Matters of Distance: Walter Benjamin’s dialectical Image, the dynamograms of Aby Warburg’s Atlas Mnemosyne, and William Kentridge’s Drawings and the Arrival of fortuna


A human being ‘exists only insofar as he is separated from his surroundings.’ (Vladimir Nabokov, 1989, p. 20)

The idea pre-existent in the mind of the artist ‘derives from the disastrous transposition of a theological vocabulary of creation onto the activity of the artist.’ (Giorgio Agamben, 2019, p. 8)


Richter opens his chapter, ‘The Matter of Distance: Benjamin’s One-Way-Street through the Arcades,’ with some lines on finding the right distance between works that are related yet different (Richter, 2006, pp. 112–156). In the present paper I attempt to draw out both the distance and relation between the citations and visual artifacts collected by Walter Benjamin for his Passagenwerk or Arcades project, and his generation of the dialectical image,  the dynomographic figures of Aby Warburg’s Nachleben, or after-life of images on the panels of his Atlas Mnemosyne, and the drawings by William Kentridge on surfaces of inscription with already pre-existent categories of the sign. Pensky writes, ‘the relation of what-has-been to the now is dialectical: it is not progression, but image, suddenly emergent’ (Pensky, M, pp. 177-198, 193). Both Benjamin and Warburg replaced a notion of history as a linear progression with one where the relation of past and present is dialectical. Benjamin, in his arcades project, writes ‘The fore- and after-history of a historical phenomenon (that) shows up in the phenome­non itself on the strength of its dialectical presentation, where every dialectically presented historical circumstance polarizes itself and becomes a force field in which the confrontation between its fore-history and after-history is played out. It becomes such a field insofar as the present instant interpenetrates it. And thus, the historical evidence polarizes into fore- and after-history always anew, never in the same way. It does so at a distance from its existence, in the present instant itself.’ (Benjamin, W., 2002 p. 470) In what follows, we align these sudden interpenetrations with the dialectic between what Kentridge draws and its distance to the out-of-date pages of print media he draws upon.

Both Walter Benjamin and Aby Warburg became aware, in their different ways, of developments that were destroying ‘the sense of distance,’a destruction of distance that has gone on apace in the present day.  In our contemporary world we encounter a surfeit of advertising, television, film, print, and digital images on an everyday basis. Present day life is saturated with symbols and signs and their acceleration; a saturation and acceleration that, in the context,  for example of advertising and film, the projection of one image per second eliminates the possibility of perceptual distance producing what Rampley has termed; ‘perceptual blindness.’ Following Rampley, ‘Judgment is dependent upon the subjective perception of distance,’ and later on the same page Rampley quotes Warburg as stating, ‘The loss of metaphorical distance is replaced by the magical monstrous confusion of image and viewer.’ (Rampley, M, 2000, p. 42). The lack of distance is a primitive impulse and places in question the notion of modernity and progress because ‘civilisation is based on the creation of a space (distance) between the self  and the world. Modern technologies more than ever eliminate this space, reintroducing barbarism.’ (Ibid. p. 44) 

Both Benjamin’s Arcades project, and Warburg’s Atlas Mnemosyne employ the form of the montage ‘with its philosophic play of distance, transposition and intersections, its perpetually shifting contexts and ironic juxtapositions.’ (Ibid. p. xi)
In Benjamin's Arcades project it is the montage of citations and visual artifacts while in Warburg’s Atlas Mnemosyne the montage on the panels is of visual images only. The English translation of the Arcades project itself runs to over a thousand pages. In his miniscule handwriting Benjamin recorded excerpts from popular theatrical performances, literary and short poetic texts, humorous and satirical verse along with, for example, citations concerning the popularity of cashmere shawls, the artistic gifts of sales assistants as 
window dressers. The visual material Warburg collected was no less varied, ranging from black and white reproductions of Renaissance art to newspaper cuttings, advertisements, and posters often arranged in juxtaposition to the reproductions of paintings, reliefs, sculptures, and coins.

