Blown backwards into the future

14 05 2014

Benjamin conjured history as an angel.

Let’s sit with that for a bit, as it’s a lovely sad conjuring.

There is no repair, not for the angel, not for us. Sad, perhaps, but not unbearably so.

There is also no going back, as that angel learned. If the past is an ocean, then history is diving in and bringing the bits and debris and life to the surface, to the present, to see what we’ve got. We can bring what’s down below to the surface and we can make sense of it, but it is our sense, a present sense. And the things themselves, especially the lives themselves, are changed for having been dragged from the deep.

Diving, digging, spelunking: all this bringing to the surface the bits and debris in attempt to recreate life. History as simulacrum.

And the epochs and eras and moments? Those are the bits highlighted or strung together: the Renaissance or Scientific Revolution or Modernity or the Enlightenment. It gives us a way to see.

Usually, when I speak of seeing, I speak metaphorically. But I wanted literally to see where these different moments were in relation to one another, so I ran parallel timelines of European history—scientific, cultural, religious, political, trade—down sheets of paper taped in my hallway, then plotted out those moments.


This is an incomplete draft—I clearly need to allow more room on the final version—but it’s not hard to see how this moment was understand as Italian Renaissance at its ripest.

Or here, as what we now call the Scientific Revolution gets underway:


These give me that bird’s eye view of the middle centuries of the last millennium; they also make me wonder what isn’t there, isn’t recorded in any of the texts I’m using.

What moments are still underground? And what stories will we tell if we ever unearth them?



Listen to the music: Just as I turned to go

25 10 2012

I came late to Laurie Anderson, but I started listening to her, I listened with a vengeance.

I chilled to the ha-ha-ha-ha of ‘O Superman’, smirked at the line Put your hands on your head/Put your hands on your hips, chanted along with her chants, stretched my neck out and sighed at her serious absurdities. I used lyrics from three of her songs to head up chapters to my dissertation.

Un-hip-ily, my favorite cd is her most accessible, Strange Angels, mainly because of two songs: ‘The Dream Before’ and ‘Ramon’.  The first introduced me to Walter Benjamin’s angel of history:

She said, What is History?
He said, History is an angel
Being blown backwards the future

She sung this lightly, sadly. The image isn’t her’s—it’s Benjamin’s—but in this song, it’s her’s, all the same.

Lyrics from ‘Ramon’ made it into my dissertation, a song so odd and, yes, sad and right to the point of it all:

So when you see a man who’s broken
Pick him up and carry him
And when you see a woman who’s broken
Put her all into your arms
Cause we don’t know where we come from
We don’t know what we are

I used this for the last chapter, trying to come up with some way to make sense of what I had just done in trying to make sense of our biology and our technology and our existence, and this lyric, in all its uncertain and unknowing wisdom, seemed to make more sense than everything else.

I don’t always live up to this—I almost never live up to this—but this still seems to make more sense than almost everything else.


10. Laurie Anderson, Big Science
11. Laurie Anderson, Strange Angels
12. Laurie Anderson, Bright Red