Scholars 2006

2006 Past - Preserving Cultural Heritage

Ferber Ilit

Princeton University, Fulbright Visiting Scholar, German Department

"Walter Benjamin: Heritage as an Ethical Encounter with the Past"

Update November 2011:     I have started my tenure-track job this year at Tel-Aviv University.
CV     Publications

July 2006

Walter Benjamin: Heritage as an Ethical Encounter with the Past

How is the concept of heritage related to the nature of the encounter between past and present? What is the nature of this encounter? In what sense is there a commitment involved in this encounter? In my post-doctoral research, I intend to inquire into these questions in Walter Benjamin's writings, which raise, I claim, these significant concerns and propose an illuminating perspective upon them.

My doctoral dissertation deals with the concept of melancholy and its role in Benjamin's writings. I argue that melancholy serves Benjamin as a model and motivation for his philosophical and historical work. I claim that melancholy being a response to an unacceptable, almost denied loss, can be seen as a basis for the construction of an ethical relation between the past and the present. This ethical commitment is reflected in Benjamin's inquiries into the German baroque theatrical genre of sorrow-plays, the Trauerspiel. In this work, Benjamin conceives this genre as lost, neglected, misunderstood by critiques and almost absent from the history of theater of the time. This historical exclusion is the basis upon which Benjamin builds his philosophical and historical exploration of the genre.

I will present Benjamin's contribution to our understanding of heritage, through the way in which he conceives his own philosophical encounter with the Trauerspiel, which existed two centuries before his own time. For Benjamin, heritage and the re-understanding of the Trauerspiel are never detached from one's own present, and are always entangled with it. The ethical commitment that motivates this encounter leads to a reading of the Trauerspiel as intended for the present from which it is read. Benjamin writes that the past can only be seized by an image that flits-by the present - it must be recognized at the instance in which it flashes. The description of the encounter as a "recognition" is central to the understanding of Benjamin's conception of heritage. It alludes to the familiar nature of the past, its echoing within us, rather than being external to us. We should not recuperate the past because of its distance, but because of its familiarity to us. If not seized, this moment of encounter will be lost for the present. This moment is irretrievable, writes Benjamin, thus stressing the commitment to the passage of heritage, which is again - never a mere re-turning to the past, but instead always a committed encounter on behalf of the present. There is a moment in which the past is turning to the present, and the present recognizes that call and should seize this moment in which heritage unfolds. In this sense, Benjamin stresses that the crucial question is not where the past belongs to, but rather, its intersection and recuperation in the present.