An Analysis of the Video One Way Street and of Walter Benjamin's Dialectical Thinking

Susanna Scarparo
Department of English
University of Otago
New Zealand

Deep South v.1 n.2 (May, 1995)

Copyright (c) 1995 by Susanna Scarparo, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the New Zealand Copyright Act 1962. It may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that the journal is notified. This consent does not extend to other kinds of copying, such as copying for general distribution, for advertising or promotional purposes, for creating new collective works, or for resale. For such uses, written permission of the author and the notification of the journal are required. Write to Deep South, Department of English, University of Otago, P. O. Box 56, Dunedin, New Zealand.

Susan Buck-Morss, in her preface to The Dialectics of Seeing, quotes Benjamin's description of his own work as a "Copernican revolution" in the practice of history writing.[1] Buck-Morss points out that Benjamin's method intends to uncover the legitimating, ideological function that Western capitalist culture invests in the idea of history seen as a continuum "progress" that affirms the present as its culmination. Thus, Buck- Morss describes Benjamin's aim as an attempt "to destroy the mythic immediacy of the present. . . by discovering that constellation of historical origins which has the power to explode history's 'continuum'".[2]

The present essay intends to investigate Benjamin's method concerning the activity of "dialectical thinking". More specifically, the following discussion concentrates on Benjamin's ideas regarding the tasks and aims which he associates with the intellectual figure of the "dialectical critic". The results of this investigation will be analyzed in conjunction with the examination of the ways in which the essay-video on Benjamin, One Way Street (1992, directed by John Hughes), attempts to employ Benjamin's own dialectical method in order to investigate the contemporary reception of Benjamin and to present a possible contemporary reading of his philosophical work.

Benjamin, placing himself in a position of marginality as a "left- wing outsider",[3] considers himself to be a dialectical critic whose task, similar to that of the historical materialist, is that of being constantly engaged in deciphering the material and historical conditions of the objects which form our everyday life. Thus, rather than confining his "knowledge" to contexts which are removed from the historical conflict of everyday experience, Benjamin looks at empirical objects in the attempt to create his philosophical argument. The practical elements contained in Benjamin's approach to critical discourse, together with his view of the world seen as a textual construction (which teaches us lessons about ourselves, our consciousness and our society) justify the view which classifies Benjamin as a "hermeneutician". His hermeneutic approach is best exemplified in Paris Capital of the World, where the dialectical critic has the task to discover the "truth" contained in the urban architecture of Paris, which Benjamin believes to be a revealing text or record of historical forces. However, the purpose of interpreting the world (or the urban architecture) as a text is to show the ways in which the social and cultural forms of expression and of organization in the 19th century are, in all of their manifestations, distorted by the basic structure of the capitalist social system.

Benjamin believes that the wishes and desires of the collective unconscious are displayed in a mediated manner through images. Thus, according to Benjamin, the images created by past generations contain the desires of those generations which are still "true" and relevant for us today. As a result, then, the objects of the past are not important for themselves, but for what they stand for, as they can help us to reach an understanding of the world in which our wishes and desires are not distorted by the bourgeois and capitalist society. The basic structure of capitalist society, in fact, distorts objects as it abstracts and, therefore, renders invisible the labor that goes into their making. When the object lacks the mark of the labor which went into its production it bears the mark of commodity, and when distorted desires are projected into the commodified object, this object becomes a fetish. Thus, as the object invested with false desires becomes a phantasmagoria produced by the distorted desires of the collective, the world becomes an aesthetic spectacle of itself.

In order to promote their own interests, the ruling classes distort and use the desires of the collective by transforming them from "true" desires into "false" desires. Thus, according to Benjamin, the dialectical critic has to identify the "true" desires of the collective which are contained, in the forms of remnants of "truth", in the images of the past. The images of the past are displayed and presented in a dream-like quality and Benjamin's aim is to interpret for his own generation these dream fetishes in which the traces of history have survived. This interpretation serves the purpose of discovering both the unconscious of the dreaming collective and its utopian dreams. These are the reasons behind Benjamin's concern with the aesthetic dimension present in the commodified object which, as I already pointed out, he sees as the materialization of the unconscious desires of the collective. Thus, according to Benjamin, the aim of the dialectical critic lies in the attempt to uncover the capitalist distortions of the wishes and desires which are contained in the commodity fetish. Moreover, the dialectical critic has also the task of describing and interpreting the process by which the commodity fetish is invested with false desires. Hence, Benjamin's method starts from the particular object and explores the ways in which a dialectical critic can look at the false energies which are invested in the commodity fetish.

