Materialising History: Benjamin, Sinclair and the Paradox of Reading/Writing the Urban Past
By Alex Murray*
* a version of this article was originally published in Critical Engagements 1.1, the journal of the UK Network for Modern Fiction Studies, reprinted here by kind permission.
Within discourses surrounding urban historical practices material history is often celebrated as being the most dynamic and effective form of oppositional history. Within such contexts the work of Walter Benjamin holds a prized place, with his material cultural history venerated as a potent challenge to the ‘once upon a time’ narratives of traditional historiography. Yet as a form of alternative history the mapping of detritus and the urban landscape is deeply problematic. While material history possessed a definitive potentiality within the rapidly expanding mass-consumerism of the mid nineteenth to early twentieth-century, its status at the beginning of the twenty-first is far less certain. The rise of retro fashion, along with the increasing institutionalisation of material history, has led a number of contemporary British writers and cultural critics to call into question the efficacy of material history. For writers such as Iain Sinclair and Patrick Wright history must be the result of sets of subjective practices and modes of criticism: a model of engagement with the urban environment that attempts to mediate the subject and object of urban historiography. In what follows I would like to map these concerns in relationship to Walter Benjamin, suggesting that Benjamin’s work pre-figures the problematisation of material history that faced many later urban cultural historians and critics.
Benjamin and Sinclair: a critical encounter
Walter Benjamin’s dense and complex body of work has been utilised within a number of disciplines, but perhaps none more so than literary and cultural history. Benjamin’s fractured opus, The Arcades Project, has become a veritable tool kit for the literary critic: a maze of critical paradigms with the potential for endless reappropriation. The work of Iain Sinclair, with its own labyrinthine textuality has itself often been made the subject of uneasy critical frameworks: from the Derridean inspired criticism of Julian Wolfreys to the Deleuzian gestures of Jason Dent and Shirley Whittaker, Sinclair’s work has been made to fit with theoretical paradigms that have the potential to remove Sinclair’s work from the context of contemporary London. It was perhaps unsurprising that Sinclair and Benjamin would come together in an uneasy critical encounter. Samantha Skinner has suggested that Iain Sinclair’s textual practice can be compared to the Benjaminian (and Baudelairean) figure of the rag-picker: “Benjamin and Sinclair both invest the rag-picker, and by extension their own work, with an almost shamanistic power and significance… Sinclair, our present day literary rag-picker occupies the space posited by Benjamin” (Skinner 170, 174). While the analogy itself might seem to be useful for describing the relationship between detritus and critique in Sinclair, underpinning it is a range of assumptions about the relation of material production in both Benjamin’s period and our own that require serious reconsideration.
In order to discuss these assumptions about material production and consumption it may be useful to think about the place that Skinner affords the figure of the rag-picker. If the rag-picker is to move seamlessly from nineteenth century Paris to contemporary London it must be afforded the status of a symbol. Yet the symbol, as Benjamin reminds us, is antithetical to historicisation and therefore to cultural materialism. As he states in The Origin of German Tragic Drama, “The symbol… remains persistently the same” (Benjamin, 1992, 183). This universalising affect was intrinsic to the Romantic failure of the attempt to create a truly critical form of literary and philosophical production, with the symbol condemning them to inhabit the caesura between language and thought, unable to emerge into the ground of historicity. Instead, for Benjamin it is to the allegory that we must turn to find the form of literary production, and criticism, most fitting to the task of a material urban history, and a critical urban literature. The allegory was a form of representation that itself can be dated, be temporalised and therefore show the movement of history in an effort to expose it. As he suggests: “The allegorical physiognomy of the nature-history which is put on stage in the Trauerspeil, is present in reality in the form of the ruin. In the ruin history has physically merged in the setting. And in this guise history does not assume the form of the process of an eternal life so much as that of irresistible decay. Allegory thereby declares itself to be beyond beauty. Allegories are in the realm of thoughts, what ruins are in the realm of things” (Benjamin, 1992 177). So accordingly the allegory of material detritus and its collection in the nineteenth century should not be the same as that utilised as a critical figure at the beginning of the twenty-first. For Benjamin material production was in a state of constant acceleration and change, and the raft of figures we see in The Arcades Project, from the flaneur to the rag-picker, the shop-assistant, the prostitute, etc. are all allegories for material production in the mid to late-nineteenth century. Even by Benjamin’s own time they were obsolete. In order to suggest a more fitting way of relating Benjamin’s work to contemporary cultural history, and to Sinclair, it is necessary to engage the discourse of material history and to explore the shifts in material production that have been experienced since Benjamin attempted his anatomisation of nineteenth-century material production.
