Even The Dead Will Not Be Safe
Montage, History, and Cutting Art Museums

Editors’ note: This is the first installment of a long-form essay to be published here over the next three issues. In it, artist, filmmaker, and teacher Madison Brookshire examines how art museums, and art history can be radically re-potentiated through strategies of cinematic montage.

[I]n what way is it possible to conjoin a heightened graphicness to the realization of the Marxist method? The first stage in this undertaking will be to carry over the principle of montage into history.1

Why write this book? No one has asked me for it.

Especially those to whom it is directed.2

I am tired, I am weary

I could sleep for a thousand years

A thousand dreams that would awake me3

We think visually, which is to say sensually. Even the barest verbal formula gives a sensation, and good philosophy is always and only erotic. If thinking is the highest pleasure, then pleasure is the highest thought.

Museums have the capacity to be visual thinking, the pleasure of thought, at its most incisive. Museums create images, images that have the power to produce consciousness and change the past. “But the field of text has already covered the field of vision,”4 and museums, focused on writing art history, have lost their role, their essential function, which was never to write but to inhabit, encourage, and instrumentalize visual thinking. A genealogy or archaeology of visual thinking would be a better guiding principle. And/or an erotics of thought. Museums should learn to hold a work of art like a whip. Release it like a love letter. Missives and missiles: objects only in their propulsion: no objects but becoming-objects: nothing timeless: but the vector of a fetish.

Art is a term that obscures what it cannot describe. It covers its tracks, mystifying the process of production. Agamben tells us (poetically, in the voice of another), “Terminology is the poetic moment of thought.”5 If so, then art, as a term of art, often uses its poetry to the exclusion of thought. Like so many words in our era, it dissembles more than it describes. That is, it is often employed with perfect imprecision in order to obscure the intentions of its deployment. Art, in the abstract, creates a universal category that obscures its economic specificity (and therefore its racial specificity). It is the odd category whose boundaries are at once seemingly infinite and impermeable. Is this why I do not see myself when I go to the museum?

Anything, it would seem, can be art, but art is not just anything.

Actual works of art are always terribly specific, deeply interpersonal—a gift, an offering, a weapon, or harangue. The abstract (economic) exchange is secondary to art’s primary purpose, if it has one. What would that be? To visually, viscerally, sensuously express a drive (conscious or not) working within the object—or better still—working through the object (or image, sensation, experience, etc.). We work on things in order to work on something else. Coming to be, becoming, through repetition and difference, is the work of art. And if the purpose of some works appears to be to modify what we can consider art, this too is the outward expression of an interior (ulterior) motive, another drive—to fight, or fuck, or… —operating inside the object.

All this is to say that art is only, and is never just, what it appears to be.

History as visual thinking: we create images in the present to change the past because the past as it has been presented to us is lacking. Lack produces desire? No, it is much more and much worse than that. Historical lack (history that is lacking) produces blind spots, amnesia, aphasia, traumas that we must repeat and cannot understand. The arc of history may not bend toward justice, but there is a drive to create images where none are possible at present, and where it is impossible not to create them. Our times, created by history (our understanding), deny the possibility of certain ways of thinking, ways of seeing—certain images. We cannot see what we cannot see. Some images are illegal, realities invisible, ideas unrepresentable. But they cannot remain so—we cannot let them—because things desire to come out. We desire them to erupt, whether we know it or not. We want to see, even what we cannot know we are not seeing, what currently only exists in our optical unconscious.

Vision is not pleasurable because it is self-fulfilling, as Aristotle once wrote. On the contrary, it is the greatest accomplishment. When we can see something, we have produced its visibility. Seeing is consciousness.

Therefore vision and the category of the visible are not eternal, they are untimely. We see what we should not, want what we should not. Vision is illicit and can upend the social order. We create images—visibility, consciousness—against our times, and let us hope, for a better time to come.

In museums, the time to come is the past. Museums are always making the future of the past.

This is for a better past. It is against history for a better history. It is against art, that is, art as it has been defined, and for an art to come. It is against all those who have been in the business of defining art thus far and have profited from the definition. Therefore it is against museums, for a radical museum.

