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The everlasting now: Walter Benjamin's archive.

"I most likely lost several pieces through the hasty departure from Berlin [to Paris in 1933] and the unsettled existence of the early years of emigration," wrote Walter Benjamin on April 4, 1937 to Gershom Scholem in Palestine, one of the keepers of the flame. (1) After escaping the Nazis, Benjamin lived the life of a refugee, suffering from social isolation and financial hardship. Yet he continued researching and writing, and distributed his valued documents among friends. "Benjamin knew the magnitude of his work and made sure that future generations would have access to it," contends Erdmut Wizisla, director of the Walter Benjamin Archive. At first Benjamin expressed the hope that one day he would see his Archiv-Kartothek reunited. But after realizing that "circumstances do not allow this illusion anymore," he took consolation in knowing "that a reader here and there will become heimisch [comfortable] with my variously distributed texts." (2)

During his travels in Europe in the early decades of the twentieth century, Benjamin collected postcards of Italian townscapes, sibyls, and Russian toys, numerous photographs of the Arcades in Paris, as well as his own notes scribbled on anything that came to hand when the muse struck him: the back of receipts, on library cards, or newspaper ads. Friends bestowed great care in protecting his documents. Georges Bataille hid the manuscript of the "Arcades Project" (1927-39) in the Bibliotheque Nationale (where it was discovered by Giorgio Agamben in 1981, and published a year later (3)), while Gretel and Theodor Adorno kept papers in their New York safe, later transporting them to Frankfurt. Bertold Brecht was to have shipped Benjamin's library, his "intellectual wine cellar," as he liked to call it, to Svendborg in Denmark, where Brecht took refuge, but it was lost during WWII. After leaving Berlin, Benjamin's existence was put on permanent hold, trapping him between "two dialectic poles of order and disorder." He once used those words to describe the collector-archivist's ontological dilemma, as requiring a sort of Rettung (rescue), but now it had become his destiny too.

With the tides of history turning, the hope of a resuscitated archive was realized in the fall of 2004 when two sections of the Walter Benjamin Archive were transferred from Frankfurt and Paris to Berlin's Akademie der Kunste, custodian of the Moscow portion (confiscated by the Gestapo from Benjamin's last Berlin apartment and taken by the Red Army to the USSR). (4) The project of centering the Archive in Berlin (more papers have now surfaced in Moscow) was initiated and funded by the Hamburg Foundation for Supporting Science and Culture. The Archive currently consists of some 12,000 pages of manuscripts, notebooks, newspaper clippings, letters, fragments, essays, postcards, and photographs, a selection of which was exhibited for the first time last year in Berlin. "Walter Benjamin's Archive: Signs, Texts and Images" (October 3-November 11, 2006) was part of the expansive international Benjamin festival, "JETZT--The Now of Cognizability" (October 17-22), with its conferences and art events.

Having access to this updated archive was a thrill for many visitors, prompting new engagements with texts previously known only through published versions. But it was also poignant seeing Benjamin's own typed resume hanging on a gallery wall, while below it visitors pored over a series of glass cabinets containing photographs and handwritten papers written in his small, meticulous script. His resume points to a life cut brutally short, to a future that never arrived. On his way to the U.S. to take up a position at the Institute for Social Research--which Adorno and Max Horkheimer had relocated from Frankfurt to New York in 1934--Benjamin was refused entry into Spain from where he was due to set sail. While sequestered at the Catalan border town of Portbou, the ill Benjamin took morphine pills and died on the night of September 27, 1940 (some suspect it was suicide).

Hannah Arendt, the Adornos, and Scholem were among the first to ensure publication of his manuscripts after his death. Since the 1950s, Benjamin has been widely hailed for his unique dialectical method of engaging the "now" (Jetzt), that revelatory moment when past and present fleetingly collide. In his conference homage, Georges Didi-Huberman remarked that this dialectic method allows one "to immerse oneself in the 'after' (Nachgeschichte) so as to make sense of the 'before' (Vorgeschichte)," a method that Benjamin first introduced in the Ursprung des deutschen Trauerspiels (The Origin of German Tragic Drama, 1928). (5) Benjamin's notion of the temporal index (discussed in Theses on the Philosophy of History, 1940) refers to the process whereby certain knowledge buried in human artifacts or events is only revealed (or "rescued," to use Benjamin's term) at particular moments in history--not in "empty time, but time filled by the presence of the now" (he doesn't say Gegenwart here but "Jetztzeit," the quotation marks possibly alluding to Thomas Aquinas's nunc stans or "everlasting now"). This idea of the work of art not disclosing everything at once, like the continuum of life itself ("'once upon a time' [is] historicism's bordello"), was the focus of festival director Sigrid Weigel: each now is the now of a temporally informed act of cultural (re)cognition (hence the festival's title). According to Weigel, Benjamin's ideas have once again resurfaced among artists and intellectuals in the digital age, seeming almost tailor-made for the recent return of terror and religious fundamentalism to the world stage. Indeed, few cultural analysts of his or any other era have dealt so expressively and acutely with the unconscious sacred underpinnings of secular society, the religious overtones of modernist thought, as well as the dialectical relationship between tyrants and martyr figures. (6) Texts like the Trauerspielsbuch, the essay "Zur Kritik der Gewalt" (Critique of Violence, 1921), or Theses on the Philosophy of History, Weigel argues, need to be reread with such political concerns in mind.

