A number of months ago, I found myself woken from sleep early in the morning at perhaps five or six in the morning, possibly by a disagreeable dream, possibly by something else. In either case, I found myself recalling a fairly familiar passage in Walter Benjamin’s “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” the often quoted ninth section of the essay, in that hazy space that creates a sort of barrier between sleep and wakefulness.
“A Klee painting named “Angelus Novus” shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught under his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.” (Benjamin 258)
It was perhaps less than surprising that I would think of this passage. After all, I had read the essay that it was contained in numerous times, have read even more references to the passage in other works, and even have written about the various sections of the essay. But in that hazy semi-conscious space, the more immediate connection was made to the sense of disconnection that seems to define my present moment as I pass my second year out of graduate school and the interconnected ethical communities of which I was a part. In their absence, I’ve felt a sort of void, a lack of what Hegel would call “Sittlichkeit” or the connection to the ethical life or community that is created by being embedded in a meaningful community life. That isn’t to say that the past two years have been without meaning or social life, or that my time in graduate school wasn’t without its significant frustrations, but those frustrations were always linked to a communal life, even if it was marked by tensions, contradictions, and problems. The temporariness of adjunct lecturing, which operates as a sort of waiting room between one’s life as a student and some potential future career, doesn’t help this sense of disconnection.
Through that process, I’ve found myself thinking about various moments in my past, whether in my roles in the anti-sanctions campaign, the anti-globalization movement, the anti-war movement, and the efforts to reform our local union or in my personal life. I’ve found myself thinking back to dozens of moments where I wish I had handled a decision, a process, or how engaged with people differently. At a basic level, I find myself being much more skeptical of my motivations in those past conflicts, and of the positions that I took in those conflicts. But like the angel, I can’t go back to resolve those catastrophes, to avoid conflicts, to respond more generously, to fix what has been smashed. To turn directly to the passage, the memories that make up that ‘pile of debris’ are a tied to a series of incomplete and failed activist projects, a variety of temporary successes, to projects that continue without me, often without even a substantial memory that I had participated in them. The memory of those moments wind up lingering in my thoughts, perhaps haunting me, for the lack of a better word, particularly in that space between consciousness and unconsciousness. They are, for the most part, unresolvable, not because of their significance, but frequently because of their insignificance, or because the people are out of my life, sometimes for reasons to do with the conflict, often for a reason that is completely unconnected.
To be honest, I don’t know what to do with this often unresolvable assemblage of memories. After all, like the Angel, I find myself being blown into the future, one that remains occluded. But it felt like it made sense to perhaps write it down, to express it, even if perhaps its own value is only of marginal and therapeutic value.