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The Way Things GoAn Essay on the Matter of Second Modernism$

Aaron Jaffe

Print publication date: 2014

Print ISBN-13: 9780816692019

Published to Minnesota Scholarship Online: August 2015

DOI: 10.5749/minnesota/9780816692019.001.0001

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Lost and Found

Lost and Found

(p.52) Lost and Found
The Way Things Go

Aaron Jaffe

University of Minnesota Press

Abstract and Keywords

Props are staged property: in them are revealed the preconditions of now dominant “patterns of production, consumption, and ownership.” This chapter cites Walter Benjamin’s recourse to props: literal props, particularly his discussion on staged objects in The Origin of German Tragic Drama; rhetorical props, the stakes of a certain rhetorical placement of the proper status of names against the proper status of things; and theoretical props, which refers to the dimensions of an expanded concept of props. It also cites Plato’s Cratylus in explaining the concept of Cratylism, which maintains the ideal of a fundamental fabrication of proper names and naming the properties of things accordingly.

Keywords:   props, staged objects, The Origin of German Tragic Drama, Walter Benjamin, Cratylism, Cratylus, Plato


Walter Benjamin’s Props, lost and found. And, then, what of words? Apropos of nothing in particular comes a non sequitur. As it stands, it’s also proper to nothing in particular. Nothing at hand at any rate. The non sequitur names that which does not follow. In the informal fallacy by this name, the conclusion does not follow from the premises. It is not proper to them, even though in technical terms it does—syntactically (p.53) speaking, that is—follow them. If I am in Kentucky, I am in the United States. I am not in Kentucky—for purposes of this example. Therefore, I am not in United States. Reasonably informed people, who know that the category “Kentucky” and the greater whole “United States” are not identical, know that this does not follow. With other kinds of sentences, more or less than premises, the non sequitur designates a seemingly disconnected or random proposition—propositions that do not follow in narrative as opposed to informal logical: if I am in Kentucky, I am not in the United States. In Berlin, perhaps. Seemingly irrelevant to the antecedent but potentially crucial to the consequent. Kentucky as an anomalous state, for example. If I am not in Kentucky, I am not in the United States: Kentucky as a paradigmatic state—in the sense perhaps of Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas? Non sequitur, then, may be best understood as deviation, unexpected redirection of flow. Narrative follows, non sequitur follows otherwise, elsewhere. What I am interested in here in the most general sense is the gesture of turning away, following otherwise, elsewhere—taking breath, to use Benjamin’s phrase—as a crucial means of propping the stage for exposition.


Expositivity, to coin a phrase, draws discourse away from the prerogatives and metaphorics of narrative toward what Samuel Weber has termed theatricality as medium—or, better: method, and more specifically, toward the role of the prop-er, the one who props.43 At the Modern Language Association’s valediction for one of its grandees, the nearest thing in academia to a celebrity roast, more than once the following zombie concept is ventriloquized from the stage: if you can’t state an idea in two or three sentences, it’s not yours. A robust, albeit somewhat offhand, assertion of the idea as personal property. And, a hand prop of a definition: it is yours by virtue of property rights theatrically asserted. In other words, an idea comes of its own insofar as it has been acted (on) (somewhere, sometime else) by an owner using words. However cautious we are about the linguistic essentialism found here, or anywhere there’s anything proper about the application of words to things, the sense of proper names, referents, or reference, the instrumental placement and performance of the nominal ownership in an object-world plays a crucial if tacit role in our critical languages and professional doxa. (p.54)


