- In the last 40 years, numbers of writers and artists have come to see Walter Benjamin as a pioneer who blazed a new
way of writing historical and cultural critique. The drafts of and reflections upon his Arcades Project
(Passagen-Werk) have been the subject of major textual scholarship (Tiedeman, 1982) and the focus of several
full-scale critical discussions (Buck-Morss, 1989; Jennings, 1989). Over the same period, these writings have inspired
artists to adopt and extend their method of critique by fragments and juxtaposition ("montage"), especially into mixed and electronic media
(Berger and Mohr, 1975, 1982; Peaker, 1997-2000; Broadway, 1997-99; Michals, 2001; Lederman, 2000.) I do not mean to set the
Benjamin scholars and artists at odds, nor to decide who among them is the more legitimate heir of Benjamin. Rather, I want to
Benjamin's theory and practice from the point of view of latter-day users of it--those who claim it as inspiration and method
for their work, who attempt to do critique without an integrating authorial voice. Though I will discuss the works roughly in
the order of their appearance, no development or progess is implied--just a series of responses to Benjamin's Arcades
Project. It should be held in mind that Benjamin's method was for him a way of writing social history; we cannot
expect it to transfer in toto to other, though related, deployments. I begin by outlining his project under the
heads of fragment and juxtaposition.
- fragment: Michael Jennings observes that a fondness for fragments and a suspicion of system characterize
all of Benjamin's work. He was temperamentally a modernist, and many commented on his remarkable eye for detail, especially
for things deemed insignificant in standard views--the accounts that supported the interests of the ruling class.
Benjamin was probably thinking of collage and photomontage with its inclusion of ticket stubs, pieces of newspaper, and
magazine illustrations when he wrote the following:
method of this project: literary montage. I needn't say anything. Merely show. I shall purloin no valuables,
appropriate no ingenious formulations. But the rags, the refuse--these I will not inventory but allow, in the only way
possible, to come into their own: by making use of them. (N1a,8)
The fragments that make up the Arcades Project are paragraphs of description and reflection and snippets of text
cited from critics, commentators, and historians. These fragments are grouped by topic into 28 different bundles (or
folders--Konvoluts) and there is a good bit of cross-referencing between individual fragments in different folders.
The general look is of a set of notecards for a history about to be written. But Benjamin was strongly opposed to writing
history in a way that suggested development, unfolding, emergence, or progress. The meaning Benjamin sought to disclose in
his materials was to be found in many sudden illuminations triggered by his juxtapositions and "dialectical images" and not
in the forces, movements, conflicts, and resolutions of academic history.
- In addition, Benjamin had come to see images--photographs, drawings, illustrations--as other fragments to be
included and reportedly had amassed a very sizeable collection for inclusion in the project. Only sixteen remained when
Tiedemann put the manuscripts in order (these are included in an appendix to volume V of the Gesammelte
Schriften). Other images are so exactly described in the project that editors and scholars, especially Susan
Buck-Morss, have been able to find specific ones, or even to photograph the object described in one case. Buck-Morss
augmented the collection of images; Giles Peaker attached several new ones in his hypertext fragment of the Arcades; and
Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin have supplied even more in the English translation. It is no wonder artists see the
Arcades Project as an invitation to multimedia when the scholars each augment the text in this direction. Though
leading away from the topic immediately at hand, there are further details
about the deployment of images in this body of Benjamin scholarship. However, one should not forget that for Benjamin, images
and especially dialectical images are to be encountered in language (N2a,3).
- Benjamin placed great value on discontinuity and decontextualization in his method, both to denaturalize the
particular features in view and to prevent their being reinserted into conventional, uncritical pictures of the world.
Buck-Morss discusses this point well (218-221). It is clear how this intention attracts photography and hypertext, since as
we shall see photographs are often described (for instance, by Berger) as cited or torn from the living world they depict,
and hypertext, jumping from screen to screen with no authoritative order, helps to inhibit reinsertion into a smooth and
seamless world. Indeed, Eduardo Cadava presses Benjamin's associations of photography and history very strongly.
- What we have in the Arcades Project manuscript that Adorno preserved and passed on to Tiedemann,
however, are not
photographs, or even reproduced illustrations, but short pieces of text, and it should be noted that the decontextualization
effected by photography differs from the effect of quoting "verbal images" in that quite a large number of these are quoted
from published academic histories and thus are snipped from contexts that had already woven them into continuous academic
narratives. Each quote comes with complete bibliographic information which is like a link back to the original context. The
quote borrows the words and authority of the source and positions the work in a web of intertextuality that is quite
traditional, even if the position taken toward the web is not. Photographs do not imply other, larger photographs of the
world; rather, they imply the physical world beyond the frame, which has no authority and no position. But perhaps the
analogy with photographs applies only to verbal images that present uninterpreted facts unmediated by scholarly
interpretation? Benjamin would be the first to reject that as an untenable distinction as well as a wholly misguided one,
since many of the "interpretations" date from the period and are themselves the facts to be observed. Indeed, many, many
fragments aim to evoke the lifeworld of nineteenth-century Parisians, which is one of the reasons the Baudelaire folder is
the largest of the lot.
- juxtaposition: We say two things are juxtaposed when they are placed side by side or one after the other
no connecting matter or continuing thread or common topic. Some inexplicit connection is nonetheless implied, or else one
would simply have a pile of spare parts--disjecta membra--which may not even be parts of the same thing or similar
things. Juxtaposition can thus be a matter of degree. Within the individual folders of the Arcades Project, the
juxtaposition effect is moderated by all of the pieces bearing on the topic of the folder (for example, Iron
and Prostitution, etc.). The individual fragments are often linked (cross-referenced) to fragments in other folders, and so
if one follows the cross links, it is easy to commence a skid that takes one rapidly away from the initial fragment and its
topic. This quality is one of the reasons the Arcades Project has been described as hypertext-like, though the same
quality is to be found in dictionaries and encyclopedias as well.
- The Arcades Project is not a reference work, however, but a history of Paris in the nineteenth
century, so that
within the folders and throughout there is a complex temporal layering of brief accounts of bits of the past, often dated
with a year, with more recent observations and the opinions of scholars with or without Benjamin's commentary. Temporal
sequence is not the organizing principle, but rather a kind of dialectic between past and present in which the present can
recognize itself in a bit of the past and the past yields up its meaning as it is read from the vantage point of the present.
In addition, the revival of interest in the Arcades Project and
the addition of photographs taken after 1940 create a new present
which makes Benjamin's present (1930s) into a past--a relay station, as it were, between the earlier nineteenth century and
the late twentieth.
- The dialectic of past and present takes place in and around individual fragments: these are the dialetical
images that have been the focus of one scholarly book and a chapter or extended sections of others (see especially Jennings,
Pensky, and Buck-Morss). Understanding dialectical images is crucial to understanding how Benjamin wanted "montage" to work
in his reading of the book of the nineteenth century. Understanding it is not crucial, however, for tracing references to
Benjamin's method by subsequent writers, who do not choose to pursue dialectical images in greater depth. One thing that they
do extract from Benjamin, however, is a method of juxtaposing multiple and incompatible accounts of particular phenomena
drawn from diverse sources, forcing readers who want to make a coherent account to do some work with the fragments.
