Recounting Signatures: A Review of James McFarland’s Constellation

Recounting Signatures: A Review of James McFarland’s Constellation

Donald Cross

In reviewing James McFarland’s Constellation, Donald Cross reminds readers of the rich potential of scholarly discourse. Beyond mere citations and their absence, Cross traces across the bright stars of Nietzsche and Benjamin (and Derrida) relationships worthy of serious consideration. In an age of copy/paste citations, impact reports, and optimized academics, pondering the constellations offers an opportunity to rediscover the subtle intensity of tracing forms in the void.

The Project

The task that James McFarland sets for himself in Constellation: Friedrich Nietzsche and Walter Benjamin in the Now-Time of History (Fordham, 2013) is, in short, impossible. This is not a critique. On the contrary, not only is McFarland aware of the difficulties involved in positing any congruence between the thought of Nietzsche and that of Benjamin; the book’s impossibility is its impetus and even makes it necessary. There are at least three general difficulties that, even if Nietzsche’s influence on Benjamin is often remarked, have led to a certain scarcity in scholarship on their relation.

  1. The first difficulty is circumstantial. Appropriations of Nietzsche by National Socialism, largely facilitated by editorial decisions concerning Nietzsche’s archives (for which Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche, McFarland is careful to point out, is less responsible than often thought [19]), created an apparent antagonism between Nietzsche and Benjamin, a thinker of Jewish Messianism, and made a genuine encounter unlikely.
  2. The second difficulty takes shape after the early abuses of Nietzsche begin to dissipate thanks to landmark commentaries in the sixties like Gilles Deleuze’s Nietzsche and Philosophy. If, however, the second difficulty is more substantial than the first, it is still essentially limited. Between, on the one hand, Nietzsche’s invectives against religion and politics in virtually every form and, on the other, Benjamin’s reflections on Messianism and apparently communist commitments, the only intersection possible between the two thinkers seems to be either critical or forced.
  3. If the first two difficulties make an encounter between Nietzsche and Benjamin unlikely, the third makes it rigorously impossible. A relationship between Nietzsche and Benjamin cannot be founded upon Nietzsche’s philosophy because, above all, Nietzsche’s philosophy cannot be reduced to the unified content necessary for relating it to another in any traditional sense. From one perspective or another, Nietzsche’s notoriously unsystematic writings never praise without critiquing or critique without praising.If Deleuze’s Nietzsche and Philosophy clears the way for the second difficulty (it addresses one of the ambiguities burdening Nietzsche’s “posthumous fate” from the beginning: “was his thought a forerunner of fascist thinking?” [Deleuze xv]), it is the third difficulty and, therefore, reveals the limit of the second insofar as it relies on a facile reading. The force of Deleuze’s revalorization consists in demonstrating the way in which Nietzsche resists absolute appropriation: “One of the most original characteristics of Nietzsche’s philosophy is the transformation of the question ‘what is … ?’ into ‘which one is … ? For example, for any given proposition he asks ‘which one is capable of uttering it?’ Here we must rid ourselves of all ‘personalist’ references. The one that … does not refer to an individual, to a person, but rather to an event, that is, to the forces in their various relationships in a proposition” (xvii).

“Nietzsche’s writings,” McFarland says, “solicit with an unprecedented intensity the very possibility of meaningful thought” (8). If, then, Nietzsche ‘influences’ Benjamin, the ‘influence’ cannot take place simply on the level of meaning, of content, of theses. Benjamin’s “unwritten book” (4) on Nietzsche must in this sense remain unwritten; it cannot be determined by any thesis even if it invokes a number of theses as points of reference. This thetic resistance – it is worth stressing again – is not simply a weakness; it is the only chance for constellating a text between the two enigmatic singularities that we call ‘Nietzsche’ and ‘Benjamin.’ Indeed, if the ‘influence’ cannot be retained within the parameters of an object of knowledge, if it engages the very fabric of Benjamin (“his entire intellectual physiognomy, his theoretical commitment, his expressive style, his moral and political posture in the world” [7]), the task of constellating the relation becomes necessary.

