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Anthony Auerbach

‘Imagine no Metaphors: the dialectical image of Walter Benjamin’ by Anthony Auerbach, in Image [&] Narrative [e-journal], 18 (2007)

This special issue of Image [&] Narrative, edited by Hanneke Grootenboer, gathered a group of essays under the rubric ‘Thinking Pictures’.

The full text is provided below.

Maybe there is no such thing as a dialectical image. Despite the insistence of Benjamin’s claims, it is not at all clear whether such an image belongs to material or to virtual reality; whether it is something more like a picture or a perception. Nor is it obvious how we should distinguish the hypothetical dialectical image from figures of speech such as metaphor, or from literary forms such as the Denkbild (thought-image) upon which Benjamin modelled his writing.

Benjamin’s projected magnum opus, known as the Passagen-Werk or Arcades Project, is arguably no more than an elaborately woven net designed to catch a dialectical image. Amounting to more than 1,300 pages in the version assembled for publication by Rolf Tiedemann more than forty years after Benjamin’s death, the thirty-six “convolutes” and various paralipomena nonetheless form an uncompleted edifice, lacking the theoretical design which would predict its definitive shape. Benjamin’s legacy presents an image in which a construction site seems to merge with a ruin.

In the middle of the manuscript, as if at the centre of its web, “Convolute N” preserves a collection of reflections under the heading “Theory of Knowledge, Theory of Progress”, among which we can read some of Benjamin’s boldest statements about how he envisaged his work and constituted it as a task. In these notes, the term “dialectical image” (which apparently crystallised in conversations between Benjamin and Theodor Wiesengrund [Adorno], Gretel Karplus [Adorno], Max Horkheimer and Asja Lacis at the end of the 1920s) makes a striking appearance. More references to dialectical images can be found in other unpublished texts, such as the 1935 “Exposé” of the Arcades entitled Paris, the Capital of the Nineteenth Century, and in Benjamin’s correspondence. Some of the formulations contained in “N” emerged, more or less altered, in Benjamin’s last work, “On the Concept of History”, but the term “dialectical image” disappeared from view.


The attempt to elucidate the notion of a dialectical image comes to a fork, with the signs image and narrative indicating two different paths. On the one hand, image evokes the possibility of a diagram or a set of diagrams which could chart the position of the dialectical image in a constellation of allied terms, partial analogies and possible exemplars. This image could be something like a Venn diagram displaying the overlapping conceptual fields of the dialectical image and other terms Benjamin used to describe the objects and/or the objectives of his study: concepts such as “idea” and “monad”, which he carried beyond their traditional philosophical meanings and associations, and terms such as “constellation” — with its subsets Konstellation and Sternbild — and “crystal”, which he invested with more than merely metaphorical weight. Further, such a diagram might also suggest the zones of interaction between these notions and the domains of “phenomena”, “the interior” and “the commodity as fetish”.

Alternatively, the image of the dialectical image might be something like a vector diagram showing the resultant of the forces signified by the claims of history, truth, material and meaning; or perhaps something like a flow diagram laying out and comparing the procedural steps from component operations such as perception, collection, combination, metaphor and mimesis, towards synthetic constructions such as allegory, montage, mosaic and treatise. Enough hints can be found in Benjamin’s writing to justify sketching diagrams such as Buck-Morss displays in her book on the Arcades, as much to test the possible coherence of the theory as to explain it (Fig. 1).

A different image-model would go in the direction of the possibilities suggested, on the other hand, by narrative. A genealogical table or family tree would be the visual code for the investigation of what Benjamin would call the “forehistory and after-history” of the dialectical image (See Arcades, 470 [N7a, 1], 475 [N10, 3]). Such a narrative adventure could trace the modalities of the term and its cognates, highlighting the shifts in meaning in different periods or passages and/or the inner consistency of Benjamin’s thought, from his early writings on language, through his intensive study of German Trauerspiel, to his encounters with Surrealism and finally, the archaeology of the recent past. A narrative approach could, moreover, probe the metaphors and devices of the dialectical image for sedimented historical meanings: a philological assay that might disclose a philosophical ancestry and hence grounds for suggesting how the dialectical image could be related to ideas associated, for example, with Plato, Leibniz, Kant, Schlegel, Goethe, Hegel and Marx, to mention only some of most prominent thinkers named by Benjamin and his critics. Such a narrative could further suggest whether the notion of a dialectical image has proved fertile for subsequent philosophical work such as Adorno’s, Derrida’s or Agamben’s, for comparative assessments of twentieth-century thinking (in relation, perhaps, with Wittgenstein, Heidegger, or Bataille), as well as for client disciplines of philosophy such as art theory and criticism.