- Jennings and others point also to Benjamin's use of "constellation" and "force field" as metaphors for his
method. These are ways of thinking beyond the level of juxtaposition, which always sounds directed at the edge or transition
between two things. These are metaphors for a configuration of fragments, or a relation among several fragments, in which a
sudden clarification or new grasp of the import of the fragments can occur. There is a perspectival thread here as well, as
Benjamin comes close to saying that readers from different times and different angles of view may see different
constellations and different meanings--which is to say that he does not intend a single best reading of the Arcades
Project that would "get it all."
- Though the Arcades Project was never finished or published in Benjamin's lifetime, he did
complete a sample of
the method in the draft of one section of a long essay on Baudelaire that was submitted to Adorno for publication by the
Institute for Social Research. The first thing he delivered was the middle section of the work; this draft has been
translated and published as "The Paris of the Second Empire in Baudelaire" in Charles Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet in the
Era of High Capitalism. It draws heavily on the Arcades Project folders. The "Flâneur" section, for
example, averages two citations per page, almost all from the folders.
Buck-Morss calls it a "dry wall:"
This first essay is in fact constructed with so little theoretical mortar between the Passagen-Werk fragments that
the essay stands like a dry wall, and Adorno rightly identified the (to him, lamentable) principle of montage that governed
the form of the whole. (206)
Benjamin agreed to a very substantial revision along traditional lines; tamely entitled "Some Motifs in Baudelaire," it is
included in Charles Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism and in
Illuminations, the collection edited by Hannah Arendt.
- In fact, Adorno's criticisms were deep and far-reaching and have been discussed extensively by Jennings
(1987), Buck-Morss (1991), and Pensky (1993) since they lead directly to the heart of the dialectical image. For our purpose,
they point to certain practical issues about writing by juxtaposition and constellation of fragments (montage). The fragment,
or more broadly, the constellation, must speak for itself: this means not only that a single definitive authorial perspective
must be removed, but also that the fragment/constellation must remain open to further seeings. Adorno feared that by this
evacuation of subjectivity (of the interpreter), Benjamin had inadvertently presented a view of the world as mere
uninterpreted fact--of material, observable things and unique, unanalyzable events--which the reader would have no reason to
connect through any theory at all. On the other hand, he found certain juxtapositions in the early manuscript between
Baudelaire's thoughts and the movements of social history to imply a naïve model of causation between social history and
Baudelaire's consciousness--that is, a model is applied, but it is an inadequate one. Jennings concedes the point about certain
invitations to vulgar Marxism, but maintains that the deeper problem is esotericism:
Actually, however, the weakness of the Baudelaire essay stems less from the directness of its causal connections--such
one-to-one relationships are the exception in Benjamin's piece--than from the elliptical, often opaque quality of its form.
The relationship of many of the images to their immediate context or even to the essay as a whole is by no means immediately
- Jennings goes on to suggest that Benjamin may indeed have expected to be understood only by the relatively
small group that could draw upon the special body of knowledge and belief needed to discern the intended connections. This
is not a matter of missing an allusion here or there, but of missing the true and revealing light that history can shed on the
present. And, since Adorno was certainly one of that group, he found Adorno's response extremely unsettling. In the end,
Jennings concludes that Benjamin could not resolve the contrary objectives of author-evacuated montage presentation and the
need to provide theoretical, ethical guidance for the reader. Pensky, reviewing Adorno's response in relation to the issue of
claims of truth about history, agrees.
- Declaring oneself an adopter of Benjamin's method of juxtaposition or montage does help to identify one's
intention as critique. One does also, however, inherit the unresolved tension which in practical terms is between saying too
much and saying too little about the import or intention of a juxtaposition or constellation. I will illustrate with one
juxtaposition from Buck-Morss's "Afterimages," where she is writing as an extender of the Arcades Project.
Figure 1 appears at the top of Buck-Morss's page 347 with a credit to the photographer, Ann Marie Rousseau. Buck-Morss gives
it the title "Shopping Bag Lady, 1980." It is followed by a fragment from the Flâneur folder (M5,1) which quotes a
description (Benjamin calls it a "brief description of misery") of "a bohemian woman" from Marcel Jouhandeau's Images
de Paris (1934). Jouhandreau's description is followed by several sentences of commentary by Buck-Morss,
| Figure 1: Macy's: The Benediction
(Click image for larger version)
In the United States today her kind are call "bag ladies." They have been consumed by that society which makes of Woman the
proto-typical consumer. Their appearance, in rags and carrying their worldly possessions in worn bags, is the grotesquely
ironic gesture that they have just returned from a shopping spree.
Her commentary continues by contrasting Benjamin's line about the nineteenth-century flâneur inhabiting the streets as
his living room with life in the streets for the homeless, concluding
for the oppressed (a term that this century has learned is not limited to class), existence in public space is more likely to
be synonymous with state surveillance, public censure, and political powerlessness.
- It is quite often problematic to let photographs speak for themselves; as Berger says, they only weakly
convey their makers' intentions. Framed in this fashion by Buck-Morss, this photo seems tiresomely polemical and contrived.
One critic of Rousseau's traveling exhibit offers a little relief on the contrivance charge but finds the import all too
obvious in this and another of Rousseau's photos:
[they are] dependent on chance juxtapositions creating ironic social commentary, a strategy (most famously used during by
Depression-era photographers) that now looks dated or didactic. (Curtis)
Another reviewer, Doree Dunlap, moralizes also:
We would rather look at a plastic, anorexic mannequin in spiffy, two-piece swimwear than at a woman trying to survive on the
street beneath a window display. She represents an ugly reality--one not easily faced.
Yet another such elaboration is found in Mark H. Van Hollebeke's essay, "The Pathologies and Possibilities of Urban Life:
Dialectical and Pragmatic Sightseeing in New York City," which
begins with this image (entitling
it "A Dialectical Image") and finds it a powerful though predictable "call for the messianic awakening of revolution."
- General agreement notwithstanding, this way of reading expects very little from the image. All of these
commentaries close down further readings, turning the image into a fairly discardable trigger for a bit of breast-beating or
system-bashing. Once we begin to question the interpreters, certain warning flags spring up: Her type? Is the
photograph just about bag ladies in cities? Jouhandeau describes a very particular woman with her few things spread out
around her "creating almost an air of intimacy, the shadow of an interieur, around her" (qtd. in Eiland and
McLaughlin 426). This commentary
portrays her as making a living space for herself, not as a victim cast out like refuse on the street. So this photograph is
not just temporally displaced, but quite different in what we see. In fact, we do not see much in these commentaries, though
one does note the bald mannequins modeling bathing suits.
- The photograph originally appeared prefaced to Rousseau's book Shopping Bag Ladies: Homeless Women
Speak About Their Lives, and in that context, it is more a general indication of the theme of the book than a
definitive statement. The rest of the images in the book follow individual women through their days and illustrate the text
of interviews with them. As if contesting Buck-Morss's interpretation, Rousseau has posted this photograph on her website
with some explanation and commentary (which was not present in the book publication)--and also with the title "Macy's: The
Benediction." She notes that she knew the woman and had worked with her in a shelter and that she happened to see the tableau
as she rode her bicycle to work one morning. What caught her eye was the gesture of the two mannequins, which she says is
like the Pope's gesture when he gives a benediction. Rousseau continues:
The homeless woman on the outside carries all her worldly possessions and wears everything she owns. The more privileged
women (mannequins) on the inside advertise cruise wear in the dead of winter, and are portrayed half naked, bald and equally
alienated. They bestow a blessing on their sister a world apart, yet only inches away on the other side of the glass. Both
are in full view on public display and are at the same time, to the larger world, invisible.
