The Problem of the Image: Sacred and Profane Spaces in Walter Benjamin’s Early Writing

Critical Horizons 14 (3):355-379 (2013)
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From the comparative framework of writing on the meaning of ritual in the field of the history of religions, this essay argues that one of the major problems in Benjamin’s thinking is how to make certain forms of materiality stand out against other forms. In his early work, the way that Benjamin deals with this problem is to call degraded forms “symbolic”, and those forms of materiality with positive value, “allegorical”. The article shows how there is more than an incidental connection with the recent approach to ritual in the field of history of religions, seeing that Benjamin too wants to set out the significance of certain material forms against those that are “ritualistic” and hence false. It is argued that he treats the latter in his essay on Elective Affinities and the former in his Trauerspiel. The key claim is that the way material forms stand out as meaningful is akin to the Kantian description of the aesthetic attitude, which identifies how certain formations warrant and attract reflective attention and underpin moral orientation. The point is significant since Kantian aesthetics is an object of polemical attention across Benjamin’s heterogeneous corpus. Moreover, the approach shows the main difficulty in Benjamin’s treatment of sensible forms: what are the criteria he uses to distinguish the “bad” way a sensible form has of being meaningful from the “good”?

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Alison F. Ross
Monash University


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