Benjamin’s Theses on the Philosophy of History appears to read as a death knell of sorts for historical materialism. Set out in the metaphor of a supposed automaton that could defeat even the most skilled chess players, Benjamin ties the work of theology and historical materialism together closely.
“The puppet, called “historical materialism,” is to win all the
time. It can easily be a match for anyone if it enlists the
services of theology, which today, as we know, is small and
ugly and has to keep out of sight” (p. 253)
Two points strike me as interesting about this short introductory vignette.
First, the relationship between the dwarf and the puppet—or theology and historical materialism, respectively. The concealed man guides the puppet’s hand. Yet, he can do only that which is beneficial to the puppet. In this, it is the man who serves the interest of the puppet; he is a slave to the otherwise inanimate puppet. I wonder about the qualities with which this imbues the puppet. Does it become, in some regard alive? Although the puppet and man are two entities, they function as one. Missing either and the Turk cannot function. Similarly, theology and historical materialism are bound, one to the other. By reconsidering our positions in relation to each and their relationship to each other, theses forces might be mobilized in a productive, even revolutionary manner.
Second, the quotation marks around “historical materialism” stand out against the rest of the sentence. Perhaps this implies that the puppet does not function as “real” material historicism, but is instead only referred to as such. Transferred, perhaps Benjamin is not so concerned with some sort of “real” material historicism—something that would be less problematic. Rather, that which is given the name “material historicism” and the manner in which the concept was considered was most problematic. I certainly do not claim to be well-read enough to be able to suggest less problematic form of historical materialism, however I am interested the possibility that such might exist and am curious as to its implications.
His argument unfolds from this vignette—historicists understand history as one move after another, thinking one move ahead to see what might bring about a the final checkmate. Instead, we might have more success by thinking backwards—seeking to understanding the constellation of forces—concealed and evident—that brought the board to its current condition.