What is a Constellation?

A constellation is an imaginary, invisible and immaterial relation drawn between real, visible, material things. It is something seen into the world, but not itself in the world; between things, amongst them, but not of them. It is not a property ascribed to them, but an improper way of treating them, not endorsed or induced by them, supported by them without permission. It is an improper use of the elements of the world, using them for a purpose they could not have anticipated and toward which they are indifferent.

The constellation is a mode of allegory, perhaps its purest mode, in that it makes use of some material such that the actual context and character of that material is totally abstracted, only retained insofar as it serves to illustrate something totally and essentially unrelated. The constellation treats the constellated material much in the way the present may regard ancient ruins: now deprived of everything that furnished them with relevance and meaning, we are free to read into these ruins whatever fabulous and romantic significance we care to, even if this takes the form of meticulous and scientific reconstruction of the original context. In the latter case, we do not struggle against the manifest effect of historical corrosion, but only resurrect the past in a form now deprived of its original aura, a new and barely recognizable form that nonetheless faithful repeats the original (just as Christ was unrecognizable to his disciples after his resurrection). Even the truth becomes allegorically transcribed when bestowed upon the ruin.

The constellation treats everything it touches as ruined, as deprived of any proper meaning or context. This is not to say that it ever had such a meaning, but only that it has none, and that this poverty is its only essence. The improper use of worldly material evinced in allegory and constellation is not a violation or transgression of proper use, but demonstrates the absence of any such propriety; in approaching its material as ruined, any use would have to be improper, even the scientific use of archaeology.

The constellation may be imaginary, imputed to things that have no need of it and remain blind to it, but this is not to say it is unreal. Yet the reality of the constellation does not take a literal form, as lines really traced in the void between stars. The reality of the constellation is manifest in their power of orientation, to give direction to travelers, especially at sea. The constellation exists not between stars, but between stars and sailors as the orienting force which is a condition of navigation. The lines of the constellation are traced in the movements of ships at sea, even if these lines bear no resemblance to those imagined in the heavens.

The relation between a constellation and its navigational manifestation is one of non-resemblance, as much as that between the constellation and the myth it supposedly transfigures. The constellation is a figure of both the myth and the journey, which is not to say it depicts or predicts them. Rather, it constitutes a graphic that, without resemblance, nonetheless traces or outlines elements as incomparable as a myth, a navigational course, or a divination. The astrological divination in particular is paradigmatic: its predictions have no ‘scientific’ value, they have no necessary relation to the future, they may in no way resemble it; yet they nonetheless are fully real and amount to a tangible influence upon that future, however negligible.

The stars are indifferent to the myth they are imagined to figure, the course assist in charting, and the future they seem to reveal. As the material of a constellation, they are treated allegorically, as support wholly enveloped in an improper use, but nonetheless remaining essentially unassimilable, necessarily inappropriable and hence rendering every use improper, marked as improper. This relation, between the materiality of the ruin as indifferent support, and the misuse value manifest in allegorical ex-appropriation, is that of constellation.

This relation is what is at stake in myth; not myth in the sense of fabulous pseudo-histories, but myth as the effacement of the inappropriable support of every use (this is precisely the sense of mythic violence described by Benjamin). It is no coincidence that our constellations are carved up according to mythology. The mythic assimilation of origin to that which originates with it, of condition to that which it conditions, of creation to the created, is precisely what is opposed by materialism, which is the attestation of the essential inappropriability of the material support of myth, or any self-validating use. Myth, in claiming propriety over its material support, in claiming the authoritative account of its own origin (or more abstractly, that there is such an account, as in the case of Lacanian fantasy), attempts to erase every trace of impropriety. Benjamin’s historical materialism begins precisely from the revelation of this impropriety as the very materiality of history itself, and on the basis of which every sovereignty (mythic effacement of impropriety and inclusion of origin) establishes itself, while also being essentially doomed to ruin.

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8 Responses to What is a Constellation?

  1. kvond says:

    I suppose I should post the passage from Benjamin:

    “…Ideas are to objects as constellations are to stars. This means, in the first place, that they are neither their concepts nor their laws. They do not contribute to the knowledge of phenomena, and in no way can the latter be the criteria with which to judge the existence of ideas. The significance of phenomena for ideas is confined to their conceptual elements. Whereas phenomena determine the scope and content of the concepts with encompass them, by their existence, by what they have in common, and by their differences, their relationship to ideas is the opposite of this inasmuch as the idea, the objective interpretation of phenomena-or rather their elements-determines their relationship to each other. Ideas are timeless constellations, and by virtue of the elements being seen as points in such constellations, phenomena are subdivided and at the same time redeemed; so that those elements which it is the function of the concept to elicit from phenomena are more clearly evident at the extremes. The idea is best explained as the representation of the context within which unique and extreme stands along side its counterpart.

    “Epistmo-Critical Prologue”

    And then there is Spinoza’s claim that God has as much correspondence to our own thinking as the constellation Canis Major does to a barking dog:

    ““Further (to say a word here concerning the intellect and the will which we attribute to God), if intellect and will appertain to the eternal essence of God, we must take these words in some significations quite different from those they usually bear. For intellect and will, which should constitute the essence of God, would perforce be as far apart as the poles from the human intellect and will, in fact, would have nothing in common with them but the name; there would be about as much correspondence between the two as there is between the Dog, the heavenly constellation, and a dog, an animal that barks.”(E1p17cor, sch)

    The mythic that stands between, both obscuring and connecting.

  2. Alexei says:

    Not to take away from this fantastic piece of writing, but in case you’re interested: Max Weber introduced both the notion of ‘constellation’ and the notion of ‘elective affinity’ into theoretical discourse (admittedly the latter notion had been around for awhile, but Weber re-functionalized it). You can find Weber using ‘constellation’ as early as his 1902 editorial piece, “‘objectivity’ in the social sciences”. He uses it to help articulate how value-relations cohere in an ideal type. Benjamin’s prologue, as it turns out, is basically an allegorization of Neo-Kantianism (Rickert in particular, but also Cohen et al).

    • reidkane says:

      Thank you for the compliment and the recommendation. I was unaware of Weber’s discussion but will have to look into it now!

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  5. adr says:

    It just came to my mind the scene of the movie “Beautiful mind” where the character, supposedly a schizophrenic, is showing his girlfriend different active constellations they both manage to see despite they are not anchoring them into the astronomical and mythical references we all know. We can say that what makes the girl follow the affective calculations and see the traces of what he is spontaneously drawing, is the infatuation sentiment implied in their relation. Otherwise she would not see what he sees, she would not draw emotionally the same coordinates he is creating. It seems to me that the schizo line of the character is pointing out to a parallel between an inner space and an outer space that is connected as an affective route between them, a route that is mirroring openness through their presence. I guess we cannot give sense to a constellation if we don`t include the affects it implies.

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