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New Left Review I/129, September-October 1981

Susan Buck-Morss

Walter Benjamin—Revolutionary Writer (II)

Adorno was suspicious of Benjamin’s notion of a collective dream: ‘For who is the subject of the dream?’ he wrote to Benjamin in 1935, referring to the Arcades exposé, where in place of the individual subject of bourgeois psychology, ‘the collective consciousness is invoked, but I fear that in its present form it cannot be distinguished from Jung’s conception’. [141] Letter, Adorno to Benjamin, 2 August 1935, in Ernst Bloch, et al., Aesthetics and Politics, nlb, London 1977, pp. 112–13. Adorno claimed that Benjamin seemed to presume that present dream-consciousness could exist outside of capitalist society, rather than being the distorted product of it, [142] Ibid, p. 111. and he argued that such a position was not compatible with Marxism: ‘It should be clear and sufficient warning that in a dreaming collective no differences remain between classes.’ [143] Ibid, p. 113. Adorno’s reservations concerning the exposé were not without reason, but Benjamin’s other writings indicate that Adorno was misreading his intent. The dialectical images were clearly not eternal archetypes, but socially specific constellations, inherited historically rather than biologically—and not via a linear genealogy. Benjamin compared their appearance in consciousness to Proust’s involuntary memory: ‘By contracting into an instant—into a dialectical image—it enters the involuntary memory of mankind. The dialectical image is to be defined as the involuntary memory of humanity.’ [144] Benjamin, Gesammelte Schriften (hereafter gs), I:3, Frankfurt am Main 1955, p. 1233. Whereas voluntary memory recalled events in sequential arrangement, the historical space of involuntary memory was ‘disorder.’ [145] Ibid, p. 1243. The image suddenly established itself ‘at a moment of danger,’ both for the object and the subject. Moreover, ‘This subject is by no means a transcendental subject, but the struggling, oppressed class in its most extreme situation. Historical knowledge exists for it alone, and only in the historical moment.’ [146] Ibid.

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Susan Buck-Morss, ‘Walter Benjamin--Revolutionary Writer (II)’, NLR I/129: £3

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