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Cosmic Catwalk and the Production of Time

A painting by Klee called Angelus Novus depicts an angel moving backwards, away from something which he is staring at. His eyes are opened wide, his mouth stands open and his wings are outstretched. This is how the Angel of History must look. His face is turned towards the past. Where we see the appearance of a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe, which unceasingly piles rubble on top of rubble and hurls it before his feet. He would like to pause for a moment to awaken the dead and piece together what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise, it has caught his wings and is so strong that the Angel can no longer close them. The storm drives him irresistibly into the future, towards which his back is turned, while the rubble-heap before him grows sky-high. This storm is what we call progress.
—Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History”

Anton Vidokle: I have been thinking about Benjamin’s passage on Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus—the Angel of History. For Benjamin, what the angel sees as he looks backwards is a pile of rubble: death, destruction, failure. Everyone dies, all projects fail in the end, cities and empires collapse and become ruins and dust. History is a graveyard, a genocide. It’s hard to argue with this sublime spectacle: time conquers and kills all. Yet there is a very different view on history, on the past, developed in the nineteenth century by a little-known Russian philosopher, Nikolai Fedorov. Fedorov believed that death is not natural and is more like a flaw in our design. Like a disease, death is something to be fixed, cured, and overcome by technological, scientific means. This becomes the central point of his philosophy of the Common Task: a total reorganization of social relations, productive forces, economy, and politics for a single goal of achieving physical immortality and material resurrection. Fedorov felt that we cannot consider anyone really dead or gone until we have exhausted every possibility of reviving them. For him the dead are not truly dead but merely wounded or ill, and we have an ethical obligation to use our faculty of reason to develop the necessary knowledge, science, and technology to rescue them from the disease of death, to bring them back to life. From this point of view history and the past is a field full of potential: nothing is finished and everyone and everything will come back, not as souls in heaven, but in material form, in this world, with all their subjectivities, memories, and knowledge. What appears to be a graveyard is in fact a field full of amazing potential.

Hito Steyerl: As a German person it’s a bit hard for me to imagine a scenario in which all the old Nazis are brought back to life. There are enough new ones as it stands. Also, at what point would they be resuscitated? Would they walk around with a bullet in their heads? Okay, let’s imagine everyone they killed is alive too. That’s a plus. But what is the point one would bring them back to? Say, maybe 1932? But then the next batch, at which point would they be reanimated? 1943? How do we guarantee the Nazis don’t just continue trying to kill everyone?

Probably these are technicalities. But the more general reason for my skepticism of the past’s potential is that it keeps repeating anyways. Not in the same form, obviously, but in a different, sneaky form. Take Deutsche Bank. It is not the aryanized entity of the 1930s, which financed the Nazi regime. It is a conglomerate consisting of German and American banks plus Goldman Sachs and Qatari money. It financed the Trump campaign, which obviously is not a 1930s fascist entity either. Trump’s “America First” slogan is not the same “America First” slogan that it was in the 1940s. But from my point of view none of these entities needed to be rearticulated in the present at all—not even differently. I would very much prefer it if they hadn’t been reincarnated—even imperfectly—and instead had remained in the past. As for Benjamin’s angel: I think that the storm is no longer coming from the past. Today the storm is blowing from a future that has been depleted of resources and hope and it is driving people back into the past. People are driven towards the womb—or their assumed origins—not the grave. All these old people trying to look young and jaded are a sign that the storm is blowing from collapsing futures towards a fragmented past.

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