Welcome to Philosopher Fridays, a now biweekly (or bimonthly, depending on your preference) series where I take a brief look at philosophers who’ve had an impact on my thinking, for good or ill. These posts are not meant to be comprehensive in any way, but instead are intended to provide a glimpse into an aspect of a thinker’s work that has stuck with me. For this post on the Arcades Project, I have drawn heavily from work I submitted for a graduate course on Benjamin and Adorno, and as such, I owe much of my understanding to the guidance of my professor.
BENJAMIN: Walter Benjamin led a short and tragic life, leaving behind a trove of brilliant, unconventional philosophical writing. Born in 1892 to a wealthy Jewish family, Benjamin was a leftist literary critic who studied philosophy until his work was rejected by the University of Frankfurt. Shortly after this, he fled to Paris to escape the Nazis, spending his time writing essays and articles for the Institute for Social Research based back in Frankfurt. When the Nazis came to Paris, Benjamin’s attempts to flee to Spain were too arduous for him to complete, and he took his own life before reaching the border. He is often characterized as a Marxist, a critical theorist, a member of the Frankfurt school, a man of letters, and more, as his writings range widely in both style and topic, held together by a rejection of theoretical neatness. In all of his writing, he critiqued clean interpretations of literature and history, dialectic philosophy, and popularized art in all forms. He is most famous for his essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction“.
I plan to tackle this figure in multiple parts: this week, I will explore “Convolute N” of Benjamin’s Arcades Project, “On the Theory of Knowledge, Theory of Progress,” which explores the opposition between the continuity of living history and the violent fragmentation of historical analysis, and in my next installment (and possibly the one after that), I will tackle some of his more popular essays. Without any further introduction, let’s dig in to what is known as his elementary doctrine of historical materialism.
At its core, history as we think of it is inherently dialectical.
The very contours of the positive element will appear distinctly only insofar as this element is set off against the negative. On the other hand, every negation has its value solely as background for the delineation of the lively, the positive… (N1a,3).
What this means is that we see history only in fragments torn from their true contexts. History is both constantly moving and richly cross-connected, and so to isolate a moment or a story is to necessarily fragment it and set it necessarily agaisnst both its progressive chronology, and its horizontal context. This fragment is the dialectical image, crystallized for examination, drawing the uninterrupted flow of history into sharp distinction with its unnatural fixity. The dialectical image of any history is thus, for Benjamin, a negation of truly lived ephemeral history, which is rich in both linear and non-linear motion.
This does not necessarily mean that a history is a negative, set against the flowing positive of lived experience. On the contrary:
(1) An object of history is that through which knowledge is constituted as the object’s rescue. (2) History decays into images, not into stories. (3) Wherever a dialectical process is realized, we are dealing with a monad. (4) The materialist presentation of history carries along with it an immanent critique of the concept of progress. (5) Historical materialism bases its procedures on long experience, common sense, presence of mind, and dialectics. (On the monad: N10a,3). (N11,4).
In this case, it is the natural transience of historical flow that is posited as the negative, with the crystallized dialect framed as an object rescued from the rubble of chronological decay. We then, according to Benjamin, take that ragged crystal and reframe it for ourselves as a whole object – a neat narrative to serve as a fixed marker. Whenever we look at history, we’re necessarily looking at a fragmented “image”, or a ruin bereft of its context – a picture, a likeness that bears resemblance but which will always be, inherently, a false representation of something that can no longer be truly present.
Let’s break it down.
1. The first tenet of elementary doctrine of historical materialism is rescue. To think as a historian is to break from the temporal flow of the now and attempt to catch hold of a moment as it either flows past, or to draw it up as it is already past:
…the historian today has only to erect a slender but sturdy scaffolding—a philosophic structure—in order to draw the most vital aspects of the past into his net… (N1a,1).
What are caught in the historian’s net are the remnants of historical decay, which the historian aims to grasp objectively.
2. The second tenet is that history decays into images, rather than stories. The important difference there is that stories are constructs of successive narrative, and are to be experienced as though you are in the story, while images are singular and whole, and are to be looked at from without. To view an image is see an entirety, and though the inner details may elude the historian at a first glance, the interpretive meanings and nuances of the image are internally contained, and are outside of the historian’s experience. The dialectical image is the petrification of history, and indeed, of historical thinking:
To thinking belongs the movement as well as the arrest of thoughts. Where thinking comes to a standstill in a constellation saturated with tensions—there the dialectical image appears. It is the caesura in the movement of thought. Its position is naturally not an arbitrary one. It is to be found, in a word, where the tension between the dialectical opposites is greatest. Hence, the object constructed in the materialist presentation of history is itself the dialectical image. The latter is identical with the historical object; it justifies its violent expulsion from the continuum of historical process (N10a,3).
