Sunday, 3 March 2013

Emergency Brake

I want to begin with a remark recently made by Fredric Jameson:

we may pause to observe the way in which so much of left politics today – unlike Marx’s own passionate commitment to a streamlined technological future – seems to have adopted as its slogan Benjamin’s odd idea that revo­lution means pulling the emergency brake on the runaway train of History, as though an admittedly runaway capitalism itself had the monopoly on change and futurity. (2011: 150)

This is, of course, a reference to a remark by Benjamin in the ‘Paralipomena to “On the Concept of History”’ (1940):

Marx says that revolutions are the locomotive of world history. But perhaps it is quite otherwise. Perhaps revolutions are an attempt by the passengers on this train – namely, the human race – to activate the emergency brake. (Benjamin 2003: 402)

For Jameson, obviously, this conception is an ‘odd idea’ because it is a failure to measure up to Marx’s own embrace of capitalism, and capitalist production, as the condition of revolutionary change; as Marx puts it: ‘if we did not find concealed in society as it is the material conditions of production and the corresponding relations of exchange prerequisite for a classless society, then all attempts to explode it would be quixotic.’ (Grundrisse) Jameson’s implication is that by giving capitalism a monopoly on the future we lose, in advance, any alternative ‘utopian’ vision of free production. The result is that we then embrace the past as shelter – if not feudal socialism, then perhaps feudal Keynesianism.

            Obviously, one immediate rejoinder to Jameson is the explicit context of Benjamin’s ‘odd idea’. This is the critique of German Social Democracy, especially in Thesis XI of ‘On the Concept of History’, where it is remarked that ‘[n]othing has so corrupted the German working class as the notion that it was moving with the current’ (2003: 393). The conformity of Social Democracy to the ideology of progress, and not least technological progress, meant that it was unable to grasp the dynamic of fascism and unable to critique capitalism effectively. The detachment of Social Democracy from recognising the destructive side of technology, was, as Benjamin argued in the essay ‘Edward Fuchs, Collector and Historian’ (1937) (2003: 349386), due to an alienation from the destructive side of the dialectic (2003: 358). The ‘movement with the current’ is a movement that replicates the faith in the productive forces, while denying that these are also destructive forces. The reply to Jameson might be, to borrow another familiar image from the theses, that stopping the clock is not turning back the clock.

            Here I want to place Benjamin’s thought-image in a deeper context of the thinking of temporality and interruption that can be traced across his work. My account is by no means exhaustive, but rather selects and traces certain moments of interruption across his corpus. I want to suggest that Jameson’s style of critique misfires, as Benjamin’s thinking of interruption engages with ‘material conditions’ to explode them, in a way which does not replicate capitalist dynamics of production. These forms of interruption certainly modulate across Benjamin’s thinking, but they suggest an engagement with the present, rather than the ‘nostalgic’ image that Jameson portrays – Benjamin as historian of destruction, or the ‘Sebald option’. In this conception only one side of Benjamin’s conception of history remains, that of it as the ‘negative totality’ of catastrophe, as the ‘pile of wreckage’ (McGettigan 2009: 26). I want to probe another side – a critical politics of temporality (McGettigan 2009).


Benjamin’s modelling and critique of the temporal forms of progress was present, as Michael Löwy notes, in Benjamin’s early essay ‘The Life of Students’ (1914). There Benjamin wrote:

There is a view of history that puts its faith in the infinite extent of time and this concerns itself only with the speed, or lack of it, with which people and epochs advance along the path [or, we could add rails] of progress. (in Löwy, 2005: 6)

From the very beginning Benjamin ‘tracks’ [forgive the pun] a critical politics of temporality that stands against the unfolding or advancement of progress that is premised on infinite extension.

            This ‘infinite extension’ has to be, in the early work, interrupted or disrupted by a thinking of the ‘absolute’. In these early texts, as Howard Caygill has indicated (Caygill 1998), Benjamin takes-up a thinking of the ‘absolute’ within and against the neo-Kantian moment. Tracking Kant’s strictures on the conditions of experience, Benjamin also pushes at the limits of Kant to consider an absolutisation of experience.