The book’s very premise thus challenges what one understands by ‘influence.’ Influence in its traditional sense cannot account for the case of Constellation because the identity of what is to be related cannot be taken for granted. The relation takes place beyond the unity of intention necessary for one to be influenced by a second. McFarland’s approach to Benjamin exceeds him insofar as it cannot simply rely upon his intentions as its final touchstone. More decisive still, if the relation between Nietzsche and Benjamin does not pertain to two self-identical thoughts, one of which overtakes the other, then there can be no certainty concerning the direction of the influence. In other words, Benjamin influences Nietzsche: “Benjamin’s presence in Nietzsche” (x) brings Nietzsche to light in ways that would not have been possible without Benjamin. This constellation, in which Benjamin delivers Nietzsche’s posthumous birth and thus precedes his precursor, goes beyond even the most radical moment of Harold Bloom’s account of influence, apophrades, in which “the tyranny of time almost is overturned” (Bloom 141, my emphasis). It is precisely this “tyranny of time” that McFarland seeks to overturn in what he calls, following a formulation that occurs in both Nietzsche and Benjamin, the now-time (Jetztzeit) of history. These are, perhaps, among the reasons McFarland chooses to speak of ‘constellation’ rather than of ‘influence’: “The intuitions governing influence studies must fail us here” (xi). For the same reason, it would be necessary to speak of constellations.McFarland’s use of the term constellation is not specific to the book that it entitles. See also James McFarland, “Sailing by the Stars: Constellations in the Space of Thought,” Modern Language Notes 126:3 (2011), pp. 471-85 (this entire issue of MLN is dedicated to the question of Constellations / Konstellationen).

The Constellations

If the texts in question have no overarching thesis, no simple or central argument, the book situating itself between them cannot have a more specific thesis than “Benjamin mediates Nietzsche into the future; Nietzsche mediates Benjamin into the past” (8). A few constellations, however, can be charted by surveying the parameters of the chapters, which also reveals the scope of the project. Indeed, McFarland discursively supports his claim that Nietzsche and Benjamin profoundly mediate each other by touching almost the entirety of Benjamin’s and Nietzsche’s respective texts (published, posthumous, or archived), along with testimonies, letters, anecdotes, etcetera. Although it does not limit itself to any strict periodization, the book moves largely in chronological order. Chapter 1 develops the role of Nietzsche in Benjamin’s early works (“Mortal Youth”), while chapters 2-5 investigate what McFarland calls the ‘mature’ relationship (“Presentation,” “Inscription,” “Collaboration,” and “Mad Maturity”).

Chapter 1

“Mortal Youth” focuses on Benjamin’s ‘juvenilia.’ The chapter traverses Benjamin’s “Metaphysics of Youth” (1913), his correspondences with Ludwig Strauß (1912-13), “Dialogue on the Religiosity of the Present” (1912), and “The Life of Students” (1915) in search of a definition of ‘youth’ that, according to McFarland, unifies these early writings: “That a specifically juvenile reactivity discriminates among cultural forces in an equally valid if wholly distinct manner is Benjamin’s contention throughout these writings” (17). In each instance, McFarland takes up Benjamin’s elliptical references to Nietzsche’s works (primarily Thus Spoke Zarathustra) in attempt to argue, on the one hand, that the “enduring truth content” of Benjamin’s Nietzsche is characterized by an “explosive movement” of “nimbleness, recklessness, and irreducibly political intentions” and, on the other hand, that this truth content is subordinated to the “material content” of the juvenilia, that is, to the “perishing historical specificity within which this juvenilia arose and about which in the first instance they speak” (21). The ‘juvenile’ constellation thus takes on the task of opening the way for more ‘mature’ ones by traversing the material content of Benjamin’s early writings: “Only by reviving that material content in an account of Benjamin’s Youth Culture Movement commitments can the truth content, and Nietzsche’s role in it, be liberated from that occasion” (21).

Chapter 2

Freed from the juvenilia’s ‘material content,’ a more historical relation to Nietzsche, McFarland says, marks Benjamin’s ‘mature’ period: “what enters into Benjamin’s relation with Nietzsche at the threshold of maturity is nothing less than history” (67). Yet, the historical perspective, according to which Nietzsche now “speaks to Benjamin … out of the nineteenth century” (68), neither relegates Nietzsche to the context in which he wrote nor posits an ideal meaning irreducible to a given age. At stake, rather, is a certain constitutive inexhaustibility that makes possible future appropriations of Nietzsche’s text. More specifically, while “what is said” emerges as the “durable meaning,” a totalizing principle equally accessible to all ages and therefore specific to none, “how what is said is presented,” what McFarland calls “presentation per se” in its irreducibility to “the presenting of any particular content,” emerges as a “purely external remainder” open to any future with the “power to redeem it” (93). Chapter 2 analyzes this “Presentation” in terms of what is perhaps the most obvious constellation – Benjamin’s The Origin of the German Trauerspiel (1928) and Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy – and argues that, although Benjamin explicitly rejects Nietzsche’s theory of tragedy, he implicitly sympathizes with its skepticism towards the present.