The narrator of this possible genealogy is, of course, first of all a reader and is therefore confronted not only with the fragmentary state of Benjamin’s writings, but with the admonitions they contain against blithely stringing bits of history together. “History decays into images,” Benjamin insists, “not into stories” (Arcades, 476 [N10a, 3]). To avoid the double bind of flatly contradicting the text or conforming with it to the point of tautology, Benjamin’s academic narrators have manoeuvred themselves into the position of commentators. They settle into the gaps in the text and tend either to underline, or to attempt to repair the discontinuity Benjamin believed was essential to the historical material and to his own literary technique. Accounts of the dialectical image, or touching on it, have demonstrated its theoretical inconsistencies and its ambiguities — its iridescence, as Tiedemann calls it (“Dialectics at a Standstill”, 942). The apparent circularity of its logic has been pointed out with slightly condescending claims that “Benjamin’s intellectual existence had so much of the surreal about it that one should not confront it with facile demands for consistency” (Habermas, 92), or more deferential ones declaring the dialectical image “sui generis” (Pensky, 195). Many commentators, it seems, have aimed to close the gaps they themselves occupy by supplying the links Benjamin apparently failed to do, by stretching the concepts or by attempting to reconcile the contradictions in which Benjamin left the dialectical image suspended. These efforts tend to reduce Benjamin’s proposition to the familiar and the plausible, even when, trying to avoid collapsing Benjamin’s thought into its supposed religious or its supposed political pole, they resort to “explanation based on oxymoron”. Missac’s example: “the Marxist rabbi” (212). Such is the allure of paradoxical metaphors that one critic has claimed that such figures, gleaned from Benjamin’s own writing, constitute “the foundation of his philosophy of history, upon which his theory of experience is ultimately based” (Wolin, 212).

Arguably, these services explicate neither Benjamin’s dialectics nor his images, but instead neutralise — or, via paraphrase, circumvent — the destructive, critical moment which Benjamin appears to have anticipated.


Benjamin’s thought solicits the imagination. His reputation — and the enduring challenge of his work — rests not on the intricate philosophical controversies in which it got embroiled, but on the capacity of his writing to startle the reader with images: figures which suddenly throw off their camouflage to ambush the nonchalant reader, like the citations Benjamin cites as highway robbers (One-Way Street, 481). Benjamin writes figuratively. The most abstract of his texts thus sometimes have the air of parody, while his most important theoretical propositions are frequently encrypted in parabolic figures. Benjamin’s texts abound with images, or more precisely, quasi-images: metaphors, analogies, metonyms, similes and synecdoches: the linguistic forms of correspondance (Fig. 2). The magical effects of language, however, do not suffice for a critical project. Thus, when Benjamin holds up an emblem, it is to examine both sides of the shield on which it is emblazoned. A characterisation of the physiognomy of a mask does not suffice without an investigation of what is imprinted on its interior. Benjamin is the detective inspector who would decipher the hieroglyphic script of superficial traces and intentionless marks; who recognises the tell-tale signs through which objects speak and thus unmask history. Benjamin is also the speculator who profits from the traffic between the realm of things and the realms of allegory and of phantasmagoria; the one for whom reflecting (on) images increases his stock. Benjamin’s images are not fished up from the depths of the unconscious as Paul Klee memorably imagined his pictures, even if Benjamin claimed his own were snatched from the realm of madness (Arcades, 456 [N1, 4]) (Fig. 3). They are recovered from the half-forgotten experiences of childhood and of dreams, and from what Benjamin construed as their collective counterparts encoded in such stuff as outmoded consumer products, the earliest applications of industrial technologies, optical apparatus, popular spectacles and the habits of urban life.

Benjamin’s version of Denkbild (with homage to Lichtenberg, Nietzsche, Kraus and Kafka) suggests a product shaped by language and things (See Adorno: “Introduction”, 9).