            This is not a ‘pure’ absolute, so preformed ‘interruption’, but a critical method that entails a task and intervention. To return to ‘The Life of Students’, Benjamin writes:

The elements of the final state are not evidently present as formless progressive tendencies, but are deeply embedded in every present moment as the most vulnerable, deformed, ridiculed creations and thoughts. To shape the immanent state of perfection clearly as absolute, to make it visible and dominant in the present, is the historical task. (Benjamin in Caygill 1998: 8)

We could consider this, anachronistically and problematically, as a rewriting of Marx’s contention that we have to find concealed in society the material conditions to explode it. In this case, the ‘explosion’ is one that operates by reading the ‘absolute’ in terms of ‘the warps, distortions and exclusions of bereft experience’ (Caygill 1998: 25). We find our ‘conditions’ not in the acceleration of productive forces, fettered by the relations of production, but in the ‘most vulnerable, deformed, ridiculed creations and thoughts’. This is a ‘metaphysical structure’, at once messianic and revolutionary.

            Andrew McGettigan points out, in regards to this programme of instantiating the absolute, that: ‘Its abandoning coincides with Benjamin’s first reading of Marx around 1924. If we turn to the work of the 1930s, we can see that several consistent themes – interruption, suspension, caesura – continue into the later work’ (2009: 27). This is true of the key example of Benjamin’s ‘Brechtiania’ (Gough 2002: 58): ‘The Author as Producer’ [Der Autour als Produzent] (1934) (Benjamin 1999: 768−782). It is this essay that Gershom Scholem refers to, probably snidely, as ‘an apex of [Benjamin’s] materialistic efforts’ (2003: 253). For Benjamin the ‘refunctioning’ of literature is a result of new technologies producing a ‘molten mass from which the new forms are cast.’ (1999: 776) Again, the process of destruction of old forms is the condition for the new, which has to traverse this ‘melting-down process’ (1999: 776). Benjamin stresses the necessity of ‘an organizing function’ of this destruction.

            He takes Brecht’s Epic Theatre as a model for this organization, but one which operates through interruption: ‘[y]et interruption here has the character not of a stimulant, but of an organizing function.’ (1999: 778) Samuel Weber has drawn attention to how this function of interruption, which Benjamin works-through with Brecht, releases the possibility of citability (2002: 31). It makes available new material to be organized in a new fashion. Interruption is ‘the mother of dialectics’, in Benjamin’s formulation (Weber 2002: 31). Andrew McGettigan remarks that: ‘Benjamin’s approach to historiography should not be understood separated from the outline of the operative writer’s activity in ‘The Author as Producer’. (2009: 32) What I would like to suggest is that this ‘activity’ is one of organized interruption, which reflects a disruption of capitalist temporality. What Benjamin will call, in the ‘Surrealism’ essay, after Pierre Naville, ‘the organization of pessimism’ (1979: 237).

‘Angelic Locomotives’

In his essay on Benjamin’s radio broadcasts for children Jeffrey Mehlman draws attention to Benjamin’s 1932 talk: ‘The Railway Disaster at the Firth of Tay’ (‘Die Eisenbahnkatastrophe vom Firth of Tay’) (Melhman 1993: 11−14; Benjamin 1999: 563−568). As the title suggests the central subject of the essay is the railway disaster of 28 December 1879, when a passenger train of six carriages and two hundred people was lost after plunging into the Tay, when the iron bridge it was passing over collapsed during a fierce storm. Benjamin does not begin with the disaster, but rather with the early technologies of iron working and train construction and with what he calls, in the essay on Eduard Fuchs, the ‘defective reception of technology’ (Benjamin 1979: 358). This ‘defective reception’ turns, in part, on acceleration, with the medical faculty at Erlangen suggesting that the speed of rail travel would lead to cerebral lesions, while an English expert suggested that moving by train is not travel but simply being dispatched to a destination like a package (Benjamin 1999: 565). Perhaps neither could foresee the current British train system…

