Klee’s “Angelus Novus”

A painting has re-emerged, from the opening pages of Johnson’s The Ghost Map into Kushner’s Angels. Klee’s “Angelus Novus”, which Walter Benjamin described in “Theses on the Philosophy of History” as:

A Klee painting [showing] an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such a violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.

Walter Benjamin

The link between Angels and “Angelus” is listed in this October 2016 post by Bryan, covering Kushner’s many sources.

In The Theater of Tony Kushner, James Fisher writes, “Kushner turned to … Benjamin’s image of the Angel of History as the guiding metaphor for his ambitious, sweeping epic…” (54). But he also sees hope emerge from the turbulent waters of the past and present in the play.

I find what Fisher calls “Benjamin’s conception of the ruins of history as the price of progress” (54), especially interesting because this is the second time it has come up in our readings. Why is history thought of in this way in multiple readings we have encountered on contagion? Is this a model we can apply to other texts discussed in over the semester? What theoretical tools does it offer us as a means to examine the passage of time? Are these useful? Is the image adequate?

(Here’s an essay that sounds interesting, in this regard.)

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  1. I think the cost of progress is one of the most interesting themes explored within Angels in America. In the modern world the rate of development is so fast that we can barely keep up and nowhere is this more evident than in the tech industry, Ten years ago, of the top five companies in the world by market capitalization, only one technology company (Microsoft) made the list. In 2018, all 5 were in the business of tech.

    There is a lot of talk about the threats posed by increasing automation, cyber warfare and privacy vulnerabilities, but perhaps the greatest problem posed by technology is the breakneck speed at which it develops. Especially, when society and its laws cannot keep up to regulate these spaces. This leads to the scenes such as the infamous and endlessly meme’d Facebook hearings in the US Senate on data privacy where lawmakers exposed their woeful lack of tech literacy.

    In an industry that is often seen as the pinnacle of progress, how do we begin to grapple with the ‘piling wreckage’ that gathers as cracks begin to appear? With growing inequality, the spread of fake news, threats to democracy and much more, sometimes it seems the tools we’ve built to, ostensibly, make our lives easier are causing more harm than good. We have to be willing to question whether the promise of a technological utopia is possible and at what cost?

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