Shopping for Truth

Shopping for Truth

2002-03-31
Gesammelte Schriften volumes 1-7 (Edited by Rolf Tiedemann and Hermann Schweppenhauser
Walter Benjamin
Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp 1972-89.
The Arcades Project (Translated by Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin)
Walter Benjamin
Belknap Press Harvard University Press 2001.
Walter Benjamin’s Passages (Translated by Shierry Weber Nicholsen)
Walter Benjamin’s Passages (Translated by Shierry Weber Nicholsen)
MIT Press 1995.

Adrien Gargett on Pierre Missac’s unification of empirical biography and textual production, and the development of a “criticism of indirection” too often missing from Benjamin studies.

Dartford, England: Like tourists in a world class museum,
visitors swapped souvenir photos and packed marble halls in Europe’s
largest shopping centre. Bluewater, a complex of 320 shops and
restaurants on the outskirts of London, is the most prominent in a
series of regional mega-malls to open in Britain, where an increasingly
mobile population has warmed to this most American of commercial
concepts.

Built in a former chalk quarry 15 miles east of London,
Bluewater’s 1.68 million square feet of retail space make it the biggest
retail shopping centre in Europe. A white roof bristling with glass
cones and spike shaped air ducts gives it the look of a gleaming tent
city. The complex includes a 12-screen cinema, a conservatory with
tropical trees and parking spaces for 13,000 cars. Quotations by Robert
Graves and other poets adorn its walls, and life-sized statues of
apothecaries and candle-makers line a so-called medieval guildhall. This
atmosphere is designed to recapture the pageantry of city life. Yet the
1970’s soul music echoing down its many corridors and the numerous U.S.
names - like Eddie Bauer and KFC - among its shops and restaurants
reinforce Bluewater’s undeniably American flavour.

However, as the ambler passes through the illuminated spotlit
pools from one more glittering façade, he may, perhaps, feel a frisson.
For here, as if keeping a vaguely remembered appointment, he will
encounter the ghost of an old man - bespectacled, thick-haired, Jewish,
steady of gaze.

His name is Walter Benjamin. Profession, philosopher. But what
has this shadowy, long dead person to do with the $1.6 billion
assemblage behind him, the largest project of its kind that Britain has
ever seen? What possible interest can he have in a development
comparable with the 4.2 million square foot Mall of America complex in
Bloomington, Minn? The wraith is Walter Benjamin and he’d rather be in a
bygone Paris, surrounded by his precious sheaves of folio notecards -
convolutes as he calls them. His gaze moves across the smooth gleaming
edifice of Bluewater’s exterior and rests on the wide gash through the
middle of its glass covering, revealing the grey sky. This he knows
about. It may not be the Passage Choiseul in 1880, but it is the same in
spirit. He nods affirmatively: surely Lend Lease Projects Ltd. has
reinvented the arcades of Paris, where once existence flowed without
accent, like the events in dreams.

Architecture, he recalls scribbling in the 1920s, is the most
important testimony to latent mythology - and the most important
architecture of the 19th century was the arcade. Might arcades have the
same significance in the 21st?

Benjamin shuffles towards the open maw in the exterior façade,
the gateway to this cabinet of curiosities. He encounters. He frowns.
Why is everything so clean? Where is La Chaussee d’Antin and its five
million yards of gabardine and poplin? And where is the sign proclaiming
it to be “the foremost house of fashion in the world, and the most
dependable”? He studies the shop names. What are this Christian Lacroix,
and this Armani? Where are the sculptures at the entrance of the Passage
Vivienne, all the lorgnette dealers, the heaps of tortoise for sale,
grinning rows of false teeth, the life-sized dolls and the fragrant
manageress of La Lampe Merveilleuse?

The ashen shade gathers himself and moves on. After a few
steps, something else catches his eye: a slim booklet, protruding from
an information stand. He picks it up and opens it. “All the elements
needed to create city life with style can be found in Bluewater.”
Benjamin frowns - far too much spectacle and not enough dream! - and
stuffs the booklet into his coat pocket. He begins to proceed slowly up
the length of a strange illuminated runway, skirting round a young woman
in conversation with a man pointing animatedly at a window display. The
philosopher winces and begins to turn away. Then something catches his
ear.

