Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project
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Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project

Beatrice Hanssen, Beatrice Hanssen

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eBook - ePub

Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project

Beatrice Hanssen, Beatrice Hanssen

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One of the most significant cultural documents of the Weimar Republic and Nazi era, Walter Benjamin's unfinished Arcades Project has had a remarkable impact on present-day cultural theory, urban studies, cultural studies and literary interpretation. Originally designed as a panoramic study chronicling the rise and decline of the Parisian shopping arcades, Benjamin's work combines imaginative peregrinations through the changing city-scape of nineteenth-century Paris with passages that read like a blueprint for a new cultural theory of modernity. Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project provides the first comprehensive introduction to this extraordinary work accessible to English-language readers. The diverse range of issues explored include the nature of collecting, the anatomy of melancholy, the flâneur, the physiognomy of ruins, the dialectical image, Benjamin's relation to Baudelaire, the practice of history-writing, and modernity and architecture. Contributors include Susan Buck-Morss, Stanley Cavell, Jonathan Culler, Brigid Doherty, Barbara Johnson, Esther Leslie, Gerhard Richter, Andrew Benjamin, Howard Caygill, Beatrice Hanssen, Detlef Mertins, Elissa Marder, Tyrus Miller, and Irving Wohlfarth

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Introduction: Physiognomy of a Flâneur: Walter Benjamin’s Peregrinations through Paris in Search of a New Imaginary

An anecdote in which Kant captures himself in pithy fashion:
[Kant’s] Famulus, a theologian who was unable to connect philosophy to theology, once asked Kant for advice as to what he should read on the subject.
Kant: Read travel literature.
Famulus: In dogmatic philosophy, there are things I do not understand.
Kant: Read travel literature.
Walter Benjamin, ‘Unknown Anecdotes about Kant’, GS 4:809
Could one think of Benjamin as a peripatetic philosopher, a philosopher in motion, a critic on the go, whose cultural theory reflected the position of the nomadic intellectual in modernity? Surely it is well known that National Socialism forced Benjamin into exile, into an enforced nomadic existence in Paris, where he would wander from one borrowed room and apartment to the next. Less a topic of consideration, however, is the fact that during the Weimar years, Benjamin practised the fine art of travel, gravitating to Paris like his affluent intellectual friends. Unlike Kant, who never left Königsberg, Benjamin crisscrossed Europe, visiting numerous cities and places about which he dispatched literary postcards, Denkbilder, thought-images, full of moving physiognomical details about the urban topographies of cities such as Berlin, Paris, Moscow, Naples or Marseilles. Unlike the reclusive Nietzsche, Benjamin stayed at a distance from the mountains and the green pastures, evoking nature only in its auratic capacity, as he wandered through the streets of urban Europe, developing a method of cultural analysis that was honed on the activity, the profane illumination, of the flâneur. These literary postcards were to become the seeds of the cultural theory of modernity and the metropolis on which Benjamin was at work in the late 1920s and 30s, and which would be consecrated in his unfinished magnum opus, The Arcades Project or Passagen-Werk. Crafting his philosophical theory on the road, so to speak, Benjamin described a critic–flâneur who, from the pictorial and photographic annals of the past and from the remnants of almost forgotten topographies, the Parisian arcades, would seek to release the dialectical image. Moreover, as a peripatetic critic, Benjamin simultaneously emerged as a writer in search of a new habitat; not just because of his love of the Berlin cafés, where he wrote the better part of the Trauerspielbuch, or because of his search for the comfort of tranquility in the Rue Dombasle and the Bibliothèque Nationale. Instead, as an early draft of The Arcades Project indicates, Benjamin decried modernity’s alienation as a collective state of no longer being heimisch or at home. Seeking to remedy this condition of homelessness, he charted the changed urban habitat required of the new historical subjects – a motley group which included flâneurs, surrealist artists and energized political crowds, whose new politicized gaze and activism were to be at home in cafés, movie theatres or even arcades.
These introductory comments to the present volume will pursue part of Benjamin’s path as critic–flâneur and specifically his search for a new imaginary, on the way to The Arcades Project. As such, they are meant to save his work from Adorno’s charge that Benjamin’s project was too imagistic, and that, like Kierkegaard’s existentialist philosophy, it potentially might be too aesthetic, insofar as it lacked the constellation of theory. Indeed, I will submit that Benjamin himself was acutely aware of the dangers that beset his theory of the image. Thus, as flâneur and critic, one could argue, Benjamin on the one hand was prone to the torpor of the melancholic, who in trying to recapture images of the past, risked assembling a nostalgic photo album of sorts, for example, in ‘Berliner Chronik’, which he dedicated to his son. On the other hand, Benjamin developed into the cultural collector of dialectical images, who, unlike Heidegger, did not decry modernity as the age of the Weltbild, the world image, but who sought to understand history precisely as a complex dialectic of images.


