Walter Benjamin's Revolutionary Theory of Religion and History: The 'Dialectical Image'
College of Liberal Arts and Sciences
This paper develops Walter Benjamin's revolutionary notion of the "dialectical image" as an essential element of his critical theory of religion and history. Benjamin, who according to Adorno, Habermas and Siebert was a real historical materialist "theologian", rejected the dominant, modern philosophy of historical progress, which understands history as a chronological, evolutionary movement through the open-ended continuum of empty time into the future. For Benjamin, such a homogeneous, empty conception of time and history was nothing less than the brutal expression of the permanent state of class oppression. To counter this, Benjamin proposed a heterogeneous conception of history that is expressive of the dynamic combination of German Romanticism, Jewish mysticism and historical materialism. In this, time and history are not "empty" but filled with revolutionary, dialectical images of the oppressed struggles for liberation and human recognition, dignity and happiness; "messianic" images that "flash up" momentarily in the midst of the continuing class struggles in the present and call out for anamnestic "redemption." Dialectical images, which can be almost anything that dynamically stimulate in the present the connection with historic moments that "messianically" stopped the juggernaut march of the dominant, are most often the small, discarded, and devalued stories, names, and images of the past. In this, the dialectical images of religion, particularly that of the Messiah in Judaism and Christianity, play an important role. This paper concludes by suggesting how such Messianic and social change, dialectical images could be a dynamic force in the continuing struggle for a reconciled future.
The Future of Religion: Politics, Art, Religion
Ott, Michael, "Walter Benjamin's Revolutionary Theory of Religion and History: The 'Dialectical Image'" (2010). Faculty Scholarly Dissemination Grants. 122.