Gardening in the Age of Electronic (Re)production: Walter Benjamin and the Work of Teaching

By Langhorst, Barbara | Mosaic (Winnipeg), December 2005 | Go to article overview

Gardening in the Age of Electronic (Re)production: Walter Benjamin and the Work of Teaching


Langhorst, Barbara, Mosaic (Winnipeg)


The following essay is designed to animate Benjamin's urgent call to stewardship. The collage asks you to read the world as a negotiation of fertility and decay, intent and importunity. What matters, what disposes matter, is literally that which stands between what we perceive as form and content--namely, relation.

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Each epoch not only dreams the next, but also, in dreaming, strives
toward the moment of waking. It bears its end in itself and unfolds
it--as Hegel saw--with ruse. In the convulsions of the commodity economy
we begin to recognize the monuments of the bourgeoisie as ruins even
before they have crumbled.--Walter Benjamin, "Paris, Capital of the
Nineteenth Century"

In perhaps the most often-cited passage of Benjamin's work, we find the Angel of History, pinned mute before the blast of everything we term progress: "Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage" ("Theses" 257). It is no accident that the nightmare of accumulation arises from the Garden of Paradise. Our dreams of origins are never innocent. Benjamin's method of translating abstract concepts into images alerts us to our own alienation, the burden that accrues as we continue to produce without perceiving the fundamental relations in all that we see and do. By invoking the work of teaching as garden, I seek to work strategically with a trope that inhabits the crux of almost all ideological contestation--namely, access--the utilization of resources and the allocation of products. I poise my text against the wealth of those (from retreat poetry to contemporary garden magazines) that nostalgically celebrate the garden as sanctuary and thus elide the fact that such spaces are a site of privilege and subjugation, a time-consuming negotiation of matter and design, a display of apparently limitless abundance and possibility that undervalues the labour and competition behind its artifice. The duality that the garden exhibits--of urgent, vital necessity and compromised ruin--inheres in the classroom as well.

My primary focus is, however, a strategy of teaching. I hope, through my opening gloss on the garden above, to bring to mind, without explicitly stating each parallel, ways in which the classroom is an equally conflicted site of production. For instance, when I invoke the "wreckage upon wreckage" facing the Angel of History almost immediately after my play on Benjamin's title, my goal is not to set electronic (re)production apart from the archive, but to assert its condition precisely as the present iteration of an historical process of accumulating text and cultivating knowledges.

This essay strives to evoke a praxis of reading fit for such conditions, not for primordial Eden, but for the garden as it stands: fallen, a site of immanently shifting constellations, four-dimensional multi-sensory negotiations of intent and importunity. Know that it is not my intent to cast students as tender seedlings or young sprouts. In producing this text to mimic a bifurcation in the storm of (re)production, I position teachers and students, readers, as guerrilla gardeners, radical see/rs who can track relations between matter and perceptions, choices and representations and events.

A kind of classroom, a garden of sorts, this text is a ruse, a play of formal qualities, a series of staged surprises and recognitions, twin processes of fertility and decay operating in tandem. If my text is experimental in method, my metaphor derives from a precedent reaching back to antiquity. I refer you to the OED online, which tells us that an anthology is "a collection of flowers of verse, i.e. small choice poems, esp. epigrams, by various authors" with "the original meaning (in Greek) of a flower-gathering." Each section of this essay is a collage of specimens drawn from a deliberately eclectic array of texts, some trailing remnants of material. It is admittedly contrived--a production--but one that strives to inscribe the necessity to work with what is before you, to practice reading conditions, reflecting, and interacting, rather than to worship monolithic truths. …

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