Eduardo Cadava on Auguste Blanqui and Eternal Return, in his thesis Words of Light.


The thought of the eternal return is a thought of technological reproducibility. It is, as Benjamin puts it, “a dream of the amazing discoveries yet to come in the area of reproductive technology”
(GS 5:429). Turning “the historical event itself into a mass article”
(ibid.), it says that time repeats itself endlessly. This means, however, that
what is repeated is a process of becoming, a movement of differentiation and
dispersion-and what is differentiated and dispersed is time itself. 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. This is why this eternal repetition does not mean “the return of
the same” but rather the return of what is never simply itself. What returns
is the movement through which something other is inscribed within the
same, which, now no longer the same, names what is always other than
If the eternal return therefore comes as the eternal repetition of alter-
ity, we could say, somewhat elliptically, that this eternal return is the return
of returning itself. It is the desire for things to return. As Benjamin explains in the Passagen-Werk:

The thought of the eternal return makes the historical event itself into a
mass article. But this conception also bears on another point of view-we
could say on its opposite-the traces of economic circumstances to which
it owes its sudden currency. The latter is heralded at the moment when the
security of life’s conditions was considerably reduced by the accelerated
succession of crises. The thought of the eternal return came to light because
it was no longer possible, under all circumstances, to count on the return
of conditions in smaller time frames than eternity provided. The everyday
constellations became less everyday. Their return became increasingly
more rare and with that the obscure presentiment arose that one would
have to content oneself with cosmic constellations. (429-30)
That the thought of the eternal return can be traced in part to an experience
of crisis and finitude means that it emerges as a response to death in general.
It is because of the transitoriness of the “everyday constellations” that we
project our desire for eternity onto the skies in the form of an image: that of the star constellation. This phantasmagoric projection becomes a figure of
the eternal return, but it also suggests the relation between this particular
form of repetition and commodity capital. As Benjamin explains, pointing to
Baudelaire’s use of the figure of stars, “Stars represent in Baudelaire the
picture-puzzle {Vexierbild] of the commodity. They are the always-again-
the-same [Immerwiedergleiche] in great masses” (429). Linking the structure
of this “always-again-the-same” to the possibility of reproduction-to the
reproduction of both images and masses-he at the same time mobilizes
the concept of the eternal return against that of progress.

Within a cosmic process of repetition, the notion of progress belongs to the domain of
phantasmagoria. The constellation of figures that Benjamin sets into motion here-eternal
return, stars, death, crisis, image, phantasmagoria, and progress-is inscribed
within the name that he associates most closely with the possibility of a
revolutionary dismantling of the notion of progress: the name of Auguste

Celebrated as the most unrelenting insurrectionist of his age, Blan-
qui spent most of the last forty years of his life buried alive in the prisons of
a monarchy, an empire, and two republics. He nevertheless exercised wide
influence in his role as a journalist and orator, especially during the revolu-
tions of 1830, 1848, and 1870-71. Known in the popular imagination as
Venferme, “the imprisoned one,” Blanqui serves Benjamin as a figure not only of
the arrest of history that makes revolution possible but of arrest in general.
He was imprisoned in the Fort du Taureau during the Commune and it was
there, near the end of his life, that he set down his cosmological speculations
in L’eternite par les astres. Benjamin calls this text-which he first read in 1937
and which he states “presents the idea of eternal return ten years before
Zarathustra, in a manner scarcely less moving and with an extreme hallucina-
tory power” (GS 5:75)—the last phantasmagoria of the nineteenth century,
claiming that it constitutes a criticism of all the others. 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 revo-
lutions” in the skies(L’eternitepar 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. Describing a
universe in which “everything new” unveils itself “as nothing but a reality

