Walter Benjamin and the pizza box in the wood

I found an abandoned pizza box in a sun-speckled wood as I was completing my post about the dialectical image. It spoke to me.  I have taken it’ s picture and wonder if I can use it to illustrate my understanding.


Ive noticed before in discussions about philosophical and other imagined concepts, agreement (or understanding) can usually feel enabled/achieved , but it is only tested when you have to use it.

The pizzabox reposes on the spoil heaps which mark the remains of Tynemount Colliery and Coal Washing Plant.They have been lightly sprinkled by a silver birch wood, and undersown by an active  and unofficial motorbike scrambling course. There is a shrine to a dead teenage daredevil nearby, and it is only advisable to visit the wood during school hours or when it is raining buckets.


The maw of spoil with adjacent birches

The pizzabox features a photo of the Duomo in Venice ,outlined in cool blue ,and has  faded into its back ground of dark grey and  black bodyradiant ash.

It felt  as natural to find it there as the other things I had  been looking at – cowslips, whitethroats, speckled wood butterflies. These things come together in an ecological community we know as the Edgeland , an area for discarding, unofficial use and surprisingly fecund wildlife living on the margins of the vermin controlled, pesticide and insecticide laden agri-desert which forms most of the official countryside.

The pizza must have made a journey of five miles to the wood , from either Tranent or Pathhead, possibly partly by home delivery, more likely by full throttle scrambler, with passenger hanging onto the box, in the spirit of local sidecar legend Jock Taylor. There is also a historical journey of around a century from the arrival of small groups of Italian immigrants in Scottish communities to the centring of pizza as a street food of choice for the non-metropolitan Scottish working class, which creates a marketing nexus between an image of classicism in the post-Renaissance duomo, and an expectation of reliably authentic ‘Italian’ ( but really Scottish) taste.

And then there is the inevitable disposal of the box. No rebel without a cause takes their  litter home with them. And the box does nothing to ask you to retain it. I didn’t open it – it may be full of feasting ants, and it will  eventually decompose . In time, once the ink runs away. But more slowly than the packaging would have done a decade before.

What is my claim about this as a dialectical image?

Benjamin recognises the danger that an object decentred from its original use, will become a poignant and sentimental locus. It will encourage us to look back at the past with nostalgia, or attempt to ascribe value to its rarity and uniqueness as a survival, while denying it any use value. I give you the Antiques Roadshow..

His concept is that the ‘surprise’ of the image, creates a counter thought which asks us to consider our current situation from an external perspective, which is both real and yet usually unthought and directs us to a critique of our everyday situation, which is only resolvable by changing it.

The surprise for me was the dappled light, which made no distinction between pizza box and understory, and the relative bareness of the latter ( due to the toxic washout which cuts away potential colonising flora, as  just as effectively do the wheels of the scramblers). So the box is both crisply defined and has a patina of weathering.


Here are my counter thoughts ( the dialectic)

Why do my tracks and those of dissolute teens keep crossing, despite the fact we are both seeking space? Social margins have always required a pioneer phase where their colonisers have self-identified as outlaws and interactions are unpredictable. These spaces have shrunk.  Housing shortages driven by profiteering on land prices are keeping teenagers in overcrowded family homes, while social mores and gender modelling stress risk, independence and reaching a point of control over danger. The open space of the countryside is being colonized- physically, by agriculture, housing development and planning, imaginatively, by the bastard children of Robert McFarlane. The risk of a speeding two-stroke petrol engine is the best deterrent to a New Nature Writer, and, for an itinerant blogger, reduces the danger of finding that once again someone has already written that piece.


The former pavilion in Ormiston demolished last year in municipal improvements to park and sporting facilities

More generally what does the exponential growth of writing about previously overlooked nature say about our current society?  Actually, I am sure several people have already written that piece, so lets move on.

Does the concept of litter have a place in the Edgelands ? I would have removed the pizza box from my garden , but I recorded it there, as I would a wildlife siting. In a place of  contested purpose, who decides what is litter?

What historical connections exist between the artefact and its surroundings?The original impetus for the immigration from Italy was industrialization of the agricultural processes. These were the same processes that in the eighteenth century led to the creation of Ormiston as a model village , with ‘craft industries’ , such as linen bleaching to support the subsequently disinherited farm labour force, creating capital , which further opened up industrial development and making large scale investments such as collieries and railways possible , transforming the area into an industrial landscape – where teenagers left school to work in the washing plant on this site, and then as the market moved abroad,  leaving it without any local employment and a dodgy internet connection and transport links . Although it is not hard to buy drugs.Or pizza.


Kayleigh is queen for a day! 17 of her classmates never will be..

One of the most damning criticisms of Benjamin and his followers in the Frankfurt School is that they adapted Marxism to interpret the world and not to change it,which is proving much harder , and instead lived ( with the exception of Benjamin, who committed suicide  while trying to escape, fairly incompetently, from Nazi occupied Europe) comfortable lives in what Lukacs describes as the Grand Hotel Abyss * ( eating fancy chow and drinking fancy wine).