Materialising Cultural Materialism
While Benjamin’s approach has found itself appropriated in the disciplines of cultural history, the impetus behind his project was a Marxist attempt to extrapolate from the cultural detritus of the nineteenth-century a series of dialectical images that would allow the nature of that historical epoch, and of the capitalist mode of production that drove it, to be realised. Since Benjamin’s project is deeply affected by the notion of historical materialism, it is vital that we examine some of the fundamental elements of Marx’s materialist conception of history. For Marx, history was not the study of human consciousness, or ideology, but the material conditions under which humanity found itself, and the ways in which man altered those material conditions through production: “The first fact to be established … is the physical constitution of these individuals and their consequent relation to the rest of Nature … All historiography must begin from these natural bases and their modification in the course of history by men’s activity” (Marx 69) This mode of historical engagement attempts to shatter the traditional attempt to periodise through abstract epochal categories, or the study of the spirit of each age. As Marx asserts of historical materialism, it “remains constantly on the real ground of history; it does not explain practice from the idea, but explains the formation of ideas from material practice” (Marx 70). Historical materialism is therefore central in a revolutionary programme, a revolution in which “the class which overthrows it rids itself of the accumulated rubbish of the past and become capable of reconstructing society” (Marx 80)
The stringency of Marx’s model of historical materialism became altered in many strains of post-Marxist thought, including that of the Frankfurt School, with which Benjamin was associated. We can take Herbert Marcuse’s study “The Foundations of Historical Materialism” as indicative of the manifestation between traditional Marxists and the Frankfurt School. In Marx’s historical materialism we see historical materialism as a means to an end, an important element in raising the consciousness of the working classes in order to facilitate a revolution. By the twentieth-century the political economy had altered and developed from the liberal free market capitalism of Marx’s day to a far more state-regulated system of control, whether that be in liberal democracies or in Totalitarian states. This fundamental shift highlighted the inadequacies of Marx’s original revolutionary formulations, and the necessity for a new mode of theoria in order to achieve an efficable praxis. Marcuse asserts that one of Marx’s most valuable insights was that of the individual as social being. States Marx: “his life, even if it may not appear in the direct form of a communal life in association with others, is therefore an expression and confirmation of social life” (Marx as quoted in Marcuse 34). For Marcuse this forms the most valuable portion of Marx’s writing and for Frankfurt School Social Theory. “This insight is no mere theoretical cognition or arbitrary, passive intuition, but praxis: the supersession of what exists, making it a ‘means’ for free self-realization” (Marcuse 35). And as Marcuse explains this praxis is brought about through the study of history, of challenging and exploding historical narratives in order to uncover the conditions of material production: “because it is dependant on the conditions pre-established by history, the praxis of transcendence must … reveal these conditions and appropriate them” (Marcuse 35). So the role for a Critical Theory within the discourses of history is the examination of the material remains of the past in order to explode a moment in time out of the historical continuum, to facilitate the potential of transcendent praxis through the investigation and presentation of the past.
