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Critical Flâneries in Benjamin’s Arcades

Review of Walter Benjamin and ‘The Arcades Project’ ed. Beatrice Hanssen (New York: Continuum, 2006), 305pp. Hardback ISBN-10: 082646386X [ISBN-13: 978-0826463869], Paper ISBN-10: 0826463878 [ISBN-13: 978-0826463876]

Ilka Kressner

Pavle Levi, Walter Benjamin and ‘The Arcades Project’, cover image
Other Voices, 4.1 Aesthetic Violence
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Many book reviewers agree that among the most difficult reviews to write are those of the texts we genuinely appreciate. A case in point: Walter Benjamin and ‘The Arcades Project,’ edited by Beatrice Hanssen. This anthology is part of a four-volume series on Walter Benjamin edited by Hanssen and Andrew Benjamin. (The other three volumes explore Walter Benjamin’s author’s relation to Romanticism, art, and history.) Walter Benjamin’s Passagen-Werk, a collection of notes and quotations from more than 800 texts is an illuminating reflection on the Weimar Republic and the Nazi era as much as a challenging study of the 19th century Parisian arcades, which Benjamin regards as a key token of capitalist lifestyle of the first decades of the 20th century. The work has become a blueprint for a new theory of modernity and a model for present-day urban studies, cultural studies, and literary interpretation. Published posthumously in German in 1982, it was translated into English under the title The Arcades Project in 1999.

According to the back cover, the anthology under review “provides the first comprehensive introduction to this work to English-language readers”—in my opinion, this is a rather modest description, since the thirteen essays assembled under its title are much more far-reaching and inventive to be simply introductory. The reader encounters detailed accounts of the main themes in The Arcades Project, such as the figure of the marginalized, the phenomenon of collecting, alienation in modern society, the interpretation of space and new dwelling materials, and the physiognomy of ruins. In addition, the essays explore Benjamin’s conception of individual memory, his practice of writing history, the technique of montage, the model of the dialectical image, the impact of dreams for a philosophy of history, the influence of Charles Baudelaire and the Surrealists, and finally, his objective of a critical awakening in reading.

Hanssen’s selection of contributions is compelling. The authors represent a variety of disciplines (philosophy, architecture, literary studies, sociology) and critical approaches (historiographic, deconstructive, feminist, aesthetic, literary, inter-medial). For me, the main accomplishment of the collection, mirroring Benjamin’s own practice, is its focus on close reading, which results in a critical and creative analysis of the central elements of Benjamin’s Arcades Project, the quotations. Several quotes are discussed by ore than one critic; in this way, the Benjaminian “materials” appear in themselves in shifting semantic constellations throughout the anthology. In that way the essays illustrate and implement the project’s “existence as discontinuity … its condition of process… unfinished-ness or uncompletability” (259), as Stanley Cavell puts it.

In “Physiognomy of a Flâneur: Walter Benjamin’s Peregrinations through Paris in Search of a New Imaginary,” Beatrice Hanssen introduces Benjamin as “a peripatetic philosopher…a critic on the go, whose cultural theory reflected the position of the nomadic intellectual in modernity” (13). As a way of adapting to his shifting surroundings and a lifetime of travel, Benjamin developed a new gaze that, in a “flash-like moment” (7), succeeds in joining the subject and object of contemplation in the immediacy of an image. En lieu of Benjamin’s emphasis on the visual, Hanssen elaborates his highly original conception of presence, which is shaped through images from different temporal contexts. This technique, she argues, displays a similarity to Proust’s procedure of voluntarily regaining the past.

Irwing Wohlfahrt, in “Et cetera? The Historian as Chiffonier,” expands on the topic of Benjamin’s construction of the fleeting image, which was introduced by Hanssen. He singles out the rag-picker as an emblematic figure for the role of the historian according to Benjamin: As a collector of the refuse of history, he can be read as “the incognito of an author who … seeks to abandon the traditional prerogatives of authorship for an ... anonymous position” (13). Just as the historian and the sociologist, so as to allow the historical materials to speak for themselves, the chiffonier attempts to recapture the residues of the past and avidly refuses to refuse. As Wohlfahrt argues convincingly, the chiffonier also exhibits the “dialectical reversal,” which is central to Benjamin’s thought, the idea that the lowest of the low, a member of the Lumpenproletariat, could become the “very agent of redemption” (15)—a notion that puts Benjamin at odds with orthodox Marxism, though Wohlfahrt appears to have taken this for granted.