I probably should do something more energised with my time than take pictures of pizza boxes.  Engage with the youth group in the next town which does brilliant work with teenagers getting them to repair motorbikes?  Buy a two-stroke and rev it up the sharp end of Bellyford Bing?  Of course , that is  how the dialectic works – thesis, antithesis- can there be a synthesis . or only a further thesis?  (so,  probably another blog post)


Ormiston Maltings in winter (distance)

*Also the title of a recent readable account of the Frankfurt School by Stuart Jeffries. The Shirley McLaine reference is , however,gratuitious.

Walter Benjamin’s ghost


This isnt a picture of Walter Benjamin. Those are on the internet. This is Longwood open air  theatre in Kirklees. Other images come from Bo’ness, Humbie Churchyard and the Necropolis, Glasgow

The true creative overturning of religious illumination does not reside in narcotics. It resides in a profane illumination.

My intent when I decided to triangulate my blog was to seek behind the quotes I had lovingly copied.  I knew more about Walter Benjamin than the others, so I thought it would be easy to find the context of profane illuminations.

Of course dear reader that is not what happened.  We are now , I think, four years on , and many inter-library loans, ad hoc visits to the National Library , clandestine google searches, seances, and invocations of flaneurism in the streets of my town, have not produced the body.


I don’t know where the quote comes from, I don’t know where i found it, and I don’t even know if it totally, utterly, is from Walter. (See Comment below, 2019)

I suspect it is though. He wandered around 1930s continental Europe dropping aphorisms out of his pockets in a way which was both generous, and careless.  And he spent a fair bit of time in Marseilles getting stoned. This is where I looked first.

Disappointingly, yet perhaps not surprisingly , Benjamin is not very interesting on drugs (in either sense). The writing in Hashish in Marseilles, is, like ‘Did you ever think how far away the sky is..’ or , how I spent an hour  trying to change channels on the tv via the keypad on someones mobile  phone. For example,’ under hashish we are enraptured prose beings in the highest power’.


While stoned, Benjamin , like many others has seen things in a different way. Unlike others , he has usefully realised that there isn’t much further to go in that direction.




Benjamin’s overturnings are attempts to recover the human endeavour that is reified in the form of the Thing . In this case – illumination seen as a transformatory viewing of the world, but not through the historic form of organised religion, so therefore , profane.

Profane is an antonym of sacred. It has also acquired the useful synonyms of unholy and irreverent. So Benjamin has set up an oxymoron. Possibly . Or something that is hard to think of- a kind of eternal dialectic.  But, yet,  not hard to feel – music , for example is an obvious possibility of profane illumination ( unless we accept its origin as sacred and everything following being a debasement of that. But to do so is also to accept that the religious experience is at the centre of being human, and all other experience is somehow lacking – which I,of course, don’t).


We can experience Things as illuminations – as storied, overdetermined artefacts of lost dreams and buried labour as Benjamin’s collections and catalogues are.  But there are surely too many of them to deal with. Benjamin produced aphorisms , short essays, and never finished The Arcades Project. It got swept away in the river of things.

The context in which a profane illumination can occur, must also be in contrast to a sublime one. It must be unexpected, personal, possibly ( hopefully ) shared.  The experience that led to my story The Faces is one for me. That happened thirty years ago now, and told me something about the world and who I was within it. I cant really explain it and can only partially describe it, but I can always experience it, and return to it regularly.


I  began looking for profane illuminations in nature . There are some pictures of them on the blog. My idea vaguely was that confrontation with the overlooked, ephemeral and indifferent environment around us might supply a focus for reorientation. But I realise that they will not be illuminations to anyone else.  They are actually about  my experiences, and  about the wish and struggle to share these.


The mythogeographer ,  Phil Smith, uses the phrase To See Whats Really There in his work . This comprises various disorientation or immersion techniques to reimagine the mundane .  These can be profane illuminations.

Recently, psychogeographing, I’ve looked at the epitaph on a bench in the Royal Mile, artificial plants on cafe tables, the dark straight track down Lovers Lane, and felt changed. It has been possible to share these moments with others. Not necessarily in the ‘Look, look at that!’ moment, but in the sense of the Being There as part of the scene, like the guys on the bench.


Benjamin is loved for something affective in his writing, which seems to link the past and the future, via a provisional present which may be there , but we can’t quite see. He has this notion of the dialectical image, which at one level is contradictory , at another is phantasmagorical , yet somehow suggestive of an unstable and provisional arrangement which acts as a nexus for a number of conversation

Benjamin sees language as the natural expression of dialectical images*. His language – full of aphorism and oxymoron. I think they can in turn act as  harbingers ( another favourite Benjamin word) of profane illuminations. And that is what we are about here.


* the new dialectical method of doing history presents itself as the art of experiencing the present as waking world, a world in which that dream which we name the past, refers to in truth (Benjamin, The Arcades Project, p339)