that has always been there” (GS 5:1256), his thought of the eternal return
suggests that the notion of progress is “the phantasmagoria of history itself
(GS5:75). As Benjamin tells us, here is the essential passage:
The entire universe is composed of stellar systems. To create them, nature
only has one hundred simple bodies at its disposal. Despite the prodigious
advantage that it knows how to take from its resources and the incalculable
number of combinations that they offer to its fecundity, the result is neces-
sarily a finite number, like that of the elements themselves, and to fill the
expanse, nature must infinitely repeat each of these original combinations
or types. Every star
. . .
exists therefore in infinite number in time and
space, not only under one of its aspects, but such as it is found at each of
the seconds of its duration, from birth until death..
. .
The earth is one of these stars. Every human being is therefore eternal in each of the seconds of its existence. What I am writing in this moment in a prison cell in the
Fort du Taureau, I have written and I will write for all eternity, on a table,
with a pen, in these clothes, in circumstances wholly similar. And so it is
for everyone.
. . .
The number of our doubles is infinite in time and space.
In conscience one can scarcely ask for more. These doubles are in flesh and
bone, indeed in pants and coat, in crinoline and chignon. They are
. . .
the present eternalized. Nonetheless, we have here a great defect: there is no
progress. Alas! No, they are only vulgar re-editions, redundancies.
. . .
What we call progress is locked shut in every earth and vanishes with it.
Always and everywhere
. . .
the same drama, the same decor, upon the
same narrow stage, a noisy humanity, infatuated by its grandeur, believing
itself the universe and living in its prison as in an immensity, soon to be
destroyed along with the globe that has carried, with deepest contempt,
the burden of its pride. The same monotony, the same immobility in alien
stars. The universe repeats itself endlessly, stamping its foot in place. Eter-
nity imperturbably plays the same performances throughout infinity.
(L’eternitepar les astres, 73-76)

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. The linguistic
physiognomy of Blanqui’s theory of the eternal return is a photographic

His discussion of the reproducibility of the universe is throughout cast
in a photographic language that focuses on the questions of repetition, repro-
duction, images, negatives, originals, copies, translations, death, and mourn-
ing. Not only are stars and meteorites like photographs of the sun’s birth (he
writes, for example, that “a meteorite that catches fire and is consumed in
flames as it traces the air” is “the image in miniature of the creation of the
sun” [40]), but all celestial bodies are classified in terms of the photographic
relation between originals and copies. Within this mimesis of the stars-
Blanqui states that the stars are constituted by the laws of similitude and
repetition (57)-“the originals are the ensemble of globes that each form a
special type.
The copies are the repetitions, the exemplars, the negatives of this type. The number of original types is limited, that of copies or repetitions, infinite. It is through this type that the infinite is constituted. Each type has behind it an army of doubles whose number is without limits” (52). Like the photographic negative from which an infinite number of prints can be made, the copy-already a negative that results from the photographic process whereby the original is reproduced-can be reproduced infinitely. The original type is itself a kind of photograph since it replicates the limitless doubles,
the ensemble of globes that define its singularity. In other words, it is never
really originary. Like the planetary system that cannot provide a contempo-
rary trajectory because all of its history is “entangled and interlaced in every
one of its moments and elements (54), the original type contains the entire
history of all of the doubles and worlds that make it what it is-and that
thereby prevent it from ever being simply itself. As Blanqui puts it, “there is
not a single one that is not composed of the remains of all the others”
This vast ensemble of doubles also includes us. Each of our doubles, Blan-
qui tells us, is “the double itself of the actual earth. We belong to the copy.
The earth-double reproduces exactly everything that is found in ours and,
consequently, each individual, with his family, his house
. . .
all the events of
his life” (55). The entirety of our existence, that is, undergoes precisely the
same process of duplication and reproduction that characterizes both the
mass-produced commodity and the technically produced photograph.

There is no aspect of our life that is not subject to this process of reproducibil-
ity. We could even say that we are who we are only to the extent that we are
reproducible. It is this shared feature of reproducibility that makes us doubles
of both the earth and the stars. Like a camera that takes and then endlessly
prints its own self-portrait, the earth reproduces itself an infinite number of
times. 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 repro-
duction is therefore the one that reproduces reproduction rather than the
matter or event reproduced. Or rather, the matter or event is reproduced,
but only as an altered reproduction. “The future of our earth,” he explains,
“like its past, will change millions of times en route.
. . .
Between now and then, each second will bring its bifurcation, the path that we will take, that which we could take. Whatever it is, what will complete the existence of the
planet up to its last day, has already taken place billions of times. It will only
be a copy already printed by the centuries” (56). Claiming that time, that
history itself, is involved in the material process by which a photograph is
printed, he also suggests that the eternal return of an event or body is the
eternal repetition of a process of differentiation. It is because our existence is
divided endlessly that we can be said to live through thousands of “different
editions” (57). Like a photograph that is repeatedly circulated and recircu-
lated, “each of us has lived, lives and will live without end, under the billion
forms of alter ego. Such we are at each second of our lives, as we are stereo-
typed [printed from a negative] billions of times during eternity” (71). The
earth, he adds, is like the composite of an entire collection of photographs.
It is even destined to be this composite. He writes: “The earth, an exact
double of ours, from the day of its birth to the day of its death, then to its
resurrection, this earth exists in billions of copies, for each of the seconds of
its duration. This is its destiny as repetition of an original combination, and all
the repetitions of other types share it” (57). That the entire universe is the
“endless, permanent reproduction” (61) of matter that is always renewed and
always the same means that there is no star, no stellar system (and we should
note here that for Blanqui there is nothing that is not a star-including the
earth and its inhabitants), that is not a name or figure for photography, forwhat Benjamin elsewhere calls Sternphotographie, star photography (OWS 242 / GS 2:370). When Blanqui refers to comets as “logogriffe” (30)-word -puzzles in the sky-these words of light name a form of light-writing whose fugitive inscriptions are traced and illuminated eternally across the heavens.
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. They are always already dying, and most of them
have perhaps already died. As he explains, “these globes of flame, such splen-
did representations of matter, do they enjoy the privilege of eternity? No,
matter is only eternal in its elements and in its entirety. All its forms, humble
or sublime, are transitory and perishable. Stars are born, they shine, they fade
away, and surviving perhaps thousands of centuries in their vanished splen-
dor, they surrender to the laws of gravitation only as floating tombs”
Like a photograph, the diminishing light of the stars is a commemorative
sign of what is no longer there. But it is not the only sign of death in the
heavens. Blanqui’s skies are nothing but an enormous cemetery for the celes-
tial bodies. From the dying stars whose half-extinguished light seems stitched
into the firmament, to the dying sun that turns water into blocks of ice, to the
comets that come as phantoms or messengers of death to the corpse of the
moon, Blanqui’s universe endlessly unfolds as an eternal work of mourning.
It is, in the wording of Jeffrey Mehlman, “a vast Trauerspiel” (Walter Benjamin for Children, 44).

