Convolute H in Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project relates to collection, and collectors. Its concerns are very similar to the ones Benjamin expresses in “On the Concept of History” – which is, among other things, a critique of a kind of historicism that seeks to document the past “the way it really was”.
In “On the Concept of History”, Benjamin argues (if you can use this term for a work that tries to induce a gestalt perception in its readers, through the juxtaposition of meaning-filled fragments) that a connection exists between historicism – the attempt to document the past exactly as it was – and the belief that historical “progress” will inevitably and automatically bring about emancipation. For Benjamin, both forms of thought are reactionary and disempowering, because both fail to recognise the potential power of human agency in history. The “true picture of the past”, for Benjamin, represents the one in which the historian has “fann[ed] the spark of hope in the past” – that is, recognised the potential that the past might have been different from what it was. For Benjamin, this task is intricably linked to the ability to seize the emancipatory potentials of the present time.
Convolute H pursues similar concerns – playing off the image of the historicist (who seeks to keep all historical remnants in their proper order in time and space), against the image of the collector (who eclectically reassembles and juxtaposes historical remnants in relationships that may have little to do with their actual temporal relationship). For Benjamin, it is the collector, and not the historicist, who accurately recognises the contingency of the past – the fact that history might not have developed in a particular way, that other potentials were also possible, but were never realised.
Convolute H, however, juxtaposes these reflections about history, with parallel reflections about use value and exchange value. Benjamin was aware that many critics of capitalism offer their criticisms in the name of use value, and against exchange value – arguing, for example, that capitalism is unjust because it focusses on profits, rather than recognising and adequately compensating the practical, useful, material contributions of labour to the economy. Within this framework, emancipation would follow from an elevation of use value to its proper social status. Benjamin, however, takes a different tack – rejecting, not only the capitalist who sees only profit (exchange value) in goods and labour, but also the critic who sees in these same things only their use value. Both, for Benjamin, are examples of forms of thought that work against the realisation of potential freedoms.
Instead, Benjamin proposes the model of the collector – someone whose interest in goods does not relate to either their exchange value or their use. The collector adopts a purely impractical relationship to the objects collected – and it is precisely this impractical attitude that breaks out of the utilitarian relationship to objects and to people that, for Benjamin, as for Adorno and Horkheimer, represents the primary force of unfreedom under capitalism.
The collector is therefore a potent metaphor for Benjamin, capturing a relationship to history, and also a relation to production and consumption in the contemporary world, as these might potentially be transformed in the “open air of history”.