Posts Tagged ‘Parataxis’

“the value of fragments”

In Arcades, reading on June 13, 2011 at 1:44 pm

“Just as mosaics preserve their majesty despite their fragmentation into capricious particles, so philosophical contemplation is not lacking in momentum. Both are made up of the distinct and the disparate; and nothing could bear more powerful testimony to the transcendent force of the sacred image and the truth itself. The value of fragments of thought is all the greater the less direct their relationship to the underlying idea, and the brilliance of the representation depend as much on this value as the brilliance of the mosaic does on the glass plate. The relationship between the minute precision of the work and the proportions of the sculptural or intellectual whole demonstrates that truth content is only to be grasped through immersion in the most minute details of subject matter.”

Benjamin, The Origin of German Tragic Drama, p28-29


Here we have The Arcades Project at the point of its inception. The theme of the intellectual mosaic which emerges from immersion in the minutia is writ large in Convolutes H, M, & N and can be seen in operation throughout the body of The AP. The process of walking through the field to be studied (M: flanerie), collecting from that field (H: collection) and then assembling the result parataxically (N: method) which is The AP is already present in the ‘Trauerspiel’ book.

Packaging liminality: the management and commodification of liminal landscapes in tourism

In Arcades, Conferences, Promenades, Publications on April 18, 2011 at 10:40 am

We’ve just had the abstract below accepted for the ATLAS 2011 conference in Valmeira, Latvia.  The theme of the conference is ‘Landscape and Tourism: a dualistic relationship”.  Our plan for this paper is to take the methodology that we’ve been developing on this blog over the last two years and apply it to other tourist spaces, in order to test its value as a new approach.

Images of the liminal

In Arcades, Promenades on July 1, 2010 at 5:08 pm

This is a slideshare version of our paper from the Liminal Landscapes conference, given today in Liverpool.

Found images of Brighton promenade

In Promenades on June 9, 2010 at 9:13 am

A short snippet from our paper for the Liminal Landscapes symposium next month.  This shows how we are using web technology to collect material for a ‘working convolute’ on Brighton.  We are gathering images taken by other people that have been uploaded to the web, as a way of accessing representations and uses of the promenade, in an attempt to develop a methodological approach that builds on Benjamin’s methods in the Arcades Project.

“Becker (1974) provides a methodological way of thinking about this potential social research resource.  This relates to the second conception of photography held by Benjamin. The possibilities for producing new constellations of knowledge by using photography suggests possibilities for the collection and reconfiguration of images of the promenade as a way to access its history. Becker imagines the ‘sociologist photographer’ as collecting a plethora of images of a social situation, almost at random, taking care not to pre-judge what is of value in the resultant images.  A consideration of the photographs then guides a further concentration in the research as the sociologist photographer spends time with “his [sic] contact sheets and work prints” and developing questions about the practices and situations that he observes.  This process of collection and interpretation then opens up further avenues of enquiry and begins to produce social knowledge.  In Benjamin’s terms it constructs new configurations of the past, of a kind only accessible through these technological means.  In this study we update Becker’s work, and by seeking to reduce the impacts of sociological bias in our approach to the collection of images we aim to prevent any imposition of the very false coherences that Benjamin had tried to prevent through his parataxic method.

In practical terms, we have utilised web-technology to trawl through the online photo-hosting site flickr in an automated process.  We have set up a yahoo pipe, a relatively new piece of web 2.0 software which aggregates data from the web in the form of RSS feeds, images, blog posts and visual media.  Crucially, a pipe then provides a visual interface through which you can access the aggregated data.  A pipe can be user-customised to a great extent.  Although, following Becker and Benjamin, we aim to collect data without prejudicing it in advance, we are also conscious of sociological / historical practices and the way in which fields of inquiry are constructed to guide even the most inductive studies.  In this respect we have delimited the ‘feeds’ to the pipe to include only the most popular photo-hosting site and also set up keywords to structure these feeds.  Images uploaded to flickr are ‘tagged’ by users to aid retrieval and to publicise the images to a wider audience.  The processes by which images arrive in the virtual public/private spaces of the internet and are distributed throughout them via social networks, direct our attention to ‘sociogram’ quality of all photography.”

