(my senior project at Bard College, 2010)
‘Telescoping of the Past Through the Present’
Historical Materialism and the Labor of Remembrance
To my very dearest friend, Nese Senol
Thank you Mom and Dad
Thank you Grandmom, Grandma, Grandpop, Grandpa
Thank you fancy beast
Thank you Leah Schrader
Thank you Ari Fenton for your life
Thank you Warren Hutcheson in your death
Thank you all my other best friends
Thank you Bard for giving me space and time to think and act
Thank you Daniel Berthold, Nancy Leonard, Adam Rosen
Thank you Chuck Stein
Thank you Jacques Derrida, Emmanuel Levinas, Walter Benjamin
for your strange a-theological Judaism
Thank you Baudrillard, Virilio, Zizek
for your post-modernity
Thank you 1900s, for birthing me
Thank you [(God)], who I know is not really there
If Marx were alive today, I would say to him, “Communism today is an intellectual cry, sung from the depths of an academy sunk into the midst of Babylon. Look! On the inner flap of Zizek’s 2009 book ‘First as Tragedy, then as Farce’, it says Verso is an imprint of New Left Books. Obama is centrist. Where is the New Left? I look left and right for it but cannot find it. I can only read about it, Marx. I try, I try to analyze the means and social relations of production characteristic of the capitalist epoch. I have tried, Marx, I swear to you that I have tried to get into politics.”
Time after time, my mouth moves toward the question of the ‘we’. I try here, through a reading of Marx, Benjamin, Heidegger and Derrida, to speak of discourse. I will attempt, using the methods of historical materialist praxis, to help discourse mourn, and awaken from, the 1900s.
If our discourse can be called political, we must remind ourselves today that our discourse still is not politics. The politics that we see on television is politics. Our discourse prides itself on calling itself political, and thus dissolves into a disorganized muddle of identity politics. Identity politics has been, and remains, the positive, productive labor of group alterity, the work of self-identity and other-identity within discourse. If our discourse can call itself political, politics here means the right to disagree, and yet to be included. But, to act more efficiently together, there must be a solid ground of agreement. As Derrida said once to a Japanese friend, ‘It de-constructs it-self’.
Ever since Marx, our discourse has remained, in various forms, philosophically haunted by the guilt that we are not the proletariat. We attack logocentrism as if it were in itself the bourgeoisie. Yet, by the very fact of our literacy, we are the inheritors of the Western Logos, which remains a call of freedom and liberation. We deconstruct the logos because of the material ugliness of its roar since the Enlightenment. But, as thinking human beings, our guilt becomes amplified, as we remain stuck with a logos that we cannot get off our backs.
Our discourse may be tentatively defined, for today’s purposes, as the literate cosmopolitan public- those who read (and write), with a view to changing the world that exists outside of books. We must remember instantly, however, that as speaking human beings, what we call ‘our discourse’ is not bound to literacy as such. Action remains the rallying cry. Those who act must learn both to ‘listen’ to books, and to refrain from ‘reading’ the world too closely.
The words of this introduction are intentionally loaded with unexplained presuppositions. I want to convince you, but I do not expect you to be convinced. I did not write any of these statements hoping to receive a check mark. I ask that if you agree with a statement, please think then of ways that you could disagree; and that if you disagree with a statement, ask yourself if there is any way at all that you could possibly agree.
‘The Fathers’ begin by saying- “All Israel have a portion in the world to come; as it is said, And thy people shall be all righteous; they shall inherit the land for ever, the branch of my planting, the work of my hands, that I may be glorified.”
When they said ‘the world to come’, they did not mean the afterlife but the next generation. If we start calling it the 1900s we will feel older. In fact, the ambiguous unity of the terms ‘20th century’ and ‘the 1900s’ has probably been confusing us all ever since Jesus.
In the 1900s, Lacan and Derrida, among others, seeded secrets into their writing. Today, we must no longer code our messages to proliferate the play of interpretation.
The oldest of the old follows behind us in our thinking, and yet it comes to meet us. That is why thinking holds to the coming of what has been, and is remembrance. (Heidegger)
As time goes on, the past begins to look more and more mysterious and uncanny to us. It can be said, very seriously, that we know nothing about the 1900s. But if, as discourse, we imagine that we can turn away from our past, get over it, and finally achieve the present, we are forgetting something. But this is precisely when it is coming.
Speaking of the specters of Marx in 1989, Derrida says that “the one who has disappeared appears still to be there, and his apparition is not nothing. It does not do nothing. Assuming that the remains can be identified, we know better than ever today that the dead must be able to work. And to cause to work, perhaps more than ever.” (Specters of Marx, 120)
To me, listening in 2010, Derrida is saying that what we used to call [(God)] up until the Enlightenment is still there, in the being of Da-sein which here, today, can no longer be distinguished from that which we used to call ‘production’ in the Marxist sense.
All of Marx’s key materialist concepts- labor power, production, proletariat, history- are bound today into a muddled metaphysical bundle. It is difficult to see these concepts in the material world of late capitalism, without losing sight of what one is looking at. Many have called for new concepts, and many have answered.
From whence do such calls arise? From a superstructure detached from its base?
To rend such a wound, Marx in 1848 began to call upon the immaterial labor of Reason, which at his moment in history had reached a zenith in Hegel, to reflect its light back down into the material substance of human society. In the international proletariat Marx recognized the early seeds of a new birth, the second coming of a new polis of idealists born slowly, kicking and screaming, from the womb of what was called German Idealism.
As discourse, we call ourselves the intellectuals. Discourse, like the rest of the world, exists inside and outside the academy. It is our duty, in the academy, to work together to fulfill Marx’s injunction- ‘Up until now, philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it’.
In Chapter 1, I describe Marx’s legacy of historical materialism and its impact on our discourse. In Chapter 2, I follow the commodity spectacle of 1900s consumer capitalism through the writings of Walter Benjamin. In Chapter 3, I analyze the senses of Walter Benjamin’s phrase from the Arcades Project, ‘telescoping of the past through the present’.
Throughout this work I will resuscitate Walter Benjamin’s inquiry- what is the dialectical relationship between mourning, remembrance, and awakening? I try to refract this question through the 1900s, to ask- what is our discourse?
By 1845, it was for Marx “self-evident that ‘spectres’, ‘bonds’, ‘the higher being’, ‘concept’, ‘scruple’, are merely the idealistic, spiritual expression, the conception apparently of the isolated individual, the image of very empirical fetters and limitations, within which the mode of production of life and the form of intercourse coupled with it move” (German Ideology, 14).
Looking back on Marx today, if we are to conceive of philosophy as separate from the world, we will see that Marx was attempting a very particular attack against Hegel with one hand, while attempting to inspire a revolutionary social movement with the other hand. Marx upset the Hegelian tradition of German Idealism by suggesting the thought of a material and social reality which was more real than the abstract ideas of Philosophers about Spirit. He also began a Communist Revolution which changed the structure of today’s human world as we know it. Leaving aside the question of the unity between philosophy and the world, then, we can say for certain that Marx was writing with both hands.
On the philosophical side, we say today that Marx sought to combat the notion that an individual’s thought is a pure expression of immaterial Spirit, by writing about historical materialism. His picture of human history showed us that since the division between manual and intellectual labor, human societies and the records they leave behind cannot be regarded as simply the many expressions of a single Spirit, but must be seen anew in the light of the labor of the hands which built the palaces in which history was written. In 1845, Marx said that the idea that there is a Spirit which moves itself, of its own accord, according to its own laws of becoming, was absurd. Today, listening to Marx, we attack this Spirit when it appears with a Capital letter, and we do it with spirit. We deconstruct any intellectual writing which seeks to explain a material process by an immaterial law. But it is hard to say what ‘we’ do, because sentences, themselves, are hard to clarify.
It can be said that, as modern intellectual discourse, we fight Spirit with spirit. So what do we mean, then, when we say ‘we’? There is another paradox here- what does it mean to fight Spirit with spirit? Do we hesitate before affirming as true the statement that ‘we fight Spirit with spirit today’? If so, our disagreements must be in part linguistic. There may be many spirited arguments as to the question of Spirit. What is it then that, between us, surprises, scares, angers us about this statement?
Put differently, we may approach from this angle the simultaneous continuity and rupture between Hegel and Marx. It is said today that Marx took literally the Hegelian Notion that ‘spirit is a bone’, and that he used it to throw a bone in the gears of Spirit. Where thought thought itself to be its own originary source of its thoughts, there Marx points thought to concrete material production to show thought that it has a body, and that its body is more real than it thinks.
His doctrine of dialectical historical materialism teaches us that the traces of history, left and preserved by human society, are not written ex nihilo with holy ink, but are written mostly by the ruling class of that society. In a literal sense, then, Marx tells us that all recorded human history has been written by a ruling class which writes the lie that it is God who writes. The truth, as Marx taught it, was that human society, and by extension human history, is simply and solely produced by the totality of physical labor that goes into that society at its historical moment. He taught us also that our thought is in many ways determined by this same concrete context of economic-technological structures.
Today it seems obvious to us that what we call Spirit is nothing other than history, and what we call History is nothing other than the concrete material production of the flesh and bones of a society. But Marx first had to give to the world the scientific revelation that this flesh and these bones can be studied empirically. For him, the historical materialist may imprint an image of the economic means of production, and the social relations of production, that combine to produce or articulate the historical moment of a human society upon planet Earth. The historical materialist produces an image of the structured production of the human world. In this image, said Marx, the economic forms of production make up the base or infrastructure of the societal organism, while the ideological expressions of thought are found in the superstructure.
Expressed through the lens of psychoanalysis (though it was a later development), Marx says that all that a historical moment takes, at its time, to be the unbridled expression of its original thought can be traced back to an unconscious context of material production, atop which this ‘isolated individual’ sits in an illusory mask of self-sufficiency. Each instance of cultural expression, if looked into, “reveals a determined relation between men at a specific level of historic evolution, a relation which is made conscious and developed as an idea. Consequently, the movement of human society itself can be known in its inner meaning as the product of men themselves, as the result of forces which emerge out of their relations and escape their control” (Marxism and Human Liberation, 38). Today, learning from Marx, we practice the attempt to know the movements of human society, though as individuals we acknowledge that we cannot see the totality ‘itself’ or ‘in its inner meaning’; we practice also the attempt to control the forces which emerge out of our own relations, so that we all may not destroy the planet. We say that before Hegel, the immaterial Ideas preserved in writing were considered the truth and the light of illusory material reality. We say next that, for Marx, the physical reality of mankind in his social species being is more real than the thoughts mankind has about himself. This is the critical awakening Marx offers us today, this is what ceaselessly returns, knocks us back to our senses, and tells us to Wake Up! to what actually is around us. But, as Jacques Derrida says many times, in many different texts, ‘who, we’?
The revelatory force of historical materialism, which the signifier ‘Marx-and-Engels’ unleashed upon the world of discourse, is that for the first time in history these structures of material production, and the concomitant structures of social relations, can be studied for a society. It should also be noted that, outside of discourse, Marx and Engels helped propel a huge Communist Revolution into the world. In each instance, what seems obvious to us about Marx today is precisely what in his time period was said for the first time. The historical materialist may bring the contexts of material production to light, to sharpen or illuminate a more concrete and total historical understanding. “We know only a single science”, announces Marx in The German Ideology, “the science of history” (German Ideology, 2). Since Marx, all thought that has attempted to ground the expressions of a society or culture in the economic structures and social relations of production inherent in the particular world historical-moment, strives for such concrete illumination in the light of Marx, and in his shadow. We take for granted today that the ground of (history as such) is the dynamic material-social production which every human society, at each historical moment, at once inherits and engenders upon this planet Earth. Material production is true, it is what actually happened and what actually is happening.
The passage of the rational scientific element of historical materialism beyond itself into the moral and ethical realm of praxis would proceed as such- Societies and their histories are composed of the force of material production. What is material production? It is the force of living labor, and in the history of our Western societies it appears as the physical labor of the proletariat. Who are the proletariat? They are those human beings in a society who are oppressed, who are forced to labor in poverty and suffering to produce the affluence and comfort of other human beings in that society who are their oppressors. This train of thought starts from the purity of Absolute Knowledge and unveils to it its own dirty little secret, in the name of which Marx returns his debt to Hegel in the form of patricide.
This schematic dialogue, however, is misleading, for it relegates the moral moment to a gasp beyond language, at the conclusion of a logical process. It is not as if the scientific law is discovered first, and this revelation of knowledge finds its unexpected pinnacle in the reversal of moral struggle. What is more radical is to think the totality of Western society in its evolution through the Enlightenment into the practical revelations of Marxism. The force of proletarian liberation is the force that opened historicity to the scientific knowledge of the West. In one breath, Marx tells us both that the expressions of the ideological superstructure are in truth the productions of the economic base, and that the illusory freedom of the bourgeoisie is in truth the slavery of the proletariat. The work of dialectical historical materialism at once brings to light the forms and shapes of material production in scientific study, and liberates the oppressed proletariat class in revolutionary practice. This imperative is our inheritance.