 

A Flash with the Now

We should cut the museum. That is, cut into the collection to create space for radical artists and artworks and at the same time cut together objects, actions, and temporal events (screenings, performances, etc.) such that images arise through juxtaposition—“merely show[ing].”

“It’s not that what is past casts its light on what is present, or what is present its light on what is past; rather, image is that wherein what has been comes together in a flash with the now to form a constellation. In other words, image is dialectics at a standstill. For while the relation of the present to the past is a purely temporal, continuous one, the relation of what-has-been to the now is dialectical: is not progression but image, suddenly emergent.”6

By cutting together two unlike art forms (with an inherent power differential), we can create a dialectic—in Benjamin’s terms, a “genuine image”—that will show clearly what-has-been at the same time that it makes manifest what-is-now. Images produce visibility, and awaken us from the dream of history.7

In The Arcades Project, Benjamin intercuts raw chunks of primary material with fragments of analysis, or more aptly, aphorisms. This method does not just present an argument, it is the argument. Famously, Benjamin reflected on his work: “Method of this project: literary montage. I needn’t say anything. Merely show.”8

Through montage, Benjamin sought to “educate the image-making medium within us.”9

Cinema affects how Benjamin writes history, not because of its indexical qualities, but for its methodological implications, that is, “the concepts that cinema gives rise to” (Deleuze). For Eisenstein, montage is dialectical materialism in graphic form. Cutting two images together creates a collision productive of thought.10 The concept (or image or sensation) that arises from this collision is the perceived superimposition and all of its multivalent reverberations, vibrations set in motion by the multiple, multiplying conflicts within and between the images.

This process is not restricted to moving images. Before theorizing montage in cinema, Eisenstein proposed it in theater as the “montage of attractions.”

“[A]n attraction […] is any aggressive aspect of the theatre; that is, any element of the theatre that subjects the spectator to a sensual or psychological impact, experimentally regulated and mathematically calculated to produce in him certain emotional shocks which, when placed in their proper sequence within the totality of the production, become the only means that enable the spectator to perceive the ideological side of what is being demonstrated—the ultimate ideological conclusion.”11

Benjamin’s images are related to Eisenstein’s, but have a different cast (recall that he was never considered “ideological enough” by his fellow travellers in the Frankfurt School). The Arcades Project cuts any pretense to science with a dose of surrealism. For all the revolutionary power that Eisenstein assigns to dialectical montage, Benjamin attributes a greater, almost metaphysical power to the image that arises from applying montage to history. For Benjamin, it is the suddenness of this image, its appearance, that cuts through historicism. Instead of imposing a linear model on time, montage makes a constellation of points emerge or erupt from the miasma: historical gestalt. Constellations do not exist except in perception: patterns differentiating themselves from the field at a moment of recognition. Thus, montage neither produces something that was not there nor reveals history “the way it really was”; it is the emergent historical consciousness that produces the image—and the image that forms this consciousness.12

For both Eisenstein and Benjamin, the emergence of the image through montage is partisan—it is an effort to create, or reform, consciousness, to “awaken,” to educate. Image is montage is dialectics at a standstill—an intervention, a cut, that produces a historical concept.

We may no longer wish—nor even believe it is possible—to manufacture consciousness, but we are in desperate need of new images, images that can correct our collective understanding of what-has-been and show us our particular “now of recognizability.” The contribution Benjamin and Eisenstein make to the museum is their emphasis on the experience of the viewer, specifically the consciousness of the person perceiving the work, as the site where knowledge happens, where images are made, and where historical understanding exists. The work of the museum is nowhere else but there, inside the people who create images by perceiving them.

 

History is Creative

“Philosophical theory is itself a practice, just as much as its object. It is no more abstract than its object. It is a practice of concepts, and it must be judged in light of the other practices with which it interferes. A theory of cinema is not ‘about’ cinema, but about the concepts that cinema gives rise to… So that there is always a time, midday-midnight, when we must no longer ask ourselves, ‘What is cinema?’ but ‘What is philosophy?’”13

The question for museums is not just “What is art?” but “What is history?”

