Charlie Bertsch (cbertsch) wrote,
Charlie Bertsch

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Detournament of Retrospective Desire

My favorite theorist of allegory is Walter Benjamin. He was interested in the perception of decline, the way artists have confronted the feeling of belatedness that seems to be an integral part of the modern experience. For centuries, people have been afflicted with the sense of having been born too late. The strange thing is, as Benjamin noted, that this feeling goes hand in hand with the relentless "progress" promoted by a capitalist economy. Not surprisingly, this perception has often been most acute during periods of political regression. Denied the opportunity to transform the social order, people turn their attention to transforming their personal lives. They give themselves the "makeover" they can't give to society. But these attempts at personal transformation are shadowed by the prospect of what could have been. No matter how many fads they run through, no matter how many items they purchase in order to refashion their identity, they can never completely escape the political tragedy of the recent past. This was true of the German Baroque that Benjamin pondered in The Origins of German Tragic Drama. It was true of Paris during the Second Empire, to which he devoted his vast, unfinished Arcades Project. And it was true of the post-WWI era in which he conducted his analyses. The 1970s have much in common with those periods.

Benjamin was no pessimist. At one point in the Arcades Project, he declares his goal to be showing that, in reality, "there are no periods of decline." He believed that, even though you can't literally go back in time, you can still make good on the promise of the past.

But in order to do so, you have to reinterpret it. Benjamin called this process Eingedenken, which translates literally as "remembering into." It provides the means to actualize the potential in what could have been. Where a more conventional approach to history sees refuse, it sees raw material. It redeems. For Benjamin, it would still be possible for us to connect with that spirit that has been missing since 1969. The trick is to distinguish between what we can't change — our forward motion in linear time — from what we can — our attitude towards a million dreams deferred.
Tags: collage, history, love, nostalgia, theory
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