            In terms of describing the disaster itself Benjamin quotes from a poem by Theodor Fontane, not the renowned poem by William Topaz McGonagall – renowned for being terrible.[1] Benjamin reports how when the accident occurred the storm was raging so severely that it was not evident what had happened. The only sign were flames seen by fishermen, who did not realise this was the result of the locomotive plunging into the water (Benjamin 1999: 567). They did alert the stationmaster at Tay, who sent another locomotive along the line. The train was inched onto the bridge and had to be stopped a kilometre out, before reaching the first central pier, with a violent application of the brakes that nearly led to the train jumping from the tracks: ‘The moonlight had enabled him to see a gaping hole in the line. The central section of the bridge was gone.’ (Benjamin 1993: 567)

            Jeffrey Mehlman parses this talk on catastrophe as part of Benjamin’s reflection on a gap or rift in communication (1993: 14). What interests me is the use of the brake as interruption. While one catastrophe has already occurred, in which 200 people have lost their lives, the act of braking prevents, although only barely, a second catastrophe. It is not a great stretch to consider this as prefigurative of Benjamin’s ‘emergency brake’ (2003: 402).

            Also, we can place this consideration of the locomotive, speed, and the malignancy of technology, alongside Benjamin’s remark in the essay on ‘Eduard Fuchs’ that:

The disciples of Saint-Simon started the ball rolling with their industrial poetry; then came the realism of a Du Camp, who saw the locomotive as the saint of the future; and a Ludwig Pfau brought up the rear: ‘It is quite unnecessary to become an angel’, he wrote, ‘since the locomotive is worth more than the finest pair of wings.’ (1979: 358)

We have here a counterpart (and opposite) to the Angelus Novus of ‘On the Concept of History’ (1940), which is turned to the past, with the ‘angelic locomotive’ that races forward into the future.

            The ‘Angelic Locomotive’ is the sign of acceleration to the point that indicates that the ‘energies that technology develops beyond their threshold are destructive.’ (Benjamin 1979: 358) Destruction here is the technology of capitalism that is pushed beyond the threshold. I am suggesting that Benjamin’s dialectical thought-image of the locomotive interweaves destruction and production, and the necessity of interruption.

            In his essay ‘Surrealism: The Last Snapshot of the European Intelligentsia’ (1929) Benjamin criticises the surrealists ‘overheated embrace of the uncomprehended miracle of machines’, which can be found wanting in comparison to ‘the well-ventilated utopias of a Scheerbart.’ (1979: 232) I would suggest that we see this, again, as a reminder that we not simply embrace the accelerative and ‘overheated’ function of technology. In fact, earlier in that ‘Surrealism’ essay Benjamin remarks of the surrealists that: ‘No one before these visionaries and augurs perceived how destitution – not only social but architectonic, the poverty of interiors, enslaved and enslaving objects – can be suddenly transformed into revolutionary nihilism.’ (1979: 229) This suggests another instantiation of the earlier project in which the absolute is found in ‘the most vulnerable, deformed, ridiculed creations and thoughts’. The surrealists proffer a ‘method of nihilism’ that can traverse the destitution of the present to a dis-placement (ent-setzt) that is not subordinate to the ends of accumulation (Gess 2010; 688), a ‘constructive destruction’ (Gess 2010: 706) that, in Gess’s words, ‘presum[es] great intimacy with the things it takes apart.’ (2010: 706)

Revolutions per minute

To conclude I now want to return to the remark by Benjamin that ‘Perhaps revolutions are an attempt by the passengers on this train – namely, the human race – to activate the emergency brake.’ (Benjamin 2003: 402) I have suggested that this remark be not only read as a critique of German Social Democracy, or as a critique of Benjamin’s own ‘productivist’ moment,[2] but also as a politics of temporality. Rather than read teleologically towards the emergency brake as the ‘final moment’ or ‘fulfilment’ of Benjamin’s work, his (literal) ‘last word’, I want to suggest that reading across these moments complicates our understanding. In rejection of Jameson’s claim that Benjamin’s remark is an ‘odd idea’, even an example of the ‘left-wing melancholia’ Benjamin himself derided in a 1931 essay (Benjamin 1999: 423427), I think we can find a politics of temporality that is, precisely, engaged in reworking or retooling. Benjamin has not given up all hope in any political change, pace Scholem, but continues to think the conditions and possibilities of that change.