“We live in a sanitised world with enclosed malls,” Eric Kuhne,
the centre’s Texas-born architect is saying. “You’re in a completely
different mindset here. It’s a series of theme based streets through
which millions of people will walk. The concept is to re-imagine with
light and glass the essence and spirit of metropolitan London. I don’t
like American shopping centres; they’re designed like chilling
fortresses. They make us feel like roaches running for cover when the
lights are turned on.”

Benjamin’s eyes narrow and he turns to confront the architect.
“Excuse me for interrupting your discourse, Sir, but you are wrong,” he
says politely but firmly. “There must be ‘enclosure.’ This thing you
have created should be a dream house of the collective. How can you
dream here? Where is the ennui, the huddling, and the stuffiness? And
the erotic - where is that? You can’t reach the future by relying on
mere organised thought and history with its Scotland Yard credentials,
but only by dreaming and waking.” But the pair are quite plainly
completely unaware of Benjamin’s apparition: they see and hear nothing
of him and walk through the faint shimmer of his presence.

The old man pauses to collect himself. “Intolerable,” he
mutters. “Things have never been the same since tarmac replaced the
cobbles in Paris and those cafe layabouts were - unfortunately for
philosophy and literature - able to hear each other speak. And as for Le
Corbusier allowing all that light into buildings - I ask you! How can
one possibly awake from a tawdry miasma when there is no miasma?”

One would be well advised to approach
Benjamin in an indirect and partial manner, almost through stealth, or
even unawares, en passant, in accordance with the method by which
Benjamin made his best finds as a collector. It will be a question not
so much of assuming the proper distance to Benjamin but of situating
oneself at the appropriate point in space, whether this is to the side
or below. One must run the risk of a certain arbitrariness, which will
pay off if a hitherto-unnoticed detail reveals itself in a fleeting
flash of light. (Pierre Missac)

In
Walter Benjamin’s Passages, Pierre Missac’s method of indirect critique stands in striking
contrast to other critical approaches to Benjamin. It is Missac’s
response to the question of the appropriate distance from Benjamin’s
work at which the critic should be located. This question, as Missac
argues in the chapter entitled “Writing about Benjamin,” illuminates a
key problem with Benjamin criticism: either a critic takes up a
standpoint too close to the work, and the criticism becomes mere
imitation, tautology; or the standpoint is too distant, and Benjamin is
seen through the lens of an ideology, or his work is assimilated to an
existing discipline - Benjamin as a philosopher of science, for example.
Additionally, while other approaches may attempt to deal with the
contradictions and fragmentation in Benjamin’s work through a
“resolution by oxymoron” - “the Marxist rabbi” - or by dividing
Benjamin’s work into two periods - the early and the late or the
theological and the materialist - Missac is intent on avoiding such
treatment. If Missac’s own entrance into Benjamin’s oeuvre seems
deliberately elusive, this is in part because of his commitment to
following out the complexities of Benjamin’s character and work rather
than trying to cover them over with the structures of existing
formulations.

What this approach produces is a structure that collects
seemingly independent images and details in order to have them conspire,
in the course of the analysis, to yield a new and unexpected larger
pattern or framework of insight. Without collapsing the difference
between empirical biography and textual production or attempting to
reduce one to the other, Missac struggles to articulate the many points
of contact between the two in which Benjamin’s central concerns are
interconnected.

Missac’s sophisticatedly textured and almost lyrically rhythmic
prose, which at its best reflects Benjamin’s own accomplished writing
from
One-Way Street
and
Berlin Childhood 1900
sets into sharp relief Benjamin’s understanding of the
dialectic, of reading and writing, and of film and photography as
complex allegories of time and history. Missac’s text proceeds by
emphasizing central Benjaminian figures such as the miniature, the
philosophically vital difference between stamp and postcard, the
collector and perhaps most originally the gambler. Throughout Missac
meditates obsessively and brilliantly on the figures of “passage” and
“passing” evoked in the study’s title, figures that serve to illuminate
in their plethora of different meanings and contextual uses the better
part of Benjamin’s oeuvre.