Benjamin says that we see the march of history in the invisible. The invisible process of the making of the product is shown, by capitalism, as an aesthetic performance. That is why everything is a spectacle and everything is made into an aesthetic visual event. Moreover, as capitalism successfully strives to render human labor invisible, it also produces the scientific, social and ideological discourses that justify the status quo. Thus, the dialectical critic has the responsibility to make the invisible visible, so as to identify the "true" desires of the past and preserve them. In Benjamin's view, this aesthetic understanding of the commodity fetish may hold the liberating potential for the collective's awakening from the dream of commodity fetishism and for the uncovering of its constituents. As Buck-Morss points out, "this fetishized phantasmagoria is also the form in which the human, socialist potential of industrial nature lies frozen, awaiting the collective political action that could awaken it."[4] Miriam Hansen's explanation of this liberating potential, contained in the fetishized commodity of modernity, takes us a step further as she comments that "as mythical images, the phantasmagoria of modernity were by definition ambiguous, promising a classless society while perpetuating the very opposite; yet as dream images they could be read and transformed into historical images, into strategies of wakening up."[5] Thus, Benjamin's attempt to "read" objects as material expressions of the collective unconscious, adds a sociological dimension to the Nietzschean notion of "life as an aesthetic experience".

The tool that has the potential to lead the dreaming collective to the moment of its awakening is to be found in what Benjamin calls "dialectical thinking":

The realization of dream elements in waking is the textbook example of dialectical thinking. For this reason dialectical thinking is the organ of historical awakening. Each epoch not only dreams the next, but also, in dreaming, strives toward the moment of waking. . . . In the convulsion of the commodity economy we begin to recognize the monuments of the bourgeoisie as ruins even before they have crumbled.[6]

Central to the dialectical thinking and closely connected with the dream image and the dreaming collective, is the cardinal methodological concept of the "dialectical image". With regards to this, Buck-Morss observes that the dialectical image is "a way of seeing that crystallizes antithetical elements by providing the axes for their alignment . . . the "synthesis" of which is not a movement towards resolution, but the point at which their axes intersect."[7] The dialectical image refers to the use of archaic images to identify what is historically new about the "nature" of commodities.[8] The function served by the dialectical image in the understanding of history is expressed by Benjamin himself, when in Theses on the Philosophy of History, he affirms that "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."[9] The dialectical image, then, can be described as an image of the past which carries the desires of the past generations into the present, and which has the potential to offer the dialectical critic the only vision of historical "truth" we can have access to. The vital and central importance held by this image is captured by Benjamin's own words as he entreats that "every image of the past that is not recognized by the present as one of its own concerns threatens to disappear irretrievably."[10]

Benjamin's notion of history, then, rejects the capitalist idea that history comes to us as a chronologically continuous line made of past and present events which inevitably advance and "move with the current" towards their culmination into progress. It is in this conception of history that Benjamin locates the strength of Fascism, as he affirms that "one reason why Fascism has a chance is that in the name of progress its opponents treat it as a historical norm."[11] Furthermore, the notion of history as a 'natural' progressing moment prevents any liberating political action on the part of the oppressed working classes:

Nothing has corrupted the German working class so much as the notion that it was moving with the current. It regarded technological developments as the fall of the stream with which it thought it was moving. From there it was but a step to the illusion that the factory work which was supposed to tend toward technological progress constituted a political achievement. The old Protestant ethics of work was resurrected among German workers in secularized form.[12]

Thus, Benjamin believes that "a critique of the concept of such a progression must be the basis of any criticism of the concept of progress itself."[13] The method by which such a critique can be constructed is to be found in Benjamin's understanding of the principle of montage, whereby the fortuitous juxtaposition of images allows for their elements to remain unreconciled rather than fusing into one "harmonizing perspective".[14] Benjamin's own plan for the Passagen-Werk best exemplifies his interest in the technique of montage:

[. . . ] to erect the large construction out of the smallest architectural segments that have been sharply and cuttingly manufactured. Indeed, to discover the crystal of the total event in the analysis of the small, particular moments. This means breaking with vulgar historical naturalism. To grasp the construction of history as such. In the structure of commentary.[15]

As Buck-Morss points out, Benjamin's aim (and therefore, the dialectical critic's aim) is not merely to criticize "natural history" as ideology, but to identify "small particular moments" in which the "total historical event" is to be discovered and in which the origin of the present can be found.[16] Thus, as each of this "small, particular moments" is to be identified in an image of the present which contains the dreams of the past, the "commentary", which the dialectical critic needs to provide, is what offers the continuity that allows the fragments to cohere as the philosophical representation of history. Consequently, "history brakes down into images, not into stories";[17] it breaks into dialectical images, into fragments of the dreams of the past.

