Not a Drop Left

By Giorgio Agamben, 24 June 2014
Image: Walter Benjamin's coloured symbols used for cross-referencing in the Paris Arcades project and the 'Baudelaire Studies', 1928-1940

The relationship between documentation and construction in Walter Benjamin’s work was central to his originality and another bone of amicable contention with his friend and editor Theodor Adorno. In a translation by Heinrich Haine of Giorgio Agamben’s introduction to a new Italian translation of missing fragments of his Baudelaire book, the relationship between Benjamin’s method and his theory of revolutionary Jetzeit takes form


WHAT THIS IS NOT: a contribution to the Collegiate Intellect's efforts to make the most of Walter Benjamin; still less an investment in that energetic start-up 'Agamben Studies'.


WHAT IT IS: in 2012 Neri Pozza published an Italian translation of the 'missing' parts of Benjamin's unfinished Baudelaire book, edited by Giorgio Agamben (who found the papers in the Paris Bibliothèque Nationale in 1981), Clemens-Carl Härle and Barbara Chitussi. A German edition is apparently planned for 2016; no date is even given yet for an official Anglo-mangling. In the meantime, then, here is, shall we say, an unofficial paraphrase, an uncanny description, an extraordinary rendition of Agamben's introduction to the Neri Pozza book. Worth pre-empting because a few short passages show how Benjamin set up the scaffolding (armatura) of an unprofessional seriousness, a hyperactive passion (as, among other meanings, in 'passive') that would never pass Peer Review*. The scaffold from which theory can go hang**.

 [*Yes, notwithstanding GA's suave reviewability, and directly counter to the scholarly uses of WB. See 'What this is not' above.] 

[**Or to put it another way: if your metaphysical thesis can't be expressed as tabloid anecdote – or if your tabloid anecdote contains no metaphysical thesis – it probably takes up too much space.]


Walter Benjamin, Charles Baudelaire: un poeta lirico nell età del capitalismo avanzato, trans. G. Agamben, B. Chitussi, G. Gurisatti, M. De Carolis, A. Moscati, F. Porzio, G. Russo; ed. G. Agamben, B.Chitussi, C.-C. Härle, Neri Pozza, Vicenza, 2012.


Sub-translator: Heinrich Haine


[References to Benjamin's Gesammelte Schriften (i.e. collected writings, henceforth GS), ed. R. Tiedemann, H Schweppenhäuser, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt-am-Main, 1974-1989, and to the Gesammelte Briefe (collected letters, GB), ed. C. Gödde, H. Lonitz, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt-am-Main, 1995-2000, appear bracketed within the main text below, as they mostly do in the Italian edition.  Numbered footnotes are the sub-translator's when followed by an asterisk (*); otherwise they are GA's references to texts other than GS and GB.]


1. In March 1937, Benjamin has just finished his essay on Fuchs and proposes to the Institut für Sozialforschung three possible subjects for his next work.


The first is a piece of research on Klages and Jung, which would clarify some methodological aspects of the Pariser Passagen, on which he has been working for years.


The second is a ‘comparison between the presentation of bourgeois and materialist historiography’, which should, like the first, help to determine the conceptual structure of the book. And finally, ‘if you feel unable to accept this way of proceeding... then I would propose, starting in media res, doing the Baudelaire chapter early.’ (GB, v, pp.489-490). The first proposal, which within the institute would have entailed a heated debate with Erich Fromm about psychoanalysis, is rejected. So is the second, because it risks overlapping with questions already addressed in the Fuchs. It's the third project that catches Horkheimer's attention: ‘a materialist article on Baudelaire has long been needed. Therefore I'd be extraordinarily grateful if you would really decide to write this chapter of your book first.’ (GS, v, 2, pp. 1158-1159).


A few months later, having dealt with the problems of a change of address, Benjamin starts work.