To view something objectively is to view it as an image, and for an image to be historical, it is necessary that we are able to see the dialectical from a position wholly external for it to truly be an objective image, requiring a different way of looking that deviates from the embedded point of view as an agent of history – or even from interpretive the point of view that narrative imposes upon us. Says Benjamin:
…Just as form in art is distinguished by the fact that, opening up new contents, it develops new forms…It is only from without that a work of art has one and only one form (N9,2).
Indeed, it is only from without that a historian may view the aspects of history as a monadological (singular, whole) image, requiring a suspension of movement even of our thought processes, which are, in his estimation, successive by their nature.
3. The third principle is that the realization of dialectics is itself a monad. To attempt to grasp the streaming force of history is to grasp at lingering wisps of memory until the moment when the historical image is free from all temporal attachment. As the surge of history pushes though the historian’s net and what is caught is fragmented, torn from the temporal succession, it’s all a bit slippery. Early in his explanation of the dialectical image (in N2a,2, N2a,3, and throughout), Benjamin frames historicism as an awakening to the notion of memories and past events as art pieces, strange and separate from ourselves.
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 (N4,1).
We see what has been “from time immemorial” as something distant and discontinuous. We reach to rescue the object of the dream, but it is strange and difficult to hold fast. The image is different from history as lived, and as such requires fairly radical interpretation to become an image.
4. Thus we have the fourth tenet of the doctrine of historical materialism: the critique of progress and the utter violence of separating a historical moment from the transient flow of history. Though the historian may catch aspects of history in a sturdy scaffolding as it passes through on its ephemeral way, the monadological structure of history demands that:
the object of history is to be blasted out of the continuum of historical succession (N10,3).
The objects must be wrenched free from time, or else remain little more than wisps of loose, untethered connections. An isolated monad, in contrast, can be gripped wholly and examined objectively. But ironically, it is only this fixity that actually allows us to understand motion. It is only in the stillness of the image which negates the motion of progression that we are somehow better able to to understand the true definition of progress:
In every true work of art there is a place where, for one who removes there, it blows cool like the wind of a coming dawn. From this it follows that art, which has often been considered refractory to every relation with progress, can provide its true definition… Progress has its seat not in the continuity of elapsing time but in its interferences—where the truly new makes itself felt for the first time, with the sobriety of dawn. (N9a,7).
In breaking the dialectical motion of history for the sake of objective historicity, we are able to better see that dialectical motion of creation, of newness, and synthesis. Though motionless in and of itself, the historical image can only be delimited as such through breaking, blasting, and fragmenting; the true definition of progress is not to be found in progression as such, but instead in its breakdown.
5. The final principle of the doctrine provides the other side of this equation. Quoth Benjamin: “Historical materialism bases its procedures on long experience, common sense, presence of mind, and dialectics” (N11,4). Basically, in order to draw the dialectical distinction between the objectified historical image and the transience of passing history, one must have long experience of that transience in order to understand its ephemeral nature as ungraspable when viewed as such. To break a fragment from the flow of history and objectify it as a monad, one must have a sense of what s/he is breaking the monad free from.
This is a rough foundation of Benjamin’s view on history, but there’s a lot to play with here.
Aesthetically speaking, the attempt to history negates the very history we are trying to see. What we can grasp is the image, which is whole in a monadological way, a fossilization of a presence that is no longer present, and which we view from the outside (as we view images in the most literal sense). But history as lived and experienced can only be viewed from within the experiencing itself. What then can an image of any kind tell us? As I said early on in this post, an image implies as much difference as it does resemblance; a photograph implies the absence of the moment it portrays as much as it recalls that moment to our minds.
The problem of historicism is inescapable: to understand a piece of history, we must be outside the historical event, and to be outside of the historical event, we must be far enough removed from its ephemeral occurrence that it decays into an image, which is no longer the historical event itself, but a monadological ruin that encapsulates the presence of the moment by its negation of presence.
This raises questions about the dangers of dialectics possibly depriving us of agency in the name of historical understanding. The dialectical image is not only a site for the clash of opposing tensions, as it is for Hegel, but is itself a non-progressive, non-continuous manifestation of the dialectic, drawing into sharp distinction with the transience of temporal history the lasting isolation of a fragment, ripped violently from the smoothness of temporal continuity such that it may be frozen for reflection and analysis posthumously. It seems that we’re given a choice: to act without historical understanding, as players within an ongoing, subjective, and thus unstudyable narrative, or step so far outside of an event so that we might see it, but not participate because all that it can be for us, from this view, is a bit of historical rubble.
But then, I’ve always been drawn to ruins, far more than any well-preserved building. I prefer to see the rust and decay of an artifact than to see it restored to its former glory – and perhaps the same can be said of the images of history we catch as they crumble away: that in their broken isolation from narrative, there is far more indication of their progressive chronology than any clean narrative could ever portray.
Next time in Philosopher Fridays, I’ll tackle what this violent dialectic of the historical image means for Benjamin’s understanding of stories, art, and experience. For another excellent meditation on the limits of historical perspective, check out this recent post by MJ Wright.
 Walter Benjamin. The Arcades Project. Trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002