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ISSN 1479-7585 Print/ISSN 1740-1666 online/03/010047-14 2003 Taylor & Francis Ltd

DOI: 10.1080/1479758032000079774

Journal for Cultural Research, Vol. 7, No. 1, 2003, 4760

Things Temporal Expose, Passages from

Alexandre Lefebvre

Nineteenth-century Paris was for Walter Benjamin the site of a singular historical
event, the ur-form of bourgeois modernity. It was a hellish time disastrously bent on
repeating itself and yet a threshold of great promise and possibility. By focusing on
Benjamins 1935 and 1939 Exposes for The Arcades Project, my paper develops the
keywords of the Exposes (Arcades, Fashion, etc.), and elaborates ways in which these
objects articulate such different temporal possibilities. For example, fashion enacts
eternally recurrent and capital time, whereas arcades represent wish images of the
that might be actualized into utopian promises of the future. My argument develops
Benjamins objective framing of temporality. In the Exposes specific and
things communicate temporalities specific to modernity. Objects not only communicate
time but also enable the temporal experience of the modern subject. This reading
challenges idealist interpretations of temporality grounded within an interiorizing
subject. I do not argue that Benjamin privileges an objective temporal horizon over
subject but rather that he resituates dialectical possibilities of temporality in the
engagement between subjects and commonplace objects.
As I study this age which is so close to us and so remote, I compare myself to a
surgeon operating with local anesthetic: I work in areas that are numb, dead yet
the patient is alive and can still talk.
Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project

I. The passage of Walter Benjamin

Listen. Things speak; we can hear them in the Arcades:

A look at the ambiguity of the arcades: their abundance of mirrors, which

fabulously amplifies the space and makes orientation more difficult . . . The
whispering of gazes fills the arcades. There is no thing here that does not, where
one least expects it, open a fugitive eye, blinking it shut again; but if you look
more closely, it is gone. To the whispering of these gazes, the space lends its echo.
Now what, it blinks, can possibly have come over me? We stop short in some
surprise. What indeed, can possibly have come over you? Thus we gently
bounce the question back to it (Benjamin 1999:542)

What kind of address is this? What is the vocative function of these blinks,
whispers, gazes and questions? This first set of questions treats perceptibility.
48 A. Lefebvre
How do moderns a wanderer in the arcade, for example recognize and engage
with objects and space? How does the subject negotiate encounters with objects?
Many readers of Benjamins Paris writings perceive in them exteriorization of the
spirit, an Entausserung gone mad (Leslie 2000:153; Markus 2001; Mehlman
1993:689). They find a space fugitive, interrogative, conspirational that
develops a claim made by Hegel to the truth of its exaggeration; namely, that to
endow objects with life is to make them into gods (ONeill 1996:5). We shall
argue that Benjamin articulates a certain crisis of immanence that is accelerated
and exaggerated in commodification whereby we experience not the thingness of
the thing but rather the thingness of the self and the selfness of the thing.
Perception and perceptibility involve more than simply the capacity to see, but
depends upon and supports a temporal organization of the world (Marder

