To Seize the Truth (Reading Benjamin’s Theses V & VI)

poussin - The_ashes_of_phocion_collected_by_his_widow_1648
Nicolas Poussin, Landscape with the Ashes of Phocion (1648)


• V: Benjamin’s theory of the image, from his early interest in allegory to his late formulation of the ‘dialectical image.’
• VI: The stakes of radical historical work as a means of ‘telling history against the grain.’

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Thesis V:

The true image of the past flits by. The past can be seized only as an image that flashes up at the moment of its recognizability, and is never seen again. “The truth will not run away from us:” this statement by Gottfried Keller indicates exactly that point in historicism’s image of history where the image is pierced by historical materialism. For it is an irretrievable image of the past which threatens to disappear in any present that does not recognize itself as intended in that image.

(1) Image

Let’s begin with the first sentence, which introduces us to the already enigmatic notion of the “true image” of the past. The meaning of neither the truth nor the image of this phrase is intuitive. As Alison Ross has noted in her book on the topic, Benjamin’s work is structured around an idiosyncratic concept of the image, the formulation of which is informed by his deep ambivalence toward the traditional conceptions of aesthetic and sensuous objects. Indeed, when Benjamin writes of ‘images’ in his theses on history, we must not take this for a resort to an empirical or aesthetic principle, which might take an image as a picture that contains a content, or as a representation that refers to a concept or replicates a thing.

In Benjamin’s earliest works, the image is split into two independent concepts, which are divided by their opposed forms of signification. The first is the symbolic image, which sensuously embodies what it signifies, filling its form with its referential plenitude; the second is the allegorical image, which draws a sharp distinction between its form and the absent content that it can only gesture toward. “The symbol is the sensuous form that is alive and brimming with meaning.  Allegorical form, in contrast, indicates its own decay and deficiency in the way it points beyond itself.”[1] Despite appearances, this is not a denigration of the failed allegorical form in favour of the symbol’s expressiveness. On the contrary, the symbolic form is a danger for thought, in the way it overflows its boundaries, erasing distinctions between things and concepts, placing all within the chaos of the senses. Against this chaos, allegory does not impose structure but refuses the trap of sensuous form entirely by pointing beyond it. “In pointing beyond its sensuous form, allegory provides a secure point of orientation amongst the chaos of forms. It devalues and limits form. It discourages therefore the type of disorientating ritualisation that Benjamin associates with the symbol.”[2]

As the sensuous form of the symbolic image dies away, the bare bones of the allegorical image are revealed. As Benjamin writes:

“If, therefore, the works that prove enduring are precisely those whose truth is most deeply sunken in their material content, then, in the course of this duration, the concrete realities rise up before the eyes of the beholder all the more distinctly the more they die out in the world.”[3]

Certainly, there is quite a distance of years between these lines and those that would make their way into the 1940 theses. But already here we find a conception of the image that carries with it an anti-systematic epistemology, which locates the truth not in the sensuous immediacy of things, and neither in the structuring of the chaos of the senses within a system. Instead, we find a definition of the ‘true image’ as one which centres the insufficiency of its own form, and the dependence of its veracity upon that which escapes it. “Systematic closure, [Benjamin] maintains, has nothing to do with truth, which should be understood not as an unveiling that destroys the mystery but as revelation that does it justice.”[4] This same anti-systemic and anti-aesthetic tendency that Benjamin developed in his earliest writings finds its expression in his final work, where it is associated with a conception of the image as something which fleetingly appears, flashes up in an instant, and is only conceivable in its disappearance from the sensory realm.

