Posts Tagged ‘surrealism’

Documentary photography

In Arcades, photography, Promenades on April 14, 2011 at 3:03 pm

I have been alerted to these two photographers by the sound artist, Reid Dudley-Peirson, who, coincidentally is performing in a new piece called ‘Songs of the sublime’ at the Turner Contemporary gallery in the seaside town of Margate this weekend.

Reid informed me, after reading an early draft of some of our work, that we should supplement our analysis of seaside photography and the Arcades Project with considerations of the work of Eugene Atget and Martin Parr. This may take some time for us to process, but we offer up a couple of images here.

Atget was a contemporary of Walter Benjamin, taking photographs of Paris streets that influenced the surrealists and Dada at the time that Benjamin was working on his study of the Parisian Arcades. Martin Parr is a British documentary photographer, whose study of the seaside ‘The Last Resort’, clearly sheds light on our work on the links between tourism and the everyday within the capitalist constraints of the promenades.

Eugene Atget: avenue des gobelins (1927)

In his ‘little history of photography’, Benjamin makes the case for photography, still in the early stages of its development, to be “moving out of the realm of aesthetic distinctions to social function”. Leslie [2000] locates this movement in the dialectic, claiming that there is always an excess in photography, a residue of the social. In this sense, photography can provide research material, historical evidence that goes far beyond merely that which is represented on the surface of a photographic image.

Leslie goes on to identify three ways in which Benjamin conceptualised photography:

Firstly, as analogical representations of an external reality. Photographs provide a way of capturing natural perception and thus, of making the subjective objective.

Secondly, “the photograph fixes on celluloid a view of reality, held in the consciousness of a class when it imagines itself and the cosmos. Technological art is capable of tendering in ocular form the ideology of the self-representing class” [Leslie 2000: 49]. Benjamin refers to this as ‘optical-unconscious’, a relationship between the unconsciousness of the subject and the a-conscious machine perception of the lens

Finally, photography disrupts the ‘natural’ flow of images and perception and allows for reconfigurations of space and time, new constellations of knowledge.

“Photography…was first adopted within the dominant social class…:manufacturers, factory owners and bankers, statesmen, men of letters and scientists” Gisela Freund, “La Photographie au point de vue sociologique” (manuscript, p.32). Is this accurate? Shouldn’t the sequence be reversed? (Benjamin, AP, Y3, 1)

Émile Cohl: Fantasmagorie & The Hasher’s Delirium

In Arcades on December 24, 2010 at 5:16 pm

Dreams, Drugs and Balconies: A reflection on Convolute M – The Flaneur

In Arcades, reading on August 19, 2010 at 3:00 pm

 “An intoxication comes over the man who walks long and aimlessly rough the streets.  With each step, the walk takes on greater momentum; ever weaker grow the temptation of shops, of bistros, of smiling women, ever more irresistible the magnetism of the next street corner, of a mass of distant foliage, of a street name.  Then comes hunger.  Our man wants nothing to do with the myriad possibilities offered to sate his appetite.  Like an ascetic animal, he flits through unknown districts – until, utterly exhausted, he stumbles into his room, which received him oddly and wears a strange air” (Benjamin AP M1,3)

The intoxication of flanerie is linked explicitly in this convolute to the intoxication produced by Hashish, a drug that Benjamin experimented with in the 1920s.  He makes frequent references to it throughout the Arcades Project and links the hesitant, doubt-filled meanderings of flanerie explicitly to the feelings of “hashish intoxication” (M4a,1), explaining the experiences of walking through crowded streets in these terms too:

“The masses are the newest drug for the solitary.” (Benjamin AP M16,3)

“We know that, in the course of flanerie, far-off times and places interpenetrate the landscape and the present moment.  When the authentically intoxicated phase of this condition announces itself, the blood is pumping in the veins of the happy flaneur, his heart ticks like a clock, and inwardly as well as outwardly things go on as we would imagine them to do in one of those ‘mechanical pictures’ which in the nineteenth century (and of course earlier, too) enjoyed great popularity, and which depicts in the foreground a shepherd playing on a pipe, by his side two children swaying in time to the music, further back a pair of hunters in pursuit of a lion, and very much in the background a train crossing over a trestle bridge…” (Benjamin AP M2,4)