The Arcades Project is intimately linked to Marx’s materialist conception of history. As Benjamin asserts: “Marx lays bare the causal connection between economy and culture. For us, what matters is the thread of expression. It is not the economic origins of culture that will be presented, but the expression of the economy in its culture” (Benjamin 1999, 460). Here the cultural artefacts – the detritus of the arcades – will be used to illuminate the logic of capital, presented through the critical aesthetic of the dialectical image. Benjamin famously asserted: “method of this project: literary montage, I needn’t say anything. Merely show. 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” (Benjamin 1999, 460). Intrinsically linked to this mode of presentation is the relationship between past and the present. For Benjamin we are the product of a certain tradition, one of manifold possibilities that have arisen. The role of the dialectical historian is to awaken the present out of that tradition by presenting to it the ways in which it has arrived at that point, and how certain moments in history have been denied. So The Arcades Project becomes an attempt to discover in the past a continuum in the development of the political economy and the role of the phantasmagoric commodity within that economy in order to highlight the many flaws of the modes of production and consumption. As Tiedemann asserts: “Benjamin discovered the signature of the early modern in the ever more rapid obsolescence of the inventions and innovations generated by a developing capitalism’s productive forces” (Tiedemann in Benjamin 1999, 932) The implementation of this philosophy of history would be a moment of realisation that comes with the dialectical image. As Benjamin asserts:
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. … – Only dialectical images are genuine images … and the place where one encounters them is language. “Awakening” (Benjamin 1999, 462)
This passage embodies many elements of Benjamin’s philosophy of history, and the term ’awakening’ perhaps crystallises both the method and goal of his project. For Benjamin it is not a task of making a complete picture of the past, but assembling it in such a way as to allow the awoken dead to speak out against the injustice of progress that has silenced all but the most powerful of voices. Benjamin here is also attempting to realign historical materialism, removing Marx’s imposition of a teleological narrative, and replacing it with a history that defies any concept of ‘total truth ‘. Benjamin’s model of material history can thus provide us with an alternative historical framework. However, material history entails some complications that were possibly unforseen by Benjamin, yet emerge in his writing, and must concern us as they problematise the very efficacy of material analysis as praxis.
Benjamin’s project was of course a project in construction. It therefore raises questions of structure, and the extent to which we can construct a formal system of analysis, a unified philosophy of history, from his writing. Critics like Tiedemann suggest that there is an inherent structure to the project, asserting: “the reader will be able to specify which function an excerpt would have served in the global construction – how it might have been able to become a ‘crystal’ whose sparkling light itself replaces the total event” (Tiedemann in Benjamin 1999, 932). If we admit the possibility of a systemic analysis with universal applications, there, in theory, should lie within Benjamin’s work a philosophy of history for the present. It is in this shift from viewing Benjamin’s project in relation to its context, to our own, that we begin to raise some fundamental questions regarding the effectiveness of material history in the present.
Detritus, Mass-production and the Rejuvenated Urban History
The transformation of material history from detritus to valuable commodity is one of the most fascinating and innovative trends of post-war consumerism. While there was always a market in historical products, the fairly immediate past had not yet become an element of the market in its own right. Throughout most of the twentieth century there was a turn away from the styles and aesthetics of the past to embrace a new form of production, leading to the creation of a wealth of detritus that Benjamin suggested would form the basis of a material history. During the nineteen sixties however there occurred a fundamental shift in the consumption of commodities. With the rejection of the teleological narratives of modernity, there developed a move toward recovering the material artefacts of the immediate past, and the beginning of the retro-trend that has become pre-dominant in the late twentieth century. In the arcades the material artefacts were presented in a phantasmagoric display and the genesis of a new mode of value. For Benjamin it is the public display of commodities that characterises the nineteenth century, and the transience of that mode of display that suggests the extent to which that mode of production would inevitably fail.
For Benjamin the twentieth century represented the apotheosis of this mode of production and consumption, most noticeably by altering the mode of dwelling: “we must understand dwelling in its most extreme form as a condition of nineteenth-century existence … the twentieth century with … its tendency toward the well-lit and the airy, has put an end to dwelling in the old sense” (Benjamin 1999, 220) For Benjamin the nature of our mode of interaction with material production was increasing in transience. Within this development the collector became an important figure, responsible for altering the relationship between commodity and artefact: “the collector proves to be the true resident of the interior… To him falls the Sisyphean task of divesting things of their commodity character by taking possession of them. But he can bestow on them only connoisseur value rather than use value. The collector delights in evoking … a world in which… human beings are no better provided with what they need … but in which things are freed from the drudgery of being useful” (Benjamin 1999, p. 19). Collecting was thus a means of removing commodity character, and being able to demonstrate the gulf that existed between production, use, and commodity value of the object. Yet as Benjamin also perceived the mode of collecting was driven by certain idealistic and nostalgic desires, thus pre-empting one of the major challenges that awaited the use of material history as alternative history in the later twentieth century.
