Myth and history

I have already passed into myth, since it forms a central element in Benjamin's analysis of fin-de-siecle capitalism: 'What would the nineteenth century', he writes in one of the first sketches, 'be to us if we were bound to it by tradition? How would it look as religion or mythology?'82 As a hell of the eternal return of the same, a Satanic realm that comes out so clearly in Baudelaire's allegory, in the very architecture of the arcades,83 as the world of the fetishised commodity that Benjamin saw expressed no better than in Grandville's work, Benjamin sought both to deepen Marx's analysis of capitalism and provide a way of conceptualising the break from capitalism to communism. In this respect, the emergence from myth becomes a historical problem, and it is

80 See Janz 1983, pp. 363-81 especially p. 64.

81 Benjamin 1999a, pp. 118-19; Benjamin 1972, Volume 5, pp. 177-8.

82 Benjamin 1999a, p. 831; Benjamin 1972, Volume 5, p. 998.

83 'Architecture as the most important testimony to latent "mythology." And the most important architecture of the nineteenth century is the arcade'. Benjamin 1999a, p. 834; Benjamin 1972, Volume 5, p. 1002.

the relation between myth and history that is my focus in this penultimate section. Despite his brilliant analysis of capitalism, I argue that Benjamin's attempted solution to the possibility of a different future out of capitalism fails, caught in the trap of another mythology.

To begin with, I explore the break Benjamin so desperately sought, after which I interrogate the background to such a solution in the theory of history he developed earlier, particularly its intense concern with Creation and Eschaton. That this history is as mythical as capitalism itself indicates a more general problem with imagining any future than with Benjamin's project as such.

In typical fashion, Benjamin's most sustained discussion of the break from the dream-like myth of capitalism emerges from a quoted double-take: he quotes Adorno quoting Kierkegaard and then himself from the Trauerspiel book:

A Kierkegaard citation in Wiesengrund, with commentary following: '"One may arrive at a similar consideration of the mythical by beginning with the imagistic. When, in an age of reflection, one sees the imagistic protrude ever so slightly and unobserved in a reflective representation and, like an antediluvian fossil, suggest another species of existence which washed away doubt, one will perhaps be amazed that the image could ever have played such an important role." Kierkegaard wards off the "amazement" with what follows. Yet this amazement heralds the deepest insight into the interrelation of dialectic, myth, and image. For it is not as the continuously living and present that nature prevails in the dialectic. Dialectic comes to a stop in the image, and, in the context of recent history, it cites the mythical as what is long gone: nature as primal history. For this reason, the images - which, like those of the intérieur, bring dialectic and myth to the point of indifferentiation - are truly "antediluvian fossils." They may be called dialectical images, to use Benjamin's expression, whose compelling definition of "allegory" also holds true for Kierkegaard's allegorical intention taken as a fi gure of historical dialectic and mythical nature. According to this definition, "in allegory the observer is confronted with the facies hippocratica of history, a petrified primordial landscape."'84

84 Benjamin 1999a, p. 461; Benjamin 1972, Volume 5, pp. 575-6; see Adorno 1989, p. 54; Benjamin 1972, Volume 2, p. 80; Benjamin 1998, p. 166; Benjamin 1972, Volume 1, p. 343.

Apart from the convoluted dialectic of the quotation itself - Adorno's Kierkegaard book was heavily dependent on Benjamin's Trauerspiel book -Benjamin picks up the idea of the dialectical image, which Adorno himself developed from Benjamin! He is, of course, after the nature of the image, for in Kierkegaard the image brings, in the well-known phrase, the dialectic to a stop. But the real question here is whether Benjamin took notice of Adorno's criticism of theology - especially his argument that Kierkegaard's effort to base philosophy on theology was bound to fail in its reversion to myth. I suspect he did not, for Adorno's point is that Kierkegaard's aesthetic cannot help but be archaic and primal, that is, mythical. Even in the snippets quoted here, Adorno worries away at the question of myth, precisely on the basis of Benjamin's work: he draws from Benjamin's Trauerspielbuch the opposition between history and nature, which becomes in Adorno's hands the realm of a spatialised and timeless myth. And then the 'landscape' in the famous 'facies hippocratica' quotation is, in fact, that of myth, petrified and primordial. But, in the curious interchange, Benjamin misses Adorno's point and plunges headlong into myth itself.85 For Benjamin uses theology, or rather, a theological appropriation of biblical commentary, to break the hold of myth within capitalism. Yet, as Adorno never tires of pointing out, theology cannot avoid falling back on myth.

It is worth tarrying with the argument that follows the passage I quoted above. He takes it in two directions, one in terms of the dialectical image and the other, closely related, of the blasting out of history. As for the dialectical image, Benjamin shifts the double register of theology and political economy that I have been following through the Passagenarbeit to the more specific one of technology and myth. And the Konvoluten that follow play with this relationship: Saint-Simon (O), Fourier (W) and the history of sects (p) find themselves juxtaposed with panoramas (Q), technology (S), modes of lighting (T), railroads (U), photography (Y), dolls and automaton (Z), reproduction technology and lithography (i).

But what Benjamin wants to do with this is attempt to produce a new dialectic that will break the hold of myth - a dialectic of the image rather than argumentation, dialectics at a standstill, 'the quintessence of the method':86 'image is that wherein what has been comes together in a flash with the now

85 See further Adorno 1977, pp. 111-12.

86 Benjamin 1999a, p. 865; Benjamin 1972, Volume 5, p. 1035.

to form a constellation'.87 Like the flash, or 'posthumous shock'88 of a camera, such a dialectical image seeks to overcome a purely temporal relation between past and present. The image is therefore not historical progression, but 'suddenly emergent', a flash that is found, enigmatically, in language. Is this not a homeopathic solution? Benjamin takes the conjunction of the archaic and modern that capitalism generates in the interplay between technology and myth - the more technology develops the more myth returns - and pushes it to its logical extreme. The technology of capitalism exacerbates its own contradictions to the point of collapse.89

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