Get You Back Home

Back to the Benjamin Papers

The World as Thing and Image

Esther Leslie

What is the optic of Walter Benjamin? Benjamin uses the word to describe his perspective in the course of a critique of surrealist practice. Benjamin attacks the surrealists in as much as they get caught up in and market weirdness. Benjamin speaks of a "dialectical optic", a method of analysis that is drawn to but rejects the surrealists’ fuzz of romanticism and mystical response to phenomena such as extra-sensory perception or mind reading. Benjamin’s dialectical optic does indeed affirm the attraction of mystery, but insists that 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 already do - is already remarkable. The "dialectical optic" starts out from this, perceiving "the everyday as impenetrable and the impenetrable as everyday". It was such a glare - a penetration of the curious everyday - that Benjamin had already invoked in his fragment collection called ‘One Way Street’. There a section titled ‘Optician’ had coined phrases that tried to renew perception of the everyday - remarking thereby 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.


Benjamin evokes several 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. He titles one sub-section ‘Stereoscope’, and so sets us in mind of a later piece in ‘Berlin Childhood around 1900’ also called ‘Imperial Panorama’, a description of a 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, apples. Benjamin is drawn to the shops - shops selling corsetry, leather goods, coal, sugar, shoes, ironmongers. He observes how on signboards and walls each shop depicts its wares, oversized. He writes:

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.

The stereoscopy denoted by the title is emerges in the split-view that Benjamin introduces in the next and final line of the piece: "Between them, however, rise tall, fortress-like desolate buildings evoking all the terrors of tsarism" - a bisected history of past and present - an example then 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. But the ‘telescoping the past through the present’ is just one instance of binocular vision at work in this piece. There is also a spatial movement in the passage, turning textual strategies photographic, as the long view moves into close up, and close-up itself is superimposed and confused by the oversized nature of the commodity signs. Reading reality as illustrated book was at the very heart of Benjamin’s technique - Adorno, in his introduction to the 1950s edition of Benjamin’s writings, called it his "micrological gaze", temporally aware, dialectical and objective, a "micrological procedure", "concentrating on the smallest thing, stilling its historical forces and turning it into image" - again the close-up. But this is no new objectivism. It is montage photography, 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 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«.<

Sterescopic optics, then, here in Riga, writing of Riga, Benjamin’s double optic perceives the things - the things for sale - in relation to their signs, the representations of the marvels of commodities, dreamlike, promising, fantastic, giant and childlike - they remind Benjamin of childrens’ illustrated books, an indication to be taken seriously, for Benjamin was a connoisseur and collector of such material. In this reference Benjamin divulges the stimulus of his ‘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’s contributions to communist illustrated magazines are modernist renderings of the Baroque emblem books. Heartfield is a pedagogue - and the mode of seeing and learning that he deploys has its roots indeed in educational literature. 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:

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, encyclopeadic 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. They stimulated and exploited a fascination with the object world and the myriad names for all its components. Comenius and Basedow were pedagogues. Orbis 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, but 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. 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 in 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 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." 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 is similar to Benjamin’s emphasis on knowledge as practical. Authentic experience is conceived 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 - one of the crafts that features in Orbis pictus because the trades know the world better than the "cobwebs of learning", provides a model and a metaphor - of course, because it is a type of Handwerk, hand work or artisan labour. The hand marks out genuine experience, says Benjamin, and so places 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 evoked - the sense of touch - 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 finetuned 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 Comenius’s contribution and his motivation for he devising the picture books. He believed that sight was the chiefest of the senses - and so 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 and could be stored forever. It might also present a clearer image, more assimilable to the mind and more attractive ot the senses. 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, so that objects are associated with words. Each thing must be 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 naive curiosity and their delight in novel experience. This made them educable. But Comenius differed from Benjamin too. 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 aslant view that makes the object new. 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. The squint is the human version of the distorting lens - distorting in the sense that it produces worlds anew - as did Blossfeldt in his deployment of the close-up technologies - as 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 only in dreams. But dreams are a science of the everyday.


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. 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. (OP p271)

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 were the downfall of his sensual empiricism which insisted that the world was held together in and by order.


Comenius 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’ theories 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’, 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 kknowledge, but he secrets intimations of 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.


If the angel of history could propose a mode of seeing in order to act, he would carry out the paradoxical act of putting the world back together again - he 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 made 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 an illusion of order is generated by this optical toy. 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. *Trash of history.

Commentary and image, debris and meaning - the heart of Benjamin’s super-optic.

Get You Back Home


Back to the Benjamin Papers