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Walter Benjamin and the Mexican Revolution: A Meditation on the Theses on the Philosophy of History and Diego Riveras

Horacio Legrs

Discourse, Volume 32, Number 1, Winter 2010, pp. 66-86 (Article)

Published by Wayne State University Press

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Walter Benjamin and the Mexican Revolution

A Meditation on the Theses on the Philosophy of History and Diego Riveras Murals
Horacio Legrs

I want to start by acknowledging a possible objection. The names Walter Benjamin and Mexican Revolution (or Diego Rivera, for that matter) dont seem to belong together. Latin Americaor Mexicodoesnt seem to occupy a signicant space in the work of Benjamin. We should not hold this lack of interest on Latin America against Benjamin. He was keenly aware of the geopolitical limits of his own thinking and insisted, more than once, that his propositions were limited to a spiritual entity called Europe. As for the expression Mexican Revolution, it is not without problems of its own. The revolutionary nature of the Mexican Revolution has been contested by Latin Americanists themselves.1 So, as if the name Benjamin were not extraneous enough to Mexican history, we are confronted with the additional problem of validating Mexicos revolutionary credentials if the title is going to be credible. The same effort of authenticationit is interesting to noteis not required in the case of Walter Benjamin. If Benjamin doesnt need credentials to think the revolution, it is not because the revolution is thought to be an eminently European issue, but rather because the business of thinking itself has been for a long time a purely
Discourse, 32.1, Winter 2010, pp. 6686. Copyright 2010 Wayne State University Press, Detroit, Michigan 48201-1309. ISSN 1522-5321.

Walter Benjamin and the Mexican Revolution


European territory. As Dipesh Chakrabarty put it, for modern thought, only Europe is a theoretical object, whereas the periphery is subject only to empirical knowledge.2 One of the few areas in which this epistemological division of labor has been reversed is in the case of revolutionsespecially in the 1960s and 1970s when the Third World in general and Latin America in particular emerged as a properly revolutionary location. Another doubt may arise from my use of a painter and a philosopher to approach the question of revolution, an approach that seems to go against the grain of the intellectual division of labor that I have just criticized. Against this prejudice, it would be necessary to state that divisions such as empirical and theoretical or praxis and thinking are of little avail in dealing with revolutions. A revolution is also, and prominently, a time of invention and improvisation. Paraphrasing the rst romantics, we can say that the thinker willing to think the event of revolution must have the same spiritual power as the poet. When it comes to revolutions, the real question is not so much how an artistic activity can provide an account of this phenomenon, but rather how a positive discourse of the social can illuminate a realm that had been for centuries the constitutive outside of any positive rendering of politics and society. This epistemologically eccentric nature of revolution has denitive effects on the way Benjamin arranged his text Theses on the Philosophy of History. We know that the nal confrontation of the Theses is with historicism: the doctrine that sees history moving in the direction of the arrow of time under a constant consolidation of old achievements and the prosecution of new goals. Historicism is to history what developmentalism is to politics: a belief in a continuous, increasing, and benec progress of humanity. Since this is precisely the assumption that Benjamin wants to question, he cannot conduct his quarrel with historicism in the linear style proper to historicism itself. Instead, Benjamin unpacks his argument around a series of discontinuous questions: What is the relationship between history and politics? Why is the historical perception of historicism false? What is the perspective on history proper of materialism? Is this perspective still material in any traditional sense? The cost of avoiding the path of linear exposition is a multiplication of the proverbial intricacies of Benjamins style. Moreover, Benjamin does not only indicate the difculties at stake, but performs them in his very text. As we will see later in this essay, none of these problems is alien to the artistic practice of Diego Rivera, whose murals confront the same problematic intersection of history and revolution that also occupies Benjamin in the Theses.


Horacio Legrs Benjamins Theses on the Philosophy of History

Benjamin did not intend the Theses to be publishedat least not in his lifetime. He feared it would elicit a form of enthusiastic misunderstanding.3 He was granted this wish. The text would have to be reconstructed on the basis of copies that circulated through Hannah Arendt and Theodor Adorno. As for the publication, Adorno produced a small edition of the theses in the United States in 1942. Five years later, Les Temps Moderns published a French translation (but not the one prepared by Benjamin himself), and Adorno republished the text in 1950. But it was not until the Theses appeared as part of Benjamins collected works that they started drawing the attention of a wider audience.4 As Benjamin foresaw, the Theses are many things for many readers. In my case, I stress the question of the mutual implication of history and revolution. By mutual implication, I mean the extent to which our notion of the historical has revolution as its conceptual correlate. This correlation, which in Benjamin takes forms like The past carries with it a temporal index by which it is referred as redemption,5 was rst established by Hegel through his dictum everything rational must become real.6 The formula turns reason (or the subject) into an arbiter for the modication of reality. Marxs statement that philosophers should transform the world rather than explain it is a direct descendant of this Hegelian postulate. This does not mean of course that the idea lacked antecedents. The turning point between the enlightened idea of history (historical change as catastrophe) and the post-Hegelian idea of the historical as a man-made activity lies perhaps in the theological crisis prompted by the Lisbon earthquake of 1775 and the attendant development of the question of theodicy. The thing to notice is that from that constellation on, the idea of history would never become independent of the possibility of an intentional transformation of human societies. Some theorists of revolution like Franois Furet have criticized what he considers an unwarranted centrality of revolution in the narrative of history.7 Benjamin adds a peculiar twist to this genealogy of social temporality by introducing a thinking of the messianic into the calculation of history. As I would like to prove shortly, the introduction of the messianic testies to Benjamins idea of an unbreakable connection between history and politics. The idea of the messianic (whose embodiment is the tradition of the oppressed) endows Benjamins argument with an astounding historical depth and with an equally far-reaching conceptual inclusiveness along a synchronic axis. It is a notion that reaches back to precapitalist eras as easily

