The Ruin of Walter Benjamin
For everything 3.2


The Ruin of Walter Benjamin

Reading ‘The Optic of Walter Benjamin’, Alex Coles (ed.), Black Dog Publishing, London, 1999.

Mark Dion remarks, whilst being interviewed here, how, as a student in the eighties, it was pretty much de rigour to begin any essay with a quotation from Walter Benjamin. This book begins with a quotation about Walter Benjamin, from Peter Osborne: “More books on Benjamin and still the pile grows... Benjamin’s prose breeds commentary like vaccine in a lab.” Alex Coles, the Editor, quickly tries to differentiate this book from others, by stressing that it is the first to concentrate on Benjamin in relation to art and architecture. Nevertheless, there is obvious trouble, if not distinct historical irony, in dealing with a canonical, revered and omnipotent ghost of Benjamin: Benjamin the collector of the neglected; the fragmentary; the marginal; the forgotten; the constellational; the ruined.

This book is a collection of essays with a couple of visual projects thrown in. It is a book of two halves. The first is titled “Histiography, Collecting, Ethnograply and the Archive”. It contains: Benjamin Buchloh on the photographic atlas’s of Aby Warburg and Gerhard Richter; images by, and interview with, the artist Mark Dion; Esther Leslie on Benjamin the collector; Matthew Rampley on Benjamin’s arcades project and Aby Warburg’s atlas; and Donald Preziosi connects the Crystal Palace, Riegl and Benjamin through the idea of pantography. The second half is titled “Architectures, Arcades and Glass Surfaces. It contains: an image project by Clifton Steinberg; Alex Coles on the idea of the ruin and Dan Graham; Jane Rendell on the experience of women in the Victorian Arcade; and Detlef Mertins on using architecture as an optical instrument. In these diverse essays Benjamin gets mentioned a lot and it’s easy to see where Benjamin’s interests have been picked up (the arcade; the ruin; etc.) But I am not at all sure whether these common references make the book coherent as a collection, nor, indeed, whether it makes them have much to do with Walter Benjamin. The least one can expect from any collection of essays is that there is a good reason why they have been brought together.

The quotation from Peter Osborne shows that Alex Coles is aware of books that cash in on the current popularity of Benjamin. One would expect any book that was aware of the burgeoning ‘Benjamin Industry’ to put up a stern defence of its own necessity. However, the perfunctory introduction (one page) firstly tells us what it is and is not going to do. It is not going to think up some spurious “pseudo-thematic” (jolly good). It is going to use the metaphor of optic to suggest a shared “operational procedure” or, in Benjamin’s words, the “telescoping the past through the present.” But the only explanation given as to what this book is about and why it was compiled is that “Benjamin brings into focus particular areas of debate previously overlooked... such as the archive, ethnography and historiography...”

This raises the questions of why these areas are of particular importance and why use Benjamin’s “operational procedure” to study them. Being neglected does not, of itself, make something interesting nor worthwhile. Regardless of how good any individual essay in this book might be, the answers to these worries are not apparent. If one started from the idea of making a book about the neglected areas of art and architectural discourse, it would be uncanny indeed, if one came up solely with topics that could only be addressed by borrowing a methodology from Benjamin.

The metaphorical concept of Benjamin’s optic is obviously meant to unite the contents of the book. This promises the ghostly presence of Benjamin. But adopting this metaphor does not explain why Benjamin is crucial, rather than arbitrary or trendy.

Moreover, what stands or falls by this notion of optic? It did not strike me as a particularly fertile metaphor. Indeed, the metaphor of optic, as it is used by various contributors, seems to slide between, on the one hand, Benjamin being the optic through which subjects are addressed, and on the other, the optic being the adoption of Benjamin’s metaphor of telescoping history. Neither interpretation of the metaphor, though, seemed to contribute much to what was written. In fact, I don’t think that this book has much to do with either Benjamin nor his methodology (with the exception of Esther Leslie’s straightforward historical essay on Benjamin the collector). Which is not to say that there are not some good things in here. For example, Jane Rendell writes an excellent historical essay about sexuality, prostitution and commodification in the Burlington Arcade in Victorian London but this has little to do with Benjamin other than the insertion of an obligatory quotation or two. In fact, she wrote on the same subject, covering much the same ground, in ‘Desiring Practices’ (also published by Black Dog) without the need to mention Benjamin at all.

One of the things I liked about Leslie’s essay was that it resolutely stuck Benjamin in his political and historical context. Benjamin worked in a turbulent Germany, which staggered out of obscene war, through economic catastrophe, into the horror of fascism: no wonder he concurred with Marx’s idea that history progressed by its bad side. His Marxism was neither incidental nor accidental. It seems to me that whatever Benjamin did was forged by his politics and the time in which he found himself. Seeing the barbaric side of modernity, Benjamin set about finding utopian potential and redemptive power in fragments, ruins, new technologies, indeed, wherever and anywhere possible.

