Frozen in Time (Reading Benjamin’s Theses XV & XVI)

van gogh - snow-covered field
Vincent van Gogh, Snow-Covered Field with a Harrow (after Millet) (1890). 


• XV: Elaborating on Benjamin’s notion of fulfilled historical time by comparing the time of the festival day with that of the clock.
• XVI: Benjamin’s concept of the dialectical image as a mediation between the past and present, and the broader question of Benjamin’s relation to dialectical thought

Return to contents
Previous section (XIII & XIV)
Next section (XVII & XVIII)

Thesis XV:

What characterizes revolutionary classes at their moment of action is the awareness that they are about to make the continuum of history explode. The Great Revolution introduced a new calendar. The initial day of a calendar presents history in time-lapse mode. And basically it is this same day that keeps recurring in the guise of holidays, which are days of remembrance [Tage des Eingedenkens]. Thus, calendars do not measure time the way clocks do; they are monuments of a historical consciousness of which not the slightest trace has been apparent in Europe, it would seem, for the past hundred years. In the July Revolution an incident occurred in which this consciousness came into its own. On the first evening of fighting, it so happened that the dials on clocktowers were being fired at simultaneously and independently from several locations in Paris. An eyewitness, who may have owed his insight to the rhyme, wrote as follows:

Qui le croirait! on dit, qu’irrites contre l’heure,
De nouveaux Josues, au pied de chaque tour,
Tiraient sur! es cadrans pour arreter le jour.
[Who would believe it! It is said that, incensed at the hour,
Latter-day Joshuas, at the foot of every clocktower,
Were firing on clock faces to make the day stand still.]

(1) Fulfilled historical time

In this thesis we find one of Benjamin’s great phrases that sums up the argument of the previous sequence of theses: “What characterizes revolutionary classes at their moment of action is the awareness that they are about to make the continuum of history explode.” This is another way of putting the argument of Thesis XIII, that the history of the oppressors is composed of a continuum of homogeneous empty moments, and that of Thesis XIV, that this continuum must be shattered by the revolutionary event.

However, the imagery of explosions and shatterings that Benjamin deploys to describe the relation of fulfilled historical time to the historical sequence raises a series of questions. In bursting out of this continuum, does the revolutionary event destroy what preceded it? Or, having been exploded by the event, does history lose all sense of continuity, all temporal dimensions outside of the revolutionary now? For some commentators, the fulfillment of historical time must mean total negation of historical process and the end of history as such. We do not need to refer to the Hegelian claims concerning the end of history made by Kojève or Fukuyama to propose this reading, as it has already been applied to Benjamin by none other than Giorgio Agamben, who insists that “for humanity as for the individual human, to redeem the past is to put an end to it, to cast upon it a gaze that fulfills it.”[1] In other words: to fulfil history is to put an end to it, to have done with it once and for all. But what does Benjamin have to say on the matter? In the supplementary notes to the theses, Benjamin illustrates his opposition between “[fulfilled] historical time” and “the idea of a temporal continuum” with an example that appears to contradict Agamben’s interpretation. Referring to the Book of Exodus and the lamp that Moses is commanded to keep lit as a reminder of God’s presence, Benjamin writes that “the eternal lamp is an image of genuine historical existence. It cites what has been—the flame that once was kindled—in perpetuum, giving it ever new sustenance.”[2] Far from snuffing out the course of history, this symbol of fulfilled historical time perpetuates some fragment of it, preserving the memory of God’s appearance on Mount Sinai and giving that past moment new life in the present. Likewise, far from destroying what came before, fulfilled historical time in general must preserve its inheritance from past moments, even making the past “citable in all its moments” (III).