One central function of “passage” for example, other than its
inference towards Baudelaire’s poem “A une passante” (considered crucial
to Benjamin) and to
Passagen-Werk
itself, is that of being one of the triggers animating
Benjamin’s philosophical preoccupation with death and decay, transience
and mortality. Missac has a deeper project re-invoking the themes of
death and survival and setting the image of the “passage” in relation to
that of the grave or tomb, “tombeau” in French. To this image Missac
situates his book in a dialectical relation in that he foregrounds the
theoretically intriguing and painfully empirical fact that Benjamin has
no marked grave and that no one wrote him a formal tombeau - a poem, on
the occasion of the dedication of his monument, honouring the dead
writer’s achievement, such as Mallarme wrote for Baudelaire or Poe.
Missac’s text thus both perpetrates Benjamin’s eternal coming-to-pass
and interrupts it by becoming the very tombeau desired.

In many respects Missac intends to construct a work that is
clearly designed to be a tombeau for Benjamin, in that it integrates
Benjamin’s character, life and work into the complex unity that
constitutes that whole - an homage demonstrating how his work
anticipated the future and how it encompasses vital elements that extend
resonantly into the contemporary condition. However, this is very much a
“post-tradition” tombeau and this is why the motif of the “passage” is
the most appropriate central image deployed. Among other things,
“passage” in Benjamin, and for Missac writing about Benjamin, signifies
transition and change. It allows an exploration of the multifaceted
elaboration of the central but enigmatic question of the nature of the
dialectic in Benjamin and the variety of aspects of “writing” in
Benjamin’s work, from discussions of genre, including the thesis and the
aphorism, with their associated issues of brevity and complexification,
to the interplay of linear and dialectical composition and the notion of
a secret or interior architecture in the work. In this sense too,
Missac’s book consists of a series of repeated attempts to approach
Benjamin’s death - at the impassable border between France and Spain -
by routes and through aspects of his life and work. The book is a series
of passages to Benjamin’s death as well as a tombeau for one who had
none.

The notion of the ‘passage” also explicates Missac’s criticism
of indirection. It refers to a mode of seeking and comprehending that is
non-frontal but sudden and indirect, like the movements of the knight in
chess, to which Missac repeatedly compares to Benjamin’s mode of
operating. This in turn leads back along another avenue to the central
theme of Benjamin’s relation to time and space, and thus to the aura,
and the phenomena of distance as well. Far away so close, too early and
yet too late define not only to discern the aura of the artwork but also
Benjamin’s relation to the act of writing, and to time past, present,
and future. In the “too early” and the “too late” the present moment is
obliterated. The destruction of the present is opposed by a
countervailing force in Benjamin’s relationship to time, notably the
instant, the messianic rupture. This image of the passage leads us by
another indirect route to the dialectic in suspension and to Benjamin
the “materialist” historian.

Benjamin’s personal battle with time ended with his suicide and
while Missac’s routes lead inevitably to that moment, the intention is
additionally to open the possibility of Benjamin’s survival, by
demonstrating how Benjamin’s work anticipated the future, and
diversifying the analysis into the present. Benjamin’s program is
engaged at several points: through a reflection on the contemporary
progression of reading and literature, for instance, foreshadowed by
Benjamin’s interpretation of Mallarme’s “Un Coup de des” as a
proto-advertising poster. These inquiries are taken further in a chapter
where Missac examines Benjamin’s discussions of photography and film in
relation to his concepts of time and history. This proves,
characteristically, to be far more than a recapitulation of Benjamin’s
essay on the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction. Missac
presents film as the epitome of the dialectical process, the
constructive negation of each momentary image by the one that succeeds
it. Here Benjamin’s effort to stop time in its course is pushed to an
extreme. This discussion subsequently transmutes to form the context for
Missac’s extended exploration of Benjamin’s battle with time, which
became his adversary; in this connection Missac again comes to the
question of the dialectic in the dialectical image and the dialectic
cessation.

If in this way Missac’s critical writing is a refined form of
mourning, the author registers the extent to which such writing as
mourning must also exceed and fall short of itself: “There is a mode or
function of writing,” Missac reflects, “in which it comes to fulfilment,
and puts itself in question.” It is as if Missac’s sensitivity to
Benjamin’s language animates his own, for instance when he notes that if
Benjamin’s writing has a richness, not comparable to the works of other
writers, this is because we find in them the echo or perhaps the
ineffaceable trace of the fundamental problems of the philosophy of
language. His acute awareness of these problems haunted him, and he
manifested that awareness in the most concrete way possible. Missac’s
investigation adeptly animates the philosophical relationship between
passage and myth. When Missac cunningly relates this unique Benjaminian
hauntedness, as he does, to the catastrophic loss of the fountain pen,
the systematically windblown hairstyle, in the casual outfit, or the
philosophical implications of playing games of chess, he reaches through
analysis of the smallest details - as though they were the miniature
objects of which Benjamin was so infinitely fond - toward conclusions
more startling and far-reaching than those achieved by the most
panoramic reviewers.