It makes sense that the scientific study of the material production of society should coincide with the practical liberation of the oppressed proletariat, because the labor of the proletariat is the material production of society. That which historical materialism takes as its object of study is living labor, the subject of historical-material becoming. Production and the class struggle, then, are inseparable for Marx because production is the labor of the proletariat. To posit concrete, factical human labor as the production of human society and history is to assert, as Benjamin says, that “not man or men but the struggling, oppressed class itself is the depository of historical knowledge” (Illuminations, 260). Further, it is not as if the stuff of history is first recognized as material production, and then revealed to be the labor of the proletariat. The ‘what’ of production, that it is the matter of human society, is always-already the ‘who’ of production, that it is the living labor of the proletariat. The matter is not viewed fully until we see that it matters. If ‘we know only a single science, the science of history’, the degree to which we come into this scientific knowledge of the material historicity of our being, is the degree to which we practically build a free society.
That which has been expressed as history up till now, said Marx, has been the story of the victors, the kings, the priestly class; the underside of this written history, however, which has never been expressed, has been the sweat and blood of those who have labored to build the castles. “Historical materialism”, writes Walter Benjamin in his Theses on the Philosophy of History, “wishes to retain that image of the past which unexpectedly appears to man singled out by history at a moment of danger. The danger affects both the content of tradition and its receivers. The same threat hangs over both: that of becoming a tool of the ruling classes. (Illuminations, 255)
The content of tradition which we receive as our history comes to us as the outcome, the expression and the perpetuation of power and oppression; moreover, our interpretation of history, the way we receive this heritage, may just as easily continue this cycle of oppression. The same danger, and the same possibility, inheres in both: the tradition which influences the interpretation, and the interpretation which changes the tradition. Up to now, philosophers have only interpreted the world; now we realize that the point is to change it, and now we realize that our interpretive power can change it. The same danger, and the same possibility, linger in the content of the tradition which comes to us and the way that we perceive, inherit, act upon this tradition. The interpretation of history constitutes the content of history itself, just as it is incumbent upon the interpreter to unpack the ideological presuppositions that history has already deposited into his power of interpretation. “In every era the attempt must be made anew to wrest tradition away from a conformism that is about to overpower it.” This clearing of possibility, however, has only recently come upon us as a collectivity.
He does not say that every era renews the movement that wrests tradition away from itself; he says that in every era, the attempt must be made to wrest tradition away from conformism. If every era must renew the leap into war against the oppressors, however, this leap can only be made in the name of a war that is very old, a war that this leap in the present does not initiate of itself, but rather inherits, as its motive force, from outside itself. There is a tradition that is conformism, and there is a tradition that resists this conformism. There is a tradition of resistance to this conformism which is carried out in the name of a tradition older than the conformism itself.
If all history is in truth the history of oppression, this truth refers in its very accusation beyond the history of oppression towards the restless ground upon which this history clings, the class struggle. The class struggle, moreover, cannot be seen primarily as the overcoming of a lack, and cannot be simply a reaction against that which limits it, but before these must posit itself as the expression of a radical positivity, the positivity of the proletariat. It is not as if there once was or will one day be a Golden Age, away from which we have fallen, towards which we now clamor to return. Such a doctrine, inevitably tied into the teleological idea of progress, stimulates and encourages hope only to trick it into waiting, to make “the working class forget both its hatred and spirit of sacrifice, for both are nourished by the image of enslaved ancestors rather than that of liberated grandchildren” (Illuminations, 260). The proletariat has all along been struggling for liberation, yet in such a way that this struggle is older and deeper than that against which it struggles. The gears that have all along been churning to produce the human world have all along been groaning for release from their bonds.
Historical materialism teaches us to critique the tradition we inherit, by situating it historically in relation to the practical liberation of the proletariat. Today, we inherit a long tradition of historical materialism itself. It completely permeates modern thinking as the endless critique of history. And indeed, many of the most potent, salient aspects of Communism have today permeated the loose system of what we call capitalism. How are we to situate the dawning of the idea ‘history’ historically? What is the history of the concept of history?
Looking back today, we may be tempted to conclude that just as Marx could only have succeeded Hegel, Communism can only have grown out of capitalism as its dialectical opposite and counterpart. Historical materialism dawned in the midst of the growth of the capitalist mode of production, and it posits itself as revolutionary to the extent that its deployment as theory coincides with the practical enlightenment of the proletarian class, the laboring and productive force caught in the quickening economic and technological acceleration of modernity. And indeed, we can detect a deep complicity lurking in this startling coincidence and paradox: at the very time when the capitalist mode of production unleashed by the bourgeoisie approaches an unprecedented fullness of prolific acceleration and exercises an unprecedented intensity of exploitation of proletarian labor, Marx calls from within this system for the enlightenment and liberation of the mass of its oppressed laborers; Marx calls, that is, from within this system for its self-destruction.
For Marx, the bourgeoisie revolution in material production and Enlightenment reason characteristic of 18th century Europe shattered the economic base and superstructural societal relations of the landed feudal aristocracy, and put in its place an accelerating system of capitalist production and technology that drove the laboring proletariat to an extreme degree of alienation. As Marx says in the Communist Manifesto, “the bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society” (Selected Writings, 161). This perpetual and increasingly immense acceleration of production is fueled for the bourgeoisie by the increasingly intense exploitation of the labor of the proletariat class. The capitalist system alienates the proletariat class from its own living labor, and only from the tension of this sustained antithesis can the capitalist system generate its enormous productive acceleration. The capitalist system of accelerating productivity stretches and twists the proletariat as a rubber band, extracting from its slaves as much efficiency as possible without snapping its primary resource. This is the debt or imbalance, the spectral contradiction built into the very system as its generative force.
But the bourgeois revolution of Enlightenment, with the very force that perpetuated and accelerated this physical production and its concomitant alienation, also set into motion an accelerating development of communication through technology, under the banner of knowledge and freedom. It was the Enlightenment revolutions of the bourgeoisie that shattered the old myths of the Absolute God or of kingship and announced the awakening of Reason as self-determination and freedom. With the rapid technological evolutions of the printing press and the concomitant broadening of the disciplines of scientific knowledge, ‘faith’ gave way to ‘proof’, and in place of the mystery of God history and its facts became something which everyone could sensibly understand. “All that is solid melts into thin air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind” (Selected Writings, 161-2). This was the awakening of modernity.
When Marx undertook his critique of the capitalistic mode of production”, says Walter Benjamin, “this mode was in its infancy…[Marx showed that] one could expect it not only to exploit the proletariat with increasing intensity, but also ultimately to create conditions which would make it possible to abolish capitalism itself. (Work of Art, 217)
The hope for Marx was that the coincidence of the rapidly accelerating evolution and spread of technological networks of knowledge and communication on the one hand, and the necessarily increasing exploitation and alienation of the proletariat as a class on the other, could only result in the awakening of the proletariat to the facticity of their collective oppression and the immanent possibility of a collective revolution. The bourgeoisie banner of Enlightenment freedom would be torn down in its very actualization as practice. Thereby Communism would emerge from within capitalism itself as the nightmare and guilty conscience inherent in the very structure of the latter, as the specter which grows increasingly substantial the more capitalism tries necessarily to avoid its apparition. As Carl Schmitt says in The Concept of the Political, “this antithesis concentrates all antagonisms of world history into one single final battle against the last enemy of humanity. It does so by integrating the many bourgeois parties on earth into a single order, on the one hand, and likewise the proletariat, on the other. By so doing a mighty friend-enemy grouping is forged” (Concept of the Political, 74).
Communism proclaimed itself as the Messianic eruption of a world-historical community which in its emergence would reveal its inherited past as an enormous prehistory from which it had awoken. Historical materialism situated itself as the practical comprehension of historicity as such by which this community would simultaneously form itself for, awaken itself to and practically achieve this task. In the words of Guy Debord, “the real movement that abolishes reigning conditions governed society from the moment the bourgeois triumphed in the economic sphere” with the spread of capitalism, “and it did so visibly once that victory was translated onto the political plane” in the class struggle that would follow capitalism as communism (Society, 48). For “the development of the forces of production had shattered the old relations of production; every static order had crumbled to nothing. And everything that had formerly been absolute became historical.” Thus “the victory of the bourgeoisie was the victory of a profoundly historical time- the time corresponding to the economic form of production, which transformed society permanently, and from top to bottom…history was now perceived in its general movement– an inexorable movement that crushed individuals before it” (Society, 104).
The bourgeois Enlightenment had replaced the myth of God with the fact of history, but to the individual at the cusp of modernity the movement of history appeared as inevitable and automatic as the movement of the gears of the machines of capitalist production, as inevitable and automatic, in fact, as Nature or Divine Providence had appeared to earlier generations. The hope of Communism, then, was to simultaneously overcome individuality in collectivity and to overcome abstract history through its concrete appropriation. Only then could there exist on planet Earth a community of “the living becoming master and possessor of its world- that is, of history- and coming to exist as consciousness of its own activity” (Society, 48).
We may now grasp that kernel of dialectical historical materialism which unites knowledge, history, and the liberation of the proletariat with the fertility of production. This is the thought of the totality channeled through revolutionary practice to become flesh. In his introduction to Marx’s pamphlet Wage-Labour and Capital, Friedrich Engels asserts that it is in the prolific economic and technological productivity of the capitalist system that we may see the seeds that will grow to eclipse this system itself. He describes the passage from capitalism into communism as an organic transition whereby “the expansive force of the means of production bursts the bonds that the capitalist mode of production had imposed upon [it]”, and flows with a plenitude that finally makes available to all “the means of life, of the enjoyment of life, and of the development and activity of all bodily and mental faculties, through the systematic and further development of the enormous productive powers of society” (Introduction to Wage-Labour and Capital, 80).
Production is that living labor by which the human societal organism in its metabolism with nature posits, expresses and molds itself. In studying the physical structures of production the historical materialist does not unearth the dead bones of a society like an archeologist, nor does he measure the dimensions of a living society with the reductionist gaze of a phrenologist. Material production is the organic expression of the life, the fullness of a human community in its creative and prolific totality. A human society is nothing other than what it produces or expresses, and historical materialism sees in economic and social structures the externalization of the inner societal organism, the body and spirit of the collective polis.
Communism, as envisaged by Marx and Engels, does not reject in itself the conceptual unity of progress and production built into capitalism but, thinking responsibly and historically, learns the way that this unity is built, and then builds a better system that actually produces free bodies and minds. To destroy the bourgeoisie one cannot reject the idea of progress that appears on their banner and hope to turn back the gears of time, for the simple reason that this very thought of the unity of societal production and time, the recognition that the gears have a history, is a thought that must recognize its own history as one inseparable from the materiality of the gears themselves. But neither, then, can one postpone action until the totality is brought to the clarity of thought, for thought does not produce a photograph or even a film of the gears, but sees and feels the gears turning. This is not to say that progress is irreversible but that the totality is immanent.
This is the scientific knowledge value of Marx’s historical materialism, and the realism of its rationalism can be stifling for us. How to think, when all thought is physically produced by the totality of the social body around the thinker? One adapts oneself to one’s time, one looks at the means and the social relations of material production that make up the world in which one lives, one sees them for what they are, and one works to change the world.
The last part of that sentence contains a kernel of Marx’s notion of praxis that is, in itself, beyond and before the scientific use-value of historical materialism. Today, it is so obvious that it seems almost cliché, to affirm that one wants to change the world. What is ‘world’? What is ‘change’? But while these questions are valuable, it must additionally be noted that, in a public sense, these questions are only valuable for a certain style of written academic discourse. In addition, while we must continue to ask such questions, they are silly if one wishes to use them to actually doubt the kernel of truth contained in the statement “Up to now, philosophers have only interpreted the world; the point is to change it”.
We may now begin to question the relationship between the words ‘interpretation’ and ‘deconstruction’. Though it is incumbent upon us today to deconstruct every word of this statement that Marx once uttered, nobody who is presently listening to me seriously doubts what they know he meant to say. Of course each part of our collective discourse today already knows it, but ‘our collective discourse today’ is also uncertain that it can even dare to call itself a singular collective. As Derrida says many times, “Who, we?”
When we hear the statement, originally expressed by Marx, that ‘up until now, the philosophers have only interpreted the world, and the point now is to change it’, we are to begin to read it slightly differently. Contained in Marx’s Thesis is the absolute object of belief that permeates the entirety of our presently acting discourse. If we all begin to look at his Thesis in the same sense, then we have all begun to agree about something. Marx’s Thesis, then, from a single translation of the Theses on Feuerbach, reads, “the philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it” (Karl Marx: A Reader, 23).