Hashish has dissociative properties as well as hallucinatory ones, and although the preceding quotation emphasises the phantasmagorical, optimistic visions offered by flanerie, Benjamin reports in the first that the flaneur suffers from an inability to settle and finds his own environment suddenly strange on his return.  This process of othering and of the breaking of ties is an characteristic of flanerie that is underdeveloped in contemporary appropraitions of the term. Flanerie involves connections being made in a process that can never be fully grasped in its entirity, as the edifice of the Arcades Projects makes clear.  A mode of flanerie in reading is demanded by the Arcades Project in which the reader must enter into the concept to understand it.  This intoxicated mode is another altered state offered by Benjamin in an attempt to provide a framework for understanding the paradoxes of urban life.  Elsewhere it is the language of dreams that gives us the toolkit for understanding the methods that Benjamin is using (convolute N) or the fantastic architectural and cultural forms of modernity (Convolute K).  Influenced by the surrealists and in turn influencing the situationsists, Benjamin is attempting to bend the logic of dreams and drugs to confront a world of fantasy and excess.  The concept he bequeaths most obviously to later urban thinkers is that of the flaneur.

An illustration of the fantastic landscape of the flaneur is given by reference to a guidebook description of a restaurant menu from 1867, described as “Flanerie through the bill of fare” by Benjamin, but also, uncomfortably, reflecting the labyrinthine construction of the Arcades Project itself:

“’Thirty-six pages for food, four ages for drink – but very long pages, in small folio, with closely packed text and numerous annotations in fine print.’ The booklet is bound in velvet.  Twenty hors d’oeurves and thirty-three soups. ‘Forty-six beef dishes, among which are seven different beefsteaks and eight fillets.’ ‘Thirty-four preparations of game, forty-seven dishes of vegetables, and seventy-one varieties of compote’” (AP M3a,1)

This excess of choice offers no logical path through, no rational decision making process for the consumer.  It invites you to soak up is luxury, marvel at its generosity and, ultimately, to open your wallet in a delirium.  This a dreamscape designed to extract profit, a Disneyworld bound in velvet.

Sharon Zukin (1993) summarises the landscapes created by Disney world as ‘The power of facade / the facade of power’ , noting that the production of a constantly evolving, interactive, fantasy landscape that can meet the physical, emotional and social needs of its visors relies on “the centralization of economic power typical of modern society” (224).  Disney create dreams as landscapes, supported by an infrastructure of convenience that means that dream, and the landscape, are unbroken for miles, and for days at a time.

“Landscape – that, in fact, is what Paris becomes for the flaneur.  Or, more precisely:  the city splits for him into its dialectical poles.  It opens up to him as a landscape, even as it closes around him as a room” (Benjamin AP M1,4)

This is the personalisation of landscape, the creation of an architectural form that is both expansive and inspiring on the one hand, and personal and inviting on the other.  Benjamin folds the internal and external together by emphasising the way in which the streets of the city become the living space of ‘the masses’.

“Streets are the dwelling place of the collective.  The collective is an eternally unquiet, agitated being that – in the space between the building fronts – experiences, learns, understands, and invents as much as individuals do within the privacy of their own four walls.  For this collective, glossy enamelled shop signs are a wall decoration as good as, if not better than, an oil painting in the drawing room of a bourgeois; walls with their ‘post no bills’ are its writing desk, newspaper stands its libraries, mailboxes its bronze busts, benches its bedroom furniture, and the cafe terrace is the balcony from which it looks down on its household.  The section of railing where road workers hang their jackets is the vestibule, and the gateway which leads from the row of courtyards out into the open is the long corridor that daunts the bourgeois, being for the courtyards the entry to the chambers of the city.  Among these latter, the arcade was the drawing room.  More than anywhere else, the street reveals itself in the arcade as the furnished and familiar interior of the masses.” (Benjamin AP M3a,4)

But we shouldn’t solely understand this as an emancipatory perspective on the reclamation of urban space by the oppressed, a common tendency in urban theory, but instead look at what Benjamin is pointing us to here.  This section of writing is structured around a series of oppositions between the possessions of the wealthy and the possessions of the masses:

Oil paintings vs. Shop signs

Writing desks vs. Street walls

Libraries vs. Newspaper stands

Bronze busts vs. Mailboxes

Bedroom furniture vs. Benches

Balconies vs. Cafe terraces

Vestibules vs. Railings

Drawing rooms vs. Arcades

This list, drawn out here to emphasise its absurdity, highlights the different material positions of the two classes.  To be outside is, in this case, to be kept outside, barricaded off from a world that is as fantastic as the velvet wrapped menu.  The creative possibilities offered by the street are a substitution for the material advantages of wealth, but in no way emancipation from the logic of capital.   The flaneur, taking in this ‘division’ (AP M5,8) as if in a dream, and entering into it with a jouissant  attitude, coasts along on the crest of commodification and offers no challenge to an order which appears as if in a dream:

“Empathy with the commodity is fundamentally empathy with exchange value itself.  The flaneur is the virtuoso of empathy.  He takes the concept of marketability itself for a stroll.  Just as his final ambit is the department store, his last incarnation is the sandwich man.” (Benjamin AP M17a,2)

A Collection on Convolute H

In Arcades on May 5, 2010 at 8:38 am

“What is decisive in collecting is that the object is detached from all its original functions in order to enter into the closest conceivable relation to things of the same kind.  This relation is the dramatic opposite of any utility, and falls into the peculiar category of completeness.  What is this “completeness”?  It is a grand attempt to overcome the wholly irrational character of the object’s mere presence at hand through its integration into a new, expressly devised historical system:  the collection.  And for the true collector, every single thing in this system becomes an encyclopaedia of all knowledge of the epoch, the landscape, the industry, and the owner from which it comes.  It is the deepest enchantment of the collector to enclose the particular item within a magic circle, where, as a last shudder runs through it (the shudder of being acquired), it turns to stone.  Everything remembered, everything thought, everything conscious becomes socle, frame, pedestal, seal of his possessions.  It must not be assumed that the collector, in particular, would find anything strange in the topos hyperouranios – that place beyond the heavens which, for Plato, shelters the unchallenged archetypes of things.  He loses himself, assuredly.  But he has the strength to pull himself up again by nothing more than a straw; and from out of the sea of fog that envelops his senses rises the newly acquired piece, like an island. – Collecting is a form of practical memory, and of all the profane manifestations of “nearness” it is the most binding.  Thus, in a certain sense, the smallest act of political reflection makes for an epoch in the antiques business.  We construct here an alarm clock that rouses the kitsch of the previous century to “assembly”.”

Benjamin The Arcades Project Convolute H [H1a,2]

“The true method of making things present is to represent them in our space (not to represent ourselves in their space).  (The collector does just this, and so does the anecdote.) Thus represented, the thing allows no mediating construction from out of “large contexts”.  The same method applies, in essence to the consideration of the great things from the past – the cathedral of Chartres, the temple of Paestum – when, that is, a favourable prospect presents itself: the method of receiving the things into our space.  We don’t displace our being into theirs; they step into our life.”

Benjamin The Arcades Project Convolute H [H2,3]

“The language-game of reporting can be given such a turn that the report gives the person asking for it a piece of information about the one making the report, and not about its subject-matter. (Measuring in order to test the ruler.)” [cf LW I, 416; PI II, x, p. 190d-191a]

Wittgenstein Last writings on the philosophy of psychology Vol.2: The inner and the outer, MS169 p8e

“Works of art teach that person how their function outlives their creator and how his intentions are left behind. They demonstrate how the reception of the work by its contemporaries becomes a component of the effect which a work of art has upon us today. They further show that this effect does not rest in an encounter with the work of art alone but in an encounter with the history which has allowed the work to come down to our own age. “

Benjamin ‘Eduard Fuchs: Collector and Historian’, trans  Knut Tarnowski, New German Critique, No. 5 (Spring, 1975)

“Accually, inheritance is the soundest way of acquiring a collection. For a collector’s attitude toward his possessions stems from an owner’s feeling of responsibility toward his property. Thus it is, in the highest sense, the attitude of an heir, and the most distinguished trait of a collection will always be its transmissibility.”

Benjamin, ‘Unpacking My Library’, Illuminations, trans’ Harry Zohn & ed’ Hannah Arendt, Shocken Books NY 2008 p66

Worthing Promenade: Cycles by Cyriak

In Promenades on March 11, 2010 at 1:08 pm

This remarkable video uses Worthing promenade as the site of some ludic recursiveness.

This shows us another range of uses of the promenade; in the taking up of its representations and its being made the subject of bricolage.

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)