This commentary neutralizes class, domination, victimization, and oppression in favor of a surprising sisterhood of
invisibility. That perception is in its turn a fragile moment that may give way to further thinking about the ethics and
aesthetics of representing poor and suffering people and about documentary as a mode of not seeing. Invisibility is the issue
for Rousseau in her extended project of photographing and studying homeless women; it is a pity, and a great irony, that her
image can so readily be fed into the machine of What We Already Know. So, for the record, I do not think her photograph is a
dialectical image; as the preface to her book, or with her commentary, it may function that way for some people, but
commented on in other ways, it becomes a piece of shock documentary, which, John Berger suggests in another connection,
"becomes evidence for the general human [here we might substitute urban] condition. It accuses nobody and everybody"
(Looking 40)--and is about as revolutionary as a package of red licorice vines.
- Rousseau's book, by the way, is a monument to the kind of engaged, humanistic documentary that tries to make
with and reveal the subjectivity of its subjects. For this purpose, the interview text almost exactly complements the
photographic images. It contrasts sharply with Martha Rosler's avowedly anti-humanistic treatment of the male counterparts to
the shopping bag ladies, "The Bowery in Two Inadequate Descriptive Systems" (1974). This exhibit of 21 black-and-white
photographs of street scenes in the Bowery pairs each photo with a set of words used by the alcoholics to describe their
favored state of consciousness (loopy, groggy, boozy, tight--and many, many more). These terms, however, are the only trace
of the men's subjectivity, for the pictures of the doorways and storefronts with their empty bottles have no people in them.
Each member of the pair has only traces, for Rosler insists that neither words nor images are adequate to convey the human
experience. There is no explanatory matter in the set as it was exhibited nor in the book published from it. Rosler clearly
took the esoteric option, maintaining "The Bowery" was a gallery piece suitable for those who go to galleries. The general
public doesn't go to galleries and they are not concerned about the adequacy of descriptive systems (Buchloh 44-45). Also,
they do not perhaps think of Walker Evans's photographs of homeless and alcoholic men in the street as the immediate and
obvious context for the work.
- Although Benjamin did not live to develop his theory or practice, both were taken up by the very similar-minded team
of John Berger and Jean Mohr in a series of photograph-texts beginning with A Fortunate Man in 1967. The second
of these, A Seventh Man, comes closest to being a direct continuation of the Arcades Project. It
too seeks to rouse readers from a collective dream world so that they may grasp the experience of migrant workers in Europe
and also the political economy of that experience. It too is a social history of a transformation wrought by capitalism,
though far more narrowly focused and more inclined to offer authoritative abstract guidance. Some of Mohr's photographs are
captioned at their place in the text (where they deem the caption helpful in getting into the photo) but they proclaim the
general independence of the two "languages" and in particular the minimal role of illustration. The general theme of the
photographs is contrast between the worlds that the migrants left behind and the ones they experience as "guests." Some of
these contrasts are extreme and unmistakable, as for example juxtapositions of a downtown Manhattan street at night and an
unpaved road leading to a village. Others are more multidimensional and complex. Here is one double page that intrigues me:
| Figure 2: John Berger and Jean Mohr, A Seventh
(Click image for larger version)
- The images fall generally within the then/there of peasant life and here/now of factory work. The paragraph
on the constitution of the normal does not directly bear on them at all. The paragraph immediately preceding, however, does.
It concludes, "he knows that what he is doing is separate from any skill he has. He can stuff a saddle with straw. He has been
told that the factory makes washing machines" (99). The images do not directly illustrate these statements, which press the
point of alienation of (migrant) production line labor, since the images cannot show us what "he" knows; rather, they give
presence to hands as the means of skilled labor across widely different circumstances--cattle to clutch-plates. This is not a
matter of failed control, or subversion of image by text and vice-versa, since we have been told not to expect illustration
or dependence of the images on the text (or vice versa). Rather, there is a kind of double or triple montage going on here:
next to image, text next to text (sometimes hopping over an image) and text next to image. One can draw contrasts, trace
similarities, analogize, and generalize across modes.
- Sometimes, indeed, there are almost too many contrasts for their purpose, since not all contrasts arise from
contradictions in the socioeconomic structure. Here for example is one pairing that almost hurts the head with its contrasts:
The left side image has one of the longest captions in the book, and it certainly does make it "easier to look into" the
| Figure 3. John Berger and Jean Mohr, A Seventh Man
(Click image for larger version)
Turkish Carpet-seller in Germany. A number of migrants come privately to sell goods to their fellow countrymen. He is selling
carpets by a road near a Turkish barracks. (222)
The second is a full-page ad for Der Spiegel which begins "18 percent of all executives traveling by car would
pick up a hitch-hiker in Hot Pants"--a reflection of sexist attitudes that would probably be suppressed today. Both figures
are sitters by the roadside, but she is young, female, stylishly coiffed and dressed to kill (but not to walk), confident of
her role and the rules she plays by. Though far from abject, the man is none of those things. It is hard to pick one
contrast--one inequality--to focus on.
Curiously, though John Roberts includes the image of the Turkish rug seller in his chapter on Berger and Mohr in The
Interruption, he recombines it (sans caption) with another photo of a migrant spending leisure time reading in his
barracks room. This new context radically changes the image of the rug seller, who now looks like another migrant worker, and
one considerably less well off than the man in his room. That is one effect of the power of juxtaposition.
| Figure 4. John Roberts, The Art of Interruption (134)
(Click image for larger version)
- Writing about his practice seven years later, Berger emphasizes especially the function of movement from
particular to general, partly because it is this that makes images usable in social analysis (and useful to social analysis
in evoking the world as experienced). The more images, he says, the more possible connections. He cites (and in fact
reproduces) a sequence of four images of women from A Seventh
Man (see Figure 5) which is intended, he says
to speak about a migrant worker's sexual deprivation. By using four photographs
instead of one, the telling, we hoped, would go beyond the simple fact--which any good photo-reportage would show--that many
migrant workers live without women. (281)
Astonishingly (for a literary person) this is all he says about the "going beyond" in this case.
| Figure 5. John Berger and Jean Mohr, A Seventh Man
(Click here for larger version)
- Presented one-per-page and then two-per-page in Another Way, these images can be paired up as
Virgin/Whore and Old/Young peasant girl, High and Low art, and other ways as well. You can think of representations as
substitutions, as having different market values, and many other things. Berger in fact urges us to read in other orders
after we have read left-to-right (Telling 284). I will not pursue the verbalizing of visual meanings here--Clive
Scott has devoted several pages to this sequence (275-82--includes images) and has by no means exhausted it.
- Scott argues that Berger and Mohr's confidence in the ability of images to speak for themselves (that is,
textual prompting and anchorage) increased considerably between the publication of these two books, so that the other way of
telling they advance and illustrate in Another Way is almost exclusively visual (the "language of appearances"):
the core of the book ("If Each Time...") consists of 150 photographs with no text, titles, or captions (but with brief
identifying captions at the end). Alternatively, it is worth pointing out that this core sequence differs in purpose from
A Seventh Man. It is to "articulate a lived experience"--that of a Swiss peasant woman (invented). They have no
argument to present, no documentation of exploitation, no rousing of opposition and concern as in A Seventh Man.
The rhetorical argument of A Seventh Man employs a somewhat schematic linear narrative of
Departure--Work--Return, and the text portions elaborate on the social and economic conditions of that experience. To use
Habermas's terms again, they join system to lifeworld, with images being the primary means of unfolding the latter. This is
close to what Benjamin wanted his "images" to do, though one difference is that Benjamin had not developed Berger and Mohr's
attachment to the experience of relatively inarticulate people. In Another Way, however, Berger and Mohr turn
toward explicating and illustrating a different function or aspect of the photograph, namely, photographic expressiveness.
