benjamin: history as montage or the dialectical image


constructing dialectical images.

the critical components in constructing dialectical images are, on the one hand a marxist inspired insight into the dialectical structure of the commodity and, on the other a the method of montage and its inherent re-valuation of a world that continuously devalues material object and the human subject. the materialist critic scavenges through the detritus of history for those objects that resist incorporation into a triumphal story of capitalism as endless progress. and that express the frustrated utopian wish images of past generations. they are, having had their use value drained from them, their phantasmagoric nature in full retreat – and released from their cycle of economic exchange… they are now available as material for construction.

the principle of construction – what is to count as a fragment – how it is to be secured –  whether and in what way it is to be brought together – most importantly, what other fragments are to make up the juxtaposition – conforms in the final analysis to a recognisable construction of the dialectic – its affirmation, negation and synthesis or expressed as praxis, through innovation, negation, and judgment.

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dialectics at a standstill

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, [the dialectical] 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, 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. [N2a,3].

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pre-history- image recognition

our experience of the monuments of pre-history is one that triggers a form of collective remembrance – as the historical object makes present aspects of a past both lost and found – it is one that freud describes as uncanny – it triggers in the form of images, the ghosts of this collective past, ‘an uncanny experience occurs either when infantile complexes which have been repressed are once more revived by some impress or when primitive beliefs which have been surmounted seem once again to be confirmed… and that these two classes of uncanny experience are not always sharply distinguishable’. freud links these experiences to the collective but abandoned beliefs of prehistory ‘ old general ideas fallen into disuse but which our moral organism never eliminates’