), it produces nothing but failure. Fetishism is the refusal or inability to see that failure.

For Benjamin, the phantasmagoria that results from such fetishism constitutes what passes for reality in every possible dimension. We project our fetishism onto the objects of the world, in effect enslaving ourselves via our treatment of them. From this fetishism, an entire political order is created. Benjamin tells us in the “Critique of Violence” that even the bases of law and sovereignty, the fundamental building blocks of our political order, are examples of what he calls “mythic violence.”2 These legal and political practices are purportedly grounded in objective truths (either of the divine, natural or scientific persuasion) but are in fact merely empty projections, applications not of true law but of brute force in legal and political disguise.

For Benjamin, even time itself (as we perceive it) stems from the phantasmagoria. The sense of progress, of time bearing us forward into a true and perfect future, as well as the eschatologies that construct our temporality, are all products of fetishism. For Benjamin, although capitalist cultural institutions like fashion continually insist that each moment is wildly different from all that has passed before, we live in an unchanging and static world, a state of being that Benjamin calls simply “hell.”3

For Benjamin, there is no escaping the phantasmagoria; there is no truth to uncover beneath the fetish, no being “free” from its influence once and for all. For this reason, for Benjamin, we are all fetishists to some extent or other. The only difference between the anti-fetishist and the fetishist—but this is a critical one—is that for Benjamin, the anti-fetishist recognizes and even seeks out the failure of representation. It is this failure, the exposure of the vulnerability, falseness and even impossibility of representation, that the anti-fetishist engages with in order to do maximum damage to the phantasmagoria.

Benjamin’s heroes, those whom he sees as having best resisted fetishism, are definitely an odd lot. His interest in failure draws him to the losers of history, to the deluded leftists, the sell-outs, the drunkards who could be found at the peripheries of power and political authority. His interest in Charles Baudelaire, the French nineteenth century poet, comes from his view that Baudelaire was completely bought into and compromised by the phantasmagoria even as his poems expose these very same phantasms as such. For Benjamin, the more a person was seduced by phantasm, the more opportunity there was to engage in great, and lasting subversion from within.

Benjamin was also very interested in the Baroque German dramatists of the late 16th century. His magnum opus, The Origin of German Tragic Drama focused on these authors because, in his view, they were such unsuccessful playwrights. Although they wished, like their contemporaries Shakespeare and Calderón, to write transcendent plays that conveyed authority and sovereign majesty in the face of a changing and vulnerable political order, these playwrights, Benjamin tells us, failed utterly. Their plays were so clunky, so overdetermined by stage props and bad scripts, that we are able to read failure in them in a way that gets covered over by Shakespeare and Calderón’s skill. Even the words the German playwrights wrote betray their own devotion to fetishizing sovereign authority. Benjamin tells us: “The language of the baroque is constantly convulsed by rebellion on the part of the elements which make it up.”4

This rebellion for Benjamin extends to every object, every sign, even to our own selves. In his view, every object remains in a state of redemption; it is only our subjective misreading of the world that leads us to fetishize it. Thus objects inherently resist and defy the representation we put upon them. If we can learn to be in alliance with this rebellion, to work with the material world rather than trying to submit it to what Benjamin calls ““the triumph of subjectivity and the onset of an arbitrary rule over things,” we can enhance the failure we see around us, we can seek to undermine rather than promote the fetishism that we are surrounded by.5

This, then, shows us Benjamin’s program for anti-fetishism; he calls, not for the head on attack or for the permanent destruction of phantasm, but rather for something more conspiratorial (as when Benjamin writes of Baudelaire that he “conspires with language itself. He calculates its effects step by step.”6) Benjamin’s engagement with representation often takes forms that seem apolitical or mystical (which might help to explain why he hasn’t always been taken that seriously as a political thinker). Yet Benjamin’s interest in art and film and theater remain highly political because, in his view, through art we engage in representational activities, we work to expose and subvert the fetishism that inheres in all forms of representation, political forms very much included. His engagement with theology has a similarly political aspect because for Benjamin, even the most seemingly secular institutions, such as the modern state and modern social forms, are themselves shaped by deep theological influences (with the fall being the preeminent force in shaping us). To address the occult theology that underlies our phantasmagorical world, we need an answering, anti-fetishistic theology that Benjamin supplies (in concord with what he calls God’s “divine violence” which undoes mythic forms of representations and leaves nothing behind—no truth—in its wake).

