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Review of Walter Benjamin’s Archive: Images, Texts, Signs

By Anastasia Ulanowicz

Benjamin, Walter. Walter Benjamin’s Archive: Images, Texts, Signs. Eds. Ursula Marx, Gudrun Schwartz, Michael Schwartz, and Erdmut Wizisla. Trans. Esther Leslie. London: Verso, 2007. Print.

“Children are particularly fond of haunting any site where things are being visibly worked on,” wrote Walter Benjamin in 1928. “They are irresistibly drawn by the detritus generated by building, gardening, housework, tailoring, or carpentry” (One Way Street 449-50). Benjamin’s observation of children’s fascination with rubbish was not made out of sentimental condescension, nor was it intended as an exercise in nostalgia. Rather, it was meant to characterize young people as skilled collectors. Although he certainly did not romanticize children – indeed, he once described them as little dictators1 – Benjamin nevertheless admired their capacity for collecting. Throughout his life, he practiced this childlike habit, amassing items that his early-twentieth-century counterparts might have dismissed as “detritus”: picture-postcards, old books, toys, and scraps of paper. Indeed, even his own writings might be considered collections. His posthumously published Arcades Project, for example, was a carefully indexed, albeit idiosyncratically arranged, assembly of quotations, aphorisms, and critical reflections. This text, like all of Benjamin’s collections, involved his attempt to amass the fragments of a quickly-receding past into a constellation through which a reader might perceive at once the past, the present, and the future.

Walter Benjamin’s Archive: Images, Texts, Signs is similarly an attempt to assemble various shards and fragments from Benjamin’s tragically-curtailed life – and like Benjamin’s own project, it is intended to reveal correspondences between a past era and our own, contemporary moment. The photographed and carefully documented objects published in this book are taken from the collections Benjamin mailed to various friends and colleagues for safe-keeping before his thwarted flight from war-ravaged Europe. The editors name this body of collections an “archive” – and yet, they are quick to acknowledge the inadequacy of this term to the project undertaken by Benjamin (and, in turn, by themselves). “Benjamin’s concept of the archive,” they admit, “differs from institutionalized archives” (1). The term, “archive” – which derives from Latin and Greek words for “town hall, ruling office” and “beginning, origin, rule” – suggests “order, efficiency, completeness, and objectivity” (2). By contrast, Benjamin’s archive reveals the “passions of the collector” and illuminates “points at which topicality flashes up, places that preserve the idiosyncratic registrations of an author, subjective, full of gaps, unofficial” (2).

Benjamin’s archive – or collection, as it were – is presented by the editors in thirteen separate sections, in homage to the author’s “particular affinity for the number thirteen” (5). (Five of Benjamin’s texts, including One Way Street, were divided into thirteen sections, and the author associated the number with both bad and good luck.) Each section is headed by a quote from Benjamin (e.g. “Physiognomy of the Thingworld” and “A Bow Being Bent”) and each is preceded by a brief overview by the editors. The objects included in the collection are photographed in full color, and most of them are accorded a full page; items featuring written text are translated by one of Benjamin’s biographers, Esther Leslie,2 on the facing page.

The publisher has categorized this book as a memoir – and, certainly, there is much from Benjamin’s intellectual and private life that might be gleaned from its pages. The sixth section, for example (“The Daintiest Quarters”), features photographs of Benjamin’s notebooks, crammed full with reflections written in neat and nearly microscopic script. Further insight into the author’s lively intellect is offered in the second section (“Scrappy Paperwork”): Benjamin, the editors note, took advantage of any available scraps of paper in order to record his thoughts, as is evident in the image of a San Pelligrino advertisement on which he elaborated on his concept of the aura. Perhaps the most moving section of the text, however – one which grants a voyeuristic glimpse into the author’s domestic life – is the fifth, “Opinions and Pensées.” Here, one might peruse Benjamin’s transcriptions of his young son’s malapropisms and neologisms, as well as vignettes describing his home life with his son, Stefan, and his wife, Dora.

One would be amiss, however, to regard this collection merely as a “portrait of the artist,” or to read it solely in order to obtain from it the essence – or, as Benjamin would have it, the “aura” – of a lost genius. Rather, Walter Benjamin’s Archive not only offers insight into the thought of Walter Benjamin, the individual, but elicits the reader’s engagement with thinking itself. Like all of Benjamin’s essays and longer works, this text cannot be easily read in a conventionally linear fashion. Rather, it invites its audience to attend to details laid out piecemeal, and thus to consider the various, non-contiguous associations between them. One perceives correspondences, for example, between the transcriptions of Stefan Benjamin’s neologisms (in “Opinions and Pensées”) and Benjamin’s collections of riddles, brain-teasers, and word games (in “Hard Nuts to Crack”); thus, the reader is prompted to consider further the plasticity and sensuousness of language. Likewise, Germaine Krull’s melancholy photographs of the Paris Arcades (“Past Turned Space”) correspond uncannily with Benjamin’s collection of images of the sibyl (“Sibyls”), the mythical figure who led men into the underworld of the past in order to return them back again to the present and the future. By prompting the reader to consider various correspondences in the contents of its sections, the text in turn invites her into a tactile relationship with it: it challenges the reader, that is, to turn its pages back and forth so that her thinking is as physically engaged as it is intellectually occupied.

