Totaladler - Fragmentary remarks on Walter Benjamin’s ‘On the concept of history’

Essay 2012 6 Pages

Philosophy - Philosophy of the 20th century


Today, Benjamin’s ‘angel of history’, his ‘angelus novus’ has to fight an even greater danger than the storm of progress that was characteristic for Benjamin’s time. Today’s force is more material, more powerful and perhaps even more catastrophic but just as total and real as was the storm blowing away the angel sixty years ago. The angel has finally found a counterpart that fights him, something that he can touch. But does this make it easier for the angel, the embodiment of history, “to stay, awaken the dead, make whole what has been smashed” (392) or are we still to await the coming of a messiah that can win over the antichrist (391)?

Today, the storm is an eagle as Jonathan Meese envisages him.

This eagle faces the backward turning angel; he is looking straight ahead at what stands in his way ready to free himself of any obstacle, ready to fight. Is the angel the obstacle?

The angle’s eyes wide open (out of anxiety, out of shock, out of anger about his forced passivity?) are met by tightly closed eagle’s eyes, concentrating on their aim.

The bird’s wings are spread as are the angel’s but not in a movement that takes him away but rather in a deadly blow. The angle almost seems as if he is holding up his hands out of fear from the next strike. How close is the eagle already?

The angel’s rather delicately heavenly mouth encounters a powerful beak turned towards the future – a second weapon in the eagle’s repertoire.

The eagle himself made out of debris, of waste, of rubbish is the one piling up “wreckage upon wreckage” (392) hurling at the angel’s feet. His chunky claws stand firmly on catastrophe after catastrophe that he himself is guilty of. He is not transcended as an angel, not fleeting as a storm, but of literal ‘flesh and blood’ – or rubbish and debris – that is, material in the highest sense.

Today, some still call this eagle progress, but others deny that financial capitalism, the money-economy, global austerity programmes, public and private debt, the financialized state, as well as the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and soon Iran are still the successes of a rational, progressive movement towards the final good (where exactly should progress lead, anyway; what is the end point? Eternal growth?).

Meese rightly gives his eagle the name ‘Totaladler’ – ‘totaleagle’ – which does not only refer back to the totalitarianism of fascist Germany (a recurring subject in Meese’s work), but is also reminiscent of the total power of America’s heraldic animal that grins at us from the shoulder of every American soldier and ascends from the plain of every dollar note. What might once be called progress is now embodied by America (where America embodies the ‘West’) and has decayed to a degree that we can not recognise it as such any more.

This new notion of progress (or what might be called ‘counter-progress’) itself produces catastrophe after catastrophe as was briefly noted above – Benjamin’s angel will eventually not have to change his mind in this way. He is still appalled by the ever-increasing mountain of debris that is pushed at him, and also another thing has not changed: The counter-progress is total (‘Totaladler’). The whole society seems to be captured by it in its different facettes.

To mention but one illustrative case, the financialisation of everyday life has taken over not only from Wall Street to the corporate world (as in Karen Ho’s (2011) Shareholder Value revolution)(if we now limit our view to what we wrongly call ‘civilized world’), but to ordinary life and lifeworld. The eagle from the Dollar note not only encompasses investors, private equity funds and banks, but most importantly states (two recently published books by Abramoff (2011) and Lessig (2011) show how the American state in particular is captured by the money elite) and private individuals. After the ‘market logic’ that was already spread in the 1990s (see for example Strange’s (2004) ‘State and Market’), it is now a particular notion of money that is deeply linked to contemporary catastrophe. Debt has become the most crucial source of anguish, fear and frustration. For almost three years now, the European sovereign debt crisis (that is by far not limited to the European context as the debt to GDP quota in the US might easily reveal) has dominated media and minds. Commentators argue that this crisis is home-made, constructed by the banks (not understanding their own instruments) and the states (Greece ‘lying’ its way into Europe) themselves – a product of the (counter-)progress that cheered us from unprecedented (imaginary) growth rates in Greece (4% in 2003) to ‘mega-boni’ for the super-banker. Now the angel has to cope with another catastrophe – that he again can not change irregardless of how much he wants to because he is blown away by the sheer force of it.

There is today however one central change (even if in form of a question) to what Benjamin described in his ‘Theses’ and the possible illustration today: Is the eagle (counter-progress, America, the West) able to perhaps even destroy (and not only blow away) history (historiography) and take its place to make its own history? What would this change? There still is the messiah, that is needed in any way to grant us the “fullness of [our] past” (390), isn’t it?



ISBN (eBook)
File size
449 KB
Catalog Number
Institution / College
London School of Economics
Time Theology Marxism History



Title: Totaladler - Fragmentary remarks on Walter Benjamin’s ‘On the concept of history’