Convolute N

In Arcades on September 18, 2009 at 7:58 pm

Benjamin is, very, clear and, far too, concise in his summation of the method of The Arcades Project.  Convolute N, which deals with his historical method and his analysis of that method (moving into the philosophy of method and history), contains a very great deal of material but the following are his key methodological statements on the Project itself.

This work has to develop to the highest degree the art of citing without quotation marks. Its theory is intimately related to that of montage.

Method of this project: literary montage. I needn’t say anything. Merely show. I shall purloin no valuables, appropriate no ingenious formulations. But the rags, the refuse – these I will not inventory but allow, in the only way possible, to come into their own: by making use of them.

These two short notes are Benjamin’s expression of the parataxic approach to the study of the past he was engaging in and of its role in his work.  Benjamin was not content to assemble this material and set it side-by-side-by-side rather this was the staring point in his efforts to discern something far greater and far more important; the ‘dialectical images’ or ‘constellations’ to which he constantly refers (not just in The Arcades Project but elsewhere – the Theses on the Philosophy of History for instance) and which The Arcades Project seems to be intended to enable the creation of.  The ‘dialectical image’ is part of Benjamin’s attempt to seize ‘the thread of expression’ [N1a,6] of society and of the study of society [N1a,7] so that we can come to understand both and the connection between them.  This anthropological concern with the past and, simultaneously, with the study of it is what makes The Arcades Project so interesting methodologically.
The Arcades Project is the very parataxic assemblage that Benjamin allows to ‘merely show’ his ‘dialectical images’ (suggesting that the Exposes are Benjamin’s expressions of the dialectical images resulting from this work and thus its most important part rather than ephemera)  and getting to grips with these ‘dialectical images’ is an essential part of reading The Arcades Project as it is they that we ought to be looking to generate in our own analyses.

It’s not that  what is past casts its light on what is present, or what is present its light on what is past; rather, image is that wherein what has been comes together in a flash with the now to form a constellation.  In other words, images is dialectics at a standstill.  For a while the relation of the present to the past is a purely temporal, continuous one, the relation of what-has-been to the now is dialectical: is not progression but image, suddenly emergent.-Only dialectical images are genuine images (that is, not archaic); and the place where one encounters them is language.   {Awakening}

The final indication of this note – that dialectical images are encountered in language – directs our attention to discourse and its role in our studies and its presence in the objects of our study.  It also indicates the great difficulty we are faced with.  We must realise and understand the discourses we are enmeshed with before we can hope to bring the what-has-been in to imagistic contact with them (establish a ‘heightened graphicness’ for history) and thus establish the dialectical images that Benjamin took to be the starting point of genuine analysis.

Collecting the elements of the montage – establishing the paratxic framework of the what-has-been (practicing history if you like) – is merely time consuming it will be bringing ‘dialectics to a standstill’ that will be difficult.

It is good to give materialist investigations a truncated ending.

  1. […] taster of Wesley’s piece: “Benjamin is, very, clear and, far too, concise in his summation of the method of The […]

  2. This is a valuable re-positioning of the Exposes, which I think are all too often skipped over as not the ‘real’ business of the aracdes project because of their apprarently linear narrative style. Parataxis then, is the method through which dialectical images are constructed – I suppose a question that puzzles me is how does the formidable size of the convolutes relate to the method? Is there a ‘necessary’ size, or does each image have its own ‘sufficient’ period of construction? I think I know how this would be dealt with as a problem of the dialectic; that each image will have its sufficient parataxical formation, and that this becomes then it’s neccessary condition – in the same way that Zizek transforms historical cicrumstance into necessary outcomes and conditions to provide a materialist conception of history. BUT, how can we take on this method of parataxis and apply it ourselves? Is the specificity of the Arcades Project and the weight of ‘Benjamin-scholarship’ so much that it cannot be adapted? By what criteria can a parataxical endeavour be judged that transcends this?

    • At issue here is not bulk but what is sufficient to generate a ‘dialectical image’ and convey it to the reader.
      If we compare the convolutes it is obvious that there are wide differences in extent (‘J’ The Baudelaire convolute is 160 pages in the edition we are using whereas ‘N’ is 33 and others are much shorter) and in the degree of ‘quotation’ they contain. So a dialectical image can be generated from any volume of material as long as it brings the past (or any other object of study) and now into contact. One thing (a note or photograph perhaps) could be enough.
      The other issue we are faced with is that Benjamin has put his method on display as part of his work rather than suppressing it in favour of results as is typical. I suspect that we will not have to put our method and research notes/activities on display as we will not need to show that the method we are employing works. We can show that Benjamin firmly established the method for us to take it up and apply it. Rather what we need to do is work towards the establishment of our own ‘dialectical images’ by building up our own networks of quotation and (cross)reference across as broad a continuum of material as we feel is sufficient.
      I think the key problem of The Arcades Project is that it is simultaneously a historical study, a historiographical study, and a discourse on the philosophy of history and refuses to allow itself to be pulled apart. This integration of the whole process of research into the means of transmitting the outcome of the research so that Benjamin could show his insights into the history of the 19th century, history itself, and ‘anthropological’ method does not need to be replicated in order for the method to be re-used.
      To some extent we are already applying the method ourselves in this blog. We have posted to it methodological and ethnographic analyses and will eventually move on to post historical and sociological analyses as well. Parataxis is already built into the form of this blog as well as its content.
      Finally; I think our work so far and the approach we are taking/developing to The Arcades Project show that we oughtn’t be trying to transcend anything but rather we should seek to place our work along side Benjamin’s.

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