Chapter 3

If “Presentation” complicates the relation of a text to the present, then it calls for new strategies of reading, which McFarland tracks in Nietzsche’s redefinition of the discipline of philology as an “untimely art of reading” (150). While acknowledging and developing the way in which Benjamin, in “On Semblance,” critiques the Birth of Tragedy for remaining too subjective and thus falling short of a “radical exteriority that cannot in turn be subordinated to a more comprehensive horizon” (107), McFarland argues that in the notebooks from the 1870s one can trace “the movement of Nietzsche’s expressive impulse from the accredited form of the philological treatise,” as in the Birth of Tragedy, “to his indigenous version of the aphoristic sequence as it emerges in Human, All Too Human” (113). This is the chapter’s project. Nietzsche’s later texts, McFarland argues, resist subjective recuperation by problematizing the “basic semantic operation of imputing an intention to an inscription” (114). This development of the aphoristic inscription provides McFarland with the resources for charting another constellation: “What Benjamin calls esotericism is what Nietzsche calls untimeliness” (142).

Chapter 4

Having developed Nietzsche’s progression towards “Asyndeton” as a presentation that resists the usual facility with which intention is attributed to a text, McFarland turns to the theme of exile. The shift seems improbable, but exile is not merely a “geographical notion” for McFarland; it names “the dissolution of the addressee” and therefore “demands new thinking strategies and alliances” (173). McFarland writes: “Where Nietzsche’s asyndeton shattered the framework of humanist values that stabilized recognizable tradition, the Wanderer, as the embodiment of that asyndeton, promotes a philosophy unprecedented in the tradition, as the name for the experience of this evaluative oscillation” (177). Although Benjamin responded to the “peregrine aspect” (179) in Nietzsche’s text from early on, he and Nietzsche “communicate under the sign of exile” (173) fully in the years in which Benjamin was forced into exile (1929-1933). McFarland is clear: “the Nietzsche of the 1930s is expatriate” (179). Accordingly, the chapter’s developments can be related to, if not exhausted by, the question of exile: noon in Benjamin’s “Short Shadows” and Nietzsche’s Wanderer and His Shadow, montage in Benjamin’s German Men and Women (a collection of letters from various authors that Benjamin published while in exile and in which a letter from Franz Overbeck to Nietzsche figures), Zarathustra’s ‘death’ in Thus Spoke Zarathustra and the Nachlaß, etcetera.

Chapter 5

In the final chapter, McFarland does not abandon ‘exile’: “The mature relation between Benjamin and Nietzsche rests paradoxically on their common antagonistic posture toward their cultural surroundings” (218). Yet, the relation becomes ‘paradoxical’ because it entails an antagonism between Benjamin and Nietzsche “in principle,” that is, “as the consequence of a shared intellectual perspective oriented not on consensus, but on victory and defeat” (218). Despite any collaboration, then, Benjamin’s relation to Nietzsche never reaches “consensus” as it develops in the 1930s, but McFarland nevertheless asserts that, behind Benjamin’s “expressed denunciation” of Nietzsche in his later notebooks, there is once again “a secret, guiltless complicity” that, moreover, is “more relevant to our own futures than any disagreement between them” (219). Traversing antagonisms and complicity between Nietzsche’s posthumous birth and Benjamin’s afterlife and translation (208-19), between the eternal return of the same and the “idiosyncratic notion of temporality” at the heart of The Arcades Project (227-37), between the “now of knowability” in On the Concept of History and its recourse to Untimely Meditations (241-48), McFarland comes to this relevance. “This, then, is the posture that emerges in our present from a temporary conjunction of Benjamin and Nietzsche,” he writes: “to produce with the tools of the dominant culture a cultural product that accelerates the destruction of that culture, appearing useless and superfluous to the proponents of culture while presenting the enemies of that culture with unexpected potentials” (247). The notion of “revolutionary writing” that McFarland draws from the constellation of Nietzsche and Benjamin – a writing that “must attack the present, and its own conditions of possibility, wherever it descries them” – will have been the book’s end: “And however distant revolution may appear today, it is the service to revolution that marks the final extreme of contiguity and divergence between this book and its objective problem, the relation between Benjamin and Nietzsche” (247).

The Signatures

Throughout all 5 chapters, the irreducibility of Nietzsche and of Benjamin – to their time, to each other, to themselves – motivates McFarland’s analyses. I have not attempted to judge whether McFarland succeeds, whether his constellations respect the singularity of each without reducing it to the other, whether they avoid the concomitant risks of missing and of forcing connections. Such a verdict would be based upon a misunderstanding of the project; these questions must be posed anew with every articulation. I limit myself to a comment on one motif (neither the only one nor one among others) that spans the entire book (the word occurs over seventy times) and exemplifies one of the ways in which irreducibility structures it: signature. One always signs with at least two hands:

On the one hand, only the accredited can sign, and only the systemic can be signed. In the traditional sense, the signature is a conscious endorsement and, as such, hinges upon intentionality and determinable content. My signature is invalid not only if it occurs without my endorsement (forgery or forced confession) but also if I sign ‘something’ that resists epistemological unity. I can no doubt make a mark on nonsense and call it my ‘signature,’ but the signature does not hold because I thereby ‘sign’ that which has no discernable unity and to which I therefore cannot be rigorously held. This is the logic informing McFarland’s formulations concerning, for instance, the “unity behind the signature” (McFarland 63).

