Benjamin, Derrida, and the politics of memory The promise of history reconsidered

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Description: The contemporary political landscape in Western democracies is witness to a variety of debates about a memory of the victims of past historical and political violence, from Germany's historian's debate and the recent French comparisons, of the victims of fascism and Stalinism to US American debates about Affirmative Action. This dissertation concerns itself with the question of how a memory of injustice relates to the promise of justice that Western (and other) democracies have inherited from the Enlightenment. I use the Marxist promise for a classless society as my primary reference point since it contains a political promise whose institutionalization led to a totalitarian outcome in the twentieth century. The overall argument of this work is that, rather than relying on a Hegelian teleology of history, which justifies violence in the past by referring to the promised end which alone is just, a reconceived promise has to articulate itself with a memory of victimization that is also a memory of finitude and contingency. In order to effect this co-articulation, I draw on Walter Benjamin's re-interpretation of Marxism after the disappointment of the Russian revolution, and on Jacques Derrida's 'messianic' inheritance of Marx. Both Derrida and Benjamin reconceive the promise by emptying it of its determinate content in order to allow the promise an openness to memory and contingency. After a detailed examination of both authors' critiques of Marx's promise in the name of political and ethical responsibility, the dissertation considers a notion of political action that would be mindful of an open future, seen as indispensable to democracy, and that would respond to the claim of past injustice upon the present. Further, the role of law and of democratic political institutions is examined in light of a memorial promise of justice. The last part investigates consequences of such a memorial promise, and its temporality, for the political import of historiography. Thus, this work contributes to the philosophy of history and of time, viewed from a political angle. It further makes a special contribution to contemporary political philosophy by relating Marxist social goals to current debates about deconstructive ethics and politics.
Language: English
Format: Degree Work