Through his ‘abstract gardening’ Goethe discovered the ‘Urpflanze’, the ‘ur-plant’, an ideal prototype that contains all the plants of the past and the future. From this he conceived a stereoscopic mode of cognition in which simultaneity and succession both appear. The more general model extracted of this stereo-conception he terms the ‘Urform’ or the ‘Urphänomen’. These shelter basic forms and all their future metamorphoses. Ur-configurations are formal relations aesthetically perceived within objects of everyday attention. Only through such doubled time and vision can perception and understanding be complete. Walter Benjamin was long intrigued by Goethe’s anti-positivist scientific method. He imported the notion of the ur-form into his theories of criticism, history and technology. True criticism brings about ‘the unfolding, the germination of the work’s immanent core’. History, and history writing, is conceived as the unfurling or blockage of potentials, wish-images, dreams and possibilities. Technology, likewise, is seen to incubate all the forms into which it could or must develop. It holds pre-forms of new machineries that may reveal themselves only in one instance at first – for example in film where ‘all the notional forms, tempos and rhythms that lie preformed in today’s machines’ find ‘final formulation’. Disclosing the ‘Urform’ is key in Benjamin’s utopian social theory. Where Goethe aspired to understand the metamorphosis of nature, Benjamin investigated history and the social world. He writes of ‘Ursprung’ (origin), Ursprungsphänomen’ and ‘Urgeschichte’ (primal history), not in order to assert an origin that is now left behind, but so as to stress the whirls of unredeemed potential inside present forms. Benjamin combines these ideas with the Marxist intuition that the base submits possibilities that are hampered by the superstructure, the current social relations of production. Ur-configurations play tricks with time. For example, the ur-history of the nineteenth century, as revealed in the arcades is related as a pre-historic past and so is de-familiarized, de-naturalized. Simultaneously this past is exposed as a repository of social and technological desires that should have been, could yet be. Benjamin writes: ‘We are only just beginning to infer exactly what forms now lying concealed within machines will be determining for our epoch.’ The future lives in the present, possibility is coiled up inside actuality. The social promises of technology are mobilized by Benjamin to herald a new epoch because they exist preformed as possibilities. The idea of ur-ness is itself both actual – the true potentials of technology and of social organization are hindered and held back – and potential – it’s theorizing is the re-interpretive strategy that allows revolutionary imagination to unfurl.


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