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life is represented?
“These arcades, a recent invention of industrial luxury, are glass-roofed, marble-paneled corridors extending through whole blocks of building, whose owners have joined together for such enterprises. Lining both sides of these corridors, which get their light from above, are the most elegant shops, so that the passage is a city, a world in miniature.”
Illustrated Guide to Paris: (quoted in the Arcades Project; Expose of 1935 p.3)
Introduction What does the city represent? Is there a conventional or consensus view of the city and if so can this view be challenged by the individual observation or critique? The city is monolithic by nature, a homogeneous space that represents state, power, business, commodities and culture. Walter Benjamin took the architectural montage that was 19th Paris and deconstructed and analysed it. He broke it up into fragments and then with these fragments built his own montage in the form of his greatest work, the Arcades Project. This project was developed over a 13-year period and remained incomplete at the time of Benjamin’s tragic death in 1940. Like a symphony which ends on a discordant and unresolved chord we are left with many unanswered questions. And yet this posthumous work has proven hugely influential since its publication in Germany in 1982 and its subsequent publication in English in 1999. Within the oblique map that is the Arcades Project Benjamin challenges the way in which the city is represented. This essay explores how Benjamin’s writings, especially the Arcades Project, challenge the physical and the imaginary city, the conventional representation and the convention that the city represents.
Methodology: In this essay I will surrender to some of the key concepts in Benjamin’s work. I will look at how his representation of the city can influence how we view and understand the city. I am especially interested in looking at the central themes in Benjamin’s greatest work, the Arcades Project, a work Benjamin described as “the theatre of all my struggles and all my ideas”. With these struggles and ideas he aimed to chronicle the history of the
presents me with the opportunity to stroll.”  To achieve these photographs I attempt to take on role similar to that of a flâneur. in this case the city of London. The photographs depict fragments of the city. I will use some of the central themes from this posthumous work to form a kind of road map through which my exploration will navigate and proceed. “In 1839 it was considered elegant to take a tortoise out walking. The series is inspired by Benjamin’s use of what he called “literary montage”. fetishism. I will examine important motifs. over which Paris majestically presided. This gives us an idea of the tempo of flânerie in the arcades. My camera like the turtle sets the pace at which I stroll.nineteenth century. make observations and form images in my mind and through my lens. a literary convention he employed in his essay One Way Street from 1928 and also in his Arcades Project. These images form part of a series that I am currently working on titled ‘fragments of London’. 3 . motifs which challenge the ways in which city life is represented. like an open-air arcade. I am including in this essay a number of photographs. I am interested in photographing the details which mostly go unnoticed. The city. I wander the streets of London with camera in hand in search of fragments. The aim is to create a montage of fragmented images that on the surface may seem unrelated but which are linked in some way. such as consumerism. the flâneur and montage.
I will explore more closely the role of the flâneur later in this essay but for now I would like to examine the background to the Arcades Project and Benjamin’s use of the arcades as a metaphor for the city. “like the beads of a rosary”.The Arcades Project: The Arcades Project is a textual montage consisting of fragmented ideas. but the imprint of the image has been there from the start”  Benjamin’s fragments of ideas and philosophy seem to be particularly relevant in the current epoch. It is a text that can bring little joy to the mind that comprehends intellectual phenomena in a logical or chronological manner. This became the starting point 4 . In the following year Benjamin and Hessel wrote a short article titled ‘Arcades’. In this time when consumerism has well and truly established itself as a kind of generic religion for the masses. The city of Paris was Benjamin’s chosen city both as a place of exile and as a controlling metaphor for this work. the flâneur occupy an important place in a broad range of diverse academic departments. Benjamin’s investigations into the urban space. especially from the perspective of the urban stroller. In 1926 Benjamin collaborated with his close friend Franz Hessel on a translation of Marcel Proust’s A la recherché du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time). a phantasmagorical city as a metaphor for past and future.  These fragments of ideas and philosophy develop and deepen over time. to use Benjamin’s metaphor. In the words of Buck-Morss: “These [philosophical intuitions] “develop” only in the sense that a photographic plate develops: time deepens definition and contrast. from culture and media studies to architecture and photography.