2001:28). This brings us to a second group of questions raised by this passage

around temporality. The passage above carries on in the present participle. The
whispering never stops and it is never exactly locatable. It is fugitive but fills, opens
but shuts, interrogates but echoes, all in the suspension of time. Its detective-style
tropes are not incidental. This passage seems to be the scene of a crime. But of a
crime which repeats itself, preserves and returns to itself. It concludes with the
specularity of its beginning; its closing question only mirrors more questions.
With the problematic of perceptibility and time in mind, we will turn to the
Expose texts, which occupy the rest of the essay. Only two of the several Exposes
Benjamin wrote to solicit support for his never completed Passengen-Werk remain.
One is dated 1935 and the other 1939. (The principal difference between the two
is that the 1939 version includes substantial theoretical development in the form
of an introduction and conclusion.) Each section of these short texts is organized
around a particular thing or object. Thus, in the 1935 Expose, we find six divisions
corresponding to: arcades, panoramas, world exhibitions, the bourgeois interior,
streets of Paris, and barricades.
We shall develop these keywords and consider how objects become perceptible,
and a problem of perceptibility, as they communicate (whispering and glancing)
varied possibilities of temporal experience. This is a strange and difficult notion
for the subject who is both actant and actor within these times. When we speak
of the objects of the Exposes, we refer both to the objective and phenomenal
modernity of nineteenth-century Paris, and also to a resituated dialectic between
this modernity, human subjects and material objects. It is a little like Derrida puts
it the thing is not an object [and] cannot become one in the sense that object
and subject are not to be counterposed and bounded in opposition to one another
(Derrida 1984:12).
Instead, we speak of these objects as though they had struck us (Benjamin
1999:206). This involves giving close attention to the things themselves, sinking
with them into the deepest stratum (206). Our reading of the Expose texts not
only accords primacy to the object but also develops the modalities in which
objects function as bearers and possibility of time. This reading of objective time
is contrary to interpretations of Benjamin (and even of Benjamin himself) which
stress the idealist and voluntarist qualities of his dialectical historicism. Therefore,
this will not be a reading in which Benjamin rescues the rags and refuse of history
in order to escape a stalled dialectic of modernity (Buck-Morss 1989:24452). Nor
will this essay support images of the collector-historian piecing what comes
together in a flash with the now to form a constellation (Benjamin 1999:462).
Things Temporal Expose, Passages from Benjamin 49
Both of these frames are too idealistic and interiorizing to develop the thought
that things themselves structure perception and time.
The first part of this paper elaborates objects as circulating temporalities of
recurrence and iteration, and focuses on fashion and the commodity form as
nouveaute. The second part traces counter-times: objective expressions of
temporalities not resumed by circuits and circulation of commodities as novelty.
Finally, the concluding remarks stress an untimely event of the subject from
within a context in which horizons of temporality have been objectively relocated
in what Benjamin believed to be the originary moment of modernity, Paris,
Capital of the Nineteenth Century.
II. The ruffle of eternity
The 1939 Expose opens and closes (with) damnation, the temporality of
Sisyphus. Here, there, then, and now, we moderns are under sentence of
damnation, a mythic anguish, where torments of hell figure as the latest
novelty of all time, as pains eternal and always new (Benjamin 1939:26). Calling
this hellish time, Benjamin points to the contradiction in a social order that
postures as dynamic and novel, while simultaneously forcibly ensuring that no

relations, no distributions and no rules ever change. Benjamins text indicates that
this eternally recurring economy of punishment is singularly historical a product
of its times, the complement of that society (1939:25) and also an abeyance of
the possibility of time, except for iterative perdition.
Here, we observe a peculiar temporality. Modern damnation is rendered
immanently and tautologically: we are damned because we endure punishments
but these punishments constitute damnation. This is a universe which repeats
endlessly and performs imperturbably the same routines (Benjamin citing
Blanqui 1939:26). Punishment is the fact that we have to keep on enduring
punishment. Benjamins sentence of damnation (1939:26) has an inexpiable
syntax and thus of duration; it suffers punishments from within an immanently
generated form of time/timelessness, while this form is nothing else than its most
formidable punishment. As Baudelaire puts it, the person living in hellish time
sees nothing but disillusion and bitterness, and before him nothing but a tempest
which contains nothing new, neither instruction nor pain (Benjamin 1968a:193).
Since we argue for a displacement of time into objectivity, we will develop a
specific example of hellish temporality. In the Exposes there is a sustained
displacement of the experience and possibility of time into the objective modernity
of nineteenth-century Paris. Perhaps the most singular enactment of temporal
damnation is crystallized within fashion. Indeed, Benjamin anticipated constructing
The Arcades Project as a metaphysics of fashion, whereby fashion
would be the modern measure of time (Buck-Morss 1989:97). The relevant
quality of fashion is its production of a particular consciousness of time: novelty.
The novelty form of commodity time is precisely its operation of hellish time: a
dynamic standstill. It is dynamic because of its new velocities of acceleration
and antiquation but this dynamism is in service of eliminating all discontinuities
and sudden ends (Benjamin 1999:656). Fashion overcomes [aufgehoben] birth
and death, ruptures that would impinge on its present moment. Fashion
circulates birth and death so that they propose no significant disjunction, only a
recurrence of the same rising and passing away.
50 A. Lefebvre
Capital-time is economic circularity: a time that never gives anything without
reappropriation, circular return, repetition and capitalization (Derrida 1992:101).
But fashion proceeds by disjunctures and breaks as the temporality of nouveaute,
[which is] a quality independent of the use value of the commodity. It is the
source of that illusion of which fashion is the tireless purveyor . . . this semblance
of the new is reflected, like one mirror in another, in the semblance of the ever
recurrent (Benjamin 1939:22; 1935:11). Since nouveaute is a quality independent
of the use value of the commodity, it is separate from and anterior to its
manifestations in the commodity. The material object is a latent or late arrival to
its temporal form (the nouveaute of fashion). Novelty is the originary time of
damned modernity: new while recurrent. Completely un-substantial and tireless,
novelty is never anything other than contemporaneous: to be contemporaine de
tout le monde that is the keenest and most secret satisfaction that fashion can
offer (Benjamin 1999:66).
Yet novelty in itself is impossible; it is only a quasi-temporality. Newness, for all
its independence from the commodity, requires objects as vehicles to announce
itself. Benjamin makes the Hegelian point that spirit (or time) cannot remain
indeterminately abstract but must pass into substantiality (Hegel 1991:185). But
while Hegel circulates spirit as witness to the manifest dynamic of history,
Benjamin shows this concretization to be crystallized and suspended. This
crystallized dialectic is expressed in Benjamins remark that the eternal is any
case far more the ruffle on a dress than some idea (1999:69). The ruffle is time
done-up as frozen substantiality; whether the dress is of this season or the last it
promises the same for eternity. Novelty is a perfect example of the performance

