Ph.D. Candidate in Government, Harvard University; Dissertation Workshop Coordinator, EHPS Graduate Advisor & Graduate Student Affiliate, Minda de Gunzburg Center for European Studies, Harvard University
Jacob Hoerger's dissertation project, "Historical Injustice and the Politics of Redemption," explores the aspects of historical injustice redress that fall outside of the juridical model. He argues that even if one cannot be moved to support material reparations, the conversation does not end there.
In this chapter, which he hopes will become the second of the dissertation, he tries to tackle Walter Benjamin's view of history because it offers an unusual way of narrating the relationship between the living and the dead. Benjamin's theory is unorthodox because it focuses on questions of the original victims, not present-day descendants. Benjamin’s 1940 essay “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” in particular, has been generative for scholars and activists interested in historical injustice. Indeed, “our contemporary sense of the past as a site in need of a rescue mission can be traced to Walter Benjamin,” writes Jesse McCarthy. But those who have been eager to share his sense of the problem have not generally followed him in exploring the “rescue mission” he proposes. Benjamin was not a theorist of reparations; he died tragically before the discourse of reparations would come to predominate globally as part of the so-called “Guilted Age.” Instead, Benjamin spoke somewhat obliquely of a “weak messianic power” that the present generation possesses with which it can “redeem” the dead.
Hoerger contends that Benjamin’s theory of redemption remains an under-tapped resource for those interested today in thinking creatively about how to respond to past injustice and its contemporary legacies. In particular, he suggests that Benjamin’s outlook complements the current conversation about reparations by 1) extending the range of actions one might consider to redress past wrongdoing; 2) foregrounding questions of knowledge about past injustice in a way many current accounts do not; 3) offering a (left) conservative perspective on historical injustice that might help enlarge the tent of those interested in pursuing redress measures. Hoerger’s aim is not to suggest that Benjamin’s theory is a replacement for current reparations efforts or takes precedence over them; rather, it might be one way to work around some of the stalemates the current discourse finds itself in. To arrive at the aforementioned three takeaways, the paper explores three main questions that are raised by Benjamin’s essay: How is it possible to redeem the dead? What past individuals or groups should be redeemed? Who or what should do the redeeming?