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Mitchell Sanders sits under a tree, picking lice off his body and depositing them in an envelope addressed to his Ohio draft board. Every night, Henry Dobbins and Norman Bowker dig a foxhole and play checkers. The narrator stops the string of anecdotes to say that he is now forty-three years old and a writer, and that reliving the memories has caused them to recur. He insists that the bad memories live on and never stop happening.
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He says his guilt has not ceased and that his daughter Kathleen advises him to write about something else. When he is done, the troops are sad to leave their steadfast guide. After several days, the man rejoined his unit and was more excited than ever about getting back into combat, saying that after so much peace, he wanted to hurt again. Norman Bowker whispers one night that if he could have one wish it would be for his father to stop bothering him about earning medals.
Henry Dobbins sings to himself as he sews on his new buck-sergeant stripes. Understanding dialectical images is crucial to understanding how Benjamin wanted "montage" to work in his reading of the book of the nineteenth century. Understanding it is not crucial, however, for tracing references to Benjamin's method by subsequent writers, who do not choose to pursue dialectical images in greater depth. One thing that they do extract from Benjamin, however, is a method of juxtaposing multiple and incompatible accounts of particular phenomena drawn from diverse sources, forcing readers who want to make a coherent account to do some work with the fragments.
Jennings and others point also to Benjamin's use of constellation and force field as metaphors for his method. These are ways of thinking beyond the level of juxtaposition, which always sounds directed at the edge or transition between two things. These are metaphors for a configuration of fragments, or a relation among several fragments, in which a sudden clarification or new grasp of the import of the fragments can occur.
There is a perspectival thread here as well, as Benjamin comes close to saying that readers from different times and different angles of view may see different constellations and different meanings—which is to say that he does not intend a single best reading of the Project that would "get it all.
Though the Project was never finished or published in Benjamin's lifetime, he did complete a sample of the method in the draft of one section of a long essay on Baudelaire that was submitted to Adorno for publication by the Institute for Social Research. It draws heavily on the Arcades folders. Buck-Morss calls it a "dry wall:". Benjamin agreed to a very substantial revision along traditional lines; tamely entitled "Some Motifs in Baudelaire", it is included in the Zohn volume and in the Hannah Arendt edited collection, Illuminations Schocken Books, In fact, Adorno's criticisms were deep and far-reaching and have been discussed extensively by Jennings , Buck-Morss , and Penesky since they lead directly to the heart of the dialectical image.
Montage/Critique: Another Way of Writing Social History
For our purpose, they point to certain practical issues about writing by juxtaposition and constellation of fragments montage. Adorno feared that by this evacuation of subjectivity of the interpretor , Benjamin had inadvertently presented a view of the world as mere, uninterpreted fact—of material, observable things and unique, unanalyzable events—which the reader would have no reason to connect through any theory at all.
On the other hand, he found certain juxtapositions in the early manuscript between Baudelaire's thoughts and the movements of social history to imply a naive model of causation between social history and Baudelaire's consciousness—i. Jennings concedes the point about certain invitations to vulgar Marxism, but maintains that the deeper problem is esotericism:. Jennings goes on to suggest that Benjamin may indeed have expected to be understood only by the relatively small group that could drawn upon the special body of knowledge and belief needed to discern the intended connections.
This is not a matter of missing an allusion here or there, but of missing the true and revealing light history can shed on the present. And, since Adorno was certainly one of that group, he found Adorno's response extremely unsettling. In the end, Jennings concludes that Benjamin could not resolve the contrary objectives of author-evacuated montage presentation and the need to provide theoretical, ethical guidance for the reader.
Pensky, reviewing Adorno's response in relation to the issue of claims of truth about history, agrees.
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Declaring oneself an adopter of Benjamin's method of juxtaposition or montage does help to identify one's intention as critique. One does also, however, inherit the unresolved tension which in practical terms is between saying too much and saying too little about the import or intention of a juxtaposition or constellation. I will illustrate with one juxtaposition from Buck-Morss' "Afterimages" where she is writing as an extender of the Project.
Figure 1 appears at the top of page with a credit to the photographer, Ann Marie Rousseau, the date Buck-Morss gives it the title "Shopping Bag Lady, The description is followed by several sentences of commentary by Buck-Morss beginning:. It is quite often problematic to let photographs speak for themselves; as Berger says, they only weakly convey their makers' intentions. Framed in this fashion by Buck-Morss, this photo seems tiresomely polemical and contrived.
One critic of Rousseau's travelling exhibit offers a little relief on the contrivance charge but finds the import all too obvious in this and another of Rousseau's photos:. Yet another such elaboration is Mark H. Van Hollebeke's on-line paper which begins with this image entitling it "A Dialectical Image" and finds it a powerful though predictable "call for the messianic awakening of revolution.
General agreement notwithstanding, this way of reading expects very little from the image. All of these commentaries close down further readings, turning the image into a fairly discardable trigger for a bit of breast-beating or system-bashing. Once we begin to question the interpreters, certain warning flags spring up: Her type? Is the photograph just about bag ladies in cities? Jouhandeau describes a very particular women with her few things spread out around her "creating almost an air of intimacy, the shadow of an interieur , around her. So this photograph is not just temporally displaced, but quite different in what we see.
In fact, we do not see much in these commentaries, though one does note the bald mannequins modelling bathing suits.
