"How to write history knowing what has happened and yet to write as if in each moment anything else might have happened? How to write with open possibility when one knows the ending?"
Esther Leslie spoke at the Tate Modern with China Miéville and Owen Hatherley to launch Miéville's October: The Story of the Russian Revolution on 12 May 2017. This is the text of her reflections on revolutionary time, photography and narrative history.
It is one hundred years since the Russian revolution, or revolutions, in February and October, 1917. An anniversary: the result of the imposition of time on the flux of human activity. China Miéville has written a history of those two revolutions, distributing those busy human moves, those chaotic activities, with another measure of time: the month. October stretches out John Reed’s temporality in Ten Days that Shook the World, extending the days considered to three hundred or more, and so widens the aperture, increases the resolution. Reed wrote about the ten momentous days in around ten days or nights, frenzied, shut away from everyone – and with piles of placards, papers and a Russian dictionary – but he began with the title that referred to time and he wrote it twenty four hours a day.
When we talk of revolution, we talk of time, in various ways. Revolutions, it is said, need to seize the moment, but which moment, what day, when? Revolutions hasten things, speed up things, or they stop them, freeze them in time. Revolutionary time is the time of stopped clocks and new calendars. The revolutionary activist Grace Lee Boggs began every meeting with the question: ‘What time is it on the clock of the world?’
- Clock showing the time the Bolsheviks seized power on October 26 1917, Winter Palace, St Petersburg
Artist Zoe Beloff's A World Redrawn: Eisenstein and Brecht in Hollywood is a multimedia exploration of the projects undertaken by two Marxist writers who found themselves in Hollywood in the 1930s and 40s. Originally presented as an installation, it comprises three films — Two Marxists in Hollywood, Glass House, and Model Family; all viewable online — as well as drawings, architectural models, and archival materials.
Beloff has now published a book of the same title, which collects images and documents from the installation alongside texts by herself, scholar Hannah Frank, and Esther Leslie — author of Hollywood Flatlands: Animation, Critical Theory and the Avant-Garde — whose essay is reproduced below.
Zoe Beloff, drawing after a still from Ha Ha Ha, a film by Dave Fleischer, 1934.
Har De Har
Laughter, in Walter Benjamin’s words, is “shattered articulation.” Laughter breaks up both words and the body. Everything is disarticulated. A person in movement might be stopped in their tracks. A person speaking has the stream of words cut off. The listener hears only a clatter of stuttering sounds. Laughter is an interruption to the ongoingness of life and meaning. The flow of walking or talking is held up, stymied, while the disruptive event occurs. The body collapses in laughter, contorts and crumples, the face distends, the eyes close, the neck flips back, the arms and legs flail. Animation is often designed to induce laughter, but it also represents it. There are countless animated GIFS that loop a character’s spasms while laughing, the arms clutching the chest, the mouth as wide as can be, the eyes crinkled shut, the explosions of noise. In some depictions, the eyebrows even leave the face and judder in a space above the head for a few moments. The body is outside itself or beside itself, beside itself with laughter.
Speaking at Walter Benjamin Now, an event at Whitechapel Gallery marking the 75th anniversary of Benjamin's death, Esther Leslie thinks through Benjamin's concepts, in particular the ‘microcosm’, to reflect on the contemporary migrant crisis at the borders of Fortress Europe. These ‘millions of nameless movers’ give Benjamin’s own death a contemporary resonance, as well as endowing his memorial with new meaning in ‘the Now’.
Esther Leslie is a translator of Walter Benjamin’s ‘The Storyteller’ and author of ‘Hollywood Flatlands: Animation, Critical Theory and the Avant-Garde’.
In honour of the publication of Radio Benjamin, we bring you Esther Leslie's presentation from the event Radio Benjamin: Live Now held at Tate Modern on 5th November with Esther Leslie, Gareth Evans and Mark Aerial Waller.
Walter Benjamin involved himself, from the mid-1920s, in the practical business of making radio shows, usually lectures, radio-plays or experimental ‘listening models’, some of which were directed at children, others at the general radio-listening public. The themes were diverse, with topics such as liquor bootleggers, Berlin dialects, the petrification of Pompeii, counterfeit stamps, slum housing, manufacture, the legend of Caspar Hauser, the history of the Bastille prison, witch trials and the history of toys. Benjamin spoke about the history and curiosities of Berlin, about figures from the shadow side of life and about catastrophes. He also made radio plays and puzzle shows.