- There are no comparable plots or threads organizing "If Each Time...." Nonetheless, as Berger notes in the
penultimate section, "Stories," the images--all 150 of them--are placed in one order rather than another and sustain what he
wants to call, rather tentatively, photographic narrative. He cites two properties of a collection of photographs that induce
him to speak of it as narrative: the first is gaps, since the photographs are moments snipped ("quoted") from peoples' lives.
The second is what he calls "the reflective subject," a notion which includes maker and reader/viewer as they assemble the
photographs before them to re-embed them in experience, namely, their own experience. Here he explicitly draws on
Eisenstein's writings on cinematic montage, beginning with his notion of "a montage of attractions" which is to say that what
precedes and follows a cut should attract each other as by contrast, equivalence, recurrence, or conflict
(Telling 287-88). However, he notes that in film, there is a directionality of time and succession that as it
were unbalances the attractions across the cut. With a set of photographs, however, the attractions can be mutual in the way,
he suggests, that one memory triggers another, "irrespective of any hierarchy, chronology or duration," speaking of the
"sequence" of photographs as like a field of memory. It will not have escaped the attentive reader that narrative is
an odd term to use for traversing a field of image-memories when chronology and duration do not signify. This final section
ends with words that bear a more extended citation:
Photographs so placed are restored to a living context: not of course to the original temporal context from which they were
taken--that is impossible--but to a context of experience. And there, their ambiguity at last becomes true. It
allows what they show to be appropriated by reflection. The world they reveal, frozen, becomes tractable. They information
they contain becomes permeated by feeling. Appearances become the language of a lived life. (289)
- Clearly the spatial image of the field has displaced the temporal one of sequence in this passage, just as
articulation replaces con-sequence and reflection takes the place of discovery. One almost supposes that
narrative was simply the most flexible and general term for a
signifying sequence available to Berger. He seems to be
following Susan Sontag, who writes
in contrast to the amorous relation, which is based on how something
looks, understanding is based on how it functions. And
functioning takes place in time, and must be explained in time. Only that which narrates can make us understand. (Sontag 23)
when he says
and in life, meaning is not instantaneous. Meaning is discovered in what
connects, and cannot exist without development.
Without a story, without an unfolding, there is no meaning. (Another 89)
But surely there are other ways to develop a point than making it into a story.
- Scott strives valiantly to explain Berger and Mohr's notion of narrative in "If Each Time...," expanding on the
temporality of the various images, but concludes
what is important, then, in this "sequence" of images is not the
narrative as such, but the narratology; not the story, but
the mechanisms which make it narratable and diversify its manners of being told. (Another 290)
He then proceeds to trace repetitions, sometimes with shifts in scale, similarities and groupings, framing and layout--all
good stuff, just not what comes immediately to mind when you hear the word narrative. Indeed, Geoff Dyer's
conclusion about this issue, namely that "If Each Time..." is not visual narrative but visual poetry, has much to recommend
- Scott welcomes the purely visual mode of "If Each Time..." partly because it has no authoritative voice
setting the scope and frame of interpretation. This voice most definitely appears in A Seventh Man, and when it
talks "economic theory," it uses succinct Marxist terminology in a way that strikes some contemporary readers as hectoring and
superior. It may be that the urgency of the immediate problem in Berger's mind excuses shortcuts past the niceties (and
risks) of letting the readers reach their own conclusions. Occasionally other voices are heard. A few lines from migrants are
quoted, but they are outnumbered and greatly outweighed by authoritative academic sources and Marx himself. There are a
couple of "their" images and a wonderful quote from Henry Ford about the harmlessness of repetitive line work. One can
imagine that if Benjamin were to treat the subject, there would be many more such voices and much less "author and
authorities." As it is, one can see why Scott finally calls Berger "a nineteenth-century postmodernist" (291).
- John Roberts has also undertaken to explain Berger's notion of "reconstructive narrative" and to
differentiate between A Seventh Man and Another Way. Roberts points out that by
focusing on the experience of a Swiss peasant woman, "If Each Time..." turns away from urban life and industrial work back
toward a sense of
life that runs by a different time and by different urgencies. Though the peasants are dairy farmers, there are no images of the
mechanization which was already beginning to transform dairy farming elsewhere--no tractors or milking machines, no trucks or
even cars, except in a couple of contrasting city images. Even to call it dairy farming seems wrong, as if applying
occupation or business categories from a bureaucratized urban world.
Roberts sees Berger and Mohr's evocation of this world that
is doomed and passing away as an attempt to turn critical documentary into an act of love. To be sure, this loving tracing
and recording can be found in the "back home" sections in A Seventh Man, which contrast with the world of
factory labor and dormitory living in the host country. And in the lives of the migrant workers, these are not worlds apart,
but define the most significant polarity that they must live across. It is true that "If Each Time..." has contrasting
city/country sets of images and brings the worlds into contact in a few scenes, but these scenes seem to be comic in their
juxtaposition of peasant horse and buggy in city (Palermo) traffic, or peasant leading a nanny goat and two kids through a
formal dining room of the Hotel Schweizerhof in Berne. These images show contradictions, but do not invite us to explore them
as a major theme of the work. They do not function as dialectical images to push us to a deeper grasp of the forces at play
in the world. Rather, they illustrate the notion of a "field" of relations in which the image stands/is placed and which in a
sense it gathers into itself like so many associative threads. In this it resembles the workings of "the stimulus by which
one memory triggers another, irrespective of any hierarchy, chronology, or duration" (Another 288). This
effectively replaces the notion of signifying sequence with that of "coexistence in a field of memory."
- Roberts, whose book The Interruptive Image is in many ways a working out of Benjamin's notions
of the dialectical image and constructive montage, is decidedly more enthusiastic about A Seventh Man than "If
Each Time..." and directs some attention to distinguishing between the image breaking and generalizing of Heartfield and
Tucholsky and the (Benjamin)/Berger/Mohr notion of reconstructive [re?] narrative: "the meanings of the photograph lie in how
they are reconstructed discursively, and not in the discursive extraction of their truth content from the image"
(134-35). This suggests that the meaning arises in readers as they build relations between images and images-and-texts,
though it may include as well the point that when we give accounts of pictures of people in scenes, we often construct
mini-narratives about them--mini-sociodramas, as it were. These together help explain why Berger and Mohr want to call the
pattern of contrasts and connections synthesized by the reader/viewer narratives.
- There remains a troubling point about this vein of theorizing reconstructive narrative, which is the
suggestion in Berger and Mohr's writings that photography's quoting of reality simply frees the image from its historical
moorings so that it can resonate or evoke associations in the hearer/viewer. This misses the point that we are guided in our
reconstructions by what we know about the circumstances in which the photograph was taken. That dimension of meaning is
activated by even a few words of caption, and I find my reading of the Berger and Mohr books greatly enhanced by the table of
short identifying captions at the ends of the books, as well as the occasional caption next to the image. The impact of this
information is greater in the case of the A Seventh Man since the photos point toward geographical, political,
economic, and historical objects and forces of the world as I know it, but it is important in establishing locale and
contrasts even in "If Each Time...."
- Printed books are distinctly limited in their means for juxtaposing images with images and images with texts.
