Benjamin’s detritus

Paul Klee’s ‘Angelus Novus’ & photo of Walter Benjamin, source:

My BoW tutor suggested that I might find Walter Benjamin’s references to the ‘ragpicker’ and ‘the angel of history’ of interest in the context of my images showing the remains of the industrialisation along the canal.

The ragpicker, lived in rags and made a living from the discarded rags of consumer society, sitting at the foot of the material ladder. Benjamin suggested that the way to understand history, from the ‘refuse and ‘detritus’, through chance rather than the formality of a historian . He used the ragpicker as an analogy. I can see that this relates to how I’m photographing the canal, even if ragpickers no longer exist in the original C19th sense of the word. It’s not that there isn’t poverty, it’s that waste collection is highly organised as is recycling and charitable giving. The wandering ragpickers are also analogous to psychogeographers, who picking through the myths and histories of urban landscape. While it is a good analogy, it is an analogy from a different time, which reduces its currency.

Benjamin acquired Klee’s drawing Angelus Novus and considered it amongst his most precious possession, seemingly treating it as a muse. He referred to it during several writings but most profoundly in this passage from Theses on the Philosophy of History:

His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back his turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. The storm is what we call progress.

An interesting thing about the backwater of the canal is that the storm of progress does not erase traces of the past so thoroughly as in other urban environments that are built over – some canals have been filled-in but many remain, often sited away from the main routes through places. The industry has gone but the canals stand as monuments to deindustrialisation and accolades to making-do. The storm of progress comes to some places with the gentrification and privatisation of places along the canal banks.


3 thoughts on “Benjamin’s detritus”

  1. Interesting how you see the ‘ragpicker’ having disappeared. Here with less recycling than in the EU area, we have ‘waste pickers’ these people exist by picking through the rubbish bags that are put out for collection. Also, there are those that spend the day at wast disposal sites picking through the rubbish dumped there. This practice is much bigger than you may imagine and in the cities you see them picking through your garbage every week. Recycling rags per se may not be done but the pickers are there.
    In some ways theft of things like copper cables fits in too as they are stolen and the metal taken and sold to recycle depots. Possibly a more sophisticated form of picking but leads to power outages and telephones where cables are still used. Aluminium railings on bridges are similarly ‘picked’/stolen.

    1. I thought about the disappearance for sometime – the nearest we had was the rag and bone man, but I think they have disappeared in the last few decades. We now have almost the opposite – fly tippers dumping rubbish illegally to avoid charges at official tips!

  2. We have the waste pickers here in Canada too, but not to the same extent as in SA. When we lived in North Vancouver a car used to drive up the alley early in the morning of the garbage pickup day and this lady or gent sometimes (dressed well) would get out of their car and go through everyone’s recycling collecting bottles and other things that could go to the recycling depot. Strange thing is is that they literally lived in the next block from us, in a very nice house which would cost about $1.8 million CAD. That always puzzled me.

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