Walter Benjamin and the Mexican Revolution


as it extends its conceptual arm to gures like the lumpenproletariat or the prepolitical peasant, all of them normally eschewed in a more conventional Marxist approach. The messianic is also a principle of order in a universe of chaos. Redemption makes history because history in itself is a pile of wreckageor, as Fredric Jameson once put it, is no other thing than the Real itself.8 The Theses were not Benjamins rst approach to the questions of history and revolution. In 1921, the same year that Diego Rivera returns to Mexico to participate in the vast postrevolutionary experiment, he published one of his best-known essays: On the Critique of Violence. As suggested by the title, the argument is composed in a Kantian key that calls for a pure (transcendental) investigation of violence. A pure critique of violence should sever violence from its ends, as a pure intuition severs the intuition from any impure form of materiality. Although the Critique of Violence and the Theses share many important features prominently among them the odd mixing of a Marxist-materialist language with a messianic religious expression and the perennial although largely implicit criticism of Hegelianismwhat is most interesting are their differences. While Critique of Violence still dreams of a pure relationship between intellect and law, the Theses not only abandon the terrain of purity, but elaborate a theory of history in which past and present, the subjective and the objective, appear simultaneously on the same plane. The true nature of the historical that I referred to before in terms of a mutual constitution of history and revolution can be more properly rephrased as follows: in a chronology dominated by the gures of justice and injusticewithin a notion of the historical that has redemption as its goalnothing is subject to death, or as Thesis III puts it, nothing that has ever happened should be regarded as lost for history.9 Something to be noticed is that this conception of the historical is thoroughly teleological. The pair justice/injustice works as its principle (in the ancient sense of arch) while also providing a meeting place for the languages of materialism and the messianic. Although this conjunction between principle and end is for Benjamin a condition of possibility of a genuine historical experience, it is not itself thought of as a structural or transcendental condition, but rather as the result of contingent historical unfolding. However, by nowby the time of Benjamins writingone cannot exist without the other, to the point that our notion of the historical would lose all consistency without a reference to the foundational pair in question. The target of Benjamins criticism is, then, not teleology which is unavoidablebut historicism as an alienating ideology of providentialism secularized as progress.


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The identication of historicism as the epochal enemy of a materialist thinker comes as a surprise for the contemporary reader. The critique of historicism is more commonly associated with paradigms such as postcolonialism than with any variant of Marxism. Actually, Marxism is often singled out as an incarnation of some pervasive historicist tenets. The fact that a confrontation with fascism led Benjamin to this type of peripheral position of enunciation gives further credence to the argument, rst mounted by Aim Csaire in his Discourse on Colonialism (1955), that Nazism is in its essence a deployment of colonialism inside Europe itself. Benjamin aims for the same epochal type of criticism at one point in the Theses. Speaking of a Marxism that has lost its way into the web of a bourgeois worldview, Benjamin writes, It recognizes only the progress in the mastery of nature, not the retrogression of society.10 This criticism of modernity has clear connections with Max Horkheimers and Adornos writings on instrumental reason and a family resemblance to Heideggers writings on enframing. It is also a position that reaches to the post-phenomenological tradition that indicts reason for overreaching into realms that lie beyond its domain. Benjamins criticism of historicism is, however, qualitatively different from the one that we may encounter in the works by authors like Emmanuel Levinas (ontology as expression of an Imperial Ego) or postcolonialist critics like Robert Young (White Mythologies, 1990). Benjamins criticism is internal to the modernizing logos to which historicism itself is supposed to belong. It is criticism in its traditional sense, not a rejection. This criticism takes in the Theses a double-headed strategy. It is simultaneously philosophical and political. The Philosophical Aspect. Like any hegemonic construct, historicism is an ideology of which different positions imagine they can take advantage, only to discover later (if enlightenment is granted) how deeply indebted they are to a paradigm that they cannot master. Benjamin does not offer any explanation for why historicism has such a hold on so many different intellectual positions. A possible interpretation (suggested by the words of Benjamin just quoted) could point towards a phenomenology of modernity that the historicist and Benjamin read in radically different ways. The historicist looks around and sees technological innovations and a massive accumulation of wealth, knowledge, and culture and concludes that history is a process of constant and increasing enlightenment. Benjamin, on the other hand, sees this progress as a version of the Fallan interpretation suggested by the moral of the famous passage of the angel of history in Thesis IX. The fall of modernity is a fall from reason into administrative forms of technological governance.

