Walter Benjamin’s short essay “Fate and Character” begins by presenting a common idea: “if, one the one hand, the character of a person, the way in which he reacts, were known in all its details, and if, on the other, all the events in the areas entered by that character were known, both what would happen to him and what he would accomplish could be exactly predicted. That is, his fate would be known.” (Selected Writings v1, p201.)

Benjamin continues, noting that “[c]ontemporary ideas do not permit immediate logical access to the idea of fate”, but despite – and for Benjamin, because of – the unreadability of fate “modern men accept the idea of reading character from, for example, the physical features of a person”. What’s odd about this is that for many there’s no problem in “finding knowledge of character as such somehow generally present within” a person, “whereas the notion of analogously reading a person’s fate from the lines in his hand seems unacceptable.” Future external events are not written into the body, but future internal orientation are, which helps one retain an idea of explaining or even predicting events. I believe this can be seen to some degree in the arguments that erupted after Angela’s remarks over at Lenin’s Tomb. There is a way in which one can de-naturalize the meanings of the body, and yet make them just as fixed by hypostatizing the socially inscribed meanings: a certain bodily morphology doesn’t inherently mean X but given the social meanings and the shaping role those play on individuals and groups … (Or, no one is born a worker, but once assigned that role and enduring all the hardships that Marx and others told us about, including the damage to the body, it only makes sense that workers will….)

Benjamin addresses “the traditional conception of the nature of the relationship of character and fate”. This conception doesn’t hold water, because “it is impossible to form an uncontradictory concept of the exterior of an active human being whose core is to be character. No definition of the external world can disregard the limits set by the concept of the active man. Between the active man and the external world, all is interaction; their spheres of action interpenetrate (…) their concepts are inseparable (…) it is impossible to determine in a single case what finally is to be considered a function of character and what a function of fate in a human life”. (202.)

If we push on the concepts, however, for Benjamin, not only will they need to be distinguished, but they “will become wholly divergent” such that “where there is character will, with certainty, not be fate, and in the area of fate character will not be found.” Benjamin continues on to develop these terms in relation to tragedy and comedy – the former having to do with complexity, guilt, and being determined, the latter having to do with simplicity, innocence, and freedom. In the latter context, traits are transfigured – scoundrels become heroes, bodily meanings are no longer readable for characterological insight.

“Physiognomic signs (…) served the ancients primarily as a means for exploring fate, in accordance with the dominance of the pagan belief in guilt. (…) Modern physiognomics reveals its connection with the old art of divination in the unfruitful, morally evaluative accent of its concepts”. (206.) This is fairly clear in eugenics movements and related phenomena (I’m thinking primarily of the measuring of skulls) which sought to divine character from bodies and thus to predict social fates and to intervene on those characters and potential fates. (Against this, the slogan “biology is not destiny” springs to mind.) These readings of bodies are not gone, and they are included subtly (and sometimes not so subtly) in analyses that see themselves as in line with the attempt to liberate bodies. The confined physical and social spaces into which bodies are forced does do damage. Still, occupying these spaces does not produce foregone results. Assuming results helps to write the scripts and to force the playing of scripted roles, scripts and roles that are retroactively named (and affirmed, despite any pretense to protest on the part of left wing fatalists) as fate.