Walter Benjamin’s concepts – or, probably more accurately, the concepts I draw out of Benjamin’s work – are often fairly close to the surface in my theoretical writing. I toss out isolated phrases and the occasional extended quote from Benjamin fairly often, as Gary Sauer-Thompson over at Philosophical Conversations recently noticed, picking up on one of the many times I’ve cited Benjamin’s concept that critique involves “brushing history against the grain”. Gary then runs with this notion – using photographic material to capture, and then to lift out of its original context, a moment in the reproduction of one contemporary capitalist context. Riffing off the title of my post, Gary calls this moment a placeholder – and then uses his photography to shift the placeholder from its place and to explore how this shift might equip us to reconceptualise a more active relationship to the process of reproduction – a very Benjaminian move.
While Benjamin often haunts my thoughts, I’ve been thinking about his work more actively recently, as I’ve been working through Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition. There are strange and unexpected (to me) points of contact – and perhaps even stranger and more jarring disjoints – between Difference and Repetition and some of the concepts that draw me in Benjamin’s work. My thoughts on these comparisons are still too fresh and unsettled for writing – perhaps I’ll be able to come back to them at a later point. For the moment, I’m finding myself alternatively reading Difference and Repetition, and then setting it aside to flip through The Arcades Project. Probably not the most efficient way to process either author, but I am finding that the process is lending an interesting freshness to elements of Benjamin’s work with which I’ve lived for a long time. When I’ve worked through Deleuze much more thoroughly, I’d like to come back to some of the themes around which my thoughts are currently spinning: both authors’ particularly complex and counter-intuitive understandings of the ontological status of “the past” and its relationship to the “present” and future; a somewhat similar focus on thought as the product of an encounter; slightly different critiques of negation and representation; a different understanding of the term “repetition”, which nevertheless might – might – point to a somewhat similar substantive intention; what seem to be slightly offset appropriations of Leibniz (and a number of other common figures); perhaps – perhaps – wildly divergent assessments of a particular structuration of time; and the uncanny disjoint that emerges from similar concepts understood, in one case, within a social and, in the other, an ontological, frame…
Unfortunately, at this point I have nothing more than notes for notes… Hopefully something more substantive once my thoughts are settled. This may not happen quickly, however: for the moment, I’m enjoying my very, very short break from teaching and administrative responsibilities, and am using this time to… unsettle my thoughts as much as possible, hoping this will provide at least a small and sustained conceptual momentum heading into the new term.