(2) Stopping the clock

We find a similar mix of Biblical and secular history in the central image of this thesis: the scene of the Paris clocktowers fired upon by July revolutionaries seeking to halt the progress of the day. Benjamin’s reference here is to the Old Testament and Joshua’s campaign against the Canaanites, during one of the battles of which he called upon God to halt the sun and prolong the daylight hours for battle. The biblical text reads: “And the sun stood still, and the moon stayed, until the people had avenged themselves upon their enemies. […] So the sun stood still in the midst of heaven, and hasted not to go down about a whole day. And there was no day like that before it or after it, that the Lord hearkened unto the voice of a man.”[3] As in Benjamin’s other allegories, we find in his use of this biblical narrative a secularisation of its theological content. Whereas Joshua beseeches God and is witness to his power to halt the sun in its path, the revolutionaries themselves take arms against the day, targeting its earthly representatives in the clocktowers of Paris. What is reclaimed from the biblical tale is the revolutionary desire to stay the passage of time, to make the revolutionary event last forever by forestalling the setting of the sun on its moment in history.

It is an attitude that Benjamin identifies in both political and aesthetic revolutions, as when he likens the artistic project of Baudelaire to that of Joshua:

“To interrupt the course of the world—that was Baudelaire’s deepest intention. The intention of Joshua. Not so much the prophetic one, for he gave no thought to any sort of reform. From this intention sprang his violence, his impatience, and his anger; from it, too, sprang the ever-renewed attempts to stab the world in the heart or sing it to sleep.”[4] 

In all cases, this attitude expresses a hostility to the irresistible course of mechanical time which is shared by the prophet, the aesthete, and the revolutionary alike. Each of these figures, Joshua, Baudelaire, and the July revolutionaries, attempt to reach beyond the course of history to a principle that transcends it and can hold it in check. For the prophet this must be God, and for Benjamin this theological answer must be on the side of reform, of faith in an exterior salvation that is gradually realised on earth. For the aesthete there is an ambivalence, a desire to destroy and an ability to soothe that Benjamin finds in Baudelaire’s writing. It is a hatred for the state of this world mixed with a fascination for its sensuous existence, which together prevent the aesthete from committing themselves either for or against the world. Only for the revolutionary is this desire to halt the day fully realised in the miraculous, improbably story of guns firing simultaneously on the city’s clocks, as if seized by a collective will at that singular moment.

(3) Calendric time

If the clock is the mundane representative of mechanical time, we may find in the calendar the emblem of historical time. Certainly, calendars have their role to play in the construction of homogeneous empty time, as they divide experience into uniform segments—days, weeks, years—that each accumulate in a purely quantitative fashion. But unlike the clock, the calendar is capable of giving pride of place to a select handful of days, which stand out from the mass of days as events of special significance, and which initiate processes of remembrance by marking the anniversaries of past events. Because it is assigned as a day of remembrance, the holiday is not only marked as a day apart from normal days, but can be understood as a repetition of the event that it celebrates. That original event is made present again not once but in perpetuity, for as long as the calendar of holidays is observed. The holiday is like the eternal lamp that keeps the event alive in memory by repeatedly making it present in the observance of ritual. 

Or, if you prefer another metaphor, we can imagine the accumulated span of homogeneous empty time like a stack of paper in which each sheet represents a year, with the days numbered and divided according only to the quantitative count of one through seven days in a week, one through twelve months in a year, one through three-hundred-and-sixty-five days in a year, and so on. Piled one on top of another, these calendar years themselves accumulate as homogeneous empty units in a monotonous procession of time. However, when we look down upon our orderly mass of years, we see the day of remembrance puncture through the pages, burning a hole from its initial occurrence through the corresponding days in each year to appear as fresh and full of life in the present as it did at its origin.

