It's not that what is past casts its light on what is present, or what is present its light on the 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. – Only dialectical images are genuine images (that is, not archaic); and the place where one encounters them is language.“Awakening” (Arcades, 462; n2a, 3)
Reading this well-known entry from the “N” convolute of Benjamin's Arcades Project, even the most seasoned Benjamin expert might be forgiven a feeling of helplessness in the face of such a powerful and enigmatic array of claims. The breathtaking evocation of an alternative temporality that this quote contains in characteristically elliptical and compacted form, the glimpse at an entirely new conception of historiography that breaks with previous categories of interpretation, the notion of an image-based historical sensibility as the genuine mode of historical interpretation – these are as fascinating and compelling as any moment in modern philosophy. But, at the same time, one cannot avoid the feeling that this quote, and others like it in Benjamin's Arcades Project, is a theoretical promissory note that would prove difficult if not impossible to redeem. What possible philosophy of history could explicate the difference between the past and “what-has-been,” between the present and the “now”?