Benjamin, Walter. “Aphorisms on imagination and color.” In Selected writings. Volume I: 1913-1926, edited by Marcus Bullock and Michael W. Jennings, 48-49. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996.
Benjamin, Walter. “Imagination.” In Selected writings. Volume I: 1913-1926, edited by Marcus Bullock and Michael W. Jennings, 280-282. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996.
In this early fragment, Walter Benjamin makes the (seemingly highly platonic) judgment that
The gaze of the imagination is a gaze within the canon, not in accordance with it; it is therefore purely receptive, uncreative. ((Benjamin, Walter. “Aphorisms on imagination and color.” In Selected writings. Volume I: 1913-1926, edited by Marcus Bullock and Michael W. Jennings, 48-49. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996.))
Like Plato, for Benjamin here, the imagination is a deforming faculty, which receives and transforms, inevitably creating only untruth from the reception of truth. But Benjamin is also famous for his generally positive attitude toward the possibilities of human creativity. His “Art in the Age of Mechanical Production” remains important for many today; the ambiguity of his attitude towards human creativity is in evidence there, and throughout his work.
So if the imagination is only deformational, what possibilities are there, in Benjaminian thought, for conceiving of liberatory possibilities? A later essay, “Imagination,” Benjamin seems to identify two possibilities: In aesthetics, or art, the imagination itself creates beauty only insofar as it manages to re-present the de-formation of imagination’s action on reality itself, thereby including within imagination’s works the acknowledgment of its limitations. But in a more traditionally Benjaminian move which is simultaneously Platonic, Benjamin relies on the prophetic to supply a cognition and guarantee of truth.
This essay, for all its faults, is crucial in a number of ways:
- It focuses not on the idealistic or imaginal (in Corbin’s neo-platonic sense) liberation, but on the liberating imagination as a process of engagement and interaction
- It requires the constant interaction with reality, while never asserting that the imagination is capable of representing reality accurately
- It identifies the process of imaginative deformation with creativity and the fantastic, in opposition to ‘empirical destruction’ and death.
Regarding the Platonic aspect of Benjamin’s reliance on the prophetic: there is a difference between the two that is important. The similarities are that imagination in Benjamin and Plato is associated with forgetting, to which the liberatory answer is remembering, or more literally un-forgetting (anamnesis). This liberatory answer for Benjamin takes the figure of the prophetic in Benjamin, and enters into the folds of time, since Benjamin associates it with the Future.
It’s important enough for me to want to include the entire short essay in its entirety. (see below the fold)
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