In some cases, these festive days reach beyond even the scope of recorded history and serve, perhaps only unconsciously, as days of remembrance for the first epoch of human culture. Although they have largely been renamed and reinaugurated for the Christian and secular imaginations, there are still today holidays that do not celebrate some definite historical event, but which date back to ancient festivals marking the turn of the seasons, the coming of the new year, and the feats of mythological, prehistoric figures. To understand the significance of this point for Benjamin’s thought, we should place it alongside his conception of happiness as a fulfilment of a past wish (II) and his formulation of the wish-image that communicates this desire from the past to the present (V, X). Because Benjamin’s conception of desire is not future-oriented but depends on the fulfillment of an original wish, the satisfaction of desire means the search for a truly originary point in time. This search leads us from our own lives to those who lived before us, from the way of life of our present society to its ancient precursors, and ultimately back to a primordial state of classless society that irresistibly corresponds to our deepest, most utopian wishes. These correspondences between the most ancient and the most modern are, Benjamin writes, “the data of recollection—not historical data, but data of prehistory. What makes festive days great and significant is the encounter with an earlier life.”[5]

(4) Capital’s cult

“Thus, calendars do not measure time the way clocks do; they are monuments of a historical consciousness of which not the slightest trace has been apparent in Europe, it would seem, for the past hundred years.” The calendar is the mighty opponent of the clock, but it would appear that by Benjamin’s time their struggle had long ended, with the historical consciousness of the festive day succumbing to the general quantification of time at some point in the middle of the nineteenth century. Since the spread of industrial capitalism across the European continent some two-hundred years ago, the old forms of historical reckoning have experienced a sharp decline, and in the place of the old calendar of festival days has emerged a new ritual observance of time. Far from bring freed from religious modes of timekeeping, we have been plunged ever deeper into mystifications unique to capitalist life.

In an early text on “Capitalism as Religion,” Benjamin remarks on the ritual functions of the capitalist economy, which serve to “allay the same anxieties, torments, and disturbances to which the so-called religions offered answers.”[6] Unique among religions, capitalism is “purely cultic” with “no specific body of dogma, no theology”—that is, it is composed solely of the ritual actions that tie its practitioners to the cult without recourse to theological explanations or justifications for those actions. Certainly, theological reasoning abounds among the devotees to capital, as Marx shows aptly in his skewering of the “metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties” that infest the discourses of economics.[7] But these discourses are secondary to the rituals of investment, divestment, speculation, and manipulation that make up the cultic dimension of capitalism. With this concretisation of the cult comes a changed ritual experience of time:

“Capitalism is the celebration of a cult sans rêve et sans merci [without dream or mercy]. There are no ‘weekdays.’ There is no day that is not a feast day, in the terrible sense that all its sacred pomp is unfolded before us; each day commands the utter fealty of each worshiper.”[8]  

That there are no weekdays under capitalism does not mean there are no workdays. Rather, because the capitalist feast day no longer marks a special period of remembrance set apart from other days, and instead becomes a generalised state of adherence to ritual, it begets a never-ending demand for worship. Every day requires a sacrifice, an offering to the God, with no days for ourselves in between. As Deleuze and Guattari observed in Anti-Oedipus, or as David Graeber has noted more recently, capitalism is a state of generalised, infinite debt, spiritual and economic, which we labour endlessly in vain to repay.[9] In Benjamin’s words, “the cult makes guilt pervasive. Capitalism is probably the first instance of a cult that creates guilt, not atonement.”[10] With each tick of the clock, this debt can only increase, as the ritual demands of capital far outpace our abilities to meet them. Only when the clock is halted, when its measure of our lives is wiped away, may we declare for ourselves a jubilee.

Thesis XVI:

The historical materialist cannot do without the notion of a present which is not a transition, but in which time takes a stand [einsteht] and has come to a standstill [Stillstand]. For this notion defines the very present in which he himself is writing history. Historicism offers the “eternal” image of the past; historical materialism supplies a unique experience with the past. The historical materialist leaves it to others to be drained by the whore called “Once upon a time” in historicism’s bordello. He remains in control of his powers—man enough to blast open the continuum of history.