Berger and Mohr may urge us to read first in linear sequence and then in other directions, but the sequences are bound in one
way and not in others in a book. Since the order is fixed as printed, the reader must be urged to wander. What if there were
several, even many possible orders in which the reader could experience the parts of a text? What if the text were hypertext?
- From early 1997 on, Giles Peaker--art theorist, critic, and Lecturer at the University of Derby--has maintained a
hypertext fragment of the Arcades Project, adding to it from time to time. The site has eleven pages, each one
like a mini-folder of the Arcades Project containing a few short paragraphs and an image or two (and there is a
twelfth bibliography page.) Many of the key categories are the same as those that appear in the Arcades Project
(Flâneur, Arcades, Mirrors, Iron Construction, Fashion, Prostitutes) but a few are new (Dust, Surrealism, Detective,
Feuilleton, Commodity). Each page has one to four paragraphs drawn from the 1938 "Paris in the Second Empire," the 1935
exposé "Paris the Capital of Europe," the folders, or an external source. The eleven pages contain multiple links to
other pages in the set; sometimes different words on a page link to the
same page. This is an unusual practice, and in fact, the
amount of cross-linking (averaging over five per page) is unusual as well. (See Table of Links.) Most pages have
one or two rather small images. Peaker describes his site as image heavy, but it is so only by 1997 standards.
- The high degree of cross-linking means that there are many links to each page, sometimes two from the same
page. The link words are almost always different, so that one is never quite sure whether the link would return you to a page
you have already seen. So, for example, the Prostitution page is pointed
at by the following terms:
- empathy with inorganic things
- sex appeal of the inorganic
- cheap elegance
There is a similar range for the Flâneur page:
- flâneur (twice)
- beloved self
The individual pages thus become the centers for ad hoc semantic clusters. Peaker gives a few sentences to describing his
intention with the piece, which basically is to use hypertext links to bring "elements into new juxtapositions and and
hopefully generat[e] new meanings out of the debris of the era of high capitalism." Since the link-anchoring word or words
sets a certain semantic aspect and expectation for what completes the link, the same page can be entered from a different
direction: "it is possible to recross areas from many different directions. Each time, the material is brought into a new
relation and in this, a new aspect of it emerges." Of the images he says very little: they are not link anchors and tend to
be rather small and dark.
- Twelve pages is not a large site, but it seems bewilderingly large to start with because of the numerous
links on pages leading we know not where. Peaker does provide a kind of top page with links to six of the twelve pages (and
all of the pages have returns to this top page), but there is no map or
overview that tells us how big the site is or where we are in
it. This lack combines with the relatively large number of links on a page to produce a certain anxiety: we don't know if
there is a main path or center nor whether the proffered links will take us away from it. Faced with this type of site, and
they are very common, we often try to "learn the site"--learn its structure and navigation scheme--and this can produce
impatience and resentment, or simply divert attention from the meaning of what is on the page before us. We may urge
reader/viewers to attempt a new way of reading, of simply traversing links in a network without attempting to master or
direct one's movement, but that new way of reading is especially difficult for people who don't like to wander in strange
places. Withholding structural information is the hypertext equivalent of modernist authorial reticence: the work should be
experienced on its own terms, not through the interpretations and explanations of its author. The problem with navigational
unease is that the viewer's first question upon going to a page is "have I been here/read this before?" and that tends to
distract from the context effect of coming at the page from a different direction. In any case, the power of the sending page
to serve as a context for the new page is somewhat limited by its disappearance. One may experience a jump or gap and quickly
try to come up with a meaningful connection from sending anchor to target page, but I doubt that we remember much about the
exact sequence of pages, or even the exact pages, that we have viewed for more that a minute or so, or for very many pages
back. Images, however, especially large images, can provide a context for words, as they seem to represent worlds, or locales
within worlds, in which the words circulate. This chance was missed when Peaker's concern with bandwidth led him to keep his
images small. I have tried to maximize this effect of images in my revised Arcades fragment.
e-Arcades (<www.e-arcades.com>) is a site by Robin
Michals inspired by Benjamin's Arcades Project:
e-Arcades is an excursion of association among quotations concerning technology. Borrowing Benjamin's methodology of
juxtaposing quotes, e-Arcades grasps at an understanding of the effect of our technologies on how we think as well as live.
- e-Arcades is a way of accessing and displaying 366 pithy quotations from (mostly contemporary)
books, articles, and web pages concerning the impact of new technologies (internet, computers, the media, the human genome)
on "our society and lives." These quotations, identified usually only by author and date, each have at least two links to
other of the 366 quotations. The links are not single, fixed links from page to page, but from a page to a group of
thematically related pages, one of which is randomly selected as the target for display. So, for example, the four links
visible in Figure 6 trigger selections from four different groups: market triggers a selection from a group with the
theme of new world markets, hidden fist triggers a selection from a group with a war/military theme, and so on. Some
groups are small--Disneyland/World has only four pages--but others are much larger, ranging up to a dozen or so and at least
25 in one case (theme: cognitive impact; these are my names, by the way). This guarantees that there will be at least some
connection between the source and target quotations, though the connection is sometimes not much stronger than use of the
same word. Most of the themes are controversial, and Michals's sources are selected to give a spread of position and attitude
on them, so that one can find oneself jumping from a direly negative observation to a buoyantly positive one on the same
| Figure 6: e-Arcades Screenshot, Global
Background (Quote 20) |
(Click image for larger version)
- In addition, each of these quotes is displayed over an image-rich background. There are eight sets of these
backgrounds, each set having five different backgrounds (except for Media, which now has ten). These sets, which Michals
calls templates, bear visually on Money, Globalization, Society, Technology, Internet, Computers, Media, and Body. Each quote
is targeted for a template where it will acquire a background image, but which of the five backgrounds available in the set
is actually chosen for displaying the quote is not fixed but again randomly selected. This procedure guarantees that the
background image displayed with the quote will have some thematic consistency with the main theme of the quote, but it does
not guarantee a best match between quote and background image. For example, clicking on Silicon Valley in Figure 6
could trigger the selection of quote 99, which has a Social background preferred; it is then assigned to the background
templater, which assigns it one of the five Social backgrounds. Figure 7
shows one such pairing. Thus the same quote may appear
with different backgrounds, but only from the preferred background set. If you want to try another match, you can click
"Reload" which will give you another background from the set (or the same one again, if you are unlucky).
- Focusing on the backgrounds themselves, consider the background in Figure 6, which is the first in the
Globalization set. This is about as explicit as photomontage ever gets, and it is unusually so for the backgrounds in
e-Arcades. Most of the images are digital collage or a mixture of collage and montage (blending parts) and, while the component images may not actually conflict, it is not always clear how or why
they have been put together. Figure 7 (from the Social set) is still relatively straightforward:
Four of these parts deal with repetition in a marketing display, though the chickens are hung up for an old-style market. The
figure in it appears that of a customer--blurred, as if excitedly moving. (We know surveillence cameras don't produce this
kind of color.) Given the text (one of maybe 45 that could appear here), we
may see the shopper as exchanging subtle
energies. One cannot expect ready connections between quote and background, however, when the same background has to serve
for nearly 50 quotes. This consideration limits the developing of a strong theme in the background images or a specific
relation to the quotes, and I find that after spending considerable time with the site, the images do indeed fade into the
background and cease to intrigue me as a setting for individual quotes. Note that text overlays image, confirming the latter
background and giving a distinctly modern, multilayered look. Perhaps if the backgrounds were not so multiple (that is, made
up of so many subparts) and followed rather the model of the Globalization template Coke banner, they could more strongly
stand in as counterparts to the quotes.
| Figure 7: e-Arcades Screenshot, Social Background 1
(Click image for larger version)
- e-Arcades makes good its professed descent from the Arcades Project in a number of
ways. It touches on many of the themes that concerned Benjamin, as for example organic/inorganic, speed, dream worlds of
technology and advertising (real/virtual), and progress/advancement. It eschews a master, authorial voice, offering instead a
pastiche of other voices, some directly or indirectly critical of others, so that the links do offer meaningful connections
for the reader/viewer. In fact, the thematic groupings resemble scaled-down Konvoluts, though the viewer cannot just
open a thematic group and view its contents. But there are notable differences as well, suggesting that Benjamin's method is
not simply juxtaposition and that it is very much a part of a particular political-historical vision:
- e-Arcades is not a history, cultural or otherwise. Hence the play of perspectives from then and
now--the continuities and changes of understanding and world view--do not get into the story. We do not learn about the past
and we do not learn from the past.