and dissimulation of eternal recurrence. In novelty, the bourgeoisie enjoys its

false consciousness to the full in which the newest and latest thing enjoins a
hyperamnesic temporality performed in both the object as ephemeral and in the
experience of the thing as new (1935:11). Fashion is that which produces a faculty
of forgetfulness ensuring its temporality of recurrence because every current of
fashion or of worldview derives its force from what is forgotten (Benjamin
As communicants of nouveaute, objects are temporal experience for the subject
of fashion or urbanity. Capitalist modernity has concretized and disseminated the
boredom and ennui requisite for experiencing its objects. Second Empire Paris is
an ever, ever, ever, a monotony feed[ing] on the new (Benjamin 1999:109,
111). This newness and its monotony are embodied and expressed in the medium
of the things of Paris whose temporal consciousness or condition is one of
objective, stalled temporality. The objective nouveaute Benjamin discerns precludes
alternative temporal materialities and possibilities; reality as the exhaustive
measure of humanity can promise only recurrence. With Blanqui, Benjamin
concludes that humanity figures as damned in this phantasmatic civilization:
everything new it could hope for turns out to be a reality that has always been
present; and this newness will be as little capable of furnishing it with a liberating
solution as a new fashion is capable of rejuvenating society (1939:15).
The things and substances of recurrent time are not restricted to fashion alone.
On Some Motifs in Baudelaire Benjamin begins to outline a change in the
structure of experience in the period broadly referred to as Second Empire Paris
(1968a:156). Running through complex coordinates of memory and time in
Bergson, Freud and Proust, Benjamin depicts modern subjects so bombarded by
Things Temporal Expose, Passages from Benjamin 51
objective shocks and sudden stimuli that they are unable to register and
coordinate their impressions into lasting memories. Describing the technologies
of the newspaper (disjoint and inchoate informational montages), gambling
(punctums of shock and chance), and the crowd (jostling sites of wildness and
discipline) Benjamin declares that technology has subjected the human sensorium
to a complex kind of training (1968a:175). This training is such that the
pedestrians and people of Paris are capable only of reflex actions, able only to
mimic the tempo, speed and repetition of memories liquidated by the technologies
they imitate (1968a:176, 178). The urban subjects Benjamin depicts are not
nude or reduced idealist centers of apperception. Instead, Benjamins Parisian
subjects apprehend and express the temporalities of the objects that have formed
their temporal consciousnesses.
Like his depictions of fashion, time is grafted onto a variety of objects that
palpably structure and limit the temporality of eternal transience they enable
(Benjamin 1999:348). In great part, what the Exposes undertake is to detail how
eternal recurrence structurally inserts and pervades itself in the spatial forms of
bourgeois modernity:
[The] spatialization of historical time [is] one of the profound innovations that
marked the mourning play and, by implication, modernity. Or, as [Benjamin]
phrased it economically, history merges into the setting . . . the instauration of
modernity implied a fall from historical time into an inauthentic form of
spatialization . . . (Hassen 1998:545).

