Like every generation that preceded us, we have been endowed with a weak Messianic power, a power to which the past has a claim. That claim cannot be settled cheaply.
We live in interesting times, divisive times, critical times. This week we are coming to terms with a political reality ripe with irony–in the name of change we have chosen that which most resembles the past. While the Trump campaign couched itself in rhetoric of change–political reform, shoving out corruption and greed, making America great…again–our country has in fact reinstalled a political regime reliant on fear, complicit with corporate greed, and largely supportive of racist and xenophobic policies. The fact that so many are either oblivious to the irony or implicitly supportive of reanimating some of the most harmful and unjust attitudes to have found popularity in our nation makes us question to what degree we’ve made true progress on issues of racism, sexism, and classism. In fact the very idea that we can “make America great again” harkens back to a modern notion of progress that needs critical attention.
Birthed out of the Enlightenment, the idea of progress was heralded as the notion that we were making ever greater strides as human beings. History had developed and continued to unfold in such a way that brought us ever-closer to greatness, perfection. Or at least this was the belief. Such unabashed faith in progress continued through the beginning of the 20th century, in what we call modernity. Cultural, scientific, industrial, economic, and political progress brought wide-spread change across the globe (though particularly in the northern hemisphere) with the growth of cities, improvements in medicine, and scientific advance. However, the uncritical acceptance of the myth of progress turned a blind eye to other things that grew and worsened during and after the Enlightenment–things such as the slave trade, the beginnings of colonialism, exploitation of workers around the globe, and the growth of systems that squashed anything that tried to step outside the apparatus.
After two horrific world wars and a Holocaust, the unflinching notion of progress came crashing down. Philosophers associated with the Frankfurt School–a group of leftwing Hegelians committed to critiques of the social, political, economic, and artistic structures and standards of the mid-20th century–wrote extensively against romanticizing progress and glossing over what Theodor Adorno calls “damaged life.” Adorno’s friend and colleague Walter Benjamin critiqued the notion of progress in his “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” a collection of fragments or short paragraphs on our understanding of history penned just before his untimely death while attempting to escape the Nazis in 1940. The eighteen fragments that make up his theses discuss the past and our own relationship to the past, particularly the harmful or horrific past.
As a good critical theorist, Benjamin reminds us that we have to keep our focus on the suffering of damaged life. We cannot simply turn away from the world and toward the transcendent or “great beyond” because doing so would mean ignoring the pain of the past, refusing to deal with the deleterious aspects of the past in the present. Nowhere is this more poignantly clear than in Thesis IX where Benjamin refers to Paul Klee’s painting Angelus Novus, writing, “This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet.” The angel, whose back is turned to the future, has lingered with its gaze upon the ever-increasing pile of wreckage in the past and is now caught in a storm, being pushed backward into the future, so to speak. “This storm is what we call progress,” writes Benjamin. The angel of history appears powerless against the onslaught of suffering that damaged life unfolds. There’s no chance of stopping and binding the wounds of the victims of progress, since progress keeps pushing the angel further.
Benjamin gives us a bleak picture of progress as a catastrophe that keeps piling up the wreckage of whatever gets caught in its wake. But the point is not simply to instill a pessimistic outlook or to claim that nothing positive has happened in the last hundred and fifty years. Rather, his image of the angel of history reminds us that we can never forget about or gloss over damaged life. The angel demonstrates how the reality of damaged life alters the way that we approach both the past and the future–it changes how we remember and how we work toward a better future.
For Benjamin our relation to the past and the future is marked by Messianism, particularly the weak Messianism of humanity, which he introduces in Thesis II. He writes that the past “carries with it a temporal index by which it is referred to redemption,” and Benjamin sees this redemption as taking place through the weak Messianic power with which humans are endowed. His weak Messianism means remembering the past–redeeming the past by refusing to forget or gloss over the tragedies and harmful events that keep piling up. Only humanity’s own weak Messianic power proves to be a match for the oppressive and destructive conditions of reality, and it’s only through this critical perspective that we can hope to change our reality from a history of suffering and oppression to a less oppressive future.
All of this matters because in the race toward ever-greater things we must remain critically aware of what “progress” leaves behind or tosses aside. When progress begins to look like economic growth for a select group of people, or when progress begins to entail a homogenized society, then we’d better be aware that in the wake of such progress lies exploitation, imprisonment, and expulsion for whole groups of people who get left behind and tossed aside.
Our weak Messianic power to remember and redeem, to keep our gaze focused on damaged life is only the beginning. Benjamin does not show us the goal, but only marks this starting point, offering us critical reminders about the way we recall the past and approach the future. Nevertheless, his words are a significant and timely call to arouse this weak power within each of us, to which the past has a claim and out of which a better future might be built.
 Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” in Illuminations (New York: Schocken Books, 1969), 257.