Walter Benjamin, Surrealism and Photography

Rajeev S. Patke

National University of Singapore

[Paper presented at Workshop on ‘Literature as Revolt in Twentieth Century Europe’, 17 August 1998, The University of Haifa, Israel (6th ISSEI Conference)]

Benjamin wrote his essay on Surrealism during 1928, when the Surrealist movement was still in what André Breton called its transition from an "intuitive" to a "reasoning" phase.1 Benjamin's recent work, the city-montage of One-Way Street (1928), had taken on the challenges presented to the writer by the natural history of the modern, post-Baudelairean, urban landscape of Europe. It had given him a presentiment of what was to become the Arcades project, the main preoccupation of his last decade. These developments were accompanied by the onset of a highly personal commitment to Marxism. In this context, his relation to the Surrealists was adventitious and fortuitous. He was neither part of the movement, nor close to its members, though he looked on, first with a keen—and then with a disappointed—eye on their activities in Paris.

In 1926, he had found Louis Aragon's Le paysan de Paris exciting, like "the shock of a violent crisis". Aragon's focus on the Opera Arcade in Paris as "one of those absurd and legendary manifestations that made its greatness and its rot",2 anticipated Benjamin's increasing conviction that a new way had to be found for treating the images of everyday bourgeois reality. In July 1925 he wrote to Rilke: "The way language enters the realm of dreams by conquest, authoritatively and normatively, is what particularly moved me about surrealism".3 In "Paris, Capital of the Nineteenth Century" (1935), Benjamin credited Surrealism with having exposed to view "the ruins of the bourgeoisie".4 Art and its institutions had to be pulled down. But the attack on art launched by Surrealism lost its momentum in solipsistic esotericism. So did the political activism. Though Breton maintained a firm polemical grasp of the revolutionary intentions of the Surrealist movement, the political affiliations of the various Surrealists kept changing. Unlike Paul Claudel or Aragon, or Breton, all of whom joined the Communist party at some point, Benjamin kept himself clear of Party affiliation, even though he had written to Scholem in 1924 of generating "a `politics' from within myself".5 The freeplay of associations that was characteristic of Surrealism, and its Dada legacy, did not prepare its anarchist methods for a focussed political praxis. Benjamin's temperament could only politicize itself through the mediation of writing. Surrealism's forte remained shock tactics; Benjamin's meditation. Their means forestalled their intended political ends.

But Benjamin was alert to how developments in the technological means of production affected the nature of art. The Surrealists were indifferent to this issue, given their preoccupation with the subliminal, and their active opposition to technique as a resource for the conscious manipulation of materials. The creative powers of the unconscious were celebrated by the Surrealists. Benjamin too approved of the element of chance in creativity, and the relief offered by the subliminal to consciousness. He also welcomed the Surrealist desire to disorder the senses. But he was never insistent on automatism in art as both means and ends. He was not primarily interested in objects created or discovered by the unconsciousness. His objective was to uncover the objects of external, socio-historical reality, as these might be redeemed by the "profane illumination" of the artist. Benjamin development took a divergent path from that of Surrealism, but he never lost touch with his original sympathy for the shared impulses behind their ideas.

An enthusiasm for spontaneous images remained one of the strongest links between the Surrealist and Benjamin. Benjamin experimented with drugs from 1927 to 1934, and chronicled his surreal experiences in eight "Protocols".6 The fifth, dated March 1930, speaks of the "tumultuous production of images" made possible by hashish with "images like those familiar to us from surrealist paintings". While the fortuity of imagery was a means towards an integrated imagination for Benjamin, the Surrealists treated the found image as a cherished end in itself. The connection between creativity, the unconscious, and states of trance induced by drugs interested Benjamin. Unlike the Surrealists, he was also preoccupied with the connection between the trance of hallucination and that of mysticism. "Hashish in Marseilles" identifies several features of the drug-trance. One is an expanded sense of inner space and time;7 another is the fascinated gaze with which Benjamin contemplates "the faces I had around me, which were, in part, of remarkable coarseness and ugliness". The transmutation of such ordinariness was the burden of the secular mystery that Benjamin undertook as one of his tasks.