One of the most striking features of this alteration has been our relationship to the mass-produced artefacts of the near past. While the collecting of antiques has been common throughout the course of modernity, it was usually limited to items that were produced in small quantities, usually by hand, and maintained a certain auratic quality. The notion of the aura, as described by Benjamin, while pertaining to the work of art and the challenge brought about by mechanical reproducibility, is applicable to the changing presence of the material artefact. As Benjamin asserts: “the authenticity of a thing is the essence of all that is transmissible from its beginning, ranging from its substantive duration to … the history it has experienced… the technique of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the domain of tradition” (Benjamin 1968, 221). The destruction of the auratic quality of the work of art once reproduced was for Benjamin potentially libratory as it represented the removal of art from the imposition of tradition, yet in the realm of the material history, say for instance mass-produced furniture, it represented a different outcome. Instead of representing the rapacious nature of capitalism and commodity fetishism, these objects have been re-absorbed back into the economic system, becoming an integral element of the culture industry in contemporary society.
Here I would like to briefly turn to the work of Giorgio Agamben to expand on some of the aporias that appear in Benjamin’s project. For Agamben the question of aura is integral to how we begin to consider the relationship between the object of criticism and its relationship to material production. As Agamben states in Stanzas:
Benjamin, though he had perceived the phenomenon through which traditional value and authority of the work of art began to vascilate, did not realise that the ‘decay of the aura’ – the phrase with which he synthesized this process – in no way implied as a result ‘the liberation of the object from its cultural scabbard’ or its grounding, from that moment on, in political praxis, but rather the reconstitution of a new ‘aura’ through which the object, re-creating and exalting to the maximum its authenticity on another plane, became charged with a new value, perfectly analogous to the exchange value, whose object is doubled by the commodity (Agamben 44).
What we witness instead of the liberation of the object of material history through its auratic movement out of production, is something altogether different. The material object, while ceasing to belong to the field of ‘traditional’ political economy, instead enters into a new economy of form. Yet being taken out of this model of commodification does little more than re-animate it with a new exchange value. As Agamben suggests Benjamin wrongly believed that in collecting the non-economic fetish value freed the object from commodification. The post world-war two field of cultural production must instead be viewed within a new form of critical perspicacity which moves the object into the hiatus between material history and its representation.
While the transition in modes of consumption is vital in comprehending the complication of material history as a viable historical alternative, this does not necessarily mean that the process of investigating material history has lost its efficacy. A shift in perspective from the practical application of material history to the figure of the urban historian can help to understand the importance of historical engagement. One of the most striking features of Benjamin’s project was its sheer volume. Originally conceived in 1927, the project expanded over the next thirteen years, occupying Benjamin until his departure from Paris and subsequent death. The project yielded a number of important works, yet was never completed. Benjamin asserted of his project: “this work – comparable in method to the process of splitting the atom – liberates the enormous energies of history that are bound up in the ‘once upon a time’ of classical historiography” (Benjamin 1999, 463). Yet those energies were not to be realised in the implementation of Benjamin’s historical practices, but in the very personal relationship between history and the historian.
Benjamin Under The Stars: Toward a re-reading of The Arcades Project
Benjamin’s correspondence reveals the extent to which the Arcades comprised not simply his greatest intellectual achievement, but the foundation of his intellectual development, and, towards the end of the 1930s, his life itself. In a letter to Adorno, written in 1935 Benjamin asserts: “in this work I see the actual, if not the only, reason not to lose courage in the struggle for existence” (Benjamin and Adorno 490). If the work itself has become the meaning of Benjamin’s existence it can never truly be finished. The life of the historian becomes the project itself, the document we posses, bearing the name The Arcades Project, is thus a complex form of autobiography, containing certain moments in which we can glimpse historical investigation as a complex form of autobiography. In this shift the project becomes corporeal, an organic entity that is both the historian and the object of his desire. This corporeality and organicism is captured by Benjamin, as he asserts:
These notes devoted to the Paris arcades were begun under an open sky of cloudless blue that arched above the foliage; and yet – owing to the millions of leaves that were visited by the fresh breeze of diligence, the stertorous breath of the researcher … – they’ve been covered with the dust of centuries. For the painted sky of summer that looks down from the arcades in the reading room of the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris has spread over them its dreamy, unlit ceiling (Benjamin 1999, 457-8)
The passage suggests that history is itself an organic concept, a tree, made up of million of leaves, that will never cease to grow. The notes, an investigation of this organic entity were begun with little imposition, or comparative complexity, symbolised by the open sky, yet the ceaseless role of the historian has covered them with dust. This image of dust conjures up a remarkable wealth of associations. The dust symbolises the extensive length of time that the project has taken, but also the way in which the work, collecting the Shakespearean ‘dust’ of those departed, has expressed the voice of those who, long dead, have been forgotten by history. The covering of dust can also suggest the inevitable completion of the project, not as a completed tome, but as the completion of a life, as the ‘painted sky of summer’ spreads, to cover them in ‘its dreamy unlit ceiling’. The work, instead of becoming a completed epistemological and philosophical investigation, becomes a form of autobiography, one whose completion is impossible, whose conclusion can only be glimpsed in the author’s death. In this view of Benjamin’s work we see his project in an alternative light, and glimpse the emergence of a mode of investigating urban history, that, by being intrinsically linked to living within the city itself, and to the act of ceaseless investigation, will never acquiesce into becoming a stagnated historiographical model.
