How Do We Fix The Past: The State of the Union through the Lens of Walter Benjamin

“We are fifteen years into this new century. Fifteen years that dawned with terror touching our shores; that unfolded with a new generation fighting two long and costly wars; that saw a vicious recession spread across our nation and the world. It has been, and still is, a hard time for many. But tonight, we turn the page.”

President Barack Obama, State of the Union 2015

The past is never dead, it’s not even the past, at least according to William Faulkner. While I don’t fancy myself Temple Drake this statement echoed in my head while listening to Obama’s State of the Union last Tuesday. The address, which has historically been both pandering and self-congratulatory, brought back memories of past situations that still leave a bitter taste in the mouths of many Americans. Conflicts regarding terrorism, racial tension, economic prosperity, and partisan drama have made appearances in SOTU addresses for decades. These issues plague the Obama administration, and plagued Bush(es), Clinton, and Reagan. So we must ask ourselves: Are we merely reenacting the same storylines with new players? Are we truly grasping the importance of the past on our present day circumstances?

In “Theses on the Philosophy of History”, ideas of past, time, and the illusion of progress stand as the foundation of Walter Benjamin’s work. Benjamin defines historicism as a complete and finite sketch of the past. It is homogenized and sanitized; it is the story of the victor. Historicism is a simpleton’s recollection of history, casually thrown together through loose ties that can span months or centuries. Historicism, at its core, is tied to the fallacy of progress.

This fallacy, of course, takes center stage during every state of the union address, but never more so than last Tuesday. For one hour, audiences were told that our “progress” is something to celebrate. Our union is strong, says President Obama. Yet, I cannot help feeling stirrings of the past: a shudder every time someone mentions attacks overseas that bring forth shadows of 9/11; a question of racial unity when I recall my childlike confusion at the murder of Amadou Diallo in 1999; my hesitance at bi-partisan camaraderie when the issues of Bush administration still lurk in the recesses of my mind. And while I am hesitant to homogenize these moments, I cannot help but think that they are uniquely different and yet function under the same umbrella. The State of the Union is a speech that asks its audience to embrace the future. We look ahead to better days, without acknowledging the inconsistencies of this ideal. My short time on this planet has been spent questioning, fighting, and finally resigning myself to bitterness at our ignorance.

Granted, I know the SOTU has never been about truth telling, reconciliation, or even “real talk”. At its genesis, the SOTU was an informative briefing for Congress. But in the 20th century it grew into something more. It is one of the few times we, as a nation, pay attention. When our ears are open and we yearn to hear something more than basic pandering. But the SOTU is aspirational.  As a friend said to me, “The State of the Union is almost like a self-fulfilling prophecy.” It’s about what the administration hopes will happen, the positive changes they hope the future will bring. It is not about what was, but what could be. While this sentiment is nice, simple hope seems futile. The future can never be shine as bright as it ought to if we do not reconcile the past and its effects on the present, more so if we do not see the present as history in the making.

Klee's Angelus Novus
Klee’s Angelus Novus

Benjamin’s Angelus Novus can help us make sense of this idea within today’s political and social climate. Angelus Novus, a Klee painting, was originally owned by Benjamin and is described in his writing as the metaphorical embodiment of historical truth. The angel sees all our past catastrophes as one singular moment, rather than a series of unrelated events. In the act of piecing them together to come to some redemption, the angel is overcome by the storm defined as progress. Benjamin’s angel suggests a meaningful past within grasp, yet never fully unified as it is pushed aside time and time again as society hurdles ahead towards a utopian ideal.

When I first read this allegorical tale I was reminded of a conversation I had with a friend about American history and slavery. This friend was convinced that slavery was America’s greatest tragedy. I told him that America was a country made of tragic moments and stories. From the decimation of American Indian civilization to the Civil War, Vietnam to Hurricane Katrina, even to the events that shape our news today, America is a country made up of tragedy. I sometimes attempt to put those stories together, the big and the small, little actors and major players, but find myself at a crossroads. I like to think the true historian looks at history as a complex and incomplete structure. This “true” history of the Angelus Novus is not the story of winners and losers; it is a story that remembers the despair of those who are lost to history’s textbooks. Benjamin describes how this type of historical view would look upon “the spoils” of our cultural heritage:

“In the historical materialist they [the spoils] have to reckon with a distanced observer. For what he surveys as the cultural heritage is part and parcel of a lineage which he cannot contemplate without horror…there has never been a document of culture, which is not simultaneously one of barbarism.”

Walter Benjamin
Walter Benjamin

And yet of course we continue to celebrate our victories. They are those moments when we are at our best. The SOTU acknowledged the great things from the past: support for GIs and families, free education. But that’s only one side of the coin; there is also a very ugly truth that has led us to the moments we continue to combat today. In verses V and VI of the Theses, Benjamin’s discusses the articulation of history through “moments of danger”. Subjectively speaking, Benjamin’s steadfast attempt to reconcile those moments is a reflection of his own moment in time. To separate Benjamin’s circumstances, that of a Jewish man attempting to escape the clutches of the Third Reich, from this reading would strip it of its contextual importance.  It is almost as if he sees himself becoming a part of history, able to grasp patterns from the past as he digests his present situation and his grim future. But this “articulation” is where Benjamin and I part ways. These moments of danger when we recognize the past in the present are either superfluous or seconds too late. It is a constant battle– which we often lose. Our recollections of history do not come when it may be most fruitful (SOTU), but when it is most futile.

Progress cannot be found in pretty words that only acknowledge moments of glory. As a nation, we spend a lot of time talking about the present and future as if isolated from history and this is not so. The conversations that are being had in 2015 should not be the same ones that occurred in 1975. How have we come so far and yet still find ourselves in the same predicaments time and again? Maybe we are like the Angelus Novus, swept up in the storm of progress– unable to see that we have not moved as far away from our past as we’d like to believe.


Work Cited

Benjamin, Walter. Theses on the Philosophy of History. Vol. 255. New York: Illuminations, Published 1968.

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