Testament of the Revolution (Walter Benjamin)
“Our heritage was left to us without a testament.” Hannah Arendt repeatedly borrows this formula (from René Char) to capture the predicament of revolutionary modernity. Without a testament, without any symbolic means of transmitting the event, there is no way to bequeath the treasure to future generations – to harvest its energy or even to bear witness to what happened. Here’s the thought experiment: what if Char’s formula needs to be reversed? What if the problem is not intestacy but rather a kind of hyper-testamentarity – not a deficit but a surfeit of testamentary protocol? The past confronts us as a thicket of injunctions, promises, exhortations, incitements – obscure messages from the dead, unsigned and undated but time-stamped and addressed to us uniquely. What if the testament itself were the heritage – or rather, if there were no heritage, only the pressure of a demand as enigmatic as it is insistent?
Rebecca Comay is a Professor in the Dept of Philosophy, the Centre for Comparative Literature, and the Program for Literature and Critical Theory at the University of Toronto. She has published widely in continental philosophy, psychoanalysis, and contemporary art, including Mourning Sickness: Hegel and the French Revolution (Stanford, 2011) and The Dash – the Other Side of Absolute Knowing (co-authored with Frank Ruda, forthcoming MIT 2018).
The Graduate Student Workshop/Seminar is based on her article “Testament of the Revolution (Walter Benjamin)” (https://muse.jhu.edu/article/663686).