Benjamin visited Paris for the first time in 1926, together with his friend Franz Hessel, with whom he was engaged in a translation of Proust, just a few years after he himself had published his own translation of Baudelaire’s Tableaux Parisiens. A francophile of the first order, Franz Hessel had exported the art form of flânerie from Paris to his home turf Berlin, and in 1929 would publish a collection of anecdotal essays called Spazieren in Berlin. But by the time of his first Paris visit, Benjamin had already learned to turn city-scapes and urban topographies into texts and physiognomies, open to interpretation. For together with Asja Lacis, whom he had met in Capri, he wrote one of his early city text ‘Naples’, in 1924–25, focusing on the same motifs that were to gain prominence in later city work: the catacombs, poverty, architecture, public theatricality, gambling, street vending, the dispersal of objects (Zerstreutheit), private life, domesticity, the habitat, the house, children’s toys and the physiognomy of corporeal gestures. Indeed, practising the genre of the kleine Form, the ‘short form’, which included the essay, the newspaper article and the aphorism, in the years 1923–26, Benjamin was at work on a collection of aphorisms about Berlin, originally to be called Street Closed to Traffic (Straße Gesperrt), but eventually to be published in 1927 as One-Way Street.
Yet no city more than Paris provided an agreeable sensory overload to Benjamin’s perceptual apparatus. Overwhelmed by the intoxicating excitement of the French capital, Benjamin gave himself up to the pleasures of flânerie, the magic of the fair (Jahrmaerkte), to the point where the art of flânerie even threatened to take the place of reading and study. This is how he describes the experience in a 1926 letter to his then fiancée Jula Cohn:
I often saunter along the quays [of the Seine] in a state of complete relaxation; real finds have become very rare there and the sight of countless ordinary books gives me a certain sense of satisfaction. All this strolling [Flânieren] along the streets also makes it easy to get out of the habit of reading for a while, or so it seems to me.
(GB 3:139, C 297, letter of 1926 to Jula Cohn)
Flânerie – of course – was an urban art form, a leisure habit, made famous by dandies, such as the poet Baudelaire, not the healthy exercise of strolling or walking, spazieren, prescribed by doctors as a means to ward off melancholy. Kant, who associated melancholy with genius, took such a remedial stroll on a daily basis always at the same time, to the point where the townspeople of Königsberg could set their clocks by it. Alternatively, Spazieren, as practised by Hessel, amounted to the fashionable, aesthetic display of the self in peregrinations through the city-scape and encounters with the ‘crowds’ (never the masses). Unlike the reveries of the solitary walker Rousseau, flânerie involved the gregarious if defiant encounter with passers-by, a social ritual of the bourgeois upper class.
More than to the quays of Paris with their famous bouquinistes, however, Benjamin was drawn to the space of the arcades, to the point where on 30 January 1928, he wrote to Scholem that he was working on a text called ‘Parisian Arcade – A Dialectical Fairyland’ (‘Pariser Passage – eine dialektische Feerie’). As half-forgotten, yet still existing, phantasmagorias, these arcades impressed Benjamin, who recognized in them the haven of magical objects, remnants from the past, former abodes of fairies, and an enchanted world that, paradoxically, had grown dimmer as gaslight was replaced with electricity. Transfixed in time, the wax dolls and advertising dummies on the shops’ facades resembled the sleeping beauty out of whose slumber Benjamin hoped to awaken her (Trauerspielbuch). Seeing parallels between modernity and antiquity, Benjamin noted how the Parisian arcades escaped the rectangular and perspectival reorganization of Paris under Haussmann and how they pulled away into gates, porticos, and entries to a Hades-like realm, the realm of the dead of the catacombs and cemeteries, the space of subterranean collectivities. While being the epitome of the modern metropolis, Paris remained a mythical realm, whose labyrinthine topography acquired mythical dimensions, of the sort also analysed by Caillois. In parenthesis one might note that it is no coincidence that during his first visit to Paris, Benjamin stayed in the hotel Floridor diagonally across from the entrance to the Parisian catacombs, a reminder of the allegorical figure of the skull, in the Trauerspielbuch. And, to make matters even more interesting, the hotel was located around the corner of the Montparnasse cemetery, site of Baudelaire’s grave.