How are we to interpret this statement today? There are a number of ways. 1. The point is no longer to interpret a thing from multiple directions but to act upon it. 2. Now, we must cease to look at the world and begin to change it. In one sense, these are two ways to say the same thing. However, it is, strictly speaking, not the decision to ‘cease to look at the world’ which matters, rather it is simply the decision alone which counts. There is something, then, in Marx’s Thesis which defies interpretation.
Hannah Arendt once said, “Heidegger does not think ‘about’ something; he thinks something.” This statement must not be treated skeptically, but first critically and carefully. We should not try to think her thought, but we should start talking about her statement. But neither should we try therein to uncover the contents of Heidegger’s mind. In a fundamental way, we must begin to think about the words we speak. We can think for ourselves, together.
What I will begin to speak of, therefore, is something I call ‘discourse’. If someone is listening, it is now clear then that discourse immediately includes, in a fundamental way, the speaking and the listening of the writers and the readers of texts in today’s world. This means, first of all, that a text is separate from the world within which it is produced; this means secondly that we already have no idea, in a certain sense, what we mean when we say the word discourse. If we want to know, we must begin to ask ourselves and each other again and again. In this way, however, we can become altogether certain that we are all really speaking to each other. Additionally, we can all begin, in one way, to work together regarding action in the world.
Starting from somewhere, then, I will call ‘discourse’ what Hannah Arendt in The Human Condition called ‘action’, except I will collapse her threefold hierarchical distinction between labor, work and action by asserting that the faculty of thought, which she explicitly excluded from her book, is identical to what she called action. ‘Discourse’ would then be the laborious work of the synthesis of ideal thought and practical action. But without the labor of remembrance, such action would simply be the work of violence. First of all, for Arendt, ‘action’ means upright word, honest speech, and good deed. She does not say anything about thought. “With word and deed”, she says, “we insert ourselves into the human world, and this insertion is like a second birth, in which we confirm and take upon ourselves the naked fact of our original physical appearance” (Human Condition, 177). Discourse for Arendt is acting discourse, then, because, as discourse, it is action which consciously seeks to change the world. A discursive act cannot be simply thought, and then performed automatically. Action for Arendt is responsible acting-out within the midst of an inherently social human totality. Action is the burgeoning possibility of social change itself. As such it repeats the completely new unexpectedly, over and over again, as it works in the image of a law which, though intuited, can never be lawfully confirmed.
In this sense, then, action is founded on the sense of a repetition which immediately confirms for itself its own history. But what is discourse, and how does it act? In posing such questions as the expressions of thought, we already engage in speaking communal action. I call it an acting discourse then to scare away that thought which thinks that thought cannot change the world. As a whole, parts of discourse today are afraid not that discourse itself cannot change the world, but that they themselves cannot play their part. There is a part of discourse which does not act. The part of discourse which does not act, however, is not the part of discourse which does not change the world; rather, the part of discourse which doubts the fundamental unity of our discourse as a whole, is the part of discourse which does not change the world. To believe in the fundamental unity of our discourse as a whole is not how we must do it, rather it is it, it is what we must do. We must believe in this, and it is good if we already do believe in it.
How, then, does historical materialism cause discourse to act? Historical materialism does not simply roll back the boundaries of human knowledge to unveil further fertile fields for the delight of Reason, because it shakes the very framework of the structure Reason has built for itself. There is something in historical materialism that morally calls into question the very assumption that a detached, autonomous playground of scientific exploration is valuable in itself. This is a way we could say such a thing today. We may say that this occurred in the 1800s when Marx asked the superstructure of society to start thinking about material things, and we may say in the same breath that this needs to happen again today with science, which is the superstructure of our society. In either case the speaking subject stands underneath an enormous machine and tries to pull it down to earth. In the first case we would be saying that in the 1800s Marx began to encourage the philosophical, critical, spiritual and scientific cultural thought of the West to seriously think about Western human society as a single concrete process of material, economic production. In the second case we would begin to ask science to make our human world cleaner, more efficient, and nicer to everyone. As Marx encouraged economic theory to reconsider the fundamental laws of capital, so today we must again consider asking scientific theory to change itself. In each speech act there appears the interrogative violence of what was called dialectical critique or praxis. In the words of Guy Debord, “the close affinity of Marx’s thinking with scientific thinking lies in its rational grasp of the forces actually at work in society. Fundamentally, though, Marx’s theory lies beyond science, which is only preserved within it inasmuch as it is transcended by it. For Marx it is the struggle– and by no means the law– that has to be understood” (Society, 52).
Today, however, historical materialism, through the mediums of structuralism and its aftermath, has seeped so deeply into our discourse that we no longer know how to talk about it. Therefore, when we say that Marx was trying to bring a ghostly superstructure back down into a base of matter, we are speaking under the influence of a certain superstructuralism. It can be said that Marx killed Hegel with one hand and told the proletariat to rise up with the other hand, but this is a metaphor to express the factical occurrence that he got involved with Engels, started writing and speaking to the world, and somehow set it on fire. At the same time we know that Marx did not really start the fire of Communism all by himself, and yet we still tend to trace the signifier Communism back to the signifier Marx. In today’s world, the only working base-superstructure relationship I can imagine is that between the Planet Earth and human society. Here, we may be thinking universally.
Our discourse is afraid because it knows it is a science, and yet it also knows that science in itself does not perform anything except the act of science. Left to itself, science will endlessly accumulate data; left to itself, the warring instinct in man will quickly blow up the planet with nuclear weaponry. The twin instincts of war and science concluded their most intense conjunction in 1945, when human shadows became imprinted upon the walls of buildings and sidewalks of streets in Japan, when human ashes finally ceased to rain in Germany. Since then, war and science still struggle within one another, but something is slowly changing.
Our discourse is today the sensitive underbelly of what may be called at once politics and the media. Our discourse reads politics and reads the media; our discourse is political and mediated. Our discourse produces political action and political discussion; our discourse infiltrates old media and produces, within existing media, new forms of expression.
But considered in itself, our discourse shares a close proximity to the method and the discoveries of science. The theories of science are themselves highly philosophical. In the 1900s, our discourse borrowed from science the tools and methods called structuralism. Today, that part of science which is not science is animated by historical materialism, which is itself discourse animated by what we may call political action.
It is crucial to remember that nowhere in discourse can we find genuine political action. Political action as such remains entirely outside discourse. Discourse is simply speech, and politics, put simply, is action. In discourse, however, the signifier ‘Marx’ remains the primary example of philosophy that is also political action. Historical materialism is a praxis that Marx has left to discourse as his legacy.
What would it mean to say that today, living in this legacy, our discourse is entirely war and entirely science? Could it be said that our discourse is entirely political? Our discourse is within itself a battleground of political ideas expressed scientifically, and yet our discourse fights, as a whole, a continual war against science within science, a continual war against politics within politics, a continual war against war within war. We ask science to feel by learning everything that it cannot learn, we ask politics to think by thinking politically, we ask war to end by fighting with ‘mere’ words. To fulfill Marx’s injunction, then, our discourse must remind itself (and science) again and again that just as thought is obviously not entirely intellectual, historical materialism cannot possibly constitute a primarily scientific revolution for the progress of knowledge in an atemporal sphere of thought. Such a notion of scientific progress in and for its own sake is revealed by historical materialism itself to be the dominant ideology produced by the historical moment of capitalism.
This means, then, that discourse is bounded on all sides by political action. Discourse speaks of political action, but does so only to itself. Political action must be carried down from discourse into the world of which it speaks. Discourse is separate from the human world, then, only to the extent that it is permeated with the injunction ‘Up to now, philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it’. Today, the injunction of Marx, which reverberates through the thing we call capitalism, de-centers science itself, dragging the beast of science which has reared its most ugly head in nuclear weaponry down into moral and political concern for the entirety of the planet. As Jacques Derrida said in Specters of Marx,
Mourning always follows a trauma. I have tried to show elsewhere that the work of mourning is not one kind of work among others. It is work itself, work in general, the trait by means of which one ought perhaps to reconsider the very concept of production- in what links it to trauma, to mourning, to the idealizing iterability of exappropriation, thus to the spectral spiritualization that is at work in any tekhne. There is the temptation to add here an aporetic postscript to Freud’s remark that linked in a same comparative history three of the traumas inflicted on human narcissism when it is thus de-centered: the psychological trauma (the power of the unconscious over the conscious ego, discovered by psychoanalysis), after the biological trauma (the animal descent of man discovered by Darwin- to whom, moreover, Engels alludes in the Preface to the 1888 Manifesto), after the cosmological trauma (the Copernican Earth is no longer the center of the universe, and this is more and more the case one could say so as to draw from it many consequences concerning the limits of geopolitics). (Specters of Marx,121)
In the next line, he says, “Our aporia would here stem from the fact that there is no longer any name or teleology for determining the Marxist coup and its subject.”
Today we make the attempt to mourn the 1900s.
LAMENTATIONS OF THE SPECTACLE
“We have to wake up from the existence of our parents. In this awakening, we have to give an account of the nearness of that existence.” (Arcades Project, 908)
In 1981, Jean Baudrillard lamented that “whereas so many generations, and particularly the last, lived in the march of history, in the euphoric or catastrophic expectation of a revolution- today one has the impression that history has retreated, leaving behind it an indifferent nebula, traversed by currents, but emptied of references” (Simulacra and Simulation, 43). The ‘last generation’ which he spoke of then was the epochal overturning of the 1960s, when revolution seemed imminent on all social and political fronts, and when this immanence moreover felt itself at the palpable tip of a new wave of history that seemed to call for its coming into being. The mythological impact of the 1960s permeates our culture and our discourse. The shame, the hesitancy, and finally even the strange pride we feel in reading this statement testifies to the inheritance that has been received of the epoch just described.
Can we even speak of such a temporal succession of generations as if it were a singular global phenomenon? When I say the 1960s, am I speaking of a cultural head which reared itself primarily in Western society? I speak today from my perspective. This generation, which we shall call ‘the 1960s’, had inherited from its parents the ruins of the Two World Wars of the first half of the 1900s, and found itself, in the midst of the Cold War, delivered over to the many hands of a world market of global capitalism that increasingly came to permeate and threaten all aspects of social and political life. This generation, called the 1960s, felt acutely the dangers of mass conformism and governmental control inherent in the new interpenetration of the global market and the social body. There occurred simultaneously, however, a renewed power of expression, the unceasing burgeoning of a new intellectual, moral and physical freedom which could be used to fight against the dangers of commodity capitalism.
For a brief time, it appeared as if a genuine revolutionary community had constituted itself. The ‘spirit of the 1960s’, as we today understand it, was certain both that its irreducible force had never before appeared on the planet, so it called itself a New Age. It was certain, moreover, that it was also the reawakening of a revolutionary force that had always been there, a potentiality that had always been stitched upon the fabric of history itself. So that generation also called itself a resurgence of the old ways.
Leaving aside for a moment the question of the fabric of history itself, Baudrillard says, in his 1981 essay ‘History: A Retro Scenario’, that twenty years after the end of the Second World War, the cultural memory of the Western world enjoyed a presence to its own history that, after the end of the 1960s, dissipated into a nebulous absence of content. Writing in 1981, it is clear for Baudrillard that the ‘march of history’ reached the peak of its self-presence in the 1960s, and that the following generation looks over its shoulder in the 1980s to see that the 60s has died, the march of presence has retreated, leaving instead the indeterminate void of an epoch through which shapes appear and disappear to a disjointed and groundless present. Today we struggle to raise the question- what must have disappeared, to leave in its wake such an absence which we are still calling postmodern?
We quickly see, however, that Baudrillard was not the first to sing the lamentations of the spectacle. Looking back now at Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle, written just before the infamous events retroactively dubbed ‘May 1968’, we see a similar sentiment of cultural absence and mass alienation already expressed. Debord begins his book by saying that “all that once was directly lived has become mere representation”, as “the whole life of those societies in which modern conditions of production prevail presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles” (Society, 12).
‘The spectacle’ is that constellation of mass media culture which, cast down from film, television and computer screens, tends to wire and define the social fabric of our capitalist society. The spectacle is an immense proliferation of technologically-generated words and images, displayed in the omnipresent midst of a communal commodity market. It is the digital imagination that flits through the veins of the capitalist social body. Throughout the 1900s the spectacle, through the vehicle of consumer capitalism, has extended its disgusting tendrils to swallow the whole life of the modern globe it constitutes. Marx would tend to agree, that the spectacle is disgusting because it brings with it a social, physical, institutional, and psychical alienation of the labor, work and action of the productive minds and bodies that constitute a human community. The disgusting tendrils of the spectacle ceaselessly engulf even the most positive of the modern social-technological possibilities characteristic of the capitalist ecosystem. We can no longer even begin to delineate the contours of a spectacle separate from the social body it infiltrates. Leaving aside for a moment then the surface of Planet Earth before the year 1900, it can be safely said that during the 1900s, the spectacle and the conditions of production characteristic of capitalism took over most of the human world together.