Walter Benjamin and the Mexican Revolution


The ideology of progress that confuses technological improvement with human development clearly results in an alienation of the human into the technical. A historical time objectied under a form of material progress is not human time any more. History itself appears estranged from its actors. Certainly, historicism invokes humanity in its constructions, but this is a generic notion of the human and is not present in any particular man, to use the Aristotelian expression. Humanity, especially a humanity whose time is dictated by gures of justice and injustice, oblivion and redemption, must out of necessity eschew this gure of the general. It is not humanity in general that is the depository of historical knowledge but rather the oppressed class.11 (One can detect in this passage a bold recasting of Georg Lukacss History and Class Consciousness [1923], a text that was Benjamins introduction to Marxism.) Benjamin does not deny that development and progress are possible. But true historical advance can come only as a result of the destruction of the nihilistic ground of society: its class structure. Without this radical step, it will always live in the mirage of a progress towards which the historical materialist has to show cautious detachment. The Political Aspect. The philosophical decit of historicism is the ground for a most troubling practice. The dogma of progress shows its worst face in the case of historical materialism, because it is only there that it can decisively affect the political praxis that grows in the shadow of the tradition of the oppressed. The Marxist, lured by a myth of progress whose nal station is socialism, puts trust in a renewed form of providence for something that can be achieved only by means of historical agency. A subjectivity that lives the present in the delusional expectation of a deliverance towards which it itself does not contribute is marked as the scandal of a revolutionary soul living a nonrevolutionary life. It is because of the dire need to reposition revolutionary agency at the center of the historical process that Benjamin proclaims that class struggle and class struggle alone is the fundamental notion of historical materialism.12 The Present as an Ethical Category Historicism doesnt propose just a picture of the past, but more consequentially it implies a vision of the present. But what is the present? As always in the Theses, the grasp of a concept demands a previous dismantling of the positions that induce error in analysis. Historicisms greatest sin lies in reducing its relationship to


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the past to the parameters of an objective knowledge. However, to articulate the past historically does not mean to recognize it the way it really was, but rather to realize that our relationship to the past is, in the nal analysis, ethical. This emphasis on the ethical may be surprising. The fact is that all the words Benjamin uses to refer to historicisms shortcomings have clear ethical connotationsabove all the word that recurs the most throughout this text is recognition, or Anerkennung. Now, the central problem of every possible ethics is tempo-material in nature. It is a matter of coevalnessof shared time as the ground of any ethical encounter.13 Benjamin writes, [E]very image of the past that is not recognized by the present as one of its own concerns threatens to disappear irretrievably.14 From the perspective of this quote, historicism appears fundamentally as an act of disavowal. This disavowal happens not only because historicism would not give the past a chance, but also because historicism destroys the possibility of the present itself. If what the present recognizes in the past are also its own concerns, the nonrecognition of the past is, for the present, a failure at self-recognition. It is important, however, not to confuse ethical with subjective. The dimensions of seizing and recognizing are the ones that endow past images with their truth, or that allow that truth to be revealed in the present. I do not introduce the question of truth arbitrarily. Benjamins language is precise. It is the true picture of the past that ashes up before us.15 This truth, we are told, can be seized only in that instant when it can be recognized and is never seen again.16 Never seen again because what the present donates to the past is the non-iterable nature of its own coming into presence. This non-iterabilityor singularityis the ethical dimension that the present sustains with itself (otherwise it would be inauthentic, untrue) and that is thus transferred to the whole past. Truth pertains to the relation through which past and present are mutually constituted. This mutual constitution excludes de jure both nave objectivism and willful subjectivism. Instead of entering into a true relationship with the past, the present of historicism is marked by an interested detachment from the past. This detachment allows historicism to create the illusion of an almost absolute sovereignty of the present over the past. This sovereignty severs politics from history and blocks the access to a true consciousness of the present situationfundamentally, in the case of Europe, it blocks access to the evidence that the state of emergency in which we live is not the exception but the rule.17 The sovereignty of the present is a particularly strong academic illusion and can be said to be fundamentally bound to an academic (theoretical)

Walter Benjamin and the Mexican Revolution


outlook. The Theses contain an important indictment against this intellectual form of denegationso many laughs at the expense of Plato or Rousseau! But laughter is not an intellectual position. It is a purely ideological (violent) principle grounded in what Adorno once called the dubious good fortune to live later.18 A more adequate relationship between past and present is developed in Theses I to IV, which describe the way in which past struggles inform the perceptions and actions of the present. The idea of a constitutive grip of the past over the present may sound like a mere truism to those working on traditions like subalternity or postcolonialism. However it is an insight that went against the grain of the ideology of progress in whose name Marx called upon the poetry of the future to defeat the ghosts of the past in the 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Nietzsche advocated for forgetting the useless past in his essay On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life, and Hegel simplied the work of past generations through the notion of an ontohistorical Aufhebung in his Phenomenology. It is also a deceptively simple statement. We will miss Benjamins point if we read this relationship between past and present merely in terms of remembrance. In my own paraphrases of Benjamin, I use expressions such as the past informs or has a constitutive grip in order to emphasize the way the agency of the action falls upon the past as much as on the present. Benjamin does not provide any explanation about how this encroachment of past into present actually happens. Understandably, the question has been either ignored or thrown into the dustbin of the messianic. I will try to follow a different path. It would be possible to argue that for Benjamin the past engenders the present under the form of an intentional act. Intentional act has to be understood here in the phenomenological sense of the intentionality of human consciousness. Humans do not simply bump against the world. Instead, they orient themselves towards this tree, that house, or that river. They see these objects, identify them, or misrecognize them. They give them names. Even in perception, human consciousness moves towards its objects as the what of what this consciousness is about. In other words, the act of perception is not passive but bears the mark of a constitutive subjectivity. Without this direction towards the world the actual experience of living would not be an experience at all, but a constant assault of the outside upon a subject permanently under siege. Freud reasoned along similar lines when he dened attention as a psychological development that allowed the mind to meet its objects halfway.19 The Freudian simile may be misleading, however. Intentionality is not just the active side of cognition. What is intended is not equal