An inventory of the ways in which images appear, are aligned and reflected in Benjamin’s writings would likely amount to his collected works and might not help us identify which among the images thus assembled would qualify as “dialectical”. As a connoisseur of dialectics, Adorno provided his friend and mentor with a relentless critique of the images which emerged from the Arcades. In so doing, Adorno defended his share in the inception of the dialectical image and claimed from Benjamin the theory it demanded. The critique preserved in the correspondence is illuminating (despite being, in places, quite difficult to follow) in so far as it seems to come closer to a theory of dialectical images than Benjamin himself ventured in writing. The exchange between the two writers documented in the letters is important for my assessment of the question posed by this essay. However some tact is required since Adorno’s letters were not meant for us and the theory suggested there is not Benjamin’s. It is not my intention to mediate between Adorno and Benjamin, although the following discussion might suggest how Benjamin took Adorno’s critique to heart and subverted it.

Adorno was particularly uneasy about Benjamin’s notion of the dialectical image as a collective dream- or wish image. In response to the “Exposé” of the Arcades Project Benjamin delivered to the Institute for Social Research in 1935, Adorno rejected that idea which had appeared in Benjamin’s text under the motto “Chaque époque rêve la suivante” and again in the Baudelaire section of the project outline: “Ambiguity is the figurative appearance of the dialectic, the law of the dialectic at a standstill. This standstill is Utopia, and the dialectical image therefore a dream image” (Arcades, 10, this translation from Charles Baudelaire, 171). Such a notion, Adorno explained, was “undialectical” and therefore precipitated a host of problems which could put the whole project at risk (See Correspondence 1910–40, 104–114).


The purpose of this essay is to interrupt the narrative which could be launched here by dwelling on this question: What kind of wish-image is a dialectical image? In other words, what hopes and expectations were invested in the dialectical image, and, if the notion was more than a theoretical chimera, on what could such hopes have been grounded? Even if, in the end, Benjamin did not show his hand, the stakes he gambled on it are on the table. It should therefore be possible to examine the texts we have without the onus of pulling a genuine dialectical image out of the hat, or the risk of making a theoretical overstatement of account.

My answer to the question would be, in short: The dialectical image is the proper form of the materialist presentation of history. The dialectical image is thus the goal of materialist historiography as Benjamin understood it, rather than its method.

The burden of methodology falls on “constellation”, an image Benjamin had already introduced in the epistemological preface to his study of seventeenth-century Trauerspiel, and which I shall discuss in more detail below. According to Benjamin, central to his book Ursprung des deutschen Trauerspiels was the exploration of “the philosophical significance of a vanished and misunderstood form of art: allegory” (“Curriculum Vitae” [1928], 78). Raising the notion of a “dialectical image” on what was already in play with allegory sounds like a terminological manoeuvre designed to align the ambitions which mobilised Benjamin’s approach to Trauerspiel as literary history more closely with “dialectical materialism” as it would be understood by Marxists. But a remark in a letter to Max Rychner makes it clear that neither the dialectical component nor the image component was new: “[The Trauerspiel] book,” Benjamin says, “was certainly not materialistic, even if it was dialectical.” He continued:

Still, Benjamin had no more illusion that his approach to historical materialism would pass muster in the Communist Party — or even in the Institute for Social Research where he had influential sympathisers — than he had hope, after the Trauerspiel book was rejected as a Habilitationsschrift, that his approach to literary history would be welcome in the university.

This already raises some more specific questions which I would like to follow up (while still, as it were, standing on one leg). It is curious that the link to dialectical materialism extends not from Benjamin’s political perspective, but from his views on language. Despite Benjamin’s occasional invocations of Marx and Engels, it seems unlikely that what Benjamin meant by materialism could be found in the canon of orthodox Marxism. So, to avoid the trap of accepting a definition (such as I encapsulated above) as if it were an explanation, it will be necessary to examine the aspirations Benjamin smuggled under the cloak of materialism, and moreover, to look into Benjamin’s theory of language and his methodological models.


Benjamin anticipated “the realisation of the Marxist method” (my emphasis) — which would suggest taking seriously Marx’s famous thesis (on Feuerbach) that, while philosophers have interpreted the world, the point is to change it — “conjoined” with a “heightened graphicness” — which he seems to have associated with Surrealist presentation (Arcades, 461 [N2, 6]). Surrealism aroused hopes in Benjamin, which, although ultimately disappointed, linger in the Arcades. Surrealism — which Benjamin understood primarily as a literary and urban phenomenon (rather than visual art) — suggested one of the first prototypes of the dialectical image. In the intoxicated, dream-consciousness of Surrealist experience, Benjamin says, “Image and language take precedence. ... Not only before meaning. Also before the self” (“Surrealism”, 208). Despite the ambivalence of the Surrealists’ struggle against religion and the risks they took with narcotics, in Surrealist writing Benjamin perceived preliminary lessons in what he called “profane illumination, a materialistic, anthropological inspiration” (Benjamin’s emphasis), which would make possible “the true, creative overcoming of religious illumination” (209).