(2) Involuntary memory

Which brings us to the second sentence of this thesis, and the elaboration upon our “true image of the past,” of which it is now said that it can “can be seized only as an image that flashes up at the moment of its recognizability, and is never seen again.” While the first sentence and its description of the image’s ‘flitting by’ gives us occasion to examine the theme of disappearance in Benjamin’s early theory of the image, with the introduction of ‘seizing’ and ‘recognising’ to our vocabulary we are given cause to turn to his later work to better understand the conditions of the image’s appearance. In the supplemental notes to the theses, Benjamin elaborates on what it means to grasp historical truth in one of its fleeting images:

 “Articulating the past historically means recognizing those elements of the past which come together in the constellation of a single moment. Historical knowledge is possible only within the historical moment. But knowledge within the historical moment is always knowledge of a moment. In drawing itself together in the moment—in the dialectical image—the past becomes part of humanity’s involuntary memory […] The dialectical image can be defined as the involuntary memory of redeemed humanity.”[5]

We’ll return to this peculiar concept of the dialectical image in a moment, but at this juncture we should take note of the notion of “involuntary memory” and its place in Benjamin’s method of historical inquiry. The phrase is of course a reference to the central narrative conceit of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, namely the opposition made between voluntary acts of memory and the involuntary memories that are encountered by chance. The famous example of this that begins Proust’s reflections is that of the madeleine, the taste of which recalls for his narrator the previously inaccessible details of childhood and begins in him an ongoing state of recollection. This state is not one which Proust’s narrator can induce by his own will but is one which he can only enter in unexpected moments, in the encounter with the fragmented signs that refer him to a past that is otherwise inaccessible to him. As Proust puts it:

“In vain we try to conjure it up again; the efforts of our intellect are futile. [The past is situated] somewhere beyond the reach of the intellect and its field of operations, in some material object […] though we have no idea which one it is. And whether we come upon this object before we die, or whether we never encounter it, depends entirely on chance.”[6]

While in Proust’s narrative the object that spurs involuntary memory is of mainly personal significance, for Benjamin there is an historical equivalent to this process: an image that appears briefly, is seized in a successful recollection of the past, or else is lost forever to a time that cannot be wilfully reclaimed. There remains in this formulation something that is not dissimilar to Benjamin’s early notion of allegory—which is likewise defined by the formal impossibility of denoting an historical truth except by obliquity and accident—but here there is a concession to the sensuous side of the image, which may utilise the senses not for their own pleasure but for the purposes of inducing a state of recollection that is both wider and deeper than any possible for the unaided historical investigator.

(3) Fleeting truth

Into this visual universe of symbols and allegories, voluntary recollections and involuntary memories, emerges Benjamin’s peculiar concept of the ‘dialectical image,’ which sits at the heart of his later works. The dialectical image is not exactly the same as the allegory, because the allegorical form “is premised on an uncompromisingly hostile relation to the transitory forms of the material world. It points to the beyond.”[7] Allegory is in this respect an uncertain candidate as a source of historical knowledge, because it depends upon the foreclosure of knowledge passed from one age to another and inheres in the empty signs of antiquity that stand today like riddles of another time. As Alison Ross has suggested, the dialectical image “more or less inverts the perspective of allegory. It does not look beyond sensuous forms to a transcendent meaning. Instead it seeks in sensuous forms the ‘expression’ or vehicle for the ‘perception’ of historical truth, which ‘rescues’ the form from transitoriness.”[8] If the dialectical image expresses something, this does not mean that it is merely a symbol, because the form of representation and the represented meaning do not quite coincide. The allegorical separation remains, but now with the faint possibility that some fragment of meaning might slip through, transported from the past to the present by the mediating form of the dialectical image.

In the Arcades Project, Benjamin writes that a “resolute refusal of the concept of ‘timeless truth’ is in order.” This must mean the fundamental exclusion of the kind of truth that his earlier theory of the allegory had sought in the ‘timeless’ signs that remain when all sensuous form has rotted away. Nonetheless, Benjamin continues:

“Truth is not—as Marxism would have it—a merely contingent function of knowing, but is bound to a nucleus of time lying hidden within the knower and the known alike. This is so true that the eternal, in any case, is far more the ruffle on a dress than some idea.”[9]

So, although the appearance of a historical truth may be contingent on some object or encounter, it is not to be relativised as the product of whatever knowledge we happen to gain in that encounter. The truth is not some arbitrary effect emitted by our powers of understanding as we apprehend historical artefacts, but is something that inheres within those objects inasmuch as they are the remnants of another time, which is bound up in them like so many secret messages left by previous generations for our own. Like Proust’s madeleine, Benjamin’s dialectical image initiates a recovery of something that was formerly lost, while the task of the historical materialist is akin to that of Proust’s narrator, who must grasp hold of the transitory moment of its recognition.

