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LOOKING & SEEING Stage 1 Semester 2 Walter Benjamin The Arcades Project Alexandra M. Kokoli a. m. [email protected] ac. uk
Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project (1927 -1940; Das Passagenwerk, 1 st publ. 1982) • Chronologically belongs to late Modernism • YET, see 1 st publ. date! • In terms of content, anticipates postmodernist ideas – E. g. emphasis on consumption as a site of social identification • In terms of form, even more so… – – Unfinished: bundles of notes with two made-to-order overviews Not a work, but a work in progress (Arbeit, not Werk) The research project as an end in itself A kind of history writing, yet fragmented, heterogeneous, lacking concrete conclusions – ‘[…] the Arcades Project may be characterized as a website, in a verbal medium, on 19 th-century Paris. ’ Henry Sussman, SUNY Buffalo – Perception(s) as important as fact(s): emphasis on vision and the spectacle
Walter Benjamin (b. Berlin, 1892; d. French/Spanish borders, 1940) • Left-wing Jewish intellectual and philosopher; important figure in CRITICAL THEORY • Earned money as freelance writer, critic and translator • Most key works published posthumously • Edited and contextualised by famous contemporaries (e. g. Theodor Adorno and Hannah Arendt) • The Arcades Project: ‘the theatre of all my struggles and all my ideas’ (WB correspondence, 1930)
‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, in Illuminations (London: Pimlico, 1999), pp. 211 -244 • Modern technology effects changes beyond the technological • Changes on the status of the work of art, which loses the ‘aura’ of the unique original. • Political changes too: the loss of ‘aura’ effects a loss of the actual historical dimension of the work of art. • Reproducibility loss of context, & ultimately loss of meaning • Aesthetic contemplation becomes dissociated from the properly lived experience of the autonomous individual. • To ‘aestheticise’ (new meaning) = to empty out meaning; to make any informed judgement by the individual impossible and/or irrelevant. • The role of phantasmagoria: spectacles help switch off intellectual/critical faculties • "All efforts to render politics aesthetic leads to one thing: war. “ (p. 234) • Extremely influential – the debate continues (Adorno and Horkheimer, Debord, Mc. Luhan, and more recently, Agamben).
Influences/Starting Points • Charles Baudelaire (1941 -1867), French poet and critic. – Benjamin’s translations of CB’s work became the starting point for his theoretical writings on translation. – Benjamin greatly influenced by CB’s anatomies of the crown, the city, and his own time. • WB’s own approach to history – criticism of linear, causal notions of history. – ‘constellation’: a (metaphorically) spatial relation of events and contexts. Multiple entry points; complex cross-referencing. • The politics of vision: ‘humanity will be prey to a mythic anguish so long as phantasmagoria occupies a place in it. ’ (Exposé of 1939, Introduction)
The Arcades Project – STRUCTURE • Several hundred notes and reflections grouped in sheafs or ‘convolutes’: – Quotations of various lengths from a wide range of sources (from poets and philosophers to tourist guides and newspapers) – Although unfinished, already meticulously cross-referenced – Categorised in seemingly incommensurable groups: e. g. ‘Fashion’; ‘Boredom, Eternal Return’; ‘Marx’; ‘The Flâneur’; ‘Anthropological Materialism, History of Sects’ • Two synopses (exposés) written to order (1935 &1939), in which he lays out his main points of reference and principles for its transdisciplinary construction, incl. architecture; visual mass media (phantasmagorias and panoramas); urban existence (the flâneur); interiors; politics. • [First sketches and early drafts]
Why the ARCADES? • Architectural form of the 19 th c. ; covered passage through blocks of buildings lined with shops and other businesses • A whole world in miniature! • Gives rise to window-shopping • Makes shops into tourist sites • Forerunner of the department store • Made possible by new technologies of iron construction • Made popular thanks to – The appearance of luxury goods stores – The attraction of novelty (‘magasins de nouveautés’, i. e. fancy goods stores) • Esther Leslie: the external skeleton & montaged structure of the arcades mirrors that of WB’s work
“Les rue-galeries” – literally! “Those who have seen the gallery of the Louvre may take it as a model for the street-gallery in Harmony. ” E. Silberling, Dictionnaire de sociologie phalanstérienne (Paris, 1911) [A 3 a, 5] • About looking and being looked at • Goods on display, but also shoppers under mutual visual scrutiny – FASHION: climate control allows for more delicate, showy clothing and shoes, disposing of the need for heavy coats
‘Phantasmagorias’ & panoramas ‘Phantasmagoria’ = 1. An optical effect produced by a magic lantern (= ancestor of the slide projector). Figures are painted in transparent colours on glass, the rest painted opaque black, and projected onto a screen. The figures would often be made to appear as in motion, with quick switching of the slides and other tricks. 2. 18 th/19 th c. : popular street spectacle; sometimes a ghostly spectacle, hybrid between a séance and a picture show. 3. A medley of figures; illusive images. Associations: 1. Mass entertainment (part of mass—capitalist—culture) 2. Communion with the ‘beyond’ 3. Hallucination; dream ‘Panorama’ = continuous narrative scene or landscape painted to conform to a flat or curved background, which surrounds or is unrolled before the viewer. Precursor to the largescreen moving image
