Posted on AK THOMPSON, “Walter Benjamin and the Dialectical Image Today”
AK THOMPSON joins Critical Theory and the Arts to discuss Walter Benjamin’s theory of dialectical images.
“When Shock Is No Longer Shocking: Walter Benjamin and the Dialectical Image Today”
In Convolute N of the Arcades Project and in his “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” Walter Benjamin elaborated a brief but systematic account of what he called “dialectical images.” According to Benjamin, such images were notable for their capacity to produce moments of revelatory shock in which the viewer could come face to face with “a revolutionary chance in the fight for the oppressed past.” By constellating disparate fragments of historical experience and compressing them to a single point of reckoning, Benjamin imagined that the dialectical image could enjoin viewers to consider what would be required to act upon history as such.
Although his conceptualization remains an invaluable analytical tool, Benjamin himself never outlined the precise means by which such images could be consciously produced (rather than merely discovered) by those seeking revolutionary change. Nevertheless, it’s possible to find visual approximations of important aspects of the dialectical image’s epistemic premises in Diego Rivera’s “Man at the Crossroads” (1933) and Picasso’s “Guernica” (1937). Conceived as responses to fascist ascent in the interwar period, these images gain new relevance in our contemporary moment, which has been characterized by the wholesale reiteration of fascist themes.
Nevertheless, since the dialectical image is inseparable from the “now of its recognizability,” these images no longer resonate as they once did. For this reason, generating an image capable of living up to Benjamin’s concept demands that we account for the significant perceptual transformations that have occurred between the 1930s and our own endless present. By reading the epistemic demands of the dialectical image through Frederic Jameson’s analysis of the cultural logic of late capitalism, it becomes possible to begin envisioning what such an image might look like today.