At this stage the project appears both to its commissioners and to the author as the early publication of a chapter of the book on Paris, Capital of the 19th Century (Passagenarbeit or Pariser Passagen, as colloquially named in conversation or letters to friends). The exposé written in 1935 to present the Passagen to friends at the Institute – then still in Geneva as the Société Internationale de Recherches Sociales – does indeed contain a section (the fifth, entitled Baudelaire, or the Streets of Paris) giving an idea of the themes originally intended for the chapter. Gradually, though, as the work of research and the articulation of the material proceeds, Benjamin comes to see that the planned 'chapter' is taking on an importance and a scope that he had already partially suspected. On 16 April 1938, while drafting a three-part Schematisierung of the whole thing, he describes the work to Horkheimer as follows:


The discussion seems to be expanding, with the essential motifs of the Passagen converging in it. This is due both to the nature of the subject and to the fact that this chapter, conceived as one of the central chapters of the book, has ended up being written first instead. In conversations with Teddie [Adorno] I already foresaw this tendency of the Baudelaire to configure itself as a sort of model in miniature (Miniaturmodell) of the book. Since San Remo this has proved more the case than I thought... Mr [Friedrich] Pollock asked me to let you know, because you would at first have expected a normal-size manuscript. I knew that, but I thought it would be better if for once one of my essays became a work of a certain substance. Still today I hope you don't have any decisive objections; I wouldn't really know how to discuss the fundamental aspects of the matter in 30 or 40 pages. Instead I imagine something bigger: in terms of the number of pages in the manuscript, three times as many or around twice at least. (GB, vi, pp. 64-65).


The particular status ascribed henceforth to the Baudelaire by the words ‘model in miniature’ should be emphasised here. The phrase expresses a paradoxical relation between part and whole: if the whole contains itself en abîme, so to speak, the part nonetheless tends to subsume the whole, eroding and gradually emptying of the complete work. Again on 8 July, Benjamin – now in Denmark with Brecht – writes to [Gershom] Scholem that the essay is a ‘very precious model of the Passagenarbeit, setting in motion the entire substance of the thought and study of the last years.’ (GB, vi, p.131). A few days earlier, writing to Pollock, he describes the work in progress as an Extract of the Pariser Passagen, one that ‘will allow a glimpse in perspective into the depths the 19th century.’[1],[2] (GB, vi, p.133).


A month later, having reorganised the material and the structure of the work, Benjamin is forced to admit that the ‘model in miniature’ has become a separate book that tends to subsume within itself a substantial part of the material and subject matter intended for the Passagen:


I told Mr Horkheimer that his push for the Baudelaire has become the push for a book, as would seem to have been likely with any reworking of material I built up over so much time. I've tried to address the necessities bound up in the thing itself, leading to this result that wasn't considered at first... This book is not identical to the Pariser Passagen. However it contains not only a considerable part of the material I collected for them, but also an amount of philosophical content... (GB, vi, pp.158-159).


On August 3, in a letter already setting out the three-part structure of the book, its growing weight in the economy of Benjamin's critical laboratory is also emphasised:


It was obvious that the Baudelaire should have been treated separately from the context of the research and reflections for the Pariser Passagen... The fundamental categories of the Passagen, which converge in the determination of the character of the commodity fetish, enter fully into play in the Baudelaire. But their development, however one might try to limit it, overflows the borders of the essay. (GB, vi, p. 149).


On 28 September, in the letter to Horkheimer accompanying the last part of the work (corresponding to the second of the three planned sections, entitled Das Paris des Second Empire bei Baudelaire), the separate status [il carattere autonomo] of the book and at the same time its close relation to the Passagenarbeit now appear clearly defined:


The book sets out to present, I hope definitively, some decisive philosophical elements in the project of the Passagen. If there was a subject offering the best possibilities beyond the original project, it was without doubt Baudelaire.  Therefore essential materials and elements of the construction of the Passagen oriented themselves spontaneously around this subject.  (GB, vi, p.162).


But what Benjamin adds shortly afterwards implies that the Baudelaire 'chapter' really functions as a disintegrating principle for the whole original body [l'intera compagine originaria] of the book on Paris:


In future I'd see the development beginning in the Baudelaire chapter of the Passagen confined to two more chapters: those on Grandville and Haussmann. (GB, vi, p.163).