Reading Rodinsky Against the Gentrifying Grain
Benjamin’s scant remarks on the relationship between history and the historian open up the potentiality of a writing of urban history that is in itself a form of autobiography. In what follows I would like to examine Rachel Lichtenstein and Iain Sinclair’s study Rodinsky’s Room (1997), exploring how these two writers see history as both a living investigation and acceptance, rather than an empirical understanding of a past reality. David Rodinsky was the caretaker of the Princelet Street Synagogue, Whitechapel during the 1960s until his mysterious disappearance. Rodinsky’s garret was left untouched until it was opened by renovators in the early 1980s. Left as though Rodinsky had departed momentarily, the room presented both a time capsule, a picture of decay, and an enigma that has been appropriated, abused and investigated in its awkward incarnation as one of London’s most potent sites of material history. The room as it stands is a site that can highlight some of the great changes that have occurred in the thirty or so years since Rodinsky’s disappearance. The room itself is a reminder of the exceptional pace of social change. With its cabbalistic writings and relics of the Jewish culture that had dominated the area, it is indicative of the ways in which gentrification has accelerated the destruction of that past. Perhaps most importantly the mystery of Rodinsky is demonstrative of the anonymity that is perceived as such a dominant feature of contemporary urban life, a life in which Rodinsky was able to disappear without a trace and never have been missed. In a way Rodinsky had never disappeared, because no one had noticed. Yet the ability for Rodinsky’s story to function as a form of oppositional history, as a Benjaminian dialectical image has been compromised by the nature of the material artefact within contemporary London culture.
Patrick Wright, investigating Rodinsky’s room in A Journey Through Ruins, suggests that it provides a paradigm for viewing the relationship between the gentrification of the area and the misuse of history. The popularity of Rodinsky’s room, demonstrates the way in which the material remnants of the past, instead of being used as a means of alternative history, have become appropriated with little critical application. As Wright asserts, the site has become:
something of a location in recent years, a place rented out to faithless people in search of a charismatic setting … journalists come here to launch their books: hoping, presumably, that the atmosphere will lend some of its originality to their undistinguished works… Those who tire of the implausible ‘social surrealism’ downstairs can climb the perilous staircase to the top of the house and marvel at the way Rodinsky’s collapsing domain seems to oscillate between two interpretations of the slum interior (Wright 101).
From Wright’s critical viewpoint the synagogue has become yet another empty site of memory, a place that has become commodified and commercialised through its place in the memory culture that has become such a dominant feature of contemporary British society. This turn to memory cultures has been widely commented upon in critical literature, with many commentators regarding this memorialisation of culture as closing down more truly collective forms of remembrance. Pierre Nora has been one of the most incisive critics of this turn, arguing that post-war culture has seen the rise of a history-memory which silences traditional memory, replacing it with a series of processes that, according to Nora are characterised by artifice, “memory transformed by its passage through history, which is … wilful and deliberate, experienced as duty rather than spontaneous” (Nora 8). For Nora memory, in its new incarnation as duty, is dominated by lieux de memoire, or sites of memory, which he describes as “the ultimate embodiments of a commemorative consciousness that survives in a history which, having renounced memory, cries out for it. The notion has emerged because society has banished ritual.”(Nora 6) He later goes on to say that lieux de memoire,
arise out of a sense that there is no such thing as spontaneous memory, hence that we must create archives, mark anniversaries, organize celebrations, pronounce eulogies, and authenticate documents because such things no longer happen as a matter of course. When certain minorities create protected enclaves as preserves of memory to be jealously safeguarded, they reveal what is true of all lieux de memoire: that without commemorative vigilance memory would soon sweep them away (Nora 7)
Rodinsky’s room therefore becomes such a site of memory that reveals the fundamental inability of contemporary culture to actively remember. It exists precisely because we need it. Within the context of East London it is a site that reminds us of a past that the gentrification of East London has practically wiped out.