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to what is perceived. Writing from inside the phenomenological tradition, Emmanuel Levinas could say that speaking is an intuition of sociality.20 And the critics of the Geneva school thought it possible to discern the traces of the consciousness of dead poets and novelists encrypted in the way they intended the world in their writings.21 The English translation of the Theses has Benjamin himself using the word intentional to refer to the habitation of the present by the past in Thesis V: For it is an irretrievable image of the past which threatens to disappear in any present that does not recognize itself as intended in that image.22 The original German text does not contain any variant of the word intentional. Instead, Benjamin uses gemeint, which signals the part of meaning that depends on what we can call the illocutionary force of the speaker: what the speaker meant to say. Although it is not my goal to construct a philological argument, it is worthwhile to point out that Gemein appears frequently in Husserls writing. Husserl differentiates the meaning of a word (Sinn) from its intended meaning (Gemein). It is precisely because an utterance is not exhausted in its meaning (Sinn) or in the act of its reception that the past has a claim upon the present. Thus, [O]ur coming was expected on earth,23 does not mean that our coming was consciously anticipated but rather that it was intended, in all its indetermination, not by this particular subject or the other, but rather by the transcendental structure of language. Finally, that language is transcendental does not mean that is not factical. These words to which we are still indebted are words that were once uttered (parole in Saussures sense) but not without the intentionality of consciousness coloring (indexing, Benjamin would have said) the very structure of language (la langue in Saussure terms) via the event of speech. Thus intentionality remains readable in the more general dimension of language. The Present as Inherently Revolutionary Time In the Theses, the present represents not only an ethical category, but also the transcendental condition of possibility of revolution in general. As we have seen, historical truth pertains to the relation through which past and present are mutually constituted. However, something momentous happens to this truth in the act of its revelation. The ideality of truth does not survive its own coming into existence. Once revealed, the true knowledge of the past passes the tremulous frontier between the historical and the political. It disappears as historical image (never seen again) only to be

Walter Benjamin and the Mexican Revolution


born as political consciousness. This is the time of the Jetztzeit, the now-time, the time of recognition and empowerment. Once the past has breached the autonomy of the present, the present has to react to this loss of autonomy. On the one hand, the present loses its claim to sovereignty upon the past, because it knows itself permanently assaulted and constituted by these images in which it recognizes itself. On the other hand, this knowledge engenders in the present the consciousness of its own being. It belongs to itself more deeply by knowing that it is not self-sufcient and selfconstituted. This knowledge provides the present with its sense of nonalienated time. It is at the point when the present is lived in an authentic way (Benjamin doesnt use this word) that the present time becomes revolutionary time. Authentic time and revolutionary time are coeval terms. The case for the identity of present and revolution is not Benjamins discovery, but rather a persistent subject in the bibliography on revolutionalthough sources relating to this question do not abound.24 Benjamin himself remains silent on this subject, and he does not broach the point until the last sentence of his text and then only in a veiled form: the present is the strait gate through which the Messiah might enter.25 The best rationale for the pervasive identication of nonalienated present with revolution is indebted, once again, to Hegel. The equation rests on the fact that when the present knows itself to be present, this knowledge triggers a transformative action upon reality. To be in ones present is to be bound to action. As in the case of the proverbial Hegelian gure of the man absorbed in the contemplation of a landscape and who can only be brought back to himself (to the present of his experience) through desire, the result of the gathering of the historical subject upon himself cannot but end in an outburst of activity designed to negate an alienating reality and to impose its will upon the world. In the Hegelian story, paraphrased by Alexandre Kojve, a desire (hunger) makes the contemplating man return to himself and propel him into action. Likewise, a nonalienated present is constrained to recognize its actual rather than illusory sovereignty upon the world. The Intentional Transformation of the Past By now what counts as present (and more importantly as presence) in our experience of the historical has been greatly complicated. The complexity of the mutual determination of past and present (history and politics) is revealed to its full extent in Thesis IV, which


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represents the conceptual culmination of Benjamins text for the purpose of my essay. The thesis reads,
Class struggle, which for a historian schooled in Marx is always in evidence, is a ght for the crude and material things without which no rened and spiritual things could exist. But the latter things, which are present in class struggle, are not present as a vision of spoils that fall to the victor. They are alive in this struggle as condence, courage, humor, cunning and fortitude, and have effects that reach far back into the past. They constantly call into question every victory, past and present, of the rulers. As owers turn towards the sun, what has been strives to turnby dint of a secret heliotropismtowards that sun which is rising in the sky of history. The historical materialist must be aware of this most inconspicuous of all transformations.26