Since its irruption, the media spectacle of consumer capitalism has been indistinguishable from the economic means and social relations of production that characterize consumer capitalism. Concerning modern civilization, where the gears of capitalist production go, there the spectral images of commodity fetishism follow. In the system of capitalism, the economic gears of the machine turn ‘on the ground’ to cause the social organism ‘up there’ to function. Since the 1900s, the material processes of production called capitalism have begun to create new cultural waves and patterns that now touch most parts of the globe. Consumer culture and consumer life is eagerly distributed by the hands of the system; poverty and wealth, oppression and the class struggle for human rights are in one (and only one) sense equally served to many citizens by the same People. And thoughAmericaspearheaded much of this exponentially growing production process throughout much of the 1900s, we can safely say today, in 2010, that if there is a single People across our entire planet, this ‘We, the people’, even if it is a spectacle, is certainly not American.
What is the spectacle? Today, in the year 2010, the clarity (or lack thereof) that we see in the words used to describe the essence of what we call ‘the social-political-economic-judicial-unconscious-interpersonal-technological-ecological-media spectacle of late consumer capitalism’ can only testify more clearly to its complete and utter ambiguity. The spectacle spoken of by Debord in 1968 is that very ‘indifferent nebula’ spoken of by Baudrillard in 1981. Each claims, in his own historical context, that the directly lived substance of social and political life has vanished, and each, in his own way, attempts to describe the process of this vanishing. It could be said that such lamentations seek to describe the spectacle poetically, rather than scientifically; this statement, however, immediately calls its own terms into question. In the same breath, three questions can be thought- What is poetry? What is science? What is the spectacle?
How can we speak to each other of such a thing as the spectacle? It is that realm of our modern society advertised and constituted by systems of electric media communication, where an autonomous interplay of images embeds itself in paper and on concrete, to systematically produce and narrate the structure and substance of the production of bodies and minds, overlaying a diffuse and disembodied play of mirrors across the social world itself in its totality. The spectacle dwells in the battlefields of ideology, and in this sense the spectacle, considered apart from its base in material production, can be seen as the social-cultural superstructure of unconscious social dream networks. But still, these attempts to identify the spectacle remain empty gestures. Though the spectacle may be described as an objective social fact, it is difficult to pinpoint the spectacle as a unitary phenomenon. The finger which points to the spectacle gestures toward a force-field that includes the very motions of point and gesture within its total articulation.
How can we be sure that there is an experience of the spectacle? Speaking today about our lives, we can no longer truly speak of a sanctified inner privacy upon which the spectacle could impinge, nor can we speak any longer of a healthy social body upon which the spectacle could attach itself as a parasite, precisely because it is now the spectacle which from the beginning produces any body and any self which could speak of its own authenticity. It can be said, again, regarding the mental images that we create in ourselves about things, that these images themselves come fundamentally from the public sphere of media consumption created and sustained by modern capitalism. There is a place inside the television where intellectual discourse, corporate advertisement, news reportage and public entertainment converge and blend in a thousand voices, images, opinions, and desires. We are not yet aware of how thoroughly the spectacle is the very life force that turns the gears of our collective social body.
But it is still quite obvious to us, because of historical knowledge, that the spectacle of modern capitalism is finite. If the spectacle is attached to capitalism, our understanding of history tells us that capitalism has only recently begun. If the spectacle seems constitutive of industrial human society as such, our understanding of science proves to us that the spectacle is not the universe, because the earth is very small. But with what faculty of the understanding do we perceive the stuff of history? To what extent is our collective historical remembrance scientific? To what extent are the methods of scientific or historical thinking themselves conditioned a priori by the social spectacle?
The spectacle of which Jean Baudrillard spoke had already been spoken of before him by Guy Debord; and before Guy Debord, in turn, we can find testimony to the spectacle’s appearance in the words of Walter Benjamin. “All this is the arcade in our eyes. And it was nothing of all this earlier”, said Walter Benjamin in the 1930s, walking through the new electric-lit arcade shopping malls of Paris (Arcades, 834).
So long as the gas lamps, even the oil lamps were burning in them, the arcades were fairy palaces…the decline sets in with electric lighting. Fundamentally, however, it was no decline but, properly speaking, a reversal. As mutineers, after plotting for days on end, take possession of a fortified site, so the commodity by a lightning stroke seized power over the arcades. Only then came the epoch of commercial forms and figures. The inner radiance of the arcades faded with the blaze of electric lights and withdrew into their names. But their name was now like a filter which let through only the most intimate, the bitter essence of what had been.
There was an ‘inner radiance’ that glowed in the public spaces of Paris before the lighting of the new arcade shopping malls, but now the much brighter glare of electric commodity fetishism causes an invisible withdrawal in the public space, and what is left outside of the spectacle is only an imperceptible absence. The new spectacle for Benjamin now sings ceaselessly to itself in the arcade shopping malls, and in his memory, the silent sanctity of flickering candlelight pales and disappears before the harsh buzz of fluorescent lighting. The spectacle announces itself in the glow of neon names and night-lit signs which cast a monotonous, indifferent and overpowering illumination into the darkness, covering the stars.
We must remember that the spectacle throughout the 1900s was in all its forms a terrifying and monstrous revelation, and that it continues to be. And indeed, we can see, in the monstrous economic growth and the terrifying flow of its ‘commercial forms and figures’, the death of social authenticity and the rise of the mass consumer spectacle. “The dreaming collective” drawn to the arcades like flies “knows no history. Events pass before it as always identical and always new”, and even this sensation of “the newest and most modern is, in fact, as much a dream formation of events as the ‘eternal return of the same’” (Arcades Project, 854).
But we must rewire this sentence so as to bring out its positive and negative reflections. For one side of the brain, it is tragic that an entire collective is completely controlled by the impersonal eternal return of history, as it flits across the fleeting face of the societal spectacle. Baudrillard speaks again from the 1981 essay ‘History: A Retro Scenario’, speaking of “the historical stake chased from our lives by this sort of immense neutralization, which is dubbed peaceful coexistence on a global level, and pacified monotony on the quotidian level” (Simulacra and Simulation, 43). The dreaming collective knows no history, events simply pass before its empty eyes, in a peaceful collective dream of stupid ignorance. This is a very present and very negative effect of the spectacle in today’s world.
Benjamin speaks here of the same spectacle to which Debord and Baudrillard testify; this spectacle was alive in the 1930s just as in the 1960s and 1980s, just as it lives today. Each thinker of each generation already sees all of history summoned to this electric screen of detached simultaneity, sees the texture of experience uploaded to the same digital archive.
But for Benjamin, writing in the 1930s, the names, the words lit up by this new electric glow, uploaded into this new spectacle, are also thereby imbued with a new power to let through something else, ‘the most intimate, the bitter essence of what had been’. We must be careful not to imagine this ‘filter which let[s] through’ as the shining, from within the glare of the new electric lights, of the gentle glow of the gas lamps from the past. The inner radiance of the fairy palaces has faded and withdrawn, to leave in its wake not darkness but the shining of an even brighter, blinding light. What is needed is not a light from the past to break through the darkness of the present- there is more than enough light! But this also means that the ‘most intimate, bitter essence of what has been’, which must come, is something other than ‘a memory of the way things used to be’. Benjamin continues- “This strange capacity for distilling the present, as inmost essence of what has been, is, for true travelers, what gives to the name its exciting and mysterious potency.”
Before examining the epochs closer to our present day, we need to dwell here with Walter Benjamin, we need to see what he saw of his past in the 1930s, before the Second World War and all that followed it to become our present day. What was this transformation, this decline and reversal that he perceived in the lightening of the neon names of the electric spectacle? By what capacity do the neon names turn into a filter, and what is thereby let through?
“The alluring and threatening face of primal history is clearly manifest to us in the beginnings of technology”, though “it has not yet shown itself in what lies nearer to us in time…[and primal history] is also more intense in technology (on account of the latter’s natural origin) that in other domains. That is the reason old photographs- but not old drawings- have a ghostly effect” (Arcades Project, 393). There is a face that turns in the photographed image of the past to look at us, a face that looks in such a way that, meeting its gaze, we feel that it concerns the space of time that its gaze traverses, though what it is concerned about has not yet appeared for us there. Even if there is a person in the photograph, we need not look into their eyes to perceive the face now described.
We feel that this face from our distant past is about to tell us something about that time which has become its future, that time which now follows behind us as our more recent past- and yet it lingers on the tip of its silence, it does not move, it seems to hold its breath in anticipation. Is it waiting for us to say or do something? Without breaking our gaze it seems to beckon to the space that has gathered between our respective places, as if time itself were the light which has crystallized to form this black-and-white photograph before our eyes. Yet between the present and the past, in the impossible gape of time itself, there unmistakably passes an imperative that strikes time with a force that cannot be described in the language of time or space, and yet is coming. The image was not uncanny in this way when it was first captured and viewed, but has only become uncanny to us with the passing of time through space, the stretching of space through time. This uncanniness, which dwells in the old image that is perceived anew in the digital age, is the compression of time into the thickness of space, the condensation of space into the crystal transparency of time.
It is useful now to speak of the aura. “In the fleeting expression of a human face, the aura beckons from early photographs for the last time. This is what gives them their melancholy and incomparable beauty” (Work of Art, 27). The aura for Benjamin denotes a communal, mystical trace of alterity that inheres in physical objects which are surrounded by and imbued with ritual and tradition. For Benjamin, no such artistic object in a capitalist society can remain suffused with aura, since the age of technological reproduction ensures that any singularly significant work can be photographed, reproduced, and distributed infinitely.
The primal history seen in early photographs, however, speaks to us with a startling urgency different from the ancient voices that whisper and rumble in the tattered fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls, not simply because the photograph is closer to us in time, but also because of the rapid acceleration of technological progress peculiar to modern capitalism. The Dead Sea Scrolls, even if they are captured behind transparent glass in a museum, rest as they are, singularly enshrined in their aura. Likewise, an original painting from the late 1800s rests as it is, and as it was from the day of its completion. Even if we saw its image on the Internet before we went to the museum, and even if we have read the myriad scholarly interpretations of its minute brushstrokes, still we may to some degree approach the living thing itself, we may touch without touching, breathe without breathing the mystery of its history. It is a grandparent to us, in the sense that we may trace therein the contours of what, though ephemeral and past, still carries therein the weight and fullness, the presence of its mystery. Its distance is maintained, and respected. It ‘rests in peace’, and we preserve it.
Technological reproduction, however, has collapsed the distance between ourselves and our dead. Thereby, in the wake of the disappearing aura, we are called upon to become messengers of death in the fertile fields of the living. In the 1900s, a century marked as much by the acceleration of capitalist technological production as by the traumas of Western individualism, we experienced the catastrophic collapse of all contact with a past that used to seem suffused with a primordial sacredness, irreparably lost. That which has passed returns in an atmosphere of political emergency. What is so startling in the faces of early photographs is that we can see therein the worry, the invisible trauma that is not yet the utter absence of aura characteristic of a discarded candy bar wrapper, but is rather the disappearing of the aura in the last gasp of its disappearance, the desperate glimmer of the aura as it is frozen in the process of vanishing before our eyes.
The flat, glossy smiles on the color-splashed faces of today’s magazines, their perfectly transparent eyes are a parody, a mockery of this murder. Yet they are also a sign that today, many years since Benjamin, we cannot remain in an indefinite state of mourning. Benjamin in the 1930s saw this disappearance, saw the disappearing of this disappearance before his eyes, and he spoke of what he saw as the terrifying passage into a new epoch, where “in technology, a physis is being organized through which mankind’s contact with the cosmos takes a new and different form from that which it had in nations and families” (Work of Art, 59).
With the sudden rise of new networks of media communication, every work of art ever drawn, every sentence ever written by human hands becomes technologically reproduced into countless identical simulations of itself, becomes detached from its original context in heritage and tradition, and splits into myriad clone copies of itself which disseminate in myriad directions to enter into myriad combinations with myriad other images. Through the 1900s and into the present, this process of splitting and dissemination is itself accelerating in its speed and breadth, until the image we had of the process itself spills and disseminates before our eyes. “The technology of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the sphere of tradition”, and causes “a massive upheaval in the domain of objects handed down from the past- a shattering of tradition which is the reverse side of the present crisis and renewal of humanity” (Work of Art, 22).
