Natural history and the commodity form

Sebastian Løken


In Walter Benjamin’s thinking, natural history [naturgeschichte] designates that condition when history is halted and all change has fallen into the cyclical return of the eversame, all life is lived under the sign of death. This is of course based on Hegel’s conception of nature as that where no qualitative change can take place. In the Arcades Project, Benjamin employs several phenomena to visualize this stasis: Blanquis cosmic vision in L’Éternité par les astres, fashion, hell, fashion as hell.
In thesis XI-XII of ”On the Concept of History”, Benjamin criticizes Social Democracy and the Gotha Programme both for their blind trust in progress, and their affirmation of Labour as such; this double critique corresponds to the notion of ”a homogenous and empty time”. To the bad infinity of eternal progress answers the bad infinity of abstract labour: forever more of the same. In his lectures on the philosophy of history, Hegel criticizes the view of progress as merely quantitative ”perfectibility”, a critique that echoes through Benjamin’s of Social Democracy.
The concept of abstract labour in Marx is of course dependent on the commensurability of a labour deprived of all its concrete determinations, and a temporality of the work day which structures the life of workers according to an indeed ”homogenous and empty time”.
This resonance seems to me to be absent from much of the readings of Benjamin’s philosophy of history, but at the same time I hold that the latter can inform the interpretation of the Marxian value form and its peculiar temporality, not the least because of their common point of departure in Hegelian philosophy. Thus in my paper I want to show just how Marx’ analysis of the commodity form and abstract labour and Benjamin’s conception of history’s stasis can throw light on each other, this in a time of ecological and economical crisis, indeed a critical point in history. As Benjamin in thesis XI ties the exploitation of nature to this quantitative progress as well as the exploitation of the proletariat, a time when nature has proven to be more historical than history itself (perhaps what we witness is the return of history via nature?) might just be that moment of danger when the concept of naturgeschichte should be revisited and re-evaluated.

Walter Benjamin - naturgeschichte - commodity form - value form - philosophy of history