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.
Marcel Duchamp The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass)1915-23 Philadelphia Museum of Art
there is a secret agreement between past generations and the present one. then our coming was expected on earth. then, like every generation that preceded us, we have been endowed with a weak messianic power, a power on which the past has a claim. [CH, thesis II, 390]
while the cause of the oppressed does not prevail, the victors of yesteryear would continue to produce victims, new victims. that entails the acknowledgment of solidarity between generations; the noble causes of the past generations make it possible to overcome the injustices that are committed against us. and they will not die again in vain if their cause would triumph in posterity. [mate 1991, 215]
the true image of the past flits by. the past can be seized only as an image that flashes up at the moment of its recognizability, and is never seen again. […] for it is an irretrievable image of the past which threatens to disappear in any present that does not recognize itself as intended in that image. [CH, thesis V, 390-1
]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. [Ibid., 462, N2a,3]formerly it was thought that a fixed point had been found in ‘what has been,’ and one saw the present engaged in tentatively concentrating the forces of knowledge on this ground. now this relation is to be overturned, and what has been is to become the dialectical reversal — the flash of awakened consciousness. [AP., 388, K1,2]the new, dialectical method of doing history presents itself as the art of experiencing the present as waking world, a world to which that dream we name the past refers in truth […]. awakening is namely the dialectical, copernican turn of remembrance. [Ibid., 389, K1,3]
every present day is determined by the images that are synchronic with it: each ‘now’ is the now of a particular recognizability. in it, truth is charged to the bursting point with time. (this point of explosion, and nothing else, is the death of the intentio, which thus coincides with the birth of authentic historical time, the time of truth.) it is not that what is past casts its light on what is present, or what is present its light on what is past; rather, image is that wherein what has been comes together in a flash with the now to form a constellation. [AP, 462-3, N3,1]
the dialectical image is an image that emerges suddenly, in a flash. what has been is to be held fast — as an image flashing up in the now of its recognizability. [Ibid., 473, N9,7]
this fleeting image “is not a process of exposure which destroys the secret, but a revelation which does justice to it.” [benjamin 1928, 31] for “truth […] is bound to a nucleus of time lying hidden within the knower and the known alike.” [AP, 463, N3,2]
every dialectically presented historical circumstance polarizes itself and becomes a force field in which the confrontation between its fore-history and after-history is played out. [Ibid., 470,N7a,1]
the idea of happiness is indissolubly bound up with the idea of redemption. the same applies to the idea of the past, which is the concern of history. the past carries with it a secret index by which it is referred to redemption. [Ibid., thesis II, 389-90]
… image is dialectics at a standstill. for while the relation of the present to the past is not a purely temporal, continuous one. the relation of the then to the now is dialectical—not a continuous development but image leaping forth.
paris, capital of the nineteenth century continues this train of thought.
Photography is treated as an instance of the development of technical means against which, from the middle of the nineteenth century, painting was forced into a series of rear-guard actions. The same position can be discovered in Breton. His essay surrealist situation of the object (1935) remarks on how, ‘Unable to engage in the seemingly futile struggle with photography, painting was forced to retreat and reorganize its ranks in an invulnerable position, under the necessity of visually expressing internal perception.
he saw atget’s paris photos as ‘the forerunners of surrealist photography’, because ‘he initiates the emancipation of object from aura which is the most signal achievement of the latest school of photography.
He looked for what was unremarked, forgotten, cast adrift, and thus such pictures too work against the exotic, romantically sonorous names of the cities; they pump the aura out of reality like water from a sinking ship. What is aura actually? A strange weave of space and time: the unique appearance or semblance of distance, no matter how close the object may be.
The stripping bare of the object, the destruction of aura, is the mark of a perception whose sense of the sameness of things has grown to the point where even the singular, the unique is divested of its uniqueness—by means of its reproduction.[. . . ] to erect the large construction out of the smallest architectural segments that have been sharply and cuttingly manufactured. Indeed, to discover the crystal of the total event in the analysis of the small, particular moments. This means breaking with vulgar historical naturalism. To grasp the construction of history as such. In the structure of commentary.[Buck-Morss, p. 74]
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, 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.
‘Every present is determined by those images that are synchronic with it: every now is the now of a specific recognizability […] It isn’t that past [die Vergangenheit] casts its light on what is present [die Gegenwart] or that what is present casts its light on what is past; rather, an image is that in which the Then [das Gewesene] and the Now [das Jetzt] come together, in a flash of lightning, into a constellation. In other words: 2an image is dialectics at standstill. If the relation between the present and the past is purely temporal, then the relation between the Then and the Now is a dialectic one: not of temporal but of pictorial [bildlich] kind.” (GS, V/1 578)4