*we’re working out how to reference these images accurately.  All of these pictures have been uploaded on a creative commons license and we’ve given links to each of their sources in our bibliography.

Collections as methods –Convolute H

In reading on May 6, 2010 at 1:56 pm

Part of our work on this project involves gathering images of promenades and presenting them.  This seemingly uncomplicated activity runs into trouble when confronted with the legacies of decades of ‘authoritative’ social science research.  How will we select these images? How do we find them? How ‘representative’ are they?  What can they tell us about the research process and its inherent qualitative insecurity?

In putting together these collections of photos and quotations we are working within a paradigm of ‘collecting’ and using parataxical methods (see this post) to attempt to produce work that produces dialectical images – constellations of material that allow us to grasp the correspondences between our own time and the objects of history. Eagleton puts this into the context of knowledge production, helping us to understand our own use of these methods:

“A constellatory epistemology sets its face against the Cartesian or Kantian moment of subjectivity, less concerned to ‘posses’ the phenomenon than to liberate it into its own sensuous being and preserve its disparate elements in all their irreducible heterogeneity…what this method then delivers is a kind of poetic or novelistic sociology in which the whole seems to consist of nothing but a dense tessellation of graphic images; and to that extent it represents an aesthetic mode of social enquiry.” (1990: 229-330)

The tessellation of images are not chosen at random by Benjamin within this aesthetic enquiry, they are collected.  There are no limits to the pool from which these images are fished and the collector should seek to be indiscriminate in his search:

“A chronicler who recites events without distinguishing between major and minor ones acts in accordance with the following truth: nothing that has ever happened should be regarded as lost for history.” (Benjamin 1999: 246)

Collectors are people with a ‘tactical instinct’ (ibid:64), a difficult argument to make in the academy where the death of the author has never produced the inevitable death of the researcher, and the vitality of researcher is asserted by their mastery of academic epistemologies.   In order to unpack this idea of instinct we need to work through Benjamin’s instinctive assemblage of materials and observations on collecting, found in convolute H of the Arcades Project.

Collecting for Benjamin is at once an act of separation and of union; selecting objects from a diverse field in order to place them together with objects of a similar kind (H1a, 2).  Objects brought together in this manner form collections. These collections are the fruit of the work of the collector, the individual who is able to ‘pursue and encounter’ objects and to present them in our space, not the space of their origin. Benjamin is clear (H2, 7; H2a, 1) that to present objects in this way is not to divorce them fundamentally from their functional relations, that is, their social existence and their connection to production, but on the contrary to select objects and to arrange them in a way that brings their social being into a constellation with our own.  In effect, the collected object is able to crystallise its social relations and present them to us afresh.  The collector then, “takes up the struggle against dispersion” (H4a, 1), the confusion in which the world presents itself to us, and attempts to piece together a patchwork of objects that, taken together, make order out of chaos.

“We construct here an alarm clock that rouses the kitsch of the previous century to ‘assembly’” (H1a,2)

Benjamin often describes collectors in an almost mystical language, as ‘interpreters of fate’ who can  form a ‘magic encyclopaedia, a world order’.  Equally often, Benjamin offers explanations of how this apparently mystical knowledge might be grounded in material concerns:

“We need only recall what importance a particular collector attaches not only to his object but also to its entire past, whether this concerns the origin and objective character of the thing or the details of its ostensibly external history: previous owners, price of purchase, current value and so on.” (H2,7; H2a,1)

This apparent dichotomy in Benjamin’s conception of the collector can only be resolved dialectically in the practice of assembling a collection.  In creating and maintaining the illusion of an almost theological coherence between seemingly disparate objects and historical periods, the collector must methodically and systematically go about her work, drawing on her expert knowledge within a broader emancipatory project of creating a dream-like constellation of objects and ideas in order to awaken us from the dream-like state of contemporary, phantasmagorical capitalism .  For more on this point, read this post.

