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Spectacles and Signs
Does the object exist? Did it ever? Is something lost, or thrown away or was its possession only a dream? Was materialism itself only a dream of a materiality that existed and was known? Are we now after-materiality, in the virtual, in the almost, but not quite, material, as we ‘question the very material existence of the object within Late Capitalism’? Are we left only with lost property - and does that mean we still have something or nothing, or virtually nothing.
In his collection of fragments called One Way Street, Walter Benjamin titles one section ‘Lost Property Office’ (Fundbüro). One Way Street takes all its section headings from the banal poetry of the cityscape and its object world - other examples include ‘Fancy Goods’ ‘Coiffeur For Fastidious Ladies’ and ‘Halt For Not More Than Three Cabs’. The fragment ‘Lost Property’ divides into two sections, articles lost, and articles found. Both pieces reflect not on the lost or found bric-a-brac of urban life but, instead on perception and its relation to objects seen. ‘Articles Lost’ speaks of how a first glimpse of a village, town or landscape is unique - for ‘habit has not yet done its work’. The absence of bearings makes the vista incomparable and irretrievable. We are lost in it. We are the lost articles. Later, in turn, this matchless experience is lost: ‘that earliest picture can never be restored’. Such a sentiment is reinforced in another little section called ‘Weapons and Munitions’ - where Benjamin describes looking for his lover in Riga as he paced the streets for two hours. Anticipation and unfamiliarity made the streets appear just as he felt, and as he would never see them again: sparking, combustible, waiting for the ignition that comes of desire. What is lost, then, is experience, which is unrepeatable, always unique. Such a thought coincides with another theme in Benjamin’s writing: the prevailing degradation of experience in capitalist modernity, modelled on Taylorist factory piece work, subjugation to the conveyor belt, and war, and rendered as a series of disconnected, non-durable repeatable instants, made sufferable only by becoming the monotonous matter of habit. And retrieved by the persistent gaze of the critic.
In ‘Lost Property Office’ ‘Articles Found’ stages a retrieval of the object and experience of it, but only through the tactics of artifice. Here, Benjamin tries to describe the peculiar, uncanny atmosphere of the stage set, the painted distance of a backdrop with its perspectives askew – a span that can never be breached. Enstagement retrieves perception from habit, from normality. Benjamin realizes that the question of objects, lost or found, is a question of perception. As such he has learnt what he knows from the post-revolutionary formalists and productivists, such as Shklovksy who railed against perception’s clouding by routine – and who wanted to re-admit experience of the material world in its materiality – returning the stone to stoniness. And he learnt from others, such as Mayakovsky, Rodchenko or Tretyakov, whose journal Lef, wedded production art to political goals, structured around a reorganization of the psyche. Their central concern was sabotage of the customary, requiring a destruction of, as Tretyakov puts it, ‘feelings and actions that have become automaticised on a socio-economic basis by their repetition, that have become habit and possess tremendous tenacity … the internalized daily routine which so strongly hinders people from taking on the tasks dictated by the change in the relations of production’.
The productivists wanted to grab people by the ears, poke them in the eyes and shake them around until they felt so dizzy that they could no longer see words or objects without the swirl of aqueous fluid meddling with their vision. They assaulted the senses through uncommon scenes, odd perspectives, and impossible articulations. Property had to be returned to meaning. In Western Europe, the dadaists enthused about a similar retrieval of seeing and objects. They were, however, less enamoured of art, less content to advocate ‘Art’ straightforwardly as the activity that ‘removes objects from the automaticism of perception’. Benjamin was working on the very formulation of dada’s upsetting. In 1924 he translated, for the magazine G: A Magazine for Elementary Form, journal of the ‘G’ group which included Sascha Stone and Hans Richter ‘Inside-out Photography’, Tristan Tzara’s 1922 preface to Man Ray’s photograph album Les champs délicieux. Tzara wrote:
When everything that people call art had got the rheumatics all over, the photographer lit the thousands of candles in his lamp, and the sensitive paper gradually absorbed the darkness between the shapes of certain everyday objects. He had invented the force of a fresh and tender flash of lightning which was more important than all the constellations destined for our visual pleasures. Precise, unique and correct mechanical deformation is fixed, smooth and filtered like a head of hair through a comb of light. Is it a spiral of water, or the tragic gleam of a revolver, an egg, a glittering arc or a sluice gate of reason, a subtle ear with a mineral whistle or a turbine of algebraical formulae? As the mirror effortlessly throws back the image, and the echo the voice, without asking us why, the beauty of matter belongs to no one, for henceforth it is a physico-chemical product.