shops and concessions. They were wooden structures rather than the glass and iron of the Passage des Panorama.for Benjamin’s Arcades Project. dissolved during the Revolution. The Arcades Project takes its name from an architectural form of the nineteenth century. which opened in 1800. mannequins and of the people who passed through its passages. There were some earlier example (Balzac for example mentioned one such arcade in his novel ‘lost illusions. This connection presents the arcades as a product and manifestation of secularisation from one perspective but from another as a locus for the displacement of one religion by another. With their vast display of diverse commodities the arcades were a perfect place in which to linger and practice the art of window shopping and to develop a desire for commodities. Benjamin was intrigued by 5 . Built from iron and glass these buildings housed juxtapositions of window displays made up of various kinds of commodities. The first example of an arcade was the Passage des Panoramas. a work that would develop over a 13 year period and remain incomplete at the time of his death. This ground previously housed old buildings including convents. which incidentally is still in use today. A city guide from 1852 described the arcade as “a city. from compulsory Christianity to the worship of the commodity. Most of the Paris arcades were built between 1800 and 1830 and most were erected on the right bank of the river Seine. a world in miniature” . shop signs. Arcades were passages lined on either side by businesses. 1843) but they were not constructed in the same way. The Paris arcades sheltered the first modern form of consumerism and turned shopping into an aesthetic event.
department stores. “A shelter from showers.such descriptions because of his fascination for representations of the world in miniature. He placed them onto index cards arranging them into files. The arcades were for Benjamin miniature cities within the city and as such they were the perfect object through which to study the antinomies of capitalism. From 1934. prostitution. world exhibitions. a comfortable and seductive space to wander through” and also “a route that is always dry and even. without abandoning the aforementioned themes he added themes that were more political in nature like the boulevard-building “Haussmannization” of Paris. Benjamin explores a myriad of motifs in the Arcades Project including panoramas. Benjamin compiled in his arcade project a vast array of interlinked scraps made up of quotes and notations. This type of environment offered the Parisians of the nineteenth century an alternative universe of consumption. and boredom. The arcades held out the promise of a utopian world. snow or mud outside. stamps and toys.  Amedee Kermel This quote could be describing the shopping malls in use today. a refuge from winter wind or summer dust. For example show shakers. But the utopia dream sought after by the passageur was not the utopia offered by the arcades. flâneur. which he was fond of collecting. called 6 . and a sure means of reducing the distance one has to walk”. a dream world within the city. A universe within which they could walk free from the noise of horse-drawn carriages and the discomforts of rain. Marx and Baudelaire etc. Their womb-like nature offers similar comfort to its inhabitants and protection from the elements.
Benjamin was giving voice to the origins of commodity fetishism. The German philosopher Theodore Adorno employed the term “dialectical image”. We have simply acquired more lawyers to add to this facade that is the homogenous city. This did not however amount to a form of “industrial archaeology” but rather an allegorical prompting of these dead witnesses to speak of their affinities to our time. technologies and artefacts as the precursors of modernity. in other words. Certainly in the privileged cities of the west we are now experiencing an age of extreme materiality. as the past witnesses of the present. that which points in two directions at once and is expressive of both oppression (by the ideology of consumption) and liberation (into a utopia of plenty). Adorno’s “dialectical image” and the phenomenon of extreme cultural ambivalence are perhaps even more visible in this current epoch. He read the arcades as a phenomenon of extreme cultural ambivalence. And yet the expectation of living in a utopian state has not materialised. Where is the utopian dream that modernity seemed to promise? If Benjamin was alive today and in the guise of the flâneur took a stroll down Oxford Street would he simply bare witness to an extreme form of what he saw in the arcades? Would he see even more clearly the cultural ambivalence that surrounds us? 7 .konvolute (convolutes). He was in a sense creating a historical map of nineteenth century Paris. Benjamin’s aim was to treat bygone relics of the arcades period such as its architecture.
Benjamin was interested in unearthing what lay behind the facade that is the monolithic and homogenous city. the idle stroller whom Benjamin so ambivalently admired. Dec. 21st.Image 1: The lure of the commodity. Behind this facade lay history. 2005. the past which promised a utopian future through modernity but which didn’t deliver. London. With its labyrinth of passages. In reading it we take on the aimless role of the flâneur. the Arcades Project physically resembles the city itself. And he saw a looming dystopia in the rise of fascist Germany. It is important to note that Benjamin was writing at a time when the arcades were in decline. 8 . Window shopping on Regent Street. and fragmented nature.
