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  • Montage/Critique: Another Way of Writing Social History
  • George L. Dillon

In the course of the last 100 years, scholars have repeatedly envisioned a new form of social and cultural critique: one in which the visual would play a much larger role and in which juxtaposition and montage would replace linear and continuous development. We now see Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project as articulating issues that concerned John Berger and Jean Mohr in the 1960s and 1970s and that now take on new urgency in relation to digital imagery and e-text: these increase the possibilities of montage and juxtaposition by hypertext links, as can be seen in the online works of Giles Peaker, Geoff Broadway, Robin Michal, and Russet Lederman. But images and montage do not necessarily produce critique, and Benjamin’s “method of juxtaposition” is not quite so portable as Michal suggests. What is lacking with Michal are the multiple perspectives from and on history that we find in works by Broadway and Esther Parada. —gld

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, 1975Berger and Mohr, 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 understand 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.


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...

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