Benjamin's growing popularity in the U.S. rests widely on his essay "Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" (1935-36; recently translated as "The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility"), in which the concept of aura is raised. In fact, the prototype of this chef d'oeuvre can be found on a piece of paper advertising Acqua di S. Pellegrino, on which he scribbled "Was ist Aura?" in old German Sutterlin cursive. According to panelist Sabine Golz, now that we can see the original page's discussion of aura, stars, astrology, and mimesis laid out more in the manner of a poem, all carefully appointed in relation to Pellegrino's five-pointed red star logo, the published essay can never be read the same way again. Dated by Scholem to around 1935, this manuscript underscores the performative aspect of Benjamin's work, one where text becomes image and discourse poetry. Golz stressed that the source sheds light on Benjamin's core idea of perceptive mimesis in regard to photography, aura, and temporal cognizability--or in the words of Didi-Huberman, that "image now exploding like a star."

Wizisla, in turn, emphasized how important the physical act of writing was for Benjamin, who expressed his researches into spectacle via his corporeal traces on the page. He was a Papierarbeiter or "paper drone," for whom writing seemed a pleasurable experience (as Adorno once remarked). (7) Other speakers pointed to the extreme care Benjamin took in submitting his ideas to paper (preferably in any shade but white), or how the creative process for him involved transforming cognitive fragments into Denkbilder (thought-images), marshaling popular icons to articulate complex ideas or even as a personal aesthetic flourish. Exemplary here is the manuscript called "Passagen-Konvoluten/Baudelaire," featuring colored squares, rectangles, and other shapes meant to help organize his collected thoughts on the ongoing Passagenwerk or "Arcades Project," somewhat like a modern spreadsheet program (note the rust stains left by the paperclip Benjamin used to attach this paper to his notes). In his book Einbahnstrasse (One Way Street, 1928), where he refers to "a new [technological] system requiring variable script coordinates," Benjamin even foretold the advent of computers.

Benjamin's treatment of body-image-space as mapped out in Passagenwerk arose in response to the modern metropolis with its changing social and spatial topographies, where the individual is enticed by a phantasmagoria of consumer goods. The Parisian Arcades were the result of industrial wealth, new developments in engineering (such as the use of steel in the Eiffel Tower), a lively textile trade, and a mushrooming bourgeois society, all already sown with the seeds of their own destruction. Places of dazzling flanerie, the Arcades became outmoded only a few decades after they were hailed in a Paris guidebook (which Benjamin quotes) as "a new step up in industrial luxury, glass-covered streets paved in marble [and] the most elegant shops; the world of the Arcades, complete unto itself"--and now, thanks to gas lighting, one navigable at night. (8) Thomas Struth, who gave a slideshow address at the opening session of the conference, makes a similar argument by juxtaposing America's empty inner city plazas with densely crowded markets in China, all photographed around the same time of day. Struth contrasts the Western post-industrial, late-capitalist malaise with a post-communist, Eastern-style consumerist frenzy, all of which points back to the diminishing returns of newness even then associated with the Arcades, one in which the consumer (and spectator), to paraphrase Didi-Huberman, is caught between the advent and obsolescence of history.

The festival also provided a welcome opportunity to explore Benjamin's ever-increasing global appeal. Responding to the much-quoted "The Task of the Translator" (1923), Gyu-Hwan Seo and Jae-Ho Kang recounted the difficulties surrounding the recent translation of Passagenwerk into Korean, a process made even more problematical by a non-alphabetic language system incompatible with the nuances of Benjamin's theoretical flanerie. In Latin America, to the contrary, Benjamin's fortunes have waxed and waned like the political climate itself. Carlos Rincon spoke of numerous attempts by influential writers in Brazil and Argentina to latch onto or plunder Benjamin's "holy word," which explains why Portuguese and Spanish translations and interpretations have had such a strong visceral reception in the South, unlike the North where the response has been much more "magnetic" (or cultural). Elsewhere, Stephane Moses discussed the link between Benjamin's Jewish and German heritage. While the Hebrew language and literature were apparently important for Benjamin, Zionism or Judaic nationalism did not interest him. In fact, it was Scholem who was ultimately responsible for bringing the "Adamic Urtext" to Benjamin's attention, as well as the Kabbala and other mystical writings, including the Spinozist metaphor of the Messiah who only ever arrives too late. Through his great personal courage and passionate resistance to barbarism in any form, Benjamin instead forged his own unique birthright and writing, which now belongs to humanity at large.

MARIA ZIMMERMANN BRENDEL is an art critic based in Berlin. NOTES: (1.) Some of these papers are now in the Scholem Archive at the Jewish National University Library, Jerusalem. (2.) Walter Benjamins Archive: Bilder, Texte und Zeichen (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 2006), 30. (3.) Ursula Marx, "Das Walter Benjamin Archiv," Trajekte 13/7(September 2006),14. The issue is entirely devoted to Benjamin. Thanks also go to Ursula Marx for providing digital images of the Benjamin Archive. (4.) Marx, 13. (5.) For more on Benjamin's dialectics, see Susan Buck-Morss, The Origins of Negative Dialectics (1977) and her Dialectics of Seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project (1999). (6.) See also Sigrid Weigel, "Jetzt Walter Benjamin," Kulturstiftung des Bundes (2006), 26; and "Editorial," Trajekte 13/7, 1-3. (7.) Erdmut Wizisla, "Verzettelte Schreiberei," Trajekte 13/7, 8. (8.) Typed MS by Benjamin, Walter Benjamins Archive, 201.
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Title Annotation:Postmortem
Author:Brendel, Maria Zimmermann
Geographic Code:4EUFR
Date:Mar 1, 2007
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