For a raw, prop-less thesis of my own—eidos on bare stage—I can get no closer than this statement. Yet, the image it conjures—or else the weight it bears—the propriety of absent, archaic (even obscene) acts of naming, also provides a prop, an exaggerated prolepsis of my epistemocritical ends, and, pause for breath-taking “props” to Benjamin, here the point becomes properly his, so to speak. In his account, the appearance of stage props actualizes a break with Classical drama—the birth of the Baroque modernity, the German Trauerspiel, the mourning play, marking the death of ancient tragedy—and which corresponds to the arrival of the “profane world of things,” the fulsomeness of commodities. Benjamin ties this untimely emergence—and the significance is that the baroque is not the romantic—to the origin of the “un-classical.” Not romantic apostasy but heretical revision:

at one stroke the profound vision of allegory transforms things and works into stirring writing…. In the field of allegorical intuition the image is a fragment, a rune. Its beauty as a symbol evaporates when the light of divine learning falls upon it. The false appearance of totality is extinguished. For the eidos disappears, the simile ceases to exist, and the chronos it contained shrivels up. The dry rebuses which remain contain an insight, which is still available to the confused investigator.44

My reading of Benjamin examines his recourse to props: literal props, the way he discusses staged objects in The Origin of German Tragic Drama, specially (better translated: The Origin of the German Mourning Play); rhetorical props, the stakes of a certain rhetorical placement of the proper status of names as dry rebuses “beneath or against” the proper status of things in Benjamin’s thinking; and theoretical props, the dimensions of an expanded concept of props—and the proper, more broadly— for bridging the chasm of two domains of current critical interest: first, keywords, understood as heuristics, zones of theoretical and etymological invention in what Gérard Genette has described as “travels in Cratylusland,” and, second, a new, or renewed, theoretical preoccupation with the world of things.45 (p.55)


The specific application of the term props to stage objects comes relatively recently. The OED puts this in the mid-nineteenth century, an abbreviation in theater jargon of the older designator properties, significantly citing an appearance in a slang dictionary of the period among its examples. This late terminological arrival presents certain difficulties for early modern scholars, who worry about anachronism. One reason that early modern scholars seem to prefer stage properties to props, besides anachronism avoidance, is a prevailing interest in the emergence of private property as cultural dominant in connection to the formation of modern subjectivity. Props are staged property: in them are disclosed the preconditions of now dominant “patterns of production, consumption, and ownership.”46 Here, we have something akin to the emergence of product placement in James Bond novels, pro-bono work for the subject to the commodity spectacular.


And yet, props do more than thematize the discovery of “commodities.” They speak to historical changes in the subject/object interface, changes to what Weber has theorized as the medium, that which is at once convention and expression. Props, it seems, the things that above all else present well theatrically, dramatize the world of objects in peculiar ways. Given particular situational contingency, a prop is a thing performing its properties, performing a role sufficiently unto the name, a magic trick of a name that pronounces literally and figurally the same, marking the object itself outside the medium insufficient. A prop must not so much signify in the strict sense as live up to its name as artifice, theater, medium. Are props not essentially a way of treating things not as technics but as media? The prop declaims not so much private property, property taken with you, but property that stays put, property of the house, a vestige of lost communal life and the ruined proprieties of use-value. The status of the term prop as a nickname—an improper proper name, redeemed illegitimate speech—conveys something of the legitimacy crisis under which it performs, as it traces the instrumentality and risibility of form half-remembered from beyond/before commodity and exchange value. (p.56)


Furthering this definition suggests a journey into etymology, OED-land, Cratylism. There’s a reading of Raymond Williams’s masterful Keywords in this vein, and its multiform, theatrical gestures, that is, ah, yes, and here we have yet another of the most complex words in the history of the language at meaning degree zero—one of my favorite teaching props. Just as inquiry into use-value conceives of an idealized, utopian habitat for things, so too, etymology presents something akin to this for words. As forms of knowledge, both are repeatedly discredited, dead letter offices, deliberately and heretically courting disciplinary exile, but, as digressive methods, modes of thinking, and rhetorics of invention, they call forth tremendous visionary, ethical, and generative chase. They are both, to put it simply, resources of departure not arrival. Part of my impetus comes from Genette’s eccentric book Mimologics, his “formidable dossier,” surveying the persistence and influence of a tradition “which assumes, rightly or wrongly, a relation of reflective analogy (imitation) between ‘word’ and ‘thing’ that motivates, or justifies, the existence and the choice of the former.”47