Fragment of a Crucifixion
The photograph originally appeared prefaced to a book Shopping Bag Ladies: Homeless Women Speak About Their Lives Rousseau, , and in that context, it is more a general indication of the theme of the book than a definitive statement. The rest of the images in the book follow individual women through their days and illustrate the text of interviews with them. As if contesting Buck-Morss's interpretation, Rousseau has posted this photograph on her web-site with some explanation and commentary which was not present in the book publication —and also with the title "Macy's: The Benediction.
What caught her eye was the gesture of the two mannequins, which she says is like the Pope's gesture when he gives a benediction. Rousseau continues:. This commentary neutralizes class, domination, victimization, and oppression in favor of a surprising sisterhood of invisibility. That perception is in its turn a fragile moment that may give way to further thinking about the ethics and esthetics of representing poor and suffering people and about documentary as a mode of not seeing.
Invisibility is the issue for Rousseau in her extended project of photographing and studying homeless women; it is a pity, and a great irony, that her image can so readily be fed into the machine of What We Already Know. So, for the record, I do not think her photograph is a dialectical image; as the preface to her book, or with her commentary, it may function that way for some people, but commented on in other ways, it becomes a piece of shock documentary, which, John Berger suggests in another connection, "becomes evidence for the general human [here we might substitute urban] condition.
It accuses nobody and everybody Looking , 40 " —and is about as revolutionary as a package of red licorice vines. Rousseau's book, by the way, is a monument to engaged, humanistic documentary which tries to make contact with and reveal the subjectivity of its subjects. For this purpose, the interview text almost exactly complements the photographic images. It contrasts sharply with Martha Rosler's avowedly anti-humanistic treatment of the male counterparts to the shopping bag ladies, "The Bowery in Two Inadequate Descriptive Systems" This exhibit of 21 black and white photographs of street scenes in the Bowery pairs each photo with a set of words used by the alcoholics to describe their favored state of consciousness loopy, groggy, boozy, tight—and many, many more.
These terms, however, are the only trace of the men's subjectivity, for the pictures of the doorways and storefronts with their empty bottles have no people in them. Each member of the pair has only traces, for Rosler insists that neither words nor images is adequate to convey the human experience.
There is no explanatory matter in the set as it was exhibited nor in the book published from it. Rosler clearly took the esoteric option, maintaining The Bowery was a gallery piece suitable for those who go to galleries. The general public doesn't go to galleries and they are not concerned about the adequacy of descriptive systems Buchloh, Also, they do not perhaps think of Walker Evans's photographs of homeless and alcoholic men in the street as the immediate and obvious context for the work.
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Although Benjamin did not live to develop his theory or practice, both were taken up by the very similar-minded team of John Berger and Jean Mohr in a series of photograph-texts beginning with A Fortunate Man in The second of these, The Seventh Man , comes closest to being a direct continuation of the Arcades project. It too seeks to rouse readers from a collective dream world so that they may grasp the experience of migrant workers in Europe and also the political economy of that experience. It too is a social history of a transformation wrought by capitalism, though far more narrowly focused and more inclined to offer authoritative abstract guidance.
Some of Mohr's photographs are captioned at their place in the text where they deem the caption helpful in getting into the photo but they proclaim the general independence of the two "languages" and in particular the minimal role of illustration. The general theme of the photographs is contrast between the worlds that the migrants left behind and the ones they experience as "guests. Others are more multidimensional and complex.
Here is one double page that intrigues me:. Sometimes, indeed, there are almost too many contrasts for their purpose, since not all contrasts arise from contradictions in the socio-economic structure. Here for example is one pairing that almost hurts the head with its contrasts:. The left side image has one of the longest captions in the book, and it certainly does make it "easier to look into" the picture:. The second is a full-page ad for Der Spiegel which begins "18 percent of all executives traveling by car would pick up a hitch-hiker in Hot Pants"—a reflection of sexist attitudes that would probably be suppressed today.
Both figures are sitters by the roadside, but she is young, female, stylishly coiffed and dressed to kill but not to walk , confident of her role and the rules she plays by. Though far from abject, the man is none of those things. It is hard to pick one contrast—one inequality—to focus on. This new context radically changes the image of the rug seller, who now looks like another migrant worker, and one considerably less well off than the man in his room.
That is one effect of the power of juxtaposition. Writing about his practice seven years later, Berger emphasizes especially the function of movement from particular to general, partly because it is this that makes images usable in social analysis and useful to social analysis in evoking the world as experienced.
The more images, he says, the more possible connections. He cites and in fact reproduces a sequence of four images of women from The Seventh Man which is intended, he says. Astonishingly for a literary person this is all he says about the "going beyond" in this case.
Re-Constructing the Fragments of Michael Ondaatje’s Works
You can think of representations as substitutions, as having different market values, and many other things. Berger in fact urges us to read in other orders after we have read left-to-right Telling , p. I will not pursue the verbalizing of visual meanings here—Clive Scott has devoted several pages to this sequence Spoken Image , —includes images and has by no means exhausted it.
Alternatively, it is worth pointing out that this core sequence differs in purpose from The Seventh Man. It is to "articulate a lived experience" —that of a Swiss peasant woman invented. They have no argument to present, no documentation of exploitation, no rousing of opposition and concern as in The Seventh Man.