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  • Cited by 7
  • Print publication year: 2004
  • Online publication date: May 2006

4 - Walter Benjamin’s concept of cultural history

Summary

There is no document of culture that is not at the same time a document of barbarism.

Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History”

The famous sentence from Benjamin's seventh thesis on the philosophy of history describing documents of culture as documents of barbarism appears in the context of a reflection on culture as the plunder of history's victors. Faced with the barbaric documents of culture and their transmission to the present, Benjamin continues, it is the task of historical materialism to “rub history against the grain.” The general references to historicism and historical materialism in the seventh thesis obscure the original significance of the sentence as part of a specific reflection on the limits of cultural history. The same phrase also appears at a crucial point in the 1937 essay on the Marxist cultural historian “Eduard Fuchs: Collector and Historian.” At this point the sentence, “There is no document of culture which is not at the same time a document of barbarism,” continues: “No cultural history has yet done justice to this fundamental state of affairs and it can hardly hope to do so” (SW III, 267). The burden of Benjamin's critique of previous cultural history rests on its never having done “justice” to the negative or barbaric aspect of culture, an act of reparation for past injustice that he thinks it can “hardly hope” to achieve. Nevertheless, in spite of this stricture, Benjamin's 1937 prognosis for cultural history is not entirely bleak: some small hope remains for what he calls a “dialectical cultural history.” The analysis of the concept of a dialectical cultural history will thus give a concrete illustration of what it might mean to “rub history against its grain.”

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