Given the topic, it is not surprising that Genette turns to Plato’s Cratylus to find the original “matrix and program” of this doctrine. In it, one of the more esoteric dialogues, to be sure, Socrates and his foils—Cratylus, the linguistic naturalist, and Hermogenes, the linguistic conventionalist—discuss whether the word’s relation to the thing depends on convention and consensus, or whether the relation follows a kind of natural correctness of names. As Genette rightly points out, Socrates himself, whose argument indulges in some amusingly illustrative wordplay about proper names and the names of his associates, in fact rejects both positions, at least in their more absolute forms. Instead, he asserts a radical modification of the latter’s position. This so-called secondary Cratylism, or Socratylism, maintains the ideal of a primordial fabrication of proper names, or better, it desires a primordial fabricator, naming the properties of things properly, while also insisting on a rule of subsequent deviation from a thing … even to the extent of a deviation degree zero. Genette writes that Socratylism is characterized “by the almost irresistible desire that (p.57) its adherents feel to … establish or reestablish in the language system through some artifice that [un-restructured naturalists like Cratylus himself] … believes to be still or already established there.”48


We could also call the Socratic position linguistic naturalism lost. Significantly, and this I take to be one of the position’s chief implications, it proposes a legend of method, locating a temporalizing image of the archaic form not at origin but in current usage—a prop in a showplace. As Genette notes, the achievements of the present name-user pausing—searching, taking a breath—to find the proper word—the aptest nickname, the most juice in le mot juste—touches, become one piece with, the work of the archaic name-maker, potentially even unto correcting the name-maker’s errors.This particular legend of language filiation—the figure Socrates calls the artist of names—I submit, promises and proceeds into something like etymopoiesis. Here I should say Genette and I part company a bit. His notion of mimologics attends to the persistent desire for mimesis in correct names, the word “picturing” the thing mimetically or iconically. Following the root etymon—the truth in the archaic word—the aspect of the Socratylic method that interests me is its staging of a glimpse or flash of another, more apt word already in the word. To picture this scene means, in effect, finding the truth of the thing in the prop of the archaic word. Once again, the literal is figurative, the literal meaning, the proper meaning, is the one that word the (pre)figures, the one that works as a self-referring nickname of the word itself inside the word itself. The literal is figural in yet another way: the word pre figures an archaic author-owner.


There’s also a rationale for this methodological orientation in Benjamin’s notoriously esoteric introduction to the Trauerspiel book, itself a sharer in Plato’s dialogue on naming. In effect, Benjamin proposes the following heretical, preemptory question for both history and philosophy but proper to neither, an analogue to Socrates’s breathtaking insight about words: why should thinking about origins be prepossessed by arrival? Here, I trail Beatrice Hanssen in an effort to highlight a reading (p.58) of Benjamin’s alternative concept of origin as transience, an effort to rethink origin as a critical means of taking leave of the debris-strewn stage rather than a site of laying epistemological and ontological foundation:

Origin … has nothing to do with genesis. The term origin is not intended to describe the process by which the existent came into being, but rather to describe that which emerges from the process of being and disappearance. Origin is an eddy in the stream of becoming, and in its current it swallows the material involved in the process of genesis. That which is original is never revealed in the naked and manifest existence of the factual; its rhythm is apparent only to a dual insight. On the one hand it needs to be recognized as a process of restoration and reestablishment, but, on the other hand, and precisely because of this, as something imperfect and incomplete…. Origin is not … discovered by the examination of actual finding, but it is related to their history and their subsequent development.49