The bad reception of the essay by the Institut für Sozialforschung and the dense correspondence with Adorno that follows open a new stage in the work's development [evoluzione]. Despite the discouragement (‘the isolation I live and at the same time work in produces an abnormal dependence on the reception of what I do’), Benjamin immediately plans a revision of the second chapter of the essay (‘The Flâneur’) and begins partially reworking the material in terms of new categories. On 26 June, in a letter to Gretel Adorno, he notes that the new draft marks another stage in the increasing importance of the Baudelaire within his production as a whole:


In no previous work have I become so certain of the vanishing point where (always, it now seems) all my reflections, which start from divergent points, coincide. (GB, vi, p. 308).


The new partial draft (which corresponds to the second part of the preceding draft and therefore occupies the second part of the complete book) is finished in July 1939 and is this time welcomed enthusiastically by the friends in New York. That the book is now, still more than the Passagen, solidly at the centre of Benjamin's theoretical work is proved by the fact that the theses on the concept of history, apparently composed in the first months of 1940, can be presented by their author not as an independent text but as ‘a theoretical scaffolding for the second essay on Baudelaire’ (GB, vi, p.400); ‘to the extent that they have the character of an experiment’, he writes to Gretel Adorno, ‘they function – not just from a methodological standpoint – as preparation for the remainder of the Baudelaire.’ (GB, vi, p. 436).


Previously a ‘model in miniature’ of the book on Paris, the Baudelaire has now become the place where the project of ‘a proto-history of the 19th c.’, at first assigned to the Passagen, has found what may be its most advanced realisation, where all the motifs of Benjamin's thought seem to converge. The last mention of the work is in a letter of 7 May 1940 (GB, vi. p. 444), a few weeks before the flight from Paris that would take Benjamin first to Lourdes and Marseille, then after the clandestine crossing of the French-Spanish border to death at Port-Bou on 26 September 1940. 


2. The Passagen (or rather all the index cards and other materials that make up the documentary base) were published by Rolf Tiedemann in 1982 as volume 5 of the Gesammelte Schriften. From the book on Baudelaire, meanwhile, what was published in volume 1 of the Gesammelte Schriften was the two parts that had reached draft stage – the first draft of the second of the three planned parts (Das Paris des Second Empire bei Baudelaire) – and the new draft of the central section of the same (Über einige Motive bei Baudelaire), along with all the Zentralpark notes plus other materials of various kinds appearing in volume one of the Anmerkungen. (GS, i, 3, pp. 1137-1188). There was no attempt to reconstruct the book; nor, at the time of the publication, did this seem possible in any obvious way. 


The situation changed radically in 1981 when one of the editors of the present edition, looking through the papers of Georges Bataille at the Paris Bibliothèque Nationale, happened to find a huge set of Benjamin manuscripts left there by Bataille's widow. One of the envelopes (catalogued by the discoverer as the fifth) contained a set of cards and notes referring in various ways to the work on Baudelaire. Combined with a few other manuscripts found immediately afterwards thanks to that first trace, these not only allowed an adequate reconstruction of the book's structure, they also shed un-hoped-for light on the development both of the work and more generally on Benjamin's whole final working practice [l'ultima officina benjaminiana].[3]


Michel Espagne and Michael Werner, who were the first after the discovery to conduct a detailed analysis of the manuscripts relating to the Baudelaire, stated without reserve that the Paris manuscripts allow ‘a new assessment of Benjamin's late production’ and that in particular they bring ‘into the foreground the work on Baudelaire that had wrongly been forgotten in the course of the discussion of the Passagen-Werk set off by Tiedemann's edition.’[4] For his part, Tiedemann, without doubt the greatest expert on the Benjamin manuscripts, wrote, on publishing in volume 7 of the GS a selection of the Paris manuscripts, that ‘if [these manuscripts] had been accessible to the editor at the time, it would have been possible in this case [i.e. for the Baudelaire book]... to offer at least the model of a historical-critical edition of the Benjamin texts, although doing so would have meant breaching the limits of the present edition.’ (GS, vii, 2, p. 736).