Benjamin described the 1929 essay “Surrealism: The Last Snapshot of the European Intelligentsia” (from where I got the motto for this piece) as a “screen [Paravent] placed in front of the Paris Arcades” (Correspondence 1910–40, 348 [15/3/29]). In the essay, Benjamin attributes to (the leading Surrealist writer) André Breton the discovery of the “revolutionary energies which appear in the ‘outmoded’”, that is: the obsolete, neglected and slightly dilapidated remains of a just-out-of-date material culture (Benjamin goes on to list, more or less, the table of contents of his own convolutes: “the first iron constructions, the first factory buildings, the earliest photos ... the dresses of five years ago.” 210). Surrealism might not have succeeded in overcoming its Romantic, and, indeed, its Catholic parentage, but the Surrealist effort “to win the energies of intoxication for the revolution” (215–6) demonstrated the possibility of the dialectical transfiguration of the everyday. However, Benjamin does not attribute this transfiguration to method, as if it could be accomplished by dialectics, or by psychoanalytic introspection. The Surrealists’ mastery of things was more of a “trick” and Benjamin ascribes the transfiguration to an experience in which “things put on their true — Surrealist — face” (Arcades, 464 [N3a, 3]). The trick “consists in the substitution of a political for a historical view of the past” (210) while reporting the experience as if it were a dream. What Benjamin claims from the oneiric is the power of the eidetic. Highlighting the distinction between image and metaphor drawn by Louis Aragon (in Traité du style, 1928) Benjamin extends it by identifying politics as the site of the most drastic and irreconcilable collision between image and metaphor (217). The revolutionary impulse, he suggests, is the resolute expulsion of metaphor. The programme of the bourgeois parties, especially the “progressive” ones, Benjamin points out, is nothing but a “bad poem” dedicated to a future “as if ...” “filled to bursting with metaphors” (216). The revolutionary impulse, moreover, discloses “in the space of political action the one hundred percent image space.” Image space, Benjamin asserts, “can no longer be measured out by contemplation” (217), a formulation for which he later enlisted the support of Engels: “[The materialist] presentation of history has as goal to pass, as Engels puts it, ‘beyond the sphere of thought’” (Arcades, 475 [N10a, 2], note written between 1937 and 1940) — by implication (as the Surrealism essay makes clear), into the sphere of image, body and political action.


Adorno’s critique of the 1935 “Exposé” was aimed at what appeared to be Benjamin’s excessive loyalty to Surrealism. The “principle of montage” which Benjamin imagined could carry his project through clearly owes something to Surrealist literary practice, and might have been influenced by other media such as collage and film (Arcades, 461 [N2, 6]). However, Benjamin’s visual analogy is no exquisite corpse. He cites, instead, the pinnacle of nineteenth-century structural engineering (Fig. 4), a rational, sober, transparent construction brought to a point of hallucinatory clarity. (“In the same way, the historian today has only to erect a slender but sturdy scaffolding — a philosophic structure — in order to draw the most vital aspects of the past into his net (Arcades, 459, [N1a, 1]).) Adorno, for his part, demanded mediation by theory and complained of motifs assembled without elaboration and without theoretical interpretation (Correspondence 1910–40, 580 [10/11/38]). Adorno had the highest expectations of Benjamin in this regard. In his view, the Arcades Project — and central to it, the theory of dialectical images — promised a philosophical work of “decisive significance” for its material character (Correspondence 1928–40, 83 [20/5/35]). Adorno imagined a whole range of philosophical disputes which concerned him would be “settled once and for all through the mere existence of [Benjamin’s] Arcades book”. It was “indispensable to [Adorno] ... that the concept of the dialectical image should ... be expounded with the greatest possible clarity.” He urged Benjamin to “proceed without qualms to realise every part of the theological content and all the literalness of its most extreme claims” (53 [6/11/34]). He told him the Arcades was “a work which must at all costs be written, completed and accomplished in all possible rigour and precise articulation” and closed that letter “with the yearning mythological desire to conjure up the conjurer!” (38–39 [5/4/34]).

