allegory – experience, ontology, rhetoric

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For Walter Benjamin allegories are, in the realm of thought, what ruins are in the world of things. I have been quite fascinated with this equation and feel that I am only now realizing the ramifications. Here are some thoughts.

More on research creation – experiment – [Link]
On rhetoric – Neustupny volume – [Link]
Baudelaire and Benjamin – EP – [Link]
A talk on process philosophy – [Link]

Project – et in Arcadia ego[Link]


Allegory – rhetoric

An etymology (from the ancient Greek).
allos – other, different.
agoreuein – to speak in assembly, in the gathering, in the agora.
Allegory – to speak about something else, speaking other, other speaking, veiled speaking, figuration, different voices, diverse voices, polyvocality.

“Look at it this way instead”
“Let’s treat this matter another way.”
“Reframe – look at this aspect.”
“Consider that this might stand for that.”
“This is also that – and consider the possibilities!”
This is what one says in allegory, and often by implication rather than explicitly (allegory likes to hide its art).

Allegory is an extended metaphor related to simile, metaphor, metonymy and synecdoche, and sometimes close to fable, parable, myth. Allegory is a rhetorical device, a figure of speech, a trope (twist/turn), a concept or conceit.

Allegory might use figures and scenarios that summarize, synthesize complex ideas and experiences. In Plato’s cave people watch the shadows on the wall with their backs to the reality that is actually casting those shadows. Figuratively speaking, the message is that we need to turn away from the shadows if we seek enlightenment and knowledge of the way things really are.

Allegory and symbol can be closely connected – “this is a symbol for that”.

Allegory as rhetorical technique and trope is just the beginning. We do well to take allegory as being about lifeworld, the way the world is and how we experience it.

Allegory – experience

In his flaneurie, his dérives, his wandering through the streets of nineteenth-century Paris, Benjamin’s favorite poet, Charles Baudelaire encountered the offerings of modern urban dwelling, browsing, shopping, consuming the sphinxes of modernity, as Louis Aragon called them in his surrealist parable, Le Paysan de Paris (1926). Sphinxes are monstrous hybrid creatures that pose riddles. Just what am I? Answer this! What might you become, if you answer my riddle? And a failure to answer the Sphinx’s seductive mystery brings death.

Benjamin was fascinated with the experiences of modernity, as things become other, and “all that is solid melts into air”. When things are treated as commodities they become interchangeable with anything else; the particular characteristics of use become secondary to their capacity to be exchanged according to an abstract measure embodied in money.

In the shopping mall that life has become, you can buy services, goods, experiences, promises of this being that. Reifications – when desire is transformed into an image, a perfume, an artifact. Fetishes – when things take on a life of their own, when we forget how the automobile is entangled in the organization of manufacture and labor, the politics of energy supply and international relations, when automotive technology seems to drive history of its own accord, through its own independent agency.

How might such experiences be made manifest? Baudelaire wrote extraordinary poems. Benjamin planned an encyclopedic collage, the Passagenwerk. In Woody Allen’s Movie Midnight in Paris (2011), the city of Pablo Picasso and Gertrude Stein, of Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald exists alongside, within the present. You just need to find means of (shamanic) passage. In the movie this is a car that arrives at midnight to take you back in the nostalgic darkness. The city streets enfold their pasts in a temporal multiplicity.

In Autosuggestion (2013), a work of theatre/archaeology in Stanford’s Revs Program [Link], Mike Pearson and I explored how an automobile is always more than the artifact. We led an audience through nine annotated scenarios woven through personal experience, archetypes (Nuvolari as the consummate racing driver, merged with the vehicle), iconic stories of the recent history of automobility. [Link – Academia]

In December 2016 the Historic Vehicle Association of America mounted a pop-up museum in the retail unit at the base of 432 Park Avenue in Manhattan [Link]. Three cars, a Benton Harbor from 1896, The GM Firebird 2 concept car of 1956, and Gordon Murray’s eco-car of 2016 stood for a different history of the automobile, a reframing, a story of the “power of less” – horseless, driverless, less fuel.