            If we read this remark in the context I have elaborated we could also argue that the revolutionary locomotive of Marx is paired by Benjamin with the ‘angelic locomotive’ of capitalist productivity that has gone off the rails. In this case we have the pairing of a critique of capitalist and Stalinist politics of production and accelerationism. The implication is that without attention to destruction we can only have a malignant politics of acceleration, rather than grasping the necessity of the brake as the means to refunction production. In Michael Löwy’s words:

The image suggests implicitly that if humanity were to allow the train to follow its course – already mapped out by the steel structure of the rails – and if nothing halted its headlong dash, we would be heading straight for disaster, for a crash or a plunge into the abyss. (2005: 67)

Or, we could add, into the Tay.

            Benjamin’s registering of destruction, and its equivocation, suggests exactly that heterogeneity of time that will find its formulation in ‘On the Concept of History’ (1940). Homogenous empty time is the time of the train on the tracks, which can speed up and slow down. The emergency brake of Benjamin’s metaphor for revolution is not simply the stopping of a train on the smooth tracks of progress. Rather, as with the metaphor of the angel of history, it suggests that the train tracks into the future are being laid immediately in front of the train. In fact, the anecdote of the Tay Bridge disaster suggests that the emergency brake is applied precisely due to the derailing of the train, and threatens another catastrophic derailing. The ‘rails’ of history accelerate us to disaster if we are not aware of the destructive side of the dialectic of production.

            The irony, as Benjamin’s notes make clear, is that the desire for acceleration on the tracks of history breeds passivity before the productive forces:

Once the classless society had been defined as an infinite task, the empty and homogeneous time was transformed into an anteroom, so to speak, in which one could wait for the emergence of the revolutionary situation with more or less equanimity. (Benjamin 2003: 402)

Linking this with the neo-Kantian deviation from Marxism, the idea of the tracks stretching into the future leaves revolution as a receding moment – the station we never quite arrive in. The result, contra to the revolutionary intervention, it is the constant stoking of the train, i.e. the capitalist productive forces. In this way ‘accelerationism’, as I’ve called it (Noys 2010: 4−9), either tries to actively increase the speed of capital, or simply becomes the passenger on the train, allowing the constant destruction of living labour at the hands of dead labour to do the work.

            The conclusion is that the emergency brake is not merely calling to a halt for the sake of it, some static stopping at a particular point in capitalist history (say Swedish Social Democracy – which the American Republican Right now takes as the true horror of ‘socialism’). Neither is it a return back to some utopian pre-capitalist moment, which would fall foul of Marx and Engels’s anathemas against ‘feudal socialism’. Rather, Benjamin argues that: ‘Classless society is not the final goal of historical progress but its frequently miscarried, ultimately [endlich] achieved interruption.’ (Benjamin 2003: 402) We interrupt to prevent catastrophe, we destroy the tracks to prevent the greater destruction of acceleration.

            In this sense the emergency brake is the operator of Benjamin’s non-teleological politics of temporality predicated on the wresting away of the classless society from the continuing dialectic of production/destruction that is the constant ‘state of emergency’ (Benjamin 2003: 392).

            Rather than acceleration into destruction, we find the detachment of destruction into an integral ‘intimacy’ with things that it destroys. This is supposed by the surrealism essay’s argument that the ‘organization of pessimism’ requires the removal of moral metaphor and the grasping of the image within, 100% within, the image sphere (Benjamin 1979: 238). In this case action ‘puts forth its own image’ (Benjamin 1979: 239), without external reference. If then we read Benjamin’s ‘method called nihilism’ in terms of what I am calling the ‘organization of destruction’ we can argue that interruption and detachment from the temporality of acceleration is required to find a real ‘variable and non-positing’ construction. This would be an ‘intimate’ production, a production that ‘puts forth its own image’, and insubordinate production not coordinate to ends.