The theory Adorno invokes — after he read the “Exposé”, with a tone as if Benjamin were withholding it from him personally — is that which Adorno himself was unable to provide for his own philosophical programme when he set out “The Actuality of Philosophy” (1931) as his inaugural lecture at Frankfurt, a speech in which Adorno attempted to ally the epistemological insights of Benjamin’s Trauerspiel with dialectical materialism, within the bounds of philosophy.

Against the dream, which remains subject to the thrall, on the one hand, of the archaic, and on the other hand, of the commodity, and in contrast with the image which would unite the two, undialectically, as metaphorical correlates, Adorno suggested: “the dream should be externalised through dialectical interpretation and the immanence of consciousness itself [should be] understood as a constellation [Konstellation] of reality” (106 [2-4/8/35]). Benjamin accepted the notion of constellation, which was in any case a refraction of his own ideas, but he defended the “dream forms” as “indispensable”, because: “the dialectical image does not copy the dream ... But, it seems to me, ... contains the instances [of awakening], the places where waking consciousness breaks through [Einbruchsstelle]. The figure of [the dialectical image] is first produced [herstellen] out of these places [Stelle] like a constellation [Sternbild] from luminous points [Punkten] [16/8/35, my translation].

With this analogy, Benjamin affirms the sense of constellation Adorno had picked up from the Trauerspiel study, namely, Sternbild, a constellation of fixed stars: that form which gathers the discrete points presented by the starry sky into a star-sign, and which mediates that sign’s entry into tradition. In The Origin of German Tragic Drama, Benjamin had stated: “Ideas are to objects as constellations [Sternbilder] are to stars” (34). However, Benjamin’s use of the term Konstellation — in the Trauerspiel book and elsewhere — mobilises the double meaning of the word. Like the English constellation, Konstellation can be synonymous with Sternbild, or it can denote the total configuration of the heavens at a given moment in which the conjunctions and oppositions of the planets are measured against a sign-system of fixed stars. The constellations of the Zodiac, for instance, are better known today as signs than as the conventionally perceived patterns of fixed stars which got their names from the signs. The twelve signs measure out the annual path of the sun in the sky and hence calibrate the motions of the planets, which patrol close to the ecliptic. The Sternbild or fixed-star constellation is static and implies duration. The horoscope, however, is dynamic, but implies an instantaneous interruption, the “snapshot”, for example, at the moment of an individual’s birth, which, according to the tradition, forms a configuration capable of interpretation, if not actually of determining power.

Benjamin had introduced the idea of “awakening” to defend the dream forms in the letter quoted above because he had left it out of the “Exposé”. But it is present in “N” in a group of notes which can be dated before Benjamin composed the outline of the project for the Institute.

Distancing himself from the Surrealist project, Benjamin wrote: “whereas Aragon persists within the realm of dream, here the concern is to find the constellation of awakening” (my emphasis, Arcades, 458 [N1, 9]). And with reference to Proust, Benjamin attempted to place awakening in a classical dialectical structure:

The dialectical image appears only in the “now of knowability”, “wherein what has been comes together in a flash with the now to form a constellation.” Benjamin continues:

Adorno possibly did not know quite “how apt [his] definition of the dialectical image as a ‘constellation’ [Konstellation]” seemed to Benjamin when the latter responded obliquely to his critique of the “Exposé” [16/8/35]. For it was the constellation which was to precipitate this caesura, this flashing image, this sudden crystallisation of thought, not to release the significance of the past, but to signal a “Messianic cessation [Stillstellung] of happening ... a revolutionary chance in the fight for the oppressed past” (“History”, 396 [XVII], see also: [XVIII] and 397 [A]). This was perhaps the moment Adorno was waiting for, on which Benjamin “staked everything” (Adorno: “Introduction”, 3).

The constellation brought to light in the passage from “N” (Fig. 5)— which, in the variant formulation contained in “On the Concept of History” (1940) eclipsed “dialectical image” with the term “monad” (also re-emerging from the Trauerspiel epistemology) — is no metaphorical constellation of fixed stars: it is more like a momentous conjunction. If the “status quo” is regarded as catastrophe (See: Arcades, 474 [N10, 2], it is more a constellation against reality than of reality as Adorno had suggested, although this constellation insists no less than Adorno’s on its material character.


