Tuesday, 2 September 2008

origin and recurrence

The critique of mechanism focused on the problem of a final state. Equally problematic is the status of the initial state. Benjamin likens eternal recurrence to a perpetual motion machine, but even these machines require an initial action to precipitate the subsequent unending flow of reactions. Thus, the system has to be conceived as a perpetual motion machine already in motion: “the world exists … it becomes, it passes away, but it has never begun to become and never ceased from passing away” (WP §1066). The assembly circle has always been at work. The element of creation has to recur to keep the system running, otherwise, as “Nietzsche correctly points out … if it were the One which returned, it would have begun by being unable to leave itself.” There can be no singular thing. In order to be at all, things have to recur. In other words, we would be wrong to see eternal recurrence as the mass production from a mold, for this would imply that there was an original prototype of the mold. It is not the case that there was once an “original” iteration of the cycle, an initial run of which all other cycles are mere copies. “On the contrary, [eternal recurrence] swallows up or destroys every ground which would function as an instance responsible for the difference between the original and the derived” ; the idea “original” has no placeholder within eternal recurrence.

Even events are produced by this mass production and as such are constituted by their recurrence. It is true that each passing moment is characterized by its newness, but that newness itself is recurrent. The event then appears as a function of this unfolding. “Origin is an eddy in the flow of becoming”, Benjamin states in the epistimo-crtical prologue to the Trauerspiel book; it “[describes] that which emerges from the process of becoming and disappearance” (O 45). The origin emerges from within the unfolding of becoming, and as such, it is ultimately folded back into it. In fluid dynamics, eddies are formed by the actual flow of the system itself. They are a disturbance, an interruption that swells up within the flow and is then subsumed back into it, entirely internal to the system. It is true that introducing a new element into the system – say changing the shape of the flow path or increasing the volume of flow – can lead to the formation of new, unexpected eddies. Eternal recurrence, especially the way Benjamin conceives it, is a closed system. In a closed fluid system, eddies are imminent to the system and can be tracked back and predicted through the course of the system. It is in this sense that Benjamin speaks of origin. The origin only makes sense in the fact that it emerges and passes away. This becomes amplified when projected onto an eternal scale, as the origin emerges and retreats eternally. The origin is conditioned by the cycle, but in this capacity it also conditions the cycle, and hence, all of recurrence.

The historical event as mass produced item can be understood in a similar fashion. It is produced by the system, and at the same time it is a determining factor in production. As a product of becoming and passing away, its significance lies not only in what it was, but what it came from, what it became, and what it did not become (O, 46). Its status as an event means that its meaning itself is a process of becoming and passing away. This becomes a mode of investigation for Benjamin. For example, Howard Caygill points out: “As an origin, the arcade does not possess a fixed character, but reveals different aspects of itself through the passage of time.” The origin’s intelligibility can only manifest in terms of its relationship to becoming. Furthermore, this relationship itself is only truly understood in the light of becoming as a mode of eternal recurrence.

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