In Paris Capital of the World, Benjamin presents a series of images followed by a discussion on the discourse on modernity. The technique of montage, which presents a collision between images, followed by a discussion, results in an understanding of history. This understanding of history involves the mediation of the "author's imagination", as the cognitive experience of history requires the active intervention of the thinking subject. However, although Benjamin himself may been seen as the "author" whose "imagination" is required to provide the unifying commentary to the fragmented dialectical images, the liberating potential inherent in his method of "dialectical thinking" can be appropriated by anyone who is willing to be a dialectical critic. Our contemporary interest in Benjamin lies in the potential held by the aestheticism which is connected to his conceptualization of the experience of the world. This means that the Benjaminian aesthetic experience of the world promises to offer the possibility to produce an immediate understanding of the world. It also provides the means to find the critical potential which might allow us to construct an affirmative understanding of the fragmented images of post-modernism.

The video-essay on Benjamin, One Way Street attempts to (re)create both the 'history' of Benjamin as "the author", and to employ Benjamin's own dialectical method in order to present the potentially affirmative elements of his thinking that can be used in our contemporary post-modern experience of the world.

One way Street's (re)creation of the history of Benjamin as "the author" is concerned with exploring the way in which he died, the reasons for his death, his life and his writing. However, in the attempt to (re)create Benjamin as "the author", the video also constructs the aura of Benjamin. Yet, any attempt to fix 'the author' and his aura remains doubtful, as "the artist" never appears to be the same. The video, in fact, undoes its own (re)creation of Benjamin as the unified historical author. It presents Benjamin, his philosophical method and the ways in which we can now use such method, by using the juxtaposition of two different (verbal and visual) representational systems. The character "Benjamin", as a human being and as a philosopher, is portrayed through many different media and voices. "Benjamin" is played by one male and two female actors, and one of the two female actors also plays Asja, shows us photographs of him and talks about him. In addition, Benjamin's philosophical argument is presented by means of written quotations, and by four experts talking about him and his writings. Moreover, we also, presumably, see his "real" image through several photographs of himself and his family. Thus, Benjamin himself, as well as his "history" are fragmented into images, not into stories.

In this sense, we could possibly argue that the video expresses a feeling of nostalgia which may be associated to its mourning for the lost (or impossible) opportunity to believe in the possibility of finding the moment of absolute signification that will reveal the "truth" about Benjamin (and ourselves). Consequently, the ending of the video can be interpreted as both a paradoxical and overt melodramatic recreation of the scene of dying, as well as an attempt to recuperate the suicidal scene in the form of a crystal image containing the desire for the primal scene; the moment of absolute signification which, however, is forever lost.

Moreover, as the video is also concerned with the contemporary reception of Benjamin's writing, it attempts to construct in visual terms the Benjaminian vision of history as fragmented. Thus, the video, intentionally in the mode of Benjamin, attempts to visualize Benjamin's dictum "history brakes down into images, not into stories" by visually presenting fragmented images which are juxtaposed in ways which do not, necessarily, relate to each other. Within this framework, the video has didactic and pedagogic intents as it attempts to show "how" to read images by using Benjamin's conceptualization of dialectical images. Consequently, the multiplicity of voices and images are connected in dialectical tension in order to stimulate the viewers to use the Benjaminian method of "dialectical thinking" as a way to engage themselves in the understanding of the video itself. Hence, the video, following Benjamin's advocacy of montage, questions the notion of inevitability which is connected with the classical narrative style and contrasts it with the technique of montage whereby the significance of the images has to be found in their gap.

The title One Way Street: Fragments for Walter Benjamin contains the first example of the video's attempt to express Benjamin's idea of fragmented history in Benjaminian visual terms.

An early didactic exercise which invites the viewer to apply Benjamin's method to the images presented by the video, and to find the gap between their juxtaposition, is offered when Anson Rabinbach, editor of the New German Critique, talks about the role of fragments in Benjamin's critical discourse. As Rabinbach speaks, the image is simultaneously fragmented and repeated, while, in the bottom left hand corner of the screen, appears the image of a piece of paper containing Benjamin's' signature (another image of Benjamin) and other papers (perhaps containing Benjamin's own writing?) and a hand attempting to grab them. In looking at this image of the hand grabbing these sheets of paper, I ask myself whether the image is visually trying to convey the idea of the possibility to (re)discover and appropriate the remnants of "truth" which Benjamin believes dialectical images contain. However, we are not sure if these papers "really" contain Benjamin's words (or his lost great masterpiece), and this uncertainty reveals the video's attempt to disrupt the idea of the possibility to believe in a transparent relationship with "reality", as well as the attempt to disrupt the investment in the "divinity of the masterpiece".[18]

Another example of an exercise for the viewer is to be found in the image of the bicycle. This image presents a man on a bicycle carrying a radio and riding his bicycle among what I would define as a post-modernist landscape. The video calls the viewer's attention to the image as it presents a change of color of the image's background, which is turned into an unsettling light blue. The image is introduced through the technique of montage, as it is randomly positioned between Susan Buck-Morss talking about her book on Benjamin and images of PortBou in September 1990. Thus, the video is presenting the viewer with an exercise in finding the gap established by the juxtaposing technique of montage, and in attempting to capture what may be a practical example of Benjamin's dialectical image. This image may possibly be an example of "an image which flashes up at the instant when it can be recognized and is never seen again".[19]

A further example of an exercise in attempting to understand Benjamin's investment in the idea of the trace of "truth", present in the images of the past, is contained in the image of the gramophone. Once again, the video selects an image which "flashes up at the instant" and asks the viewer to think about it in terms of its ability to offer us a glance into the possibility of a dialectical uncovering of the "true" desires of the past generation.

