The Impossibility of Total Destruction

Boris Groys, In the Flow, 2016

Indeed, if God has created the world out of nothingness, he can also destroy it completely — leaving no traces.

But the point is precisely this: Benjamin uses the image of Angelus Novus in the context of his materialist concept of history, in which divine violence becomes material violence. Thus, it becomes clear why Benjamin does not believe in the possibility of total destruction. Indeed, if God is dead, the material world becomes indestructible. In the secular, purely material world, destruction can be only material destruction, produced by material forces, and any material destruction remains only partially successful. It always leaves ruins, traces, vestiges behind — precisely as described by Benjamin in his parable. In other words, if we cannot totally destroy the world, the world also cannot totally destroy us. Total success is impossible, but so is total failure. The materialist vision of the world opens a zone beyond success and failure, conservation and annihilation, acquisition and loss. Now, this is precisely the zone in which art operates if it wants to perform its knowledge of the materiality of the world — and of life as a material process. And although the art of the historic avant-gardes has also been accused often of being nihilistic and destructive, the destructiveness of avant-garde art was motivated by its belief in the impossibility of total destruction. One can say that the avant-garde, looking towards the future, saw precisely the same image that Benjamin’s Angelus Novus saw when looking towards the past.

From the outset, modern and contemporary art has integrated the possibilities of failure, historical irrelevance, and destruction within its own activities. Thus, art cannot be shocked by what it sees in the rear view window of progress. The avant-garde’s Angelus Novus always sees the same thing, whether it looks into the future or into the past. Here, life is understood as a non-teleological, purely material process. To practice life means to be aware of the possibility of its interruption at any moment by death — and thus to avoid pursuing any definite goals and objectives, because such pursuits can also be interrupted by death at any moment. [pp. 35-36]

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