The thesis is preceded by an epigraph from Hegel that reads, Seek for food and clothing rst, then the kingdom of God shall be added unto you. I dont believe, as Michael Lwy argues, that Benjamins use of this quote manages to turn an idealist Hegel into a crude materialist. At rst sight, the subversion of Hegels assumed intention seems to serve that purpose. That is, if we replace class struggle with food and clothing, the epigraph seems to say: attend to class struggle rst and cultureeven the great documents of culturewill come as a mere by-product. But one can equally argue that what the thesis develops is a very Hegelian complication of what counts as material and spiritual, and that without this complication the whole process of the intentional transformation of the present by the past would be simply untenable.27 The complication of what counts as material and spiritual happens at the level of the split between both concepts. In other words, the interpretation of the quote (and of the difference between material/spiritual) hinges on the value of the then that separates the two hemistiches in Hegels quote. In my reading, the then is not a logical or consequential particle. The quote does not say, then, that the kingdom will be granted on the bases of a causal relationship. (The English translation suggests this causal relationship not so much because of the then but rather because of the verbal phrase added unto you. Spanish and Portuguese translations of the same quote use the impersonal verb advenir to which no doeror giveris attached.) If the then is not consequential, everything happens as though the obtaining of food and clothing opens, simultaneously and without difference, the kingdom of survival and the kingdom of God. The problem here is that language is not subtle enough to describe this Hegelian moment in which an identity needs to split in order to be for itself as well as for its other. The then introduces a temporalization

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that exists only at the gural level of language, but not in reality. In reality, the material and the cultural emerge as the product of a disjunctive synthesis. The realm of the spirit is also doubled or split. It is represented by thingsworks of art, documents of civilizationbut it is also present as a set of less tangible attributes. Benjamin lists ve: condence, courage, humor, cunning and fortitude.28 The important point is that these qualities close the circle, so to speak. They reach far back into the past29 and, since they cannot be objectied as the spoils of the victors, they directly connect the spiritual realm of ne things to the crass realities of class struggle in a positive way. They are the representatives of culture in class struggle (proving once again that the material and the cultural emerge in simultaneous identity in difference). Aside from the reason Benjamin may have had to pick these ve specic qualities (a point that Lwys discussion illuminates), what is certain is that an intentional subjective structure is, by denition, a strong component of their being. Moreover, it is only insofar as they represent intentions that they can give place to a uid transformation of past and present. It is at this point that we should notice that the historical existence of these ve attributes of the oppressed that permanently call into question every victory of the oppressors follows a tortuous path that we have not encountered so far. In a supercial reading, it may seem that what Benjamin is saying is just that the cunning of the present struggle points towards the tradition of the oppressed in a sort of continuityalong the lines of remembrance la Bakhtin.30 The reasoning seems to be chronologically linear, which it cannot be since a genuine relationship to the past has already been established as one of mutual determination. When the past ashes up into the present, the agency of the rememorative praxis falls obviously on the present. However, Benjamin says that it is what has been (the past, not the present) that strives to turn towards that sun which is rising in the sky of history. The past is the subject of this imperceptible heliotropism. The past is not said and done. Here Benjamin takes to a new level his radical assertion of the ultimate identity of politics and history. It is not just that any politics is informed by history. But if the identity between the historical and the political is going to hold, any history of the oppressed classes (who are the only subject of history, because they are the only ones interested in fostering the dialectical process of change) should be marked by the politics of the future. This does not happen in remembranceand this is the scandal of this passagebut in actuality. Benjamin refers to this transformation of the past as this most inconspicuous of all transformations.


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The intentional acts of the past not only put into question the assumed sovereignty of the present, but also, and in light of its own constitutive excess, they leave the past itself in the same indeterminacy that they create in the future. The most inconspicuous of all transformations is the one in which by appropriating what is most ours (the tradition of the oppressed) we simultaneously change this tradition. This is the dialectic in reverse. But there is no answer in Benjamin as to how this redemption of the past may happen. The explanation lies perhaps in the fact that he did not live through a successful revolution, which is one of the reasons to turn now to Diego Rivera, whose mural paintings often revolve around the question of how to provide a conceptual meaning for a triumphal revolution. Mexico As I noticed before, some historians have doubted the propriety of the word revolution to refer to the vast upheaval that took place in Mexico roughly between 1910 and 1920. Establishing a historiographical or sociological rationale that would allow us to classify the Mexican Revolution as a true revolution is an enterprise that would take too long and will lead too far astray from the goals of this essay. It would also be a waste of time. I will, instead, put the question in very cursory terms. Between 1910 and 1920, there was in Mexico an almost total military mobilization of peasants and workers. The government was overthrown and the constitution rewritten, giving rise in 1917 to the most progressive constitution of the Western world at the time. The army (federal army) was dissolved, and a new army was put in place. The state apparatus was totally reworkednot along the lines of class consciousness, to be sure, but in a way that paid an unprecedented level of attention to the disenfranchised and the underdogs. One can argue that the Mexican Revolution was betrayed, incomplete, unnished, or whatever other adjective one wants to use to mark the distance between the actual historical event and the ideal meaning of revolution. Still, one would be hard pressed to prove that there was no revolution in Mexico at the beginning of the twentieth century. It is the unorthodox development of the Mexican Revolution that brings that event surprisingly close to Benjamins work. A revolution that continues to be a revolution even when lacking many of the traits of a revolution (intention, leadership, revolutionary vanguard party) must be a revolution almost in its purity. Benjamin has surely the socialist revolution in mind: the revolution that will

