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The grey film of dust covering things has become their best part.
- Walter Benjami n, 'Dreamkitsch', 1927
1···lln the one short pi ece where he di scusses kitsch, Wal ter Benjamin employs
the metaphor of dust to describe the rundown state of dreams in modernity.
Attuned to the fate of the aura, he says. dreams are 00 langer removed from
concrete experience. bur tangible and near. They have lost their romantic
dimension, their ' bill e distance', fading into a sad greyness that fi guratively
represents the di sintegration which befall s dreams when they cease being
imaginary and enter the polluted atmosphere of everyday life.'
Benjamin associates thi s colourless stare wirh the dust that accumulates on
forgotten objects, establishing an analogy between what he calls rhe extinct
world of things (things infused with aura, of course) and the worn-out condition
of dreams: both are now in the realm of the banal, that is, of kitsch. What makes
dreams and things kitsch, therefore, is their tangibility - the fact that they no
longer stand ' two metres away from the body', but have become instead familiar
and accessibl e. The connection of kitsch and decay is underscored by their
mutual susceptibility to physical touch. And, as is always the case with the aura,
the 1055 of di stance is occasioned by technology, which Benj amin likens to bill s
of currency, in other words, to exchange value: bill s and technology stand for
the exterior cf things. as opposed to thei r essen ce. In this way, Benjamin seems
to perpetuate the c1ass ic oppositi on between essence and appearance that
impli citly underlies the offi cial status of kitsch as a superfi cial phenomenon
and art outcast.
Benjamin's apparent di chotomy between outside and inside, body and soul,
assumes that once things have been touched by the deadly hands of commodity
feti shi sm, they wilt li ke nowers. And truly, only in the faraway dimension of
conceptual distance (or of memory) ca n things remain beyond the mortal trial s
oftime and space, [he wear and tear of age and use. Thi s aurati c distance is better
understood with the help of what Benjamin di stinguishes as 'cult value', a
traditional relationship to objects whereby these are infused with a sacred
quali ty characteristie of cultures with a magie or theocentric view of the world.
In t.urn, cult value is related to use value, where the worth of things is directly
denved from rheir relationship ro human acrivity, instead ofsubordinated to the
laws of market exchange, or exchange value, I .. . J
32/ / MODERNITY IN RUINS
Although Benjamin longs forcultvalue, he recogni zes its modern disintegration
as the breaking down of old hi erarchies which places essence over appearance
and, consequentiy, believes technology has a revoluri onary potential. Simi larly,
alrhough for hirn the novel promotes an individualistic experience that is radically
different from rhe communal one of oral and epic literary traditions, it enables for
this very reason a creative understanding of the world (rather than an acceptance
of handed-down beli efs) wh ich can open the way for its transformation.
What is most relevant about Benjamin's kitsch essay, therefore, is that it
describes the consequence of the shift from a mode of experience based on a
sacred distance to a mode based on perceptual proximity, For Benjamin,
modernity replaces the cyclic f10w oftraditional time with amirage ofmovement
constituted by sheer repetition: the new as the 'ever-always-the-same', Thi s
conditi on is exposed by dust, which can slowly accumulate on things given their
ultimate immobility, since the proliferati on in space does not grant things
movement (that is, transformation) in time.
lroni cally, or perhaps by some intuitive acknowledgment, sti llness was feared
by the pragmatic ideali sm of the nineteenth century, where everything had to
have a reason, an explanation: or a function. Victorian J
merely ornamental. had a practlcal purpose: to cover the emptmess left behmd
by the absence of tradition, Material proliferation was legiti mized by the
pretended usefulness of things that contained other things - albums, armOires,]
boxes, glass cases - often protecti ng them from this era's arch-enemy,
Interiors themselves, Ii ke the arcades of a few decades earli er, were created to
protect objects from the outside, keeping them safe for contemplati on.
The vast production of the late 18005 was geared to protecting, showing,
holding - an obsession that accounts for thi s period's fastidious arrangements,
where nothing is out of place and all the different elements participate in an
obligatory meaningfulness. Dust is a cumbersome residue that taints what it
rouches and must be eradicated: dust is seen as dirt, a persistent conramination
exuded by deat h onto the world of the living, Al ready the 1851 Crystal Palace
featured [wo devices to combat dust: a structural feature whereby the wooden
planks of the palace's noors were left slightly separate so that the dust could fall
through them, and a bizarre ' vacuum cornn guaranteed to prevent decay',
Eventually, nineteenth-century production surpassed the spaces that so
generously embraced it, overnowing them to such a degree that they almost
drowned under the weight oftheir own culture. Satiated, this society then turned
around and lashed out against its own abundance amidst self-accusations of
supernuity and waste. After all , its objects were no longer connected to anything
vital. but were the emblems of a cul tural death perpetrated by commodification,
the remnants of an aura (however mythical ) whose brutal di sintegration marked
the end of an era. So. whil e Benjamin's dust metaphor states that dust - kitsch.
the banal - is a worthless. extri nsic detritus, at the same time ir exposes the
cultural condition that made this metaphori cal dust possible: the 1055 of use
value and the disintegration of the aura.