- e-Arcades scants the operation of material forces in
favor of "opinions" about what is going on and
what it all means. There are for example a few quotes about Disneyland and Disney World. These touch on familiar points about
fantasy and simulacra and exporting American culture, but the closest they get to material facts and forces is one quote
about how more Americans visit Mall of America to shop than go to Disneyland. Disney's swallowing of ABC (and ESPN) and
astonishing ability to manipulate governments into fencing in the intellectual commons are not mentioned. The Arcades
Project has plenty of statistics and telling facts that let the reader perform some of the synthesizing work of the
historian. If, as with e-Arcades, what a reader gets is a bunch of already-interpreted opinions, she may agree or
disagree, but she lacks the materials to do the work of historical understanding that Benjamin provides in such abundance.
Most of the texts are conclusions or claims, the only evidence for most of which is the author's name, and which place the
reader in the consumer-of-opinions role--that is, take it or leave it.
- Though it juxtaposes contradictory opinions ("McDonalds abroad is a major form of cultural imperialism
and a threat to indigenous cultures" v. "McDonalds offers a quick meal for people who want it"),
e-Arcades is not critical, taking "critical" to
include identifying more or less truthful and
insightful statements, exposing injustice and exploitation, and the making visible of the socially invisible.
e-Arcades relies heavily on opinion pieces which use the ideological consumerist "we" ("we the consumers
and experiencers of the new technology"). People are not equally affected by the new technology and they are not
affected in the same way. It cites talk about robots without talking about the
loss of manufacturing and service jobs. It cites talk about "netizens" and a dubious world-citizenship displacing
community identifications, but includes nothing about migrant workers, immigration, and NAFTA. To be sure, the site
is already very large and has to set some bounds, and that means leaving out some part of the picture. But the danger
is that e-Arcades might end up as just a collection of multiple thoughts, perspectives, and opinions to
which everyone is entitled.
Note that these criticisms have little or nothing to do with the design of the interface. It, or one very like it,
could be used successfully with the notes of the Arcades Project, suitably selected and
adapted (abbreviated in many cases). I have in fact tried to do that as
an extended trial or probe, and the result can be viewed here. Rather, the problem arises from the excessive
number of opinion pieces, which leave the
reader/viewer only the one role of consumer (connoisseur, collector) of opinions.
We can also read this project through Berger's notion of a field of inter-definining,
pieces, though I will sketch this out only for the quotes, setting the images and quote-image relations aside. The field(s)
here are not those of memory on the whole (though 1998 does occasionally seem quite old in this material) but of
interpretation of current upheavals and transformations under the impact of new technologies. If all the quotes on a theme
could be exhibited on one page, it would be possible to read across, back and forth, letting things stand out and trigger
reflection, and then be modified in their turn by other adjacent quotes. For such a procedure, the interface is not very
useful, as it only allows one to see one quote at a time, and it is disorienting to go back and find the previous page with a
different background. The interface is good for shock or collision montage (in cinematic terms), but not to display a field.
It is possible to display all of the quotes for many themes on single pages, and I have constructed a few such arrays for the
themes of jargon ("parlance"), links, democracy, political economy, the Web, biological metaphor, and web community, and these too are attached. If
you view these arrays, you will see something like a set of notecards laid out on a table, as if one had
collected them and were scanning them looking for patterns, pairings, significant oppositions prior to writing a piece that
would put them in their proper place. They would closely resemble the pages of the Arcades Project. Such a
recoding, which ruthlessly strips the visual backgrounds to focus on the relations of quotations, might be said to be an
entirely new work, although it does seem to fall within Michals's intended "excursion of associations among quotations."
But, one might argue, these bits of text are not photographs and thus do not have the similarity to memory
and access to memory-like processes that photographs do. Reflecting upon them does not memorialize life past (memorializing
the present and emerging future?). And similarly, they don't provide data or evidence for determining the truth in the
present world. If they would work as fields for reflection, the reflection would work upon the language of their
representations--the rhetoric of prophecy, as it were. That is perhaps why the group arrays I have called biological metaphor and web parlance do serve to heighten one's
awareness of how the passages are constructing the present, which is a move in the direction of critique. The site does not
guide the viewer very far in that direction, however, presumably in the hope that the viewer's sorting and connecting of the
somewhat unpredictably juxtaposed quotes will not be wildly off the mark.
Russet Lederman is another digital artist who describes her work as "emulating the fragmented, non-linear,
montage-like construction" found in Benjamin's writings. Even though that is all she says about Benjamin, it is clear in her
work that she shares his concern with history and memory and the transformative power of capitalism and technology. She is a
web developer for the activist artist collective REPOhistory, whose work for the last ten years "is informed by a
multicultural re-reading of history which focuses on issues of race, gender, class and sexuality." Her largest online piece,
American Views: Stories of the Landscape, won the Smithsonian American Art Museum New Media/New Century award in
2001. It is built out of fragments of oral history narratives from three New Yorkers focusing on their relations to their
landscapes. Each figure has about 30 fragments ranging from 15 to 50 seconds. Each of these is linked to a small image--often
a personal snapshot, piece of the landscape, or a map section--seven of which are presented on a given page. Touching a
center band with the mouse causes a quick shuffle and new deal, so that the fragments cannot generally be concatenated into a
sequential narrative or discussion of a single topic. The narratives seem to have been prompted to some degree by interview
or questionnaire, and have certainly been selected so that they have a common bearing. Here is a sample page from "Neil's"
portion of the site: the white X indicates a mouseover that has inserted and selected the grayed area. A click on this image
would trigger the playing of an audio clip beginning with the words "When Walt Whitman was built" (note that you must click
on the audio to get the whole text):
In addition, the site provides four theme pages
(seen/scene, use/reuse, permanence/impermanence, and
earth/unearth) that come up with simple line drawings, another semantic
pairing (often antonyms), and links to pages of
profound statements about the term or theme. Each page has ten such statements; four are displayed each time the page is
loaded, but there are also audio boxes that let you select any of the ten to hear and read. These audio versions on the theme
pages are redundant, since the display changes to show the entire selected statement, all of which are brief and most of
which are fairly obvious. Here for example is one page with four of the
ten "earth/unearth" maxims displayed, the eighth one selected:
| Figure 8. Russet Lederman: First Mouseover on Neil's Page
(Click image for larger version)
The sound clips of each of the three figures are reflections about their engagements with their environments: Neil's, in
Syasset, New York, concern the emergence and subsequent loss of the suburban world where he grew up from 1955-1971. Cindi's,
in Irvine, Kentucky, reflect on difference between the New York City she knows and has moved from and the country of eastern
Kentucky--and the forces that may push it into the past and make it more like New York. Adam's, in Northern California, are
the ruminations of an environmental pollution specialist about how
development and technology have polluted and
the resources of life in the area. But are these clips "dialectical images" in Benjamin's sense? Do they push us to look
beyond and behind what is said?