Walter Benjamin and the Mexican Revolution


end all revolutions because it will do away with both state and class society. This line of thought appears in Benjamin and cannot be discarded. But it only proves that for Benjamin revolution was the revolution at hand. As for his texts, Benjamin always thought and wrote about the revolution itself, whose destiny is to be iterated any time the tradition of the oppressed collects enough force to blast open the continuum of time. However, it is not the revolution itselfof which we know very little since it is permanently eschewed in academic researchbut rather the cultural reconstitution that takes place in Mexico after 1921 that is the object of my exposition. When the revolution ended, there was no clear dominant sector willing, or rather able, to attribute a meaning to the decade that had just transformed Mexico. This means that the political legitimacy of the postrevolutionary government was not backed by any consistent narrative. The solution to this predicament came from the most unlikely place: culture. As recent historiography has insistently remarked, the construction of the postrevolutionary state was the product of a vast and largely unintentional collaboration of a variety of people, discourses, and practices that coalesced in a very open-ended process of state formation.31 It is no secret that the work of Diego Rivera represents a peculiarly strong contribution to this process. He created and cemented a powerful notion of the revolution that ended up identifying revolutionary ideology as a whole. In Riveras work, the revolution inherited a tradition of struggle for emancipation anchored in the history and misfortunes of the Indian masses. Although Indians were either unaware or uninterested in the idea of the nation, Rivera also understood that nationalism was the language best suited to stir up the type of political mobilization that the revolution needed for its consolidation. Revolution and nationalism are not compatible in any obvious way. Revolution (or negativity) is one of the few possible and always fragile incarnations of universality. Nationalism, on the other hand, is by denition an expression of the particular. In the case of Mexico, one can explain the purchase of nationalism in light of the inherent traits of the revolutionary process. The revolution was composed of multitudinary, multiethnic, and multiclassist contingents who mobilized without any clear direction or ideology. Rousseaus famous paradox of sovereignty (a people only becomes a people by giving themselves law, but how can they give themselves laws if they dont exist already as a people?) was exacerbated by the fact that the peasants contingents knew of sovereignty and enfranchisement as a practical outcome of their revolutionary activity rather than in the most abstract language of rights. Nationalism


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offered a solution to this quandary by assimilating the masses in revolt to an almost millenary tradition of insurgent ght in Mesoamerica. Nationalism was simultaneously exible and powerful enough to reach almost every corner of such a variegated constituency. We would be mistaken, then, if we saw in nationalism a merely representational activity. Through nationalism, Mexicans did not just learn to be Mexicans, but learned to socially and politically inhabit a country they had already conquered and occupied. This is, incidentally, a very Benjaminian point: the object of the revolutionary action is not justnot even fundamentallythe obtrusive realm of reality or materiality, but rather the constitution of a different type of subjectivity. An upper-class painter educated in Europe and an active participant of the Cubist bohme, Diego Rivera embraced a form of painting that identied in subject and style with the popular traditions of the Mexican people after his return to Mexico. These traditions, it is worthwhile to recall, were not readily available for appropriation. While the emphasis on the popular and the indigenous were routinely demanded from any cultural production of the period, there were few people with the knowledge and qualications to actually bring this realm of the popular into life and representation. The task of Rivera and of so many others was to invent a tradition out of a highly disjointed and prejudiced set of cultural autochthonous values. An unexpected use of Christian imagery at the level of representation and a more predictable recourse to enumeration at the level of composition are the stylistic benchmarks of those murals such as the Courtyard of Labor and the Courtyard of Fiestas at the Secretary of Education (Secretara de Educacin Pblica [SEP]) and the History of Mexico painted on the walls of the National Palace. Although Rivera had studied Renaissance murals in some detail he referred to them as books for the illiteratethe public present at the inauguration of the murals at the SEP were astonished by what they perceived as an odd mixture of social Marxist critique (condemnation of private property, exploitation, colonialism) and allusions to a Christian iconography. For Rivera, the Christian tradition provided a dignied version of the popular classes, a version that considers the popular sector to be exemplary of the category of the human in general, elevating these groups to a universality thus far denied to them. Rivera, however, borrowed from Christianity not its iconographic tradition (in which a certain gure carries an already codied meaning) but rather a mode of guration. The elevation of the neglected people to prototypes of the universal did not detach them from their place and their time. It

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entailed, rather, a carnivalesque inversion of the religious imagery. Instead of these peasants and Indians becoming more saintly and ethereal, saintliness became more mundane and embodied. Meanwhile the trope of enumeration was mobilized as the ideal medium for a maximum effort of incorporation. Enumeration is here the pictorial equivalent of populism as the ingrained ideology of the revolution. The Courtyard of Fiestas presents the viewer with an apparently endless string of human faces that cover the whole mural. No gure stands out as allegorizing or symbolizing the joys and sufferings of all. However, I will argue that Riveras nal goal did not lie in representation but rather in affection. In a proper Benjaminian way, Riveras problem became how the past modies the present and how the present could have a redemptive effect on the past. In addressing this question, I will circumscribe my comments to the central wall of the History of Mexico. From the title of the mural, we appreciate Riveras intention to place the revolution in the most general context of the historical existence of the Mexican people. The avowed intention of the mural is to retell the history of Mexico from the vantage point of the underdogs. As viewers enter the central patio of the National Palace to contemplate the mural, they are invited into a pictorial journey that starts with the pre-Columbian civilizations, the arrival of Hernn Corts to the coast of Mexico, the defeat of Tenochtitlan, and the rise of the white God. At the opposite specter of time, we nd the gures of Marx and Lenin, who show the way to the future to the Mexican workers. Everywhere, through every century and decade, Rivera paints the anonymous faces of Indians and peasants, not as backgrounds but as present-ghosts of the historical process. (Riveras enormous subtlety: Some of these gures have their backs turned to the spectator. They are as unreachable for them as they were for Rivera.) Now, what is the time of the present? The present is outside representation. It is the time of the spectator, of the single, titanic gaze that should incorporate this totality into its own moment of apprehension. But it is also the time of the return of the contemplating gaze upon itself since, as spectators, we are driven out of the representation and forced into our own temporality. (This effect is not unrelated to the fact that in all likelihood the viewer has to be constantly moving, pushed forward through the stairs of the national palace and lacking therefore any point of view from which the totality can be at the same time visible and distinguishable in all its subtle details.) There is only one possibility left to the viewers: to accept this historical concatenation as their own history. This merely situational reading of the mural is emphasized by the