            Although ‘On the Concept of History’, as Andrew McGettigan points out (2009: 26-7), involves a correction of Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire, we could say it could be brought into agreement with a later central contrast of the essay. Marx remarks that:

Bourgeois revolutions, like those of the eighteenth century, storm more swiftly from success to success, their dramatic effects outdo each other, men and things seem set in sparkling diamonds, ecstasy is the order of the day – but they are short-lived, soon they have reached their zenith, and a long Katzenjammer takes hold of society before it learns to assimilate the results of its storm-and-stress period soberly. On the other hand, proletarian revolutions, like those of the nineteenth century, constantly criticize themselves, constantly interrupt themselves in their own course, return to the apparently accomplished, in order to begin anew; they deride with cruel thoroughness the half-measures, weaknesses, and paltriness of their first attempts, seem to throw down their opponents only so the latter may draw new strength from the earth and rise before them again more gigantic than ever, recoil constantly from the indefinite colossalness of their own goals – until a situation is created which makes all turning back impossible, and the conditions themselves call out:

Hic Rhodus, hic salta!

[Here is the rose, here dance!]

(my italics)

While not hoping to add to the potential for ‘misinterpretation’ Benjamin noted, hence leaving the essay unpublished, I do want to suggest that something of the ‘interruption’ speaks to Marx’s notion, even in it would problematise the claim to ‘growth’ in certain forms.

            Of course, whether this enough to cope with the capacity of capital to ‘posit its presuppositions’, even, or sometimes especially, on destruction, remains in question. The resistance of ‘variability’ has no a priori guarantee to produce the truly new. Therefore, we can consider the emergence of production as a series of experiments that have ‘frequently miscarried’, and which require an ‘ultimately [endlich] achieved interruption’ as their real condition.


Benjamin, Walter (1979), One-Way Street and Other Writings, trans. Edmund Jephcott and Kingsley Shorter, London: New Left Books.

Benjamin, Walter (1999), Selected Writings, vol. 2, part 2 1931-1934, ed. Michael W. Jennings, Howard Eiland, and Gary Smith, Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP.

Benjamin, Walter (2003), Selected Writings, vol. 4 1938-1940, ed. H. Eiland and M. W. Jennings, Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP.

Caygill, Howard (1998), Walter Benjamin: The Colour of Experience, London: Routledge.

Gess, Nicola (2010), ‘Gaining Sovereignty: On the Figure of the Child in Walter Benjamin’s Writing’, MLN 125.3: 682−708.

Jameson, Fredric (2011), ‘Dresden’s Clocks’, New Left Review 71: 141−152.

Löwy, Michael (2005), Fire Alarm: Reading Walter Benjamin’s ‘On the Concept of History’, trans. Chris Turner, London: Verso.

McGettigan, Andrew (2009), ‘As Flower Turn Towards the Sun: Walter Benjamin’s Bergsonian Image of the Past’, Radical Philosophy 158: 25−35.

Mehlman, Jeffrey (1993), Walter Benjamin for Children: An Essay on His Radio Years, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Noys, Benjamin (2010), The Persistence of the Negative: A Critique of Contemporary Continental Theory, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Scholem, Gershom (2003), Walter Benjamin: The Story of a Friendship, New York: New York Review Books.

Weber, Samuel (2002), ‘Between a Human Life and a Word. Walter Benjamin and the Citability of Gesture’, Benjamin Studien / Studies 1: 2545.


[1] Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay!
Alas! I am very sorry to say
That ninety lives have been taken away
On the last Sabbath day of 1879,
Which will be remember’d for a very long time.
[2] A point made to me by Irving Wohlfarth.