April 6, 2011

Eagleton and Benjamin on tradition

I'm currently working on a paper that deals with the archive (as a concept, a space, an activity, etc.) and with the historical materialist method of Walter Benjamin. Among other things, this means I can finally get around to reading Terry Eagleton's extended study of Benjamin from 1981, Walter Benjamin, or Towards a Revolutionary Criticism. So far, so good, though, as always, I find Eagleton's unrestrained verbosity rather tiresome. Eagleton begins with an unexpected detour into 17th century English literature (which, to my delight, features a good discussion of Milton) and proceeds through Benjamin's study of German tragic drama to a sporadic critique of post-structuralism. As is often the case, Eagleton's criticisms of Derrida and Foucault hold little water. On the other hand, he's a fine reader of Benjamin:
"Some pass things down to posterity," writes Benjamin in The Destructive Character, "by making them untouchable and thus conserving them, others pass on situations, by making them practical and thus liquidating them." What is transmitted by tradition is not "things," and least of all "monuments," but "situations"--not solitary artifacts but the strategies that construct and mobilize them. It is not that we constantly revaluate tradition; tradition is the practice of ceaselessly excavating, safeguarding, violating, discarding, and reinscribing the past. There is no tradition other than this, no set of ideal landmarks that then suffer modification. . . . What is at stake is not merely the spoils of situations but the situations themselves, the practices of digging and discovery, sightings and oversightings, which trace through the exhumed objects so deeply as to constitute a major part of their meaning.

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