Thus, in each major section of the Exposes Benjamin posits a spatial concretion of
eternally recurrent/novel time similar to what I detailed using fashion. For
example, the long avenues of Baron Georges Haussmanns urban planning
replaced the warren of medieval Paris, thereby setting in place a spatial apparatus
for capital speculation and circularity. Moreover, with the help of these new
property and circulatory city forms, Haussmanns project was to secure the city
against civil war by widening the boulevards such that barricades would be
ineffective (Benjamin 1939:23). With Haussmanns broad perspectives in mind

we can again see how Benjamin in the Exposes develops the recurrence of time in
spatial forms. With the Haussmannization of Paris, the phantasmagoria was
rendered in stone: the phantasmagoria metaphor of circuitry, fetish and illusion
communicates times that only spin around and around, re-volutions preventing
revolutionary interruptions (1939:24).
And while Haussmannization established phantasmagoric time publicly, the
bourgeois interieur spatializes eternal recurrence privately. Both retreating from,
and sustaining the shock-anesthetization of city life, the domestic interior
sustains [the private individual] in his illusions (Benjamin 1939:19). In this space,
the individual ensconces himself in cultured and individuated spaces to
compensate for the absence of any trace of private life in the big city (1939:20).
By leaving imprints to palliate a traceless and anonymous modern public
existence these spaces elicit a time and mood indicating precisely to what extent
the nineteenth-century interior is itself a stimulus to intoxication and dream
(Benjamin 1999:216). This is a dream which both confines and condemns the
historical hour to an eternal one. In the complicity of Haussmannization with the
interieur we can see how Benjamin treats these forms as space-times and
52 A. Lefebvre
dreamtimes [zeit-traum] wherein the individual consciousness more and more
secures itself in reflecting, while the collective consciousness sinks into ever
deeper sleep (1999:389).
Let us consider one more instantiation of hellish time: Baudelaires herald in the
poem Les Sept Vieillards. Here the poet meets seven individuals all alike:
Doubtless to you my dread seems ludicrous,
Unless a brotherly shudder lets you see:
For all their imminent decrepitude,
These seven monsters had eternal life!
I doubt if I could have survived an eighth,
Such apparition, father and son of himself,
Inexorable Phoenix, loathsome avatar!
I turned my back on the whole damned parade. (Benjamin 1999:362)
[Que celui-l`a qui rit de mon inquietude,
Et qui nest pas saisi dun frisson fraternal,
Songe bien que malgre tant de decrepitude
Ces sept monsters hidieux avaient lair eternal!
Aurais-je, sans mourir, contemple le huiti`eme,
Sosie inexorable, ironique et fatal,
Dego utant Phenix, fils et p`ere de lui-meme?
Mais je tournai le dos au cort`ege infernal. (Baudelaire 1968:173)]

The discovery of the absolutely novel and infinitely reproducible type is the
ultimate physiognomy. Here the temporality of novelty and recurrence are
objectified in the human subject: the newness for which [Baudelaire] was on the
lookout all his life consists in nothing other than this phantasmagoria of what is
always the same (Benjamin 1939:22). What sort of herald could this be
(1939:24)? What future can this type bring tidings of? Can an avatar speak if it is
always and only the present iterated? The stillborn Phoenix, the auto-engendering
spawn, an eternally imminent decrepitude all these are versions of damned
temporality. Baudelaires horror is due both to the infinite repetition in space and
to the singular articulation of time. Most disquieting is the brotherly shudder we
feel, for we now look like Baudelaire himself and realize that counting him and
ourselves, we have multiplied far beyond eight.
To conclude this section I repeat that in its objective orientation, bourgeois Paris
of the Second Empire has forbidden any becoming-time of time. In its commodity
form, Paris is an anachronism. Now, let us turn to other objects and consider how
Benjamin will discover possibilities of non-contemporaneity, projection, restoration
and inconclusiveness.
III. Memories of the future

Baudelaire is not alone in disquietude. Parisians too feel estranged from their
city: they no longer feel at home there, and start to become conscious of the
inhuman character of the metropolis (1935:12). The inhuman is an apt
Things Temporal Expose, Passages from Benjamin 53
characterization of a city whose objective temporal properties enact only monadic
recurrence. Derrida provides us with an observation to frame this anxiety:
In order to constitute the space of a habitable house and a home, you also need
an opening, a door and windows; you have to give up passage to the outside
world [letranger]. There is no house or interior without a door or windows. The
monad of home has to be hospitable in order to be ipse, itself at home, habitable
at-home in the relation of the self to itself. (2000:61)