Benjamin's hashish trances made a connection between the sacred and the profane when mediated by his notion of the aura. "Protocol 5" posits three aspects of the aura:

First of all, the genuine aura appears in all things, not just specific ones as people imagine. Secondly, the aura changes completely and fundamentally with each movement made by the object whose aura it is. Thirdly, the genuine aura can in no way be thought of as the immaculate, spiritualistic magic ray as depicted and described in vulgar, mystical books. On the contrary, the distinguishing feature of the genuine aura is the ornament, an ornamental periphery in which the thing or being lies fixed, as if confined in a sheath.8

Nothing in Surrealism corresponded to Benjamin's preoccupation with the aura. Aragon celebrated the fortuity with which the Surrealist found his images: "in this enviable peace, how easy is daydreaming. Let dream carry itself forward.... Images come down, like confetti. Images, images, everywhere images".9 Benjamin shared this pleasure. But the images of his own writing were self-conscious rather than accidental. The notion of a dream from which the age has to be awakened served Benjamin as a metaphor for the revolutionary function of art. The idea and image were derived from Marx: `The reformation of consciousness lies solely in the awakening of the world... from its dream about itself".10 Benjamin applied this image to "dialectical thinking" as "the organ of historical awakening".11 Breton takes the opposite stance in "What is Surrealism?" (1934): "for us... at the point where we found it, the dialectical method in its Hegelian form was inapplicable".12

Benjamin's association of dream and dialectic with image was a curious one:

... image is dialectics at a standstill. For while the relation of the present to the past is a purely temporal, continuous one, the relation of the Then to the Now is dialectical—not development but image leaping forth.13

He speculated further:

Can it be that awakening is the synthesis whose thesis is dream consciousness and whose antithesis is consciousness? Then the moment of awakening would be identical with the "Now of recognizability", in which things put on their true—surrealistic—face.14

Adorno took Benjamin to task for what he believed was a confused utopianism:

... the dialectical image should not be transferred into consciousness as a dream, but in its dialectical construction the dream should be externalized and the immanence of consciousness itself be understood as a constellation of reality.15

Subsequent readers of the Benjamin-Adorno debate have generally conceded that Adorno may have been the more correct—but less intuitive—Marxist. We meet the dialectical image in a more viable way, in Benjamin's account of photography.

"A Small History of Photography" appeared in 1931.16 Photography exemplifies his belief that developments in the technology of production alter the scope of what an artist or author can do as producer in relation to materials, vocation, and their impact on society. In 1934, "The Author as Producer" makes the political relevance explicit: "technical progress is for the author as producer the foundation of his political progress".17 The photograph is celebrated for the capacity it shares with the Dada image, to transmute "the tiniest authentic fragment of daily life". The technique of montage is singled out because "Much of this revolutionary content has gone into photomontage". The modernity of the photograph resides in its power to transmute: "it can no longer depict a tenement block or a refuse heap without transfiguring it". The photograph becomes a metaphor for art as a form of revolutionary action.

"Paris, Capital of the Nineteenth Century" continues this train of thought. Photography is treated as an instance of the development of technical means against which, from the middle of the nineteenth century, painting has been forced into a series of rear-guard actions. The same position can be discovered in Breton. His essay "Surrealist Situation of the Object" (1935) remarks on how, "Unable to engage in the seemingly futile struggle with photography, painting was forced to retreat and reorganize its ranks in an invulnerable position, under the necessity of visually expressing internal perception".18

Benjamin takes the history of photography to embody the political potential of surrealism in at least four ways. Photography renovates representation by emancipating it from degenerate conventions and debased social functions. Benjamin replaces the notion of "photography as an art' with the idea of `art as photography".19 The reorientation foregrounds the social relevance of art. Photography practises what Benjamin calls "a salutary estrangement between man and his surroundings".20 Breton described what Surrealism hoped to accomplish along identical lines in "The Automatic Message" (1933): "The `disordering' of the senses, of all the senses, remains to be achieved or, what comes to the same thing, the education (practically speaking, the dis-education) of all the senses remains to be done".21 Photography offers to consciousness modes of reality that would remain in the unconscious without its action: "It is through photography that we discover the existence of this optical unconscious, just as we discover the instinctual unconscious through psychoanalysis".22 The analogy is striking and apt. The photograph preserves in space that which is transient in time. The rapidity of movement with which mutability exercises its fugitive effect on human perception, the complexity of detail at the micrological level that slips through the wide net of the human visual apparatus, all these the photograph redeems by preserving.

