Memory work, arcades and montage

May 22, 2007


Cupboards, drawers, boxes and storage bins are open and private everyday objects are strewn about, turned into something public in preparation for the moving sale. Personal histories related to each item are re-examined. Will they survive without the physical archives? Do they need to?

Le Carré describes this tortuous upending of a home in A Perfect Spy as agents tramp through every cranny and cupboard of her house. Mary’s husband, gifted in the spy tradecraft, has gone missing. He’s taken a ‘retirement’ and is writing his autobiography. I am intrigued by his process because he wants his story to read like a fiction and he wants his hero, himself to be lovable. In her interrogation with the agents, she said,

He’s not writing yet. He’s preparing.

He calls it a matrix.

When he retires, he’ll write.

He’s still finding the line. He likes to keep it to himself.

Listen to this: ‘ When the most horrible gloom was over the household; when Edward himself was in agony and behaving as prettily as he knew how. ‘

It’s from something he read. When he reads a book he underlines things in pencil. Then when he’s finished it he writes out his favourite bits (Le Carré 1986:51).

I think of a mise-en-abime, the hypodiegetic and diegetic framing narratology but this is only a spy mystery. But I also think of the collage-montage and I remember Benjamin. It seems to be what I am doing with my blog. I underline with digg or deli.cio.us. I cut and paste using Flickr, Youtube, Google docs or WordPress itself. But unlike Benjamin or the perfect spy, I scrupulously hot link the most reliable url I can find to every image, citation, idea. The blog itself may seem fragmented or may link the images with new juxtapositions but the sources can be followed by the reader. So my blog is more like a collage-montage than writing.

Before being driven to suicide through physical and mental exhaustion while fleeing the Nazis at the French border in 1940, German cultural theorist, Walter Benjamin was working on a consuming project to educate his own generation and awaken a new political consciousness (Buck-Morss 1991: 336, 47 in Holtorf 2001) . Using the Paris arcades as his prime metaphor, through his passion for collecting fragments of everyday urban experience he wanted his contemporaries to engage in a cleansing memory work, history with an ethical dimension, to revisit 19th century Parisian social and cultural history. He introduced a new form of ‘writing’ which consisted of cutting-and-pasting original citations without citation marks.

Benjamin’s fragmented direct, literal quotations, images and things were purposefully taken out of context. In this way they were deliberately not reduced to generally accepted theoretical or methodological frameworks or categories. He wanted his contemporaries to question unchallenged assumptions about anthropological nihilism, iron construction, the flâneur, the collector and capitalism itself. Something new was created from the old by constructed these fragmented, de-racinated elements into a collage-montage by juxtaposing them in a new way. In this way Benjamin questioned commonly held notions of ‘representation as finding some correspondence with an exterior reality’ (Shanks 1992: 188-90 Holtorf 2001).

Webliography and Bibliography

Benjamin, Walter. 1991. Trans. Buck-Morss. Das Passagen-Werk. Gesammelte Schriften, vol. V [1982]. Frankfurt/M.: Suhrkamp. [English edition 1996]

Buck-Morss, Susan (1991) The Dialectics of Seeing. Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project [1989]. Cambridge, Mass. and London: MIT Press.

Holtorf, Cornelius. 2001. Walter Benjamin’s Passagenwerk.

Le Carré, John. 1986. The Perfect Spy. New York: Penguin.

Shanks, Michael (1992) Experiencing the Past. On the Character of Archaeology. London: Routledge.

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