Reading Muriel Rukeyser’s 1938 long poem The Book of the Dead alongside Walter Benjamin’s theories of messianism and “profane illumination,” this essay explores how their work reconceives 1930s Marxist secular politics of redemption along postsecular lines. As a crisis in interwar utopian politics of social redemption urged Left-aesthetics to respond to newly uncertain political futures, Rukeyser’s documentary-epic renewed a social imaginary for political redemption in ways resonant with Walter Benjamin’s theories of sociopolitical messianism. In Rukeyser’s poem, exploited human labor, technologically concretized, finds its demand for justice depicted through the retelling of an industrial disaster. Focusing on technology’s both literal and figural sources of social transmission, Rukeyser’s poem redirects our attention from assured Communist redemption toward more transitional figures: exploited laborers whose lives are sacrificed in building monolithic technology. For Rukeyser, this empirical and metaphysical haunting of capitalism’s history links its technological artifacts to its settler-colonial past. Both Rukeyser and Benjamin displace technological narratives from empirical and secular realms, and their concepts of postsecular historical materialism address the problems of suffering, labor, and loss within a frame where capitalist technology employs the material artifacts of past labor within a state of dispossessed anonymity: an anonymity that aesthetic practices must disrupt.
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Avery Slater; American Afterlife: Benjaminian Messianism and Technological Redemption in Muriel Rukeyser’s The Book of the Dead. American Literature 1 December 2014; 86 (4): 767–797. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/00029831-2811802
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