It is within this context of the abuse of the site that I would like to introduce Rodinsky’s Room, a collaborative investigation of Rodinsky’s disappearance by Rachel Lichtenstein and Iain Sinclair. For both of these writers, as for Wright, the room itself represents a space that must be de-mythologised, taken out of the cycle of commodifiable histories and alternative culture that led they see as intrinsically linked to the gentrification of Spitalfields. In Sinclair’s body of work, as for a number of other prominent London authors and historians – such as Stewart Home, Patrick Wright, Peter Ackroyd and Michael Moorcock – the East End of London remains a privileged space, a space which is antithetical to the City. Yet as Sinclair has noted ever since the 1980s, the importance of that space as oppositional and antagonistic is being eroded by gentrification, by the increasing commodification of the area as it becomes the playground of the upwardly mobile. It is therefore important that the quest of Sinclair and Lichtenstein to uncover Rodinsky is antithetical to any sense of economic ownership. As Sinclair states: “Rachel Lichtenstein’s sense of the streets around Brick Lane, the tributaries with their resonant names (Buxton Street, Woodseer, Hanbury, Princelet, Fournier, Fashion), was a privileged one. Ownership: without title deeds or a rent book. Ownership, in the high Blakean style, by assertion, by incorporating the everyday particular into a mythological structure. Title by possession. By love. By painstakingly recovered memory” (Sinclair 1999, 79). Lichenstein’s occupation is about incorporating the past, living it.
The book thus consists of Lichtenstein reflecting on her quest to discover who Rodinsky was, and Sinclair’s reflection on the nature of Lichtenstein’s journey. The result is an investigation that resists idealising or mythologising Rodinsky, yet allows the nature of his disappearance to tell its story, as well as that of the historians themselves. The model is self-reflexive, and suggests how an alternative urban history can allow for the potential for the construction of an alternative urban subjectivity. Lichtenstein and Sinclair remain aware that they must allow Rodinsky’s story to be told, yet must not entomb Rodinsky in their text. Sinclair asserts of the gentrification of the East End: “Entropy as a cultural value. We scrape off the compacted layers of wallpaper to reveal some signifier of a past life… Blue plaques induce guilt … but there is no plaque, as yet, for David Rodinsky. Meshuganer, cabbalist, spook. Inspirer of fictions. Retro-golem. He’s unwritten, unexplained and therefore free” (Sinclair, 1999, 6) Sinclair and Lichtenstein attempt not to silence the past by entombing it, as de Certeau suggests the traditional writing of history does, (de Certeau 2). but to allow that past to speak through the present, through the critical urban subject.
This concern with attempting not to silence the past, but to allow it to remain fluid and subjective is central to Iain Sinclair’s critical and creative project. For the past 30 years, Sinclair has been concerned with exploring the social, political and ethical inequities in contemporary London, in particular the ways in which history, and historical consciousness can be used to both challenge and legitimise the commercial and political assault on the city. So for Sinclair projects such as Downriver, Lights out For the Territory and London Orbital are “anti-demonic” projects to challenge the destruction of London at the hands of Thatcherism and New Labour (Sinclair, 2003, 135). Ever since Lud Heat (1975), Sinclair has used the occultism of secret histories to challenge these forms of demonism. It is what has been obscured, forgotten or erased by the city that needs to be uncovered for its salvation. This salvation has always been a subjective understanding, which I have referred to elsewhere as ‘spiritual deliverance’ (Murray, 2004). For Sinclair the personal understanding of the past equates to a subjective deliverance from its relentless possession. As he stated in Lud Heat: “the cure, like the theory, is retrospective. When we understand the condition it no longer exists” (Sinclair, 1995, 69).