For us, attempting to produce convolute-style material and to develop the methods of the Arcades Project, this analysis of collecting affirms rather than contradicts the rigorous methodologies of the contemporary social sciences, but encourages an eclecticism and aesthetic perspective in the presentation of our work.  The research ‘process’ that Benjamin describes here is closest to ethnography, in which the general changes in the perspective of the researcher allow her to continuously refine and extend her analysis.

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.

Reading for September – ‘Convolute N’

In Arcades, reading on September 8, 2009 at 2:02 pm

The next piece of reading that we are going to tackle from the Arcades Project is ‘Convolute N’ (pp.456-488 of the Harvard University Press edition that we are using – details in the bibliography).  This chapter deals with what Benjamin refers to as ‘On the theory of knowledge, Theory of Progress’ and is an important chapter for understanding the method that Benjamin is using in his project, and that we are applying to the seaside promenade in our own.

Our plan is to respond to this chapter by highlighting what we, individually, see as important sections and posting these on here along with our own commentaries.

As always, other contributors are welcome, just get in touch.  There is a free downloadable version of the entire Arcades Project  in 4 parts available here.

Paris, (the) Capital of the Nineteenth Century

In Arcades, reading, Uncategorized on April 13, 2009 at 11:51 am

The two ‘exposes’ (different versions of the same essay) that act as an introduction/preface to The Arcades Project and which Benjamin seems to have used as plan, prospectus, and calling-card for his remarkable investigation into the society & culture of C.19th Paris and the modes of analysis and thought necessary to carry out such a study (the Passagenwerk does seem to be both a analysis of a part of the past and a meta-analysis of the approaches to that study) are in and of themselves some of the most allusive, suggestive, and stimulating material I have ever encountered.  The number of paths (and it is impossible to avoid such punning figure) that could be travelled in response to this pair of short works are remarkable and as a result it has been hard to focus on one of the huge range of possible responses and readings that could have been made.  This vast range of issues is no bad thing, however, as it allows for many approaches to be taken to The Arcades Project.  It is not the intent of this reading project to be prescriptive or directive and as the Passagenwerk does seem to be a warning against false coherences you should take this as but one route to the reading.

The ‘exposes’ thrust an ekphrasis (a richly detailed but fragmentary instance of description) of Benjamin’s method, research and results at us in the form of a patch-work or incomplete mosaic ( a mosaic most brilliant in outline and most detailed in those parts which has been jewelled with tessera but far far from complete, coherent, and concrete) in which the gaps, incomplete areas, and absences are just as interesting/informative as that which is offered. This parataxic presentation (a juxtapositional method of research and communication wherein ideas and concepts are allowed to retain their identity without being confused and diluted by the requirements of false-coherence; which Adorno styled a ‘constellation’ ) that the ‘exposes’ proffer is itself the expression of a massive parataxic research scheme (found in the ‘convelutes’) and so they (the exposes) cannot help but be the briefest of engagements with the Arcades Project whose great bulk they preface.

It is this method and the Benjanim’s presentation of the expressive elements of 19th century Paris qua society as set out in these ‘exposes’ that is my focus for this post.  Benjamin sets out his methodology as six-fold taxonomy in which each taxon consists of a concept, a metonym of that concept and an evidential discussion (e.g. Strategic Embellishment, Haussman or the Barricade, discussion of the role of urban social space in the history of C.19th Paris).  Benjamin is not ranking or causally associating these moments of the expression of the social formation under consideration. Rather this is a horizontal presentation (parataxis) of some of the elements that made up the expression of the society in question (C.19th Paris).  That is to say that what Benjamin is engaged on here is, following Douglas in ‘Deciphering a Meal’ [Douglas 1972], an analysis of culture (Benjamin as anthropologist). Benjamin uses culture as his starting point so as to work on the social formation being expressed by that culture combining the fields of social practice and discourse in one analysis.