With “The Flâneur, the Sandwichman and the Whore: The Politics of Loitering,” Susan Buck-Morss (author of The Dialectics of Seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project, which was recently translated into German), provides an analysis of loitering as a subversive activity. In this regard, her interpretation of the prostitute in Benjamin as an embodiment of objectivity appears less illuminating than her insightful analysis of the seeming opposition between the sandwichman (as a kind of human billboard) and the flâneur. In spite of his scorn for society, the sandwichman participates in the capitalist system by serving as an advertisement for “its coming attractions” (43), just like the seemingly distant flâneur, notwithstanding his disdain for regular work, profits from the system by serving as a writer for the bourgeoning feuilleton sections in mass-produced media. She thereby reveals that “capitalism has two ways of dealing with leisure, stigmatizing it within an ideology of unemployment, or taking it up into itself to make it profitable” (44). In this way, leisure and loitering can be seen as new social forms that allow the projection of a critical distance to capitalist accumulation and the simultaneous incorporation of this very distance into the perpetuation of the system.

In a comparative reading of The Arcades Project with several of Charles Baudelaire’s poems, Barbara Johnson’s essay “Passage Work” analyzes the productive value of self-alienation. While I agree with her assessment of the estrangement of the individual from society as a source of poetic creativity, her claim that also alienation from the process of production may turn productive is not thoroughly explained. Her account of language as the underline commonality of psychological and economical alienation (72) does not seem sufficient warrant to align the effects of these heteronomous forms of estrangement. Moreover, her extensive reliance on quotes reminds me of Derrida’s pharmakoon, according to which the proper dose is a key factor. By contrast, Johnson’s numerous quotations, instead of exemplifying her arguments, often seem to communicate mostly her fascination with the text.

“Ruin and Rubble in the Arcades” by Esther Leslie (author of Walter Benjamin: Overpowering) provides a helpful overview of the reception history of Benjamin’s writing and elaborates on a main difference between Benjamin and the Surrealists. This difference hinges on a site of their common interest, the arcades: For the Surrealists, the “uncanny jumble of outmodedness” (93) provided a poetic stimulus; for Benjamin, it became a sign of the connection between mass-consumption, colonialism, and the contradictions of nationalism and internationalism (fought over in Spain as he was writing the text). According to Leslie, the colonial merchandise became an epitome of the “coloniz[ation of] consciousness by the commodity.” In the arcades, the crowd is “mirrored in the…reflections of the shop windows, transforms into a spectacle…and sees itself walking and buying” (96). This new form of consciousness can lead to an awakening from the dream of permanent progress; in the act of perceiving itself in the face of the commodity, the subject may begin to react against its alluring presence. The second part of the essay proposes a new reading of the figure of the prostitute. Leslie does not see exclusively an exploited and consumed woman, but a “potentially politically disruptive, that is, transgressive and modernist” (99) counter-image. She elaborates on Benjamin’s “idea of sexuality as an artifact [that] counters fascism’s patronage of a swindle of the natural: biology as destiny, nature as fixity” (103). She may have elaborated further that Benjamin took the notion of this radical reshaping of the image of the feminine from Baudelaire, who’s Tableaux Parisiens he had translated into German.

In “‘Geheimmittel’: Advertising and Dialectical Images in Benjamin’s Arcades Project,” Max Pensky studies the status of the dialectical image. Though I find it hard to agree with his description of the dialectical image as a “doctrine” (118 ff)—Benjamin’s relationship to historical materialism or to any orthodoxy for that matter, was always a probing one—Pensky’s interpretation of the concept and its operation is helpful. In his close reading of one of Benjamin’s childhood memories, Pensky highlights the relationship between the “advertising image, private involuntary memory, and the wish-content or utopian energies…released in the act of representation itself” (120). What I missed, though, was a discussion of the second part of the title: advertisement. Such a discussion would have been pertinent, since Benjamin dedicates many pages to the phenomenon of advertisement, in which he analyzes the use of jokes and puns, allusions to the fantastic and the obscene, and the interplay of organic and inorganic forms in advertising and art nouveau.

