Material Memories

By Marius Kwint; Christopher Breward et al. | Go to book overview

five
Souvenirs and Forgetting:
Walter Benjamin's
Memory-work
Esther Leslie

Through the 1920s and 1930s Walter Benjamin, the German-Jewish cultural critic, addressed the matter of memory in various ways. He was attracted by theorists of remembrance: Freud, Bergson and Proust, and intrigued by Surrealism's use of psychoanalysis for a ‘profane illumination’ of objects.1 Benjamin reflected on the ways in which photographic technologies impinge on memory, generating a reproducible archive of memorabilia. His theory of history exposed a politics of memory. Set against the account of the past authored by ‘the victors’ is Benjamin's design for ‘historical construction’ that is ‘devoted to the memory of the nameless’.2 He writes: ‘History not only has the task of making the tradition of the oppressed graspable. It must also found it.’3 His writings on nineteenth-century industrial culture analyse commodities in relation to memory and experience. Commodities are exposed as modern relics. The bourgeois domestic interior in the late nineteenth century is a reliquary of upholstery and commodity clutter, where velvet-lined casings, baldachins and embroidered cushion-covers ensnare traces of memory, ideology and social desire. The memoirist disentangles those impulses bundled in objects.

____________________
1
The term ‘profane illumination’ is in Walter Benjamin, One-Way Street and Other Writings, trans. Edmund Jephcott and Kingsley Shorter (London, 1979), 227. His first study of the Surrealists was a newspaper article called ‘Dreamkitsch’ published in 1926. See Walter Benjamin, Gesammelte Schriften [hereafter GS] ii.2 (Frankfurt, 1989), 620–2.
2
G Si.3, 1241.
3
G Si.3, 1246.

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