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composition of the central wall. Leonard Folgarait, who reads the History of Mexico as a pedagogical form of propaganda, exempts the central panel from this reading: The historical episodes on the central wall can be seen as merely mixed and juxtaposed, next to and amongst each other because they belong in that history all at once as equals, and not necessarily positioned by order of occurrence or historical importance.32 After emphasizing that this quality is not shared by the two side walls, Folgarait remarks that
[t]his refusal by the mural to compose according to the linear narrative properties of episodic history . . . creates [one important effect:] the mural is not, in spite of its site and subject matter, in spite of its purpose, didactic in any explicit manner. . . . [E]ach separate knowing produces its own telling/viewing. Zapatistas will view it differently, will actually see it as a different visual construct, than will carranzistas, Americans differently than Spaniards.33

Folgaraits analysis is perhaps too colored by his own, ideologically based reading of the murals. In this analysis, subjectivities preexist the encounter with the mural: they are either Carrancistas, Americans, or Zapatistas. I think, on the other hand, that the murals aimed to create an identity rather than to conrm a subjective disposition. In my reading, a central panel is not a collage of different possibilities of identication from which the viewer can choose. Taken as a whole, the central panel seems to say that in history one cannot choose. Rivera includes in the murals characters with whom he could not possibly identify, people whom he actually abhorred: bankers, ruthless exploitative emissaries of the Spanish empire rst and of the American empire later; Luis Toral, the Catholic fanatic who killed President Obregn. If the time of the now is going to redeem all past sufferings and misgivings, nothing of this past can be renounced. Yet, it is not a matter of looking to the past objectively, so to speak. To the contrary, it means overcoming the difference between the subjective and the objective. All that stands as mere datum to be observed has to be taken into the present, made the stuff of the viewers life. This process through which an alienated past becomes the stuff of an emancipated present is often referred in Lacanian psychoanalysis as subjectication. In the terrain of art and politics the word reproduction might indicate a similar process.34 The history that has merely happened needs to be brought back to life in the light of the present. The past is not just reproduced as dead weight, but instead turned into a site of a productive reproduction that engenders both past and present in their mutual determination. The viewer has to make the preColumbian civilization, the heroes of independence, the anonymous backs of peasant Indians, and the recognizable gures of the

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forefathers of the revolution his or her own. Even the Inquisition, even Porrio Daz, has to be accommodated into the picture. The viewer may think that he has to identify only with one portion of this past. But in the central panel, at the most important moment of representation, Rivera closes this option. Through the re-production of history, the present knows itself, nally, constituted by the intentional acts of the past. It is by receiving the fullness of the past that Rivera may come to the conclusion that his presence was also awaited on earth. Now, the productive reproduction of the past does not prove that the recognition of its intentional acts is more than a fancy of the artist. Neither can this reproduction address the crucial Benjaminian point that the past itself is transformed, albeit imperceptibly, when its face turns toward that sun that rises in the sky of history. This was all too obvious for Rivera. In his painstaking reconstruction of the history of the humiliated masses, he soon runs into a properly Benjaminian predicament. The virtues of the oppressed (cunning, fortitude) are lost not because they have been forgotten, but because they have been overwritten by successive inscriptions of redemptive discourses. The tradition of the oppressed often reaches us through forms that try to convey a message of deliverance and emancipation. In the case of Mexico, these include Christianity, the movement of independence, the ght against foreign powers (the war against the United States and the French occupation). This overwriting confronts us with a paradox that becomes more and more common throughout modernity: the same container that protects these traditions from the erosion of time is the one silencing the intentionality of their original acts. Even aesthetic revelation seems to be no match for the long process of reinscription by which the intentional acts of the past have been concealed by a strand of movements acting in their name, but from which their proper name itself is absent. What can be then the effective connection between past and present? How does knowledge of the past become consciousness of the present? How can we and the painter ever be sure that his act of giving voice to the oppressed is not resolved into another betrayal of their intentions? The obvious answer is that we will never know. But this not-knowing is not simply ignorance, but rather the very condition of possibility of redemption. As David Lloyd writes in Irish Times,
Only in remaining out of joint with the times to which the dead are lost is there any prospect of a redress that would not be concomitant with the desire to lay the dead to rest. . . . The paradox of redress is that the catastrophic violence of history can be righted only in relinquishing the desire to set it right, in order to make room for the specters in whose restlessness the rhythms of another mode of living speak to us.35