Along with the massively accelerating production of commodities to create the factical ways of life of an entire society, the discipline of the technical and electronic production, reproduction, assembling and archiving of the entirety of the documents and artifacts of cultural knowledge and history has completely transformed the production of the thoughts and actions of what can (in only one sense) be called a worldwide civilization. This process has long since escaped the control of the Western world from which it came. It is the capitalist spectacle which has, to some degree, permeated every aspect and every layer, individual and collective, spiritual and material, artificial and natural, of the entirety of human culture upon Planet Earth.
Throughout the 1900s, the socio-economic productions and the cultural-ideological expressions of the capitalist system accelerated their spread across the human world. This century was and still remains terrifying and inexplicable to us. In the 1930s, the rapid viral infiltration and spread of Mickey Mouse and Charlie Chaplin across the collective consciousness of an entire civilization showed to Benjamin that “capitalism was a natural phenomenon with which a new dream-filled sleep came over Europe and, with it, a reactivation of mythic forces” (Arcades Project, 391). And yet, after the Great War and before the Second World War which would retroactively constitute the former as the First, Benjamin had hope that with the crisis of the spectacle of commodity capitalism would come the renewal of awakening, as “historical ‘facts’ become something that just now happened to us, just now struck us”, so that “to establish them is the affair of memory”, a unique digital memory of the present (Arcades Project, 883).
Benjamin took pains to show that, though technological reproduction alienated capitalist civilization from authentic contact with its history, hope could still be found in the new possibilities opened up for modern man. The primal history that begins to shine through old photographs gradually, only years after they are produced, testifies to a powerful new wave of cultural-historical awakening that follows, like a roll of thunder, in the wake of the lightning bolt of the commodity takeover which had erased the aura of the past in the instant of its flash.
In a single swipe, the age of technological reproduction tears each singular work of art away from authentic contact with the aura of its heritage and tradition, and files the digital copy of its image onto a universal database so that, there, it may be uploaded onto any screen and viewed at any place, at any time. On the one hand, an utter impossibility- all primordial connection with the originary essence of the past is destroyed; but just as quickly, then, there return waves of possibility, innumerable permutations of images of a past detached, reproduced, encoded, commodified. This movement- from the fairy lamps to the neon signs, from rupture to revivification, from the disappearance of contact with the aura to the reappearance of political possibility, from the forgetting of the authentic practice of past tradition to the electric remembrance of every detail of every ritual- here we see delineated the contours of what Benjamin in the 1900s called “a not-yet-conscious knowledge of what has been: its advancement has the structure of awakening” (Arcades, 883).
What hope did Benjamin see there, between the two World Wars, in the midst of the great storm of the first half of the 1900s? If the commodity fetishism characteristic of capitalism in the 1900s may be likened to a lightning bolt, where is the roll of thunder whose advancement could awaken to historical consciousness a new knowledge of what-has-been? If the spectacle in the 1900s strikes with a visible flash, we must not look, but rather listen for the ominous murmurs of awakening that follow. The greatest virtue of a storm is its unpredictability. A lightning bolt can be silent and nearly imperceptible; thunder can shake the earth.
The momentum of primal history in the past is no longer masked, as it used to be, by the tradition of church and family- this at once the consequence and condition of technology. The old prehistoric dread already envelops the world of our parents because we ourselves are no longer bound to this world by tradition. The perceptual worlds break up more rapidly; what they contain of the mythic comes more quickly and more brutally to the fore; and a wholly different perceptual world must be speedily set up to oppose it. This is how the accelerated tempo of technology appears in light of the primal history of the present. (Arcades Project, 461)
We must read this first line carefully. He is not simply re-narrating the doctrine of Marx, according to which bourgeois Enlightenment replaced the belief-structures of church and family with the open question of historical reason. He is not saying that a past society saw its past as the tradition of church and family, whereas our present society sees its past as the momentum of primal history. He is saying that for us, today, the momentum of primal history in the past is no longer masked by the tradition of church and family, as it once was masked for us.
But again, it is not as if in the past we saw a distorted picture of the past, and today in the present we see that we saw this distortion, we correct this distortion, and so we see the past more clearly. We can no longer assume a meaningfully continuous timeline between past and present. The past was not for us then what it is for us now, just as the present for us now is not what the present was for us then. There are many pasts; there is no single present; there is always only the Moment. We have changed fundamentally, and this is not the growth of an organism through time, and this is not progress. There is no vehicle called society that, driving along in the present, maintains a space in its backseat for historians to record what they see out the back window. There is no road- not the memory of a road that we struggle to maintain behind us, nor the gradual unveiling of a road that continues before us. But we are here now, and ‘there is a tradition that is catastrophe’. This tradition is wholly other to us. We cannot see what they saw of their own past or their own present, and we cannot see our own past or our own present. But what do they think of us?
We cannot see anything; however, this does not mean that there is nothing that has been given for us to see. Now, drenched in this impossibility, we can see that what appears to us as our past is not, never has been and never will be a primal history uncovered in its truth, its original ground. Rather, what comes to us is a series of marks that has always been changing, marking and remarking itself not upon a single skin, not in itself and for itself, not with a view to itself, but as the living record of this ceaseless change. This ceaseless change is not written ex nihilo with holy ink, but is the sweat, blood and toil of the oppressed. Here, it is clear that what can retroactively be called the utter contingency of human history was once produced by the hands of the oppressed.
This ceaseless change is the momentum of primal history. What the tradition of church and family covered up was not the true face of what really happened, but the truth of ceaseless change. The truth of ceaseless change that is uncovered is not primal history itself, but the momentum of primal history, and this momentum is the very force of uncovering which shows to us primal history as the imprint or echo of ceaseless change. The ‘momentum of primal history in the past’ is that rereading and rewriting of the past which shows it as the expression of the force of ceaseless change. This momentum itself can never be seen, but a primal history can be seen in the light of its ceaseless change. It is the primal history of the present.
‘The momentum of primal history in the past is no longer masked’ for us, and this is ‘at once the consequence and condition of technology’. Thanks to the accelerating evolution of technology and the broadening scope of its information systems, we can more readily view the accumulating record of our past with an eye towards shaping and re-shaping it as historical narrative upon a temporal continuum. As we look farther away from the present, through the 1900s and into the more distant past, it becomes easier for us to see the facts of history as froth atop a seething, unconscious sea of ceaseless change. We can more easily sculpt our interpretations out of the dust which has already settled, because it is easier for us to accept what has long since passed for its essential contingency.
But that thereby ‘the perceptual worlds break up more rapidly’, as technology grafts its dissimulating digital screen indissolubly into the perceptual fabric of the succession of human generations- this is ‘how the accelerated tempo of technology appears in light of the primal history of the present’ (my italics). This goes beyond the orthodox Marxist reading that, as a consequence of the physical transformations of technology, the institutions of church and family can no longer explain our past. The Marxist reading will explain this as the adaptation of the ideological superstructures of church and family to the transformations of their economic-technological infrastructure.
If, however, the opening of the momentum of primal history in the past is also the condition for the possibility of these technological transformations, we can no longer explain these transformations as simply physical. Changes in the superstructure are not causally determined by changes in the base. The economic, technological and ideological transformations of the 1900s were marked by utter contingency, and remain so. Still, we must recognize that our living past has granted us the ability to perceive this radical contingency. In the same breath that speaks of these phenomena, we must historically situate the consequences and conditions of our own perception of these phenomena.
We may now say, regarding the 1900s, that the accelerating transformation of economic and technological production is predicated on the opening of the momentum of primal history, the force of ceaseless change. The force of ceaseless change itself produces economic and technological transformation, because it is none other than the labor of the proletariat. “The class struggle,” writes Benjamin in his Theses on The Philosophy of History, “is a fight for the crude and material things without which no refined and spiritual things could exist.” In the class struggle,
courage, humor, cunning, and fortitude…have retroactive force and will constantly call in question every victory, past and present, of the rulers. As flowers turn towards the sun, by dint of a secret heliotropism the past strives to turn towards that sun which is rising in the sky of history. A historical materialist must be aware of this most inconspicuous of all transformations. (Illuminations, 255)
The class struggle involves not only the labor and pain of the oppressed, but also the force of dialectical critique which calls into question the doctrines of the oppressor. The force of ceaseless change, which as the toil of the oppressed produces history, is also the ground of the possibility for critique, rupture and revolution. There is a way to perceive the past as tragic catastrophe, and to simultaneously be grateful for that in it which, most bitter, served as the ground for the possibility of critical perception as such. We must continue to perceive the 1900s as an immense catastrophe, and we must continue to perceive therein the history of our perception. In this way we can both radically affirm positivity, and ruthlessly critique teleology.
And still we ask- what is our time? We may now begin to speak of ‘the 1900s’ because it has passed away. But every past implies a present. Between the ‘momentum of primal history in the past’ and what ‘appears in light of the primal history of the present’, we find ourselves now sucked into a cinematic model of movement, and flattened out into a temporal time-slice of stagnancy. If we hope to write a ‘primal history of the present’, however, we must not seek to collect the aggregate of information leading causally up through time to the modern condition, in the hopes of arriving at a picture of the present age. Rather, we must perform the labor of historical remembrance that is of the present, that is perceived and written with an ear to the moment at which it is written, that could only have been written at the particular time of the historical materialist who writes.
At this critical juncture between past and present, Benjamin’s dialectical method of historical materialism sought an experience of a past that bursts through the detached frames of linear historical narrative to become startling montage, real image in the present. This is the experience of the dialectical image.
The true picture of the past flits by. The past can be seized only as an image which flashes up at the instant when it can be recognized and is never seen again…for every image of the past that is not recognized by the present as one of its own concerns threatens to disappear irretrievably. (The good tidings which the historian of the past brings with throbbing heart may be lost in a void the very moment he opens his mouth.) (Illuminations, 255)
The dialectical image of the past uncovered by the historical materialist is an image that curves as a candle towards the glow of the present. It is an interpretation of the past sculpted by the contours of the present. The dialectical image therein receives not only its truth value, but also its political significance, because it concerns and effectuates the liberation of past and present oppression. But then what is the essence of this candle, this flame stretched between past and present- what is it of the past that falls between our fingers in the present, what is it in the present that so magnetically attracts the glow of the past?
When we inquire into the ontological essence of the image that confronts the historical materialist in his work, the dichotomy of present and past fails us. “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. In other words, image is dialectics at a standstill” (Arcades Project, 463). The dialectical relationship between a ‘present’ and a ‘past’ which, as opposites, would each project light upon and reciprocally illuminate the other, yields to the sudden confrontation between the ‘now’ and ‘what has been’. This confrontation strikes in a singular spark to become a constellation, the experience of the dialectical image.
However, it is important to remember that the ‘now’ is not a simultaneity of past and present, a direct intuitive unity of essence shared between the matter of history and its historical materialist. As Derrida says, “simultaneity is the myth of a total reading or description, promoted to the status of a regulatory ideal. The search for the simultaneous explains the capacity to be fascinated by the spatial image: is space not ‘the order of coexistences’ (Leibniz)? But by saying ‘simultaneity’ instead of space, one attempts to concentrate time instead of forgetting it.” (Writing and Difference, 25) The dialectical image is not a spatial image. The historical materialist does not imprint the total picture of a spatial event in history upon a photosensitive plate of cultural memory for the benefit of the knowledge of his species. Such an ideal photosensitive plate, perfect to be filed into the historical continuum, would capture the density of thickening space, founded on the concentration of time into the simultaneity of the Event, coined into the clear visual image of a substantive sign-system, stamped with the gleaming mark of historical truth.
When the dialectical image appears in the ‘past’ to the historical materialist of the ‘present’, the objective temporal continuum of history does not sharpen, concentrate, focus or zoom in on itself, rather it is blasted as object, it ceases to exist in space as time. Neither is the dialectical image a motion that flits in time as space, a subjective corporeal movement that dives down into the flesh of historicity to become the diachronous stretching of time as it unfurls as and along its own timeline.
The experience of the dialectical image is not a visual apprehension of an historical essence. Benjamin explains- “what distinguishes images from the ‘essences’ of phenomenology is their historical index. (Heidegger seeks in vain to rescue history for phenomenology abstractly through ‘historicity’). These images are to be thought of entirely apart from the categories of the ‘human sciences’, from so-called habitus, from style, and the like” (Arcades Project, 462). When the dialectical image appears, both the spatial movement of time as diachronic duration, and the temporal moment of space as synchronic snapshot, are destroyed. But we must remember also that the structural differance by which time breaks up into a multiplicity of successive moments, as well as the structural differance by which space breaks up into a multiplicity of simultaneous points, fail us. What can the dialectical image be, if ‘in’ its appearance it is neither a flat nor a stretched thing in space, if it does not persist in time, if it has neither substantive matter nor structural composition? And most importantly we must remember that what remains here, after time and space have been obliterated, is not the primordial opening of historicity as such. What is the dialectical image if it is not ‘in’ space or time? Does it have a face? Is it?