The present is partial and intense because it is the site of
repetition, the place continually structured by repetition, an eternal
recurrence, and therefore the potential site of its disruptive
continuity.

Benjamin’s writing strives to attain a haunted and
incommensurable quality by constructing a strategic constellation which
does justice to its ghostly resistance to understanding and its deeply
and powerfully critical transformative potential.

To what extent does Benjamin’s language stage this “haunted”
quality which it so clearly evokes? Is this hauntedness found in the
figure for the self-referential condition of language in which according
to Benjamin “language communicates itself” rather than a separable
content? “It is not that what is past casts its light on what is present
or that what is present casts its lights on what is past,” Benjamin
explains in the
Passagen-Werken, “rather, an image is that in which the Former and the Now
merge, like a flash of lightening, into a constellation.” What this
implies is that the Benjaminian flash that gives rise to the potentially
legible image of history both illuminates and blinds.

What is idiomatic and singuar in a text, what Benjamin calls
“the extraordinary, the amazing” - how it confirms its context which
simultaneously betrays it in order to remain faithful to it. For
Benjamin there can ultimately be no cultural analysis that does not
somehow strive to come to terms with, and therefore become affected by,
the movement and difficulty of the language that it would take as its
object of study, and it is in this sense that Benjamin insists on a
textual model of cultural and historical interpretation. As he writes in
an early fragment, “theory must not refer to reality but rather must be
a matter of language.”

One may also approach Benjamin’s writings
by induction, so to speak, moving from the less to the more, from one
part that can be grasped to a whole that is constantly threatening to
elude one’s grasp but that can be reconstituted bit by bit. This would
mean adopting the method that starts with the leaf in order to then
rediscover “all the riches of the empirical world of plants.” (Pierre
Missac)

One of the principal concepts Benjamin invents to describe what
happens to the work of art in the age of technological reproducibility
(principally the age of the camera) is the loss of “aura.” Until roughly
the middle of the 19th century, he says, an intersubjective relationship
of a kind survived between an artwork and its viewer: “To perceive the
aura of a phenomenon [means] to invest it with a capacity to look at us
in turn.” There is thus something magical about aura, derived from
ancient links, now wandering between art and religious ritual. Benjamin
first speaks of aura in his
Little History of Photography
(1931), where he attempts to explain why it is that, in his
eyes, the very earliest portrait photographs - the incunabula of
photography - have auras, whereas photographs of a generation later have
lost them. In “The Work of Art,” the notion of aura is extended rather
recklessly from old photographs to works of art in general. The end of
the aura, says Benjamin, will be more than compensated for by the
emancipatory capacities of the new technologies of reproduction. Cinema
will replace auratic art. In this formulation Benjamin’s concept, in its
incubational stage, proves highly elusive, and yet it is clear that the
general analysis is working in a direction that is quite compelling.
Throughout the 1930’s Benjamin struggled to develop an acceptable
materialist definition of aura and loss of aura. Film is postauratic, he
says, because the camera, being an instrument, cannot see. In a
subsequent revision he suggests that the end of aura can be dated to the
moment in history when urban crowds grew so dense that people -
passers-by - no longer returned one another’s gaze. In the
Arcades Project
he makes the loss of aura part of a wider development: the
spread of a disenchanted awareness that uniqueness, including the
uniqueness of the traditional artwork, has become a commodity like any
other commodity. The fashion industry, dedicated to the fabrication of
unique handiworks intended to be reproduced on a mass scale, points the
way here.

In the late 1920s Benjamin conceived of a work that would deal
with urban experience; inspired by the arcades of Paris, it would be a
version of the Sleeping Beauty story, a dialectical fairy tale told
surrealistically by means of a montage of fragmentary texts. Like the
prince’s kiss, it would awaken the European masses to the truth of their
lives under capitalism. It would be 50 pages long; in preparation for
its writing Benjamin began to copy out quotations under such headings as
Boredom, Fashion, Dust. However, as a stitched together text, it became
overgrown each time with new quotations and notes. Subsequently he
became disillusioned with this version after criticism from Adorno and
Horkheimer that he lacked sufficient grounding in Marxist theory.

