Eternal Return


Cadava, Eduardo. ‘Eternal Return’ Words of Light: Theses on the Photography of History (Chichester: Princeton University Press, 1997) 31-44


There can be no passing moment that is not already both the past and the future: the moment must be simultaneously past, present, and future in order for it to pass at all.


The constellation of figures that Benjamin sets into motion here – eternal return, stars, death, crisis, image, phantasmagoria, and progress – is inscibed within the name that he associates most closely with the possibility of a revolutionary dismantling of the notion of progress: the name of Auguste Blanqui.

Blanqui develops his theory of the eternal return from his interpretation of celestial bodies and stellar formations.

Turning to what he calls ‘the theater of these grand revolutions’ in the skies (L’eternite par les astres, 34), the great revolutionary of the nineteenth century argues that – given the infinity of time and space in the universe and the finite number of elements that can be combined – all the possibilities of the world are repeated endlessly an infinite number of times and in an infinite number of places throughout the universe.


The stars that compose Blanqui’s universe exist only because of an infinite process of repetition and reproduction. There is nothing in this universe – no star, comet, meteorite, person, thing, or event – that does not begin in this movement of eternal reproduction. This is why we can say that the universe in its entirety works like a gigantic photographic machine.

[Blanqui’s] discussion of the reproducibility of the universe in throughout cast in a photographic language that focuses on the questions of repetition, reproduction, images, negatives, originals, copies, translations, death, and mourning.


Although Blanqui states that this process of reproduction is an exact one, he at the same time suggests that what is reproduced is exactly the process whereby what is reproduced is also altered.

The most exact reproduction is therefore the one that reproduces reproduction rather than the matter or event being reproduced. Or rather, the matter or event is reproduced, but only as an altered reproduction.

Like a photograph that is repeatedly circulated and recirculated, ‘each of us has lived, lives and will live without end, under the billion forms of alter ego.’

The earth, he adds, is like the composite of an entire collection of photographs. It is destined to be this composite of an entire collection of photographs.

This photographic cosmology – nothing less than a photographic history of the world, or rather, a genealogy of the media of photography – may be properly characterized as catastrophic, however, since this revolution of the heavens takes place in relation to the most disastrous event of all: the disappearance of the stars. All stars, Blanqui writes, are always in the process of vanishing or fading away.


Like a photograph, the diminishing light of the stars is a commemorative sign of what is no longer there.

We could even say that the photographic dimension of this universe can be registered in its structure as a work of morning. If the photograph requires the possibility of mourning, the universe of the eternal return – in which there is nothing that is not already passing away, that is not eternally running down and in decline – begins in bereavement.


Blanqui suggests that, within this work of memory, the stars gather together the moments of the past, present and future in view of an overwhelming catastrophe: the threat of a total annihilation of light that would leave in its wake an eternal darkness.


It is because Blanqui’s universe is perpetually in the process of transformation that he can offer an account of the transformation of life into death and death into life.

[…] in this universe of permanent catastrophes – in which there is one catastrophe after another, but in which each one is already a repetition of the one before it – there is no thought that is not touched by both life and death. This is why Blanqui organizes the enigmatic and catastrophic structure of the eternal return around the birth and death of stars. If what is sealed within this return is not only the intersection of life and death but also that of all of the doubles at work within the cosmos, it is because it tells us what is endlessly photographed and printed by the enormous camera that Blanqui’s world is.

What is photographed each time, what returns in a photograph, is the reproductive mechanism at the heart of an eternal return. What gets photographed is what eternally comes to pass – simultaneously what passes away and what survives this passing, that is, passing itself .


As Blanqui notes, ‘The universe is at the same time life and death, destruction and creation, change and stability, tumult and repose. It knots and unknots itself endlessly, alway the same, with beings always renewed. Despite its perpetual becoming, it is clichéd [that is, stereotyped, plated, imprinted, turned into a negative] in bronze and incessantly prints the same page. In its entirety and in all of its details, it is eternally transformation and immanence’.

Like the stars, Blanqui suggests, we too are ‘frozen in place’ within the movement of this history (L’éternité par les astres, 39). We might even say that Blanqui’s conception of history belongs to this history of arrest – both his own and the one that, like the head of the Medusa, freezes the moment of history into an image.


The movement of history that emerges from this principle of reproducibility names the immobilization that, like the photographic apparatus, seizes the thing or event in the process of its disappearance. The world of the eternal return is a world that incessantly fixes and returns to the event of a vanishing, and what vanishes in this return is not only the finite subject matter before the cosmic camera in which the world begins but the possibility of returning itself. A return without return, Blanqui’s eternal return tells us that the photographed, one photographed, can never return to itself – it can only appear in its withdrawal in the form of an image or reproduction.


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