Here we have bumped up against language. Benjamin tells us that “only dialectical images are genuine images (that is, not archaic); and the place where one encounters them is language” (Arcades, 462). Did we just see a dialectical image, there in language? Did we experience it? Do we know what it is or what we are talking about? Did you see it?
Or perhaps we should speak about language. But what is language? Is it this? What is this? Is it writing? But what is writing? Are we talking too much?
When we spoke of the dialectical image, we could not imagine it Other than time or space, we could not see its face or know its core. We came to no place, got to no point, saw no thing. Did we feel something? If so, we are unable to speak of it to each other, because all speech/language/writing ‘is’ metaphor, is spatial and temporal, is historical. What is here communicated?
Perhaps we are still looking for an essence. “What distinguishes images from the ‘essences’ of phenomenology is their historical index.” (462) The historical index that marks dialectical images “not only says that they belong to a particular time” in the past, but “that they attain to legibility only at a particular time” of the present. If no particular essence inheres in the dialectical image, it is because the moment of interpretation, again and again, decides the singular experience of the encounter with alterity. This undecidability delineates the ever changing political coordinates of the class struggle.
The ‘now’ is not the present moment which supersedes the ‘has been’ in the smooth flow of the homogeneous tissue of historical progression. Rather, the ‘now’ is the sudden moment of danger, the singular gasp of a confrontation, the instant which in its irreducibility cannot be measured and so cannot be called a ‘present’. Likewise, what ‘has been’ is that trembling inheritance which overtakes the now with a wave of déjà vu, in a rush of intuition, as whispered promise. The encounter which Benjamin calls the ‘dialectical image’ traverses experience in a critical moment, that of ‘dialectics at a standstill’, and interrupts the continuous flow of history. Therein lies its revolutionary, Messianic spark. “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…not temporal in nature but figural” (Arcades Project, 462-3).
To the historical materialist, the dialectical image can be blasted out of the continuum of history because, as a singular historical object, “its monadological structure demands it. This structure first comes to light in the extracted object itself…in the form of the historical confrontation that makes up the interior (and, as it were, the bowels) of the historical object, and into which all the forces and interests of history enter on a reduced scale” (475). The object of comprehension for the historical materialist is an irreducibly singular monad, in which can be seen in a microcosm ‘all the forces and interests’ of the historical continuum from which it was blasted. If the event is considered in its larger historical significance, as a representation of its culture in its time period, then the elucidation of the event will sharpen the ‘larger’ understanding of this culture and this time period, just as the larger historical context will illuminate the significance of the singular event. This monad “finds represented in its interior its own fore-history and after-history”, that is, it receives its structure as a singularity from the way it exhibits within itself the tension between its own past and its own future within its own historical continuum. From the illumination it receives from the historical context on either side of it, it glows with the intensity of an absolutely singular, shattering event. It is a historically situated object that is illuminated by, and reciprocally illuminates, its context, in such a way that it is wholly itself, wholly other to its context. As an event it stands on its own, irreducible to anything that came before or after. Yet it itself is the point at which its past and future meet, it itself is the juncture that holds its past and future on either side of it, together in a single narrative yet separate in indecision, open to interpretation.
We take for granted today that we have the cognitive ability to look at a person, a place, an object, an event, in the past, and to say ‘Wow, what an irreducibly beautiful, fascinating thing we have before our eyes- and what an example of its time!’, as if the thing stood there for us in its time, and yet also looked out at us from its time, out of its time. As if history were a scrolling slideshow of images, and we could click on any image to watch a film, and freeze that film at any moment to find another image, which is once again on a slideshow of images (metonymy and metaphor///space and time); and as if the surface of the screen of history lay before but also behind our vision, as if, in the present, we were between ourselves and the screen of the past, as if, engaged in a perpetual uploading of the present with the past, we were between the screen and itself, as if in the present the mouse were our hands and the screen were our eyes, and “the free act of the question, which frees itself from the totality of what precedes it in order to be able to gain access to this totality, particularly to its historicity and its past”, were so to speak refreshing to us (Writing and Difference, 167).
This cybernetic ability we have today is part of the legacy of historical materialism, particularly the way that Marx’s scientific insights have been uploaded into the knowledge of the Western world. But the downloading of Marx’s most bitter insight is another matter. We take our cybernetic ability for granted, that is, we take it for granted. We assume it as already given, we do not question it, and so we are thrown into it; thus taking it as already given, we seize our gift out of the hands that have given it to us without recognizing it as gift. The free act of the question frees itself from the totality of what precedes it; and even then, it is not thereby immediately in contact with the presence of the historicity and the past of this totality, but gains only the presence of the ability to access the historicity and the past of that totality. The question which has brought itself to the presence of this possibility, Derrida continues, “cannot expect an answer. It is the question of the possibility of the question, opening itself, the gap on whose basis the transcendental I, which Husserl was tempted to call ‘eternal’ (which in his thought, in any event, means neither infinite nor ahistorical, quite the contrary) is called upon to ask itself about everything, and particularly about the possibility of the unformed and naked factuality of the nonmeaning, in the case at hand, for example, of its own death” (Writing and Difference, 168).
In receiving and applying Benjamin’s writings on the historical materialist method, the danger that ‘affects both the content of the tradition and its receivers’ is that we who receive this inheritance will use it to distill dialectical images from the objects of history that do not transmit the explosive spark, the ‘destructive or critical momentum’ that constitutes an authentic monad. The danger is that we will be good Hegelians but bad Marxists, we will not recognize that the force of critique comes not from the synthesis of Spirit in Absolute Knowing but before that from the struggle of the oppressed whose labor is concretely and abstractly the possibility of the question. Let us turn again to Benjamin’s words, at which we may have looked too quickly. “If the object of history is to be blasted out of the continuum of historical succession, that is because its monadological structure demands it. This structure first comes to light in the extracted object itself. And it does so in the form of the historical confrontation that makes up the interior (and, as it were, the bowels) of the historical object, and into which all the forces and interests of history enter on a reduced scale. It is owing to this monadological structure that the historical object finds represented in its interior its own fore-history and after-history” (Arcades Project, 475).
The monadological structure ‘comes to light’ in the object of history after that object has been extracted from historical succession. However, the object may be extracted from its place in the timeline only if the historical materialist has already heard the call, from within the object, of that object’s monadological structure. The monad ‘neither reveals nor conceals, but gives a sign’, a demand that bypasses the order of sight, and yet a demand that is structural. The monad calls from within the bowels of the object, the historical materialist responds by blasting the object out of historical succession, and only then does the monadological structure of the object reveal itself to vision in the object. What comes to light in the extracted object, the dialectical image of its monadological structure, shows itself in the form of a historical confrontation that fills and fulfills the belly, the bowels, the flesh and blood and bones of the object. This is the world-historical confrontation between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. It is the stillness in the center of the moment, the moment of what-has-been and the moment that is now. The moment gathers, however, not in an open clearing of peace and light, nor in the closed darkness of nothing, but in a commandment at once joyous and sorrowful. In the inbreath, shared between the historical materialist of the present and the historical matter of the past, there gather the forces and interests of the suffering and redemption of time itself towards the still point of remembrance. This place is not present, but remains. It is not the struggle between Master and Slave, but the struggle of the oppressed.
Only in the outbreath can we say that “it is owing to this monadological structure that the historical object finds represented in its interior its own fore-history and after-history” (475, my italics). In my former interpretation of this passage, I thought that the ‘historical confrontation that makes up the interior (and, as it were, the bowels) of the historical object, and into which all the forces and interests of history enter on a reduced scale’, was the monadological structure of the historical object itself. I interpreted the word ‘confrontation’ to refer to the jointure, the presencing of the present between past and future which “the historical object finds represented in its interior [as] its own fore-history and after-history”. In this way I was able to conceive that each past had a past, and I was able to perceive the fractal sedimentation of interpretation between every present and its past. I then saw my own ‘confrontation’ between my present and the past of the historical object, in the light of that general monadography by which the repetition of interpretive remembrance comes to representation.
But when I realized the true meaning of the word ‘confrontation’, that it referred in that sentence not to a spatial relation of the temporal continuum to itself but primarily to the confrontation of the oppressor against the oppressed, I realized further that the ‘monadological structure’ is not the historical object itself in the primordial illumination of its historicity, but is that by which the historical object finds already represented in its own interior its own destiny. Though it demands that the historical object ‘is to be blasted out of the continuum’, the monadological structure does not show itself in itself, rather it comes to light in the extracted object itself, as the way that the constellation of that particular historical moment is illuminated from within itself by the explosion of the class struggle which produced it. The historical object never ‘has’ a monadological structure that reveals itself in the articulation which opens historicity to full comprehension of the interconnectedness of its own timeline! There is never in the historical object even the slightest trace of a monad or a monadological structure in its presence. There is only ever the world-historical confrontation between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, in its sorrow and its joy.
It is essential to acknowledge this non-presence of monadological structure, in order to guard against the excesses of a structuralism which would seek a totalized and definitive snapshot, or an authoritative cinematographic narrative, of the structure of a historical moment. However, this does not mean that we must deny ourselves all positive statements, and condemn ourselves to rootless interpretation. There is no monadological structure of the historical object, however, such structure can be seen in the historical object if the object is first wrested away from the structure of its historical context, and is seen in the light of the class struggle which has already given it its own structure.
In this structure [the historical materialist] recognizes the sign of a Messianic cessation of happening, or, put differently, a revolutionary chance in the fight for an oppressed past. He takes cognizance of it in order to blast a specific era out of the homogenous course of history- blasting a specific life out of the era or a specific work out of the lifework. As a result of this method the lifework is preserved in the work and at the same time canceled; in the lifework, the era; and in the era, the entire course of history. (Illuminations, 263)
In the blast, the historical object is shot through with chips of the confrontation, and it is these which come through the historical object as the apparition of its dialectical image, in the light of which it ‘finds represented in its interior its own fore-history and after-history’. The historical object does not thereby assume its place as a permanent mark or unchanging tag atop a raging, changing historical chaos that would serve as its context; and likewise, the historical continuum is not a constant, factically objective skin or texture upon which transient and indeterminate monad-objects flit or twitter, make their marks and dissolve. The force of the blast shatters these spatio-temporal models. When the historical object constitutes itself it is seen as a dialectical image completely blasted away from any relation with any context or any model. This is not a reconstruction of the face of originary historicity, but a destruction of the old and a construction of the new. But a deconstruction aimed at dissolving presence into indeterminacy is guided by nothing if not the class struggle embodied in Marx’s 11th Thesis, ‘Up until now, philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it’. If a structure is to be illuminated, it can only be that which serves the proletariat in its struggle against the oppressor, in the now.
“Hence, for as long as the metaphorical sense of the notion of structure is not acknowledged as such, that is to say interrogated and even destroyed as concerns its figurative quality so that the nonspatiality or original spatiality designated by it may be revived, one runs the risk, through a kind of sliding as unnoticed as it is efficacious, of confusing meaning with its geometric, morphological, or, in the best of cases, cinematic model” (Writing and Difference, 16). The class struggle animates the dialectical image with a face that defies structural or scientific representation. And yet, the meaning which burns in history as the scent of the class struggle cannot be lifted from history, removed in its purity apart from the stain of any symbolic representation. For the class struggle produced history, and the historical materialist must narrate the class struggle in history for the liberation of past and present oppression. History must be reread and rewritten.
And indeed, Benjamin says elsewhere that “the fore- and after-history of a historical phenomenon show up in the phenomenon itself on the strength of its dialectical presentation” (Arcades Project, 470). Dialectics does not destroy history but awakens it from its restless slumber, revives that in it which has always been revolutionary confrontation. However, Benjamin proceeds in this passage to use the word ‘confrontation’ not in a revolutionary, but in an explicitly structural sense. “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. It becomes such a field insofar as the present instant interpenetrates it. And thus the historical evidence polarizes into fore- and after-history always anew, never in the same way. And it does so at a distance from its own existence, in the present instant itself- like a line which, divided according to the Apollonian section, experiences its partition from outside itself” (470).
Though the historical object is blasted out of any continuous historical timeline and summoned to the present moment of interpretation, nonetheless this destructive force blasts open a play of differential marks across the object which remain imprinted, beyond the object, on a historical force field that is sensitive to structure. The force of dialectics awakened and unleashed in the ‘Messianic cessation of happening’ congeals into structure, surrenders its absolute alterity to a play of interpretation that constantly reconfigures itself through time. Precisely because of the total uploading of history into an archive of digital information, the historical materialist may trace lines, and lines within lines, upon this permeable and receptive encoding membrane, may form and reform monads, changing the very text and context of this ‘primal history of the present’. This structure is so to speak constantly astonished at its own existence, refreshed in its own growth.