Gerhard Richter’s “A Matter of Distance: Benjamin’s One-Way Street Through the Arcades” engages the question of Benjamin’s preoccupation with the critic’s task of “finding and maintaining the right distance” (133). Through a comparative analysis of The Arcades Project and One-Way Street (a collection of thought-images, published in 1928), he portrays Benjamin’s techniques of pastiche and montage as means of suspending a common-sense relation towards everyday objects. The lyrical-philosophical snapshots from both oeuvres testify to a perpetual reassessment of the seemingly insignificant objects of everyday life. As Richter convincingly argues, Benjamin’s “meticulous searching for the strange or insignificant is an eminently political gesture… because it refuses to accept the condition of insignificance as something natural” (135).

For me, Brigid Dothery’s “The Colportage Phenomenon of Space and the Place of Montage in The Arcades Project” is the most intriguing piece of the collection. Dothery retraces Benjamin’s analogous portrayals of space in 19th century interiors, dreams and hallucinations. The bourgeois interior with its juxtaposition of different times and styles resembles the scenography of a dream as much as the experience of intoxication (whether from hashish, erotic ecstasy, or trivial literature). In all these settings, space turns active and becomes an “alluring creature that seduce[s] [its] inhabitants” (162). In a similar vein, she draws the arch to Benjamin’s analysis of a Wiertz painting of a woman, who lies in bed with a book in her hand like the poisoned prey in a spider’s web. Her room has become “a world [that] makes history present as a collection of desiccated corpses” (162). Dothery shows that for Benjamin, the only possibility to remove oneself from this intoxicating space is by means of the technique of montage, which allows the shocking juxtaposition of incongruent elements in order to redraw the politics of spatial history.

“Walter Benjamin’s Dream of Happiness” by Elissa Marder situates Benjamin’s conception of the dream in relation to Freud and the Surrealist idea of a dream-image. “Benjamin proposes that the dream is not, as Freud would have it, a royal road to an individual unconsciousness, but rather the model through which one can read the ways in which collective historical fantasies become manifest in external forms such as architecture and fashion” (186). In juxtaposition to the Surrealists, Marder properly notes that Benjamin’s concern does not lie with the dream itself, but rather the nexus between dream and awakening, where the latter “provid[es] the necessary critique” (186) for the first. Marder’s interpretation of Benjamin’s notion of happiness seems less convincing to me, since she ties its manifestation exclusively to the pen name he gave to Gretel Adorno in his letters from occupied France, during the two years preceding his death: “Felizitas.” In these letters, he implores her to assist him in saving his writings (which will indeed reach her in New York in 1947). Although Felizitas/Gretel undoubtedly represents Benjamin’s hope for the survival of his work, it is not clear why, according to Marder, “for him, ‘to save one’s life’ means saving the existent work” (194). This notion appears somewhat reductive to me; above all, it ignores the value that Benjamin assigned to the continuous practice of political and ethical engagement.

For Stathis Gourgouris, in “The Dream-Reality of the Ruin,” the aim of the Arcades Project hinges on a “decision to perform (instead of theorizing) history’s materiality” (207). While I believe that Gourgouris is right on the mark in his assessment of Benjamin’s goal to perform history in writing, I would suggest that Benjamin’s approach, beyond its moment of enactment, equally involves a moment of distancing critique. In this way, we can also make better sense of Gourgouris’ view that Benjamin’s text itself becomes the “ruin of reading history… subverting … the traditional terms of historical narration” (205). Against Gourgouris’ praise for Benjamin’s subversion of traditional historiography, it would seem surprising for him to propose that “Benjamin had no sense of academic discipline, a condition he bore at great personal cost to the very end” (204). More likely, Benjamin’s performative writing did not materialize in spite of some lack of academic discipline, but as a result of a deliberate decision to write against the disciplinary agenda of a backward-looking academe.