Though not using the same terms as Derrida, Benjamin depicts Paris of the
Second Empire as having shuttered itself so that nothing (no-thing) different or
new can emerge or enter. To mix Benjamin and Derrida slightly, the interior does
have entrances and windows but these simple open onto the broader field of
Haussmanns stony spinning phantasmagoria. Nothing is ever new because of
novelty. It is necessary for any home or space to be open to an other who may
enter and potentially disrupt. The conditions of hospitality are those of
intersubjective dialectics more generally: the other must inhabit, affect and
engage with the self for either of these two positions to exist. What we tried to
demonstrate in the previous section may be considered the foreclosure of a
temporal hospitality. Negatively put, the objects disseminating novelty-time
block the entrance of other time forms so that the present is reiterated.
Benjamin realizes this necessity of the guest and other (hospitality). But he
reorients the entrance. To achieve non-contemporaneity within itself (and thus
redeem the possibility of a critical present rather than recurrent presencing)
Benjamin locates alternate temporalities within the same objects enacting
recurrent time. He expresses this immanent and objective otherness through the
categories of wish-image and primal past. These images emerge wherever
and whenever old and the new interpenetrate (1935:4), i.e. fashion, arcades,
crowds and boulevards but in such a way these new things are not resumed into
novelty. For within these new forms and objects there exist traces which could,
potentially, overcome the stammering and stalled dialectic of novelty and
transfigure the immaturity of the social product (1935:4).
What sort of traces? How could the new and the time-forms in which it
inheres be thought differently and transfigured? Overcoming this social
immaturity requires the realization that this so-called immaturity is the most
developed time-form of Second Empire Paris (i.e. novelty). When Benjamin writes
that what emerges in these wish images is the resolute effort to distance oneself
from all that is antiquated which includes . . . the recent past (1935:4), he
identifies a distance that must be put between a mode of time that is itself
antiquated, or a form of time which is the constant antiquation of the present into
the recent past, over again.
To distance oneself from the eternal present is to deflect the imagination (which
is given impetus by the new) back upon the primal past. In the dream in which each
epoch entertains images of its successor, the latter appears wedded to elements of
primal history [Urgeschichte] (1935:4, my emphasis). The primal past does not
mean an ideal unrealized. Rather, the potential of the primal past motivates and
impels us to critically reflect upon the present because its desires were never
fulfilled. What provokes this reflection, Benjamin avers, is the impetus of the new
and of new social products that might be engendered such that they would not
54 A. Lefebvre
service recurrence. Objects embody alternative time-forms that deflect us from the
cycle and closure of hellish time unto an indeterminate and open primal past:
And the experiences of such a 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
fashion (1935:45, my emphasis). The wish-image here, a utopia tracing its
memory is a fundamentally temporal concept. Moreover, it is inscribed in
objects, incommunicable except through objects.
Before returning to the object-time thematic, we should to develop the temporal
implications of the wish-image. Although not directly elaborated in the Exposes,
this wish-time relation is expressly treated in On Some Motifs in Baudelaire.
Antithetical to gambling or fashionable time (the time of the perpetual
punctum), a wish reaches out or back in time, relating the present and future to
ones earliest hopes of fulfillment: [a wish] accompanies one to the far reaches of
time, that fills and divides time. Thus a wish fulfilled is the crowning of
experience (1968a:179). Wishes therefore require focused and almost concerted
attention to follow it to completion; in fact, the temporality of the wish is such that
the wish merely completes time (1968a:179). As a wish-image, the traces
discerned in thousands of material configurations would require a perceptive
reader to actualize these objective potentials. A subject could complete the
temporal possibilities inhering within the object and thereby accomplish the wish
as the experience of a speculative unity between realized object and redeemed
subject. In its realization, the object would be rescued from both oblivion and
recurrence. And its rescue would also be our own for [it is] a matter of doing
justice to the concrete historical situation of the interest taken in the object
(Benjamin 1999:391). By realizing our deepest and most sustained longings, the
object would be released from its former being into the higher concretion of
now-being [Jetztsein] (waking being!) (Benjamin 1999:391).
Thus, Buck-Morss represents a heroic epic, full of motifs of rescue and peril.
The dialectical historian blasts apart the continuum of history, constructing
historical objects in a politically explosive constellation of past and present, as
a lightning flash of truth . . . a reflection of true transcendence (Buck-Morss
1989:241). In these terms, objects are devoured by their realized potential; they are
accomplished through the assemblages of a subject able to guide the coincident
wish of the subject and object to completion. In the Afterword to her Dialectics of
Seeing, Buck-Morss unequivocally locates Benjamin texts through the ambition of
achieving wish images: Benjamins dialectical images are neither aesthetic nor
arbitrary. He understood historical perspective as a focus on the past that made
the present, as revolutionary now-time (1989:339). Revolutionary now-time
overcomes the punctum of recurrent time; the flash of realization is brought about
only with the perspective and transcendence of seeing an object to fruition in the
temporality of the wish-image. Benjamin, she writes, kept his eyes on this beacon
[of revolutionary now-time] and objects unlock their promises in orbit of this
revolutionary instantiation (Buck-Morss 1989:339).
Buck-Morss is by no means alone in her interpretative strategy. Max Pensky
follows Buck-Morss closely in his question of the nonarbitrariness of the
dialectical image (1992:212). Graeme Gilloch goes so far as to identify the
fundamental basis of Benjamins critical historiography in two procedural
steps: objects are first emptied out and overcome of myth, and afterwards the
Things Temporal Expose, Passages from Benjamin 55
object appears in its afterlife as a form of premonition signing towards the
future (1996:1378). Mitchell, like Gilloch, avers that Benjamin aim[s] at the
formulation of dialectical images, which would capture the objectivity of historical
life as a form of natural history (Mitchell 2001:183, my emphasis). Beatrice
Hassen identifies a speculative idealism in the Trauerspiel whereby the object
travels outside of itself in order to be relieved by redemption and objective
thereby becoming and being for-itself:
At the deepest point of its fall or immersion into nothingness, allegory in fact
turned into a redemptive figure of itself. A metafigure of sorts, it became,

