April 17, 2011

Walter Benjamin: Archiving as Dialectical Strategy


The Autumn of Central Paris (after Walter Benjamin) 
R. B. Kitaj

History, for Walter Benjamin, always marks a site of political struggle. In this way, his ongoing attempt to rid his own work of the “ideology of progress” cannot be separated from a commitment to revolutionary politics. As Benjamin puts it in the Arcades Project, “the object’s rescue” by way of historical materialism “carries with it an immanent critique of the concept of progress.” Indeed, the commodification of all aspects of urban life in Benjamin’s time made Marx’s analysis of capital a necessity for historical materialism; but where Marx still relied on a discourse of progress, Benjamin set forward a dialectical model that froze contradiction in the form of an image: “where thinking comes to a standstill in a constellation saturated with tensions—there the dialectical image appears.” This version of the dialectic, writes Benjamin, “refutes everything ‘gradual’ about becoming and shows seeming ‘development’ to be a dialectical reversal . . . [as] the awakening from [a] dream.” Thus the Arcades Project, Benjamin’s unfinished attempt at a dialectical intervention in the dream-life of the collective, sees him assembling the material traces of nineteenth century Paris as “talismans” in order to present a “collective history—not life as it was, nor even life remembered, but life as it has been forgotten.”

Among well-known characters like the flaneur and the gambler, the collector is a recurrent figure in Benjamin’s writing. “What is decisive in collecting,” writes Benjamin, “is that the object is detached from all its original functions in order to enter the closest conceivable relation to things of the same kind.” In the collector, therefore, we see at work the beginnings of a dialectic of “reconstruction and recuperation.” The collector preserves objects only to reinsert them into new contexts and arrangements, thus transforming a metaphorical relation (which is tied to value as a commodity) into a metonymic one. This distinction between “metaphor” and “metonym” is, for Benjamin, displayed in his early work on Baroque allegory, and is not unrelated to the death of the “aura,” which we witness later in “an age of mechanical reproduction.” This leveling of signification closely parallels the production of value in the commodity.

Following Karl Krauss, Benjamin’s practice of collection, which defines the structure of the Arcades Project, is a form of citation, which restores writing to significance by displacing it from its original context and organizing it in another. “History,” writes Benjamin, “belongs to the concept of citation, however, that the historical object is in each case torn from its context.” As Terry Eagleton explains it, citation resembles “reproduction” (which opens possibilities) rather than “repetition” (which, like the commodity form, perpetually reinstates the “aura”): “in the mosaic of quotation as in the explications of baroque emblem, discourse is released from its own reified environs into a conveniently portable kind of signifying practice . . . to weave fresh correspondences across language.” Citation, then, is not simple transmission, but rather a dialectical interruption, which, through the reactivation of historical tensions produces new situations, and consequently, moments of awakening. In contrast to the bourgeois notion of a causal, monumental historicism, Benjamin understands “tradition” as a dynamic activity of destruction and production.
The destructive character stands at the front line of the traditionalists. Some pass things down to posterity, by making them untouchable and thus conserving them, others pass on situations, by making them practicable and thus liquidating them. The latter are called destructive. . . . The destructive character sees nothing permanent. But for this very reason he sees ways everywhere.
For Benjamin, history is opposed to tradition as the ruling classes are opposed to the exploited. Tradition is not alternative history, nor is it a secret narrative that runs beneath the history of the powerful; rather, suggests Eagleton, it is “a series of spasms or crises within class history itself, a particular set of articulations of that history.” Thus rather than charting out an alternate course, the historical materialist draws such crises, such forgotten situations, into a complex “constellation” of dialectical tension with the present.

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