Truth Is a Property of Circumstances
According to Benjamin’s analysis of objective mendacity, falsity is not merely a property of intentions, but a property of social contexts that develop over time and have social power. If there is such a thing as objective mendacity—in the sense of a social framework of mutual deception that gains force over time—then what does this tell us though about the
Benjamin’s Truth 99 nature of truth as a form of objectivity? Benjamin gives the clearest formulation of the nature of this objectivity as follows:
The truth of a given circumstance is a function of the constellation of the true being of all other circumstances. . . . The true being is part and parcel of the infinite task.51
He continues to clarify that it is ‘a nexus between existing things and also with the perfected state of the world.’52
We have here an emphatically positive statement to which all of the prior negations stand in preparation: the truth is not a property of sentences or thoughts, for the truth is a property of a certain circumstance (Sachverhalt)—that is, the relation between things, or the comportment of a thing. There are two elements of this particular definition that need to be emphasized: the fact that all circumstances are by their very nature temporary, or even momentary. A circumstance arises or occurs in time, as things enter into a temporary relation. And secondly, that the relation of a thing becomes true when it manages, however fleetingly, to embody a ‘constellation to the true being of all other circumstances.’ Such a constellation is only possible when there is a relation between what exists and a ‘perfected state of the world,’ which is never given empirically, but only through their relation to what he calls an ‘infinite task.’5’ Elsewhere, Benjamin gives greater clarity to what he means by an infinite task: the kind of problem that gives direction to a scientific discipline, but which remains unsolvable.54 Although we might hear a utopian ring to this idea that truth consists in the relation of a thing to a perfected state of the world, it is important to hear the negation here: Benjamin does not think of the infinite task as one in which we make linear progress towards a goal that cannot be reached, but instead as one in which we work continuously because the task we are working on is never itself a given.
We see a kind of paradox or tension between conflicting demands in this formulation of the notion of truth: it must be both a particular, fleeting relation between things, and yet it must at the same time contain a latent relation to all circumstances within it. This formulation demonstrates Benjamin’s affinity for the notion of monad from Leibniz, for it demonstrates how the truth must be both embodied in a particular perspectival reflection, and yet in such a way that it thereby contains a relation to all other circumstances. There is however one difference to Leibniz present in Benjamin’s thinking of this totality: for Leibniz, time is merely a construct, a pre-ordained sequence that plays out the relation between things, while for Benjamin the term ‘circumstance’ here places this kind of intensive totality within a time of which it is not the master. For Benjamin, the monad is also a moment, not unlike a soap bubble. It is the fleeting way in which all time becomes present in one ephemeral moment that marks it as an occurrence of truth.
The definition of truth as a property of a circumstance helps to bring together many of the elements of Benjamin’s critique of truth into one concept: it expresses the notion that the truth is ephemeral, intentionless and embodied in a certain kind of social objectivity, rather than the way truth is normally thought of as a property of propositions or mental acts. Yet this definition of truth as a property of circumstance remains somewhat sparse and abstract. What kind of circumstance embodies truth content? How can we think of temporal element within a circumstance as something that endows it with potential truth content?
In Benjamin’s later thought, there is a crucial metaphor that helps to give form to this circumstantial definition of truth: the metaphor of awakening, namely, the particular experience of awakening from a dream. At the moment one awakens, there is a particular constellation that occurs in consciousness.55 On the one hand, one still feels completely immersed in the dream, one ‘remembers’ it in a striking way where it almost feels more real than the reality into which one has awakened. And yet, at the same time, one is awake-, that is, one feels lucidity as something completely fresh and new that was not there a moment ago in the dream. This metaphor captures for Benjamin the full movement of truth: the important thing is not so much the leaving behind of dream, but the way in which the dream gets reflected anew through the process of awakening. “The realization of dream elements in the course of waking up is the cannon of dialectics.”56 But if awakening from a dream is a metaphor for truth, then what is the significance of the dream in this figure? Benjamin often posits that the surrealistic side of things is their ‘true face,’57 a theme that represents a point of tacit agreement with the method of psychoanalysis. In the dream or in the surrealistic face of things, there is an utter lack of will or intention, a free congregation of things according to how they coexist if they were not bound by necessity. Such a dreamlike state is not merely an individual experience, but potentially a quality of how a whole society might hold together its consciousness of its time. And while it is not the case that such a state of consciousness represents the truth, it is, as Friedlander writes ‘the condition out of which that period reveals its utmost truth.’58 The dream-like quality of the past is what allows us to come to terms with its true meaning in the now. And yet this surrealistic side of things is reflected best for Benjamin not in the works of the surrealists, bur in the works of Proust, who does not seek the meaning of dreams through symbolic construction, but through an exploration of awakening. While the intoxicated, automatic writing of the surrealists might capture the true face of things, the sober recollection of Proust realizes the true experience of the true face of things.
This figure of awakening captures a kind of imperative movement, not only for his Arcades Project, but for experience in general. We could say that the point of experience, as traced in the prior chapter, is truth, but this means that the test of experience is not to gain more experience, to
Benjamin’s Truth 101 go on gaining experience in an endless process of varied stream of consciousness, but rather the test of experience is to awaken. This awakening is itself not a result to be saved or transmitted, but is only present for a moment. He evokes such awakening in his Arcades Project as a metaphor for what a materialist history of a past epoch seeks to accomplish, but it might also serve as a fruitful way to explore the relation between his larger conception of truth and such figures as objective mendacity and loss of experience. We cannot think our way out of a mendacity that is objective through any kind of straightforward moral imperative. What is needed is rather a very particular, layered form of awareness, that holds on to the full memory of being stuck in a lie that one did not will, while at the same time suddenly sensing it as such from the standpoint of a newly gained lucidity. Such a realization can only occur as a result of holding together a whole set of experiences in a momentary realization, and yet this implies that truth is for Benjamin always an ephemeral state. It gives experience a meaning, a sense of purpose, an imperative by which to be guided, and yet it also remains ungraspable as a permanent state or result.