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Monday, 1 November 2010

Walter Benjamin: Cult


Still-life with Rarities
: Jan van der Heyden, 1712 (Szépmûvészeti Múzeum, Budapest)

A religion may be discerned in capitalism -- that is to say, capitalism serves essentially to allay the same anxieties, torments and disturbances to which the so-called religions offered answers.

We cannot draw closed the net in which we are caught...

Vanitas still-life
: Harmen Steenwijck, c. 1640 (National Gallery, London)

Capitalism is a purely cultic religion, perhaps the most extreme that ever existed. In capitalism, things have a meaning only in their relationship to the cult; capitalism has no specific body of dogma, no theology. It is from this point of view that utilitarianism acquires its religious overtones.

The Carrot: Willem Frederik van Royen, 1699 (Märkisches Museum, Berlin)

This concretization of cult is connected with a second feature of capitalism: the permanence of the cult. Capitalism is the celebration of a cult sans rêve et sans merci. There are no "weekdays." There is no day that is not a feast day, in the terrible sense that all its sacred pomp is unfolded before us; each day commands the utter fealty of each worshiper.

Hunting still-life: Willem von Aelst, c. 1665 (private collection)

And third, the cult makes guilt pervasive. Capitalism is probably the first instance of a cult that creates guilt, not atonement. In this respect, this religious system is caught up in the headlong rush of a larger movement. A vast sense of guilt that is unable to find relief seizes on the cult, not to atone for this guilt but to make it universal, to hammer it into the conscious mind, so as once and for all to include God in the system of guilt and thereby awaken in Him an interest in the process of atonement. This atonement cannot then be expected from the cult itself, or from the reformation of this religion (which would need to be able to have recourse to some stable element in it), or even from the complete renouncement of this religion.

Vanitas still-life
: Harmen Steenwijck, c. 1640 (Stedelijk Museum de Lakenhal, Leiden)

The nature of the religious movement which is capitalism entails endurance right to the end, to the point where God, too, finally takes on the entire burden of guilt, to the point where the universe is taken over by that despair which is actually its secret hope. Capitalism is entirely without precedent, in that it is a religion which offers not the reform of existence but its complete destruction. It is the expansion of despair, until despair becomes a religious state of the world in the hope that this will lead to salvation. God's transcendence is at an end. But he is not dead; he has been incorporated into human existence. This passage of the planet "Human" through the house of despair in the absolute loneliness of his trajectory is the ethos that Nietzsche defined. This man is the superman, the first to recognize the religion of capitalism and bring it to fulfillment.

Portrait of a woman: Bartolomeo Veneto, 1520-1525 (Städelsches Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt)

Its fourth feature is that its God must be hidden from it and may be addressed only when his guilt is at its zenith. This cult is celebrated before an unmatured deity; every idea, every conception of it offends against the secret of this immaturity.

The Seven Deadly Sins (detail: Superbia, or Pride): Hieronymus Bosch, c. 1480 (Museo del Prado, Madrid)

Freud's theory, too, belongs to the hegemony of the priests of this cult. Its conception is capitalist through and through. By virtue of a profound analogy, which has still to be illuminated, what has been repressed, the idea of sin, is capital itself, which pays interest on the hell of the unconscious.

Balthus, Thérèse Dreaming

Thérèse Dreaming: Balthus, 1938 (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)

The paradigm of capitalist religious thought is magnificently formulated in Nietzsche's philosophy. The idea of the superman transposes the apocalyptic "leap" not into conversion, atonement, purification, and penance, but into an apparently steady, though in the final analysis explosive and discontinuous intensification. For this reason, intensification and development in the sense of non facit saltum are incompatible. The superman is the man who has arrived where he is without changing his ways; he is historical man who has grown up right through the sky. This breaking open of the heavens that was and is characterized (even for Nietzsche himself) by guilt in a religious sense was anticipated by Nietzsche. Marx is a similar case: the capitalism that refuses to change course becomes socialism by means of the simple and compound interest that are functions of Schuld (consider the demonic ambiguity of this word).

Count Willem II presides over the execution of the dishonest bailiff, 1336: Nicolaes von Galen, 1657 (Town Hall, Hasselt)

Capitalism is a religion of pure cult, without dogma.

Capitalism has developed as a parasite of Christianity in the West (this must be shown not just in the case of Calvinism, but in the other orthodox Christian churches), until it reached the point where Christianity's history is essentially that of its parasite -- that is to say, of capitalism.

