Thoughts on archives: preliminary study before lecture

I did try (honest), but Walter Benjamin’s archive proved impossible to find, so I had to make do by reading around the topic – Hannah Arendt’s introduction to Illuminations, Benjamin’s Unpacking My Library.

Hannah Arendt’s Introduction

Arendt talks about the redemptive power of archives, their ability to shed a new light on previously overlooked or forgotten objects.

  • “the attempt to capture the portrait of history in the most redeem the insignificant representations of reality, its scraps, as it were”
  • “For him (Benjamin) the size of an object was in an inverse ratio to its significance … it could contain in its most concentrated form everything else”
  • “collecting is the passion of children, for whom things are not yet commodities and not valued according to their usefulness, and it is also the hobby of the rich, who own enough not to need anything useful”
  • “redeem the object as a thing since it now is no longer a means to an end but has its intrinsic worth”

She also focuses on Benjamin’s unique method of collecting quotations, and their function not merely to inform a text but to destabilise it, and sometimes (as in the case of the Arcades project) to form the bulk of the text itself

  • “nothing was more characteristic of him in the thirties than the little notebooks with black covers which he always carried with him”
  • “this collection was not an accumulation of excerpts intended to facilitate the writing of the study but constituted the main work, with the writing as something secondary”
  • [Quoting Benjamin] “Quotations in my works are like robbers by the roadside”
  • [Quoting Benjamin] Their power is “not the strength to preserve but to cleanse, to tear out of context, to destroy”
  • interrupting the flow of the presentation with “transcendent force” and at the same time concentrating within themselves that which is presented.

Benjamin’s Unpacking My Library

  • “the collector’s passion borders on the chaos of memories”
  • “the locking of individual items within a magic circle in which they are fixed as the final thrill, the thrill of acquisition, passes over them”
  • “Writers are really people who write books not because they are poor, but because they are dissatisfied with the books which they could buy, but do not like”

The Everlasting Now: Walter Benjamin’s Archive, Mark Zimmerman Brendel

  • “unique dialectical method of engaging the ‘now’, that revelatory moment when past and present fleetingly collide
  • “certain knowledge or buried in human artifacts or events is only revealed (or rescued, to use Benjamin’s term) at particular moments in history”
  • “the work of art not disclosing everything at once, like the continuum of life itself”
  • “the performative aspect of Benjamin’s work, one where text becomes image and discourse poetry”
  • “Wizisla, in turn, emphasised how important the physical act of writing was for Benjamin, who expressed his researches into spectacle via his corporeal traces on the page”

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