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The emancipatory politics of the dialectical image

In Arcades, reading on October 8, 2009 at 8:59 pm

At the start of Convolute N, Benjamin quotes from Marx,

“The reform of conciousness consists solely in…the awakening of the world from its dream about itself” (Marx 1932 cited in Benjamin 2002: 456)

This quotation brings together two of Benjamin’s preoccupations at the time of writing,  the emancipatory project of Marxism and the politico-cultural aspects of the Surrealist movement with its focus on the imaginary and dream worlds of the modern subject.  The method of the Arcades Project is an intervention in these concerns that seeks to produce “lightning flashes” (Benjamin 2002: 456) of knowledge, sufficient to jolt the self-dreaming subject out of their slumber and make present to them the world as it is, rather than as it is represented by the conjoined narratives of historical progress and technological change.   This radical, violent interruption of the dreamworld of false conciousness is to be achieved through the construction of dialectical images, which replace the linear narratives of history with a constellation of events frozen momentarily in an image containing histories of the past and present.  It is the construction, presentation and consumption of dialectical images that provides the emancipatory potential of Benjamin’s historical method for the present situation.

“It is 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, image is dialectics at a standstill.  For while the relation of the present to the past is a purely temporal one, continuous one, the relation of what-has-been to the now is dialectical: is not progression but image, suddenly emergent” (Benjamin 2002: 262)

I have used the same quotation here that Wesley brought into play in his last post.   In what follows I will re-present some of the entries from Convolute N that provide an insight into my own reading of this idea of the dialectical image and its emancipatory role.   These could help us to  think through the politics of our own project and draw out similarities and tensions within our work. 

“In the dialectical image, what has been within a particular epoch is always, simultaneously, ‘what has been from time immemorial.’  As such, however, it is manifest, on each occasion, only to a quite specific epoch – namely, the one in which humanity, rubbing its eyes, recognizes just this particular dream image as such.  It is at this moment that the historian takes up, with regard to that image, the task of dream interpretation.[N 4, 1]” (Benjamin 2002: 464)

“The realisation of dream elements in the course of waking up is the canon of dialectics.  It is paradigmatic for the thinker and binding for the historian.[N 4, 4]” (Benjamin 2002: 464)

“The materialist presentation of history leads the past to bring the present into a critical state [N 7a, 5]” (Benjamin 2002: 471)

“The now of recognizability is the moment of awakening. [N 18, 4]” (Benjamin 2002: 486)

” ‘Our election cry must be: Reform on conciousness not through dogmas, but through the analysis of mystical conciousness that is unclear to itself, whether it appears in a religious or political form.  Then people will see that the world has long possessed the dream of a thing – and that it needs only to  the conciousness of this thing in order really to possess it.’  Karl Marx, Der histrorische Mposessesaterialismus: Die Fruhschriften, ed. Landshut and Mayer (Leipzig <1932>), vol. 1, pp.226-227 (letter from Marx to Ruge: Kreuznach, September 1843) [N 5a, 1]” (Benjamin 2002: 467)

But, how to access this mystical conciousness?  Clearly not be approaching it from within the mysterious, but by engaging with the lived experiences of everyday life, by attending to the details and the debris of existence in the face of the compelling stories of the sweep of history.

” ‘I regret having treated in only a very incomplete manner those facts of daily existence – food, clothing shelter, family routines, civil law, recreation, social relations – which ave always been of prime concern in the life of the great majority of individuals.’  Charles Seignobos, Historie sinecere de la nation francaise(Paris, 1933), p.xi. [N5a, 5] (Benjamin 2002: 467)

This method, which draws on the experiences of the majority in order to construct dialectical images which can reform conciousness like a flash of lightning, finds more contemporary echoes with the heirs of the surrealists, in one of the situationist slogans of 1968:

“People who talk about revolution and class struggle without referring explicitly to everyday life, without understanding what is subversive about love and what is positive in the refusal of constraints, such people have a corpse in their mouth” (Vaneigem 1967: 1:4)