Destroying Duration: The Critical Situation of Bergsonism in Benjamin's Analysis of Modern Experience

Theory, Culture and Society 25 (4):139-158 (2008)
Abstract
The extent to which Walter Benjamin's thought is bound up with the conceptual framework and debates of Bergsonism is overlooked to the detriment of our understanding of both. Benjamin's conception of Erfahrung/ experience is defined in relation to Bergson's conception of experience in the durée/duration. Benjamin implicitly evokes and extends a Bergsonian conception of creativity. This is central to Benjamin's understanding of the political implications of the decay of aura. The enhanced potentiality for creativity constitutes the possibility of new forms of genuine Erfahrung in the scattered debris of the old. This would be based upon an affirmative nihilism, the mobilization of the creative second technology, the loosening of the masses, and the `politicization of art'. Crucially, however, Benjamin rejects Bergson's ahistorical approach to creativity within human experience. Virtual difference, the durée, is not external to human history. Creativity does not `flow into' actual human life but is the actualization of virtual difference that is generated and delimited by given socio-technological conditions. Modern creativity is not the gift of` God but of the capitalist mode of production. Benjamin provides a materialist explanation for the utility of Bergson's conception of creativity in the political critique of the present and a materialist justification for the normative prioritization of openness and qualitative segmentarity. He treats the durée as fully immanent to human experience and affirms a politics that is both more realistic and more committed to the value of difference in itself than is articulated in Bergson's own sociobiology. Benjamin does, as such, make a direct and critical contribution to the contemporary attempt to deploy Bergsonism in political critique and to render vitalism sociological
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