My wing is ready for flight, I would like to turn back. If I stayed everliving time,
I’d still have little luck.
—Gerhard Scholem, “Greetings from the Angelus”
There is a picture by Klee called Angelus Novus. It shows an angel who seems about to move away from something he stares at. His eyes are wide, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how the angel of history must look. His face is turned toward the past. Where a chain of events appears before us, he sees one single catastrophe, which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it at 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 and has got caught in his wings; it is so strong that the angel can no longer close them. This storm drives him irresistibly into the future, to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows toward the sky. What we call progress is this storm.
From a musical game heard each week on FM and which seems “stupid” to him, he realizes this: stupidity is a hard and indivisible kernel, a primitive: no way of decomposing it scientifically (if a scientific analysis of stupidity were possible, TV would entirely collapse). What is it? A spectacle, an aesthetic fiction, perhaps a hallucination? Perhaps we want to put ourselves into the picture? It’s lovely, it takes your breath away, it’s strange; and about stupidity, I am entitled to say no more than this: that it fascinates me. Fascination is the correct feeling stupidity must inspire me with (if we reach the point of speaking the name): it grips me (it is intractable, nothing prevails over it, it takes you in an endless hand-over-hand race).
♦ Roland Barthes, Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes
The rule that secret files must contain only information already known is essential for the operation of a secret service, and not just in this century. Likewise, if you go to a bookshop specializing in esoteric publications, you will see that every new book (on the Holy Grail, the mystery of Rennes-le-Château, the Knights Templar, or the Rosicrucians) repeats exactly what was written in earlier books. This is not simply because occult writers are averse to carrying out new research (nor because they don’t know where to go looking for information about the nonexistent), but because followers of the occult believe in only what they already know, and in those things that confirm what they have already learned.
In the age of pictorial reproduction the meaning of paintings is no longer attached to them; their meaning becomes transmittable: that is to say it becomes information of a sort, and, like all information, it is either put to use or ignored; information carries no special authority within itself. When a painting is put to use, its meaning is either modified or totally changed. One should be quite clear about what this involves. It is not a question of reproduction failing to reproduce certain aspects of an image faithfully; it is a question of reproduction making it possible, even inevitable, that an image will be used for many different purposes and that the reproduced image, unlike an original work, can lend itself to them all.
But watching [12 Years a Slave], being forced to confront its depiction of the unrelieved brutality and sorrow of slavery in the context of the brutalities being committed in the here and now, should turn all our heads sharply backwards and unloose our tongues to revive King’s question for our times: “How Long?” And in unison we should answer, the arc of the moral universe is still bending toward justice, but it has not yet reached its mark.
[I]t must be remembered, that while our language is yet living, and variable by the caprice of every tongue that speaks it, these words are hourly shifting their relations, and can no more be ascertained in a dictionary, than a grove, in the agitation of a storm, can be accurately delineated from its picture in the water . . .
♦ Samuel Johnson, from the Preface to A Dictionary of the English Language (1755)