Kentridge, by stop-frame filming his drawing produces an animation of the categories of past signs together with his drawings as a moving montage of the passage of states. Kentridge's use of surfaces with pre-existent categories of the sign creates a reflective and discursive distance that allows for the suddenly emergent transformations that Kentridge terms fortuna, or the general term he uses for ‘a range of agencies--something other than cold statistical chance, and something outside the range of rational control.’ (Kentridge, 1999, p.118)

Central among the agencies Benjamin, Warburg, and Kentridge work with are ‘devalued material objects’ or the ‘detritus of history…This detritus consists of a wide range of “commodities” in its broadest sense (but) whose use value has drained out of them…for which the status of phantasmagoria has decayed…poor slightly out of date things.’ (Pensky, 2004, pp.177-198)

In Kentridge’s drawing, there is a relation between a repertoire of pre-existing signs and the indeterminate nature of the ‘now’ of drawing that generates an image which, while it is not linguistic, like Benjamin’s dialectical image, is a conflation between the act of drawing and the objective signifiers on the page. Thus, Kentridge's fortuna is  an event that I align with the way Benjamin describes the emergence of dialectical images as one where, ‘thinking suddenly stops in a configuration pregnant with tensions and ‘an intractable degree of indeterminacy’ that resolves itself in ‘a “now” of recognizability.’(Ibid. p. 194) In addition to this, in Pigrum 2021, I write about the way Warburg worked on the panels of the Atlas Mnemosyne, moving from one panel to another, attaching images with small pins to the black cloth mounted on a Hessian stretcher, photographing the arrangement, then dismantling it and composing another mosaic of pictures. Warburg could do this because of the availability at the end of the 19th century of photographic reproductions of artwork and the ready availability of newspaper cuttings and advertising brochures. According to Didi-Huberman, Warburg’s dynamogram are ‘traces out the life common to images … in an eminently theoretical way… of a form of forms within time… that transforms more than it transmits meanings.’(Didi-Huberman, 2002, pp. 108-109)

Kentridge makes use of the cinematic camera to take a photograph of the state of a drawing, which is then changed and filmed again. In the filmed sequences of Kentridge’s drawing, we see precisely ‘the accumulation and adjacency of emergent, provisional and potential’ marks that are for Kentridge, as they are for Warburg, a trajectory utterly dependent on physical engagement. As Kentridge states, ‘ is only when physically engaged in a drawing that ideas start to emerge. There is a combination between drawing and seeing, between making and assessing, that provokes a part of my mind that is otherwise closed off.’ (Krauss, 2000, p. 38) For reasons of space, we are unable to develop this theme in any detail. Still, it would seem that for both Warburg in front of the panels of his Atlas Mnemosyne, and Kentridge in his drawing process, it is the physical engagement involved in their ‘spatio-temporal positionality’ that informs Warburg’s arrangement and rearrangement of images on the potential reflective space of the panels of the Atlas Mnemosyne, and Kentridge’s drawing on the pages of printed media. Mensch states, in a paper on the recursive relation between body and mind, that ‘the key point here is the conception of motion as actualization. The motion that actualizes the object also actualizes its presence in its environment.’ (Mensch, 1999, p.37) At the same time, the difference between Warburg, Benjamin, and Kentridge is that, while the former were intent upon the actualization of theoretical literary texts, Kentridge is concerned with the visual image of drawing.

In the first section, we provide an overview of the nature of ‘reflective space’ that we see as having a vital link to both Winnicott’s notion of ‘potential space’ and the sign vehicles of Peirce’s semiotic model of mind. One such sign vehicle is the expendable surface of inscription, such as the pages Kentridge draws upon, the often ephemeral nature of Benjamin’s copious citations, and the newspaper and advertising images that were appended to Warburg’s Atlas as examples of the survival of that which ‘has been’ and its dialectical relationship to the ‘now.’ The following section concerns what Didi-Huberman describes as the ‘correct distance and right angle of vision that presages for Benjamin the appearance of the dialectical Image, the dynamograms of Warburg’s Atlas Mnemosyne, and for Kentridge the arrival of fortuna. The final section draws on further parallels between Benjamin’s Arcades project, Warburg’s Atlas Mnemosyne, and the drawings of Kentridge and his notion of fortuna. In the conclusion, the findings of the paper are summarized, and further research directions are suggested.