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The Emergency Brake

The Emergency Brake

Photo Source spinster cardigan | CC BY 2.0

Although the Trump Administration, it was recently revealed, concluded that it’s too late to do anything to avert catastrophic climate change (and, so, why even bother), the UN just announced that there’s still time to avoid mass death and suffering – if there is “massive, immediate transformation.” But how would such an immediate transformation unfold?

Because we seem to be living through a stretch of history in which history is threatening to extinguish history itself, an examination of the 20th century philosopher and critic Walter Benjamin’s concept of the angel of history, and his interrelated notion of the emergency brake, may point to a way.

Evoked by the Swiss artist Paul Klee’s watercolor Angelus Novus, Benjamin introduced the figure of the angel of history in his final essay, “Theses on the Philosophy of History.”Appearing with its face “turned toward the past,” hurtling backward through space by “a storm blowing from paradise,” the angel is unable to close its wings and determine its own movement. Overpowered by this storm, it can do little more than watch impotently as catastrophic wreckage (the manifestation of history and progress) piles up at its feet. That is, caught in the storm blowing from paradise, the storm of history is preventing the angel from doing what it desires to do. But just what does it desire?

As Benjamin writes: the angel “would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what is smashed.” Although prevented from doing so by the storm of progress that determines (and undermines) its flight, the angel’s utopian desire is to repair the world – not in order to restore paradise (a longstanding tendency of utopian messianism), but, rather, to restore life and autonomy to a social world destroyed by the coercive and destructive forces of history and ideology.

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