In a way, even the term “anti-fetishism” is misleading in terms of describing what Benjamin is doing insofar as the term itself suggests the undoing or erasure of fetishism, the possibility of its permanent elimination. As already noted, for Benjamin, in our postlapsarian state, we can never be entirely free from the lure of fetishism nor from its effects. The “anti” in this case might better be read not so much as a denial or annihilation of fetishism but more of an engagement, a subversion and a struggle with its nefarious influences.

Benjamin provides us with some language to think about how we engage with and against fetishism when he speaks of how to interpret the Sixth Commandment against killing. Given that this law appears to come from God, it threatens to serve as just one more fetish in God’s name, a law that appears undeniable and which must always be uniformly and consistently applied. In the “Critique of Violence,” Benjamin writes of this that:

[This commandment] exists not as a criterion of judgment, but as a guideline for the actions of persons or communities who have to wrestle with it in solitude and, in exceptional cases, to take on themselves the responsibility of ignoring it.7

In fact, in the original German, the language is even stronger. The term “ignore” seeks to translate the German term “absuzehen” which literally means to turn your back on.8 So it is not indifference but a real abandonment that Benjamin is counseling here (even if only at times). We can see that as with all instances purported to represent God’s intention, this commandment too must not be taken at face value. We must “wrestle” with it and sometimes, we must turn our back on it. The engagement with fetishism more generally is like this too. We struggle. We engage. We feel the lure of the fetish but resist and subvert it from within. Sometimes we abandon the fetish but we can never forget it (never ignore it) least it stealthily return in the form of a sense of having escaped from fetishism, even from representation entirely.

Benjamin’s anti fetishism then does not promise easy fixes or once and for all solutions. It remains local and episodic. At any given time we might have very different engagements with and strategies for fetishism than at other times. Benjamin’s conception of and strategy for fetishism, leads, I would argue, to an anarchist politics. In this way, he offers us a way to resist the lures of power and authority that goes all the way down, from its highest manifestation as political sovereignty, down to the lowest most ordinary level of representation. Although such a politics will never resolve the basic problems of representation (taken in its political, theological and linguistic senses) it allows us to remain relatively undetermined by phantasm, by our condition as postlapsarian subjects.

James Martel is a professor in and the chair of the Department of Political Science, San Francisco State University

Show 8 footnotes

  1. Walter Benjamin, “On Language as Such and the Language of Man,” in Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings Vol. 1, 1913–1926, Marcus Bullock, Michael W. Jennings, eds. (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1996), p. 72.
  2. Walter Benjamin, “Critique of Violence” in “Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings Vol. 1, 1913–1926, Marcus Bullock, Michael W. Jennings, eds. (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1996). p. 248.
  3. Walter Benjamin, The Origin of German Tragic Drama, (New York: Verso, 1998), p. 234.
  4. Ibid., p. 207.
  5. Ibid., p. 233.
  6. “Walter Benjamin, “The Paris of the Second Empire in Baudelaire,” in The Writer of Modern Life: Essays on Charles Baudelaire. Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 2006, p. 126.
  7. “Critique of Violence,” p. 250.
  8. Walter Benjamin, “Zur Kritik der Gewalt” in Gesammelte Schriften Band II.1 (Frankfort: Surkamp Verlag, 1980), p.201. I am grateful to Marc de Wilde for pointing this out to me.
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  2 comments for “Anti-fetishism: Notes on the Thought of Walter Benjamin

  1. Jane
    22 April 2013 at 12:02 pm

    This is so interesting. Thank you.

    What if professors undertook a general strike against boards of directors/administration and forced a reconstruction of the power structure of the university to include a random selection of everyone: students, faculty, administration, all the other staff, etc.? This would replace control by boards of directors full of CEOs.

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