Walter Benjamin's Concept of the Image (Routledge Studies in Twentieth-Century Philosophy)
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In this book, Alison Ross engages in a detailed study of Walter Benjamin’s concept of the image, exploring the significant shifts in Benjamin’s approach to the topic over the course of his career. Using Kant’s treatment of the topic of sensuous form in his aesthetics as a comparative reference, Ross argues that Benjamin’s thinking on the image undergoes a major shift between his 1924 essay on ‘Goethe’s Elective Affinities,’ and his work on The Arcades Project from 1927 up until his death in 1940. The two periods of Benjamin’s writing share a conception of the image as a potent sensuous force able to provide a frame of existential meaning. In the earlier period this function attracts Benjamin’s critical attention, whereas in the later he mobilises it for revolutionary outcomes. The book gives a critical treatment of the shifting assumptions in Benjamin’s writing about the image that warrant this altered view. It draws on hermeneutic studies of meaning, scholarship in the history of religions and key texts from the modern history of aesthetics to track the reversals and contradictions in the meaning functions that Benjamin attaches to the image in the different periods of his thinking. Above all, it shows the relevance of a critical consideration of Benjamin’s writing on the image for scholarship in visual culture, critical theory, aesthetics and philosophy more broadly.
it may forever prove impotent to curb them. These forces have given them a feeling for what is seemly; they have lost the sense for what is ethical . . . Deaf to God and mute before the world. Rendering account eludes them, not because of their actions but because of their being. They fall silent. (SW I, 304–305) The guilt these characters feel is based in ritual-cultic anxiety: ‘In the way that every one of his velleities brings fresh guilt upon him, every one of his deeds will bring disaster
ambiguous, uncertain meaning on any setting. The identification of insuperable ambiguity in sensuous form is the core of Benjamin’s objection to the symbol as ‘embodied meaning.’ By contrast, allegory devalues sensuous form, and it draws attention to the almost indifferent relation between form and the meaning it can be made to carry. In allegory the relationship between the image and meaning as it exists in the symbol is thus reversed. But let us consider, beyond this general contrast with the
695. 34. Benjamin, ‘The Knowledge that the First Material on which the Mimetic Faculty Tested itself,’ SW III, 253. 35. Benjamin, ‘The Knowledge that the First Material on which the Mimetic Faculty Tested itself,’ SW III, 253. 36. Benjamin, ‘Antitheses Concerning Word and Name,’ SW II, 718. Cf. Benjamin’s position on communication through song in the early ‘Language as Such’ essay. The essay puts forward irreconcilable theses regarding the relation of sound to language and ‘dumb’ things. It is
force certain modifications to his earlier oppositional schema of myth and the Revelation. Epistemology and Revolution in Benjamin's Thinking There are two fundamental problems that the Arcades Project raises. The first is defining in what sense the ‘image’ should be understood given Benjamin’s early condemnation of the hermeneutic of the image. The other problem is how to understand the method of the project. There is a seeming arbitrariness to the citations. Benjamin’s explicit focus in the
humanity as such. In this respect what Benjamin does in tracking down the evidence of this human ‘revelation’ is also somewhat akin to the work of a mythologist. Benjamin turns the steel and glass of the Paris arcades into texts and citations, and, more specifically still, he turns these arcades into the story of the human desire for happiness. In keeping with my thesis that the dialectical image brings together the two concepts that his early work had opposed but that it does so in line with the