The Scrapheap of Progress

Accompanying my project about the reawakening of memory and history in the context of the Euro crisis is an essay consisting of twelve chapters on subjects ranging from the origins of nationalism to the nature of chance. Individually dealing with disparate subjects, the idea is that together they combine to pose questions about the nature of memory, history, photography and time. They are designed to be printed as separate unbound chapters, which can be shuffled and read in any sequence, further underlining the idea of chance and synchronicity in our understanding of the past. Here is one of several I will be publishing on the blog.

The Scrapheap of Progress

‘Woe to the vanquished’1
Livy, Ab Urbe Condita

Göring, Heß, von Ribbentrop, and Keitel on trial Nuremberg, 1945-46

Göring, Heß, von Ribbentrop, and Keitel on trial
Nuremberg, 1945-46

History in the west has tended to be conceived of as a linear path of events progressing inexorably towards the future, an idea traceable at least as far back as ancient Greece.2 This view of history was attacked by Walter Benjamin in his essay, Theses on the Philosophy of History, written shortly before his death in 1940. In particular he criticised the tendency of historicists to use this view of time as progressively improving as a justification for death, destruction and suffering in the present as a necessary price to be paid for a future ‘paradise’.

Benjamin called for a return to a more metaphysical conception of history, using the Paul Klee etching Angelus Novus as a visual metaphor for the angel of history Benjamin wrote that, ‘Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe that keeps piling ruin upon ruin and hurls it in front of his feet’.3  The Angel would like to reconstruct and make whole this destruction but ‘a storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress’.4

At the time this was read as a critique of the historical narratives deployed by totalitarian states, but the strength of Benjamin’s writing is that its crypticity allows it to be constantly reinterpreted and reinvented, for Benjamin’s ‘admonitions to come to life they must be critically rethought’.5 Baer for example reads the Theses as an ‘exhortation to rescue the dead from the clutches of the victorious’.6 A more literal reading of Benjamin’s metaphor might be that the scrapheap of history is just that, an almost meaningless pile of facts, their order and their very survival no evidence of their historical significance.

Historians, in turn, are like tinkers scavenging through the remains for anything that appeals to their individual fetishes. The scrapheap is still subject to the relentless storm of progress, which as well as continuing to pile on new material, potentially burying earlier strata of time, is continuously altering the substance and meaning of what is already there. A historical fact or artifact unearthed today is almost always viewed in an entirely different context to that of its making, and while historians attempt to understand these objects in terms of their past, elements of that context will be irretrievably lost or distorted by the knowledge of the present.

1 Titus Livius Patavinus, Ab Urbe Condita, Book V, avaliable at
2 Ulrich Baer, Spectral Evidence (Athens, 2002) p. 3
3 Walter Benjamin, Theses on the Philosophy of History, in Illuminations, edited by Hannah Arendt (London, 1999) p. 249
4 Walter Benjamin, Theses on the Philosophy of History, in Illuminations, edited by Hannah Arendt (London, 1999) p. 249
5 Ulrich Baer, Spectral Evidence (Athens, 2002) p. 128
6 Ulrich Baer, Spectral Evidence (Athens, 2002) p. 128

2 thoughts on “The Scrapheap of Progress

  1. Gosh, it hadn’t even occurred to me that there could be ways of looking at history other than linearly. Is this something that was looked at a lot at degree level? I did AS History which I imagine is a very different beast (and much-simplified).

    • We skimmed over the issue of different ideas about time, but I think out tutors didn’t really want to get too into it. Its a fascinating topic well worth looking into, it begins to give you a different perspective on all sorts of things.

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