The context for Benjamin’s development is, of course, Nazi Germany and its extreme instance and model of the imposition of emergency powers on a ‘developed’ industrialized society. It was Benjamin’s misfortune and his opportunity to observe and struggle to endure this political extremity. I’ll briefly examine his core ideas about how to confront such a crisis, for they form a crucial template for thinking about how to engage regressive forces in contemporary society. In “Critique of Violence” (in Reflections and Volume I of his Selected Writings), written early on in his career, he shows how police-state power can be adopted by democracies in crisis ostensibly to “preserve” its laws “at any price.” In so doing, such governments can establish in the midst of the bourgeois society a state of emergency – an “all-pervasive, ghostly presence” void of humanity, to which the resulting suffering and evident oppression testify.
The zone of emergency, where the potential for human freedom struggles against its obliteration, is for Benjamin particularly illuminated by the form of tragedy. Tragedy is seen in the history of the arts as the form achieving the profoundest vision of human struggle and suffering caused by the negation of hope. The genre of tragedy arises in times and societies as diverse as Classical Greece, Elizabethan England, or Baroque Europe, and it appears to lead a life, lasting and universal, independent of any prevailing or originating conditions of oppression and crisis. The emergence of tragedy achieves and celebrates the resilient survival of a most ambitious form of aesthetic experience. For Benjamin, such resilience is important to the nature both of tragic form and of the tragic hero. That resilience supports and defines a redemptive hope in confronting the situation of emergency power, and it can provide an ethical and aesthetic model for resistance to the distorted conditions of society arising from the crisis in these first decades of the twenty-first century.
The possibility of the partly Messianic hope embodied in the tragic hero’s resilience is the subject of Benjamin’s early study The Origins of German Tragic Drama, for example, and also of his short essay “Fate and Character.” In his work on German Baroque tragedy, Benjamin explains that the Baroque artist “clings so tightly to the world because of the feeling that he is being driven along to a cataract with it;” the life of the world is condemned to empty into the cataract of its vanishing, during this period of “Counter-Reformation.” The Baroque version of tragic form renders “a profusion of things which customarily escaped the grasp of artistic formulation and brings them violently into the light of day,” partly because in its vision this very profusion of life is destined for the “vacuum” of its vanishing into nothingness. (Similarly, the Baroque version of heaven’s yearned-for transcendence becomes an antithetical instrument for fearful purgation and regulation, whereby the “hereafter is emptied of everything which contains the slightest breath of this world.”) The consciousness developed in Baroque tragedy becomes a means to identify the font and “profusion” of “worldly” possibility in the midst of its erasure.
In this conception, a tragic potentiality exists within the scorched zone of its obliteration, of a punishing nothingness. Benjamin sees the perspective of the tragic drama as parallel to the societal vision of world-encompassing catastrophe which haunts the sovereign state in the Counter-Reformation and which oppresses its citizens. In fear of the recurrence and “restoration” of “the rich feeling for life characteristic of the Renaissance,” the Baroque sovereign develops a conception of the “state of emergency” as the last and terrible means to trap and regulate the chaos of life. The continually haunting tragic possibility is that the sense of crisis can arbitrarily issue in the sovereign's decision to achieve “complete stabilization” by consigning any citizen to a zone of “abandonment.”
Over the past hundred years, the totalitarian application of that conception has been repeatedly enacted. For example, there is the proto-Nazi formulation of the state of emergency as essential to the nature of sovereignty by one of its theorists, Carl Schmidt: “the sovereign is he who decides on the state of exception” to which humans may be consigned without rights. Benjamin takes up Schmidt’s idea and radically redefines the region of “exception” as a banned zone without an admissible language audible to the state; within the twentieth-century version of the abandoned zone, Benjamin writes in his “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” “the tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule....[I]t is our task to bring about a real state of emergency, and this will improve our position in the struggle against Fascism” (in Illuminations and Volume IV of Selected Writings). The call to action in the last sentence is startling; “our task” is to make manifest the shocking reality of emergency and oppression, to make visible those who are invisible in the emergency world of sovereign power, and to retrieve the marginalized and give voice to the voiceless.
Benjamin’s most challenging message for our period stems from his understanding of the tragic hero as the prototypical figure exposing the reality of the zone of emergency. In “Fate and Character” (in Reflections and Volume I of Selected Writings), Benjamin writes that the hero’s insistent grandeur voices and models an alternative language to societally sanctioned speech. Tragedy gives dramatic form to “the head of genius lift[ing] itself for the first time from the mist of guilt,” from the zone of the proscribed, for the tragic hero has been condemned by god (and in modernity, by the sovereign) for demanding more of existence than gods or sovereign will allow. “Man becomes aware that he is better than his god, but the realization robs him of speech, remains unspoken,” for speech – in order to be heard – depends on the hearers, who exist in the community regulated by the sovereign. However, the tragic spirit “seeks secretly to gather its forces,” for the tragic hero yet “wishes to raise himself by shaking the tormented world.” Tragedy is the language of the counter emergency, of that “shaking” and destabilization which the sovereign would silence, for the emergent power born in tragedy demands more of the world than it can and will give. Tragic form – with its language of emergency, its play with and against silence – implicitly calls for the restoration of the unheard to language, law, and life. The unheard freedom and humanity, which are potentiality consigned to the zone of abandonment and erased under the sovereign’s powers, must be restored.
Benjamin's vision of tragedy speaks to the universal yearning for freedom in our own period. Even as it is a response to Germany’s dire descent into Nazism, it is yet linked to the similar ideas developed by Agamben and other thinkers in the last few decades. (As well, it is a fertile revising and questioning of the nineteenth century Hegelian and Marxist dialectic, of Romantic as well as Heideggerian aesthetics, and of Kabbalistic thought. At the core of Benjamin's influential idea of tragedy is the notion of a tragic welcome to the dissolution of self. The transfiguring voice tragedy calls into being emerges from a disappearance of the pre-formed self and an opening to the multiple forms of being in the mundane world. Its response to the world formed by sovereign power is this transformation and dying of the ordinary self, resulting in a tragic flowering of potentiality. Witnessing the hero enacting this acute responsiveness to the “profusion” of being from the margins to the center, we the spectators witness a transfiguration of the mundane, the marginal and obscure, the doubtful and mysterious, and all that had seemed deadened in existence.