This assertion can be extended to suggest that dust grants things a peculiarity
that reconstitutes thern as a new experience. validating instead of di squalifying
them. To thi s effect. I would like to propose that even though dust - or boredom
- settles on things that da not move, dust itself mayaiso be seen as the last
breath of tradition, and therefore different from the deadly repetition of
modernity. The dust that fall s on modern things is the decay of the aura, the
decomposition of a previous era that, li ke the tons of shells and detritus that
continuously sink to the ocean bottom, creates a new layer of sediment. The dust
of modernity, a mix ofboredom and death, is the most tangible aspect ofthe new
historical time, a thin patina of shattered moments remaining after the frenzy of
multiplication has subsided or moved away.
It should come as no surprise, then, that Benjamin equates dust with kitsch,
since both are constituted by what I am distinguishing here as the debris of the
aura. What is at stake for kitsch and dust is the transformation of reality from
unitary to fragmented, from continuous to chaotic, along with a shift in the way
we perceive, which goes from ritualistic to a pragmatic apprehension. The layer
of dust makes things into opaque phantoms of themselves in the same way that
kitsch is the distorted copy, or brilliant shadow, of a unique original that it
transfarms whi le replicating. And in so far as kitsch is li ke dust - a fragmented
reminder of something now gone, a mundane proliferation that infiltrates hornes
at will, a bizarre form of object appropriation - then kitsch is liable to the same
accusations and cl eansing operations that dust must endure.
Dust is what connects the dreams ofyesteryear with the touch of nowadays.
It is the aftermath ofthe coll apse of illusions, a powdery cloud that ri ses abruptly
and then begins falling on things, gently covering their bright, poli shed surfaces.
Dust is like a soft carpet of snow that gradually coats the city, quieting its noi se
umil we feellike we are inside a snow glübe, the urban exterior transmuted intD
a magical interior where all time is suspended and space contained. Dust makes
the outside inside by calling attention to the surface ofthings, a surface formerly
deemed untouchable or simply ignored as a conduit to what was considered
real: that essence which supposedly lies inside people and things, waiti ng to be
discovered. Dust turns things insi de out by exposing their bodies as more than
mere shells or carriers, for only after dust settles on an object da we begin to
lang for its lost splendour, realizing how much of this forgotten object's beauty
lay in the more external, concrete aspect of its existence, rather than in its
hidden, attributed meaning.
34/ / MODERNITY IN RUINS
Dust brings a little ofthe world into the enclosed quarters of objects. Belanging
to the outside, the exterior, the street, dust constantly creeps into the sacred arena
of private spaces as areminder that there are no impermeable boundaries between
life and death. It is a transparent veil that seduces with the promise of wh at lies
behind it, which is never as good as the titillating offer. Dust makes palpable the
elusive passing of time, the infinite pulverized particles that constitute its volatile
matter, catching their prey in a surprise embrace whose c1ingy hands, like an
invisible net, leave no other mark than a delicate sheen of faint glitter. As it sticks
to our fingertips, dust propels a vague state of retrospection, carrying us on its
supple wings. A messenger of death, dust is the signature of lost time.
Indeed, dust is where faded dreams and touch intersect, where the blue horizon
fades to grey, Benjamin's distinction between dreams and touch reflects the aura's
underlying hierarchy of value. In a time when the manufacturing of objects has
given way to their mechanical and mass production, pre-industrial times are
considered superior for representing a direct connection between producer!
consumer and object; they are gran ted a transcendental dimension for seemingly
bridging the gap between sensorial perception and symboli c apprehension. Within
the parameters ofuse value the aura remains intact; theconnotations of authenticity
and uniqueness permeating process, object and subject.
Not so wi th mass production. which replaces use value with exchange value.
where the emphasis is on accessibility and pragmatism. Having descended from
the Mount Olympus of exclusivity, objects need no langer to surpass their
immediate function on Earth, but can be relished instead for their corporeal
existence. Like fallen angels, objects lose or rather ruin their auras upon descent,
arriving with lini e more than a crumbling. dusty shadow oftheir once iridescent
haloes. Deprived of supernatural immunity, the shaken-down aura fall s prey to
all the vicissitudes of earth-bound things : it can be touched, traded, copied and
tampered with; it is but a fragment of its former existence. It is kitsch. [ ... [
Wa!ter Benjamin, 'Traumkirsch' [Dreamkirsch ] ( 1927), in Ausgewahlre Schrifren, vol. 2 (Frankfurt
am Main: Suhrkamp, 1966) 158- 60.
Celeste OlalQuiaga. extracts from The Areijidal Kingdom: A Treasury oftlle Kitsch Experience(New Vork:
Pantheon Books, 1998) 87-95; 140-46
Olalqulaga/ / Dustj / 35