Tuesday, 23 September 2008

affirmation and the dialectical image

Benjamin states that in opposition to the additive method of historicism, his “materialist historiography … is based on a constructive principle” (SW 4:396). Instead of tracking the course of progress through an empty time, Benjamin proposes a new method based on gathering up the traces of the past and allowing them to display themselves in their fullness. It is not the case that “what is past casts its light on what is present, or what is present casts its light on what is past”; “rather,” Benjamin tells us, “image is that wherein what has been comes together in a flash with the now to form a constellation.” Put simply, “image is dialectics at a standstill” (AP [N3,1]). The image is a construction within the moment. As each moment is spoken for in that the thought eternal recurrence makes each moment full of all other moments, images constructed within it can show things that happened in the past. This forms a constellation, in which the linkages to these past events become visible. In an astronomical sense, the formation of a new constellation does not necessarily mean the creation of new stars; the stars are always there, the constellations are merely ways of grouping and viewing the stars. Furthermore, considered in terms of a constantly expanding universe, these constellations themselves are always in flux, as the stars are not in a fixed point within space. A constellation is in entirely dependent on perspective. This is why the image is “dialectics at a standstill”: in a universe of becoming, in a dialectic which is constantly in motion, the image only attains visibility as a construction within the moment of the moment. Benjamin speaks of the dialectical image flashing up in the moment, “in the now of its recognizability”, but “in the next moment [it] is already irretrievably lost” (AP [N9,7]). By the time this moment has passed, the cosmos has shifted and the constellation has taken on a different form. The disintegration of the aura means the opening of the borders of the artwork, leaving it open to different interpretations at each point. However, this also means that each interpretation only attains to intelligibility within its moment of origination. Benjamin informs us that his methodology necessitates “the notion of a present which is not in transition, but in which time takes a stand and has come to a standstill” (SW 4:396). This does not contradict the notion of a universe of becoming, but rather, this means that the moment exists as an instance of this becoming. The present freezes in its instantiation and then turns into the past. Thus, the dialectical image becomes the image of the moment, capturing it as a moment of arrest. In as much as it is the still image of a passing moment, the dialectical image can be understood, as Eduardo Cadava argues in his book, in terms of a photographic image and its relation to history. The photographic instant takes up the moment of its instantiation; by the time the photograph has been taken, the moment has already passed. Benjamin’s “Little History of Photography” was written in regards to early photographic techniques that required great amounts of time, but the same concept holds true even for the most instantaneous methods of photographic imaging. Even the digital camera, while producing the freshest, most recent image, is still only capable of capturing an image of something that has passed. Thus, the construction of the dialectical image becomes an instantaneous process in which the present is “arrested” in its transition to the past. This arrest is made possible via a process of affirmation of eternal recurrence.

Benjamin cites the following passage on eternal recurrence from Nietzsche in The Arcades Project: “the great thought as a Medusa head: all features of the world become motionless, a frozen death throe” (AP [D8,6]). Eternal recurrence becomes a photographic apparatus, freezing the world at all points. Via affirmation, we are able to construct these images of history. As Eduardo Cadava writes, “for Benjamin, there can be no history without the Medusa effect – without the capacity to arrest or to immobilize historical movement, to isolate the detail of an event from the continuum of history.” This arrest freezes the moment as a moment, and gives the historian space to wrest it from its placement in progressive of history. Benjamin speaks of the goal of historian as “[blasting] open the continuum of history” (SW 4:396). There is no continuum of history; the destruction of the continuum is much like the disintegration of the aura. It is not so much that it is destroyed, as it is shown never to really have existed at all. That is to say, history existed, but it existed as an artificial construction of man. It seems contradictory to say that affirmation is linked to the destruction of this construction. If history appears to us as a continuum, would transvaluation not dictate that this appearance be the way things really are? The thrust of Benjamin’s argument here is to show that the continuity of history is merely the “persistence of [the] semblance of persistence” (AP [N19,1]). As we have seen with the aura, things are not always appear, and the object of affirmation is to strip these things down to see what they really are.

“‘Construction’ presupposes ‘destruction’”, Benjamin writes; the Dionysian affirmation is two-fold, taking joy in both (WP §1049). Transvaluation consists of the destruction of old values in the construction of new ones. As such, the Dionysian affirmation must also contain a negation. In order to affirm the “world as it is”, it is absolutely necessary to deny the world as it is not. This is the nature of the destructive forces of construction. Fascism, history, and the aura are false becomings, presentations of the world as it is not. Dionysian affirmation is a critical tool, calling all of existence into crisis. On the other hand, simple affirmation, as the affirmation of what is, then things never leave the status quo, and we are bound to an eternity of catastrophe. This is the affirmation of Zarathustra’s ass, who “does not speak, except always to say Yea to the world he created” (Z, 322). Blind affirmation leads the affirmer to follow just about anything, just like Zarathustra’s guests. Fascism purports itself as a historical norm, but there is no criticality to its affirmation; it represents a mere revaluation. In order to break free of historicism, it becomes necessary to destroy the need for historical continuity; we must destroy in such a way that “continuity” is no longer meaningful. Transvaluation demands a negation, but as Nietzsche tells us, “it does not halt at a negation, a no, a will to negation” (WP §1041). It is not enough to understand it simply in terms of the idea that “extreme positions are not succeeded by moderate ones, but by extreme positions of the opposite kind” (WP §55). That it is one way of looking at it, but it does not go far enough. Revaluation is a product of reactive forces, clinging to the old elements of valuation. Transvaluation, the transmutation of values, means a qualitative shift in the value giving element. It is a transformation of the destructive into the creative, the act of destruction into an affirmation. As Deleuze explains, “the will to nothingness is converted and crosses over to the side of affirmation, it is related to a power of affirming.” Affirmation now has a double-action: the affirmation of what is also entails a simultaneous refusal and destruction of what is not. This is why in place of the continuum, Benjamin offers up the idea of the constellation. The Medusa-action of eternal recurrence freezes existence, and allows us to pluck the elements out to form the constellation. As Benjamin writes in the notes to the Theses, “articulating the past historically means recognizing those elements of the past which come together in the constellation of a single moment” (SW 4:403). The constellation is formed via a process similar to the transformation of will described above. The arrest of time via eternal recurrence freezes of the moment within the image – “dialectics at a standstill” – allowing all the dialectical tensions are seen for what they are: the positive and negative elements. What Benjamin proposes is a shift in perspective, in which all the negative elements are seen in a positive light, in such a way that “a positive element emerges anew” (AP [N1a,3]). Considered in terms of affirmation, the negative is affirmed in its status as the negative side of the dialectic. By placing things into the constellation, their relative position and status is affirmed as well; it is not a haphazard construction. Those things that are outside becoming, these false constructions, are rejected, and are thus affirmed in their exclusion from the constellation. As such, these false becomings are transformed, “ad infinitum, until the entire past is brought into the present in a historical apocatastasis” (AP [N1a,3]).

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