In this book, Alison Ross engages in a detailed study of Walter Benjamin’s concept of the image, exploring the significant shifts in Benjamin’s approach to the topic over the course of his career. Using Kant’s treatment of the topic of sensuous form in his aesthetics as a comparative reference, Ross argues that Benjamin’s thinking on the image undergoes a major shift between his 1924 essay on ‘Goethe’s Elective Affinities,’ and his work on The Arcades Project from 1927 up until his death in 1940. The two periods of Benjamin’s writing share a conception of the image as a potent sensuous force able to provide a frame of existential meaning. In the earlier period this function attracts Benjamin’s critical attention, whereas in the later he mobilises it for revolutionary outcomes. The book gives a critical treatment of the shifting assumptions in Benjamin’s writing about the image that warrant this altered view. It draws on hermeneutic studies of meaning, scholarship in the history of religions and key texts from the modern history of aesthetics to track the reversals and contradictions in the meaning functions that Benjamin attaches to the image in the different periods of his thinking. Above all, it shows the relevance of a critical consideration of Benjamin’s writing on the image for scholarship in visual culture, critical theory, aesthetics and philosophy more broadly.
"One must admire the ambition and boldness of Ross's project. Her book sets an agenda for future scholarship … The genuine value of Ross’s book is that she deflates the interpretations of Benjamin as someone who thinks in images and metaphors. Ross persuasively argues that Benjamin associated the image with myth in his early work. Her reading suggests, moreover, that one of Benjamin’s lifelong projects was to liberate consciousness from a state of mystification, or 'mythic' life." -- Paula Schwebel in Critical Horizons: A Journal of Philosophy and Social Theory
"Ross’s argument is original and refreshing. It is masterful in its conceptual program, exegetical details, and argumentative force, and its polemical verve is gripping. By introducing the image (dialectical or otherwise) as the pivot of her investigation, she demonstrates a greater thematic continuity to Benjamin’s thought than is usually imagined – a continuity that forcefully underscores the dramatic fault-lines fissuring the entire corpus. Particularly notable is Ross’s reading of Benjamin’s early essay on Goethe’s Elective Affinities – a generally admired but oddly under-commented work. She brings out the fundamental importance of this essay to Benjamin’s entire project, and offers the most sustained reading in English that I’m aware of." -- Rebecca Comay, University of Toronto, Canada
"Ross has written an informed and thorough treatise on Benjamin’s concept of the Image…the book provides insightful critique and commentary on both Benjamin and his critics." – Vladimir Rizov, Marx & Philosophy
Introduction 1. Feeling 2. Form 3. Similitude 4. History 5. Image Conclusion