(1) Dialectics at a standstill

The first sentence of this thesis is perhaps unnecessarily gnomic, and its meaning is not helped in the slightest by the awkward double negative of the first clause. Put another way, the historical materialist is opposed to the notion of the present as a transition between past and future; they require an experience of the present as a moment filled with ‘the now.’ No longer the infinitesimal scission between an expansive past and an inevitable future, the present is brought to a halt, made substantial in itself as now-time. It comes to a standstill. Such a conception of the present is expressed in similar terms when Benjamin recapitulates his theory of the dialectical image in the Arcades Project:

“It is not that what is past casts its light on what is present, or what is present its light on what is past; rather, an image is that wherein what has been comes together in a flash with the now to form a constellation. In other words: image is dialectics at a standstill. For while the relation of the present to the past is purely temporal, the relation of what-has-been to the now is dialectical: not temporal in nature but figural [bildlich]. Only dialectical images are genuinely historical—that is, not archaic—images.”[11]

The temporal relation of past and present is here opposed by the properly historical relation of ‘what-has-been’ to ‘the now.’ Past and present may shed light on one another, may reveal in the other something that was not previously visible, but the two zones of time remain essentially apart from one another. In becoming past, the present ceases to be present, and passes over to the other side. The relation of ‘what-has-been’ to ‘the now,’ on the other hand, is not a temporal relation but a dialectical one: ‘what-has-been’ is not purely of the past, because we recognise in it a fragment of the present, the ‘has-been’ that is irreducible to the ‘was.’ Likewise, ‘the now’ is not an insubstantial, transitory present but an independent domain of time that brings the rush of temporal succession to a standstill.

In both Thesis XVI and this passage from the Arcades Project, it is the dialectical image that allows us to capture this relation between what-has-been and the now at the moment of its halting. As Fredric Jameson notes, whereas the English word ‘standstill’ denotes mechanical breakdown, the German Stillstand “is something closer to freeze-frame photography than to a car wreck.”[12] The image does not bring an action to an end but captures and preserves one of its moments so that it may be examined in isolation from the succession of moments of which it is a part.[13] The image of which Benjamin writes is a snapshot that at once seizes ‘what-has-been’ from the maw of the past and preserves it as a present moment imbued with a sense of nowness. Indeed, Adorno suggests that this dialectical image be understood literally as a conceptual development of photography, which marked the historical consciousness of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries with a new type of visuality. Old photographs both preserved the faces and fashions of yesteryear while making them appear unbearably out of sync with the time in which they are presently viewed.[14] When we look at pictures of people many decades past, although we may look on people younger than ourselves, we cannot help but see them as terribly aged. They stare at us like the ghosts of those who died in their youth, simultaneously young and ancient, and in the moment of recognition we are shocked out of our normal experience of time, caught between a past that hasn’t truly passed and a present that feels like it could last forever.

(2) A dialectical image of commodity production

If the first part of this thesis is cryptic, in the second half Benjamin supplements it with an unfortunate choice of metaphor. Having seen that historical materialism rejects the ‘eternal’ image of the past in favour of the unique experience of the dialectical image, we are presented with a scene of a brothel, managed by the Historicist and staffed by a sex worker named ‘Once upon a time,’ who presumably represents the aforementioned ‘eternal’ image of the past. The Historical Materialist is not seduced by this image, he—yes, the unfortunate masculine pronoun—remains in control of his powers, is ‘man enough’ to resist seduction in the Historicist’s house and to fulfil his mission of blasting open the continuum of history.

Now, this brief allegory doesn’t say much more than what has already been said, and perhaps speaks more to Benjamin’s attitudes than the matter at hand. And this is a great misfortune, because Benjamin’s Arcades Project already contains extensive comments on the figure of the sex worker in nineteenth-century culture, expressed in a manner that is sympathetic, if not entirely non-misogynistic, toward a figure who is here unfairly disparaged. As I would like to make clear, Benjamin’s comments on this topic also have quite a lot to do with his formulation of the dialectical image as it is presented in this thesis and the one preceding it—and so by reading beyond the terms of this thesis we may improve upon Benjamin’s own explication of his ideas. 

