Tom’s work focuses on the intersection of continental philosophy, political theory and comparative literature. He has a special interest in twentieth century theories of history and language, in particular their implications for political thought. He has written extensively on Walter Benjamin’s theories of philology, reading and interpretation and is currently finishing a book on the nexus of politics and language in Benjamin’s writings on Karl Kraus. His first book, Critique of Journalistic Reason: Language and History After Hegel, is forthcoming with Fordham University Press in 2020.
Rechtsprechung ohne Urteil:
Language, law and justice in Benjamin
ICI Affiliate Project 2019-20
This project is an investigation of the nexus of language and justice in the work of Walter Benjamin. It takes his description of language as ‘matrix of justice’ (Mater der Gerechtigkeit) as the point of departure for a broader exploration of the idiosyncratic theory of justice that is elaborated experimentally throughout his writings. The first of these experiments, the ‘Notes Towards a Work on the Category of Justice’, were drafted in 1916, the same year in which Benjamin began to be intensively preoccupied with the problem of language. In his correspondence from that period, Benjamin already suggests that the key insight of his reflections on language – the thought that ‘all human spiritual life has its origin in language’ – would also have to inform the philosophical inquiry into the spheres of law (Recht) and justice (Gerechtigkeit). It is, indeed, through his theory of language that Benjamin attempts to confront the problem first formulated in his earlier notes: the need to think the ‘enormous rift’ between law and justice.
It is the promise of a justice that cannot be thought merely as a fulfilment of law – a ‘higher justice’ incommensurable with the judging word – that Benjamin attempts to deduce from his analysis of the inner structure of language. Such a justice would not be limited to the claims by legal persons but rather involves a demand that words and things never cease to make on human beings.
The project will start from the early notes on justice to trace a trajectory through Benjamin’s work that traverses dispersed texts and themes, ranging from reflections on the linguistic structure of the Mosaic law to studies of the role of dialogue in ancient trials, from an account of the ‘pull towards justice’ in Aeschylus to a diagnosis of the indistinctness of law and justice in Stifter, from a theory of humor as a ‘adjudication without judgement’ to a portrayal of Karl Kraus as a demonic prosecutor for whom every now becomes ‘a room – a courtroom in which language presides’.
Philologies of Fascism:
Notes on Language and Politics
ICI Affiliate Project 2018-19
Language is a recurrent concern in the analyses of the twentieth-century fascist movements by their contemporaries. This holds true not only of investigations dedicated entirely to the language of fascism, such as Klemperer’s Lingua Tertii Imperii, the famous collection of philological remarks produced during the 1930s. Also in the work of thinkers like Kraus, Arendt, Adorno, Bachmann or Pasolini, the attempt to understand fascism as a political phenomenon turns at decisive points into a scrutiny of its phrases and tropes, its idiom and diction, its characteristic modes of speech and writing. This project explores the thought that, often implicitly, structures these investigations: the hypothesis that any attempt to understand fascism – to grasp its specificity and novelty – must involve a study of its language.
Fascism, so these authors suggest, can be thought as a political phenomenon only insofar as it is also treated as a linguistic phenomenon. Before it has crystallised into an ideology or taken the form of totalitarian rule, fascism announces itself as a distinct configuration of language, thought and experience. Tracing the elaboration of this hypothesis in the writings on fascism produced during the emergence and aftermath of the totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century, I explore how these philological inquiries shed light on a number of issues that continue to haunt our historical and political moment: the relation between language and affect, speech and violence, truth and lying, protected and disposable lives.
Images of Arrested Time in Kierkegaard and Benjamin
ICI Project 2017-18
In this project I examine how notions of standstill, stasis, and interruption may help to rethink the constitution of historical time. Focusing on the images of arrested time that appear at decisive points in the work of Kierkegaard and Benjamin, I will elaborate an apparently simple thought: that history is, contrary to a persistent assumption, not to be conceived in terms of development or progress but takes place precisely in an interruption of the course of history.
To follow this thought means to challenge conceptions of history that rely on the simple opposition of movement and stagnation, stasis and kinesis, which find their exemplary expression in the representation of history as the progression of a human subject through time. If the failure of history to erupt is, today, best captured as the movement of a machine rotating on the spot, historical time must be rethought as a moment of genuine standstill – a now where history ceases to unfold as an inexorable succession and time itself is brought to a halt.