Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Walter Benjamin's Angel Of History And Fleeing The Country

Back in 2008, CNN featured an article entitled, "Student Loan Fugitives." I like the sound of that title. It has a nice ring to it, one that is getting louder. Outstanding student loan debt has surpassed $900 billion, so I am assuming there are lot more folks who are seriously considering the option of fleeing the country to avoid their student loan debt. If they can't pay, and they are on the verge of financial ruin, can you blame them for making that decision? So many young Americans, who are highly educated and struggling with so much debt, have been rendered useless in this society. Even worse, they are now being scorned by the political leaders who wish to gut this country even more (apparently, if you owe student loans, according to Boehner, your parents were lazy!). Helplessly, the young and ambitious watch as their futures are robbed from them. They are trapped by the insidious forces of neoliberalism. It is the triumph of the most selfish who neither care about the past nor the future. That is why these are such dangerous and dark times. We have neither a past nor a future anymore. At one point, important thinkers like Walter Benjamin feared the march of progress and "modernity."  That is why historians serve an important, civic role in societies. After all, they are guardians of the past. They contextualize things and for good reason. But we no longer possess a civic society. The state is reduced more and more each day. When was the last time you actually heard yourself described as a citizen or a student or a human being? Those terms have been undermined, and you're now just a consumer.

Walter Benjamin was most certainly a philosopher. However, his awareness of historicism is what interests me most. For instance, he was inspired by Paul Klee's "Angelus Novus," and wrote "Thesis on the Philosophy of History." In this piece, Benjamin described Klee's image as being the "angel of history." This essay is read widely now and deeply appreciated by cultural historians and literary critics.

The angel's face is turned backwards, surveying the past. All he sees is wreckage, and yet he cannot move, because, as Benjamin asserts, his wings are pinned to the ground. There is much controversy about the specific meaning of Benjamin's interpretation. Henry Giroux's analysis, one that is commonly accepted by many academics, will suffice for the purposes of this short piece. He argues that Benjamin is critiquing modernity and progress. Of course, Benjamin lived in bleak and terrifying times (it was a great loss on the day he committed suicide while being hunted down by Nazis). What is more disturbing now, however, is Giroux's take on the angel of history. Giroux writes:

Like the angel of history in Benjamin's rendering of Klee's painting, the American public is surrounded by another catastrophe of history visibly invisible in the horrible suffering produced by two unnecessary wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the current economic recession exacerbating already high levels of poverty, homelessness and joblessness now spreading like a poisonous blight across the American landscape. But unlike the forces constricting Benjamin's angel, the storm that pins the wings of the current diminutive angel of history is more intense, more paralyzing in its hyper-materialistic visions and more privatizing in its definition of agency. The historical forces producing this storm and its accompanying catastrophes are incorrigibly blind to the emergence of a 'pulverized, atomized society spattered with the debris of broken inter-human bonds and their eminently frail and breakable substitutes.' This is best exemplified in the now infamous and cruel tenets of a harsh neoliberalism stated without apology by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s in their mutual insistence that 'government is the problem not the solution" and 'there is no such thing as society.'

Shattering lives. Punishing as many people as possible (through economic torture). Accumulating more capital. Devastating public services. Destroying the last remnants of citizenry. That is neoliberalism in a nutshell. It is not even marching forward, but rather smashing everything in one spot. The present is all it understands. Its defenders may purport to care about the future - that limp and pathetic "winning of the future" slogan comes to mind - but that is only pretense.

So, have you thought about fleeing the country? Or have you already gone through with it? Is there any escaping at this point?

Paul Klee's Angelus Novus (1920)


Anonymous said...

I left, but it has helped me be able to pay my loans easier because the dollar is doing SO bad next to the pound and euro.
Student loans weren't the REASON I left but it was a part of it....I did feel a bit useless to society especially since my masters degree was in music, but that is something I think the United States always makes you feel about certain majors.
My music teaching business is doing great over here. I'm having a baby (a dream that may have never come true if I didn't move here as anternatal care is free!) I live in what I feel is a much more healthy society. Ireland is in financial trouble but it has not ruined the lives of it's young people yet. Unfortunately though, immigration is very common because jobs are scarce....but being self-employed has treated me well. I know in the future my children may move to England to go to university or to get jobs, but I will cross that bridge when I get to it. I'm more than happy being on the other side of the world right now.

Nando said...

Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher are without question, two of the biggest pieces of trash to EVER grace the political landscape. Either one would perform fellatio on a corporate executive, in broad daylight, if they thought it would get them elected.

Anonymous said...

My ancestors did it when the Irish potatoe famine swept across the Emerald isle. So will I. I guess it is in my blood to choose not to wither away in some cruel punishing environment and instead fight for my survival. I am getting all my ducks up set up in a row and everyday come online to research my exit options. Oweing over 150K in private student loans which have recently defaulted, I see no future for myself in this country anymore. Private student loans are truly the worst. I can't discharge them nor can I go on IBR!!! With no unemployment deferments and minimal forebearances, I prefer to call them "pay or default loans". I just thank God that I have no cosignor which gives me the freedom to flee. Every evening, I am avidly researching expat forums to plan my escape. On weekends, I go to my local library and peruse lonely planet books on far off lands. I have also been brushing up on my Spanish and learning Portuguese and French on the side. I plan to work in my current field which is in demand world wide so obtaining a work visa should not be a problem. The day I get my first paycheck garnishment will be the day I put in my 2 week notice and buy myself a one way ticket overseas. This will not be a problem since I am already fully mentally prepared for this day. My time in the States is limited. That I do know. Perhaps, if we ever get bankruptcy rights returned on these private student loans (which were insidiously stripped away in 2005), I may return one day and be a productive citizen again. God save America!