In the opening pages of The Arcades Project, Benjamin outlines a critique of the idea of history as phantasmagoria. For the 19th-century historian, “the course of the world is an endless series of facts congealed in the form of things” resulting in “the ‘History of Civilization, which makes an inventory point by point, of humanity’s life forms and creations.’”14 He describes this view of history as a timeless aerarium, downplaying the process of production by which these treasures are created, transferred, and maintained—an effort of society “by which these riches are strangely altered.”15

Our art museums are all too prone to this version of history as a succession of “facts congealed in the form of things.” Strolling through the galleries, one is confronted with a phantasmagoria of artworks—a chain of images representing the riches of Civilization in the form of Fine Art progressing in a long arc to the present.

“It may be considered one of the methodological objectives of this work to demonstrate a historical materialism which has annihilated within itself the idea of progress. Just here, historical materialism has every reason to distinguish itself sharply from bourgeois habits of thought. Its founding concept is not progress but actualization.”16

Method of this essay: montage, that is, to use montage in order to argue for montage as a means to change the past—history as it is written, by the victors for the victors. In this case, cut radical artists and artworks into the museum, not to add them to major art history (hegemonic art history), but to minor art history. Montage reveals that art history, like any history, is contingent, nonlinear, unstable, without a telos. Then, “the lightning flash” of knowledge—the image that arises between two things that are distant and true—not a picture of progress, nor a straight line between things, but something suddenly emergent.

“In the fields with which we are concerned, knowledge comes only in lighting flashes. The text is the long roll of thunder that follows.”17

To replace the phantasmagoria of 19th century historicism with the lightning dialects of historical materialism was an essentially Modernist project, but Modernism was outmoded before its project was complete.

What mode of history does our age demand? “[The] temporal condensation and acceleration of the trajectory of black performances, which is to say black history, is a real problem and a real chance for the philosophy of history,” writes Fred Moten.18 To change history, create a new concept of time. Elaborating a philosophy of time is a crucial project, for it lays the foundation for the construction of histories to come.

 

New histories will produce new times.

One of the most powerful theses of Debord’s Society of the Spectacle is that historical (irreversible, as opposed to cyclical) time did not exist prior to the invention of history itself: chronicles meant to reify and reproduce power.19 It follows that lived time and a nonlinear history that can address it work in opposition to irreversible historical time—and therefore against the society that produces, owns, and immobilizes it. Essaying a philosophy of time is necessarily a political act—and is necessary for political action.

Museums write history in order to control it, to make it immobile. To mobilize history is in and of itself a profoundly political act. When Larry Neal writes of “a synthesis of the conglomerate of world knowledge,” it is not a universal theory, but a partial and partisan synthesis—“What will make this knowledge ours is what we do with it and how we color it”—not a “global music” of world knowledge, but a montage of ethics and aesthetics forming a third, something new:

“The new aesthetic is mostly predicated on an Ethics which asks the question: Whose vision of the world is finally more meaningful, ours or the white oppressors?”20

Memory is creative. When we come to historical consciousness, we are participating in a form of cultural memory. Powerfully, we may be able to recall things that have been operating within ourselves or our society, but that have been unconscious—“the selves we know and the selves we have forgotten.”21 Montage—precise cutting into and against in order to actualize an image—can create consciousness where there had been none, clarity where there had been obfuscation, or doubt where there had been only certainty.

This is the point of contact between Benjamin’s materialist project and the Surrealist one: the desire to explore what has been until now unconscious—and more specifically, to make it visible. When Benjamin writes of the “optical unconscious” coming to light through the invention of photography and film, he provides a mechanical means of understanding the operation of “genuine images” in the Arcades Project. Through montage, what was unconscious can be made conscious. It is not the optimistic ethos of love and liberation that Benjamin and the Surrealists share, but something much darker: the terrible, mysterious, and ultimately metaphysical power that they ascribe to a methodology that brings the unconscious to light.

What is this strange synthesis that forms the present by disrupting our image of the past, awakening us from our dream while putting us in a dream-state?

“Resolute refusal of the concept of ‘timeless’ truth is in order. Nevertheless, truth is not—as Marxism would have it—a merely contingent function of knowing, but is bound to a nucleus of time lying hidden within the knower and the known alike.”22

Truth is bound to a nucleus of time, unconscious but present within both subject and object. Montage brings the two together: a collision productive of time. Not timeless truth, the truth is time.