“And the place where one encounters them is language.” So are the dialectical images not metaphors after all? This question could not be decided from a reading of the remains of the Arcades. A group of unpublished texts Benjamin wrote around 1933, however, locates the image which “flits by” and “flashes up” (“History”, 390 [V]) in Benjamin’s “particular stance on the philosophy of language” and, moreover, elaborates the idea of constellation in a quite extraordinary way.

Benjamin opens the fragment “On Astrology” with the call for “a view of astrology from which the doctrine of magical ‘influences,’ of ‘radiant energies,’ and so on has been excluded” (684). This text is one of a group of overlapping drafts of which the best known is “On the Mimetic Faculty” (which appeared in English in the collection Reflections, 1978). The mimetic faculty is “man’s” share in the “mimetic forces” of nature and includes not only the perception of similarity, but the power of imitation, the vestige of which Benjamin sees exemplified by children’s play. For the mimetic faculty has a history — “in both the phylogenetic and the ontogenetic sense” (“Mimetic Faculty”, 720) — and we should not assume that man’s perception of similarity has remained constant throughout the ages. Benjamin ventures the supposition, seemingly at odds with his conception of materialist historiography, that “a unified direction is perceptible in the historical development of this faculty” (“The Similar”, 695). “Thus, we must reckon with the fact that, basically, even events in the sky could be imitated by people in former times” (“The Lamp”, 692). The “development”, however is hardly progress. The question Benjamin poses is, whether we are dealing with the decay of the mimetic faculty, or its migration.

The example, or limit case, of astrology is vital for Benjamin’s argument because, if the relationship of the human subject to the “remotest things” is mimetic, then astrology, normally assumed to be an analytical practice codified by tradition and enmeshed with the positivistic aspect of scientific astronomy (if not simply dismissed out of hand), has an “experiential character”. Astrology, moreover, draws Benjamin’s attention to the decisive moment, from which he derives two insights. Firstly that the perception of similarity must be grasped in an instant, “like the addition of a third element — the astrologer — to the conjunction of two stars.” Benjamin describes the perception of similarity in identical terms to those which characterised the dialectical image: it is “in every case bound to a flashing up. It flits past, can possibly be won again, but cannot really be held fast as can other perceptions. It offers itself to the eye as fleetingly and transitorily as a constellation of stars [Gestirnkonstellation].” The similarity between a constellation of stars and a human being, which can hardly be imagined by modern people, Benjamin says, is “nonsensuous similarity”. The second insight Benjamin draws from astrology’s decisive moment is this: if “mimetic genius was really a life-determining force for the ancients, then we have little choice but to attribute full possession of this gift ... to the new born” (“The Similar”, 695–6). The mimetic behaviour exhibited by children at play is evidence, in Benjamin’s view, to support this notion. The proof of it is “the utmost mimetic genius” which the infant displays in acquiring language. There, Benjamin declares, is the “complete prolegomenon of every rational astrology” (“On Astrology”, 685).

The corollary of this is that, though the sky might be a closed book to us now, we possess, in language, an “archive of nonsensuous similarities” (“The Similar”, 697), or a “canon according to which the meaning of nonsensuous similarity can be partly clarified” (“Mimetic Faculty”, 721). The notion this entails — that language cannot be reduced to a system of arbitrary signs — recapitulates the language theory which Benjamin advanced as early as 1916, in which he attempted to steer a path between “bourgeois” and “mystical” theories of language (“On Language”, 69). The essay, “On Language as Such and on the Language of Man” introduced the idea of the “language of things” which, arguably, sustains Benjamin’s materialism. Without attempting to do justice to the earlier piece on language, it could be shown that the later texts on astrology and on similarity return to the themes elaborated before, indeed, to the things, in so far as the lamp which, in the earlier text, made an appearance “for example” to “communicate ... the language-lamp” (63) is likely the same lamp which precipitated the memories of childhood which interrupt Benjamin’s later draft on the perception of similarity; the same lamp whose glass globe clinking on its metal ring could be heard when Benjamin placed the empty seashell of the nineteenth century to his ear in 1933 (“The Lamp”, 692) (Fig. 6).

The point Benjamin made in the earlier text that, “The translation of the language of things into that of man is not only a translation of the mute into the sonic; it is also a translation of the nameless into name” (“On Language”, 70) may not be in exact agreement with the later claim that nonsensuous similarity runs through the whole of language and “establishes the ties not only between the spoken and the signified but also between the written and the signified, and equally between the spoken and the written.” But both imply the notion of reading contained in the dialectical image. That is, “‘To read what was never written’”, as from entrails or the stars. Language, Benjamin states, is the “medium into which the earlier powers of mimetic production and comprehension have passed without residue, to the point where they have liquidated those of magic” (“Mimetic Faculty”, 722).