Hanssen, with a nod to Emmanuel Lévinas, calls this vector of Benjamin’s method “an-archical,” because it turns “origin” away from the traditional Hellenistic arche of being toward a Hebraic naming of the “humanism of the other,” and, in similar terms, turns Idea from the Hellenistic edios to the Hebraic divine “word,” the proper name as self-revelatory language.50 An-archaic may be a better coinage yet, because, in addition to the qualities Hanssen describes, it also attends to a consistent point of emphasis and interpretive momentum, the archaic properties of the cultural materials are the point of departure that count as historical conditions actually formed. The most interpretively relevant commonality of available raw materials at a given time is that their actuality always comes saturated with archaic ruin- and rune-like residue. For Benjamin the critic, then, turning away from the archaic is not only a place of constant repetition but also an event of enormous exegetic moment, because the very sense of an object being or existing at the present moment flashes a glimpse of a loss of some prior fragmentary thing. Hence: melancholia. For a specific example only consider the (p.59) much discussed auto-authorizing mechanisms of the author’s name—the dominion of the Author-god, if you follow Barthes, hagiographic author effects if you follow Foucault, supernatural signatures if you read Derrida. If you read Benjamin, “authors,” with their well-known sacralizing implications, provide an im-portant instance of the regulative function of proper names in secularized, “common linguistic usage,” era staring eyeball to eyeball with era, exposing a kind of speculative, etymopoetic thinking, heretofore heretical, about history and historiography, and, in this case, exposing the actual insertion of the figure of the author-owners into profane, promotional applications.


Recall, then, that prop has another definition, unorthodox or tenuous but not irrelevant to this etymopoesis: a prop is a stick, rod, pole, stake, beam, or other rigid support, used to sustain an incumbent weight; especially when such an appliance is auxiliary, or does not form a structural part of the thing supported. Also, significantly, a prop can mean a boundary stake. It is here that prop functions as both a noun and a verb, to support with or as if a prop, to prop something up, and acquires something of its technē, the sense of the prop as a tool, instrument, Werkzeug: hammers hammer; props prop. Of the archaic words in props I’d like to investigate, this is the oldest. The OED puts its beginnings in the mid-fifteenth century, stemming from middle English prob and middle low German proppen. Although prop as theatrical object has a seemingly different filiation—from the Latin proprius “one’s own, particular to itself”—it has acquired something of the meaning of this other prop as well. In fact, early modern scholars of the prop quite self-consciously desire to excise prop from props so as, in the words of one, to revise “the tendency to regard stage properties as theatrical prostheses, strictly ancillary to and ‘beneath or against’ the main structure, the play-text.”51


Nevertheless, the sense of prop in props is stronger stuff than strict etymological reckoning seems to permit. The OED, for example, redirects those who would define props to the older properties, as in stage properties: any portable article, paraphernalia, equipment as an article of costume or (p.60)

Lost and Found

Figure 17. “A kickstand for a thing”—H. Mohr, Auxiliary Cycle Rest, U.S. Patent 1,357,890, filed September 3, 1919, issued November 2, 1920.

(p.61) furniture, used in acting a play; a stage requisite, or accessory. An obsolete figurative sense applies: props are mere means. It’s just method. The OED captures this in its example for props from 1885: the things in the property room, are called “properties, or, more commonly ‘props’, so called, I believe, because they help to support the drama.”52 The connotation of ancillary status—that props prop—clings to the word as it moves from the late nineteenth century forward into other institutions mediated by theatrical metaphors: stage-craft proper and improper, circus, music hall, magic and novelty acts, street theater and busking, public speaking, office props, restaurant props, bedroom props, conference props. This resonance is particularly apparent in the French word for props, accessoires: accessories, ornaments or decorations, nonessential adornments of the stage—a word Benjamin surely knew. In contrast, the word he employs, the German Requisiten, carries the decided implication of necessity: the things carried by a performer during the performance are objects requisitioned by the stage-manager. The word appears throughout the Trauerspiel book, though somewhat indifferently translated in the English version, shifting from staged properties to requisites in a way that makes it easy to lose this thread of Benjamin’s thought. And, in a way that the author of “The Task of Translator” could not but appreciate, that the translation of the German Requisiten as English prop only makes his point even more fully than his mother tongue or, for that matter, the French version. A prop, a requisite, a thing required or conventional, for theatrical purpose; a prop, an accessory, an extra thing, appended in an optional, or expressive, way: Benjamin’s use is both/and not either/or. Here, it’s worth pausing again over the prop itself emerging not from performance practice but from stage management, prop-shops, -plots, and -lists; prop-tables, -bins, and -cabinets; prop-hiring and -borrowing, and so forth. With the decay of the commons, common life, community property, props become, in effect, staged dependencies, not indifferent or invisible things but lost communal debris. In One-Way Street, one of Benjamin’s aphorisms compares tourist and theatrical experiences of space, respectively, to visits to the bins at the “Lost-and-Found Office” for property lost and property found. (p.62)