ironically, a dialectical trick that imbues lifeless matter with the spirit of
resurrection . . . his analysis retained the salvific model such a new conception of
history was to explode. (Hassen 1998:100, 102)

Without this redemptive determination, Buck-Morss cautions, the possibilities

for reconstructing the past are infinite and arbitrary (1989:339). My objection to
such a diagnosis is twofold. First, with this salvational trick the object is absorbed
into a hermeneutic whose category of meaning remains founded in an
interiorizing human subject. By insisting on the constellation of the revolutionary
beacon, these readings of Benjamin limit and program the very objects they claim
to redeem and liberate. Moreover, and this is my second criticism, such readings
of Benjamin as redeemer of objects place the temporality of objects in a way very
similar to fashionable time. They depend upon the presentation of a subject who
dialectically attempts to redeem a past that lays urgent claim on the present to
improve the future. Such a method, it may be argued, is subjectivist or voluntarist
and ultimately betrays Benjamin by inscribing a classical subject/object dialectic,
one that has obscured patterns of circulation, transference, translation, and
displacement (Brown 2001:12).
Let us try to abandon the productivist, engineering character of an independent
subject who already knows what has to be taught and done. Rather than deploy
a hermeneutic of salvation and wish-realization as now-time and actualization of
the object, let us attempt to interpret the objective engagement that Benjamin
describes in the Exposes through the poetic trope of apostrophe. To my
knowledge, apostrophe does not appear in Benjamins work. I want to make
use of it heuristically to help understand and also to motivate my general
argument of Benjamins displacement of time into things. An apostrophe calls
either to an absent person or to an inanimate entity. In this case, wish-traces left
in thousands of material configurations are being apostrophized. These things are
doubly absent; first in that they disappoint their potential and second because
they enact the inanimacy of hellish time:
Corresponding to the form of the new means of production, which in the
beginning is still ruled by the form of the old (Marx), are images in the collective
consciousness in which the old and the new interpenetrate. These images are wish
images; in them the collective seeks both to overcome and to transfigure the
immaturity of the social product and the inadequacies in the social organization
of production . . . These tendencies deflect the imagination (which is given
impetus by the new) back upon the primal past . . . And the experience of such a
society as stored in the unconscious of the collective engenders, 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. (1935:4)

56 A. Lefebvre
Here, our deposited, utopic wish images are addressed as a promesse de bonheur.
Utopia is promissory in temporal terms a not-yet event impelling advent. We
call to the object in hope and expectation; we allow it to deflect and inhabit our
imagination rather than repeat its current manifestation as in fashion, for
example. As Baudelaire writes in Le Voyage, we travel deep in the Unknown
to find the new (Benjamin 1939:22) but here the Unknown emerges from within
the familiar and mundane to lead us out of self-incurred immaturity.
At this level, however, the notion of the apostrophe is no different from the
revolutionary beacon Buck-Morss reads into Benjamin if we invoke it only to
heed our own call and constellation. The Unknown would only be what we had
engendered all along. But Benjamins apostrophe is not limitable to this model
because the call issues from two directions. On the one hand, the collective
consciousness calls out to its own objects and receives, in the form of utopia, a
promise of the future. On the other hand, objects engender our wish images and
configurations of life, thus reversing the direction of the address. As Benjamin
remarks, our wish images and imagination are given impetus by what is new. We
call to them and they call to us. The objective (the things, forms of life) and the