(4) Intention

As Benjamin puts it in the final sentence of this thesis, the true image of the past, which we may also call its dialectical image, “is an irretrievable image of the past which threatens to disappear in any present that does not recognize itself as intended in that image.” In this definition we may venture an explanation for why this image is described as specifically dialectical. In a phrase, it is dialectical in its mediatory position between the past and the present: in the recognition of the past that the present registers in it; and in the intention for the present that the past hides within it.[10] In the dialectical image the relation between past and present is not only made legible but is made to work in both directions, both in the present’s retrospective vision of the past and in the proleptic anticipation of the present by the past. We can say that this image is dialectical in contrast to the ways that allegory and symbolism are not. The allegorical image is non-dialectical because it signifies the absence of communication between present and past, while the symbolic image is anti-dialectical in its immediate, sensuous certainty that collapses the division between present and past.

This formulation of the dialectical image also moves us on from questions of the image’s disappearance (that is, its allegorical inheritance) and its appearance (or, its Proustian inheritance) and on to the moment of its recognition. For the image to be recognised it must be understood that the present is somehow intended by the past. What could this mean? In an essay composed for the purposes of explicating his Arcades Project, Benjamin describes the desires that each era holds for the one to follow, which remain embedded in the artefacts of that era as the wishes still to be realised in the course of time. In these wish images “the new is permeated with the old,” because they represent the futuristic elements of a past society that could not be realised at that moment in time, constrained by the historical consciousness of the epoch, its technical capabilities, or the socio-economic structure of its mode of production.[11]

Benjamin gives as some of his examples the nineteenth-century arts of the phantasmagoria, the stereoscope, and the panorama that call ahead to the twentieth-century realisation of the cinema. We might add to these examples of twentieth-century culture that announce the utopian possibilities of a global information society, from David Bowie’s imagining of a ‘Starman’ who speaks to the entire planet through their radios, to Thomas Pynchon’s depiction of an underground, decentralised network of outcasts in The Crying of Lot 49.[12] Both of these examples seem to anticipate the arrival of our present era of the internet, reminding us that our always-online society was a dream before it was a reality. That utopia failed to materialise from the development of new technology is not the point; what matters is that a utopian wish is passed down from one era to the next, imagined in relation to what is most new in any given society, while expressing a desire for what is most primal: classless society. And, Benjamin writes, “the experiences of such a [classless] society—as stored in the unconscious of the collective—engender, through interpenetration with what is new, the utopia that has left its trace in a thousand configurations of life, from enduring edifices to passing fashions.”[13] Each era dreams the one to follow, but it was itself dreamt by those that preceded it, such that even the desires of prehistoric classless society persist in our deepest dreams. The wish-image—the dialectical image—is in this manner the repository for the weak messianic power that Benjamin describes in his second thesis. It is a communique sent from the past to the present that expresses the past’s intentions for us, and the desires that we are to fulfil on its behalf. Either we successfully recognise ourselves as the intended recipients of this message, and therefore as the chosen redeemers of its expressed wish, or else we let it slip from our grasp to return to oblivion.

Thesis VI:

Articulating the past historically does not mean recognizing it “the way it really was” (Ranke). It means appropriating a memory as it flashes up in a moment of danger. Historical materialism wishes to hold fast that image of the past which unexpectedly appears to the historical subject in a moment of danger. The danger threatens both the content of the tradition and those who inherit it. For both, it is one and the same thing: the danger of becoming a tool of the ruling classes. Every age must strive anew to wrest tradition away from the conformism that is working to overpower it. The Messiah comes not only as the redeemer; he comes as the victor over the Antichrist. The only historian capable of fanning the spark of hope in the past is the one who is firmly convinced that even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he is victorious. And this enemy has never ceased to be victorious.

