At the Stillpoint of Emergency
Two Theses on History
By Walter Benjamin
VIII [The real state of emergency]
The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the “emergency situation” in which we live is actually the rule. We must attain to a concept of history which corresponds to this. For then it will become clear that the task before us is the introduction of a real state of emergency, thereby improving our position in the struggle against fascism. The reason that fascism stands a chance is that its opponents, in the name of progress, treat it as a historical norm. The surprise that the things we are experiencing in the [21st] century are “still” possible is by no means philosophical. This is not the beginning of knowledge, unless it is the knowledge that the conception of history [historicism] on which it rests is useless.
XVII [Historical Materialism vs. Bourgeois Historicism]
Historicism inevitably culminates in Universal History. Nowhere else does the materialist writing of history distance itself from historicism more clearly in methods. Universal historicism has no theoretical framework. Its method is merely additive: it marshals a mass of facts, in order to fill up a homogenous and empty time. In contrast, historical materialism for its part is based on a constructive principle. Thinking involves not only the stream of thoughts but also their still-point [Stillstellung]. Where thinking suddenly halts in a constellation
overflowing with tensions, there it yields the same kind of shock by which it crystallizes itself into a monad [or microcosm]. Historical materialism approaches any historical object only when beholding it as such a monad. In this unit, it recognizes the sign of a messianic still-point of history, or put differently, a revolutionary chance in the struggle for the suppressed past. We perceive this in order to explode a specific epoch out of the homogenous course of history, a specific life out of its epoch, or a specific work out of its oeuvre. The result of the method is this: that the life-work is preserved and transcended within the work, just as the epoch is within the lifework, and the entire course of history is within the epoch. . . .