Cadava, Eduardo. ‘Lightning’ Words of Light: Theses on the Photography of History (Chichester: Princeton University Press, 1997) 21-26


Linked to the flashes of memory, the suddenness of the perception of similarity, the irruption of events or images, and even the passage into night, Benjamin’s vocabulary of lightning helps register what comes to pass in the opening and closing of vision. It tells us what brings sight into writing.

Related to the Hegelian lightning bolt that gives birth to the image-structure of a new world, the Hölderlinian lightning that speaks the divine language of the gods, and the Nietzschean words that come in the form of lightning, the lightning that traverses Benjamin’s writing also comes as language.


Lightning signals the force and experience of an interruption that enables a sudden moment of clarification of illumination. What is illuminated or lighted by the punctual intensity of  this or that strike of lightning, however – the emergence of an image, for example – can at the same time be burned, incinerated, consumed in flames.

Not only is the writing-that-lightning-is immolated at the very moment of its emergence, but the illuminated objects of its reflections go up in flames in order to make reflection itself possible. The truth-content of any given reflection can only arise, that is, with the destruction of what the reflection seeks to understand.

Remaining faithful to the work’s secret, truth reveals its inability to present itself, to be presented. We could even say that truth means the making of ashes. That there can be no truth nor photography without ashes means that, like allegory, both take place only in a state of decay, in a state that moves away from itself in order to be what it is.

Like the photograph that is no longer before us, truth can only be read, if it can be read at all, in the traces of what is no longer present.


LIfe is enigmatic because it comes with death: there is no life that is not already dying, that is not already consumed by the flame in which it is sealed.

This is why we say that there is no photograph, no image, that does not reduce the photographed to ashes.


If the critic distinguishes between the past and the past as it has been experienced, he or she  also suggests that what has been experienced of the past is far less then the past itself. The enigma of life therefore names both the enigma of death and that of memory.

Mobilizing the figures of lightning, writing, and the turning of pages in the direction of an understanding of life that begins with a departure from life, Benjamin suggests that a life measured by memory is lived not in the present but in a text.


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