It is in this sense that Derrida tells us that “the structuralist stance, as well as our own attitudes assumed before or within language, are not only moments of history. They are an astonishment, rather, by language as the origin of history. By historicity itself.” (Writing and Difference, 4) Earlier, we saw how the scientific revelation of historical materialism opened the ground for the concrete socio-economic structures of a living societal organism to be studied, in their factical historicity, as the production of an articulated totality of superstructural institutions and ideas, social formations and organizations. Though Marx first posited the economic infrastructure as the primordial root or body of the cultural-ideological superstructure, thinkers after Marx extended his concept of production to cover a more general phenomenon embracing base and superstructure, encompassing material and ideological production alike as the semiotic, historical expression of life itself. The structuralist wave of the human sciences sought to unveil sign-systems of signification in the structured substance of human societies, in the relations and patterns of social codes, institutions, languages and laws as much as in the physical economic means of production. Infrastructure and superstructure alike are generated as structure, are knotted with articulated systems of signs, semiotic networks which change and grow. And while these patterns are found in flesh that is historical, and while these patterns change with the wrinkling of the skin, these patterns themselves are thought by structuralism to be the play, within history, of forms that in themselves are not historical.
“But within structure there is not only form, relation, and configuration. There is also interdependency and a totality which is always concrete” (Writing and Difference, 5).
The polarization of the texture of history creates a force field of interpretive potentiality, a sensitivity between the very delineations of present and past, a thinning of the veil through which the violent spark between the now and what-has-been may flicker. The primal history that looks out at us in old photographs is the opening of this force field, the “telescoping of the past through the present” (471).
What is the ‘telescoping of the past through the present’? Let us look at this word, telescoping. It refers ultimately to the noun, ‘telescope’; this noun was turned into a verb, ‘to telescope’; this verb became an adjective, ‘telescoping’, which is in its turn a noun again, referring to the entire process of telescoping. Before we define ‘telescoping’, then, we must look at the telescope. The noun ‘telescope’ refers to a thing, the telescope. A telescope is a scientific instrument that allows us to see the stars. To do that, it uses reflecting mirrors and/or refracting lenses to absorb light that comes to us from the stars, as the stars. The light is the way that the stars appear to us, as well as that which allows us to see the stars. A scientist uses a telescope to look at the stars. There is a shining of the stars, and there is a shining of the telescope.
The eye, pressing against the telescope, thus sucks in light either through contact with a medium which distorts the light (a refraction telescope), or through indirect contemplation of a clearer image of the light in a mirror (a reflection telescope). The refraction telescope, first built by Galileo, uses a lens or multiple lenses to channel and focus light in a direct, linear passage to the perceiving eye. With a refraction telescope the human eye, itself a lens, is looking at the star through more powerful lenses, but because the light bends through the subjective curvature of the lens, different colors become bent different amounts, and the light becomes unfocused. The reflection telescope, first built after Galileo by Newton, reflects the light through a relay of mirrors that mediate the image to the eye of the scientist, which perceives the final mirror in the chain. This is the indirect contemplation of the reflection of a star, of an image which is clearer through the faithful and accurate mediation of mirrors. It can be said, in conclusion, that the refraction telescope is more ‘subjective’, and the reflection telescope is more ‘objective’.
Immediately, then, we see in the statement ‘telescoping of the past through the present’ the play of visual and scientific metaphors. It was necessary, for our purposes, to trace the word ‘telescoping’ back to its root in a scientific instrument. Benjamin originally wrote “Teleskopage der Vergangenheit durch die Gegenwart“ (Bd. V, S. 588). ‘Teleskopage’ is written in French, and the rest of the statement is written in German. In French, ‘teleskopage’ derives from the verb ‘telescoper’, whose etymology is traced back not to the Latin root ‘telescopium’ (far-seeing) but to Galileo’s English word ‘telescope’, which he lifted from the Latin root. Before we move to the senses of the verb ‘to telescope’, we must linger longer on the implications of this scientific root. Benjamin’s word ‘teleskopage’ itself carries, beyond its own intentions, an intrinsically scientific inflection.
In a similar sense, the meaning we will extract from the statement ‘telescoping of the past through the present’ is and will remain connected to the human adventure of vision. Our attempt to make sense of this word, and Benjamin’s message in uttering it, meet in the assurance that there is vision here, scientific vision that wants to see the stars, human wonder that wants to behold the coming of the stars through space and time towards the revelation of sight. Keeping our guiding-question (what is the ‘telescoping of the past through the present’?) in mind, then, we may include in the scope of our inquiry another, larger, question- What is the relation of the historical materialist project uttered by Marx to the human adventure of vision accelerated by science? What is the scientific use-value of historical materialism? Can we think the historical materialist as a scientist?
If the Marxist science of history ushered in a paradigm shift, it is nonetheless clear that the Marxist project signifies more than a purely scientific revolution. Historical materialism deconstructs the notion of science-in-itself as bourgeois ideology. Is the ‘telescoping of the past through the present’, then, the ‘telescoping of light through the telescope’ in any sense, and does this mean that Benjamin must be speaking of the ‘presencing of the past through the present’? Can we say that the historical materialist stands in the present moment, faces the past and tries to imprint its light upon his vision? Heidegger began to ask this question when, in Being and Time, he sought “neither the science of history nor the latter as an object, but rather this being itself which has not necessarily been objectified” (Being and Time, 347). Can historical materialism scientifically behold history itself? 
Maybe the historical materialist is using a telescope to look at a star. But if this is the ‘telescoping of the past through the present’, and if we say then that the present is the telescope used to look at the past, then why is the historical materialist inside time? If here the scientific metaphor of the telescope has been confused with practical life experience, then we must correct ourselves. We can say that what we call the present moment in history possesses neither the materiality of a space of occupied time, nor the physical existence of a scientific instrument. Still we conceive of the present from the objective perspective of a security camera. Let us leave aside the question of the word ‘present’, and now ask- if the ‘telescoping of the past through the present’ involves no telescope and no objectively present moment, how else can we conceive of the word telescoping?
We may say that the past is the thing that the historical materialist looks at through the ideological telescope of the present, which either refracts the light of the past subjectively upon his gaze, or deflects it onto mirrors which reflect it more objectively into the eye. According to this metaphor, then, the telescope would be ‘the present’, defined as the totality of the historical-social context in which the materialist is writing, and the past is that thing he is looking at which actually happened then. The historical materialist, in this case, stands outside time and uses the present as the instrument that has been handed down to him, to perceive the past. For this sort of scientist, the dilemma as to whether the light is ‘what is really out there’ or ‘only what I see’ is ignored in itself, and instead sublimated towards the further perfection of the telescope; “for now we see through a glass darkly, but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known” (1 Corinthians 13:12).
But this metaphor does not hold, because the historical materialist is immersed in the present, and the past is catastrophe. He is not separate from his instrument, he doesn’t care about perfect vision. Furthermore, the present is not at all an instrument to him! He cannot simply take the concrete, historical, social and material context of his human world at its present moment as granted for use, but must ceaselessly reflect upon it, surrender himself to the truth of its injustices, expose himself to the scars of its catastrophic and terrifying history. There is no telescope that has already been built for him. Nor does he look through the telescope to study the past with one hand, and open up the gears of the telescope to study the present with the other. For him neither present nor past can be the tool of the other. The historical materialist does not study the present in his spare time, and when he studies the present, his task is not simply to study the structure of the telescope he has inherited in order to further perfect it for those to come. In this sense, the historical materialist is as far away from a scientist as a scientist can possibly get.
If there really is no telescope involved in the telescoping of the past through the present, this must be above all because the historical materialist is not a scientist trying to study the past. Nor does he look into the past as if to see therein the contours of a present face. If the historical materialist studies some thing, it must be something that is both the past and the present, something that has passed and is presencing, in such a way that these terms themselves become transformed into what Benjamin calls the ‘what has-been’ and the ‘now’. But what was the telescope to begin with, and what is now telescoping?
We are still trying to look at the telescope. If not language itself, then at least our visual metaphors are beginning to fail us. We must stop looking at these words as things. The historical materialist does not look to see what actually happened in the past, nor does he ever hope to discover what is actually happening in the present. His adventure is not for the sake of science, yet he uses its methods for a purpose that goes beyond the simple and beautiful presencing of clarity for the sake of knowledge. Like the eye of the science of history, his eye is attracted to light, but in the stuff of history light appears to him as the broken sadness and the persistent joy of the class struggle. This means that the hands which study the historical past must include the thought of the historical present within their work, and that the thought which asks the question of the present moment in history must draw its reserves from the mournful and loving cultivation of the past.
Turning back now to the word, we see that although the word ‘telescoping’ was originally a thing to call the motion made by the sliding tubes of a collapsible telescope, the word ‘telescoping’ quickly disseminated itself through time and the human sign-system to refer to the motions or actions of many physical objects besides the telescope. Using the language developed by Deleuze and Guattari in their dialogue Capitalism and Schizophrenia, we may say that the physical motion of the sliding tubes of a collapsible telescope was deterritorialized from the world of matter towards a linguistic space, wherein appeared, reterritorialized, the verb to telescope.
To telescope- ‘To slide, run, or be driven one into another (or into something else); to have its parts made to slide in this manner; to collapse so that its parts fall into one another (quot. 1905).” A linguist may telescope a plethora of particular cases into one general rule of agreement; two train cars may collide and one will telescope over the other; the limb of a machine may unfurl and stretch itself out of itself, or may curl back in; an intestinal tube may suck itself back or eject itself forward through another intestinal tube. Each is an instance of telescoping. Most directly pertinent to Benjamin here is perhaps the telescoping effect of psychology and cognitive science, where parts of a person’s short- or long-term memory become disproportionately nearer to or farther from their gaze in the present.
In each case, ‘telescoping’ refers to a living motion that an entity itself undergoes. Telescoping involves concentration, combination, crunching, condensing, compressing, thickening, charging, loosening, tightening. In the telescoping of the linguist, one can see how the ‘telescoping of the past through the present’ could be read as that scientific work by which the historical materialist compresses, condenses and clarifies the past into images of high conceptual resolution, gathering the tattered strands of linguistic memory towards the smooth screen of the present, building a synchronic ground in the thick of diachronic chaos. But this would still only be the telescoping of the past in the present, or at most the presencing of the past through the present. The ‘through’ goes through the presence between present and past, to arrive at the confrontation between the now and what-has-been. This is the world-historical confrontation between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. The other three examples of telescoping give some sense of this, but we cannot expect to see this meaning in language.
The ‘telescoping’ of which Benjamin once spoke does not refer merely to that sharpening-clarifying action between human and tool, turned towards the Thing in Science. Even if it be granted that the eye which looks is itself a lens, the historical materialist is not a vessel through which the pure light of telescoping works itself out into history. If we are to say that the ‘telescoping of the past through the present’ is scientific, this can only refer to a transformed science whose principal goal is no longer solely to fix its gaze upon an object of knowledge and sharpen its focus. The science which looks for a self-same reflection is itself refracted by the historical materialist into a medium that is other than light. Further, even if the word ‘telescope’ (which means far-seeing) appeared while Galileo walked the earth, there exists, neither in word nor thing, no historical-linguistic aufhebung by which the noun ‘telescope’ passes through the verb ‘to telescope’ and stands upright or returns to itself as ‘telescoping’. In our language the usage of the word ‘telescoping’ has nothing to do with a telescope.
Let us now examine a particular use of the word ‘telescoping’ in ‘21st century culture’. In the 2001 film Waking Life, chemistry professor Eamonn Healy speaks of telescopic evolution-
If you look at the time scales that are involved here — two billion years for life, six million years for the hominid, 100,000 years for mankind as we know it — you’re beginning to see the telescoping nature of the evolutionary paradigm. And then when you get to agricultural, when you get to scientific revolution and industrial revolution, you’re looking at 10,000 years, 400 years, 150 years. You’re seeing a further telescoping of this evolutionary time. What that means is that as we go through the new evolution, it’s gonna telescope to the point we should be able to see it manifest itself within our lifetime, within this generation.
And indeed, this does touch on one aspect of Benjamin’s ‘telescoping of the past through the present’. The historical materialist does live from the awareness, both that his power of historical perception is absolutely new upon this historical earth, and that his power is a borrowed expression of the same evolutionary process which always has been.
Put differently, the historical materialist lives from a world-historical awareness which has been given to him by science. Earlier in this essay, Derrida spoke of the Copernican, Darwinian and Freudian scientific revolutions, to show us how ‘mourning always follows a trauma’. He continued, in his book Specters of Marx, to say that “the blow that struck enigmatically in the name of Marx also accumulates and gathers together the other three”, it “carries beyond them by carrying them out, just as it bears the name of Marx by exceeding it infinitely”, it is in fact “the deepest wound for mankind, in the body of its history and in the history of its concept” (Specters, 122-3).
