Part 2: The Doctrine in its context

19 04 2010

The work of Walter Benjamin is holistic and difficult to comprehend. This is especially true for Doctrine of the Similar, as this is a text so esoteric in the choice of words and topics that it is actually impossible to understand it without linking it to other texts in Benjamin’s  work. The incomprehensibility  of Doctrine of the Similar also roots in the fact that Benjamin did not intent to publish the text, he wrote it for himself.

Doctrine of the Similar was written in 1933 and is the last of the four texts Benjamin wrote specifically on the topic of language. The first one is Über Sprache überhaupt und über die Sprache des MenschenOn Language as Such and on the language of the people (1916), a text that was also not meant to be published; the second one is Die Aufgabe des Übersetzers – The Task of the Translator (1923), which was published as introduction to Benjamin’s translation of some poems by Beaudelaire; and the Erkenntniskritische Vorrede – Epistemo-Critical Prologue (1928), the introduction to Benjamins (rejected) habilitation.

For the discussion of Doctrine of the Similar the very fist text on language – On Language as Such and on the language of the people – is most important. We know this because Benjamin himself pointed out the deep relation in several letters he wrote in 1933 to his friend Gershom Scholem. Benjamin actually asked Scholem to sent him a copy of his early text on language, so he could compare the two versions. The relation of the two texts is the key to understand Doctrine of the Similar. We can indeed understand Doctrine of the Similar as an alternate version of On Language as Such and on the language of the people.

I am certain that the only way to understand Doctrine of the Similar is by reading it from the point of On Language as Such and on the language of the people, this is the reference point that matters. So before I will get into the reading of Doctrine of the Similar, I will first discuss the philosophy of language as diplayed in the first text on language.

Walter Benjamin Manuscript

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