In the Arcades Project, the sex worker stands at the centre of Benjamin’s account of labour and commodity-culture in nineteenth-century Paris. As a person who sells themselves on the market, the sex worker is visibly both a labourer and the commodity that they sell. At all levels of European society during the fin-de-siecle, the sex worker adopts the latest fashions and allies themselves to the latest consumption fads to better attract customers. In doing so, sex workers are presented to the culture at large as both living, labouring bodies and as objects that are just as mass produced as the mannequins and knick-knacks that fill the stores. In Susan Buck-Morss’s phrase, “the modern prostitute is a mass article in the ‘precise sense,’ due to the fashions and makeup that camouflage her ‘individual expression,’ and package her as an identifiable type.”[15] Or, in Benjamin’s terms, the sex worker reveals something essential about the capitalist culture that was emerging around them, such that “love for the prostitute is the apotheosis of empathy with the commodity.”[16]

The significance of all this can be put simply: the state of being both a worker and a commodity is not unique to sex workers but is the general state of labour under capitalism. All workers sell themselves, their bodies, and their time for a fee. All are consumed in one way or another by their purchasers, their employers. But for most workers this identity of productive labour and produced commodity is obscured: for the industrial worker the product of their labour appears as alienated objects. As Buck-Morss puts it:

“Whereas every trace of the wage laborer who produced the commodity is extinguished when it is torn out of context by its exhibition on display, in the prostitute, both moments remain visible. As a dialectical image, she ‘synthesizes’ the form of the commodity and its content: She is ‘commodity and seller in one.’”[17]

That is, whereas the industrial worker stands aside from the commodity as its hidden origin, the sex worker unites the commodity’s past of production and present of consumption in a single moment. The commodity and its origin in labour become contemporaries. The figure of the sex worker therefore stands as a dialectical image in its most socially radical form, as a way of seeing that punctures the illusions of capitalist temporality and reveals the origin of the dream-world of the commodity in the labouring masses.

And with all that said, we cannot avoid admitting that Benjamin’s philosophical treatment of sex work takes us only to the point at which the labouring body appears in the imaginary of the fin-de-siecle, without thereby finding a way out of that imaginary. In this respect, Benjamin is typical of the European avant-garde from Baudelaire to the Surrealists, for whom sympathy with the sex worker is predicated on an artistic interest in woman as mystical other.[18] The dialectical image captures its object at a standstill, rendering visible a relation that may nevertheless by preserved in the image. We will have more to say on this matter in what follows and in the discussion of the final theses A and B.

(3) What even is dialectics?

If the concept of the ‘dialectical image’ and the formulation of ‘dialectics at a standstill’ handily explain what is going on in Thesis XVI, they nevertheless open up the great Pandora’s Box of philosophical controversy and confusion: what even is dialectics? If this is dialectics at a standstill, what is a dialectic in motion? Benjamin’s use of this term is idiosyncratic to say the least, but I believe we may shed some light on it by comparing it to perhaps the most famous definitions of dialectics given by Kant in his Critique of Pure Reason and by Hegel in his Science of Logic.

For Kant, dialectical reasoning is essentially confused reasoning.[19] In reason’s hubristic attempts to know the world independent of experience it produces a series of intellectual mirages, which Kant dubs transcendental illusions. These transcendental illusions form the basis for the great debates of rationalist theology, cosmology, and psychology, which argue in vain over contradictory propositions that are nevertheless of equal validity. For example, in rational cosmology we may argue about things which we can never empirically verify, such as whether the world has a beginning in time or if it has no beginning, and in either case we would be rationally justified although we would be no closer to resolving the debate. Kant’s solution is a negative one: this alternation between equally valid but incompatible positions reveals the paucity of pure reason’s abilities to assay its own content without reference to experience. Dialectical thought can at best reveal the limits of reason, or else it spirals out on its own into antinomies, paralogisms, and illusions that are not in its power to resolve.