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Benjamin would have found comfort in this idea that offers a renovated rationale for his permanent revolution. But not knowing, as Rivera was well aware, will always be a weak rationale for inaction. It is at this point that the seemingly paradoxical inclusion of Christian imaginary to convey the history of the underdogs becomes relevant once again. Rivera recognizes Christianity as that language in which generations of oppressed people safeguarded the singularity of their own earthly life. The clergy and the church are certainly denounced in the murals, and Christianity is put on trial, and yet the popular allegiance to religion is absolved. Christianity is not only accepted, but respected as one of the most powerful embodiments of the tradition of the oppressed. It is respected in the hope that as a language it has indexed and included all the clamors that it rescues, all the voices that it obliterates. Rivera refuses to depict Christianity as a form of false consciousness, but simultaneously he refuses to grant to Christianity the role of the historical voice of the oppressed. The use of a Christian guration supplements the struggles of the present, but in such a way that the present is also able to color with unmistakable materialist overtones the more metaphysical tradition that sustains it. It brings this tradition to life in a new way, and allows it to speak in a new language. In this careful disaggregation of the documents of culture from the ghosts that they carry lies Riveras wager for a renewed alliance between history and revolution. Notes
See, for instance, chapter 1 in Raul Ruizs The Great Rebellion: Mexico 1905 1924 (New York: Norton, 1980) and also Leonard Folgaraits hesitation about the word revolution in his Mural Painting and Social Revolution in Mexico, 19201940: Art of the New Order (Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 5.
1 2 Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000), 6. 3 For the history of the text, see the introduction to Michael Lwys Fire Alarm: Reading Walter Benjamins On the Concept of History (London: Verso, 2006). 4 There is a large secondary bibliography on Benjamin and the Theses. For the purpose of this essay, I have consulted, besides Michael Lwys acute book, Ronald Beiners essay, Walter Benjamins Philosophy of History, Political Theory 12, no. 3 (1984): 42334; and the volume edited by Andrew Benjamin, Walter Benjamin and History (London: Continuum, 2005). 5 Walter Benjamin, Theses on the Philosophy of History, in Illuminations, ed. Hanna Arendt (New York: Schocken Books, 1968), 25364, quotation on 254. 6 Herbert Marcuse attributes this statement to Hegel in Reason and Revolution: Hegel and the Rise of Social Theory (New York: Humanities Press, 1958), 45.

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7 Francois Furet, Interpreting the French Revolution (Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press, 1981), 1112. 8 Fredric Jameson, Imaginary and Symbolic in Lacan, in The Ideologies of Theory (London: Verso, 2008), 77124, quotation on 92. 9

Benjamin, Illuminations, 254. Ibid., 259. Ibid., 260. Ibid., 25455

10 11 12 13

I am referring here to the already classic study by Johannes Fabian: Time and the Other: How Anthropology Makes Its Objects (New York: Columbia University Press, 1983).
14 15 16 17 18

Benjamin, Illuminations, 255. Ibid. Ibid. Ibid., 257.

Theodor Adorno, Hegel: Three Studies, trans. Shierry Weber Nicholsen (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1994), 1.
19 Sigmund Freud, New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, trans. James Strachey (New York: Norton, 1965), 23.

Emmanuel Levinas, Is Ontology Fundamental? in Basic Philosophical Writings, ed. Adriaan Peperzak, Simon Critchley, and Robert Bernasconi, Studies in Continental Thought series (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996), 110.
20 21 For a thorough explanation of phenomenology in literary criticism, see Robert Magliola, Phenomenology and Literature: An Introduction (West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press, 1977). See also J. Hillis Miller, The Geneva School: The Criticism of Marcel Raymond, Albert Bguin, Georges Poulet, Jean Rousset, JeanPierre Richard, and Jean Starobinski, in Theory Now and Then (New York: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1991), 1330. 22 23 24

Benjamin, Illuminations, 255. Ibid., 254.

A discussion of present and revolution can be found in Stathis Kouvelakiss Philosophy and Revolution: From Kant to Marx, trans. G. M. Goshgarian (London: Verso, 2003), 35 and passim. The equation between knowledge and action is dislocated in some contemporary accounts of the social such as Peter Sloterdjiks Critique of Cynical Reason, trans. Michael Eldred (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987).
25 26 27

Benjamin, Illuminations, 254. Ibid.

Hegels phrase appears in a letter to his friend Karl Knebel in the context of a very explicit assertion of materiality. Hegel is talking about how his duties as teacher and editor allowed him to write his speculative work. For a reference to the letter to Knebel and an illuminating comment on the word granted (which translates here the German zufallen), see note 5 by the editors to the Theses on the Philosophy


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of History, in Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, Volume 4, 19381940, ed. Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings, trans. Edmund Jephcott et al. (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2003), 398.
28 29 30

Benjamin, Illuminations, 255. Ibid.

In his book on Rabelais, Mikhail Bakhtin sees the novel as containing (and saving) a carnivalesque principle in the epoch of noncarnival (Rabelais and His World [Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984]).
31 See Mary Kay Vaughan, ed., The Eagle and the Virgin: Nation and Cultural Revolution in Mexico 19201940 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006). Although more centered on the role of the state, a similar argument in favor of culture as an instrument of political stabilization is made by Thomas Benjamin in La Revolucion: Mexicos Great Revolution as Memory, Myth, and History (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2008). 32 Leonard Folgarait, Mural Painting and Social Revolution in Mexico, 19201940: Art of the New Order (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 101. 33 34

Ibid., 102.

For the Lacanian notion of subjectication see Bruce Fink, The Lacanian Subject (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998).

David Lloyd, Irish Times: Temporalities of Modernity (Dublin: Field Day, 2008), 12.