This essay proposes a reading of Walter Benjamin’s attempt to develop a historical materialist critique of phenomenological theories of time, including those of Martin Heidegger, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Edmund Husserl. In the Arcades Project, these theories of time—which Benjamin describes as different accounts of “primal history”—are characterized as the historical products of industrial capitalism as a particular mode of production. Drawing on Marx’s analysis of the contradiction between the relations and forces of production, Benjamin identifies factory labor and crises in industrial capitalism as historically determinate forms of experience (Erlebnis) that paradoxically expose the process through which time—and thus history—is originarily constituted or temporalized.
Capitalism and Primal History in Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project
duy lap nguyen is an assistant professor of world cultures and literatures at the University of Houston. His work has appeared, most recently, in Interventions (2014) and Historical Materialism (2010) and is forthcoming in Thesis Eleven and Telos. Nguyen’s current research explores works by the Vietnamese philosopher Trần Đức Thảo and develops a reading of Thảo’s materialist critique of phenomenology. A second project, titled “The Postcolonial Present: Redemption and Revolution in Twentieth-Century Vietnamese Culture and History,” examines Vietnamese cinema, literature, and mass culture from the Vietnam War era.
Duy Lap Nguyen; Capitalism and Primal History in Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project. differences 1 December 2014; 25 (3): 123–143. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/10407391-2847973
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