The beauty of matter is an issue for chemistry and for physics, which make the imprinting occur. As such it cannot be possessed, nor made transcendent. The material speaks – it is a found article. But it does not speak the sentiments it has been made to ventriloquise in the past – those being the articulation of a truth other than itself, a song of the spirit. Instead, this articulate material – a material that is not dumb - is matter as ambiguity and puzzle– and art after art is its frame. Mechanically made and reproduced art will catch its secrets in a scientific process that is simultaneously magical.
The surrealists develop this poetry of matter and of chance, tangible and essentially objective yet interpretable by us, in their ‘image sphere’ which is total and deranged. Theirs was a materialism that appealed to Benjamin. He speaks at the close of his essay ‘Surrealism: the Last Snapshot of the European Intelligentsia’ (1929) of different materialisms. Firstly there is the ‘metaphysical’ mechanical materialism of Vogt and Bukharin – disembodied, objectified in good Kautskyian style, founded on science and cosmos and yet abstracting from any human measure. Vogt’s naturo-materialism assumed that thought was secreted by the brain, just as gall was discharged by the liver and urine by the kidneys. And valuing matter over the concrete, acting human being, Vogt ascribed to atoms a sense of pain. Benjamin contrasts this to the ‘anthropological materialism’ of the surrealists and before them the proto-Brechtian pedagogue Hebel, activist-poet Georg Büchner, Nietzsche and Rimbaud. Mechanistic materialism is not properly rooted in anthropological materialism’s double bind: a double bind that meshes physical nature and political materialism (that is consciousness, activity, history). These two forces share the assaults on the abstract spectre of spirit, tearing it limb from limb with anti-bourgeois acumen.
Here Benjamin was being strictly, if strangely, Marxist – for Marx began by criticizing the ‘one-sided’ or ‘mechanical’ materialism of Hobbes. Hobbes ruined the materialism inherited from Francis Bacon, progenitor of modern experimental science, and the one who understood matter’s ‘sensuous poetic glamour’. Hobbes systematizes, denying knowledge based on senses, instead elevating the abstract experience of the geometrician. His one-sided, mechanical materialism assists the bourgeois traits of misanthropy and self-denial. Marx writes about all this in 1844, in The Holy Family or Critique of Critical Criticism. And so the story goes on, through Locke, Condillac, La Mettrie, until its political, historical blossoming in socialism and communism. Here in a few pages Marx improvised a history of 18th and 19th century materialism, just at the moment as he invented ‘historical’ materialism, a materialism that extends beyond the scientific cosmos and includes the human and social world. The old materialists were mechanistic, non-historical and they formulated human essence only abstractly, not concretely. As Marx complains in his pithy lines on Feuerbach in ‘Theses on Feuerbach’ (1845):
the thing, reality, sensuousness, is conceived only in the form of the object of contemplation, but not as sensuous human activity, practice, not subjectively.
Benjamin adopts Marx’s opposition to contemplation, and human activity enters his schema as the bodily innervations of the collective, a mass subject, grappling with space and its imaging. Image (Bild), technology (Technik), body (Leib) and space (Raum) collapse onto each other at the close of the essay on surrealism. It is the image, Bild, that most intrigues Benjamin, and he contrasts it to metaphor, a technique attuned to the moral and spiritual realm, and, in some sense, part of the world of the stand in, the ‘as if’ realm. Marxist materialism and correct conduct with images both propagate, instead, a doctrine in which ‘an action puts forth its own image and exists, absorbing and consuming it’. It is closeness looking with its own eyes. It is the system that motivates its own overcoming from within its own terms, and, as such, then, according to Benjamin can be understood as the production of an equivalent, an image, without spillage, without a standing in of one thing for another – without morality, or spirit brought in to grease the wheels of transcendence – with no ‘as ifs’. Image, in this sense, has something tangible, graspable. It is a material force. Image, Benjamin notes, is a ‘world of many-sided and integral actuality’, and it resides at the heart of political action. (How much more concrete this becomes if we think contextually of the importance of reproduced images in those years, in the new media forms, and concurrently with that, in art and in popular culture, unprecedented and endless experiments in depicting visual space and shapes across time.) Benjamin’s anthropological and historical materialism manifests in the construction of a sphere of images, a Bildraum, his name for repetitions of the world, the body and technology in optical form. These furnish a room for action. Benjamin conceives the world as a 100% image space in which the artist or member of the revolutionary intelligentsia must be positioned in order to work on it, and rework it. This reworking emerges of the elements that already exist, but need still to be perceived in their interconnections.
