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.