The present volume is an attempt to offer not a historical-critical edition (obviously unthinkable in translation), but a historical-genetic edition based on the full documentation accessible today, which allows to be followed to an exceptionally rich and articulated extent the genesis and development – through its various stages of drafting – of the work in progress that in a certain sense constitutes the summa of Benjamin's late production.[5] The opportunity was still more precious in that Benjamin, who with friends often discussed minutely the theoretical presuppositions of his work, seemed to guard jealously the secret of what might be called the material processes of his own production, which therefore ended up taking on a legendary aura of esoterism in the eyes of critics and friends. Precisely because it allows all the stages of the process of its genesis and development to be followed in an extremely articulated way, the Baudelaire book, exploding that legend, presents us instead with the model-in-making [...nel suo farsi, il modello...] of a materialist way of writing as Benjamin intended it: one in which theory not only illuminates the material processes of creation, but the latter also throw a new light on theory. 


Benjamin was quick to distinguish in his work between documentation and construction. Espagne and Werner, who called attention to this distinction, rightly observed that it should not be understood as a ‘chronological division between two stages of work’ but as ‘systematic division between two fundamentally different ways of working, which, from a chronological point of view, sometimes run parallel.’[6] The fact is that Benjamin grasped perfectly Marx's distinction between ‘mode of research’ (Forschungsweise) and ‘mode of presentation’ (Darstellungsweise), which he cites expressly in section N of the Passagen:


Research must appropriate the material (Stoff) in detail, must analyse its various forms of development (Entwicklungsformen) and trace their inner connection (inneres Band). Only after this work is done can the real movement be presented adequately. If this is successful, if the life of the material (das Leben des Stoffs) is now reflected back ideally, then we may seem to be looking at an a priori construction.[7] (GS, v, 1, p.581).


The implications of this passage for a proper analysis of the processes of intellectual work call for some reflection.  The material gathered by the research is not inert but living, already containing within itself forms of development and an inner connection. The task of research is to bring to light these forms and that connection, in such a way that the very life of the material ultimately appears as a priori construction. When Benjamin, in a letter to Gretel Adorno of 9 October 1935, wrote of recently being pushed ‘to a decisive point in the incremental grid of the construction cut out, so to speak, from the documentation’ (GB vi, pp.170-171), he describes with the utmost acuteness the sharp distinction between documentation and construction – mode of research and mode of presentation – and at the same time their intimate interpenetration.[8] In this relation between documentation and construction there occurs something like what Benjamin describes when past encounters present in the now of recognisability (Jetzt der Erkennbarkeit).[9] The latter is among Benjamin's most secret concepts and one he admits having ‘handled quite esoterically’ (GB vi, pp.170-171), but in this perspective it becomes perfectly transparent:


For the historical index of the images not only says that they belong to a particular time; it says, above all, that they attain to legibility only at a particular time. And indeed, this acceding ‘to legibility’ constitutes a specific critical point in their internal movement. Every present is determined by the images that are synchronic with it: each ‘now’[Jetzt] is the now of a particular recognisability. In it, truth is charged to bursting point with time. (This point of explosion, and nothing else, is the death of the intentio, which thus coincides with the birth of authentic historical time, the birth of truth.) It is not that what is past casts its light on what is present, or what is present its light on what is past; rather, image is that wherein what has been is joined in a lightning flash with the now to form a constellation. In other words: image is dialectics at a standstill.[10] (GS, v, 1, pp.577-578.).


Nowhere more than here, concrete analysis of Benjamin's production process clarifies the fundamental categories of his theory of knowledge. Just as the moment of construction is not imposed a posteriori on the material of documentary research but springs from its intimate movement, unfolding through the various stages up to the final draft, likewise the time-of-the-now [Jetztzeit] is not a moment that can be placed chronologically only in the present.  Rather, it is the constellation in which what has been is joined in a lightning flash [si unisce fulmineamente] with the now; in which a particular historical fact is polarised into pre- and post-history.[11]


3. In what is probably a unique case in the history of historical-philosophical literature (certainly, at least in that of Benjamin's works), it was possible thanks to the manuscripts (in particular the Thematic Lists and the Blue Papers) to follow at close quarters the ‘internal movement’ through which the documentation, in its development towards drafting, intersects with the incremental grid of the construction. 