In my book on ancient Greek perfume jars [Link], I showed how Corinthian oil jars (aryballoi) from the seventh century BCE, treated as “type fossils” by archaeologists, markers of chronology and art history, were and are always more than their designation, more than what they are taken to stand for. ”Total social facts”, they encompass in their very being the building of an ancient lifeworld that stretched across the Mediterranean.

This interest in transforming agents, how things come to be and pass away, is at the heart of the project Greece and Rome [Link]. Gary Devore and I are offering an encounter with antiquity through a synthetic model of membership and agency, the capacity to matter and make things happen, or not, conveyed in a series of personae and scenarios.

Allegory – fragments and metamorphoses

In the ongoing flow of experience of lifeworld, allegory refers to a sense of transitoriness, of transmutation, that the world is not permanent, is in a constant state of passing away as well as re-creation, in both ruin and rebuilding. Such experience is not self-sufficient, always fragmentary, never full, enigmatic, posing questions which never can receive a final answer, because lifeworld is multiple and always in process.

With no finality, in the on and on-ness of experience, there’s always more to say. More and other to say of multiplicity, in the way of speculation, figuration, supplying context and connection, scenario and narrative.

A vital performative and creative aspect of such experience is that there is always choice. What might we say and do, make? Something may turn or be turned into something else, according to indeterminate principles. What might we choose to say? What connections might be followed or asserted? What reconstruction of the ruin, the fragment? And to what end?

In asserting connection, handling multiplicity, allegory may create a dialectical image, a dynamic synthesis of thesis and antithesis, a past-present amalgam, an actuality. Allegory operates in a kind of borderlands, between this and that, then and now, transgressing sometimes, at other times making passages and pathways. Between close attention to things and imagining what might become, between waking and dreaming, allegory can be dreamwork – traumwerk.

Albrecht Dürer. Melencolia 1. 1514.

This dynamic of composing and decomposing, of presencing and absencing, coming into being and passing away may well be melancholic. Everything is time bound. We and our works pass away to become part of the debris of history, fragments piled high. Yet also our temporal being is the ground of creative possibility, of hoping, planning, building. Might not the suffering of history be redeemed in the building of a better future? Allegory can bridge Thanatos and Eros, death and redemption, ruin and rebuilding, death’s head and angel’s countenance [Link].

Allegory – ontology

There is a strong case to be made that allegory not only refers to ways of handling our experience of things, but also is an aspect of the way things are, their ontology.

With multiple aspects, incomplete, fragments, ruins, pointing to indeterminate, ever displaced and ever put off completion: this is the way things are.

Concepts of entropy and negentropy point to the energy dynamics of our lifeworld, that, in the face of eternal transience, perpetual effort, the energy investment of negative entropy is needed to maintain things in constant re-creation. Hence the figurative emblem which Benjamin found so apposite in modern times, the allegorical force of the face that is both skull and angel, death and redemption/rebirth [Link].

There can be no knowledge of such a world if we conceive of knowledge as a kind of description or display of the way things are. The quest for knowledge can deliver no full conclusive destination or possession because things flow, are dynamic, in constant creation and passing away, passing in and out of being. Any insight, understanding is always provisional.

Again, this is a performative model of coming to know the world, as we engage and act. Even while we may acknowledge the extraordinary scope and applicability of Newtonian mechanics, Pasteur’s theory of infection, the laws of thermodynamics, there is no guarantee that these will survive as achievements of knowledge building. The world got on perfectly well before Newton’s math, and most people since find little use for it in everyday life. Surely a lesson of our times of climate change and pandemic is that there are no guarantees that the achievements of science will be acknowledged and acted upon. Many today would deny and dismantle them. Knowledge needs constant reconstruction in the works of individuals, communities, organizations, corporations, polities. That knowledge can be treated as (intellectual) property, as commodity that can be traded and exchanged, taken up or discarded, is witness to knowledge being process and experience, never ending, of engagement and mobilisation.

Non-immediacy – something is always missing, lacking, defered

Archi-écriture – mark making

Cite. Walter Benjamin’s Theory of Allegory
Bainard Cowan, New German Critique (22) Special Issue on Modernism (Winter, 1981), pp. 109-122

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