In Max Pensky’s “The Trash of History,” taken from the larger Melancholy Dialectics: Walter Benjamin and the Play of Mourning, Walter Benjamin’s use of the objective dialectical image is viewed in juxtaposition–and unwanted collaboration -with subjective allegorical imagery. The dialectical image, where past and present interact with one another, is Benjamin’s method and subject of critical analysis. The allegorical image that has arbitrary meaning is melancholic: the passing of time is marked by sadness. The dialectic image “cannot be” (Pensky, 211), and yet it is as our history is a “catastrophic history” (Pensky, 211). This issue of imagery is one aspect of the larger subject/object problem and is how Benjamin incorporated Kabalistic elements into his criticism.
Dialectical images are fragments which create a mosaic of history. The dialectical image is critically interruptive in the same way that the “historical object” in historical materialism is. Both are monads (self-contained units) that serve to break up smooth, capitalistic conceptions of time by a sudden shock of juxtaposition. This interruptive shock, which gives us necessary distance for critical interruption, allows us to take the dialectical image “out of context” and examine it: Present and past illuminate one another in a “constellation with the Now.” (Pensky, 217).
Adorno found Benjamin’s attempt to remove the subject from his work problematic. There is always some level of subjectivity in the act of construction, even in constructing an ostensibly objective dialectical image. There are three steps to constructing a dialectical image. First, the image must be recognized from a “historical trash heap” of marginalized facts. This is similar to the prospect of engaging with the singular pain of history that is explored in Benjamin’s Theses on the Philosophy of History in that there is something ignored that must be rescued, must be addressed. Next, the historical material for the image must be collected. Thirdly, the dialectical image must be constructed. The choice involved in each step–where to look, what fragments to choose, how to create the mosaic or constellation–steeps the dialectical image in subjectivity, because to choose involves some degree of arbitrariness: “what is it about the constructive moment of materialist historiography that assures the correct construction of the finely cut fragments?” (Pensky, 224) How can we be sure that this is the real interpretation, the right way of looking at things?
The dialectical image is closely linked to historical materialism as the allegorical image is tied to historicism. Allegory ensures the continuation of historicism and is marked by melancholy. Even though historicism (which is part and parcel with allegory) is the negation of singular pain, melancholy doesn’t only perpetuate historicist ideals. As Pensky posits, “the subject’s productivity will produce melancholy writing that serves as a medium for the encoding of these historical objects” (Pensky, 221). To rescue fragmented images from historicism, we must engage with melancholy: this is a history of catastrophe. The sadness inherent in history, then, permeates both allegorical as well as dialectical imagery.
In that construction involves choice and that historical objects are tinged with sadness, the dialectical image is subjective. But this is a subjectivity that is different from that of an allegorical image in that dialectical imagery’s subjectivity allows for the critical examination allegory is incapable of. There is no critical intervention possible with an allegorical image because allegory is analogous to historicism–the very process that historical materialism seeks to destroy to create the dialectical image (Pensky, 223). When the “lightening flash” (Pensky, 217) of dialectical imagery shocks us into sight, it isn’t that we can see the story of history clearly–that would be playing into historicism. We are confronted with an image that wakes us “from the dream time of capitalism,” that disrupts notions of historical progress. Instead of the “dream” of historical causality, we are presented with a fragmented mosaic that illuminates “why certain kinds of historical insight are possible under certain determinate conditions.” (223)
But again, the fine print of Benjamin’s interpretation of the subject/object problem serves to confound us. Adorno wanted theory, which is subjective, as a mediator
between Benjamin’s objectivity and the subject, but Benjamin disagreed because he wanted to get rid of the subject totally. However, without theory as “critical mediation,” Adorno viewed Benjamin’s dialectical imagery as little more than juxtaposition. Adorno wanted dialectical imagery further informed by critical thought. Benjamin did not find theory necessary because he viewed the interruptive quality of dialectical imagery as independent from secondary interpretation.
Adorno was frustrated by how Benjamin blurred the “distinction between subject and objects,” but Benjamin capitalized on the fluctuating tension between subjectivity and objectivity by turning to philosopher Gershom Scholem’s interpretation of the Kabbalah. The Kabalistic tradition is similar to the redemptive-fragmentation quality of historical materialism and the dialectical image. To create the world, God withdrew and sent His presence into the world. The vessels made to hold this holy force broke, and the shards of the vessels–analogous to fragments of the trash of history–are covered by shards of evil–analogous to historicism. It is the task of humanity to uncover these fragments and to piece them back together, thus saving God. The Kabbalah helped Benjamin work through issues of subjectivity because he could be informed by an overarching objectivity of religion.
Scholem had a similar view to Benjamin’s on the distinction between subject and object. Here, however, Scholem applied a differentiation between symbolic imagery versus allegorical imagery. For Scholem, the symbolic image is objective because piecing together divine fragments redeems a larger framework of objectivity. As Pensky explains, the allegorical image is arbitrary because it presents too many opportunities for interpretation. In contrast, the symbolic image–analogous to Benjamin’s dialectical image–is either understood in a flash or not at all.
But as Pensky points out, the objectivity of Benjamin’s appropriation of Kabalistic fragments into a divine whole mosaic depends on how Scholem interpreted these mystical texts. Again, there is construction at some level, and in this construction there is subjectivity and room for misinterpretation. Kabalistic techniques may not be appropriate for Benjamin’s variety of critical thinking, because Marxism is a materialist philosophy and Kabbalah is rooted in the religious. The ambiguity of this relationship suggests that “textual appropriation is simply not a sufficiently complex model to account for the ambiguity attending the dialectical image” (Pensky, 235).
But this ambiguity may work to Benjamin’s advantage. Pensky posits that in order to truly engage with Benjamin’s dialectics, the critic needs to give up his or her subjectivity, as “one either accepts it [Benjamin’s dialectical imagery]” or “does not” (Pensky, 237). The problem is now ours as readers. The subject-object problem is then never solved but transferred from the text to the critic as a person–or as a subject. We can’t fully decipher the problem of subjectivity and objectivity in Benjamin because we can’t step outside of historicism and into the dialectical relation: “the question of the arbitrariness of the dialectical image is undecidable for us according to Benjamin’s own historical sensibility: itself presumably the ground for our own interpretive interest in arguing for the contemporary relevance of the dialectical image” (Pensky, 237).
We can’t go back in time to when Benjamin redeemed historical objects from “the trash heap,” we can’t pick at the same fragments, can’t create the same historical mosaic. Benjamin’s angel has been blown further away and we aren’t standing on the same ground. When we are shocked by the dialectical image’s illumination, what we see looks different than what. This complicates assessing dialectical imagery enormously. For all that dialectical imagery is to be understood in a flash, its levels of relationality inextricably link it to subjectivity: “the question concerning the arbitrariness of the dialectical image is the question of the relation of the images to melancholy” (Pensky, 239). In Benjamin’s historical trash heap, there are layers upon layers to be uncovered, just as there are subtle gradations of subject and object to be examined.
Pensky, Max. “The Trash of History.” In Melancholy Dialectics: Walter Benjamin and the Play of Mourning. University of Massachusetts Press, May 2001. Pp. 211-239.