Indeed, the tactile and the material play a significant role in this collection. Those readers who are already well-acquainted with Benjamin’s oeuvre know well that he privileged active engagement over passive contemplation: he admired, for example, children’s willingness to scribble on their books,3 and he saw revolutionary potential in film’s ability to train audiences’ tactile senses.4 What Benjamin’s published writings obscure, however, are the physical exertions that were involved in their very production. This collection exposes these physical efforts. Here, we see thought in motion: pages the author cut apart in order to facilitate their rearrangement, passages crossed out with arrows pointing toward their transposition, and pages of tiny script (“micrographies,” the editors call them) that suggest the firm discipline of the writing hand. Moreover, photographs of dog-eared notebooks remind the reader of the dialectic, continually elaborated on by Benjamin, between the immateriality of thought and the material world with which the thinker is always, intimately, engaged. The dialectic between the past and the future is evident here as well: as the editors remind us, the “cut and paste” method Benjamin literally employed in his writing foretells the advent of computer word-processing (32).

Furthermore, photographs of objects Benjamin collected are accompanied by his reflections on their production. He notes, for example, the “untold patience” required by a nineteenth-century Siberian prisoner in constructing a furniture set for a doll’s house. Like his observations of children’s collections, this deceptively simple comment is not as condescending or nostalgic as it might initially appear. Rather, it marks an engagement with the “historical materialism” Benjamin outlines in one of his last essays, “Theses on the Philosophy of History” (1940). The purpose of historical inquiry, he insists in this essay, is ultimately redemptive: the “past can be seized only as an image which flashes up at the instant when it can be recognized and is never seen again” (255). Thus, in his reflections upon a toy that might easily be dismissed as bric-a-brac or “detritus,” Benjamin aims to redeem the forgotten energies of a worker whose labor would otherwise be lost to history (87).

Excerpts such as this one, which involve the juxtaposition of photographic images and verbal commentary, should be of particular interest to readers of this journal, insofar as they constitute an original iteration of the imagetext. The entire collection, moreover, should further fulfill a reader’s interest in the imagetext in its demonstration of the ways in which the image and the word coalesce in critical thought. Language, as Benjamin insisted in “On the Mimetic Faculty” (1933), ultimately imitates material reality just as much as drawing or bodily performance does – and here, in this collection, we see language returning to its mimetic potential as writing “makes its way back to drawing” (WBA 232). In the ninth section, for example (“Constellations”), we see Benjamin’s mescaline-induced reflections on German lullabies: variations on the words “Schlaf” (sleep) and “Schafmein” (sheep) are sensuously sculpted into the figure of an embryo. Likewise, Benjamin’s jotted associations between the material and the theological are provocatively rendered in elliptical form.

Indeed, the collision between word and image – a collision which, as in all of Benjamin’s dialectics, produces a shock of recognition – is the hallmark of Walter Benjamin’s Archive. The collection’s facilitation of this collision is graceful and artfully handled, and should be appreciated by Benjamin scholars and students of visual rhetoric alike. Indeed, one might recall how, in the Arcades Project, Benjamin subtly gestures to the child’s innate and potentially revolutionary capacity for mimetic thinking as he states that, “I needn’t say anything. Merely show” (460). Certainly, this collection does just this – and thus, to invoke his affinity for puns, it does Benjamin justice.


[1] In “Program for a Proletarian Children’s Theatre” (1929), Benjamin writes that the “child inhabits his world like a dictator” (204). This comment, which defies Romantic notions of the child’s innate innocence, nevertheless positively characterizes the child’s agency.
[2] See Leslie’s 2008 biography of Benjamin in the Critical Lives series published by Reaktion Books.
[3] The child, Benjamin writes in “Old Forgotten Children’s Books” (1924), “inhabits” his books. Children, he argues, not only actively describe the stories put before them, but “inscribe the pictures with their own ideas in a more literal sense: they scribble on them” (411).
[4] In “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Reproducibility” (1936), Benjamin compares cinema spectatorship with the inhabitation of a building. “Buildings,” he writes, “are received in a twofold manner: by use and by perception. Or, better: tactilely and optically.” Likewise, he argues, film provides a “training ground” for tactile sensibilities and habit. According to Benjamin, “the tasks which face the human apparatus of perception at historical turning points cannot be performed solely by optical means – that is, by way of contemplation. They are mastered gradually – taking their cue from tactile reception – through habit” (120, italics in original).


Benjamin, Walter. The Arcades Project. Ed. Rolf Tiedemann. Trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin. Cambridge: Belknap of Harvard UP, 1999. Print.

——————-. “Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility.” [1936] Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, Volume 3, 1935-1938. Ed. Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings. Trans. Edmund Jephcott, Howard Eiland, Cambridge: Belknap of Harvard UP, 2002. 101-133. Print.

——————. “Old Forgotten Children’s Books.” [1924] Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, Volume I, 1913-1926. Ed. Marcus Bullock and Michael W. Jennings. Cambridge: Belknap of Harvard UP, 1996. 406-413. Print.

——————-. “One Way Street.” [1928] Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, Volume I, 1913-1926. Ed. Marcus Bullock and Michael W. Jennings. Cambridge: Belknap of Harvard UP, 1996. 444-488. Print.

——————–. “On the Mimetic Faculty.” [1933] Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, Volume 2, 1927-1934. Ed. Michael W. Jennings, Howard Eiland, and Gary Smith. Trans. Rodney Livingstone et. al. Cambridge: Belknap of Harvard UP, 1999. 720-722. Print.

———————. “Theses on the Philosophy of History.” [1940] Illuminations. Ed. Hannah Arendt. Trans. Harry Zohn. New York: Schocken. 253-264. Print.

———————. Walter Benjamin’s Archive: Images, Texts, Signs. Ed. Ursula Marx, Gudrun Schwartz, Michael Schwartz, and Erdmut Wizisla. Trans. Esther Leslie. London: Verso, 2007. Print.

Leslie, Esther. Walter Benjamin. Critical Lives Series. London: Reaktion Books, 2008. Print.

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