To the Planetarium—There Is Still Time!

This review essay examines James McFarland's Constellation: Friedrich Nietzsche and Walter Benjamin in the Now-Time of History, which stages a comparative reading of the two thinkers’ works and argues that they shared a resistance to the conventions of nineteenth-century historicism as well as a desire to attend not to causation as a force in history but rather to the importance of each individual “present.” Benjamin's term “dialectics at a standstill” is a formulation only a reader of Nietzsche could have produced, as McFarland ably demonstrates. This review essay also delves into Benjamin's own use of the “constellation” motif, identifying complexities McFarland leaves out of his account. Influenced by Nietzsche's own uses of astronomical and astrological motifs, Benjamin employed the image of the constellation as a symbol not only for temporality (say, of the time it takes for starlight to reach our planet). He also used it to examine our transforming relationship with the cosmos and with nature most broadly, and, in the famous “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” he used it as a figure for the proper relationship historians should establish between their own period and the past; this is what yields an understanding of the present moment as the Jetztzeit, the “time of the now” enjoying its own dignity beyond any causal relationship with the future it may have. However, and as this review essay suggests, Benjamin's uses of the constellation image, and of images of stars, telescopes, and planetariums more generally, were highly ambivalent. They can serve as indices of his shifting views of modernity and of his desire that modern experience, seemingly condemned to alienation, might be redeemed.