social (collective consciousness) occupy the positions of addresser and addressee

at the same time. Modern objects are inanimate and absent from their potential
but can awaken the collective consciousness. The social addresses its objects only
to receive, from them, a transfigurative jolt of the primal past interpenetrated with
what is new.
I want therefore to distance my interpretation from the programmaticity of
object-time as revolutionary actualization. As Marder suggests, this may involve
a special form of active passivity . . . [which] unblocks hidden passages and
allows the past to pass through us and meet us in the present (2001:12). The
modern subject if s/he has the fine, focal ears for it responds to an objective call
in space that opens horizons of time. As with the passage that opened my essay,
this call could be nothing more than a glance or a whisper. In objects there can be
discerned traces and utopic transpositions that a repetitious present and
consciousness have not yet managed to efface. We moderns have engendered and
stored these traces in objects with the effect that they call forth to us, and we
respond. In this sense, the collective consciousness receives a memory of the
future, elements of a classless arche that might be re-newed. These objects could,
perhaps, foretell of a primal past to-come, and a classless future that may relieve
their form as produced and consumed commodities.
Communing with these objects transfigures not the object but the listening
subject who is also affected. As Victor Burgin writes, the subject itself is soluble
. . . it is at the origin of feelings of being invaded, overwhelmed, suffocated
(1996:155). This is not the narcissism of picking up what we ourselves deposited
but the possibility of breaking out of the confirmatory speculation of eternally
recurrent modernity. These objects surprise by their suggestion; they demonstrate
the distance between our dreams and our current social forms. By so doing, they
encourage the resolute effort to distance [our]self from all that is antiquated
which includes, however, the recent past. Primal history is the a-venir of the past.
The primal past should not be read as a condition to recover, but as spur impelling
us to transfigure an immaturity of recurrence. The immaturity to overcome is not
naivety or unsophistication, but a form of time objectively communicated.
(Modern) objects continue to interrupt the contemporaneity they themselves
Things Temporal Expose, Passages from Benjamin 57
communicate; these same objects solicit ambiguous and dialectical standstills
(1935:10). By deflecting our imaginations modern objects elicit a remembrance of
what was desired but never knew it(self) as such. La modernite is always citing
primal history (1935:10).
Arcades (or whatever of the thousand configurations of life considered, at
hand) promise possibility: time that reaches back/into the object to find a promise
we have always already left ourselves. This is a tempus novus, which shall always
have been nestled within the actant-medium of the object. This temporal promise
of the substantial operates through a negative and materialist dialectic: it
prohibits the gathering of the object in presence, in present; its condition is the
impossibility of immediate eschatological realization. Ambiguity, writes
Benjamin, is the manifest imaging of dialectic, the law of dialectics at a
standstill (1935:10). Classlessness as a primal back-then spurred by correspondence
and interpenetration of new means does not flash together in now
of recognizability [jetzt der Erkennbarkeit] presencing a delimited future; this
would simply determine a future as appendant of a/the present. It would again
be without time, without future and futurity, without the opacity and dimness
that must accompany dream-images and the materials used to translate them.
I say translate because Utopia is evocative of the pure language of
Benjamins Translator. By pure language, Benjamin describes a suprahistorical
kinship of languages that no single language achieves in itself but which is the
movement of one language to another (1968b:74). Pure language exists only in a