By 1934 Benjamin had a new more philosophically ambitious plan:
using the same method of montage, he would trace the cultural
superstructure of 19th century France back to commodities and their
power to become fetishes. As his notes grew in scale, he slotted them
into an elaborate filing system based on 36 convolutes (from
German Konvolut: sheaf, dossier) with keywords and cross-references. Under the
title “Paris, Capital of the 19th century” he wrote a resume of the
material which he submitted to Adorno.

Once again, Adorno’s comments proved adverse. In an attempt to
utilize the material, Benjamin abandoned the outline of the project, but
used its core to construct a book on Baudelaire. Adorno saw sections of
the developments commenting that the facts should not be allowed to
stand alone; a greater emphasis on theory was necessary. Benjamin made
the required amendments, which received a more complementary
reaction.

Baudelaire is central to the Arcades plan because, in Benjamin’s
opinion,
Les Fleurs du Mal
first revealed the modern city as a subject for poetry.
Baudelaire expressed his experience of the city in allegory, a literary
mode out of fashion since the Baroque. In “Le Cygne”, for instance, he
allegorises the poet as a swan, scrabbling comically in the paved
marketplace, unable to spread its wings and soar. Why did Baudelaire opt
for this allegorical mode? Benjamin uses Marx’s
Kapital
to answer this question. The elevation of market value into the
sole measure of worth, says Marx, reduces a commodity to nothing but a
sign - the sign of what it will sell for. Under the reign of the market,
things relate to their actual worth as arbitrarily as, for instance, in
baroque emblematics, a death’s head relates to man’s subjection to time.
Emblems thus make an unexpected return to the historical stage in the
form of commodities which, as Marx had warned, “(abound) in metaphysical
subtleties and theological niceties.” Allegory, Benjamin argues, is
exactly the right mode for an age of commodities. While working on the
never completed Baudelaire book, Benjamin continued to take notes for
the
Arcades Project. What was recovered after WWII from its hiding place in the
Bibliotheque Nationale amounted to some 900 pages of extracts, mainly
from 19th century writers but from contemporaries of Benjamin as well,
grouped under headings, with interspersed commentary, plus a variety of
plans and synopses.

The history of the
Arcades Project, a history of procrastination and false starts, of wanderings
in archival labyrinths in a quest for exhaustiveness, of shifting
theoretical ground, of criticisms and generally of Benjamin not knowing
his mind, means that the work we are left with is radically incomplete;
incompletely conceived and hardly “written” in any conventional sense.
The structure is apparent but the linking thoughts remain disconnected,
existing only in the form of Benjamin’s interpolations, resulting in an
ambiguous fluidity.

The arcades of Paris, says an 1852 guidebook, are “inner
boulevards, glass-roofed, marble-panelled corridors extending through
blocks of buildings - lining both sides - are the most elegant shops, so
that such an arcade is a city, a world in miniature.” Their airy glass
and steel architecture was soon imitated in other cities of the west.
The heyday of arcades extended to the end of the century, when they were
eclipsed by department stores.

The Arcades book was never intended to be an economic history
(though part of its ambition was to act as a corrective to the entire
discipline of economic history). An early sketch suggests something far
more like the autobiographical work,
A Berlin Childhood. “One knew of places in ancient Greece where the way led down
into the underworld. Our waking existence likewise is a land which, at
certain hidden points, leads down into the underworld - land full of
inconspicuous places from which dreams arise. All day long, suspecting
nothing, we pass them by, but no sooner has sleep come than we are
groping our way back to lose ourselves in the dark corridors. By day,
the labyrinth of urban dwelling resembles consciousness; the arcades
issue unremarked onto the streets. At night, however, under the
tenebrous mass of the houses, their denser darkness protrudes like a
threat, and the nocturnal pedestrian hurries past - unless, that is, we
have emboldened him to turn into a narrow lane.”