That is how Benjamin again comes up with the idea of the dialectical image. Evanescence—the decay of material reality as it is lived in time—is accurately transfixed; and yet, in being so held back from time, it is sublated. The swell of nostalgia that Benjamin both succumbs to, and resists, is thus aroused and allayed by photography. The force with which this happens in Benjamin separates his concerns from Surrealism. Photography helps him recover the hope that the very idea of redemption may be redeemed. Finally, photography is magical in a special way. The Surrealists had aimed at restoring the phantasmagoric quality to everyday objects. In "What is the Mechanism of Collage?", Max Ernst described one technique for achieving this: by "The pairing of two apparently unpairable realities on a plane apparently unsuitable to them".23 For Breton, conscious of modernity as the epoch of "a fundamental crisis of the object",24 the technique was not collage or montage but frottage: "intensifying the irritability of the mind's faculties".25

Benjamin saw his own work on European cities as a linguistic extension of photomontage. He was the revolutionary disguised as a cultural historian strolling amidst the ruins of the museum that was the nineteenth century. In this crisis, photography looked at persons as inscrutably as it looked at objects. The photograph was the image of that looking. Thus we arrive at Benjamin's notion of the gaze: "I find among my notes the surprised comment `How things withstand the gaze'".26

In 1931, Benjamin compared an image of modernity—a photograph of Kafka aged six, staring out with "immensely sad eyes"—with the earliest photographs. In them, "people did not yet look out at the world in so excluded and god-forsaken a manner as this boy. There was an aura about them, an atmospheric medium, that lent fullness and security to their gaze even as it penetrated that medium".27 Thus Benjamin constructs a myth of dispossession, in which photography is the medium which preserves utopia: the one-that-never-was for the sake of the-one-that-might-be. Through the course of the nineteenth century, "the aura" was "banished from the picture' because of `the deepening degeneration of the imperialist bourgeoisie".28

Yet the essay goes on to applaud "Atget's Paris photos" as "the forerunners of surrealist photography", because "he initiates the emancipation of object from aura which is the most signal achievement of the latest school of photography".29 The ambivalence about the aura deepens:

He looked for what was unremarked, forgotten, cast adrift, and thus such pictures too work against the exotic, romantically sonorous names of the cities; they pump the aura out of reality like water from a sinking ship. What is aura actually? A strange weave of space and time: the unique appearance or semblance of distance, no matter how close the object may be.30

The ambivalence has to do with the attitude he takes towards the aura in different frames of mind. When charged with revolutionary materialist fervor, the aura looks like the torn pellicle of the epoch of idealist metaphysics. But when his Lukácian zeal is less strident, the aura can again become the sheath through which the translucence of Messianism again reveals itself as the redemptive force that shall transmute natural history. In 1931, Materialist hopes prevailed over metaphysical memories, and in the spirit of the Surrealists, Benjamin celebrated the augury of universal utopia:

The stripping bare of the object, the destruction of aura, is the mark of a perception whose sense of the sameness of things has grown to the point where even the singular, the unique is divested of its uniqueness—by means of its reproduction.31

The same somewhat strained hope that reproducibility matters more than uniqueness is renewed in "The Work of Art in an Age of Mechanical Reproduction" (1935).

From the middle 1920s to the middle 1930s the conjunction between Surrealism and Benjamin would sustain a commonalty which may be summed up in terms of two descriptions he provided Scholem. In both, he was thinking of his project on the Paris Arcades. In the first, from 1928, he described himself as a philosophical Fortinbras who "will take possession of the inheritance of surrealism in purely temporal terms".32 In the other, dating from 1935, he wrote of his project as representing "both the philosophical application of surrealism—and thereby its sublation".33 Those are the most accurate descriptions we have of the relationship between Benjamin and Surrealism.

