Walter Benjamin archive

A new icon, with the appearance of a little piece of torn paper, appeared mysteriously on my PC Desktop last week, enigmatically labelled ‘scrap’.

The three rambling lines of prose that my computer had thoughtfully saved for me in this file will probably not be worth saving for posterity, but its appearance did coincide with the arrival by post of Walter Benjamin’s Archive, a book dedicated to the preservation of scraps – indeed the second chapter is rather endearingly entitled ‘scrappy paperwork’. And this coincidence served to remind me of how our move to a world dominated by digital networks and media has brought in its train a corresponding compensatory preoccupation with archival materials and processes. The archive as a symbol for the storage of knowledge is perhaps more appropriate than the library of books for an internet generation. It suggests more heterogeneity, more materiality, more stored potential for the researcher. Knowledge in the archive has not yet been processed and turned into discourse; its classificatory procedures are provisional; they may throw up eccentricities, new connections and surprises; and things can be lost in the archive… and then be re-found.

Benjamin’s model of knowledge was figured on the model of the archive, albeit an improper one that eschewed careful filing and that privileged chance connections. He presciently foresaw the obsolescence of the book as the foundation of scholarly activity.

‘And today’ he wrote ‘the book is already, as the present mode of scholarly production demonstrates, an outdated mediation between two different filing systems. For everything that matters is to be found in the card box of the researcher who wrote it, and the scholar studying it assimilates it into his own card index.’
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Two of the key images he used to describe the process of research are that of the archaeologist and the rag picker. The former slowly and painstakingly clearing away the layers of earth and debris to provide a material sense, both of his findings, and of the different strata that had to be broken through to get there …

‘…memory is not an instrument for exploring the past, but rather its medium. It is the medium of that which is experienced, just as the earth is the medium in which ancient cities lie buried.’

While on the peripheries of the new cities of consumerism represented by the Paris Arcades the rag-picker collects the refuse of the city: all those things that have been discarded, overlooked, and crushed underfoot. Painstakingly he retrieves them, sorts them out, and gives them new life. Benjamin associates this process with the poetic method, linking it to the strategies of literary montage that governed his later forms of writing:

‘… method of this project: literary montage. I needn’t say anything. Merely show. I shall purloin no valuables, appropriate no ingenious formulations. But the rags, the refuse – these I will not inventory but allow, in the only way possible, to come into their own: by making use of them.’

Both of these metaphors for research and writing emphasise the materiality of the process, the impossibility of closure, the value of the fragment in the dialectical interchange between the past and the present. It is in the movement of the imagination in relationship to the fragment that emerges from the archive that insight becomes possible.

There is plenty of scope for the movement of the imagination in this volume, published to accompany an exhibition of Benjamin’s archive materials at the Academy of Arts Berlin, 2006. Organised under a series of suggestive chapter-headings … ‘From Small to Smallest Details’, ‘Constellations’, ‘Past turned Space’, ‘Physiognomy of the Thingworld,’ a series of tantalisingly short essays describing Benjamin’s working methods preface each section. The book presents us with delicate photographs of densely written and overwritten pages from Benjamin’s notebooks, lists scribbled on bits of paper, diagrams, poems and half-thoughts scrawled in Benjamin’s diminutive hand on little bits of chance paper; and here or there photographs of children’s toys, of the Paris arcades, or of bourgeois interiors.

Every scrap has been meticulously inventoried and described: the book of the archive carries through the logic of the archive itself. A careful translation and transcription of the text is presented on each page opposite the photograph of the original. These pages of text have little value here in their own right; torn from their context, often ending mid-sentence, they operate more as supplements to the presence of the handwritten pages themselves. Some images are particularly evocative: a set of notes about ‘aura’ written on San Pellegrino branded notepaper, a photograph of a closed notebook cover (the ‘moleskin’ notebook that has now been successfully rebranded to form part of every contemporary academic’s toolkit), an empty envelope with a list of catalogue entries on it – the most minimal archive of all. These, along with the endless fragile pages of close written text on almost transparent paper, shift our attention away from the ideas themselves to the material medium of their manifestation. The trace of the author’s writing, indexically revealed through the photograph itself, takes on an almost fetishistic value in relation to his absence and to the tragedy of his death.

Ultimately the book is a kind of homage to method, and to an intensely lived scholarly life that most of us will never achieve. We live in an era of unprecedented knowledge management, when ‘research’ is bureaucratically defined in relationship to concepts of efficiency and national interest. These pages of scrawled papers that are witness to every thought and impression and in which the barriers between thought and reflection, philosophy and experience, academia and literature, are revealed to be irrelevant – these images represent a world of the mind that is fundamentally different from the one that we belong to now. In many ways Benjamin is one of the most contemporary of thinkers; when it comes to understanding the effects of changing technology on culture and society, and its profound implications for consciousness and for politics, his ideas have been perhaps more influential than those of any of his generation. Yet this collection also shows, in delving through the material strata of the work, how embedded in a material moment thought really is, and how much we may lose when our scraps become digital files.
Published in Photoworks issue 10, 2008
Commissioned by Photoworks

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