What follows is a lightly edited version of my manuscript for the workshop Benjamin: Aesthetics, Politics, and the Philosophy of History which took place on December 13–14, 2018 at the University of Gothenburg. I am grateful to the organizers for inviting me even though, as I point out at the very beginning of the text, Walter Benjamin’s work is actually marginal to my discussion.
Although his name does figure in my title as well as my actual argument – and even, in fact, in more than one guise – this talk is not really about Walter Benjamin. Instead, the following remarks are chiefly intended as an introduction of sorts to the short film that I will be screening in just a moment.
To begin with, then, I should probably say something about my own long-term project of developing what I call an (audio)visual historiography – or, if you like, an ‘imaginary history’ – conceived as the historical equivalent of visual ethnography, an approach to anthropological research that has been established in an international academic context at least since the 1980s. More specifically, I will start out by briefly recalling the main sources of methodological inspiration behind my approach, and then (if there is still time) proceed to tease out a few implications of its guiding metaphor, the notion of a ‘literal zone’. Along the way, we will encounter not only one but, indeed, several different Benjamins.
As you can already tell from the subtitle of my talk, there are essentialy two points of departure for my film as well as for the larger undertaking that it hopes to further.
The first such point of departure is the historical and methodological writings – and, to some extent, all of his writings are simultaneously historical and methodological – of the Italian historian Carlo Ginzburg, most admired for his study of the heretical world-view of a sixteenth-century miller as deciphered from Inquisition records. Arguably, he was also the primum mobile behind the historiographical ‘community of style’ that, in the course of the 1970s, became known as microhistory. In any case, his writings – and, indeed, his person – provided significant impetus to Microhistories (now in the plural), a transdiciplinary research project carried out a few years ago (2013–15) at the Konstfack University of Arts, Crafts and Design in Stockholm, where I had the opportunity to provide my first, vague intuitions about imaginary history with a more distinctive formulation (and which, as it happens, also involved Behzad). To my mind, its experimental attitude – in the etymological sense of the word – as well as its deep roots in the podzol of postwar artistic and intellectual culture makes Ginzburg’s microhistory the most fertile starting point for a methodological experiment such as mine.
So much for my first point of departure. Now for the second: the writings (as well as the artistic practice, to the extent that I have been able to familiarize myself with it) of the Israeli curator, filmmaker and theorist of photography Ariella Azoulay. Indeed, if, for my purposes, something is still missing from Ginzburg’s writings – and no wonder, since the main focus of his scholarship has always been the early modern period – it is precisely a sustained reflection on the medium of photography. Azoulay’s work provides such a reflection, one that is not only theoretically as well as politically profound but also, at least to my mind, perfectly consistent with Ginzburg’s microhistorical approach. As it happens, I was almost able to stage an encounter between the two of them at a symposium that I arranged last year, but unfortunately Ginzburg had to cancel his participation due to illness in the family.
Now, beyond this general affinity, there is a specific point of intersection between the perspectives of Ginzburg and Azoulay: for both of them, Walter Benjamin has served as a crucial source of inspiration – although, it would seem, in rather different ways.
Puzzling over the underlying tensions in Ginzburg’s intellectual universe, fellow historian Anthony Molho remarks that Benjamin’s name is actually absent when his Italian colleague, in the preface to his most well-known collection of essays, takes the time to acknowledge his intellectual debts. Nevertheless, Molho is able to point, not only to several overarching parallels between Ginzburg and Benjamin, but also to a few specific passages where the former refers directly to the latter’s writings. What is striking about these references is not really their subject matter but rather their location in Ginzburg’s own argument – not their substance, if you like, but rather their function. In Molho’s words:
Where, at the end of an important train of thought, he [Ginzburg] found himself having to round out his reasoning, yet lacked the specific, historical evidence to do so, he drew on Benjamin. At the risk of a slight distortion, one could perhaps be even more emphatic. Benjamin served Ginzburg at the very points of the latter’s presentations where his thought took what we might define [as] a meta[-]historical turn, and where the argument spilled over beyond the bounds of a demonstration required by the conventions of historical discourse. (“Carlo Ginzburg: Reflections on the Intellectual Cosmos of a 20th Century Historian”, 147.)