C. Cryn Johannsen said...

@Anon 7:43 PM - do you know where you'll go? South America? Europe? Just curious.

Anonymous said...

I to will be leaving the United States within the next 2 years. I am working now to get some experience in my field as I just graduated and am also saving up some relocation $ while my loans are still in deferment. I am in a very high demand profession but the pay is crap and there is no way that I will be able to pay off 120K in private loans and 60K in Federal loans and ever have any kind of life. If I could do it all over again, I would have said NO WAY to college and professional school and found some 9-5 job. I would maybe still have my self respect and be without these agonizing daily panic attacks and depression. I hate what has become of America and want nothing to do with this place anymore. I have lived and studied in other countries so I know that the grass is greener elsewhere. I plan on either going to New Zealand or South America.

Anonymous said...

@Cryn 8:11 Strongly considering S America or South East Asia

Anonymous said...

I didn't "flee" from America due to student loans. However, I spent many years overseas using my (first tier) law degree for charitable purposes. But none of the jobs I held overseas were acknowledged as grounds for loan forgiveness. Consequently, as the years passed and my deferments ran out, it became obvious that I would never be able to pay off my student loans. And consequently I simply avoided returning to America. And then, partly through luck, I was able to settle in a great and prosperous Western democracy of which I'm now a Permanent Resident.

I have deep ancestral roots in America, so I understand and empathise with the reluctance of so many young American debt-slaves to emigrate. HOWEVER, the nasty truth about the majority of immigrants to America - perhaps ESPECIALLY the European ancestors of the MAJORITY of Americans, who emigrated in the 1800s to early 1900s - is that most of them did NOT emigrate to America because they loved "Democracy" or the "Free Market", but rather, the majority of them emigrated because they were either bankrupts or designated criminals in their native countries.

Anonymous said...

Why, YES, In fact, I have an interview this weekend for a TESL company in an Asian country where I already know some of the language, wish me luck! My mind is made up and I'm trying as hard as I can to get to greener pastures. I too, have private loans which have completely FUBARED my immediate future (gee, this seems to be a common theme, doesn't it???)... and besides, my profession has a digital freelance sector to it as well, so, I don't necessarily need to stay in the US anyways...

(sure, I'll miss the convention circuit and this complicates taking US-based contracts, but...)

Of course I have my regrets and some sadness for trying to leave home, but, my ancestors also immigrated from another place (Cape Verde) to America to escape poverty, perhaps it's time for some of my family to continue that condition...

C. Cryn Johannsen said...

I felt a great deal of sadness when I left for S. Korea. It was difficult, even though I knew it would be short-term. But people must try and make ends meet, and if they're country has betrayed them and stripped all possibilities of a future, I understand the need to flee.

Erich Matz said...

I just wanted to thank you for this thoughtful blog. I would gladly donate money to this cause, but, right, I cannot afford it. The institution that I owe for is currently my boss. While it thought it was cool to charge me an arm and leg for the education, it barely pays me a living wage to teach its students. While I am angry, outwardly, I cannot seem to help internalize it, leaving me some what rationally paralyzed. It is helpful to read some support. Thanks

Cryn Johannsen said...

@Erich - you are very welcome. I am glad you found my work. Please hang in there. I am not sure if this is any consolation, but you are not alone. There are millions and millions of borrowers who are also struggling. Don't worry about being unable to donate. I know that things are very tough for people.

Happy holiday to you and yours.

Hope to hear from you again.

This is a place for support.

Founder & Exec. Dir.
All Education Matters

Anonymous said...

Can anyone suggest countries to relocate to? I've heard about opp's in Asia but don't think I'd be happy there (though I've never been.) And as a woman, I'm worried about living in Mexico or So. America. Are my worries unfounded?

I'm researching the possibility of teaching EFL abroad and I can also teach music and (don't laugh!) yoga. I'd really like to go to Europe for the culture, but it's getting harder for Americans to get the visa. I've also heard that So. America & Mexico are more welcoming to Americans. Don't think I cd get into Canada as they've got plenty of English teachers there...but maybe?

Anyhow, I really want to lv the US & I don't think I'd miss it at all, really. Spent years struggling, hurting. Most ppl just blame/judge me, like I'm a criminal just because I cdn't afford my college tuition. Really tired of the mentality in this country. I believe education should be free & avail to everyone, not just the very rich, but I guess I'm a minority in this country. Can't bring myself to suicide, unfortunately. But I desperately need a second chance. I mean, I need to be able to really live, without any debt hanging over my head. I just can't take this struggle anymore--it's affecting my mental & physical health too much.

Also I'd like to further my education and get a Masters, as a BA isn't worth anything anymore. Can't do that in the US--too expensive. But abroad I could, as university is much cheaper in most other countries.

Please, if anyone has any concrete suggestions, experiences living and working abroad--especially women. Is it safe to be an independent woman in Mexico or So. America? In Japan?