In order to do this, it is necessary to work out how word and image work differently and together to model the material of experience. The technical organization of experience, of what he calls a physis organized in and through technology, including its reproduced images, might be differently organized to a political organization of experience through the word, and through the metaphor or the appeal to how things should be, if only…. That organization or re-presentation of experience tends too easily toward the substitutional, the moral. Benjamin, in contrast, attempts a way into experience through the description in words of things seen, embodied experience – and its recreation in word-images. Benjamin solicits totality inside experience in the world, but also submits that it is present in distorted, cryptic forms. Totality needs to be discerned and diagramed. Benjamin’s assertion that totality is present in ordinary experience leads him to criticize one aspect of surrealist projection.
Reflecting on the optic of surrealism – an ecstatic, romantic and occultist perspective – Benjamin demurs from its stress on the mysterious side of the mysterious. Surrealism snatches at something outside itself, outside the world, to make and market its weirdness. Benjamin conceives, instead, a ‘dialectical optic’, a method of analysis that is drawn to but rejects the surrealists’ fuzz of romanticism and their response to mystical phenomena such as extra-sensory perception or mind reading. Benjamin’s dialectical optic indeed affirms the attractions of mystery – he too is drawn to graphology and dream interpretation – but, in opposition to the surrealists, he insists that, in actual fact, there is nothing more extraordinary than the processes of thought itself - a mind-warping narcotic if ever there were one - or the processes of reading - a form of telepathy. What surrounds us - what we do now - is already remarkable. This returns mystery to life not to the otherworldly. The ‘dialectical optic’ starts out from this, perceiving ‘the everyday as impenetrable and the impenetrable as everyday’.
Again Marxist materialism is not immune to such poetry of the everyday. Marx had said as much of the commodity form itself in Das Kapital, where he describes the ordinary commodity as ‘a mysterious thing’. There is nothing stranger than this most banal form invested with ‘theological capers’. It is stranger even than the art of which Tzara spoke – for the ambiguity of photography’s beautiful matter was a physical-chemical product. In contrast Marx writes of the fetish commodity: ‘ there is no physical basis for the misapprehension. The peculiar character of the social labour that produces goods produces it.’ Marx’s work hoped, from the outset, to ‘reform consciousness’ as he wrote to Alfred Ruge in 1843, and such reformation ‘consists entirely in making the world aware of its own consciousness, in arousing it from its dream of itself, in explaining its own actions to it’. Time to wake up – to and from strangeness. In Marx, as is well known, such a process of negotiating ideology is related through late 19th century optical devices – the camera obscura, of The German Ideology or the phantasmagoria that is mentioned in Capital. Benjamin likewise evokes optical devices or effects in the section titles and thematics of One Way Street: ‘Imperial Panorama’, ‘Enlargements’, ‘Technical Aid’ or ‘To the Planetarium’ where indeed telescopes are likely to be found. This is not surprising, for, of course, One Way Street, is all about Benjamin’s own change of focus, and the adoption of a new urban, political, modernist perspective, that undertakes precisely the recovery of the extraordinary poetry of banality. A materialist analysis of ideology and experience in the world is to be undertaken in full consciousness of the mediating lenses that encroach on experience, framing it.