For much of this, Hegel concurs. He describes dialectics as the “negatively rational” side of logical thought, which takes up the initial, abstract contents of thought and puts them to the test.[20] “The dialectical moment,” he writes, “is the self-sublation of such finite determinations [of abstract thought] by themselves and their transition into their opposites.”[21] That is, the dialectical treatment of a rational proposition will reveal its limits and, in doing so, discover equal grounds for the positing of a contrary statement. Dialectical thought in isolation therefore constitutes a kind of scepticism, which is capable of dismantling any position that it encounters and arguing for its contrary, without thereby committing itself to that contrary, which is likewise submitted to the same acidic reasoning. Despite what you may have heard, Hegel is not a purely dialectical thinker, because he adds to this process another step that takes reason out of the mire of dialectics and its antinomies. Having dissolved our thought in the negative side of reason, we recompose it once more in the “speculative or positively rational” side that “grasps the unity of the determinations in their opposition, the affirmative that is contained in their dissolution and their passing over into something else.”[22] The speculative turn reveals that the opposed determinations of dialectical reason are not absolutely contradictory, but can be conceived as the constituent moments of a higher unity. We can see this movement in the beginning of the Logic, when being and nothingness are united in the concept of becoming, or in the narrative of the Phenomenology, which is populated by numerous paired, contradictory figures who are ultimately revealed as the dirempted facets of a common Spirit.

(4) Is Benjamin dialectical?

I hope it is clear to you that dialectics has nothing to do with theses, antitheses, and syntheses, or any other kind of simple formalism. If any of these terms applies to dialectical thought it is not the famous ‘synthesis’ but the antithesis in a general sense. We can say that dialectical thought is the thought of antithetical relationships between particular concepts and propositions, which for neither Kant nor Hegel resolve into a simple synthesis of the two. For Benjamin, too, dialectics involves the opposition of two positions—the past and present, the ‘what-has-been’ and ‘the now’—that cannot be fully reconciled. But as in Hegel’s account, an additional step must be taken. In historical consciousness we do not resolve the dialectical opposition of ‘what-has-been’ and ‘the now’ into a single, synthetic position (which may very well be what historicism attempts to do in its endeavours to ‘resuscitate’ the past and impose upon it the ‘eternal’ form of progress). Instead, we are presented with a dialectics that is not resolved but frozen in time: the dialectical image does not bring the past and present together as one but captures them side by side in a snapshot.

Naturally, Benjamin’s insistence upon the pausing of the dialectical process has made it difficult to place him among other thinkers of the dialectic. For Slavoj Žižek, Benjamin’s conception of dialectics at a standstill is essentially on the side of Hegel against his ‘Hegelian’ followers, who attempted to insert into Hegel’s thought an evolutionary progress from one point to the next. As any attentive reader of Hegel will know, his works do not present unitary wholes but are marked by all manner of narrative digressions, sharp breaks in the sequence of ideas, and sudden suspensions of one argument for another.[23] Indeed, we can say that Hegel already presents us with a ‘suspended dialectic,’ which moves by stops and starts, cutting from one scene to the next, and only gets anywhere when it speculatively pauses to bring its disparate elements together.[24]

In sharp contrast, Gillian Rose has argued that it is Benjamin’s affinity for dialectics that marks him as a melancholy thinker, whose fixation on the past does not allow for the Hegelian work of mourning. The dialectical image resolves nothing; it can only envisage the reconciliation of its elements as they are pictured, without bringing them together in fact. For Rose, borrowing a figure from Goethe and Hegel, the conceptual position of ‘dialectics at a standstill’ is that of the ‘beautiful soul,’ who impotently opposes an inner piety to the fallen status of the world.[25] The beautiful soul is dialectical because it remains caught in the sad position of being irreconcilable with the world; a world that it cannot recognise as a vital part of itself. The two halves of the dialectical image may be held together in contemplation, but they will never bridge the gulf that persists between them. The historian who makes the dialectical image the object of their work threatens to be cast adrift in this chasm.