Two books served Benjamin as models: Louis Aragon’s
A Paris Peasant, with its affectionate tribute to the Passages de L’Opera, and
Franz Hessel’s
Strolling in Berlin, which focuses on the Kaisergalerie and its power to summon up
the atmosphere of a bygone era. In his book Benjamin would try to
capture the “phantasmagoric” experience of the Parisian wandering among
displays of goods, an experience still recoverable in his own day, when
“arcades dot the metropolitan landscape like caves containing the fossil
remains of a vanished monster: the consumer of the pre-imperial era of
capitalism, the last dinosaur of Europe.” The great innovation of the
Arcades Project
would be its form. It would work on the principle of montage,
juxtaposing textual fragments from past and present in the expectation
that they would strike sparks from and illuminate each other. Thus, for
instance, if item 2,1 of convolute L, referring to the opening of an art
museum at the palace of Versailles in 1837, is read in conjunction with
item 2,4 of convolute A which traces the development of arcades into
department stores, then ideally the analogy “museum is to department
store as artwork is to commodity” will flash into the readers mind.

According to Max Weber, what marks the modern world is loss of
belief, disenchantment. Benjamin has a different angle: that capitalism
has put people to sleep, that they will wake up from their collective
“enchantment” only when they are made to understand what has happened to
them. The inscription to convolute N comes from Marx: “The reform of
consciousness consists solely in the awakening of the world from its
dream about itself.” The dreams of the capitalist era are embodied in
commodities. In their ensemble these constitute a phantasmagoria,
constantly changing shape according to the tides of fashion, and offered
to crowds of enchanted worshippers as the embodiment of their deepest
desires. The phantasmagoria always hides its origins (which lie in
alienated labour). Phantasmagoria in Benjamin is thus a little like
ideology in Marx - a tissue of public lies sustained by the power of
capital - but is more like Freudian dreamwork operating at a collective,
social level. “I needn’t say anything. Merely show,” says Benjamin; and
elsewhere: “Ideas are objects as constellations are to stars.” If the
mosaic of quotations is built up correctly a pattern should emerge that
is more than the sum of its parts but which cannot exist independently
of them: this is the essence of the new form of historical-materialistic
writing that Benjamin believed himself to be practising.

In order to illuminate the structural framework of the
Arcades Project
- to facilitate an enhanced interpretation - Benjamin invented
the notion of the dialectical image, for which he went back to the
baroque emblematic: ideas represented by pictures and Baudelairian
allegory. Allegory, he suggested, could take over the role of abstract
thought. The objects and figures that inhabit the arcades - gamblers,
whores, mirrors, dust, wax figures - are to Benjamin emblems, and their
interactions generate meanings that do not need the intrusion of theory.
Along the same lines, fragments of text taken from the past and placed
in the charged field of the historical present are capable of behaving
much as the elements of a surrealist image do, interacting spontaneously
to give off political energy. In so doing the fragments constitute the
dialectical image, dialectical movement frozen for a moment open for
inspection, dialectics at a standstill: “Only dialectical images are
genuine images.”

In one respect Benjamin’s texts are deeply committed to
political intervention, historical insight, and cultural
demystification. Indeed epistemic concepts such as “Berlin,” “Weimer
Germany,” and “Modernity” are significant to his writing, and it is
essential to position Benjamin’s multiple perspective in these
ideological systems. Alternatively Benjamin’s elaborately hermetic texts
unfold in a singularity that appears tenaciously to resist assimilation
into a structured systematic construct. Essentially, the particular
theoretical beauty, and uniqueness of Benjamin’s texts resides in the
presence of narrative gestures that provide openings/concepts with which
to access and formulate an analysis. Any understanding of Benjamin’s
writing and the experience of the singularity they afford is thus
predicated upon the acknowledgement that an interpretation is a process
developing through and adoption and utilization of the text itself.

Benjamin attempted to construct a theoretical and philosophical
program that would allow him, “to illuminate the work fully from within
itself.” The theoretical tension between text and culture and, by
extension, any historically mimetic model, is further complicated by
Benjamin’s distinctive assumptions about historical traces and their
highly contingent relationship to a particular context. The historical
traces that mark a text, therefore do not necessarily mean that it
stands in a necessary relationship to the time in which it was produced.
“The time of history is infinite in every direction and unfulfilled in
every moment. This means that no single empirical event is thinkable
that would stand in a necessary relationship to the particular
historical situation in which it occurs.”

Any engagement with Benjamin’s writing must therefore in some
way account for the tension between text and its position in history and
culture. It is this issue that informs the central narrative line in
Pierre Missac’s analysis.