The power of the image is not only in its utility, but its resonance, its detonation. The contest over history is not, or not only, about record or pedigree; it is fundamentally about who will have access to the images they need to perceive the present and affect the future. History is not anywhere else; it is with us and it must be released, like energy—the expression (explosion) of a repressed worldview: an awakening of historical consciousness.

“To articulate the past historically does not mean to recognize it ‘the way it really was’ (Ranke). It means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger [. . .] In every era the attempt must be made anew to wrest tradition away from a conformism that is about to overpower it [. . .] Only that historian will have the gift of fanning the spark of hope in the past who is firmly convinced that even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins. And this enemy has not ceased to be victorious.”23


Endnotes

  1. Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, trans. Rolf Tiedemann (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap, 1999), 461, [N2, 6].
  2. Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, trans. Charles Lam Markmann (London: Pluto, 1986), 9.
  3. The Velvet Underground, “Venus in Furs,” The Velvet Underground and Nico, 1966.
  4. Jean-Luc Godard, Notre Musique, 35mm film, 2004.
  5. Giorgio Agamben, What is an apparatus? trans. David Kishik and Stefan Pedatella, (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2009), 1.
  6. Benjamin, Arcades, 462, [N2a, 3].
  7. “The reform of consciousness consists solely in… the awakening of the world from its dream about itself.” Marx as quoted in Benjamin, Arcades, 456.
  8. Benjamin, Arcades, 460, [N1a, 8]. It continues: “I shall purloin no valuables, appropriate no ingenious formulations. But the rags, the refuse—these I will not inventory but allow, in the only way possible, to come into their own: by making use of them.” Note that this could very nearly be a description of Ken Jacobs’ Star Spangled to Death (1956-2004) and Renee Green’s Import/Export Funk Office (1992).
  9. Benjamin, Arcades,, 458, [N1, 8], quoting Rudolf Borchardt in Epilegomena zu Dante, vol. 1
  10. “I confronted him with my viewpoint on montage as a collision. A view that from the collision of two given factors arises a concept.” Sergei Eisenstein, Film Form: Essays in Film Theory, trans. Jay Leyda (San Diego: Harvest, 2002), 40.
  11. Eisenstein, Sergei, and Daniel Gerould. “Montage of Attractions: For ‘enough Stupidity in Every Wiseman’”. The Drama Review: TDR 18.1 (1974): 78, accessed April 12, 2016, http://www.jstor.org/stable/1144865.
  12. Here, it is interesting to note that in the essay, “Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Benjamin names this consciousness apperception. And film, he writes, is the artform most suited to apperception in the modern age. “Reception in a state of distraction, which is increasingly noticeable in all fields of art and is symptomatic of profound changes in apperception, finds in the film its true means of exercise.” Walter Benjamin, “Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” in Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn (Schocken Books: New York, 1968), 240.
  13. Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2: The Time-Image, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985), 179-180.
  14. Benjamin, Arcades, “Expose ,”14.
  15. Benjamin, Arcades, 14.
  16. Benjamin, Arcades, [N2, 2]. See also [N2, 5]: “Overcoming the concept of ‘progress’ and overcoming the concept of ‘period of decline’ are two sides of one and the same thing.”
  17. Benjamin, Arcades, 456, [N1, 1].
  18. Fred Moten, “Resistance of the Object: Aunt Hester’s Scream,” In the Break (University of Minnesota Press: Minneapolis, 2003), 7.
  19. “So the bourgeouisie unveiled irreversible historical time and imposed it on society only to deprive society of its use. Once there was history, but ‘there is no longer any history’ – because the class of owners of the economy, who cannot break with economic history, must repress any other use of irreversible time as representing an immediate threat to itself. The ruling class, made up of specialists in the ownership of things, is obliged to tie its fate to the maintenance of a reified history and to the permanent preservation of a new historical immobility.” Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (New York: Zone, 1995),105-6, Thesis 143.
  20. Larry Neal, Visions of a liberated future: Black arts movement writings (New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1989), 64.
  21. Neal, Visions of a liberated future, 52.
  22. Benjamin, Arcades, 463 [N3, 2] Time is hidden. The labyrinth is cracked and partially buried. Or is it that truth is explosive and the power inherent in its release akin to a nuclear reaction?
  23. Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn (Schocken Books: New York, 1968), 255.
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