And yet, after all this, can we say that Benjamin is a dialectical thinker or an anti-dialectical one? Do his ‘dialectics at a standstill’ represent a boon to dialectical thought or a refusal of its drive toward reconciliation? In properly dialectical fashion, these are antinomies that I will not hazard to resolve today.


[1] See: Alison Ross, Revolution and History in Walter Benjamin (New York: Routledge, 2019), 101: “Giorgio Agamben misunderstands Benjamin’s notion of messianic redemption, in part because he amalgamates it with the other two notions of redemption that we find in Benjamin’s writing on history. Agamben equates redemption of the past with putting an end to it, in the sense of being done with it, separating the present from it once and for all. ‘For humanity as for the individual human, to redeem the past is to put an end to it, to cast upon it a gaze that fulfills it.’”

[2] Walter Benjamin, Selected Works, vol. 4, eds. Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003), 407.

[3] Josh. 10:13-4 KJV

[4] Benjamin, Selected Works 4, 170.

[5] Walter Benjamin, Selected Works, vol. 3, eds. Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002), 334.

[6] Walter Benjamin, Selected Works, vol. 1, eds. Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996), 288. Further elaboration on this fragment may be found in: Werner Hamacher and Kirk Wetters, “Guilt History: Benjamin’s Sketch ‘Capitalism as Religion,’” Diacritics 32, 3/4 (Autumn-Winter 2002): 81-106; and Michael Löwy, “Capitalism as Religion: Walter Benjamin and Max Weber,” Historical Materialism 17, 1 (2009): 60-73.

[7] Karl Marx, Capital Volume One, trans. Ben Fowkes (London: Penguin, 1976), 163.

[8] Benjamin, Selected Works 1, 288.

[9] Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus, trans. Robert Hurley, Mark Seem, and Helen R. Lane (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983), 197: “In a word, money—the circulation of money—is the means for rendering the debt infinite […] the

debt becomes a debt of existence, a debt of the existence of the subjects themselves.”

[10] Benjamin, Selected Works 1, 288.

[11] Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999), N1,3.

[12] Fredric Jameson, The Benjamin Files (London: Verso, 2020), 222: “The English word ‘standstill,’ conveying a breakdown or unwanted immobilization, then suggests that it is the dialectic itself that has fatally broken down; and the two images we have just discussed—the angel’s paralysis and the warrior’s secret recourse to theology—only confirm this impression. But Stillstand is something closer to freeze-frame photography than to a car wreck.”  

[13] Jameson, Benjamin Files, 223: “The frozen moment does not bring the action to an end; rather, it allows us to analyze it into multiple outcomes, multiple choices, on the basis of a fundamental situation, a shared dilemma, which the arrest of movement reveals and produces, beyond all distraction, like an X-ray. The technique then uses visuality itself against the very illusions inherent in it, the false appearances aroused by movement and encouraged by our pleasure in visual consumption.”

[14] Theodor Adorno, History and Freedom: Lectures 1964-5, trans. Rodney Livingstone (Cambridge: Polity, 2006), 171: “The intertwining of eternal sameness and the new in the exchange relation manifests itself in the imagos of progress in bourgeois industrialism. What seems paradoxical is that these imagos grow old and that anything new should ever make its appearance at all, given that technology ensures that the eternal sameness of the exchange principle is intensified to the point where repetition prevails throughout the sphere of production. The life process itself freezes into immobility in the expression of eternal sameness; hence the shock-effect of photographs from the nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries. They explode the absurdity that something happens when the phenomenon tells us that nothing more can happen; their ageing is shocking. In that shock the terror inspired by the system crystallizes into visible form; the more the system expands, the more it hardens into what it has always been. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. What Benjamin called ‘dialectics at a standstill’ is probably less of a Platonizing residue than the attempt to raise such paradoxes to philosophical consciousness. Dialectical images are the historical and objective archetypes of that antagonistic unity of movement and immobility that defines the bourgeois concept of progress in its most general form.” 