We could even say that the photographic dimension of
this universe can be registered in its structure as a work of mourning. If the
photograph requires the possibility of mourning, the universe of the eternal
return-in which there is nothing that is not always passing away, that is not
eternally running down and in decline-begins in bereavement. It is no
accident that the evanescence of the celestial bodies, the eternal transi-
toriness of matter, leaves its traces in the sky in the form of a celestial fu-
neral. As Blanqui tells us, in a passage that includes the flashes and phantoms
of photography, “If we must believe some chroniclers of the heavens, from
the sun just beyond the terrestial orb stretches a vast cemetery of comets,
from whose mysterious flashes the evenings and mornings of pure days
appear. We recognize the dead of these phantom-lights, that let themselves
be traversed by the living light of stars” (22).

This intersection between
light and death -the site at which Blanqui’s cosmic photographs are taken—
is elaborated later when he asks, “what would happen if the old dead suns,
with their chaplets of deceased planets, indefinitely continued their funereal
procession, lengthening each night with new funerals?
All these sources of light and of life that shine in the firmament would die one after another, like the fairy lights of an illumination. Eternal night would cover the universe”
(40). Emphasizing the funereal context within which the sky’s revolutions
take place, he delineates the transit between life and death that, casting its

phantom-light on the dead celestial bodies stretching across the sky, moves
through this sky like the living dead who move through old cemeteries (35).
This revolutionary return to the cemetery encrypts a reference to the work
of memorialization that characterized the politics of the Blanquists and
other veterans of the French revolutionary movement. Emphasizing the
role of memory within revolution, they repeatedly participated in pilgrim-
ages to Pere-Lachaise, Paris’s eastern cemetery-the graveyard in which the
Commune’s heroes were buried and the site of the Commune’s last stand in
May 1871.

These rites of commemoration can also be associated with the
revolutionary repetition of what we might call the “eternal return” of the
French Revolution.
Blanqui suggests that, within this work of memory, the stars gather to-
gether the moments of the past, present, and future in view of an overwhelm-
ing catastrophe: the threat of a total annihilation of light that would leave in
its wake an’eternal darkness. Nevertheless, even though there may be “bil-
lions of frozen cadavers” hovering in the night of space, awaiting their hour
of destruction, he suggests that this hour of destruction will be at the same
time an hour of resurrection: “If the tomblike night stretches out for finished
stars, the moment comes when their flame is rekindled like lighming. On the
surface of planets, under the solar rays, the dying form breaks up quickly, in
order to restore its elements in a new form. The metamorphoses follow one
another without interruption”

The only way for a dead star to be rekin-
dled, to regain its energy and be reinscribed within the process of the eternal
return, is through a catastrophic collision with another extinguished star. Like
the “posthumous shock” that for Benjamin characterizes the photographic
event (I175 / GS 1:630), the shock of this collision interrupts the death that
seizes the waning star. It should be noted that Blanqui’s description of this
collision, of this renewal of dying or dead stars, is cast in a language whose
references to revolution, struggle, mass movements, battlefields, conflagra-
tions, death, and uncertainty make it one of the many places in which his
cosmology can be read as an allegorical response to the other revolutions and
struggles in which he was involved throughout his life.

