‘Walter Benjamin’s Concept of the Image’ reviewed by Vladimir Rizov


Walter Benjamin’s Concept of the Image

Routledge, London, 2014. 176pp., £90.00 hb
ISBN 9781138811485

Reviewed by Vladimir Rizov

About the reviewer

Vladimir Rizov is doing a PhD in Sociology at the University of York, UK. His PhD focuses on the …

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Alison Ross has written a brief, albeit comprehensive, monograph on Walter Benjamin’s work. Ross’s text is poignant and pointed, both in the sense of being incisive and to the point. She begins her discussion with Benjamin’s essay ‘Goethe’s Elective Affinities’ and throughout the book goes on to expand on the depth of the work, as well as Benjamin’s continuousness as a thinker and writer. The book is organised in five chapters, each thematically revolving around a notion that is central to some aspect of Benjamin’s work; the chapters, and themes respectively, are Feeling, Form, Similitude, History, and Image. The book also includes an insightful Introduction and a somewhat polemic Conclusion. Overall, Ross’s work frames Benjamin’s oeuvre in a somewhat strict, yet not at all rigid, relation to Kant. A highlight to be noted is the Kantian parallel to Benjamin’s thought and its critical exposition (chapter two, 47-72). Interesting as well is the juxtaposition of Benjamin’s notion of myth or ‘mythic forces’ against other theoretical work on myth (seen in chapter five, 135).

Ross’s style of writing is clear and rigorous; there is a clear energy to her intellectual commitment to the matter and the reader finds no difficulty engaging with the topic at hand. That being said, the topic at hand, as any serious attempt of doing justice to Benjamin, is both profound and abstruse. In this matter, it is simply not the case that the blame falls on Ross’s writing or argument, rather it is an effect that expectedly follows from the scope of the book; Walter Benjamin’s Concept of the Image deals in great depth with Benjamin’s Goethe essay, but it also tackles the complexities of The Arcades Project, The Origin of German Tragic Drama, as well as various smaller works from Benjamin’s selected writings anthologies, or his Gesammelte Schriften. Thus the reader new to Benjamin’s work in its totality should approach the work with a caveat.

That being said, however, it should also be acknowledged that the five chapters, as listed above, are largely self-contained. Besides this description being a somewhat clichéd feature of every review, this holds strictly true. Each chapter is approachable on its own, but that is not to say that the reading of each chapter does not enhance the overall reading of the book. Although the themes of the chapters are self-contained, at times Ross engages with the same works from a different perspective. This proves elucidating and makes for a particularly incisive and focused writing.

From the beginning of the book, in chapter one, Ross dives deep into one of Benjamin’s most complex texts, ‘Goethe’s Elective Affinities’. As the reader will witness throughout the following chapters as well, Ross has done a particularly good job at identifying underexplored, misunderstood, or largely ignored aspects of Benjamin’s work. This is the case with the Goethe essay; Ross insightfully recognises the importance of ‘feeling’ in this early essay and its relation to the opposition of myth and divine revelation. By doing this, Ross demonstrates the importance of Benjamin’s antagonism towards a certain form of the aesthetic – namely, that of the symbol. This is the central theme of Ross’s book, as the title suggests, since it concerns itself with Benjamin’s views on allegory (as seen in his The Origin of German Tragic Drama) and the dialectical image (The Arcades Project). While it is only the fifth chapter of the book that concerns itself with the image exclusively, the notion of the image is touched on in one way or another throughout the various chapters.

With regards to the fifth chapter, it may be noted that some readers are likely to experience a slight disappointment. It could not be said that the chapter is not informative or informed; nevertheless, it differs from the structure of other chapters, besides being the shortest in the whole book (less than ten pages, 135-145). Put simply, the chapter leaves the impression of doing the work of a preliminary conclusion. A substantial amount of space is devoted to a parallel to Kant, which has already been established at an earlier point at a greater length and depth, as well as a comparison to Blumenberg’s work on myth. Unfortunately, it is a text where the reader is likely to be left with the impression that Benjamin himself has not been left to speak.

This is indeed to a certain extent disappointing, precisely because of the preceding chapter four on History. Together with chapter three, which will be discussed below, they are the longest chapters of the book, and clearly the most comprehensive and substantial. The fourth chapter tackles the significant notion of Benjamin’s dialectical image and its position in his larger body of work, more specifically ‘The Arcades Project’. Ross does well to explore current and existing work on this particular facet of Benjamin’s writing; she does so critically and in an informed manner. One of the characteristics that is most notable in Ross’s book is, perhaps, the stamina of her argument and consistency in the exploration of particular themes and issues. Furthermore, these themes and issues are never examined in isolation, whether that is a single text of Benjamin’s or an omission of secondary sources. An example of this is Benjamin’s preoccupation with form (the title and theme of chapter two, see below), which even in chapter four is not abandoned and is considerably elaborated. In particular, one of Ross’s central arguments is an example of this – there is a clear continuity in Benjamin’s earlier work, and his ‘condemnation of the hermeneutic of the image’ (115), and his later work on the dialectical image and its potential for revolutionary experience.

As mentioned above, chapter three proves to be another insightful essay. The title is Similitude and it takes as its point of departure Benjamin’s more explicitly linguistic essays, such as his ‘Doctrine of the Similar’, ‘The Image of Proust’, and ‘Antitheses Concerning Word and Name’. Ross takes an interesting approach to these works and manages to provide an account of Benjamin’s work in a more general sense. Out of the linguistic essays she abstracts a particular concept of experience [Erfahrung] – particularly interesting in its relation to Benjamin’s work on Proust and on childhood (83). Furthermore, this is supplemented by Benjamin’s notion of ‘profane illumination’ (83), arising out of his 1929 essay on Surrealism. Both of these notions are fascinating on their own, but Ross does well to place them in a continuous arc of Benjamin’s thought. Profane illumination is juxtaposed with his earlier work on myth and divine revelation in the Goethe essay, or the divine and the mythical violence in his Violence essay. Another example of Ross’s commitment to a comprehensive and well-reasoned account is her refusal to let her experience argument stand on its own. In the conclusion, she critically challenges Fenves’s interpretation of Benjamin’s view on time and phenomenology (154). As noted before, this is a key characteristic of Ross’s book – rigorous dedication and consistency in her set goal.

