Volume 16, Issue 2, Spring 2012
A Praxis Oriented by the Debt to the Past
Benjamin’s and Adorno’s Critique of Teleology
This paper explores Benjamin’s and Adorno’s materialist critique of the philosophy of history as a metaphysical fiction which harbors and shields the barbarism at the heart of culture. Each undertakes a radical critique of ontological, future-oriented notions of temporality and history, proposing instead a political understanding oriented to the past for the sake of the present or, more precisely, for the sake of actively resisting the persistent barbarism. The more culture insists on its progress beyond barbarism, the more it claims to have overcome the past, the more insidious and invidious are its forms of oppression. I follow the consequences of Benjamin’s emphasis on the nihilism constitutive of philosophy of history by analyzing his claim that even the dead are not safe from the threat of annihilation. Second, I argue that Adorno’s radical critique of a culture and politics oriented toward the future, or rather to overcoming the past, constitutes an active resistance to the insidious barbarism at the heart of democracy.