He writes:
When after millions of centuries, one of these immense whirlwinds of
stars, born, revolving, dying together, comes to pass through the regions
of open spaces before it, it collides at its frontiers with other dying whirl-
. . .
A furious struggle ensues for innumerable years, across a battle-
field billions of billions of leagues long. This part of the universe is no
longer anything but a vast atmosphere of flames, endlessly traced by the
lightning of the conflagrations that instantly volatize the stars and plan-
. . .
The successive shocks reduce the solid masses to a vaporous state,
at once seized again by the gravitation that groups them into nebula turn-
ing upon themselves through the impulsion of the shock, and throw them
into a regular circulation around new centers. Faraway observers can then,
through their telescopes, perceive the theater of these grand revolutions,
under the aspect of a pale glimmer.
. . .
Is this exactly how worlds are
reborn? I don’t how. Perhaps the dead legions that collide in order to gain
life are themselves less numerous, the field of resurrection less vast. But
certainly, this is only a question of numbers and scope, not of means.
. . .
Matter does not know how to diminish, nor how to add even an atom to
itself. Stars are only ephemeral torchlights. Therefore, once dying, if they
are not rekindled, night and death, in a given time, take over the universe.
But how can they be rekindled, if not by the movement transformed by
heat into gigantic proportions, that is, by a collision
that vola-
tizes them and calls them to a new existence? (34-35)
It is because Blanqui’s universe is perpetually in the process of transforma-
tion that he can offer an account of the transformation of life into death and
death into life. This oscillation between life and death, he suggests, evokes
the enigma that is ‘permanently before each thought” (72). In other words,
in this universe of permanent catastrophes-in which there is one catastro-
phe 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 the 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 its cosmos, it is because it tells us what is end-
lessly photographed and printed by the enormous camera that Blanqui’s
world is. What is photographed each time, what returns as in a photograph,
is the reproductive mechanism at the heart of the 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,
always the same, with beings always renewed. Despite its perpetual becom-
ing, it is cliched [that is, stereotyped, plated, imprinted, turned into a nega-
tive] in bronze and incessantly prints the same page. In its entirety and in all
of its details, it is eternally transformation and immanence” (72).
That what is seized and set in focus is the process of perpetual becoming
means, as Benjamin suggests, that “petrified unrest becomes, in Blanqui’s
conception of the world, the status of the cosmos itself. The course of the
world thus truly appears as a single, great allegory”
(GS 5:414). This is why, he reminds us, Nietzsche claims, writing of the eternal return, that this ” great thought” should be understood as “a Medusa’s head (GS5:175) that petrifies
all the traits of the world. In other words, there can be no eternal return
without the Medusa effect that arrests all development or progress. Like the
stars, Blanqui suggests, we too are “frozen in place” within the movement of
this history (L’iternite parles astres,39). We might even say that Blanqui’sconception 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. It is therefore not surprising that, in his reading of Baudelaire’s poem “Revolt,” Benjamin identifies the head of Blanqui with the cameralike head of Medusa, stating that “from between the lines [of Baudelaire’s poetry] flashes the dark head of Blanqui” (CB 23 I GS 1:524). Like the “great Medusa face surrounded by flashes of red lightning” (26 1 527) in Pierre Dupont’s 1850 Le chant du vote, Blanqui’s head appears here in the form of a camera flash.
Even if Benjamin claims that “everything in Blanqui’s cosmology turns
around the stars that Baudelaire banned from his universe”
(GS 5:417), he nevertheless identifies Baudelaire’s poetry with the name of Blanqui–or
rather, more particularly, with his head. Benjamin reminds us twice that Baudelaire had drawn a sketch of Blanqui’s head from memory alongside a draft of one of his poems (GS 5:169,329).

This identification between Baudelaire and the decapitated, Medusa-like head of Blanqui is reinforced by the figure of “petrified unrest” that Benjamin understands to be the formula for Baudelaire’s image of life-a life that, as he puts it, “knows no development”
(414). If Medusa, petrified unrest, the eternal return, perpetual becoming, and technological reproducibility form a constellation of figures organized around the photographic character of the universe in which Blanqui and Baudelaire are both inscribed, we can say perhaps that, within this constellation, petrified unrest becomes another name for the eternal return whose reproducibility makes the world possible, for the photographic principle without which the eternal return could never return. 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 van-
ishes 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 photo-
graphed, once 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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