The lure of the commodity From economies of production to cultures of consumption NB: an ideological, not actual shift! (There’s no avoiding economic relations – simply a question of covering them up)
Commodity Fetishism • Fetishism: typical of ‘primitive’ civilisations; the rationally unfounded attribution to an object qualities that are not supported by its practical function; ‘magic’ • Marx: our rational capitalist societies aren’t immune! • Separation of use-value (real) and exchange-value • ‘Luxury goods’ • The boutiques of the arcades = the temples of the new religion of commodity fetishism
‘The commodity itself is the speaker here. ’ (WB) Cf. Judith Williamson, Decoding Advertisements (London: Marion Boyars, 1978), pp. 12 -13: ‘In the connection of people and objects, the two become interchangeable […]. Objects are made to speak—like people: “say it with flowers. ” […] Conversely, […] people become identified with objects: “the Pepsi People” […]’
‘Haussmannisation’ Baron Georges Eugène HAUSSMANN (18091891): as prefect of the Seine (1853 -70) carried out large-scale renovations of the city (modernisation of sanitation, public utilities, construction of the Paris Opera and Les Halles) • Gentrification: pushed the poor out to the banlieues • Made barricading impossible; his true goal: ‘to secure the city against civil war’ (WB, Ex 1939, E. ) • Esther Leslie: ‘Haussmann had obliterated history when he cut the boulevards through old Paris. ’
Note on historical context: France in the mid-19 th c. • 1848, reign of Louis-Philippe: 1% suffrage; public gatherings illegal • February 1848 Revolution: Paris in barricades The Second Republic (1848 -52) • Democratic freedoms but commercial decline • Conservative reaction against ‘red scare’ • December 1851 coup dissolved the national assembly; President Louis Napoléon Bonaparte becomes Emperor Napoléon III
The flâneur [= stroller; wanderer] • After Baudelaire, ‘man of the crowd’ (cf. his essay ‘The Painter of Modern Life’: social commentary and exposition of own poetics) • A symptom of modernity: at home in the anonymity of the city, among strangers • A detached observer (? ) • WB: extremely intrigued, but ultimately not convinced of the subversive potential of the flâneur • ‘The idleness of the flâneur is a demonstration against the division of labour. ’ [M 5, 8] • ‘The flâneur sabotages the traffic. Moreover, he is no buyer. He is merchandise. ’ [A 3 a, 7]
No conclusions, but far from aimless • History: not simply the past • The work of the historian: to make the past momentarily reappear in the present – in a flash (cf. ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’, Illuminations) • Thus, the past sheds lights on itself and the present • ‘The ruins of history spike the present’ (E. Leslie) • The 19 th c. ‘phantasmagoria’ illuminates 20 th c. capitalism and the emergent society of the spectacle • If in the arcades reality becomes like a dream, • and WB’s analysis is inspired by dream interpretation • Then the Arcades Project aims to awaken!
WB saw the 19 th c. Parisian arcades as having something to reveal about the world he lived in. What, if anything, do the arcades have to do with us? What is the meaning of the Arcades Project now?
e-Arcades by Robin Michals http: //www. e-arcades. com/ ‘Inspired by Walter Benjamin's Arcades Project, e- Arcades is an excursion of association among quotations concerning technology. Borrowing Benjamin's methodology of juxtaposing quotes, e-Arcades grasps at an understanding of the effect of our technologies on how we think as well as live. ’ “The industry is running scared from the technology that evens out the creative field and makes artists harder to pimp. I'm glad to be a contributor to the bomb. ” Chuck D Public Enemy, speaking of MP 3 1999 [cf. his Rapstation. com, a multi-format site with TV & radio original programming the free downloads]
Important Announcement Seminars for groups 1 & 2 this Wednesday, 5 March, will take place in GA 49 (on the left of the canteen entrance) instead of the studio.
READING LIST Core Reading Excerpts from The Arcades Project published in Other Voices, 1. 1 (March 1997): 1. The Arcades http: //www. othervoices. org/gpeaker/Arcades. html 2. The Flâneur http: //www. othervoices. org/gpeaker/Flaneur. html 3. The Commodity http: //www. othervoices. org/gpeaker/Commod. html Further Reading (Library & Internet resources) Baudelaire, Charles, ‘The Painter of Modern Life’, in The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays, trans. and ed. Jonathan Mayne (London: Phaidon, 1995), pp. 1 -41. Shelfmark 759. 06 BAU Benjamin, Walter, The Arcades Project, trans. Howard Eiland Kevin Mc. Laughlin (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1999). Shelfmark 944. 361 081 BEN Buck-Morss, Susan, The Dialectics of Seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1989). Shelfmark 720. 1 BEN Caygill, Howard, Walter Benjamin: The colour of experience (London: Routledge, 1998). Shelfmark 701 BEN Leslie, Esther, ‘Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project’ http: //www. militantesthetix. co. uk/waltbenj/yarcades. html The Walter Benjamin Research Syndicate (an on-line research resource for individuals interested in the writings and critical theory of WB) http: //www. wbenjamin. org/walterbenjamin. html