Benjamin’s glare in One Way Street is dialectical, that is redoubled and acting on reason – for Dia means splitting in two, opposed, clashing and lectics comes from logos, meaning ‘word’ or ‘reason’. This dialectical gaze that penetrates the curious everyday is invoked repeatedly, but often in the context of mediation, of lenses. Objects, economy, love and experience of those things in life and in dreams is the matter for analysis in this poeticising of the everyday. It figures a poetic action on materials because, in the formalist sense, it hopes to renew, prolong and re-awaken seeing. A section titled ‘Optician’ coins phrases to renew perception of the mundane - remarking on the curious inconsistency of vision: how brightness or dullness draws or repels attention, how the final shape of actuality - the debris of a party - might expose the history of what has taken place in a space, or how, in wooing, the lover multiplies the self and is everywhere where the loved one turns. Seeing itself must be seen, is Benjamin’s formalist-modernist credo. Some of Benjamin’s thoughts on perception – on the conditions of witnessing materiality – evoke Goethean style considerations of the passionate and active role of light and dark in seeing. It was, after all, the role of the eye and the role of the prism that made Goethe doubt Newton’s objectivism. This is a materialism that refers back and forth between the physical-natural and the human world. It foregrounds the mediation of emotional attitude as much as of the physical world, of light, and of all those filters and lenses that convoy experience to us. The presence of mediation – human and technical – does not make it any less materialist. Its emphasis on lenses is recognition of the historicity of seeing and of knowledge and the dynamic nature of comprehension.
Benjamin titles one sub-section ‘Stereoscope’, and so sets us in mind of a later piece in ‘Berlin Childhood around 1900’ called ‘Imperial Panorama’, a description of his favourite optical entertainment device with its 3-d town views. The section ‘Stereoscope’ presents a description of everyday life in Riga, where Benjamin had visited in November 1925 - the market, the steamers on the river, market traders, housewives, the red and white mounds of the apple-market. Benjamin is drawn to the shops - shops selling corsets and hats, leather goods, coal, sugar and ironmongers. He observes how on signboards and walls each shop depicts its wares, but oversized. He writes:
One shop in the town has cases and belts larger than life on its bare brick walls. A low corner-house with a shop for corsets and millinery is decorated with ladies’ faces complete with finery, and severe bodices painted on a yellow-ochre background.
These giant wares are truly fetish commodities. He continues:
Somewhere else shoes rain from horns of plenty. Ironmongery is painted in detail, hammers, cogs, pliers and the tiniest screws on one board that looks like a page from an outmoded child’s painting-book. With such pictures the town is permeated: posed as if from chests of drawers.
We receive an image of a town of images – the mundane is extraordinary, and motile. This effect is proven in the writing’s construction of spatiality. There is a movement in the passage, turning textual strategies photographic, as the long view moves into close up, and the close-up itself is superimposed and confused by the oversized nature of the commodity signs. These filmic cuts, swift shifts of angle and scale, attempt to map a three-dimensional space, as hinted at by the title ‘Stereoscope’, appropriate, perhaps, for the hometown of montagist Eisenstein. Such stereoscopy emerges, however, most dramatically in the split-view introduced in the final line of the piece: Speaking of the pictures that permeate the city, he notes that ‘between them, however, rise tall, fortress-like desolate buildings bringing to life all the terrors of tsarism’. Here is signalled a bisected history of past and present - an example of Benjamin ‘telescoping the past through the present’ - whereby the horrors of tsarism become their own portentous memorial in newly independent Riga. This perspective cannot be dissociated from Benjamin’s ordeal in Riga. He had turned up out of the blue in order to surprise his lover Asja Lacis, only to find her absorbed in preparations for a play at the political theatre that she directed and which was subjected to frequent interference by the police. This new freedom is seen to be only a temporary interlude between old and new forms of surveillance. The ‘telescoping the past through the present’, opening up to potential futures, is just one instance of binocular vision at work in this piece – one that cuts through time. Benjamin’s dialectical glare accounts multi-dimensionally for the city in other ways – shuffling back and forth from commodity to toy, adult view to childish perception, nature and artifice, tourist and inhabitant, church and state versus human bustle and commerce. Its intended effect was something like that generated by Sascha Stone’s jacket for One Way Street.
