The Messianic Past: Walter Benjamin and the Re-enactment of History

Arianne Françoise Conty


In this article, artistic re-enactments will serve as a backdrop for a re-evaluation of Walter Benjamin’s philosophy of history in light of Freud’s psychoanalytic theory of trauma.  This article will set out to show how remediation plays a similar role in establishing historic truth for both Benjamin and Freud, but it will also point to some fundamental differences.  Indeed, artistic re-enactments, and their Freudian underpinnings, seem to reverse the mechanism at work in Benjamin, for whom it is the trauma of the present that is redeemed by the fragments of the past, rather than vice versa.  If Freudian trauma re-enacts the past in order to free the present of its influence, it was Benjamin’s present that was traumatic under National Socialism, and he turned to the past in order to leave open the possibility for a different future.  How can the artistic re-enactments of the 21st century help us to understand how history and trauma are experienced in our own times?

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