Dialectical Image or, the Messianic Explosion of History

“Nothing happens, no-one comes, no-one goes, it’s awful”

                                             Waiting for Godot (1953), Samuel Beckett

Thus can be said about history, where things just pass as mere succession of facts. But nothing really happens. For ‘historical materialism’, present is ‘catastrophe’[1]. It is the homogeneous present ridden with ‘status-quo’. Things don’t change; this status-quo is ‘catastrophe’ for the historian[2]. It is all- the- same history of ‘triumphal’, ‘no periods’ of decline for the victors[3].            

In his unfinished work, Arcades Project, Walter Benjamin opposes the mythic ‘dream world’ in favor of a historically conscious ‘awakening’[4]. As a Marxist Benjamin constructs this setting of ‘awakening’, but for him, Marxism was not the only way to engage with history.The non-happening history of ruling class’ dream world of 19th century should be tricked to demystify its own structure where the oppressed facts of past find their voice and form a constellation with present. Heremontage’ appears as a style of writing history. The Arcades Project is agog with quotations and citations. The citations one after another bring about a new meaning and reveal the hidden oppressed voice from past. This ‘constellation’ of past and present is what Benjamin calls as ‘dialectical image’. According to Benjamin in his Arcade Projects’ Convolute(N3a,3), “ It is not what is past that casts light on what is present, or what is present casts light on what is past; rather, the image is where what has been comes together in a flash with the now  to form a constellation.” Benjamin on another context writes himself about the method of Arcades Project’s composition. His primary concern about the project as he reflects about it in his Convolute (N1, 3) is how ‘everything one’ and integral of a ‘particular moment in time’ must be incorporated in the ongoing project. Then from the beginning one’s already ‘assumption’ of the project’s rigor or the thoughts of the person concern (historian in this case) bears the project within the earlier quoted ‘one’ or integral’s ‘telos’. So, for Benjamin it is always the ‘present portion’ of the work, in other words the ‘now’ which has to preserve and show the ‘intervals of reflection’ or the pronounced caesuras of the project to be implemented.  This preservation of the gaps is to be ‘intensively’ led outside of the work for the sake of conglomeration of the ‘present portion’. The excluded outside becomes important for the whole projects self- referential nature also. This on the other hand frames principle of montage in accordance with the project of history writing itself.

Though Benjamin traces 19th century in terms of ‘dream world’ but he privileges the moment of ‘awakening’ in history.  Like tearing of the quotation from its original context and composing it with his project of history writing, the ‘flash’ moment of ‘awakening’ is also a rupture from the narratives of the victors. This Benjamin also associates with the modernist movement Surrealism and shows Surrealism’s true face is a world sans any difference in other word ‘distorted’.  However on the other hand it is also true that he emphasizes the temporal nature of this moment of rupture as we had earlier seen where he states that what has been comes together with what is now which appears in ‘flashes’ or as an explosion which he terms ‘now of recognizability.’  The surrealist face that appears for him has two opposite sides of it. This two opposite sides together forms what is ‘awakening’. ‘Awakening’ is neither dream nor waking consciousness but a synthesis of both.  In terms of history it conjoins past and future yet does not become any of the two.

In this context it would be an interesting task to visit Benjamin’s earlier writing before his engagement with Marxism, when he was more accustomed with German Romanticism and Judaism. In his earlier writing Benjamin’s history is an unending war between past and future, between the right of law and right to establish law, between the oppressor and the oppressed[5]. But more interesting point here lies about the fact that both past and present are governed by the laws which are exterior to them. Accompanying a history of subjugation by the ‘triumphal’ victors Benjamin also talks about a ‘living law’, a law of indomitable spirit in comparison with worldly dictates[6]. In his later reflection he talks about this in Theological-Political Fragments.  The fragments begin with the conclusion of history. Here the history is concluded not by the mighty sovereigns of victorious empire and also not by reason but by the Messiah.  It is only Messiah who completes all occurrences of history. The end of history in this sense connotes a concept what Benjamin formulates in his many other writings as the Messianic. It is the after-history which presents the facts of worldly events in juxtaposition to what earlier we evaluated as the catastrophic status-quo of the victors.


[1]Benjamin, Walter; Arcades Project; Translated by Howard Eiland & Kevin Mc Laughlin , Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, and London, 2002, pp. 473,

[2] Ibid; 473

[3] Ibid;473

[4]Ibid; 473

[5] Jacobson, Eric; Meta-Physics of the Profane; Columbia University Press, New York, 2003.

[6] Ibid.


Jeet Bhattacharya

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