Copernicus taught us that the Earth revolves around the Sun; Darwin taught us that life on Earth evolves into the complexity of its own sustenance; Freud taught us that the human unconscious mind is an incredibly powerful thing. If Marx strikes a blow that somehow transcends these three scientific revolutions, the force of his assault cannot be found in the statement ‘We know only a single science, the science of history’, but must be seen in the thesis ‘Up until now, philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it’. We used to call this the Communist Revolution; today, however, Communism is an academic concept, and Capitalism, at least in America, is struggling to recover from the greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression.
What would Walter Benjamin think of Eamonn Healy’s optimism?
In his essay The Work of Art in the Age of its Mechanical Reproduction, Benjamin describes how “during long periods of history, the mode of human sense perception changes with humanity’s entire mode of existence. The manner in which human sense perception is organized, the medium in which it is accomplished, is determined not only by nature but by historical circumstances as well.” Here, the superstructure, ‘human sense perception’, changes with the base, ‘humanity’s entire mode of existence’. The former is not the effect but the expression of the latter. Then, he says that the structure of the superstructure, the ‘manner in which human sense perception is organized’, is determined; it is not, however, solely determined by a material base of production crudely understood as ‘nature’, but ‘by historical circumstances as well’. Historical circumstances may be akin to ‘the medium in which [human sense perception] is accomplished’.
Historical materialism is consciousness of historical evolution, consciousness which lives on the palpable temporal tip of this evolution. And indeed, the historical materialist certainly does see telescopic evolution ‘manifest itself within our lifetime, within this generation’, in the sense that he sees the present moment as the precipitated past, and he grafts the mystery of his perception of the present moment into his perception of the world-historical moment. This is a poetic element indispensable to dialectical praxis itself. The chance for the revolutionary fight for the oppressed past opens up thanks to what Healy calls telescopic evolution, in the light of it and through the light of one’s awareness of its light.
But so far, Healy has not mentioned anything about the heart of dialectics, which is found by adding the letter ‘r’ to the beginning of the word ‘evolution’. If this grafting does not quite sever the new word ‘revolution’ from all implications of ‘evolution’, nonetheless it is certain that events of the former cannot be subsumed as mere instants of the latter. Healy continues- in the modern age, “as intelligence piles on intelligence, as ability piles on ability, the speed changes. Until what? Until we reach a crescendo in a way that could be imagined as an enormous instantaneous fulfillment of human, human and neo-human potential. It could be something totally different.”
In a way, this ecstatic prophecy could be compared to the ideal vision of Communism espoused by Marx in the 1800s. If such a comparison were possible, then Marx and Eamonn Healy would agree. But no such scientific comparison is possible. Another if/then statement- If Marx were grafted out of the 1800s and transplanted into the present world-historical moment, then Marx would deconstruct Healy.
Leaving aside the question of time travel, it is clear that the telescoping of which Healy now speaks is no longer the ‘telescoping of the past through the present’. Why? What is it about this espousal of telescopic evolution that Benjamin would call an optical illusion? Let us look at the 18th Thesis on the Philosophy of History, which Benjamin wrote in 1940 to directly address the modern scientific-technological revelation of telescopic evolution.
“In relation to the history of organic life on Earth,” notes a recent biologist, “the miserable fifty millennia of homo sapiens represents something like the last two seconds of a twenty-four hour day. The entire history of civilized humanity would, on this scale, take up only one fifth of the last second of the last hour.” The here-and-now, which as the model of messianic time summarizes the entire history of humanity into a monstrous abbreviation, coincides to a hair with the figure, which the history of humanity makes in the universe.
An objective conceptual glance shows no essential difference between the statements of Eamonn Healy and Walter Benjamin. One strange detail suggests itself- whereas for Healy the quickening time spans of biological life show that it is ‘evolutionary time’ itself which telescopes and ‘manifests itself within our lifetime’, Benjamin portrays the entire history of biological life on the face of a single clock, which at the present moment stops ticking. Nonetheless, Benjamin and Healy have ‘set the same clock’- they are scientifically certain of the same telescopic evolution, and they both conclude that it has produced a present moment suffused by the awareness that ‘it could be something totally different’.
If Healy tells us that ‘it could be something totally different’ to encourage us to exalt in wide-eyed psychedelic freedom, however, Benjamin would have told us that ‘it could be something totally different’ in order to summon us to a mournful, daunting experience of catastrophic contingency. The heritage of our civilized species, for Benjamin, is ‘miserable’, and the telescopic present into which we are crunched is ‘monstrous’. The technological acceleration of capitalism is not evolutionarily inevitable or exhilarating, but terrifying and destructive.
Yet if we are certain of Healy’s optimism, something flashes at the end of Benjamin’s Thesis that prevents us from portraying Benjamin as simply a pessimist. The evolution that has telescoped us into the present deposits an awareness into our species-being that does not for Benjamin primarily open the future unto infinite speculative possibility, but first summons us to think responsibly the process in the past by which our species has arrived together at this moment. He uttered his words before the bulk of the Second World War. The Angel of History does not turn around and look backwards, but faces the past. Progress is not opposed by an arrow pointing in the opposite direction, remembrance of the past is not founded on nostalgia for lost origins. The Angel of History is ek-static in the fullest Heideggerean sense of the term.
We are comparing Eamonn Healy and Walter Benjamin because at bottom they participate in the same discourse. Though sixty years apart, they converse with each other. To show the time that has passed between the two, to show the history that has changed, to show therein the irreducibility of the one to the other would not cancel but deepen this unity of their shared discourse. Benjamin would ultimately agree with Healy that ‘it could be something totally different’, and like Marx, Healy insists that “the new evolutionary paradigm will give us the human traits of truth, of loyalty, of justice, of freedom. These will be the manifestations of the new evolution. And that is what we would hope to see from this. That would be nice.” Indeed, the entire history of Western discourse has been spurred along by such positive statements, and the critical deconstructive spirit in which our modern age receives its inheritance may turn out to be the most positive spirit of all.
In this spirit, then, we should read these words written by Esther Leslie in the year 2000, in the introduction to her book Walter Benjamin: Overpowering Conformism–
A perspective convinced of past Benjamin’s continuing relevance for the present draws on the Aktualitat of his offensive against a technology fetishism that is ignorant of the stipulations accorded by the private mode of appropriation. Such ignorance may be newly prevalent in the hyper-cyberbabble of the new millenialism. The notion of the technoid subject might give a neon-green light to cybermaterialism and its visions of machinic subjects, enhanced with prosthetics, wired up and plugged into inflowmation…what happens in this cyber-conception of material is that the distinction between machine-technology-worker- a technician producing within technical relations of production- is collapsed into a single, mythic, postnatural subject. This subject embodies, quite literally, technology, technical relations of production and producer, and so can only with difficulty be envisaged as involved in a process of exploitation. But a communion with high-tech that evades relations of exploitation is a rare privilege. Cybermaterialism sets up a frozen concept of technology, a blindly determining force, shooting us back to Second International Marxism, and it is no wonder that Charles Darwin and friends enjoy a new popularity: the talk, for all its rhetoric of revolution, is of evolution. The cybers seek through technology a new determination of the species. Benjamin might sometimes be wheeled on to articulate the early birth of this machine-man, but he would be shocked at the cybermonster’s class-blindness.
To collapse the relations of production into a single mythic subject- here we see what may be called a bad instance of telescoping. If we are to authentically affirm the positivity expressed by Healy when he says that ‘it could be something totally different’, we must acknowledge the degree to which his optimism risks falling into the naivete of which Leslie speaks.
Similarly, the ‘telescoping of the past through the present’, with its scientific undertones, may be erroneously envisioned as an Enlightening, Romantic experience of accelerating historical-technological evolution of collective consciousness. But to the degree to which this may turn out to be true, we must be careful not to telescope the factual materiality of our collective human world into ‘a single, mythic, postnatural subject’.
The haptic sense of the word ‘telescoping’, describing convulsive rupture or catastrophic collision, delineates a dimension of signification, within the meaning of the word itself, that cannot be seen, that is irreducible to an adventure of vision or cognition. Similarly, there is in the word ‘revolution’ a meaning irreducible to ‘evolution’. This meaning shows itself as irreducible again and again, and this ‘again and again’ cannot be conceived within any process of evolution. There is a revolutionary heritage of the West, inaugurated for the modern world by Marx, which is at times more real than the self-transforming evolution of what has been called Logos, Spirit, Being.
THE TOWER OF BABEL
If it had been possible to build the Tower of Babel without ascending it, the work would have been permitted.
THE PIT OF BABEL
What are you building?- I want to dig a subterranean passage. Some progress must be made. My station up there is much too high.
We are digging the pit of Babel.
Today, in the year 2010, capitalism is the name given to our Western social order. However, emerging from the 1900s, we do not yet have a word today for the world towards which we gesture because, unlike Marx, we can no longer touch with our hands or see with our eyes the sheer materiality of the productive gears of the social body. The energy or power which animates the body of the computer and comprehends the information stored ‘in’ its inner chips cannot be seen by the eyes of humans.
If we still believe, under Marx, that capitalism is finite, then who are ‘we’? Is it enough to say that we are those animated by Marx’s 11th Thesis? Are we to become the New Left? If Marx turned Hegel upside down, perhaps we must now reverse the causal vector of Marx’s base-superstructure model by realizing that our discourse, the more it corrects its worldly and written imperfections, is actually pushing from the bottom up, out into the world, the movement which he then referred to as the Communist Revolution. But where is ‘our discourse’?
What is remembrance, and what is awakening? How may we begin to properly mourn the 1900s? We do not need a new generation of prophets of the 2000s. We first need a generation that can learn to properly mourn the 1900s, in the hope that we may discover therein a better name than ‘2000s’.
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 Today, in the year 2010, I know relatively little about the political situation in the land of Israel. Because it is a fundamental political concern, however, I want to make it clear that I fundamentally wish for that patch of land to be shared equally among all human beings of all faiths. To me, ‘Israel’ may as well mean ‘Planet Earth’.
 A picture that, of course, has since been modified, corrected, altered.
 Today, psychoanalysis traces cultural expression back to a collective unconscious context of unspoken social desire and wish, while Marxism traces cultural expression back to an explicit base of material societal production. Though they meet and diverge, their common object is the totality of the social organism.
 Consider these words of Heidegger, from Being and Time– “Resoluteness does not first represent and acknowledge a situation to itself, but has already placed itself in it. Resolute, Da-sein is already acting. We are purposely avoiding the term action. For in the first place, it would have to be so broadly conceived that activity also encompasses the passivity of resistance. In the second place, that term suggests a misinterpretation of the ontology of Da-sein as if resoluteness were a special mode of behavior of the practical faculty as opposed to the theoretical one. But, as concern taking care of things, care includes the being of Da-sein so primordially and completely that it must be already presupposed as a whole when we distinguish between theoretical and practical behavior; it cannot first be put together from these faculties with the help of a dialectic [my italics] that is necessarily groundless because it is existentially unfounded. But resoluteness is only the authenticity of care itself, cared for in care and possible as care.” (Being and Time, 276-77)
 This paragraph owes the sense of its sentences to Paul Virilio.
 I’m sorry if I have missed a few.
 The dialectical image dwells not in what was once photographed, but in the ageing of the old photograph itself. The metaphor of the face here denotes an encounter with alterity that is not wholly other to the experience described by Emmanuel Levinas- “Signification is the-one-for-the-other which characterizes an identity that does not coincide with itself. This is in fact all the gravity of an animate body, that is, one offered to another, expressed or opened up…This opening up is…a relationship across an absolute difference…it is neither a structure, nor an inwardness of a content in a container, nor a causality, nor even a dynamism, which still extends in a time that could be collected into a history” (Otherwise than Being, 70).
 It is important to recognize, when we hear of a ‘primal’ history, that Benjamin’s work may have fallen prey in many ways to the ideological limitations of his time period. Does not the dream of a ‘primal’ history echo the imperialist desire for a virginal, native land of truth? It must be remembered, however, that in the 1930s Benjamin was voicing an anti-colonialist, anti-capitalist plea for the liberation and expression of sub-altern narratives of suffering, oppression and pride.
 Says Kafka, “The Messiah will come as soon as the most unbridled individualism of faith becomes possible- when there is no one to suffer its destruction; hence the graves will open themselves” (Parables and Paradoxes, 81).
 Yes, if as good Marxists we remember that for historical materialism, the past is not any thing other than the dialectical totality immanent in the production of today’s human community.
 This was Heidegger’s question.
 In today’s world-historical moment, the terms ‘bourgeoisie’ and ‘proletariat’ have been used up, though the struggle between Masters and Slaves remains stronger than ever.
 See Benjamin’s ‘Theologico-Political Fragment’.