“It (language) is primary. Not only to meaning. Also to one’s
self. In the configuration of the world, the dream loosens individuality
like a hollow tooth.” For Benjamin, language both exceeds stable meaning
and self. This excess, though, need not be principally destructive or
nihilistic but rather, is dialectically charged. For Benjamin, it is
always a matter of registering the extent to which the figural or
representational dimensions of a text and a culture are structurally
related in that they tend to exceed or fall short of that which they
seem to concentrate upon, on the surface level. Just as Benjamin’s
“storyteller” in the essay of 1936 is said to be the one who would have
the wick of life be slowly but completely consumed by the soft flame of
its very narration, the process of unfolding Benjamin’s writing involves
registering, as Benjamin writes in
Elective Affinities
the “enigma of the flame itself,” which is to say with regard to
the relation between text and culture, “the truth whose living flame
goes on burning over the heavy logs of what is past and the light ashes
of what has been lived.”

From a distance, Benjamin’s magnificent opus is reminiscent of
another great ruin of 20th century literature, Ezra Pound’s
Cantos. Both works are built out of fragments, and adhere to the
high-modernist aesthetics of image and montage. Both have economic
ambitions and economists as presiding figures (Marx in one case, Gesell
and Douglas in the other). Both authors have investments in antiquarian
bodies of knowledge whose relevance to their own times they
overestimate. Neither can seem to accomplish any definite conclusion
points. And both were in the end consumed by the monster of fascism:
Benjamin tragically, Pound shamefully.

“Given the abundance of texts that Benjamin copied out or wrote
to be included in his magnum opus, one thinks rather of the debris
heaped on the site of ancient buildings, its fate not yet decided.”
(Pierre Missac)

Missac’s exploration of Benjamin’s writing foregrounds its
fragility: for a number of important works, it is their fragility that
makes a virtue of a vice and guarantees their quality as ruins,
transfiguring them as debris.

Benjamin’s trademark approach - coming at a subject not
straight on but at an angle, moving stepwise from one perfectly
formulated summation to the next - is as instantly recognisable as it is
inimitable, depending on sharpness of intellect, learning lightly worn
and a prose style which, once freed of the bonds of academic theory,
became a marvel of accuracy and concision. Underlying his project of
getting at the truth of our times is an ideal he found expressed in
Goethe: to set out the facts in such a way that the facts will be their
own theory.

The Arcades Project, whatever our verdict on it - ruin, failure, impossible project
- suggests a new way of writing about a culture using its rubbish as
materials rather than its artworks: history from below rather than
above. And his call elsewhere for a history centred on the sufferings of
the vanquished, rather than on the achievements of the victors, is
prophetic of the way in which history writing has begun to think of
itself in our lifetime.

Benjamin’s texts are nothing if not obsessive destructions of
the philosophical tradition. As he states in the
Passagen-Werk, “construction presupposes destruction.” For Benjamin
destruction always implied the destruction of some false or deceptive
form of experience as the productive condition for the initiation of a
new relation to the object, as when allegory seems to destabilize the
symbols mis-leading veil of closure and totality, or when the rupturing
of the aura in photography enables the experience of the hitherto
unknown sphere of what Benjamin terms the “optical unconscious.”
Proceeding from an investigation into Benjaminian moments of destruction
as moments of thinking temporality (and ultimately the movement of
destruction of history itself).

Why all the interest in a treatise on shopping in 19th century
France? There is no doubt that to rationalise and design Benjamin in
preparation for his comfortable digestion by capital’s cultural machine
is a piece of twisted prostitution of the kind he would fully have
appreciated. A recovery of the sense of Benjamin’s writing is the surest
path to its radical impoverishment. The object of philosophy, insofar as
the reflective meditation upon thought could be taken to characterize
it, is arbitrarily prescribed as undisturbed reasoning. It is thus that
successfully adapted, tranquil, moderate and productive reason
monopolizes the philosophical conception of thought, in the same way
that the generalized somnambulism of regulated labour precludes all
intense gestures from social existence. Who cares what “anyone” thinks,
knows, or theorizes about Benjamin? The only thing to try and touch is
the intense shock wave that still reaches us along with the textual
embers, for as long, that is, as anything can still “reach us.” Where
Descartes needed God to mediate his relations with his contemporaries,
secular humanity is content with the TV-screen, and with all the other
commodified channels of simulated communication with which civilization
is so thoughtfully endowed. Such things are for our own protection of
course; to filter out the terrifying threat of a realisation that would
awaken us from our dream.