The video's visual attempt to present central parts of Benjamin's writing is best exemplified in the image of the arcade that becomes a department store. Within Benjamin's critical discourse, the image of the arcade occupies a central position. As Buck-Morss explains in the video, the arcade was the first international building style, and it contains the ambivalence of being simultaneously half dream world, commodity and market place. More specifically, the arcade was central to Benjamin as it contained the embryo of the elements of mass-culture such as fashion, the flâneur and the prostitute. Benjamin sees the flâneur and the prostitute as emblematic figures of modernity and he argues that they both have their origins in this space. Furthermore, according to Benjamin, the arcade is the space in which both the images that capitalism creates about itself and its commodity fetish are brought together. Hence, if we want to understand the movement and development of modernity we need to identify these images which are contained in this privileged site. The video juxtaposes the image of the arcade that becomes a department store with images of people in an underground passage of a subway station. As the arcade can be seen as the best representative image of modernity, and therefore the key to its understanding, the underground passage of the subway may be interpreted as a central image of post-modernity. As the flneur and the prostitute are seen as emblematic figures of modernity, both having their origins in the arcade, the people playing instruments, who are a familiar site of the subway underground passage and have their origins in this space, may be seen as emblematic figures of post-modernity. Thus, it may be suggested that the video is proposing a corresponding central image of post-modernity, in the form of the subway underground passage, to that of modernity in the form of the arcade. Perhaps, Benjamin's analysis of the arcade, which has the purpose of being a tool for his understanding of modernity, can be applied to the subway underground passage (which, by the way, serves similar functions as those served by the arcade) in order to possibly reach an understanding of post-modernity.

In this sense, the video seems to be calling for a recuperation of Benjamin's aestheticism of the experience of the world as a possibility to produce some instances of resistance against the hegemony of the capitalist society of the spectacle. Similarly, the utopian dimension of Benjamin's critical discourse may be recuperated in the attempt to find an affirmative critical potential in the post-modernist understanding of history as having ended and collapsed into fragments. It is within this understanding that the video has Lindsay Waters saying that "may be he [Benjamin] does have a key that will help me to understand more about modernity than what people are telling us about post-modernism and so on." Moreover, Benjamin's appeal to contemporary intellectual lies in the appreciation of the ways in which he was able to combine his understanding of visual art and his expertise of literary an philosophic issues, and to use them all together in his comprehension of the world.

In conclusion, One Way Street offers us a human aspect of Benjamin's writing and it attempts to (re)create a historical image of Benjamin as "the author". It also questions the very possibility for "the author" to even appear to be unified, as his image is constantly fragmented and conveyed through contrasting media and voices. Conversely, the video investigates the contemporary reception of Benjamin in its attempt to employ his dialectical aestheticism in order to find the critical potential that can allow us, today, to cast a less negative light on the post-modernist society of the spectacle.


  1. Susan Buck-Morss, The Dialectics of Seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project, (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1989), p. x. [Back]
  2. Ibid, p. x. [Back]
  3. Ibid, p. 36. [Back]
  4. Buck-Morss, p. 211. [Back]
  5. Miriam Hansen, "Benjamin, Cinema and Experience: 'The Blue Flower in the Land of Technology'", pp. 191-2. Reproduced in English 466 Course Material, 1994 Department of English, University of Otago. [Back]
  6. Walter Benjamin, Paris, Capital of the Nineteenth Century, p. 162. [Back]
  7. Buck-Morss, p. 210. [Back]
  8. Buck-Morss, p. 67. [Back]
  9. Walter Benjamin, Theses on the Philosophy of History, p. 681. [Back]
  10. Ibid., p. 681. [Back]
  11. Ibid., p. 682. [Back]
  12. Ibid., p. 682. [Back]
  13. Ibid., p. 683. [Back]
  14. Buck-Morss, p. 67. [Back]
  15. Ibid., p. 74. [Back]
  16. Ibid., p. 77. [Back]
  17. Quoted from John Hughes' One Way Street (1992). [Back]
  18. Phrase borrowed from Craig Owens in "The Discourse of Others: Feminists and Postmodernism". Reproduced in English 406 Course Material, 1994. Department of English, University of Otago. [Back]
  19. Already quoted in footnote number 9. [Back]

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