Jeremy Harding has an excellent review in the LRB of (yet another) personal memoir of Benjamin's final hours at the Spanish border as he attempted to flee France in 1940, an attempt that culminated in his death (most probably by suicide but with enough threads left dangling to feed various conspiracy theories of skulduggery by the Nazis or the Stalinists). I recommend both that article and the source that directed me to it, a recent post at Long Sunday by Roger Whitson, who uses Harding's review as a springboard to reflect on his own work and what he sees as the belated and melancholy state of cultural studies and "theory" more generally. Benjamin, he says, is the "Christ-figure of cultural studies"; "American cultural studies is founded, in a large sense, in the haunting shadow of Benjamin's death," and, more personally, he "wonder[s] if [his] own work is not a mourning ritual for figures like Benjamin." Indeed, he suggest that in the wake of the recent deaths of so many of the greatest generation of theorists -- he mentions Baudrillard, Said, and Derrida -- melancholy is now theory's defining zeitgeist: "'[T]heory' as it has been conceived and practiced over the past thirty years might be slowly approaching the dusk of its proverbial day." And he concludes by speculating that this melancholic mood might explain the recent spate of documentaries about "theory celebrities" (he mentions films about Derrida, Zizek and Judith Butler in addition to Benjamin). These films "all contribute to this odd mourning ritual for theory that show me just how unwilling many people are to give up the theoretical ghost."
I feel profoundly identified with Roger's intense personal involvement with Benjamin's story -- who indeed can feel that they "get" Benjamin, or are even beginning to get a glimmer, without finding themselves becoming addicted to both the thought and the man? (As Benjamin said (roughly quoting here from memory), "thought can be as intoxicating as any narcotic, not to mention that drug we take in solitude, ourselves." And I have my own mystical Benjamin-and-film experience -- standing in front of the "new theory" shelves downstairs in the old St. Mark's Bookstore sometime in the early 1980's, as was my frequent wont at the time, I noticed that I seemed to be in view behind a woman with frizzy hair talking earnestly into a camera and stepped out of the picture, too late, it turned out a couple of years later when I attended a screening of a film on Benjamin narrated by Susan Buck-Morss, to avoid appearing in the background, hunched over in my sad brown leather bomber jacket . . . .) And I think Roger's description of the "theory" zeitgeist is probably accurate as well. But my own view of the situation is more jaded. Roger says of this situation, "All that remains, for so-called 'theory culture' is to consume the dead," and I think he's right, but not in the sense that he apparently intends -- rather, in the sense in which "theory" had previously "consumed" the living, by turning them into intellectual commodities to be examined, compared, picked over or bought wholesale in the marketplace of ideas of the (mostly American, I think) academy. And there remain plenty of brand names to take to market if one is so inclined -- Agamben, Badiou and Zizek are still going strong, to name only the three that come immediately to mind. If "theory" is "approaching the dusk of its proverbial day," it may be more because of an exhaustion of or with "theory" itself than with the death of (some) of its objects. And (to press perhaps a little too hard on the "dusk" metaphor), by that same token it might be time to again start calling it "philosophy," which Hegel tells us only flies at fall of dusk, and treating it as an intellectual tradition in its own right -- with all the difficulties and self-contradictions that that admittedly entails -- and not as an eclectic, interdisciplinary congeries of thinkers-of-the-moment. "Philosophy" is a more old-fashioned name, of course, but Benjamin, for one, preferred old-fashioned names to neologisms. And he put his trust for salvation (or as much as he had of that) in the outmoded and the old-fashioned, not in the fashionable and new.
September 27 is the 67th anniversary of Benjamin's death (probably -- the precise date is a subject of dispute). Don't forget to light a candle.