On the other hand, only the asystematic can sign or be signed. By signing a ‘systematic’ text, I endorse its repetition in the future, and the unity of the thesis upon which the system depends would guarantee a seamless transition from one historical period to the next because it could be repeated in any context without loss; for the same reason, however, it remains irreducible to every historical era – including my own. At the limit, a thesis that traverses history reduces it; a systematic Nietzsche is not Nietzsche. So, one reads Nietzsche’s writings “in their own terms” only by engaging the way in which they exceed a “permanent system” (69). Although one must, as a result, relinquish the idea of a ‘philosophy’ to which one could append Nietzsche’s “authorizing signature” (69), McFarland still speaks of signature in this connection. For, if we understand ‘signature’ as ‘singularity’ (and the signature is meant to mark an irreducible moment of inscription) and if ‘system’ reduces singularity in the name of an ideal unity, then a mark made beyond the system and its animating intention is the only signature worthy of the name.

So, in short, there is “the concept of a centered signature” that hinges upon “closing off and depositing achieved meanings before the reader,” and there is “the concept of a decentered signature” that hinges upon the disruption of this closure (141-2). McFarland’s navigates many of the constellations of Benjamin and Nietzsche in the space between these two concepts.

Nietzsche, signature, system, and intentionality: the terms are familiar. In a lengthy footnote, McFarland recognizes Jacques Derrida’s role in emphasizing the signature in interpretations of Nietzsche. Yet, he criticizes Derrida’s version of the signature because, he says, “the iterability of the signature dissolves it before it can gain any traction on the text” (291, note 39). Concluding that “the fragment is left as a bare remnant of the uninterpretable textuality that undermines any historical determination,” McFarland accuses Derrida of being unable to account for Nietzsche’s signature as “a differential system within his oeuvre” (291, note 39). If the signature is always already ‘dissolved,’ it would seem unable to account for the various degrees between ‘centered signature’ and ‘decentered signature’ at work throughout Nietzsche’s writings. Unable to engage the lengthy commentary necessary here, I limit myself to two general comments.

  1. Derrida never claims textuality to be simply ‘uninterpretable.’ On the contrary, there is always a “stratum of legibility [lisibilité]” that makes possible the most basic descriptions (“[e]veryone knows what ‘I have forgotten my umbrella’ means”) and the more elaborate interpretations like those of psychoanalysis (Derrida, Spurs 128).Translations of Derrida’s Éperons are mine. This minimal legibility and this interpretative spectrum are the interpretability and the nuance that McFarland seems to deny Derrida’s signature.
  2. A text’s legibility is inseparable from a generalized illegibility. Because legibility is nothing other than a certain repeatability, because such repeatability necessarily entails the possibility of repeating a mark (e.g., a signature) where an author never intended it – so many repetitions that are at work in a mark from the beginning, virtually, as its very possibility – the text is “structurally emancipated from all living meaning [vouloir-dire vivant]” (130). A mark, then, can never be read exhaustively because it is never saturated by the intention that animates it. But intentionality is not thereby obliterated. In “Signature Event Context,” Derrida clearly states that, when reinscribed in a general iterability, “the category of intention will not disappear; it will have its place, but from this place it will no longer be able to govern the entire scene” (Margins 326). The signature, then, gets a certain ‘traction’ on the text, but the traction is always an effect of a more originary drift (dérive).

Derrida’s signature, then, not only allows for the ‘traction’ and ‘differential system’ that McFarland seems to critique it for being unable to accommodate; it obliquely provides the matrix of his analyses (of the signature). Indeed, if the repetition of my signature in the future is made possible by the iterability that also prevents it from closing upon itself, then every signature calls for a countersignature just as, perhaps, Benjamin countersigns Nietzsche.This is, finally, McFarland’s definition of ‘signature’: “What is mourned and remembered by loyal survivors Benjamin calls the person. (It is this to which in the philological context of our investigation we will be referring as the signature.)” (58). For Derrida, of course, the signature is also inseparable from “a break in presence, ‘death’ ” (Margins 316). (The compatibility of loyalty and mourning is another question.) This is not, of course, to deny the signature contributions of Constellation (Nietzsche’s, Benjamin’s, McFarland’s), which would rely upon the category that it critiques. If Derrida’s signature opens the matrix, it will not have foreseen the signatures precisely because of the nature of that matrix. Constellation, in this sense, also means event.

Works Cited

McFarland, James. Constellation: Friedrich Nietzsche & Walter Benjamin in the Now- Time of History. New York: Fordham University Press, 2013.

Bloom, Harold. The Anxiety of Influence. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Derrida, Jacques. Spurs: Styles of Nietzsche. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979.

– – –. Margins of Philosophy. trans. Alan Bass. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984.