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Walter Benjamin famously proposed in the ‘Epistemo-Critical Prologue’ to Ursprung des deutschen Trauerspiels (1928), translated as The Origin of German Tragic Drama (1977), that ideas are to objects as constellations are to stars. That is to say, ideas are no more present in the world than constellations actually exist in the heavens, but like constellations they enable us to perceive relations between objects. It also means ideas are not the same as concepts, nor can they be construed as the laws of concepts. Ideas do not give rise to knowledge about phenomena and phenomena cannot be used to measure their validity. This is not to say the constellation is purely subjective or all in our heads. The stars in the night sky are where they are regardless of how we look at them and there is something in how they are positioned above us that suggests the image we construct of them. But having said that, the names we use for constellations are embedded in history, tradition and myth. So the constellation is simultaneously subjective and objective in nature. It is not, however, a system, and this is its true significance for Benjamin, who rejects the notion that philosophy can be thought of as systemic, as though it were mathematical or scientific instead of discursive. Benjamin developed this notion further in his account of the arcades in 19th-century Paris. Theodor Adorno adopts and adapts constellation in his account of negative dialectics, transforming it into a model. The notion of constellation allows for a depiction of the relation between ideas that gives individual ideas their autonomy but does not thereby plunge them into a state of isolated anomie.

Further Reading:

F. Jameson Late Marxism: Adorno, or, The Persistence of the Dialectic (1990).

Subjects: Literary Theory and Cultural Studies.

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