What then was the Hamletian legacy? And what the sublation? To be surreal was to sustain actively a sense of acute historical crisis about consciousness, society, art, and culture. The unconscious had to be let in. The human urge to shape had to be unmade, and then remade, in acts of finding. Layers of convention and complacency had to be ripped away. The cleansing quality of violence had to be savored without distraction. Familiar modes had to be abandoned, their names erased, and new ones with no names discovered. The object had to be dismantled and reconstituted. Its patina of the familiar had to be wiped. Startling juxtapositions and wrenched transpositions had to convert surprise to shock. A state of perpetual shock had to be cultivated. Strangeness had to be returned to the familiar; the phantasmal had to become as commonplace as the ordinary. All this Benjamin shared with the Surrealists. But other compulsions had to be answered too, and about these, the Surrealists were like a Horatio to Benjamin's Hamlet pretending he was Fortinbras. The timeless was to be discovered in the mutable. Eternity was lost or found only in fragments of the Now. The fragments had to come from the unconscious, but the unconscious of the collectivity, not the individual. Adorno criticized Benjamin for this Jungian swerve, but the move had a simple logic. To valorize the individual unconscious was to slip into the narcissism of a Dali or the solipsism of an Eluard or the vocational transgressiveness of a Bataille. Another fate was reserved for Benjamin. Means were vacuous if pursued as ends. The debris of a degenerate reified culture had to be retrieved and reviewed. He took that to be his task. Like Browning's Grammarian, he studied to be worthy of the responsibility all his life. He had the temperament to follow a vision; while always being prepared to fall back upon the bank of nostalgia, shored with ruins in what Wallace Stevens would have called "the stale grandeur of annihilation".


1 André Breton, What is Surrealism? Selected Writings, ed. Franklin Rosemont (London: Pluto Press, 1978), 116.

2 The Autobiography of Surrealism, ed. Marcel Jean (New York: The Viking Press, 1980), 73.

3 Walter Benjamin, The Correspondence of Walter Benjamin 1910-1940, ed. Gershom Scholem and Theodor W. Adorno, trans. Manfred R. Jacobson and Evelyn M. Jacobson (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1994) 274.

4 Walter Benjamin, Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings, ed. Peter Demetz, trans. Edmund Jephcott. New York: Schocken Books, 1978), 161.

5 Benjamin, Correspondence, 258.

6 S. Thompson, "On Hashish" (Unpublished translation of "Protokolle zu Drogenversuchen", from Benjamin's Gesammelte Schriften, ed. Herman Schweppenhäuser and Rolf Tiedemann. Franfurt a.M., 1974-89, vol. VI: 558-603, 607-18), 1996. All quotations from the Protocols are from this source.

7 Benjamin, Reflections, 138.

8 Susan Buck-Morss, The Origin of Negative Dialectics: Theodor W. Adorno, Walter Benjamin and the Frankfurt Institute (New York: The Free Press, London: Collier Macmillan, 1977), 275.

9 The Surrealists Look at Art, ed. Robert Shapazian (Venice, CA: The Lapis Press, 1992), 145.

10 Walter Benjamin, `N', in Gary Smith (ed.) Benjamin: Philosophy, Aesthetics, History (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1983), 43.

11 Benjamin, Reflections, 162.

12 Breton, Selected Writings, 130.

13 Benjamin, `N', 49.

14 Ibid., 52.

15 Adorno, in Ernest Bloch, et al., Aesthetics and Politics, trans. Ronald Taylor (London and New York: Verso, 1977), 111-12.

16 Walter Benjamin, One-Way Street and Other Writings, trans. Edmund Jephcott and Kingsley Shorter (London and New York: Verso, 1979), 240-57.

17 Benjamin, Reflection, 230.

18 Shapazian, The Surrealists Look at Art, 179.

19 Bloch, Aesthetics and Politics, 116.

20 Benjamin, One-Way Street, 253.

21 Ibid., 251.

22 Shapazian, The Surrealists Look at Art, 183.

23 Benjamin, One-Way Street, 243.

24 Shapazian, The Surrealists Look at Art, 183.

25 Ibid., 161.

26 Ibid., 183.

27 Benjamin, Reflections, 144.

28 Benjamin, One-Way Street, 247.

29 Ibid., 248.

30 Ibid., 249-50.

31 Ibid., 250.

32 Benjamin, Correspondence, 342.

33 Ibid., 505.