A beguiling work of literary and social criticism that begins with a subverting counterfactual and moves into a deeply searching inquiry into the nature of an iconic island.
What if Walter Benjamin, literary critic and postmodern hero, hadn’t committed suicide on the French border in 1940 but instead wound up living “on the top floor in the last building on a dead-end street” in Manhattan? That’s the premise of Kishik’s (Philosophy/Emerson Coll.; The Power of Life: Agamben and the Coming Politic, 2012) engaging conceit: Not only would Benjamin have lived, if perhaps not happily, but he would also have extended his Arcades Project, covering 19th-century Paris to New York, the capital of the 20th. It is that nonexistent book that Kishik is studying here. If the concept is a little head-spinning, then so are Benjamin’s theories of the city, state, economy and so forth that Kishik educes from the—well, the evidence and nonevidence alike. So, “Benjamin argues that the Hegelian belief in a sovereign state that can lead us toward some form of universal reason is either wishful thinking or a cruel joke.” Alas, Benjamin did not live to elaborate the idea, which Kishik then extends to a contrastive study, in brief, of the differences between a philosophy (and philosopher) of the state and one of the city, places and political constructs that the Greeks did not differentiate. “What distinguishes Athens from New York and antiquity from modernity,” writes Kishik, “has something to do with the fact that today we use two words—city and state—to designate two very different entities.” Kishik’s criticism of a fictitious book never descends into coyness, though it occasionally gets a little tangled in ponderousness and faux profundity—e.g., “The Statue of Liberty might be seen as sacred only because it has no contact with the profane street.”
Minor quibbles aside, fans of Arendt, Howe and Kazin will find Kishik’s invention, and his playful seriousness in maintaining it, both a pleasure and a provocation.