In sum, then – and, heeding Molho’s warning, at the risk of a slight distortion – we might qualify Ginzburg’s use of Benjamin as eschatological in the sense that it relates to ultimate matters, to those ‘last things’ that, by definition, are beyond the historian’s reach. In view of Ginzburg’s unwavering vigilance against the temptations of philosophical irrationalism, this must clearly be regarded as something althogether exceptional.
For all their existential weight, however, Ginzburg’s allusions to Benjamin remain, in Molho’s apt description, “sparse and sibylline.” (148) The contrast with Azoulay is notable: in addition to numerous references in virtually all of her major works, she has devoted herself to Benjamin in several articles as well as in a book-length study (which, unfortunately, is only available in Hebrew). Indeed, that is not the only difference. Far from an eschatological figure, what we encounter in Azoulay’s writings – once more at the risk of a slight distortion – is Benjamin in his customary or canonical guise: an author who requires no further introduction and whose authority, within a strictly delimited theoretical context, is more or less taken for granted. This is clearly not to say that Azoulay is somehow unqualified as an interpreter of Benjamin – quite the contrary! – and neither that the two are always in agreement. In the peculiar dynamics of canonization, however, even a refutation of one or another of Benjamin’s positions (or, which is more often the case, of some received notion of his position) actually works to reinforce his status as, precisely, a canonical figure.
Of course, the contrast between my two cases should not be overstated: no doubt, the mechanisms of canonization are already at work in Ginzburg’s sparse references, just like there was surely some sort of existential aspect to Azoulay’s initial encounter with Benjamin – conveyed not so much in her writings as, symptomatically, in a film such as Angel of History (2001), which not only borrows its title from Benjamin but also opens with a long, sonically fractured quote from his “Theses on the Philosophy of History.” Still, the difference is there – so how can we account for it? The most straightforward approach is probably from a generational perspective: Ginzburg, born in 1939, came of age in the 1960s, around the time of or perhaps even a little before the first major reception of Benjamin’s work as well as of German critical theory more broadly; whereas Azoulay, born in 1962, encountered it during the 1980s, at the height of the ‘theory’ wave, when it had already been subjected to over two decades of intense scholarly attention.
To develop the same observation in ‘benjaminian’ terms: although there is obviously no lack of illustrious figures on the firmament of the contemporary humanities, due, at least in part, to his untimely passing, Benjamin’s work has been surrounded by a double aura, one gradually eclipsing the other. For Ginzburg’s generation – a generation that had personal experience, if not of the war, then at least of its immediate repercussions – the figure of Walter Benjamin must have stood out as virtually singular, a flying spark against a sombre background. For Azoulay’s generation, with the memory of the war either fading or else overshadowed by more current conflicts (e.g. the First Intifada), he had already become a theoretical point of reference among others – although with the original dazzle still shining through, as it were, between the lines.
And where, we might ask, does this argument leave us present-day readers? For obvious reasons, that will have to remain an open question – one, I suppose, for this workshop to answer. At the very least, the perspective that I’ve sketched out in these brief remarks helps me account for my own personal failure to really make sense of Walter Benjamin. It is not that I have avoided him altogether, nor (I hope) that I lack the necessary background to understand him – but simply that I have not been able to forge a genuine connection with his writings, one that would also bridge the gap between the acutely realized and the intensely felt. At the risk of being somewhat indiscreet: I have cried reading Ginzburg; I have cried reading Azoulay; I have yet to cry reading Benjamin – and, if you ask me, tears are among the most significant of epistemic criteria. Whether my film could nevertheless be regarded as ‘benjaminian’ is for you to judge.