In “The Enticing and Threatening Face of Prehistory: Walter Benjamin and the Utopia of Glass,” Detlef Mertins examines Benjamin’s interpretation of the increasing relevance of this synthetic material in bourgeois society. Due to its transparent openness and cold hardness, glass resists the bourgeois ideology of intimacy and the cult of subjectivity. In this regard, Mertins suggests that glass can even be interpreted as a revolutionary material: The possibility of “erasing one’s traces could become a paradigmatic form of resisting the growing network of social controls” (237). This argument convinces if one takes into account the characteristic of the surface itself. However, Michel Foucault would warn, and Mertins might have added, that glass may equally become a means of social control. Unfortunately, in this overall interesting article, one concept remains unexplained: the notion of prehistory is only mentioned in the title and the last sentence.

Tyrus Miller, in “‘Glass Before its Time, Premature Iron’: Architecture, Temporality and Dream in Benjamin’s Arcades Project,” provides a rationale for Benjamin’s gravitation towards architecture: By exhibiting a collective performance, architecture “shapes its historical present” (240) on the lines of a trajectory from past to present, which provides an ideal medium for a critical historiography. Architecture also exemplifies the transformative power of labor – a key element in Benjamin’s version of dialectical materialism. Miller analyzes Benjamin’s ambivalent account of the new construction materials as, on the one hand, liberating (similar to Mertins) and, on the other hand, as a controlling device, often in the form of ‘kitsch’, that will ultimately support the grand-scale constructions of fascism. Finally, the essay deals with the nexus between dwellings and dreams. According to Miller, Benjamin proposes to abandon a reactionary concept of dwelling as a site that “bears the impression of its inhabitant” (256) for an architecture of authenticity and radical creation.

In the last essay, “Remains to be Seen,” Stanley Cavell assesses the philosophical import that emerges from Benjamin’s critical peregrinations: “If Benjamin is staking his claim to a certain afterlife of philosophizing, his Arcades Project may be taken as establishing the conditions (of memory as thinking, of thinking as explosion, of perception as allegory, of the chances of concurrence in Poe’s crowd) under which philosophy is still possible” (260). Cavell’s assessment complements the other essays in the volume by stressing the larger relevance of the work as an important contribution to philosophical method. The detailed analyses of the Passagen-Werk range over a wide critical spectrum and connect Benjamin’s challenging concepts and techniques with more recent approaches, making the anthology an enlightening source for further studies of his oeuvre. A few critical points notwithstanding, Walter Benjamin and ‘The Arcades Project’ retraces the contours of Benjamin’s work to build upon his conception of a philosophy that may be called materialist historicism.

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About the Reviewer:

Ilka Kressner is working as an Assistant Professor of Spanish American Literatures at the University at Albany (SUNY). She received her PhD from the University of Virginia and MA in Comparative Literature (Spanish, French, Musicology) from the University in Tübingen, Germany. Focusing on 20th century to contemporary Spanish American literature and film, her research interests include intermediality (relations between text, image, and sound), conceptions of space in the text (encompassing the related topics of vertigo, free fall, and velocity). Her scholarship and teaching examine Spanish American literatures from a variety of cultural and national contexts, often from a comparative perspective.

Citation Styles:

MLA Style Citation:
Kressner, Ilka. "Critical Flâneries in Benjamin’s Arcades: Review of Walter Benjamin and ‘The Arcades Project’ ed. Beatrice Hanssen." Other Voices 4.1 March 2010. January 19, 2018 ‹http://www.othervoices.org/4.1/ikressner/index.php›.

Chicago Style Citation:
Ilka Kressner, Critical Flâneries in Benjamin’s Arcades: Review of Walter Benjamin and ‘The Arcades Project’ ed. Beatrice Hanssen. Other Voices 4, no. 1 (2010), ‹http://www.othervoices.org/4.1/ikressner/index.php› (accessed January 19, 2018)

APA Style Citation:
Kressner, Ilka. (2010, March). Critical Flâneries in Benjamin’s Arcades: Review of Walter Benjamin and ‘The Arcades Project’ ed. Beatrice Hanssen. Other Voices, 4.1. Retrieved January 19, 2018, from http://www.othervoices.org/4.1/ikressner/index.php


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