The basic form of Trauerspiel, according to Benjamin, cannot be abstracted away from the prop bin. It is placed squarely in the profane thing world, and defined from an obligation for a shared stock of props.53 He employs the parasitical connotation of the word (using the very word parasite, Parasit) that makes the thing functionally continuous with other “obligatory ingredients” of the Trauerspiel: poisoned rapiers, dreams, ghostly presences, the horrors of an anticipated end, the witching hour, and, above all, the death’s head all tumble out of the prop cabinet onto the stage. In props, the historical as unclassical finds its proper site of manifest transience, singularity, and ultimately the intense exteriority of bare, theatrical individuality-in-death.54 In a related context, Benjamin uses the word for the artifact, das Zeug, a word that also means ordnance (another of his aphorisms in One-Way Street plays up this connection), conveying the explosive, flashbang character of the experience of transience.55


Benjamin’s props argument runs like this: “When, as in the case of the Trauerspiel, history becomes part of the setting, it becomes part of the script.”56 The original German makes the point more subtly than does the translation; here’s a more literal rendering: with the advent of Trauerspiel, history wanders into the scene and becomes part of the prop plot. It both stumbles into the show and becomes an indispensable part of it. In other words, it becomes conventional and expressive—history becomes medium. I suggest what Benjamin has in mind when he writes that this happens in the Schrift is that it happens in the transformation of the theatrical script into a property plot, the prop manager’s listing of all things needed for theatrical production. Props themselves thus become conventional and expressive, to return to the decisive pairing for Benjamin, in that they become vehicles for allegorizing actual bare history on stage, ruins in the showplace for “saturnine beasts” to lie about.


The emblem of saturnine melancholy is like a key to the Trauerspiel book. It is a crucial preoccupation of Benjamin’s, one central to the materials (p.63) he considers, explicitly so in his readings of Hamlet and Dürer, and more implicitly in his appropriations of Cratylus. In Cratylus, Saturn, or more properly Chronos, plays a key exegetic role in refiguring origin as the decisive loss of the archaic word. It also prefigures Benjamin’s later, extremely influential elaboration of “Left Melancholy,” suggesting that melancholy accompanies modern transience through a kind of premature “clowning” of political-historical mourning. In short, as the contents of an overstocked prop cabinet spill out, distracting the house from the possibility of the classical performance of the symbolic and communally coherent death, a kind of unclassical naiveté emerges, a crude theater lost in a fantasy of tumescent objects (Geilheit is Benjamin’s word) designating on barren terrain:

Time the decisive category, the great semiotic achievement of romanticism, enables us to fix the relationship between symbol and allegory urgently and methodically. Whereas in the symbol, the sunset’s radiance reveals the transfigured visage of nature fleeing into the light of salvation, in the allegory, the consumptive mien of history [facies hippocratica] is laid before the spectator’s eyes as a petrified archaic landscape. History from the beginning in everything dilatory, mournful, gone awry is marked on a face—or rather on a death’s head. And although this thing lacks all “symbolic” freedom of expression, all classical proportion, all [common] humanity—it offers up meaningful pronouncements to the riddles not only about bare human existence in nature but also about the biographical historicity of the individual figure most debased by nature. This is the core of allegorical spectatorship in baroque modernity, profane historical exposition as the passion-play of the world; its meaning resides solely in the stages of the decay. The greater the meaning, the greater the deterioration unto death, because death digs most deeply along the jagged boundary between body and meaning.57