It is certainly fair to say they are not like the audio clips in Broadway's Glass (see below), which are ideologically positioned voices (and music) in the world--sound captures from the media.
Lederman's clips are taken from interviews and oral histories of three private individuals, and we imagine them as
articulate, thoughtful people speaking into a microphone trying to give balanced, temperate accounts of their observations
and actions. They do themselves provide some critique of the forces at work in the worlds they describe and also enough
information for us to discern their social positioning. Their very accents are enough to locate them socially and by region
(though Adam's accent is light--he is a Californianized New Yorker).
There is one voice on the site, however, that is not dialectical or concretely located: that of the man who
reads the maxims. There is little regional or social coloration to his voice; rather, it is that of the voiceover in
educational films and videos and could almost be an upper-end text-to-speech synthesizer. And it employs the
techno-we noted above in relation to e-Arcades (see the screen capture of "earth/unearth," Figure
9). I find this perplexing, for Lederman employs a similar voice in another piece (Congestion) where it seems
clearly one pole of a dialectical split, opposed by the hysterical voice of New York radio traffic reports. Whatever the
reason for the reading voice here, it reintroduces an authoritative perspective, apolitical and above the fray, that montage
has consistently tried to eliminate from the work. One has to have some sympathy for the voiceover reader, however, for the
content of what he is reading is quite elementary, and it is hard to read those maxims in a voice conveying excitement or
conviction that the words are new, interesting, or important.
| Figure 9. Russet
Lederman: one earth/unearth page |
(Click image for larger version)
As everyone who has worked with montage in the last 50 years
eventually realizes, the power of juxtaposition to
shock people into novel and more reflective awareness has long ago faded into the daylight of television and advertising
uses. Shock in any case is a very one-sided way to describe the effect of montage, since
it says nothing about the work the reader/viewer must do to connect the juxtaposed parts and to order them into larger
wholes. Theories of tearing from context (or quoting--all quotes, someone said, are out of context) and recombining into
revealing configurations more directly acknowledge the synthesizing acts of reader/viewers, but leave the door open to the
kind of surrealism that worried Adorno: things are recombined according to a logic of dream or personal association to
constitute a surreal, fantasy world. The advent of digital collage and montage (or simply "digital compositing"), with its
capacity for nearly seamless and effortless combination of images, has indeed stimulated a new rush of surrealist images.
These can be found on digital art websites such as the Digital Arts Group and the Focus Gallery, especially such artists as
Jochen Brennecke, Ron Brown, Randy Little, Tom Chambers, and Elfi Kaut. Most of these
exhibit at least one image online that alludes to Magritte, or is an outright remake (as Randy Little's digital-photographic
version of "Red Shoes"). Figure 10 ("Expired") is by Jochen Brennecke and deals with humans and common human activity, but
the very seamlessness of surrealist montage denies that the image is divided into parts which are juxtaposed. Such images do
not attract dialectical readings.
So how is critical digital montage possible? To answer that, I will look at the work of three artists who
have adopted digital means of making images and who have chosen to work with public themes and issues: Esther Parada, Richard
Ramsdell, and Geoff Broadway. All three exhibited pieces in the Livewire Exhibition of Images Received Over the Internet
which was a part of the Derby 1995 National [UK] Photography Festival developed by the Design Research Centre in Derby. Despite the title and appearance on a computer screen, these images were exhibited as
digital prints and are quite large. The piece exhibited by Esther Parada, for instance ("A Thousand Centuries") was 33" x
55". Here is a view of the center of the composition:
| Figure 10. Jochen Brennecke: Expired (1998) |
image for larger version)
This had been exhibited as part of a larger group ("2-3-4-D: Digital
Revisions in Time and Space") which included three
others, most of them dealing in one way or another with the figure of Columbus in Latin America. In these works, Parada
layers photographic images with texts and other images of colonialism to produce a very complex surface that does not shrink
well to the dimensions of the computer display screen. To assist viewing, she identifies the component images and texts
individually. "A Thousand Centuries" takes its title from the inscription to
Columbus's effigy and tomb in Havana:
| Figure 11: Center view of "A Thousand Centuries"|
(Click image for larger version)
O Remains and Countenance of Great Columbus Rest preserved a thousand centuries in this Urn And enshrined in the Memory of
our Nation. [in Spanish, though overlaid here in English]
It includes images of and from that tomb, some of Parada's photographs of
people in Havana streets, and two other texts,
one by Oliver Wendell Holmes celebrating the stereoscope and one on a
proposed standard definition of photo-composite:
AN IMAGE CONSTRUCTED (A HISTORY NARRATED/ A MONUMENT ERECTED)/THROUGH THE ADDITION OR SUBTRACTION OF ELEMENTS/ THAT
SUBSTANTIALLY AFFECT/ THE MEANING/ OF THE ORIGINAL [...]
As the reader might suppose, this layering makes a very
complicated composite that would be difficult to see
without the assistance she provides. In the case of this image, she
provides even more, pointing out some of the visual
"contradictions" such as those between the light skin of the girl on the
lad's tee-shirt and his own dark complexion, and between
Columbus's pointing finger and the Cuban babe in arms. Other images of the series of four are somewhat less complex,
reworking the street-life photographs with other texts and images in various ways. The needs of "seeing" in this mode are
somewhat at odds with the visual message of merger or totality: we need to be able to see the parts as distinct and
identifiable voices, stances, and views in order to identify them. In effect, these images convey snapshots of the historical
consciousness of contemporary Cubans, or of a contemporary American visiting Cuba. They resemble the Arcades
Project in their use of text and images from different points in the past with the interpreting and integrating work
left to the viewer. The visual demands are too great for the Web, however; a close-up view close enough for the text to be
read utterly sacrifices the design of the whole or integration of the parts. The method of superimposed images and texts here
reaches a limit.
At Livewire, Richard Ramsdell exhibited a piece from a larger set of triple-layered historical images
bearing on the human body and sexuality over the last few millenia. The inset piece here (Figure 12) is one of the set of
"body" images; like Parada, he identifies each of the three component layers. The first, and deepest, one is a Ukranian icon,
a famous sculpture by Hiram Powers ("The Greek Slave") said to be the most popular work of American art at mid-nineteenth
century, and a piece by Yves Klein which was painted by having models smeared with International Klein Blue paint roll about
on the canvas. So--three ways of depicting women, each deeply saturated with the cultural practices of its era. But what, we
may ask, is gained by layering them earliest to latest and reducing their opacity so that the eye of the icon peers through
the belly of the slave statue? The parts are easily distinguished by style and quite distant in era and culture, and yet made
to talk to each other by sharing the same visual space. They are discontinuous slices of "Art History," so sequence or
development seems unlikely. The past-in-the-present ("O remains and countenance of great Columbus") does not get us very far
either. The Greek Slave was taken to express the epitome of Christian meekness and purity at the moment of being shown for
sale as a sex slave (she has a cross nestled in her garments), and so we have two images representing ideals of female piety
or sanctity, in relation to which the blue figures are not a representation so much as a sort of contact print. Here is a second image, composited from a tenth-century ivory carving of Christ
sitting in Last Judgment, a porn pic of a bound, reclining girl, and a Rothko painting. Tempting though it is, I will leave
it as an exercise for the reader. (Other Ramsdell photomontages can be seen at <www.richardramsdell.com/art/>.)