Already in an early 1927 draft, Pariser Passagen 2, Benjamin evoked two attitudes that marked his early understanding of the critic–flâneur: on the one hand, the dreaming idler’s anamnestic intoxication, as the flâneur was inundated with a flood of images, and, on the other hand, a gesture of fixation through which the cultural historian froze these images into an archive of anamnestic recollection. At the centre of this double experience lay the dialectical concept of (authentic) boredom, which was the outside layer of unconscious dreaming; for in the intoxicated state of wandering aimlessly through the streets, the flâneur turned the city into a landscape, or a topography of memory, through which he acquired a ‘felt knowing’ (gefuehltes Wissen). Flânerie, as evoked in the earliest phases of Benjamin’s Arcades Project, followed the same flux and rush of intoxication that marked the hashish-eater, who absorbed space, experienced a ‘colportage-like’ spatial state – spatialized time – that is, a heightened sensitivity that allowed for the simultaneous sensation and evocation of multiple layers of space. The idler, ambling through the arcades without a fixed goal (ohne Ziel), succumbed to a condition of euphoria and inebriation, comparable to the dandy’s boredom. Authentic boredom, or Langeweile in German (which literally means long time, or the stretching of time in ambling and idling), was the grey shawl, the veil, in which this subject was wrapped, while the shawl’s hidden orange lining evoked the state of dreaming, a heightened visionary or poetic consciousness of images, whose flux into reality the surrealists had made possible (Pariser Passagen 2, PW 1053, 1054; AP 880–81).
Thus, it soon appeared that Benjamin’s first forays into the art of flânerie were inspired not just by Baudelaire but by the surrealists, who he had discovered around 1925, and whose method of dreaming he adopted in ‘Dream Kitsch’ (1926). Indeed, in his oft-quoted aphorism: The father of surrealism was Dada, its mother an arcade (GS 2.3:1033; PW 1057; PW 133; AP 883), Benjamin alluded to the Passage de L’Opéra and the café Certa in which Aragon and Breton used to meet, and which was described in all its glory in Aragon’s 1924 Paysan de Paris, a book Benjamin had partly translated into German. Thus, the new style of walking through the past, in which the cityscape emerged as landscape (Hofmannsthal) and parlour, was in fact the product of the artistic revolution ushered in by surrealism, to which Benjamin would devote his important 1929 essay. There he would hail surrealism’s transformation of the public city-scape into a new habitat, a dwelling, a living space, in which the streets were the home of the flâneur and masses (GS 3:196), replacing the enclosure of the bourgeois intérieur. It was the new art of living outside the space of the Biedermeier intérieur, a dialectical image that Adorno, following Benjamin would analyse in his book on Kierkegaard’s existentialist philosophy. Moreover, the new appreciation of space was matched by a new transparent architecture, of the kind inaugurated by modernist architects like Le Corbusier and Mendelssohn, or theorists such as Giedion, and evoked in the transparent glass house at the center of Breton’s 1928 ‘novel’ Nadja. This architecture of demolition and destruction, which expressed Nietzsche’s embrace of uprooting violence, had erased the antiquarian traces of the past, much as Benjamin’s ‘Destructive Character’ (1931) would set himself up as the enemy of the Etui-Menschen (GS 4.2:1000) – a human boxed in, clasped in a jewel case. The demolition of homely space spelled the end of the epoch of bourgeois moralism symbolized by the enclosed intérieur and brought with it the beginning of a new ‘revolutionary virtue’ (ibid.), that is, the intoxicating frenzy of a moral exhibitionism (ibid.). But in order to make oneself at home in the city streets a new gaze was in order, a new mode of seeing, which broke with the bad habits of historicism, its museal monumentalism and souvenir hunting – a reference to Nietzsche – that is, with the ‘pious gaze glued to das Museale’ (SW 2:264, corr.; GS 3:197) or the ‘great reminiscences, the historical frissons’ of travelling tourists (SW 2:263; GS 3:195). The new way of seeing now was to be focused on the micrological, on a new ‘sense of reality’ that paid attention to ‘chronicle, document and detail’ (GS 3:194). Thanks to this new gaze, the crossing of a new threshold (Schwelle) became possible, an image that Benjamin enhanced by invoking the mythical plebs deorum (SW 2:264), the house gods or female guardians, who facilitated the crossing of what once were mere wooden or metaphorical thresholds (ibid.).