state of constant flux, it is the integration of different tongues into the action of
translation (1968b:77). Every empirico-historical speech tries to restitute an
original logos in the movement of languages in translation. In this sense, the pure
language that results from translation is similar to the double apostrophe I
detected earlier where modern objects and primal or utopic imagery reciprocally
provoke one another into realization. In both cases translation and apostrophe
we are witness to a task and imperative whereby the translator is poised both
to give the new product (the translation, the modern object) inspiration from the
old, and have the old (the primal dream or original text) gain survival, afterlife,
and heightened fulfillment in the new.
Even without developing the complex relations between translation and
objective time, this example may serve to describe how modernite is always citing
primal history (1935:10, my emphasis). Translation produces an echo of the
original within the profane; the translator without entering, aiming at that single
spot where the echo is able to give, in its own language, the reverberation of the
work in the alien one (1968b:76). Modernity is always leaving a trace of primal
history arche classlessness is pure language in that neither exist except as a
movement of difference and integration only to pick up its echo and
reverberation, making our own language alien and the echo originary.
Let us consider a specific instance of translation: Fourier and the arcades. As
before, Fourier is the cite/site where the old and new converge: the secret cue for
the Fourierist utopia is the advent of machines (1939:16). In order to transfigure
the immaturity of the social product, Fourier reaches back to a primal past prior
and subsequent to all designations of maturity and immaturity. He evokes the echo
of pure language, the land of milk and honey, the primeval wish symbol . . .
filled with new life (1935:45). In The Task of the Translator Benjamin claimed
that the original lives on and gains survival and eternity in its translations; pure
58 A. Lefebvre
language is achievable, as a sort of penumbra only in translation (1968b:72).
Moreover, Benjamin insists that The higher the level of a work [the original], the
more does it remain translatable even if its meaning is touched upon only
fleetingly (1968b:81). What text could have a higher level than a utopic wishimage?
This is perhaps why the trace of utopia has left its trace in a thousand
configurations of life, from enduring edifices to passing fashions (1935:4). Primal
history is the original existing work (although it never actually existed) that, as
impetus, provokes reality into achieving its own fiction, hence a movement of
Thus for Benjamin Fourier is not a proper name at all; instead, it is a
Since objects are bearers of the potential of modernity, it would take
a keen and careful listener a complex meshing of the passions mechanistes with
the passion cabaliste to discern our wish images (1939:16). It takes a Fourieristic
sense to perceive that Arcades, those myth-scapes of commodity, are house no
less than street . . . the phanlanstery becomes a city of arcades (1935:10, 5).
Fourier is the possibility of allowing an object its possibility which reality has
debased and cheated it. Adorno too claims that a negative dialectic is a chance to
penetrate the hardened object, to perceive and apprehend, however tenuously,
a history congealed in things (1973:523).
The difference between the dialectic of recognizing traces of a primal past and
translating them through modern means, and the appearance of novelty as
commodity-time form is everything. Dream-images and primal pasts are not
actualized directly nor finally but admit only temporary and provisional
instantiation, and this is precisely the task of both the literary and Fourieristic
translator. Modernity fails when we moderns fail to recognize and realize the
objective qualities of temporality, and thus we lose our ability of response: The

century was incapable of responding to the new technological possibilities with a

new social order. That is why the last word was left to the errant negotiators
between old and new who are at the heart of these phantasmagorias . . .
(1939:26). Without response, we lastingly forfeit our words to errancy and
IV. Avenir, a-venir
In the nineteenth century this development [of the forces of production] worked
to emancipate the forms of construction from art . . . A start is made with
architecture as engineered construction. Then comes the reproduction of nature as
photography. The creation of fantasy prepares to become practical as commercial art.
Literature submits to montage in the feuilleton. All these products on the point of
entering the market as commodities. But they linger on the threshold. From this
epoch derive the arcades and interieurs, the exhibition halls and panoramas. They
are residues of a dream world. The realization of dream elements, in the course of
waking up, is the paradigm of dialectical thinking (Benjamin 1935:13, my

The emphases I have placed in the text are intended to draw attention to an
opportunity and foreclosure of the threshold. Modernity is this threshold, which is
both a hermeneutic and a time. Objects are suspended in it and responsibility
occurs only through it. The threshold is the utopian trace and pure language.
Things Temporal Expose, Passages from Benjamin 59
Here, subjects-objects engage the possibility of the production of temporality, i.e.
the ur-moment of modernity. Not as its origin or determining point at which it
could have gone one way or another. Rather, they engage the ur-moment as
opportunity for the discerning observer to envy a past that never was, and
actualize survive, as Adorno would later term it what is alive once its
realization has been missed. Recuperating these particular things Benjamin lists is
immaterial but indicates that even though all these were recuperated into
recurrent time, they lingered on a threshold for a moment they produced.
As Adorno commented, Benjamin texts attempt to make philosophically
fruitful what has not yet been foreclosed by great intentions (1974:52). It is not
simply that the practical must submit to the fantastic in order to evoke the
dialectic. These objects are described as residual, the original having been
removed or absent. These objects then have potency and possibility because they
are not instructed by great intentions nor programs; they are residual in that they
enable and teach us the time for dreams and wishes: this makes them original and
primary. In this sense, modernity is always originary, providing we take the time
for its objects. Boredom is the threshold to great deeds (1999:105) and it is this
threshold, this possibility and primacy of the object that allows us to perceive a
chthonic city and modernity, without Sisyphus.
1. The author would like to thank John ONeill and Sonya Scott for their careful readings
of this paper.


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Alexandre Lefebvre is a graduate student in Social and Political Thought, York

University, Toronto. His research interests include critical theory and legal