The last of the Livewire exhibitors I will discuss is Geoff Broadway, who also exhibited a piece from a
larger set titled the glass, which illustrates the theory in his Master of Philosophy thesis "Digital Realist
Montage" in 1997. There is a link to the thesis and a substantial introduction by Giles Peaker. In its
final form, the site with its six pieces was elaborated as a Flash file with sound in 2000. Although he uses some reduced
opacity to allow images to shine through and merge with others, the individual components are clearly bounded and almost
geometrically placed, as in the example here ("Mirage") and in all six pieces in the glass. The images are each
identified (in the non-Flash version); for "Mirage," these are:
| Figure 12. Richard Ramsdell |
(Click image for larger
One can readily see that these slices are all part of the Western construction of the Arab,
compass reminds us of a commonly neglected (underconstructed?) point, namely the Muslim sophistication in numerous areas of
the arts and sciences during centuries when Europe was distinctly more primitive, even "dark."
All of the pieces in the glass deal with Western/Third World or North/South
relations (economic, political, and social) such as harvesting of hardwoods in Brazil, child labor in North Indian rug
factories, Shell oil in Nigeria, Australian treatment of their indigenous peoples, and tea colonialism in India/Sri Lanka.
Like Ramsdell's pieces, Broadway's are uncluttered by text overlays. This forces reliance on the images to
convey historical and cultural consciousness, but in the Benjamin tradition (where Broadway clearly locates himself),
language-slices are also powerful conveyors of consciousness. Broadway found a way to add voices, music, and other sounds to
these images by placing them in Flash format with sound-zones attached to various areas like links to an imagemap, except
that the sound zones actually intensify to full volume and then fade out again as you move the mouse over them. Each of the
images in the glass has a few such audio clips. In "Mirage," the clips are of an Arab correcting some English
stereotypes of the Arab, an NBC news broadcast of the Gulf War "Victory Parade" and interview, the theme of Lawrence of
Arabia (in vicinity of the Marey Arab on horseback), a thunderstorm, and a British newsreel, "The Birth of Israel,"
circa 1950 (near the image of the Israeli soldier and his Arab captive). These provide a second set of markers of a complex
and long-contested space, with the American Gulf adventure as just the latest and most ignorant victory of Western arms. I
find the sound clips extremely evocative of the world of my experience and memory: there is a specificity to the voice and
resonances of the returning GI in the NBC interview, for example, that takes us far beyond where a picture of him could go.
And even a few bars of the Lawrence of Arabia theme song with their sweeping, swelling grandeur remind us of
this very popular packaging of European colonial mastery, which was impressed upon many of us before we had any means of
crafting a critical understanding of it. Gathering all these threads into one screen insists that they are all part of the
same story, the same world that is our common history.
Because they use no hypertext, these digital montages are limited to what they can get on a single screen
(even with audio clips), but they do bring us back to the fundamental point that visual meanings are conveyed as positions in
fields rather than steps in a sequence (or "narrative"). Hypertext has the capacity to display things in a multidimensional
field or network and it can be experienced as such if we can be persuaded not to worry excessively about exact paths. This is
the major reason for the slightly randomized links of the kind we find in e-Arcades: they change the virtual
space from a network of connected points to a set of vicinities in which certain kinds of connections are likely.
In his introduction to the glass, Giles Peaker calls Broadway's work "realism," and the term may
be applied for the same reasons to the whole body of works that we have been examining. It is somewhat surprising to call
these many montages of text and image--shot through as they are with fantasy, duplicity, and vapor--realistic, since we so
often think of realism as something simplified, ordered, and stripped of illusion. The worlds that these works give us are
not very orderly and are made up of glimpses through what now seem partial eyes. Very much in the tradition of Benjamin's
Arcades Project, they give us fragments and remain confident that we can integrate them into the real worlds of
experience and history, that we will get it at least approximately right, and that we will derive special excitement and
satisfaction from having done it, at least to some degree, ourselves.
- sixteenth century, Persian compass
- Galloping Arab, Jules Etienne Marey, circa nineteenth century
- Israeli soldier with Palestinian prisoner, 1986
- burning oil well from the 1991 Gulf War
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This article is accompanied by another
fragment of an e-text Arcades Project which illustrates several of the main ideas of this article.
1. All citations from the Arcades Project are from the Eiland and McLaughlin
translation, by folder and item number.
2. For the record, not everyone who studies Benjamin's claim for a new method of writing
history with dialectical images is convinced that he has provided good examples that work the way he says they could. J. M.
Coetzee has recently registered his disappointment that the images in the Arcades Project do not come alive. In
"The Marvels of Walter Benjamin," a review essay of several volumes of
newly translated work, Coetzee finds some things of value in the
Arcades Project and
praises it for suggesting a new way of writing about civilization, using its rubbish rather than its artworks and centering
on the sufferings of the vanquished, even as he thumps it rather vigorously as a failed project and unconvincing theory (or
3. Curtis's review is included under Reviews at <www.amrousseau.com>. Curtis is presumably thinking of something like Dorothea
Lange's photos of migrating farmers carrying their possessions past a billboard extolling the relaxing luxury of
train travel, or Margaret Bourke-White's picture of Louisville flood victims applying for flood relief under a billboard
showing a white family in their car with the motto "there's no way like
the American Way." Some of these are cited in Hunter 17-27.
4. Dunlap's review is included under Reviews at <www.amrousseau.com>. Dunlap acknowledges the gesture of benediction, but
concludes it is empty whimsy: "the irony: this commercial gesture of benediction will amount to nothing for this woman, who
will receive neither social blessing nor Club Med reservations."
5. Just as A Seventh Man was published, German law was modified to allow wives
and families of the workers to come with them.
6. Terminology is anything but standardized. The general category is assemblage: collage is
the overlapping juxtaposition of fragments cut or torn from photographs, prints, printed texts and so on, and sometimes small
objects (buttons, foil, ticket stubs). Photomontage (in a single image) involves overlaying images within a single space,
where some of the images are semi-transparent and relatively edgeless. It is a photographic process, the precursor of digital
montage. Montage in film refers to the sequence of shots at cuts. These may either be abrupt or joined by some fade-dissolve
technique. Benjamin's use of the term was strongly influence by the film theory of his time, especially Eisenstein. The terms
are discussed extensively in my long study Writing with Images, especially the chapters on Photomontage and
7. On this "we" as a feature of digital image rhetoric, see Henning 228-9.
8. Theodor Adorno:"The principle of montage was supposed to shock people into realizing just
how dubious any organic unity was. Now that the shock had lost its punch, the products of montage revert to being indifferent
stuff or substance." Adorno seems to be thinking of collage here.
9. Digital Arts Group (<www.digitalartsgroup.com>); Focus Gallery (<tomchambers.0catch.com/index-145.html>); Jochen Brennecke (<hyperart.com>); Ron Brown (<www.xmission.com/~photofx/>); Randy Little (<www.rslittle.com>); Tom Chambers(<www.digitalartsgroup.com/Artist_Pages/TomChambers%20.htm>); Elfi Kaut (<kaut.org>)
10. This exhibition lives on only as an archive at <www.intentional.co.uk/archive/livewire/>.
11. This feature has been retained in the Web Parada site at DIF (Digital Imaging Forum),
12. The use of audio clips also alleviates the problem of visual clutter, of course.
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