In this stage as overfull wasteland, freighted with lethargic beasts and other morbid junk, sits Benjamin’s other angel, winged melancholy. Now, what was it he’s forgetting to announce? A delayed arrival? A premature appearance? And, who was coming? The allegory reader as critic? The (p.64)

Lost and Found

Figure 18. “Benjamin’s other angel”—Albrecht Dürer, Melencolia I, 1514

legislator of the actual? Or, was it the name maker, the first glimpse of the artist as producer?58


Pace Benjamin, there is a locus classicus germane to the emergence of props from otherwise prop-less antiquity: Plato’s cave, or, following the Benjaminian temporal scheme, from a reading of it as an allegory of enlightenment-restraining prejudice initiated on the cusp of modernity. Here, think of Bacon’s four idols, the tribe, the market, the theater, and, of course, the cave. Plato’s legendary “home theater,” as Weber calls it, positions subjects in “theatrical singularity.”59 Captive audience members are restrained as so many saturnine beasts unable to recognize the stakes of their own theatricality in the shadow play that properly possesses them. Above all, this means they do not grasp their own fantasies, their Denkbilder, as props, instrumentalized by mysterious prop managers, the real, albeit always archaic, stakeholders in things.


Weber poses a number of questions about these seeming bit players: Who are they? What do they want? What is their ontological status? What is their political motive? “How do they relate to that enthralled, spellbound audience of spectators-prisoners?” “How do they relate to the organization and significance of the ‘spectacle’ itself?”60 A glimpse here of the curtained prop closet, stage left, the being told not to look at the great and powerful Oz. Before speculating about the prop managers, though, I’d like to think through Benjamin about the status of the props themselves. What do they want from us? Variously described as implements and as puppets of animals and of men, these are not unmotivated things but rather props as mere method. Is mere method artifacts or ordnance? Are the implements of shadow-play instruments of work or play? Work for some; play for others? Is it the theatricality of actual critical production, of which Plato’s allegory is a key precedent, modeled as it is as theater and commentary, that which is allegorized?


(43.) Weber, Theatricality as Medium. Here, I also have in mind the expositive dimensions of conceptual mise-en-scène discussed by Rancière. See Rancière, The Future of the Image, esp. 43–51; as well as his “Aesthetics, Inasethetics, Anti-Aesthetics,” 228–29.

(44.) Benjamin, The Origin of German Tragic Drama, 176–77; see also 133–35.

(45.) Genette, Mimologics.

(46.) Benjamin, The Origin of German Tragic Drama, 16ff.

(47.) Genette, Mimologics, 6.

(48.) Ibid., 26–27.

(49.) Benjamin, The Origin of German Tragic Drama, 45.

(50.) Ibid., 5–6, 25.

(51.) Harris and Korda, Staged Properties in Early Modern English Drama, 1.

(52.) Also cited in the OED: Jerome, On the Stage, 32.

(53.) Benjamin, The Origin of German Tragic Drama, 312. Pages refer to the German ed. “In the developed form of the tragedy of fate there is no getting away from the stage-property” (134). “Vom Requist ist fuer die ausgebildete Form des Schick-salsdrama nicht zu abstrahieren” (312).

(54.) Ibid., 313–14.

(55.) The etymopoetic links to Werkzeug (tool, instrument) and Spielzeug (toy) are also noteworthy.

(56.) Benjamin, The Origin of German Tragic Drama. 177.

(57.) Ibid., 342–43, 166.

(58.) Ibid., 158.

(59.) Weber, Theatricality as Medium.

(60.) Ibid., 6.