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March 2009, Week 2


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Michelle Langford <[log in to unmask]>
Reply To:
Film and TV Studies Discussion List <[log in to unmask]>
Thu, 12 Mar 2009 10:19:49 +1100
text/plain (90 lines)
Yes I did mention Benjamin early in the thread and yes, summarizing him is
incredibly difficult...but let's have a go.

I think the most important aspect of Benjamin's approach to allegory is in
the way he distinguishes allegory from symbol and attempts to 'redeem'
allegory from its denigration by the Romantics (principally Schopenhauer).
The romantics basically viewed allegory as a trivial form of rhetoric.
Benjamin is really the first to take allegory seriously since the Romantic
period. He goes back to the Baroque age and looks primarily at the work of
the Spanish playwrights of the 17th century (eg. Calderon), identifying in
their work a level of submerged resistance to the court, for which they were
commissioned to produce their dramas. 'Life is a Dream' is one play that
sought to secretly critique authority. Additionally, however Benjamin
identifies a series of characteristics of Baroque allegory, which he also
identifies in the work of Baudelaire. These are the ruin, the corpse,
narrative fragmentation, emblems etc. For Benjamin, one of the most
important characteristics of allegory is its dependence upon what I call
'semantic slippage' or instability, where one thing (an object, image, word
etc.) can mean absolutely anything else, so what we get in the most
interesting allegories is not a 1:1 relationship between object and meaning,
but a constant slippage of an object's meaning through a text. That is,
while at one moment an object or image might mean one thing at the next
turn, it is transformed into something else. Allegory, in this sense then
involves metaphors being not only extended, but constantly transformed. This
process of unstable meaning production is different from 'symbolic' forms,
which tend to be more stable (immutable perhaps) (eg. The image of scales to
symbolise justice. In an allegory such an image would be used to mean
something else, quite possibly the opposite of justice). Allegories are also
context specific and generally require knowledge of contemporary events or
society in order to be fully understood.

Benjamin was also careful to distinguish between allegory and myth. He says
that allegory is the 'antidote to myth'. What I understand by this is that
while myths provide stable models for framing our understanding of human
society, allegory works to undermine these, doing so by turning them to
ruins. But allegory has the capacity to mask itself as myth, a useful way of
hiding its true intentions.

Writing of Baudelaire, who Benjamin sees as a direct descendent of the
baroque playwrights, Benjamin fixes on the figure of the prostitute, who
represents a 'ruinous' form of modern society's fetishisation of the

This isn't quite Benjamin in a nutshell, but I hope it helps to clarify the
background of my own work on this in cinema studies.

You might like to read the second chapter of my book "Allegorical Images:
Tableau, Time and Gesture in the Cinema of Werner Schroeter" where I bring
Deleuze to the party to interpret Benjamin's theory of allegory for film.

Hope this helps,

Dr Michelle Langford
School of English, Media and Performing Arts
The University of New South Wales
Sydney 2052 Australia
Room: Webster 311O
Phone: + 61 2 9385 4489
Fax: + 61 2 9385 6812

On 10/3/09 3:15 AM, "Frank, Michael" <[log in to unmask]> wrote:

> it's possible, michelle, that early on in this thread you indicated that you
> were using benjamin's notion of allegory . . .  if you did i must have missed
> it and have responded based on a literary  [rather than philosophical] model
> of allegory . . . for those of us who come to these discussions from a more
> [narrowly] frame of reference, could you give some idea of what allegory was
> for benjamin
> [i realize of course that summarizing benjamin is notoriously difficult, but
> even a few clues would be useful]
> thanks
> mike

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