My exploration of the hopes and expectations invested in the notion of the dialectical image does not diminish the ambiguity which resides in it, nor the risks it involved. The “logic” of the desire, however sympathetically explained, does not compensate for the logical deficiencies of the concept. The principle of hope is not necessarily adequate to the task of “‘organising pessimism’” (“Surrealism”, 216), nor is it equal to the “constellation of dangers” against which, Benjamin insisted, the materialist presentation of history “must prove its presence of mind” and gather its “destructive momentum” (Arcades, 475 [N10a, 2]). The “whetted axe of reason” with which Benjamin entered the “primeval forest” of the nineteenth century (Arcades, 456 [N1, 4]) strikes at the heart of the dialectic of enlightenment.

Constellation, perhaps more accurately a model rather than a method, hardly seems to promise an overcoming of the archaic allure of the forces which came to threaten Benjamin’s own existence. It is remarkable that Benjamin, who was an adamant opponent of such fascination in its intellectual and its popular manifestations, should develop such an extravagant idea in the face of increasing danger. It is constellation, however, which triangulates the position of the materialist historian and tests his or her ability to grasp — in the present — a fleeting (dialectical) image as a signal of revolutionary potential or mundane redemption; to seize the moment invariably missed.

The dialectical image and its disappearance seem to place a seal on the doubt whether Benjamin could accomplish his critique of reason in any other mode than “an impermissable ‘poetic’ one” (Correspondence 1910–40, 506–507 [16/8/35]).

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Pensky, Max. “Method and Time: Benjamin’s dialectical images.” The Cambridge Companion to Walter Benjamin. Ed. David S. Ferris. Cambridge University Press, 2004. 177–98.

Missac, Pierre. “Walter Benjamin: from rupture to shipwreck.” Smith: On Walter Benjamin. 210–23.

Wolin, Richard. “Experience and materialism in Benjamin’s Passagenwerk.” Benjamin: Philosophy, Aesthetics, History. Ed. Gary Smith. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1989. 210–27.


  1. The invisible structure of Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project according to Susan Buck-Morss. (The Dialectics of Seeing. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1989. 211.) [back to text]
  2. The confused speech of nature according to Charles Baudelaire: “Correspondances” from Les Fleurs du Mal. (my translation, c. 1988) [back to text]
  3. Paul Klee: Le Fou de l’abîme. [back to text]
  4. Newspaper cutting, c. 1990. “These [i.e. the ‘minimal’, the ‘little’, the ‘few’] are dimensions that were well established in technological and architectural constructions long before literature made bold to adapt them. Fundamentally it is a question of the earliest manifestation of the principle of montage. On building the Eiffel Tower: ‘Thus the plastic shaping power abdicates here in favour of a colossal span of spiritual energy, which channels the inorganic material energy into the smallest, most efficient forms and conjoins these forms in the most effective manner ... Each of the twelve thousand metal fittings, each of the two and a half million rivets, is machined to the millimetre ... On this work site, one hears no chiselblow liberating form from stone; here thought reigns over muscle power, which it transmits via cranes and secure scaffolding.’ A. G. Mayer, Eisenbauten, p. 93. [Precursors]” (Arcades, 160–161 [F4a, 2]) [back to text]
  5. “The immobilisation of thought is as much a part of thinking as its movement. When thought comes to a standstill in a constellation [Konstellation] saturated with tensions, there appears the dialectical image. It is the caesura [Zäsur] in the movement of thought. Its place is certainly not arbitrary. In a word, one must seek out where the tension between dialectical opposites is the greatest. The object thus constructed in the materialist presentation of history is therefore the dialectical image. This is identical with the historical object; it is the justification of its being blasted from the continuum of history.” (Arcades, 475 [N10a, 3], modified translation, cf. “History”, 396 [XVII]) [back to text]
  6. “But what I hear when I put the shell up to my ear is something else: it is the rattling noise of the anthracite that is emptied from the coal scuttle into the furnace; it is the dull pop with which the flame lights up the gas mantle; it is the jangling of my mother’s keys in her basket, the clatter of the tube in its casing, the clink of the glass globe on its metal ring when the lamp is carried from one room to another.” (“The Lamp”, 692) [back to text]