[15] Susan Buck-Morss, The Dialectics of Seeing (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1989), 190. As Buck-Morss elaborates: “The modern woman who allies herself with fashion’s newness in a struggle against natural decay represses her own productive power, mimics the mannequin, and enters history as a dead object, a ‘gaily decked-out corpse.’ Fashion ‘prostitutes the living body to the inorganic world,’ at the moment when prostitutes themselves begin to rely on the commodity appeal of fashionable dress, selling their living bodies as a thing” (101).

[16] Benjamin, Arcades Project, O11a,4.

[17] Buck-Morss, Dialectics of Seeing, 185.

[18] On this tendency toward a mystical ideal of femininity among the radical art movements of the modern era, see Simone de Beauvoir’s comments on Breton in The Second Sex, trans. Constance Borde and Sheila Malovny-Chevallier (London: Vintage, 2011), 254-61.

[19] Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, trans. Paul Guyer and Allen W. Wood (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 384-7.

[20] G.W.F. Hegel, Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Science in Basic Outline, Part I: Science of Logic, trans. Klaus Brinkman and Daniel O. Dahlstrom (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 125.

[21] Hegel, Encyclopedia Logic, 128.

[22] Hegel, Encyclopedia Logic, 132.

[23] Slavoj Žižek, The Sublime Object of Ideology (London: Verso, 1989), 161-2: “At first sight, Benjamin’s position is radically anti-Hegelian: is not dialectics the most refined and perfidious version of evolutionism, in [page break] which the very ruptures are included in the continuity of progress, in its unavoidable logic? This was probably how Benjamin himself conceived his own position: he designated the point of rupture which cuts into historical continuity as the point of ‘suspended dialectics,’ as the intrusion of a pure repetition putting in parentheses the progressive movement of Aufhebung. […] The suspension of movement is a key moment of the dialectical process: so-called ‘dialectical development’ consists in the incessant repetition of a beginning ex nihilo, in the annihilation and retroactive restructuring of the presupposed contents.” 

[24] Žižek, Sublime Object, 155: “Here we have the first surprise: what specifies historical materialism—in contrast to the Marxist doxa according to which we must grasp events in the totality of their interconnection and in their dialectical movement—is its capacity to arrest, to immobilize historical movement and to isolate the detail from its historical totality. It is this very crystallization, this ‘congelation’ of the movement in a monad, which announces the moment of the appropriation of the past: the monad is an actual moment to which is attached directly—bypassing the continuous line of evolution—the past: the contemporary revolutionary situation which conceives itself as a repetition of past failed situations, as their retroactive ‘redemption’ through the success of its own exploit. The past itself is here ‘filled out with the present,’ the moment of the revolutionary chance decides not only the lot of the actual revolution but also the lot of all past failed revolutionary attempts.” 

[25] Gillian Rose, Judaism and Modernity (London: Verso, 1993), 178-9: “This image of ‘the beautiful soul’ (who cannot, in fact, be pictured because her ‘beauty’ is not aesthetic but ascetic) is dialectical, for it captures the impotence that results from excessive religious zeal, which opposes the world in the name of an inner, individual protestantism […] The concentration on the image of ‘the beautiful soul’ exhibits what Benjamin called dialectics at a standstill, for she bears no fruit—her body disintegrates as her soul swells—and she returns in death to fallen nature, neither realized nor redeemed. This zealous and melancholy profile, caught in a narrative, forms a constellation with earlier and later times.” 

3 thoughts on “Frozen in Time (Reading Benjamin’s Theses XV & XVI)”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s