As we can see then, any engagement with the past must remain a personal and lived one, and therefore in Rodinsky’s Room Lichtenstein’s experience of the past becomes a strangely embodied and active one. Instead of historical inquiry being a petrified process of empirical investigation, or a stale site of memory, it is transformed into a dynamic experience. As Sinclair states: “What she is describing is happening now, on the instant. The past is adapted, absorbed. She seems to have witnessed events that occurred long before her birth” (Sinclair, 1999, p. 4). Sinclair’s description of this process is itself a description of a new form of urban historical experience. The act of bearing witness to the past is one that is pregnant with manifold possibilities for contemporary historical fiction. To bear witness is in itself an impossible task. To experience the past as witness is both a project of subjectivization, but also de-subjectivization. History can inform the sense of self as it is witnessed, yet is simultaneously a process that ruptures those stable, ideological foundations of subjective experience. It is this dialectic between both producing and shattering subjectivity that is at the heart of Sinclair’s work and the new form of historical consciousness it attempts to construct.
This process does however suggest that historical investigation could become trapped in a form of relativism as history can never reach the point of epistemic closure, condemned instead to repeat the suffering of those it has subjugated ad infinitum. However as Sinclair makes clear this is precisely what an historical investigation should not be. For Sinclair there is something necessarily addictive and salacious about and obsession with the past. As he stated of his own obsession with Jack the Ripper in White Chappell, Scarlet Tracings: “There’s something inherently seedy and salacious in continually picking the scabs of these crimes, peering at mutilated bodies, listing the undergarments, trekking over the tainted ground in quest of some long-delayed occult frisson” (Sinclair, 1988, 57). Pathological immersion must, in Sinclair’s vision, be moved beyond, to a point at which we can respectfully leave the ghosts of the past to rest. This formulation appears, on the surface, paradoxical: one must immerse themselves in the past, occupy it, in order to move beyond it. Yet for Sinclair this precise movement of obsession as redemption is necessity to escape from a banal and uncritical relation to the past. As he asserted in White Chappell “Until we can remake the past, go into it, change what is now, cut out those cancers – we are helpless. We are prisoners, giving birth to old faults, carrying our naked grandfathers in our arms” (Sinclair, 1988, 113). So it is the role of the cultural historian, like himself and Lichtenstein to enter Rodinsky’s Room with the possibility of emerging from it, closing its door, and allowing the past to be laid to rest, yet never forgotten.
Then Lichtenstein’s exploration of Rodinsky becomes a journey of self-understanding, an attempt to uncover, through the investigation of one mans life, a more complex understanding of her own. Lichtenstein has attempted to explore ideas of Jewish faith and community within the communities of Whitechapel and Spitalfields . Her search to uncover the secret of Rodinsky’s Room is intricately linked to her exploration of a Jewish faith that had been partially lost following her grandparents assimilation into English life after fleeing Poland. In this way the historical investigation of the material remnants of Rodinsky’s room becomes a personal investigation. As Sinclair asserts: “An abandoned room contained all that was left of a man’s life and Rachel Lichtenstein understood that it was her task, nobody else could do it, to live that life again, and to complete it. Find some resolution or lose herself in the attempt. That was her joy. That was her burden” (Sinclair, 1999, 5) In this passage we see Sinclair aligning Lichtenstein’s investigation with his own form of historical séance, his own attempt to derive a form of deliverance from the mysteries of the past, to use that past to come to a greater understanding of the self. This moment of deliverance comes as Lichtenstein organises a consecration service and tombstone for Rodinsky after finding his grave in an outer London cemetery. After saying Kaddish for Rodinsky the gathered crowd are invited to wash their hands, according to traditional Jewish custom. As the celebrant explains: “‘the ritual act of cleansing our hands symbolizes our resolve to improve ourselves and our lives, and to put thoughts of death and decay behind us.’ Then he said to me: ‘You have set him free, now it is time to move on’” (Rishardson as quoted in Lichenstein, 1999, 339)
Lichtenstein and Sinclair, like Benjamin thus live their investigation of the past. It is this mode of living the past through the present that represents an alternative practice of urban history, and one that has the potential to avoid many of the complications brought about by the increasing commodification of material history that has rendered Benjamin’s historical materialism potentially untenable. Instead the material past is exposed to the ceaseless investigation of the historical witness, the dreamy unlit ceiling being perpetually illuminated by the development of historical consciousness.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dr Alex Murray is lecturer in 20th century literature at the University of Exeter Department of English. His research interests and recent activities can be found at his departmental profile.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, February 22nd, 2008.