It's as though, along with possessing an author's card index (in this case the Aufzeichungen un Materialen section of the Paris book) and the resulting work (or part of it at least), we could, thanks to a miracle of animation, watch the card index as it moves and orders itself towards drafting, laying bare its internal lines of development. And this movement of the material is not theoretically neutral.  Rather – although it's impossible to tell to what extent the theoretical reflections set the index in motion or conversely the life of the material brings out the pearl of the theory – the movement of the material is accompanied by a substantial production of methodological-philosophical fragments (most conspicuously concentrated in Zentralpark and, symptomatically, always interspersed with metatextual notes on the ordering and disposition [disposizione] of the texts). 


In this way the stage that classical rhetoric called dispositio (between inventio or documentation and elocutio or presentation, drafting; called rerum inventarum in ordinem distributio by Cicero) comes to the fore in Benjamin's creative process: in singular contrast to the privileging of presentation by the moderns, but with such particular characteristics that it's reasonable to speak of a 'dialectical-Benjaminian disposition [disposizione].'[12]


This also lets us put in the right perspective the ‘literary montage’ that Benjamin once identified with the method most particular to his own work. (GS, v, 1, p.574). It's not so much a matter, as Adorno thought, of ‘allowing the meanings to appear solely through a shocking montage (schokhafte Montage) of materials’ and of writing a work ‘composed only of citations’: rather, making dispositio the centre of the compositional process allows the forms of development and the internal connection contained in the philological materials to lead to the draft solely through their construction.[13] As Tiedemann suggests, from this standpoint the book on Baudelaire certainly allows to be imagined ‘what the draft [of the Passagen] that Benjamin didn't finish’ would have looked like. (GS, v, 2, p.1073). 


More generally, the whole methodological dispute with Adorno in the exchange of letters that follows the first draft of the Baudelaire is illuminated once Benjamin's compositional method and the concept of construction implicit in it are clearly present (as in this edition). Against his friend who accused him of omitting theoretical mediation and thus of ending up caught in a ‘wide-eyed presentation of mere facts’, Benjamin maintains the need for what he calls a ‘methodological precaution’ implicit in the construction:


I think speculation can take its necessarily dangerous flight with some prospect of success only if, instead of putting on the wax wings of the esoteric, it seeks the source of its strength in construction alone. The construction required that the second part of the book consist essentially of philological material. It's less a matter of an 'ascetic discipline' than a methodological precaution[...][14]


When you speak of a 'wide-eyed presentation of mere facts', you describe the genuine philological attitude. That this attitude should be built deep into the construction was necessary not just for the sake of results, but for its own sake[...]  The appearance [Schein] of self-contained fact that clings to philological research and enchants the researcher disappears to the extent that the object is constructed in historical perspective. The base lines of this construction converge in our own historical experience. Thus the object constitutes itself as a monad. In the monad all that lay in mythical rigidity as textual evidence [Textbefund] comes alive.[15]


The reference to Leibniz's concept of the monad should be taken literally. The monad has no windows ‘through which something could enter or exit it’: this implies that its transformations ‘derive from an internal principle’.[16] Yet, since its nature is ‘representative’, each monad represents, along with the entire universe, ‘the body assigned to it in particular’.[17] The philological evidence of the documentation appears as a monad: therefore, in order to be interpreted it has no need of theory's intervening mediation; on the contrary, only if the entanglement of documentation and construction is pushed to its uttermost can the work be ‘struck, not to say shocked, by the interpretation’.[18]


In Benjamin's method there is something like a recovery of the medieval doctrine that the material already contains the forms within itself, that it is already full of ‘inchoate’ and potential forms, and that knowledge is no more than bringing to light (eductio) these forms hidden (inditiae) in the material. What Adorno never ceased to see as an undialectical residue is, rather, construction intimately bound [intima adesione costruttiva] to this ‘fluid form’ (forma fluens in medieval terms) in the material itself. The vanishing point towards which the constructive becoming of this form-material converges is not, however, as in the medieval theologians, the divine intellect, but ‘our own historical experience’. Once again – according to the methodological principle that the theses on the concept of history extracted from the work in progress on Baudelaire – thought which, like blotting paper, allows itself to be totally saturated with theological ink leaves not a drop remaining. (GS, v, 1, p.588). 


[A fourth section, consisting of textual notes on the main body of the Italian book plus acknowledgements, is omitted here.]



Heinrich Haine dedicates this squatted translation to Cameron Bain and the trail of destruction.