This study of culture through the conjunction of different elements of expression of society that Benjamin has lighted on here (the mode of consumption, architectural forms, technofascist [cf Gorz 1983] implementations and institutions, ‘cultural exegisis & exegetes’, modes of display and distinction, and forms of ‘self-fashioning’) are a part of the mosaic of culture and indexical signs of society. Consideration of these issues would be an excellent starting point for the analysis of any socio-cultural formation (regardless of that society’s relationship to modernity).  Indeed the use of this parataxic grappling with culture (re-focalised for different place-times; e.g. technofascism would be a useless approach to the study of the medieval because of the decentralised and localised quality of medieval society although it would be a useful approach to the Roman Empire with its centralising domination through infrastructure) ought to be recommended for all study and analysis of all human activity because it forces us to consider and study the traces of human life as parts of specific and discrete place-times and not as ebb or flow in some incomprehensible continuum.  That is to say that Benjamin’s parataxic method focuses on people and their actions and lives in and as society rather than some reified universal or grand narratives of one form and focus or another (such as tales of progress, social movements, or heroic individuals).

This juxtapositional analysis is not typical of the diachronic mode, i.e. history, and yet there is no doubt that Benjamin was a very historically minded thinker, that The Arcades Project is a ‘historical’ work, and that the parataxic mode is of great utility to historians.  It is the epistemological strength of Benjamin’s parataxic method that is most appealing (and urgent) to the historian. History suffers under the dread delusion of the diachronic [foolishly believing that we can know the past through its remnants when we can only know the remnants and their – synchronic – time] and thus fails as a field for the production of knowledge of the past.  Historians seem wedded to the notion that one can ‘read through’ the partial past survivals we work on to that which lay ‘behind’; ie history believes that our sources of information can allow us into their past (as though a window) so that we can know the past from the sources. This is a nonsense. The rhetorical, discursive, constructed, representational, and partial qualities of all (yes all!) our sources of information about the past (and indeed of all human action and thought) prohibit this. The sources of information about the past that we utilise now were meaningful to the people of the past in there own use of them in their own ‘now’ and that use may have been in the construction of social-memory (or formal ‘history’) but that was a use of their past in their now and it is their now that is the essential part of this. What we encounter when we seek to analyse the past is a series of synchronic assemblies (of texts, objects, landscape – an entire ecology of meaning and use) that relate to a prior ‘now’ and not to some continuum of the past whose ebb and flow we gauge with instrumentation. The past (just as the present) is not a continuum it is series of skeins that we tangle together into one form or another as we see fit. Each skein is concerned with its own ‘now’ and may construct a past as part of that concern with dealing with its ‘now’ but that construction is not part of some diachronic continuum it is a part of a discrete element of a series.

“He [the historian] records the constellation in which his own epoch comes into contact with that of an earlier one.”
Walter Benjamin. On the Concept of History. Addendum A [Benjamin 1999]

The drawing into contact of our skein of ‘now’ with the skeins of the past is the purpose of Benjamin’s method.  The Arcades Project is an attenmpt to bring the vast complexity of past socio-cultural action and discourse into our world so that we might make the best study of that we can, so that we can make it as meaningful as possible, and so that we can see as clearly as we can the uses and rules of use that a prior society was making of its culture.

It may seem both hubristic and pointless to accuse an entire field for the production of knowledge of having failed but there is no doubt that as it stands the academic investigation of the past needs ‘root and branch’ reform and revitalisation especially in it epistemology and ethics if it is not to slip back, under the impetus of a powerful current of anti-history which is presently at work on the discipline, into its prior status of simple instrument of governmentality (as is currently the case with ‘Economics’).  This would be a great shame because history spent most of the 20th century withdrawing from the field of nationalist propaganda and has ‘shown the capacity to change’.  Benjamin provides us with one strong means of avoiding this slippage and so he here joins the ranks of Halbwachs, Foucault and Mann as the most important (and unacknowledged) saviours of history.