To go even further back, to chapter two, Ross focuses on form and its central position in Benjamin’s work throughout his writing. As a second chapter, it clearly sets out to develop a few of the issues highlighted in the first chapter. Ross takes the example of the binary oppositions so common to Benjamin’s work and uses the contrast between the novel and the novella in `Goethe’s Elective Affinities’. By doing so, she set up solid ground for her exploration of the even more abstract opposition between symbol and allegory. As may be familiar to scholars, Benjamin opposes the use of the symbol, for its demonic and ambiguous character (29), in favour of the allegory, which is, as Ross’s quotation of Benjamin aptly sums its different nature, ‘a fixed schema: at one and the same time a fixed image and a fixing sign’ (58). Ross defines this as a key moment in Benjamin’s thought, where a distinction is made between two kinds of images, a positive and a negative one, where his own work keenly argues for the superiority of an ‘integral image’ (63), an allegory. Later, this opposition takes shape in Benjamin’s notion of the dialectical image (which is different from allegory, as Ross points out, 109), where the theological and the revolutionary are finally full merged (105).

In conclusion, Ross has written an informed and thorough treatise on Benjamin’s concept of the Image. The book is well-researched and the lengthy notes at the end of each chapter offer further insight, both into Benjamin and into Ross’s reading of his work. However, the readers should be aware that the image, as the title might suggest, is not explicitly discussed in all chapters on its own. Rather, Ross provides a comprehensive account of the image in several of the aspects it takes on in Benjamin’s writing at several points in his thinking. It is this reviewer’s opinion that this is not a weakness. On the contrary, the book provides insightful critique and commentary on both Benjamin and his critics. However, there appears to be an identifiable lack in the discussion, and that is the notion of the dialectics of seeing. Besides its brief mention in relation to Buck-Morss’s work (113-4), there is no actual engagement with the concept. It could have perhaps proven elucidatory in Ross’s discussion of Benjamin’s epistemology, particularly in his ‘Arcades Project’. Lastly, the book is at its peak at its middle point, in chapter three on Similitude and four on History.

7 January 2016

One comment

  1. There’s something severely mistaken in virtually all commentary on Benjamin’s Goethe essay. Namely, its completely distorted view of the actual content of Goethe’s composition. At best, there’s a feeble acknowledgment that while Benjamin develops the significance of the unbroken gloom over a landscape in which the sun never appears, Goethe starts out with a gloriously bright day, and has each important moment in the narrative bathed in the image of brilliant sunlight, right up to Ottilie’s face as she lies in her open coffin bathed in the life-like reddening of the rising sun. That’s just one simple and obvious discrepancy. Benjamin announces on theological grounds that Ottilie and Eduard cannot share a real love because the text is conditioned by the truth we are compelled to acknowledge that mankind is incapable of love outside the sacrament of marriage. That of course plays into a striking note from the modern perspective when he adopts a horrendous homophobic view from Kant.

    The list of simple misstatements is actually quite extraordinary. Benjamin insists that we gain an understanding of what limits the sensibility of the main characters because nowhere in the text is there any mention of work to produce food on the estate. Nothing is planted except for decorative purposes. But of course the opening sentence introduces Eduard’s concern with his orchards, and this enterprise on his part and Charlotte’s concern with her flowers constitutes an essential part in distinguishing the gender roles between him and his wife. More significant still, Benjamin regards the story as presenting an account of the break up of a marriage by a demonic intrusion. But commentators have long seen how much Goethe was at pains to make quite sure the reader does not regard the marriage between Eduard and Charlotte as a real relationship. The Graf and the Baronesse provide the model of a mature relationship, represented with a depth and dignity by Goethe which Benjamin repudiates on no textual basis at all. Eduard and Charlotte on the other hand, according to the narrator, most likely never even consummated their relationship until the night of the famous double adultery. Neither Charlotte nor Eduard had entered into a complete relationship in their previous marriages and that history most certainly supports Goethe’s portrayal of a deeply deficient situation as the story opens. The reader even has to contend with the ironic fact that Charlotte had previously attempted to evade Eduard’s pursuit by asking the Hauptmann to draw Eduard’s attention to Ottilie. And then the narrator is in no doubt that she is more than willing to accept this outcome later when she has the additional interest of being free to marry the Hauptmann.

    Any theory of the image has to take into the account misrepresentation. The inability to approach Benjamin’s misrepresentation — not just evident in this essay, but over and over again to the careful eye — means that the theory of images itself does not actually appear. No theory, but only the practice in which images are coined, not the purpose for which those coins are stamped. The political purpose provides one measure of this. Why for example does Robespierre figure as a precursor of fascism in a text from 1938, and as the quintessential revolutionary in 1939? Well, we know it’s because Hitler and Stalin signed a pact, and everything was thrown into turmoil. But turmoil was not a useful state of image-making when the world stood at the brink of catastrophe. Image-making connects with truth when the interest served is to make visible that which is obscured. Although the idea of questioning empathy is important in any context, the incisiveness of the question should not be blunted by an excess of piety. The break with empathy in in 1939 needs to be checked against the dismissal of empathy in 1925 and 1926.

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