Cadava, Eduardo. ‘Stars’ Words of Light: Theses on the Photography of History (Chichester: Princeton University Press, 1997) 26-30


Benjamin not only associates stars with a photographic language that focuses on the relations between light and darkness, past and present, life and death, reading and writing, and knowledge and representation – motifs that all belong to the history of photography phenomena – but he also links them to the possibility of mimesis in general.


Like photography, stars are therefore another name for what makes similarity possible, for the process of mimetic reproduction.

This is why, even if “we no longer possess what once made it possible to speak of the similarity that exists between a star constellation and a human,” we can still register this mimetic faculty within language and writing.

Benjamin here suggests that the event of the perception of similarity – an event which emerges with the suddenness of a flash of lightning – is unable to hold this similarity fast; he adds that the astrologer who wishes to read the flash of the stars, who tries to register the event of similarity, becomes part of the flash that enables similarity to occur in the first place.


The emergence of an astral image, like that of the dialectical image, happens not only with the flashing perception of similarity – that is, the transformation of luminous points into a constellation – but with the identification between reader and image. This identification suggests that the constellation already demands a mode of reading. Or to be more precise, reading – and therefore the possibility of knowledge in general – begins in the reading of the stars.

This light, which in a flash travels across thousands of light-years, figures an illumination in which the present bears within it the most distant past and where the distant past suddenly traverses the present moment.


The emergence of the past within the present, of what is most distant in what is closest at hand, suggests that, like the flash of similarity, starlight appears only in its withdrawal.


It also suggests that the star constellation is another name for the experience of aura. Like the photograph which presents what is no longer there, starlight names the trace of a celestial body that has long since vanished.

If the task of criticism, like that of the photographer, is “to set a focus,” Benjamin tells us that is is at the same time an act of mortification. […] the idea, the star, and the work of art can only be revealed in their deaths.

The effort to bring the idea or the work of art to light – like that of trying to bring the star into the day of history – can only remove them from the night to which they belong and that makes them what they are.

To say that the history of photography begins in the interpretation of stars is to say that it begins with death.


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