A dialectical maxim holds that an object is best illumined when thrown into relief from all sides. Critical reception of Walter Benjamin, the German-Jewish man of letters, has stretched this adage to breaking point. A library of scholarship has been produced, bringing his thought to bear on all manner of subjects. Might there still be more to say about him? In a densely crowded field, Fredric Jameson’s The Benjamin Files affirms this to be the case. Jameson of course is no newcomer to the subject. The present work is the latest instalment of a career-long engagement with Western Marxism, beginning with the pioneering Marxism and Form (1971) which, through studies of Lukács, Benjamin, Adorno, Bloch, Sartre and Marcuse, provided a first overview of the field avant la lettre, to the landmark Afterword to Aesthetics and Politics (1977). The Benjamin Files is the third book Jameson has devoted to a single figure among this corpus, following Late Marxism: Adorno, Or, The Persistence of the Dialectic (1990) and Brecht and Method (1998).
As a distinct theoretical tradition, Western Marxism was above all a product of political impasse. As the revolutionary tide receded in interwar Europe, its dominant subject became the culture of an implacable contemporary capitalism. So too with Jameson, who emerged in a neoliberalizing us not only as a key propagator and explicator, but as the tradition’s most prominent successor. From the outset, his explicit engagements with this heritage wrangled with its exigencies while responding to the needs of the present. While Marxism and Form was written to combat the ‘asphyxiating’ climate of Anglo-American philosophy of its time, keying its readers to a Marxism it proposed as uniquely suited to the conditions of the West, subsequent writings have persisted in advocating for this body of thought in the face of an increasingly hegemonic world-capitalism. Late Marxism suggested that, with the end of the Cold War, Adorno had become newly relevant—perhaps the thinker for our times.
The Benjamin Files makes no equivalent preliminary claims for its subject, but the relation of Benjamin and his times to our own, and the potential import of his work for today, arises as a persistent leitmotif. Jameson at one point outlines—without fully endorsing—an approach to the problem:
Can we expect to relive his work without the situation of the 1920s and 30s flashing up before our eyes? Without some ‘empathy’ for the mortal struggle between communism and fascism which defines this period and casts its light over everything he wrote?
Here Jameson enacts what Benjamin refers to as a dialectical image, the moment when the past erupts into the present with the swiftness of a ‘tiger’s leap’. That this concept delineates a feature of the critic’s philosophy of history is beyond doubt. Less certain is its usefulness as a critical tool to parse the problems facing our own present. Strikingly, the issue is posed as a question, not a declarative statement. Indeed, Jameson leaves it up to us:
Our job as readers is to determine whether we are not again in just such a period, which harmonizes with these stars realigned and which demands that we rethink our ontology of the present; or whether our readings are not rather something closer to an archaeological expedition into a vanished past, more closely resembling the now-sealed tomb of the tragic.
This latest work can also be situated in the more immediate context of Jameson’s oeuvre, in particular Allegory and Ideology (2019), with which it maintains an implicit dialogue, though against the previous book’s panoramic scope we might juxtapose its highly condensed account. In Marxism and Form, Jameson suggested that Benjamin’s method could be ‘best grasped as an allegorical one’. Half a century later, in The Benjamin Files he picks up where he left off. Opening with a passage from ‘Central Park’ in which Benjamin develops an image of the dialectician for whom ‘what matters is having the wind of world history in one’s sails’, Jameson describes how as it unfolds ‘we begin to sense that what we have here is no metaphor but rather an allegory: a form that lives by gaps and differences’. The dynamics of Benjamin’s writing that he proceeds to parse have much in common with the general description of allegory developed in his penultimate book. There he employed the image of shifting tectonic plates to illustrate how it sets ‘incommensurable forces’ against each other. Here, in Benjamin’s work, ‘the syntactical limits of the sentence itself are subject to underground tremors and perturbations’.