Adorno, in his introduction to the 1950s edition of Benjamin’s writings, calls Benjamin’s condensed mode of envisioning, a ‘micrological gaze’. This gaze is temporally aware, dialectical and objective, a ‘micrological procedure’, ‘concentrating on the smallest thing, stilling its historical forces and turning it into image’. The impression, then, is of a close-up – a peering into material in order to record spatial, temporal and political dimensions. But this is no new objectivism. It is writing as montage image, an imaging cut through by time and tingling with the vibrating struts of social relations that underpin and traverse it. The very title of the section ‘Stereoscope’ recalls one of Benjamin’s methodological hints in the Arcades Project. Citing Rudolf Borchardt on Dante, he notes:
The pedagogical side of this enterprise: »To give our immanent image-forming medium instruction in stereoscopic and dimensional seeing into the depths of historical shadows.«
Stereoscopic and dimensional optics, then, are related in and through this vignette of Riga. Writing of Riga, Benjamin’s double optic perceives things - the things for sale - in relation to their signs, the representations of the marvels of commodities, dreamlike, promising, fantastic, giant and childlike. Apart from the suggestion of commodity fetishism, the signs remind Benjamin of childrens’ illustrated books, an indication to be taken seriously, for Benjamin was a connoisseur and collector of such material, and his interest in pedagogy led him to focus most specifically on the illustrated book as tool of education. In this reference Benjamin divulges the stimulus of his ‘materialist optic’, his visual thinking, a thinking in images, that is deciphered into words - pre-photographic, but not barred to photographic practice, as John Heartfield’s allegorical practice proves. Heartfield is a pedagogue - and the mode of seeing and learning that he deploys has its roots indeed in educational literature, which used allegorical practice. Heartfield’s procedures are not straightforward – they demand deciphering, referencing words against image, and montaged images counter the apparent meaning of the words. The results are multi-vocal, multidimensional – however, it is in this very mode of address that the educational impulse resides. It is the stimulation of self-activity – desideratum of enlightenment. Heartfield’s contributions to communist illustrated magazines are modernist renderings of the Baroque emblem books. The Baroque emblem books had an infant equivalent, in later eighteenth century alphabet primers that collated images of objects on one page that were related only by the fact that their names all began with the same letter. This image-word universe had a longer history in children’s literature, deriving from seventeenth century picture books. Benjamin, in an essay called ‘Old Forgotten Children’s Books’  says of it:
At the beginnings of children’s literature we find - in addition to primers and catechisms - illustrated lexicons and illustrated alphabet books, or whatever name we wish to give to the Orbis pictus of Amos Comenious. This genre too is one that the Enlightenment appropriated after its own fashion, as exemplified by Basedow’s monumental Elementarwerk. This book is a pleasure in many respects, even textually. For next to long-winded, encyclopedic learning, which, in the spirit of its age, emphasizes the ‘utility’ of all things- from mathematics to tightrope walking - we find moral stories that are so graphic that they verge, not unintentionally on the comic.
These illustrated picture books, picture lexicons and encyclopedia, brought image and word into the closest proximity in their efforts at visual instruction. They stimulated and exploited a fascination with the object world and the names for its components. John Amos Comenius and Basedow were pedagogues. Orbis Sensualium Pictus, from 1658, and the Elementarwerk from 1774 were designed by reformers to educate children, to bring them to enlightenment. Just as the arcade, according to Benjamin, is a world in miniature, so too Orbis Pictus reveals the world in miniature, in word and picture - from nature and the elements through animals to man and his body parts, his crafts and technologies, his modes of living and knowledge and his virtues. In 150 plates with 2000 items the whole world is shown in tangible and intangible phenomena. Numbers on different parts of the illustrations are linked to a text, in a local language and in Latin, phrased in short sentences. These explore the ‘tableau’, elucidating the cohesion of the parts.
