research > theory > Benjamin’s Monadology
Anthony Auerbach

‘Walter Benjamin’s Monadology’ paper presented by Anthony Auerbach in Design Studies Forum: Benjamin’s Objects, chaired by Robin Schuldenfrei, College Art Association Annual Conference, Los Angeles, 26 February 2009.

This paper has not yet been published. Only the opening paragraphs are reproduced here. Please contact me if you would like to see a full transcript of the paper I read at the symposium.

Benjamin’s ‘Monadology’ is only a marginal object, not even a title. In Benjamin’s first book, on German Baroque drama, ‘Monadologie’ appeared fleetingly at the head of one page to indicate a passage without encroaching on a gap in the text [note 2]. The passage in question has to do with Leibniz’s Monadology, but Benjamin does not inscribe himself in the margins of that text as a commentator. Nor is there anything by Benjamin analogous to Leibniz’s philosophical testament which encapsulated an ontology and a philosophy of life in ninety numbered paragraphs. Benjamin’s last work, the theses ‘On the Concept of History’ — among which the term ‘monad’ made a final appearance — were the desiderata for the work he never achieved: the magnum opus preserved only as a fragmentary legacy (a fragment, according to Adorno’s definition, being a work interrupted by death [note 3]).

The question that arises with ‘Benjamin’s Monadology’ is this: How does the notion of a monad, the product par excellence of speculative metaphysics, end up at the heart of a materialist philosophy of history? My emphasis will therefore be on the migration of the concept — possibly its dérive — rather than its derivation in the formal sense. Bertrand Russell, following his own judgement on the concept of history, felt obliged, in his Critical Exposition of the Philosophy of Leibniz ‘to attempt a reconstruction of the system which Leibniz should have written’ [note 4]. I don’t presume, as Russell did in Leibniz’s case, ‘to exhibit the theory of monads as a rigid deduction’ [note 5] An inductive method, as if to discover a law from empirical instances, would not be feasible either. I would rather approach the concept of the monad that appears in Benjamin’s work as a knot in a web woven by Benjamin for his own objects.

Benjamin’s interest in monads is first documented in a letter dated 9 December 1923, and may have been prompted by Benjamin’s correspondent Florens Christian Rang [note 6] Although Benjamin’s thoughts are, he admits, ‘sketchy and preliminary,’ the preoccupation from which they arise is clearly focused on the problem of art history: namely, that normally art history is not actually the history of artworks as such, but ‘merely ... a history of the subject matter or a history of the form, for which the works of art provide only examples’ [note 7].

What Benjamin is anxious to discuss with Rang are the philosophical

[excerpt ends]

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  1. ‘On the Concept of History’ §XVII, trans. by Harry Zohn in Selected Writings Volume IV 1938–1940, ed. by Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings (Cambridge, MA and London: Belknap/Harvard University Press, 2003), pp. 396. [back to text]
  2. Walter Benjamin, Ursprung des deutschen Trauerspiels (Berlin: Ernst Rowohlt, 1928), p. 33. [back to text]
  3. ‘The fragment is the intrusion of death into the work.’ Quoted in ‘Editors’ Afterword’ to Theodor W. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, ed. by Gretel Adorno and Rolf Tiedemann, trans. by Robert Hullot-Kentor (London: Athlone Press, 1997), p. 361. [back to text]
  4. Bertrand Russell, A Critical Exposition of the Philosophy of Leibniz (Cambridge: University Press, 1900), p. 2. [back to text]
  5. Critical Exposition, p. viii. Having reconstructed it, Russell explains how the system is broken, logically, because its premises are incompatible. [back to text]
  6. Other sources or comparisons have been suggested, for example, Richard Herbertz, who was Benjamin’s professor at the University of Berne, had published a book on Leibniz in 1905, or Hermann Schmalenbach whose book on Leibniz was nearly contemporary (1921). Russell’s Critical Exposition came out in 1900, Louis Couturat’s La logique de Leibniz in 1901 and the Opuscules et fragments in 1903. In any case, Leibniz would have figured in any basic curriculum of the history of philosophy. [back to text]
  7. The Correspondence of Walter Benjamin 1910–1940, ed. by Gershom Scholem and Theodor W. Adorno, trans. by Manfred R. Jacobson and Evelyn M. Jacobson (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1994), p. 224. The following citations are from the same letter. [back to text]