Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Walter Benjamin's Angel Of History And Fleeing The Country

Back in 2008, CNN featured an article entitled, "Student Loan Fugitives." I like the sound of that title. It has a nice ring to it, one that is getting louder. Outstanding student loan debt has surpassed $900 billion, so I am assuming there are lot more folks who are seriously considering the option of fleeing the country to avoid their student loan debt. If they can't pay, and they are on the verge of financial ruin, can you blame them for making that decision? So many young Americans, who are highly educated and struggling with so much debt, have been rendered useless in this society. Even worse, they are now being scorned by the political leaders who wish to gut this country even more (apparently, if you owe student loans, according to Boehner, your parents were lazy!). Helplessly, the young and ambitious watch as their futures are robbed from them. They are trapped by the insidious forces of neoliberalism. It is the triumph of the most selfish who neither care about the past nor the future. That is why these are such dangerous and dark times. We have neither a past nor a future anymore. At one point, important thinkers like Walter Benjamin feared the march of progress and "modernity."  That is why historians serve an important, civic role in societies. After all, they are guardians of the past. They contextualize things and for good reason. But we no longer possess a civic society. The state is reduced more and more each day. When was the last time you actually heard yourself described as a citizen or a student or a human being? Those terms have been undermined, and you're now just a consumer.

Walter Benjamin was most certainly a philosopher. However, his awareness of historicism is what interests me most. For instance, he was inspired by Paul Klee's "Angelus Novus," and wrote "Thesis on the Philosophy of History." In this piece, Benjamin described Klee's image as being the "angel of history." This essay is read widely now and deeply appreciated by cultural historians and literary critics.

The angel's face is turned backwards, surveying the past. All he sees is wreckage, and yet he cannot move, because, as Benjamin asserts, his wings are pinned to the ground. There is much controversy about the specific meaning of Benjamin's interpretation. Henry Giroux's analysis, one that is commonly accepted by many academics, will suffice for the purposes of this short piece. He argues that Benjamin is critiquing modernity and progress. Of course, Benjamin lived in bleak and terrifying times (it was a great loss on the day he committed suicide while being hunted down by Nazis). What is more disturbing now, however, is Giroux's take on the angel of history. Giroux writes:

Like the angel of history in Benjamin's rendering of Klee's painting, the American public is surrounded by another catastrophe of history visibly invisible in the horrible suffering produced by two unnecessary wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the current economic recession exacerbating already high levels of poverty, homelessness and joblessness now spreading like a poisonous blight across the American landscape. But unlike the forces constricting Benjamin's angel, the storm that pins the wings of the current diminutive angel of history is more intense, more paralyzing in its hyper-materialistic visions and more privatizing in its definition of agency. The historical forces producing this storm and its accompanying catastrophes are incorrigibly blind to the emergence of a 'pulverized, atomized society spattered with the debris of broken inter-human bonds and their eminently frail and breakable substitutes.' This is best exemplified in the now infamous and cruel tenets of a harsh neoliberalism stated without apology by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s in their mutual insistence that 'government is the problem not the solution" and 'there is no such thing as society.'

Shattering lives. Punishing as many people as possible (through economic torture). Accumulating more capital. Devastating public services. Destroying the last remnants of citizenry. That is neoliberalism in a nutshell. It is not even marching forward, but rather smashing everything in one spot. The present is all it understands. Its defenders may purport to care about the future - that limp and pathetic "winning of the future" slogan comes to mind - but that is only pretense.

So, have you thought about fleeing the country? Or have you already gone through with it? Is there any escaping at this point?

Paul Klee's Angelus Novus (1920)

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