Comenius was a Millenialist and a pansophist. He did not wish to present to children a fantasy world, but rather showed and named the horrors of torture, the nightmare of war on land and sea, which he knew well, for he had suffered extraordinary anguish in the religious and earthly conflicts of the Thirty Years War. The idea of a book that could teach Latin names for things by picturing them in contexts of connection and use came from a philosophy that opposed religious factionizing and obscurity, and heralded an enlightened world communicating in a universal language. Comenius’ theory of knowledge and education was materialist, and derived from Aristotle and Francis Bacon. The ‘golden rule for teachers’ was that ‘everything should, as far as is possible, be placed before the senses’. In his study The Great Didactic Comenius argued that it is only ‘when a thing has been grasped by the senses that language can fulfil its function of explaining it further.’ Things are at the basis of language. Language then represents things in the world. In addition, ‘the truth and certainty of science depend on the witness of the senses’, and furthermore, the senses are ‘the most trusty servants of the memory’. Sense experience is an active engagement with the world of nature, that is to say it is transformative - for it involves forming, building, tending the materials of nature. It is that involvement and adaptation that equals true knowledge. This equates with Benjamin’s emphasis on knowledge as practical. Authentic experience is conceived by him as close and practiced knowledge of whatever is at hand. The hand handles, and so possesses practical experience of life. Repeated in Benjamin’s descriptions of experience are the words tactile, tactics, the tactical, from the Latin tangere, touch. To touch the world is to know the world. Pottery is one of the crafts that features in Orbis pictus because the trades know the world better than the ‘cobwebs of learning’. This craft provides a model in Benjamin’s 1936 essay ‘The Storyteller’, because it is a type of Handwerk, hand work or artisan labour. The hand marks out genuine experience, says Benjamin, placing himself inside a tradition of humanist anatomical thought that perceives the faculty of stereognosis as reliant on touch, a touch that fingers the world’s textures, and passes on knowledge of those textures. Another sense has been evoked - we see that Benjamin’s mapping of experience relates to each of the sense in turn, cross-referencing seeing with hearing and thought, thought with taste and smell, smell with sight and so on - an anthropology fine-tuned through hashish experiments. Benjamin’s optic is already more than just a way of seeing. And such practically extracted knowledge needs to be guided. That had been Comenius’s motivation for devising the picture books. He believed that sight was the chiefest of the senses - and so he could turn his belief in direct sense-experience into a matter of representation. Pictures were a second best to objects, and could not appeal to so many senses, but a picture was easier to make or obtain than the object or item itself, and could be stored forever. An image was more assimilable to the mind and more attractive to the senses. For Comenius, to perceive a thing is to imprint its image on the brain. The mind is like a mirror suspended in a room. As the eye craves light and images, so the mind thirsts for objects to know. It reflects all around it, and all those things must be made lucid by being named and ordered and understood. Those ‘little monkeys:’ called children love to imitate, notes Comenius - and this is the next stage of embedding knowledge of the world. Infants have direct sense experience, but they cannot order those sensations. Ordering depends upon the use of language. Objects are associated with words. Each thing is named and expressed in all its parts, so that the senses may be trained for ‘right perceiving’. Comenius, like Benjamin, was convinced of children’s curiosity and their delight in novel experience. This made them open to learning in the first place. But Comenius differed from Benjamin too – too timid to embrace technological and historical developments. In his Great Didactic he insisted that:
we must look straight at objects and not squint, for in that case the eyes do not see that at which they look, but rather distort and confuse it.
Benjamin disagrees. He cannot see without squinting. The squint is crucial in providing the askant view that makes the object new. The squint rescues matter from the fatal circuit. For the collector figure, one of the hero-types in Benjamin’s phantasmagoria of the modern, squinting through the object to assess its history rescues the souvenir from typicality and commodity equivalence. The squint is essential for making the object a depository of utopian fantasy. Matter is renewed in representation, in play and in memory. And the interposing lens is Benjamin’s modernist addition –product of a commitment to an anthropological materialism that is canny to the training that the human sensorium is subjected to through technological development. The squint and the distorting lens produce the world anew - as did Bloßfeldt in his deployment of close-up lens technologies, images which showed just how mysterious the everyday could be. In ‘art’ as in ‘science’, for so too does microscopy photography in its magnification of the structure of cell tissue, as Benjamin notes in his short history of photography .
A different nature speaks to the camera than speaks to the eye; most different in that in the place of a space penetrated by a person with consciousness is formed a space penetrated by the unconscious. It is already quite common that someone, for example, can give a rough account of how a person walks. But he would not be able to describe their position at the fracture of a moment of ‘stepping out’. Photographic aids: time-lapse, enlargements, unlock this for him. He discovers the optical-unconscious first of all through it, just as the drive-unconscious is discovered through psychoanalysis. Structural compositions, cell formations, with which technology and medicine deal - all this is more fundamentally allied to the camera than the atmospheric landscape or the emotion-seeped portrait.
Whether we see better or deeper or just differently remains ambiguous. The worlds uncovered by photography may have existed before, but the suspicion remains perhaps only in dreams. But, then again, dreams are a science of the everyday – they too are mimetic, caused, symptomatic. Benjamin’s squints and lenses produce new visions, and new objects to be seen. This knowledge of the role of new technologies of vision that produce new understanding impinged on Comenius too. It could not be otherwise given the extraordinary developments in scientific knowledge. One plate from Orbis Pictus reflects on new lens technology.
