dialectical image


the question is how montage can can aid perception, and in particular, for benjamin, the perceptibility of history — to add a ‘heightened graphicness’ to its understanding.  the method was to ‘carry over the principle of montage into history. that is, to assemble large-scale constructions out of the smallest and most precisely cut components. indeed, to discover in the analysis of the small individual moments the crystal of the total event. [n2,6]

to realise the critical power of marx’s basic insight – the primacy of the material dimension of history, and its ideological occlusion by capitalist modernity, benjamin proposed to borrow an aesthetic technique from the french surrealists and apply it to the sphere of critical historiography. this extra-ordinary proposal was to translate the method that stuck together otherwise useless or discarded found objects – paper scraps, portions of painted canvas, newspaper, ticket stubs, cigarette butts, buttons, to recover historical fragments using the principle of a constructed montage, by ripping them (via historical research) from their historical context. seeking, in particular, the insignificant, the ‘trash of history’,  and mounting them in textual juxtapositions such that they constitute a constellation. history expressed as image.

the surrealists’ inquiry into the possibilities for the irrational embellishment of the city might be considered an analogical strategy, an attempt to effect a radical break with the historicism of the third republic through a leap into the present. although the surrealists lacked an explicit theory of revolution comparable to that of benjamin, the surrealist image had provided benjamin with a prototype for the ‘dialectical image’.

this interpretation would also have the shocking consequence of obliging an entirely new interpretation of the material culture from which they were wrested, and the relationship of that material culture to the present moment. the formerly insignificant fragments, rescued and redeployed in a critical text, would shatter the ‘philosophy of history’ that determined them as insignificant 

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