It is Indian-like – a wildness that belongs to the Indian’s blood, the manner in which Americans seek gold. And their breathless haste of labor – the real sin of the New World – it already begins to infect old Europe and makes it wild… One is now thinking with a stopwatch at hand.

Friedrich Nietzsche, 1886


The splendid Hegelian metaphor of Minerva’s Owl – insight at the falling of dusk westward bound – grants the intellectual some breathing space. The globe is round, the bird will fly on – and on.


The bankruptcy of an idea which degrades a brain-wave into a chimera offers us, time and again, a new point of view, a new vista – a better idea. The notion of Enlightenment in progress leaves one at least a shade of intellectual courage.


When, in 1922, Walter Benjamin wrote his program for a new journal called Angelus Novus, these were hopeful thoughts – as the children he loved, they were yet playing in his mind’s garden.




Paul Klee, Angelus Novus 1920



Having his eye on Paul Klee’s by now famous aquarelle, bearing the same name as his journal, Benjamin pointed out the ever fugitive quality of all future contributions to the periodical. Innumerable hosts of intellectuals – God’s latter-day Messengers – must sing their short-lived hymns, then vanish into nothingness.


In 1922, these songs were still belligerent chants of critique – the negative appraisal of a traditional, objectifying ‘bourgeois’ science of history. Like a rag-gatherer – Benjamin’s favorite metaphor applied to the poet Baudelaire – the intellectual is busying himself with the gathering of selected fragments taken from history’s dirt road.Then he must exploit his harvest critically – employing it against the ruling notion of political History.


Modernity, one ‘awesome contraction’. Progress, always a progress of decay.


Part of this continuous re-ordering is the little history that I studied. Faster and faster – Benjamin’s ‘contraction of modernity’ seems to have speeded up. We witness a procession of industrial philosophers, inventors of management systems and consultants pass by, each with his supposedly disciplinarian nouveauté.


Scholars on their little square, they all sternly believed in their own song of the quality of work. Bentham, Owen, Ure, Bergery, Babbage, Mill, Marx, Gilbreth, Taylor – and subsequently a host of 20th century minor labor management theoreticians and their even shorter lived notions. What else is their record but a field full of ruinous rests? Perhaps Hegel’s metaphor of history as a dung hill applies.


In the little ‘dialectic’ of the ideal and concrete struggles on all these battle fields of industrial labor, those disciplinarians stood always opposed to critics who tried to catch ‘alienation’ in the nets of their sociological measuring equipment. From the beginning of the 20th century both sides, though, shared the notion of labor as an unalienable component of human nature.


Already from the 18th century on, both parties also championed an improvement of the ‘quality of labor’. However, later labor management theorists tended to give primacy to the quality of the product. Now, new postmodern non-history seems not even sure of an unalienable connection between the quality of both the labor act and its product. Robots are the talk of the town.


‘True history’ Benjamin considered a kaleidoscope. With its circular set of mirrors, each new twist of the magic mass of little colored shards produces a transitory new order. Inside this machinery of a deceptive luminosity the ‘concepts of those who rule’ serve as reflectors. Their so-called ‘order’ finds its origin here. Still with high hopes, Benjamin set out to smash these images – like the Jews never accepted an image of Javeh.


Less than twenty years later, in 1940 – haunted and hunted by the Nazi’s – on the north side of the Pyrenees he committed suicide on the border between Spain and France. Not long before this sad ending, Benjamin once more looked at his Angelus Novus, the painting that by then had become his possession – always in his luggage, always within reach. This time, he must certainly have looked at the image with different eyes.


This Angelus Novus suddenly induced novel, far more somber reflections. Is this, then, the Angel of History? From inside paradise storm winds rage forth and carry a terrified angel-bird away, bulging its wings like sails of a vessel that has lost its course. Benjamin’s Angel of History – frightened stiff, carried backwards into the heavens, its gaze resting on the disappearing ruins of our paradisiacal past.


This storm of progress transforms history into one great catastrophe, a devastation so intense and so vast that no critical rag-gatherer will be able to stop it. Within the bounds of history no hope for a better turn survives.


While the Hegelian owl still spread its wings Westward at will, empowered as it was by wisdom and foresight, the appalling storm in which Benjamin’s Angelus Novus is caught up fatally hurls and spurns it into space. With a gaze unseeing, though not blind – a desolate, dumb witness.


When doing my research on the history of labor discipline, Benjamin was never far away. We may not have lost labor to the ultimate kind of management that, shortly before his dying, he feared – the order of the work camps. However, what it is, what we are faced with, is still unclear.


Benjamin’s reading of Klee’s Angelus Novus allows his angel’s enormous eyes a desperate conviction.
[Translated from the ‘Conclusion’ of Sierksma: Surveillance and Punishment – Labor Management between Utilitarianism and Pragmatism, 1991; Dutch title Toezicht en Taak.]


Author: rjsiersk

Sierksma was born in Friesland, a 'county' in the northern part of the Netherlands with its own language which he does not speak and with an obstinate population to which he both belongs and does not belong. A retired Professor of Social Philosophy and Aesthetics, as a Harkness fellow he taught at Rutgers and Berkeley Universities in the USA, and at GUAmsterdam and TUDelft in the Netherlands. In 1991 he was awarded his PhD from Leiden University on the subject of 'Surveillance and Task: Labour Discipline between Utilitarianism and Pragmatism'. His books include Minima Memoria (1993), Lost View (2002 with Jan van Geest), and Litter Scent (2013). He has published poems and articles in Te Elfder Ure, Nynade, Oasis and the Architectural Annual. Half the year he lives in Haarlem, the other half he spends in la France Profonde, living ‘in his own words’ as the house out there was bought with the winnings from his essay Eternal Sin, written for the ECI Essay Prize (1993). In this blog, Sierksma's Sequences, written in English, he is peeping round his own and other people’s perspectives. Not easily satisfied with answers nor with questions, he turns his wry wit to a number of philosophical and historical issues. His aim in writing: to make parts of the world light up in his perspective - not my will, thine! Not being a thief, he has no cook, one wife, some children, one lover and three cats. The reader, interested in my writings on aesthetics, literature, and sociology, may want to open, where various pieces are published.

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