Wednesday, February 15, 2006


Shashidar, this is in part what you requested. I'll try to formulate more thoughts specifically regarding the film sometime soon.


As many of you know, one of my interests is the documentary narrative. I plan to focus on some aspect of avant-garde documentary in my larger project. Last night I finally watched the much-lauded, Oscar-winning “Born Into Brothels.” The children who make up this film are beautiful and gifted and have been born into vile circumstances that will most certainly kill them. The photographs they took, after being given cameras by the film’s director, were both stunning and heartbreaking. The vividly colored scenes of prostitutes screaming profanities at each other and beating these children made me claustrophobic and nauseous. This part of the movie “worked.”

The problem? I think this part of the movie was incidental. That is, it only served to support the director’s desire to portray herself as “savior.” The film, in its entirety, invited viewers to read the children’s manipulated preciousness as a reflection of the director. So I hated the movie. Zana Briski should be ashamed of herself. I went to bed considering how I would re-make “Born Into Brothels.” And now, as usual, I am hatching a new documentary project in my mind.

The Point.

How do I read the Passengen-Werk ?

It is first necessary to conceive of Benjamin’s work simultaneously as a body and as a non-totality. One does not have to “know Benjamin” to do so, although I think it helps. The individual passages in the Arcades Project form what Cohen might call an “uncanny lineage,” to be differentiated from a genealogical lineage by their position as dialectical images. Cohen writes of Nadja: “Breton’s narrator associates his uncanny sensations with contemporary aspects of the site where the obscure past persists in disfigured form” (98). Many of the fragments either came out of or made up Benjamin’s “other” works, which turn out, then, not to be so “other.” But is it necessary to know this in order to read the Passengen? It seems like the uncanny lineage of the work is not only outward-pointing; it is also contained within each fragment. For example, in “Convolute J: Baudelaire”: “The Lesbians – a painting by Courbet.” (240). This fragment is not rendered meaningless to a reader unfamiliar with Benjamin’s work on Baudelaire or unfamiliar with Baudelaire’s fascination with lesbians. Even if completely decontextualized, the fragment can’t be effectively decontextualized because it is a dialectical image. As such, the dialectical image is both a site and a moment, because as a text, it takes place in a lived reality that is also the text. Writes Buck-Morss: “To read reality like a text is to recognize their difference,” to which I would add, so that the reader may experience a kind of productive dialectical disorientation (SBM 240).

So far, this is a lot of jargon. Buck-Morss asks: “ Why is the Arcades project not merely an arbitrary, aesthetic representation of the nineteenth century, a political allegory that appropriates theological themes for Marxist ends?” (ibid.) I would argue that the recognition of the difference between reality and text led to Benjamin’s “uncanny” joining of the two – again, counterintuitive in much the same way that I argued in my previous post – by “superimposing” them, as Buck-Morss writes, “with the result that the project’s fragments are bewilderingly overdetermined” (SBM 53). Instead of using history as a frame that would relieve much of the pressure of overdetermination laid upon the fragments, Benjamin uses overdetermination to “bring the immense forces of ‘atmosphere’ concealed in these things to the point of explosion” (Reflections 182; see previous post). Buck-Morss explains Benjamin’s method like this: “In the Passengen-Werk Benjamin was committed to a graphic, concrete representation of truth, in which historical images made visible the philosophical ideas. In them, history cut through the core of truth without providing a totalizing frame. Benjamin understood these ideas as ‘discontinuous.’ As a result, the same conceptual elements appear in several images, in such varying configurations that their meanings cannot be fixed in the abstract. Similarly, the images themselves cannot be strung together into a coherent, non-contradictory picture of the whole” (SBM 55). Or, as Benjamin quotes Adorno in “Convolute I: The Interior, the Trace”: “The ordering of things in the dwelling-space is called ‘arrangement.’ Historically illusory objects are arranged in it as the semblance of unchangeable nature” (220).

I am sort of accepting “truth” as an unproblematic term here. I shouldn’t, but I have other work to do.

The Point, Two.

Or, What is It About the Arcades Project, Anyway?

To start, Cohen on Breton points toward my fledgling conception of avant-garde documentary media: “With the introduction of an objective dimension into the subject, the possibility exists that the boundary between subject and object will crumble in the direction of contingency rather than recuperation” (MC 67). Huh. This in mind, look at how Breton problematizes the “standard documentary photograph” by introducing within it the difference of reality and text in the same way that Benjamin produces the logic of the Passengen-Werk: “While in a standard documentary photo Breton’s portrait would illustrate the sentence [ “I envy…”] to which it is juxtaposed, Breton constructs this sentence in such a way that he problematizes establishing a one-to-one correspondence between photograph and the textual passage whose extraliterary existence it documents” (MC 69). In so doing, Breton superimposes, rather than juxtaposes, reality and text in an “uncanny,” “bewilderingly overdetermined” way.

Benjamin’s overdetermined fragments, the superimposed images of dialectic at a standstill, are then “juxtaposed” according to the “modern-day rhythm” of film: “The tendency in this work is to banish ‘development’ from the image of history down to the last detail, and to represent Becoming in sensation and in tradition through dialectical dismemberment, as a constellation of Being” (SBM 250). To which I would add, “what?” I do think that this speaks to the logic of materialist historiography as a rejection of a one-to-one correspondence between text and reality in favor of a conception of both on intersecting axes of lived duration. But I could be wrong.

I will let Susan Buck-Morss sum up for me. The following passage is where I find the beginning of my own project’s intersection with the Arcades project: “Was it possible, despite capitalist form, to subvert these cultural apparatuses from within? The effect of technology on both work and leisure in the modern metropolis had been to shatter experience into fragments, and journalistic style reflected the fragmentation. Could montage as the formal principle of the new technology be used to recreate an experiential world so that it provided a coherence of vision necessary for philosophical reflection? And more, could the metropolis of consumption, the high-ground of bourgeois-capitalist culture, be transformed from a world of mystifying enchantment into one of both metaphysical and political illumination?” And to Buck-Morss’s questions, I would answer: yes, yes, and yes. But in a way that Benjamin himself might anticipate, this is, in large part, still waiting to be completed; likewise it is a much more complicated project than filming oneself giving cameras to the children of prostitutes. I don’t cast myself, in this configuration, as the savior of documentary, nor do I cast Benjamin there. It’s just that I have this feeling that the relationship between the fragments and the body – of whatever kind – is still productively uncanny.


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