It seems to me that Benjamin is often extracted and abstracted from history. Which is to say I think that Benjamin should be read in relation to what he wrote against: a culture of intolerance and oppression. He wrote about the things he did because they offered moments of truth, hope and resistance to what he saw as the universal debasing and commodifying workings of capitalism. These things no longer have the cultural significance and historical position they did then. Therefore, it doesn’t seem of particular interest that, for example, Benjamin Buchloh’s essay brings together the photographic Atlas’s of Gerhard Richter and Aby Warburg with Benjamin hanging around in the background. It’s easy to do a ‘compare and contrast’ job on these three because they all made photographic archives of a sort. But this obscures the specificity of each because the comparison is based on visual and material similarities (and not on semantic nor historical ones, for example). The cultural position of photography (its availability, use, and distribution) changed radically between 1920 and 1960, say. Which means that photography had radically different social and cultural meaning at the time of Benjamin and Richter respectively. This should at least make the act of comparison problematic.

Scientists use the technical term ‘association’ to describe two things which occur together but which are not causally linked. ‘Association’ is something of which to be wary because it is easy to assume a link between things which occur together. It’s even easy to theorize a connection where there isn’t one. This connects with Karl Popper’s idea about science and falsification: a theory is only scientific (i.e. about the world) if there are ways, within its own terms, in which it could be proved false. In other words, if a theory cannot potentially be proved wrong, then it is not telling us anything at all about the world: if it can’t be wrong then it can’t be right. Astrology, for example, revels in association within a system that has no internal way of being proved wrong. There seems to be a lot of association in this book. Benjamin is brought into proximity with Warburg, Richter, Dan Graham (incidentally, the only artist I have ever heard architects talk about); Victorian prostitutes; and so on. And Benjamin said a lot of quotable things, so there are a lot of Benjamin quotations in the book. It’s not that any of this is in itself bad but it hasn’t got a lot to do with Benjamin. I can’t see any way to test the assertion that this book has something to do with Benjamin against the writings of Benjamin. This book conjures the ghost of Benjamin but there’s no way this citation of Benjamin could be proved wrong. If Benjamin haunts this book it is because of what it isn’t rather than what it is.

Why is Benjamin so popular now, so appealing? Partly, no doubt, it is because Benjamin has become a romantic figure: victim of a tragic, heroic suicide, at a relatively young age. He killed himself when refused permission to cross the Spanish border, fleeing from the Nazis with friends. His companions were subsequently allowed through.

But I suspect that the decisive factor is that Benjamin’s writing is so easy to plunder, as Mark Dion implied with his remark about every essay starting with a Benjamin quotation.

It’s illuminating to compare Benjamin with Adorno, his close friend and colleague from the Frankfurt School? Benjamin is full of surprising twists and turns, whereas Adorno goes over the same ground again and again. Benjamin writes short essays; Adorno writes bloody great books. Adorno sticks to a belligerent conceptual negativity, trying to infect every sentence with the catastrophe and corruption of fascism, which debases everything including hope. Adorno repeats the mantra of negativity to keep himself awake, as if writing out the refusal to be lulled into a stupor by the glittering superficiality and inhumanity of capitalism. Benjamin, such an admirer of Dada and Surrealism, uses surprise to keep himself awake. He sifts through the debris of history and culture, or looks at the very new, in the attempt to find things that are not wholly commodified and familiar.

Thus Benjamin’s political, social and historical commitments are implicit: they are implied in the breadth of his project, as he moves on an elusive path between one topic and another. And so it is easy for interpreters of Benjamin to pick out the topics and leave behind the implicit commitments. In contrast, Adorno’s political, social and historical commitments are explicit: they ooze, repeatedly, from almost all of his writings. Benjamin fights a guerrilla war against corrupting power of capitalism, forever on the move; Adorno digs the biggest trench he can to keep the enemy out. Whilst Adorno was employing this unswerving long term strategy, Benjamin engaged in a constellation of tactical moves. It is this apparent diversity of different Benjamins that makes it easy to pick on one Benjamin and ignore the rest of the constellation. Time and again one comes across Benjamin-the-champion-of-new-technology or Benjamin-the-archivist or Benjamin-who-unpacked-his-library.

The irony is, of course, that all of these Benjamins and what they wrote about are now commodified and familiar. For example, the photographic detail no longer reveals surprising details of the world but sells Guinness and a million other things; film and photography have, on the whole, failed to turn authors into producers but Hollywood flourishes and paintings still sell. But this process whereby the dominant culture recuperates, incorporates and commodifies every radical moment is exactly what Benjamin knew. ‘Surreal’ becomes an everyday word; John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ (communism with a sugar coating”) is played at the Tory party conference; and so on and so on and so on. Benjamin wasn’t writing for posterity but to nurture the idea of a better future against the barbarism of his present.

Thus to be interested in what Benjamin was interested in, is not to be interested in Benjamin. The bad side of history has made ruin of Benjamin’s work. But that’s history for you. But the ghost of Benjamin is not interested in the historical figure of Benjamin. The ghost of Benjamin is searching other ruins for a glimpse of the redemption of humankind.