(1) “The way it really was”

For all our talk of historical images and the ways that the past appears in the present, we must not mistake the task of the historical materialist for a practice of ‘representing’ the past. Bourgeois historians may content themselves with recreating the past, with transporting the readers of their books into artfully composed simulations of bygone eras, but this apparent access to the past ‘the way it really was’ is in truth an illusion. In a Proustian language, we may describe this way of writing history as an exercise of voluntary memory, which cannot access those ‘irretrievable images of the past’ described in Thesis V. In Benjamin’s citation of Leopold von Ranke as a specific example of this tendency, he parallels similar comments made by Hegel in his Lectures on the Philosophy of World History. Hegel remarks that historians like Ranke, who seek to represent the minute details of the past, fail to grasp what is in fact essential about a given era, which can only be found in the combined whole of an event, life, or epoch:

“[These historians endeavour] to collect all individual traits and to portray them in an infinitely faithful and lifelike manner (Ranke). [They give us] a motley assortment of details [that are] of little interest—actions of soldiers, private affairs—and that have no influence on political concerns. [These writers are] incapable of [envisaging] a whole, a general purpose. Such a way of writing history is lifeless—such forms and abstract representations make the content dry.”[14]

This limitation of historical thought to the singular details of an era, without recognition of their place in a whole, is what Benjamin will call in his seventeenth thesis the “additive principle” of historicism. That is, it is a method that amasses facts with the intent of recreating the past in a purely quantitative manner, although its addition of one detail on top of another never quite reaches the final point needed to complete the recreation.

Opposed to this method is that of the historical materialist, who, as we have seen in the previous thesis, “wishes to hold fast that image of the past which unexpectedly appears to the historical subject in a moment of danger.” To articulate the past, and to discover the truth of history, is not a matter of representation but of seizure. It is a practice far more akin to that announced by Nietzsche’s Zarathustra when he declares: “To redeem those who are the past and to recreate all ‘it was’ into ‘thus I willed it!’—only that would I call redemption!”[15] It will not suffice to mull over the details of what was, because such a contemplation of the past is necessarily passive and pacifying—only we might add to Nietzsche’s statement that it is not an individual who proclaims ‘Thus I willed it!’ but the human collective that shapes itself and has the capacity to recompose itself accordingly: ‘Thus we willed it; and thus we shall will it!’

(2) Storyteller

Without recourse to a simple replication of the past ‘the way it really was,’ the task of the historian is necessarily complicated by the mediations of historical knowledge as it is passed down to us. There is a danger that threatens both the tradition of the oppressed and those who would inherit it. If the appearance of a true memory of the past is a fraught, fleeting thing, the transmission of that memory is no less fragile. As Benjamin writes in his 1936 essay “The Storyteller,” the practice of storytelling is itself subject to the historical forms available to it, and may be more or less impoverished by the conditions of its performance. The old art of storytelling, which Benjamin associates with the oral traditions of folklore, short tales, and wisdom, is in his account a casualty of the modern era, because its means of dissemination have been gradually supplanted by the new technical means of transmitting information. The process began centuries ago, with the rise of the novel over the epic as the chief means of transmitting cultural memory, subordinating that memory to the written word of the book. But today even the novel has succumbed to a form of information without narrative:

“Every morning brings us news from across the globe, yet we are poor in noteworthy stories. This is because nowadays no event comes to us without already being shot through with explanations. In other words, by now almost nothing that happens benefits storytelling; almost everything benefits information.”[16]

Now, Benjamin warns that this is not the sign of some ‘decadence’ or ‘decline’ in modernity, as a purely cultural phenomenon. It is not that we have become desensitised information zombies as a symptom of some moral turpitude, or thanks to some arbitrarily chosen metaphor of senescence, decay, or weakness that populate the conservative cultural imaginary (such as it is). Rather, Benjamin claims that the decline of storytelling is “a concomitant of the secular productive forces of history—a symptom that has quite gradually removed narrative from the realm of living speech and at the same time is making it possible to find a new beauty in what is vanishing.”[17] Which is to say that something in the changed material forces of society have simultaneously impoverished the tools of the storyteller—that is, speech—while giving a new aesthetic value to the vanishing works of past storytellers—either as their works become legible as the remnants of the alien world of history, or through the aestheticisation of the decline itself, which furnishes the reactionary imagination with a floating signifer upon which to project their fantasies of a past now irretrievably distant. That the narrative practices of a culture might change with the transformations in the mode of production is no surprise, as Benjamin insists that the art of storytelling is also a work of storytelling:

“The storytelling that thrives for a long time in the milieu of work—rural, maritime, and then urban—is itself an artisanal form of communication, as it were. It does not aim to convey the pure ‘in itself’ or gist of a thing, like information or a report. It submerges the thing into the life of the storyteller, in order to bring it out of him again.”[18]

The story is not information; it is a power that the storyteller stores in their living memory, in their body or their soul, which is extracted and transmitted in an act of narrative labour. Like the artisanal product, the story bears markers of the labourer who fashioned it—and the tradition of storytelling is in a sense the tradition of these markers. But today, across the globe, in many cultures but not all, this line of transmission has been severed to make way for other forms of historical consciousness.

(3) Threat

These changes in historical consciousness, and their concomitant transformations in the means of historical transmission, are not only of interest for their own sake, but must also be understood in the context of the power struggles that make up the content of historical knowledge. The threat that faces the tradition of storytelling, that attends the modernity of the printed word and the depthless contemporaneity of the unit of information, is not that they are in themselves good or bad but that they are in danger of becoming tools of the ruling classes. In every age, Benjamin writes, the struggle for historical knowledge is begun anew, because in every age it is the subject of co-option and capture by the reigning powers of the day. Here we may think here of any number of examples of radical legacies that have been defanged and made serviceable to the maintenance of the status quo.

So far, none of this thesis is especially ground-breaking, and follows naturally from the material presented in earlier theses—that is, until we arrive at this strange theological formulation that puts the stakes of the struggle over tradition into sharp contrast: “The Messiah comes not only as the redeemer; he comes as the victor over the Antichrist.” The introduction of the Christian eschatological figure of the Antichrist is a curious choice, given the primarily Jewish sources of Benjamin’s theological interest both here and in previous writings. What we can say is that the Antichrist functions here as a false Messiah, as a figure of Messianic potential or appearance who has gone over to the other side and put his powers to use in deceiving the people who the true Messiah aims to save. The victory of the Messiah is therefore not only a victory for the oppressed who he saves, but a victory over their deceivers, who have kept them in chains. As Michael Löwy rightfully states, we must read this recourse to theology through a resolutely materialist lens: “We have to see the Messiah as the proletarian class and the Antichrist as the ruling classes.”[19] That is, the task of the historical materialist is also a critical one, which must be ready to discern truth from illusion and, so to speak, identify the Antichrists that masquerade in the place of genuine revolutionary actors. In Löwy’s reading, the Antichrist of Benjamin’s time may well have been the German Fascist movement, which promised the redemption of a nation humiliated in the First World War but could deliver only further destruction.[20] As it has been put in a quote spuriously attributed to Benjamin, although it appears nowhere in his writing that I can find, “behind every fascism is a failed revolution.”[21] In the theological idiom of the theses, we might say that behind every Antichrist is a missed messianic moment; and conversely, behind every successful revolutionary movement is the vanquishing of a prospective fascism waiting in the wings.

(4) “Even the dead”

Now, to conclude with this thesis, let’s turn to one of the more famous and provocative lines of the theses as a whole: “Even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he is victorious.” On the face of it, this statement can be taken a number of ways. Given the standpoint of these lectures thus far, I believe we would be tempted to read it in a figurative sense, such that the dead are the subjects of the aforementioned tradition of the oppressed, whose memory is everywhere suppressed and rewritten to suit the whims of their oppressors.

However true this may be, this effectively turns Benjamin’s statement into a rehashing of the old proverb that “history is written by the victors,” without saying much new about the situation. For this reason, I would also like to suggest a far more literal reading of this passage. Let us not forget that it is not only the memory of the departed that is under threat but the dead themselves who are the first and the ongoing victims of historic violence. We might think of the classical examples of the dead body as a site of recrimination, as in Homer’s Iliad when Achilles drags Hector’s body around the walls of Troy to mock the grief of his father, or in Sophocles’ Antigone when the body of Polynices is condemned to lie outside the gates of Thebes to be devoured by dogs.