Count Willem II presides over the execution of the dishonest bailiff, 1336 (detail): Nicolaes von Galen, 1657 (Town Hall, Hasselt)

sans rêve et sans merci=without dream or mercy
non facit saltum=he cannot make the leap
Schuld=debt; guilt

Capitalism as Religion (fragment): Walter Benjamin, 1921, edited excerpt (translation by Rodney Livingstone in Selected Writings, Volume 1: 1913-1926, 1996)




Thanks for this, much 'food for thought' on this first of November -- and such great pictures (carrot man marching to his own drum) . . . .


light coming into sky above still black
plane of ridge, white of moon by branch
in foreground, wave sounding in channel

this with respect to system
of co-ordinates, also

angle of light, experiences
on the side, the same

silver of sunlight reflected in channel,
whiteness of gull flapping toward point

Julia said...

Wonderful post, Tom!
Benjamin is always so clever (although always complex for me, I should read it al least three more times).
The selection of images are of course superb. If you can (or want) to reveal your secret behind the post, would you tell me why you choose these mostly baroque paintings?

billymills said...

If capitalism really is a religion, are we moving towards the end of days?

TC said...


About Mr. Carrot, he is my new friend of the week.

He cometh from a kingdom in which the cannibals have great night vision.


Thanks so much for looking and for asking the right question: what's going on here?

Here and always in my blog posts my aim is to spark up a sort of conversation between images and text, so that, in "speaking" to each other, they provoke questions and thoughts, and open up the further possibilities of perceptions and understandings (and also sometimes mysteries as well) that go beyond what might be gained from either the images or the words in isolation.

I try not to make the image selections too obvious. As a result perhaps there is the risk the juxtapositions of word and image will appear to make no sense.

My image choices are derived largely from instinctive senses of that internal "conversation," which is something I hear as though it were a tiny voice in my head.

With this post, I first made an entirely different image selection, using photographs of Wall Street, Silicon Valley, and other obvious contemporary sites and locations of what Benjamin here terms "the religion of capitalism."

Those preliminary choices seemed a bit too obvious, however.

Benjamin wrote this unpublished fragment as a young man in his late twenties, then struggling for an academic career. His experience of the world at that point perhaps did not match his grasp of ideas; in this case, I suspect, the theory of capitalism put forward by Max Weber was a strong influence.

I take Benjamin's piece to be a bit crazy, an attempt at a kind of myth-making that perhaps has more in common with poetry than with philosophy as such.

At the same time I feel it is in many respects quite prescient, particularly in the passage in which he says capitalism is a religion in which every day is a feast day, there are no "days off".

And when he uses the "net" metaphor, suggesting we are all caught up in a system that we cannot speak of "objectively" because we cannot escape it, I feel he comes close to the truth, almost a hundred years in advance of the full realization of his prophecy (which I believe we are seeing now).

Of course in suggesting that the contents of the boxed set cannot "think outside the box," he implicitly admits the paradox in attempting any critique in this area.

We are all caught in the net, closed inside the box.

As to the final selection of images, I suppose the general heading under which I would place these particular images that I have chosen is: materialism.

I believe the specific provocation for the post may have come for the American elections which are occurring today.

I don't know how one may comment on what is happening politically in this country without adopting some form of "indirection."

In many respects the situation here at present defies rational commentary.

I hope this helps, a bit, at least.


I'm already there. I live by night.

TC said...

In the interests of being a bit more catholic in our consideration of the history of religion(s)...

Julia said...

Very helpful, Tom, & illustrative & interesting.
I'm thinking now that your choosing of Baroque's "Vanitas" is even more perfect to express what you say (and what Benjamin said). You know that those still lives wanted to show the rotten materiality in order to call the attention to transcendence. All the material world is but "vanitas" the real thing, the important thing goes beyond that. Although this material world is all we have and with what we have to deal with.
I see this way of thinking as something similar or not too far from Benjamin's idea that you highlight here, about the net metaphor.

TC said...



TC said...

But scarce observ'd the Knowing and the Bold,
Fall in the gen'ral Massacre of Gold;
Wide-wasting Pest! that rages unconfin'd,
And crouds with Crimes the Records of Mankind,
For Gold his Sword the Hireling Ruffian draws,
For Gold the hireling Judge distorts the Laws;
Wealth heap'd on Wealth, nor Truth nor Safety buys,
The Dangers gather as the Treasures rise.

from: Samuel Johnson: The Vanity of Human Wishes (The Tenth Satire of Juvenal Imitated), 1749