Benjamin, Kafka, and Walser

The following is an effort to think seriously about failure as a philosophical concept intimately connected to the modern: that is, as a paradigm for thinking the relation of the modern to the exception. To think modernism as failure is to think the excluded not simply of the past, but also of the present.

… this is an immanent conception of modernism … the philosophical question of the new and the different (even the “other”) means that the modern, as a philosophical designation, fully includes that which does don’t belong to it and, even, those who have been radically excluded in the course of modernist progress (and the “success” of modern development). We are not through with the modern — and, moreover, precisely because, from the perspective of Benjamin’s history, those who have been “lost” to it have yet to be redeemed through its radical transformation; that is, in the interruption of humanity’s separation from itself with the suspension of the state of exception that has become the norm.

Second Plan for Auschwitz from

A Paradigm of the Modern

Could it be that in his final work, “On the Concept of History,” Benjamin is articulating one of the most radical critiques of modernity that has ever been proposed insofar as it points to a positive theory of radical failure to be deployed against modernization as the continuation of the state of exception? Did Benjamin finally reach the pre-history of modernity in the concept of the exception? Perhaps this is one way that we can think the relation between the baroque and modern failure. Benjamin seems to be suggesting that the failure of every liberatory potential is rooted in our inability to grasp the “pre-history” of the modern (and modernization itself) as something connected to the state of exception.

Walser and his characters seem to inhabit an incredibly precarious existence — one in which the traces of the disappearance of something called “the world” (as an exterior foundation for politics, thought, being and ethics) is gradually observable (and, perhaps, mirrored in the radical dissolution of Walser’s own life as a human being — ending in a misdiagnosed schizophrenia and unnecessary institutionalization). This precariousness, this tension — mirrored, perhaps, in the historical development of the problem of the exception — should prove productive for the present inquiry. Walser’s work, like the problem of the exception, is a work of potentiality.

The political, according to this reading of the text, is not merely bound up with failure, it is dependent on inhabiting failure (with, perhaps, one’s entire being). Failure is not, as is normally the case, an admonition (a call to normalization, a disciplining to orient one’s self towards success, towards the subject) nor is it merely a cynical expression of despair (well, not only that). Failure, according to this interpretation, is the way to make the political happen.

Drawing by Franz Kafka

Before the Law:
Kafka and the State of Exception

If, today, the radical destruction of potentiality has become the norm, Walser’s prose pieces remind us of another time — a time between the turn of the century and the Second World War when it was still possible to believe in and to be, radically immersed in the world. That is, to inhabit the world and relate to it — the outside, exteriority, everything that exists (Spinoza’s immanence or, God).

Cover art to the first English edition of Jakob von Gunten

Broken Modernity:
Robert Walser and the World

When Walser takes his final walk at Herisau on December 25th, 1956, he falls to the earth onto a bed of singularities, surrounded by an image of his own work; returning to his work and the earth itself. Snow is the image of our immersion in, and inseparability from, the world — an immersion in the world that exceeds all relation. This is the function of snow in Walser’s prose. Walser wants, we should remind ourselves, above all else, not to place himself above his surroundings — above the world that he inhabits, above this world — but to dwell in the nothingness of the world’s own being. This immanence — the singular immanence of Walser’s prose — can be named, or conceptualized as, a love for the world without presupposition.

Robert Walser


This is why the transition from a figure such as Walser to a figure such as Levi is so important for us to trace out. Perhaps it is here that we can glimpse a new answer to the question: how can philosophy give an account of itself in these times, in this world? In other words, how can philosophy give an account of the exclusion of thought on which it is based: the voices, lives, and thoughts that are lost in order for every expression to be able to come into existence, to emerge in the first place? Perhaps this is now the only way we can think about life as a work of art: as always including within itself, a form of bearing witness to a life that is or, was not allowed to be, a work of art (but mere existence, naked life).

iPhone 1.0 surrounded by its future. Photo by the author, 2007.

Remnants of the Modern

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