But we can also look closer to home. Here in Australia, a recent project from the University of Newcastle has put together a map of the colonial massacre sites that dot the Australian landscape, painting the unsettling picture of a country sat obliviously atop countless unmarked mass graves.[22] Looking at this map, we see that virtually every major population centre in the country is surrounded by the sites of massacres that have largely been expunged from settler memory. This is an ongoing violence committed against the dead that is intended to condemn the deceased and cleanse their murderers of blame. As Benjamin will elaborate in the following thesis, it is the task of the politically committed historian to never let the blindfold sit comfortably over our present culture, and to “brush history against the grain” (VII).


[1] Alison Ross, Walter Benjamin’s Concept of the Image (London: Routledge, 2015), 56. See also, Fredric Jameson, Marxism and Form (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1971), 72: “The distinction between symbol and allegory is that between a complete reconciliation between object and spirit and a mere will to such reconciliation.”

[2] Ross, Concept of the Image, 56.

[3] Walter Benjamin, Selected Works, vol. 1, eds. Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996), 297.

[4] Howard Eiland, “Translator’s Introduction,” Origin of the German Trauerspiel, ed. Howard Eiland (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2019), xiv. Or, in Benjamin’s words: “Insofar as the concept of system determines philosophy, the latter is in danger of contenting itself with a syncretism that seeks to capture the truth in a spider’s web stretched between bodies of knowledge, as though truth came flying in from outside.” Walter Benjamin, Origin of the German Trauerspiel, trans. Howard Eiland (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2019), 2.

[5] Walter Benjamin, Selected Works, vol. 4, eds. Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003), 403.

[6] Passage quoted from Benjamin, Selected Works 4, 315. See also, Max Pensky, “Tactics of Remembrance: Proust, Surrealism, and the Origin of the Passegenwerk,” in Walter Benjamin and the Demands of History, ed. Michael P. Steinberg (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1996), 173: “In the case of the Remembrance of Things Past, a new relationship with the objects of memory is to be achieved not by an abandonment of brooding subjectivity itself but by submitting this same subjectivity to the rigid protocol of the work of memory. […] Involuntary memory provides an unexpected (shocking) link or association between a concrete experience in the present and its cognate in the past; as a sudden shock, the mémoire involontaire provides Proust with not a mere convolution but a positive deliverance from temporality.”

[7] Ross, Concept of the Image, 109.

[8] Ross, Concept of the Image, 109.

[9] Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999), N3,2.

[10] In Löwy’s phrase, the dialectical image is ‘salutory.’ See: Michael Löwy, Fire Alarm, trans. Chris Turner (London: Verso, 2005), 40.

[11] Walter Benjamin, Selected Works, vol. 3, eds. Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002), 33.

[12] On the wider cultural significance of the dialectical image, informative work has been done by Margaret Cohen on the ‘profane illuminations’ of the Surrealists and by Susan Buck-Morss on the aesthetic revolution of Russian Futurism. Both movements were contemporary with Benjamin, and their respective attempts to promote social liberation by the aesthetic experience of the image speak to both the strengths and pitfalls of Benjamin’s own approach to this topic. See: Margaret Cohen, Profane Illumination: Walter Benjamin and the Paris of Surrealist Revolution (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993); and Susan Buck-Morss, Dreamworld and Catastrophe (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2000).

[13] Benjamin, Selected Works 3, 34.

[14] G. W. F. Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of World History, trans. Robert F. Brown and Peter C. Hodgson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 74-5.

[15] Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, trans. Adrian Del Caro (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 110.

[16] Benjamin, Selected Works 3, 147.

[17] Benjamin, Selected Works 3, 146.

[18] Benjamin, Selected Works 3, 149.

[19] Löwy, Fire Alarm, 45.

[20] Löwy, Fire Alarm, 45-6.

[21] The quote seems to originate from Žižek and is written in the spirit of Benjamin’s “Theories of German Fascism,” in Walter Benjamin, Selected Works, vol. 2, eds. Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999), 312-21.

[22] “Colonial Frontier Massacres in Australia, 1788-1930,” University of Newcastle,

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