[1] *The English word is used (in upper case) by Benjamin (henceforth WB) and quoted in parentheses by Agamben (GA), who assigns it the Italian concentrato: a concentrate or extracted essence. Hence 'Extract of' here. 'Extract from' would misleadingly suggest a simple section, a part not condensing the whole.

[2] *GA has: un colpo d'occhio prospetticamente articolato nelle profondità del XIX secolo. If any reader with academic library bio-validation can find WB's Gesammelte Briefe (specifically volume 6, p.133), please feel free to supply the original passage for comparison. It should at least be clear that 'perspective' in this case carries none of the casual English connotation of all-round reasonableness, the 3D Bell Curve. 'Vertiginous plunge' would be more like it.

[3] *Officina (which has nothing whatsoever to do with 'office') wouldn't be used for a full-scale factory, but neither does it bear workshop's whiff of homely craftiness (least of all that of a 'writing workshop'). Officine might be the working premises of the small and mid-size businesses forming, say, Fiat's precociously outsourced supply chain (the indotto built up in the mid-20th century and gradually dispersed ever since), or the garages where the cars are repaired.

[4] Michel Espagne, Michael Werner, Vom Passagen-Projekt zum "Baudelaire". Neue Handschriften zum Spätwerk Walter Benjamins, in "DVjs", 58, 1994, pp.593-565.

[5] *Work in progress: English in the original

[6] Espagne, Werner, as above, p.602.

[7] *WB quotes Marx from his afterword to the second German edition of Capital 1, using Karl Korsch's Kiepenheuer (Berlin) edition of 1932.  In their English-language version of the Passagen (The Arcades Project, Belknap/Harvard, Cambridge, MA, 1999: Convolute N4a, 5, p.465), Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin follow Ernst Mandel in keeping Edward Aveling's 'inner connexion' for inneres Band.  (GA has 'interno legame'). 'Connection' will do if understood in the sense of a general condition of connectedness, rather than as a particular conjunction or any number of same. An alternative, unused here for fear of opening a can (or cupboardful of cans) of marxological worms, would be internal bond. Elsewhere the present version follows GA in lightly pruning the verbiage misattributed to Marx (and Benjamin) by successive translators.

[8] *...nel reticolo graduato della costruzione. The plea above to owners of library access is repeated here (in this case, for GB, v. 6, pp.170-171).  It would be nice to find out from this letter what it was that GA translated as graduato, because that adjective is nearly otiose if applied to the synchronic, spatial aspect of a reticolo or grid. The qualification makes more sense – especially with regard to WB's working method – if it refers to the process of constructing the grid rather than to the latter's finished appearance. Hence the attempt to graft onto 'grid' the reluctant adjective 'incremental'.

[9] *Given insufficient space within the internet to settle the question of Erkennbarkeit (not to speak of erkennen), the present version meekly follows the Belknap translators in their use of 'recognisability' where the word – first used by WB at least a decade earlier and there rendered by Rodney Livingstone as 'knowability' – reappears in the Passagen.

[10] *In the Eiland/McLaughlin version (where, not for the first time, translators into English miss relative short-windedness in a German writer): Convolute N3,1, pp.462-463.

[11] Benjamin, Neri Pozza Baudelaire... (i.e. the same volume this introduction is taken from: see details above), p.69. (*See also Convolute N7a,1 in the Passagen / Arcades Project: Eiland and McLaughlin have 'polarizes into fore- and after-history'.)

[12] Pierre Missac, Dispositio dialectico-benjaminiana, in Heinz Wismann (ed.), Walter Benjamin et Paris, Cerf, Paris, 1986, pp.689-706.

[13] Theodor W. Adorno, Über Walter Benjamin, Tiedemann (ed.), Suhrkamp, Frankfurt-am-Main, 1970, p.22.

[14] Adorno, Benjamin, Briefwechsel 1928-1940, ed. H. Lonitz, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt-am-Main, 1994, p.368.

[15] Ibid., pp.379-80.

[16] Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, Monadologia (unspecified Italian translation of the Monadologie, no publication details or translator cited by GA), 7 and 11.

[17] Ibid., p.62.

[18] Adorno, Benjamin, Briefwechsel, op. cit., p.381.