Looking glasses are provided that men may see themselves, spectacles that he may see better, who hath a weak sight. Things a far off are seen in a perspective glass as things near at hand; a flea appeareth in a magnifying glass like a little hog. The rays of the sun burn wood through a burning glass.
Just as Benjamin had seen that Bloßfeldt discovers nature as a zone of cultural transformation - ancient columns in horse willow, or gothic tracery in the fuller’s thistle - so Comenius sees the flea better to be a hog. Perhaps the full-on look is not so straightforward. Comenius knew that telescopes threatened his type of sensual empiricism, which insisted that the world was held together in and by order. He had been to Amsterdam to see the first real telescope, and later in his life, he did confess that accepted opinions were ‘quite confounded by the optic glasse of Galileo’. Copernicus’ heliocentric thesis intrigued him, and he was overwhelmed by the idea that the universe was so huge that there were stars whose ‘slender beams cannot be seen except with the astronomer’s instruments’. These ideas - which questioned the place and even the existence of heaven and God - would only confuse children who needed to be taught of an orderly universe that they could understand - where ‘heaven ‘wheeled about’ and ‘encompassed the earth and the whole globe ‘turned about upon an axle tree’.
Comenius represses knowledge of the new scientific worldview that, as Benjamin notes in ‘To the Planetarium’, the closing section of One Way Street, displaces cosmic experience. Kepler, Copernicus and Tycho Brahe, Benjamin notes, were the harbingers of an ‘exclusive emphasis on an optical connection to the universe’. This is rationalizing and contemplative, and plays into a modern reduced and one-dimensional notion of experience. Comenius represses knowledge, but he hints at what the lens can do in his representation of Prudence.
Prudence - She looks backwards, as into a looking glass to things past and seeth before her as with a perspective glass things to come, or the end; and so she perceiveth what she hath done, and what remaineth to be done.
Just as in Benjamin, the mirror and the telescope cut through time, forwards and backwards, in order to advise on action, in order to tend towards practical knowledge and practical activity. The lens intervenes and alters. Prudence watches out for ‘opportunity (which haveth a bushy forehead, and being bald-pated, and moreover having wings, does quickly slip away) and catcheth it’. This is Comenius’s Angelus Novus - who in Benjamin is the one facing the past, while propelled to the future, by the storm of progress caught in his wings. Material knowledge of the world is not a passive reception of material. It desires active engagement in meaning.
If the angel of history could propose a mode of seeing in order to act, it would carry out the paradoxical act of putting the world back together again - it would like to rest awhile, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed - and smashing to pieces its old order - the one that makes fascism possible. Benjamin addresses the question of the world’s ordering through concepts in evoking the image of the kaleidoscope in the child’s hand, which with every turn collapses all order into a new order. He writes:
That image has a well-founded, good legitimacy. The concepts of the rulers have always been the mirror thanks to which the image of an ‘order’ has come into being. -The kaleidoscope must be smashed.
With its repeated patterns of randomness this optical toy generates an illusion of order. Smashing it would destroy the fragile and self-referential order, and it would release the mirror shards to be picked up and used as new points of reflection, this time of a nameable world outside. It would be that enactment of method at the heart of Benjamin’s Arcades Project:
A central problem of historical materialism, which ought finally to be seen: must the Marxist understanding of history necessarily come at the cost of visibility? Or: by what route is it possible to attain a heightened visibility combined with a realization of the Marxist method. The first stop along this path will be to carry the montage principle over into history. That is, to build up the large constructions out of the smallest, precisely fashioned structural elements. Indeed to detect the crystal of the total event in the analysis of the small, individual moment. To break, then, with the vulgar naturalism of historicism. To grasp the construction of history as such. In the structure of commentary..
The paragraph closes with a reference to the ‘trash of history’. Materialism, then, not as something to be junked, but itself of the junk, the debris of the day, the postcards found in flea markets, the glimpses of everyday life, the scraps that appear to be meaningless but hold meaning. And the signs that are signs – that is they can be read – they are not prized free of the commodities or the things that they advertise or name, and the spectacles that are not dizzying but are lenses that focus attention on the minutiae of life. All these are products of and mediators into the material world – not signposts and warping mirrors pulling us away from it
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