Walter Benjamin on Imagination

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:

  1. 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
  2. It requires the constant interaction with reality, while never asserting that the imagination is capable of representing reality accurately
  3. 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)

The German language possesses no native term to descrive the forms [Gestalten] of the imagination. Only the word ‘manifestation’ [Erscheinung] may in one specific sense be regarded as such. And in fact imagination has nothing to do with forms or formations. It does indeed take its manifestations from them, but the connection between them and the imagination is so far from being inexorable that we might rather describe the manifestations of the imagination as the de-formation [Entstaltung] of what has been formed. It is characteristic of all imagination that it plays a game of dissolution with its forms. The world of new manifestations that thus comes into being as the result of this dissolution of what has been formed has its own laws, which are those of the imagination. Its supreme law is that, while the imagination de-forms, it never destroys. Instead the manifestations of the imagination arise in that region of the form in which the latter dissolves itself. That is to say, the imagination does not iself dissolve, for where it attempts this it becomes fantastic. Fantastic objects arise where the process of de-formation does not proceed from within the heart of the form itself. (The only legitimate form of the fantastic is the grotesque, in which the imagination does not de-form in a destructive fashion but destructively over-forms [überstaltet]. The grotesque is a marginal form in the realm of the imagination; it stands at the extreme margins where the latter strives once again to become form.) All fantastic objects posses an element of the constructive – or (seen from the standpoint of the subject) of spontaneity. Genuine imagination, in contrast, is unconstructive, purely de-formative—or (from the standpoint of the subject) purely negative.
The imaginative de-formation of objects is distinguishable from the destructive collapse of the empirical by two features. First, it is without compulsion; it comes from within, is free and therefore painless, and indeed gently induces feelings of delight. Second, it never leads to death, but immortalizes the doom it brings about in an unending series of transitions. The first of these features means that, through a pure act of conceiving, the objective realm of imagination de-formation, a world of painless birth, corresponds to the subjective conception of the imagination. Thus, all de-formation of the world will imagine a world without pain that is nevertheless permeated by a rich flow of events. This de-formation shows further – as the second feature makes clear – the world caught up in the process of unending dissolution; and this means eternal ephemerality. It is like the sun setting over the abandoned theater of the world with its deciphered ruins. It is the unending dissolution of the purified appearance of beauty, freed from all seduction. However, the purity of this appearance in its dissolution is matched by the purity of its birth. It appears different at dawn and at dusk, but not less authentic. Thus, there is a pure appearance, a burgeoning one, at the dawn of the world. This is the radiance that surrounds the objects in Paradise. Last, there is a third, pure appearance: the reduced, extinguished, or muted one. It is the gray Elysium we see in pictures by Marées. These are the three worlds of pure appearance that belong to the imagination.
De-formation is not confined to the world of light, even if, as pure appearance, it is most obvious there. De-formation occurs also in the acoustic realm (so that, for example, the night can reduce noises to a single great humming), or the tactile (as when the clouds dissolve in the blue or the rain). All manifestations of de-formation in nature must be surveyed, if the world of the imagination is to be described.
Pure conceiving is the basis of every work of art. And it is always directed at two features: at the ideas and at nature in the process of de-forming itself. This means that every work of art is grounded in the imagination. Perhaps, even probably, to varying degrees. However, imagination is always incapable of constructing a work of art because as a de-forming agent it must always refer to something formed beyond itself, which then, when it enters the work, must itself become of fundamental importance for the work. Whenever such a formed element does not enter the work but is kept at a distance from it, for reasons of sentiment, pathos, or irony, such works regard the world of forms as a text to which they provide a commentary or an arabesque. Because they point beyond themselves, they are no more pure works of art than are riddles. This criticism applies to most of the works of Jean Paul, who had the greatest imagination and who, in this spirits of pure conceiving, came closest to the minds of children. It was this that enabled him to become the outstanding pedagogue that he was.—In the expression of the work, only language sometimes has the power to incorporate the imagination, for only language is able, in the most fortunate case, to keep the de-forming powers under control. They mainly eluded Jean Paul’s grasp. Shakespeare is—in his comedies—their incomparable master. This power of language over the imagination stands in need of explanation. It would also be important to demonstrate that a chasm separates Romantic irony from true imagination, for all the interaction between them in the shift from early to late Romanticism.
[The exact opposite of imagination is prophetic vision. Pure prophetic vision cannot form the basis of a work, yet such vision enters into every great work of art. Prophetic vision is the ability to perceive the forms of the future; imagination is the awareness of the de-formations of the future. Prophecy is the genius for premonition; imagination is the genius for forgetting. Their perceptive intention is not based in either case on a cognitive intention (anymore than clairvoyance), but in a different manner in each instance.
The imagination knows only constantly changing transitions.
In the great drama of the passing away of nature, the resurrection of nature repeats itself as an act. (Sunrise) / Imagination plays a role on the last day of the world and the first.]
Pure imagination is concerned exclusively with nature. It creates no new nature. Pure imagination, therefore, is not an inventive power.


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