Centrally, Benjamin’s surrealism essay introduced the flâneur as nothing more nor less than a profanely illuminated type, a label he shared with other characters such as the reader, the thinker, the waiting one, the opium-eater, the dreamer and the inebriated type. Seeking to develop a dialectical concept of intoxication, Benjamin hoped to chart a path away from mere anarchistic revolt and mere subversion to the coming of the real revolution; this new historico-political stage, he suggested, could be reached once surrealism ‘[appropriated] the energies of intoxication for the revolution’ (GS 2.1:307; SW 2:216). Fusing politics with anthropology, Benjamin was in search of the dialectical interpenetration of ‘political materialism’ and ‘physical creatures’. Profane illumination was the new stage that would set an end to the torpor and the inauthentic boredom of modernity in the thrall of too much contemplation; Benjamin’s aim was the transformation of ‘an extreme contemplative position in revolutionary opposition’ (GS 2.1:303; SW 2:213) through radical spiritual freedom, which, in decisive manner (Schmitt), did away with the post-war boredom, nihilism, and climate of eternal discussion, the post-First World War lassitude of Weimar Germany and Europe. Interested in unfolding the dialectical kernel at the heart of surrealism, Benjamin promoted the new existential experience, the Existenzform of surrealism, insofar as it did not hesitate to venture to the uttermost limits of what was possible (GS 2.1:296; SW 2:208). Surrealism enabled the release of a flood of images, rushing across the threshold between sleep and awakening and it provoked a new synaesthetic experience in which sound and image merged, spelling an end to conventional Meaning.
Thus, the new type of revolution required not just a change in external historical conditions but it exacted a new Gesinnung (GS 2.1:308; SW 2:216) or attitude, in other words, the replacement of the historical with the political gaze (GS 2.1:300; SW 2:210) and what Benjamin called ‘the organization of pessimism’ (GS 2.1:308; SW 2:216) – pessimism here being a code word for nihilism. As a state of ecstasy, profane illumination did not just produce the ‘loosening’ of the I, but it allowed the subject to engage in real political Erfahrung, free from contemplative overtheorizing or too much speculative theory. Still, the surrealist state of intoxication was not to be confused with Marx’s rejection of religion as opium of the people. Rather, its roots were to be found in mystical Minne, in the ecstasy of mystical love which was matched by sobriety in a parallel world. For the subject’s profane illumination found its complement in what Benjamin called the sobering mysticism of things, a condition in which the revolutionary energies of objects, architecture, iron construction, fashion and so forth burst forth. Exploding the confines of their old habitat, the intérieur, or die gute Stube, these formerly enslaved now liberated things announced the coming of a revolutionary nihilism, which I believe to be comparable to Nietzsche’s strategic nihilism. No figures more than Breton and his lover Nadja possessed this revolutionary gaze, for in their capacity as lovers they knew how to ‘convert everything that we have experienced on mournful railway journeys’; travelling through the abject proletarian quarters of Paris, they transformed these scenes into revolutionary experience and action, bringing the ‘mood’ (Stimmung – not atmosphere) lurking in things to explosion. Their prime love object, of course, was Paris herself, whose streets were to be flooded by the liberated masses and whose surrealist face emerged in full glory in the book Nadja. As such, the dialectic of intoxication, Benjamin suggested, could be seen to be at work in Breton’s picture book, Nadja. For the technique of releasing dream images that Breton and Nadja practised in their ambles through Paris was matched by the fact that its author, at decisive moments, inserted images, photos and drawings into the text, thus turning Parisian space into the illustrations and pictures of a cheap ‘colportage’ novel (GS 2.1:298; SW 2:208).
This ‘living in images’, enacted quite literally in Breton’s colportage novel, is of course something that Benjamin himself tried out frequently. Both a book...

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