It is a question of attachment to oneself. As inhabitants of a city space we have little time to observe the visual complexities that surround us.’ However it is common to associate the word flâneur with one who is idle and who has the decadent luxury of having enough time to take meandering and aimless strolls in the name of curiosity. “The street becomes a dwelling for the flâneur. Benjamin’s flâneur is an active sociologist or a reader of the environment around him. The flâneur did not experience the city as part of the crowd but rather as an individual. Benjamin highlighted the cognitive value associated with the urban stroll. This lack of engagement in our environment results in our visual awareness and intelligence becoming rusty. Small details or fragments escape our attention as we travel to and from work or dash through the high streets in pursuit of some commodity.The Flâneur First I would like to examine what it means to be a flâneur. Indeed ‘individual’ is a key word in Benjamin’s concept of the flâneur. enamelled signs of businesses 9 . he is as much at home among the facades of houses as a citizen is in his four walls. involvement without the city. When Benjamin used the term flâneur he was talking about a very different individual. The term was appropriated by a number of theorists to represent a more substantial activity. For him the flâneur was always in possession of his individuality. To him the shiny. Our visual and indeed aural awareness is made blunt through the stresses brought about by the culture of urban living. Simply defined it means ‘one who strolls aimlessly through urban spaces.
CCTV cameras.”  10 . ‘Walkers. The walls are the desk against which he presses his notebooks. but is forever looking to the past. news-stands are his libraries and the terraces of cafes are the balconies from which he looks down on his household after his work is done. preserved within the artificially created environments of pedestrian streets. or pre-industrial tribes. He has been marginalised by the social and technological conditions of modernity: the ever increasing domination of social space by a consumer culture and the bureaucratisation of the everyday. alert the monitor jockeys. we are interrogated by a security patrol…… You are allowed to walk a half mile between security shakedowns. panning restlessly.’ Walkers without dogs. to which his back is turned” In the city that Benjamin inhabits the flâneur is an endangered species.”  The writer Ian Sinclair echoes Benjamin’s concerns in his work ‘London Orbital’: “Pausing to admire the potential photo-op. …. the flâneur: “like tigers. are cordoned off on reservations. the space of modernity.” The flâneur’s movement creates anachronism: he travels urban space.are at least as good a wall ornament as an oil painting is to the bourgeois in his salon. In the words of Susan Buck-Morss. and underground passages.. parks. Calls come in from nervous watchers. This reminds us of Benjamin’s angel who is driven by the storms of progress “irresistibly into the future.
To date all the conservation work on this endangered species has been done by cultural theorists with a nostalgic yen to take on the role of the flâneur for themselves. In structure the Arcades Project is a kaleidoscope of pieces gleaned from literature and mass media which textually evokes the urban phantasmagoria of Paris. continue to bear his traces.The Arcades Project both constitutes and contains the clue to how the flâneur may have adapted to the conditions of modernity and beyond and in doing so perhaps avoided extinction. no matter how new they may appear. In his deep meditation of past and present he. and refuse” from the Bibliotheuqe Nationale. We can detect in Benjamin’s mourning of the loss of the flâneur the ‘dialectic of the flâneur’. Buck-Morrs’ comments that the flâneur “becomes extinct only by exploding into a myriad of forms. which later may be translated into art or literature. the phenomenological characteristics of which. This is the truth of the flâneur. After all Benjamin as a literary ‘ragpicker’ had much in common with the flâneur.”  11 . more visible in his afterlife than in his flourishing. as ur-form.  The flâneur is also unearthing the past as he wanders the streets collecting images in his mind. nebulous textual passages of the Arcades Project becomes a task analogous to the flâneur’s aleatory negotiation of the city’s ever-changing landscape. And so strolling through the fragmented. in his own words becomes a ragpicker unearthing “the rags. Benjamin imagines he has much in common with the flâneur.
and Brassai all of who were interested in photographing the darker aspects of the city space. Every street is a vertiginous experience for the flâneur. and squares into the space of half an hour? And does the flâneur do anything different?’  The phantasmagoria: masses of people promenading through the arcades and streets in a dreamlike state or fever created a veil for the real nature of the economy. In her critique ‘On Photography’ Susan Sontag highlights this overlap when she writes: “photography first comes into its own as an extension of the eye of the middle-class flâneur. Benjamin asks: “Couldn’t an exciting film be made from the map of Paris? From the unfolding of its various aspects in temporal succession? From the compression of a centuries-long movement of streets. a past that is much vaster and never lived by him. cruising the urban inferno. whose sensibility was so accurately charted by Baudelaire. It was the flâneur who stepped aside from the crowd and who fulfilled dreams.”  Here Sontag is thinking of a tradition of photographers such as Atget. However the streets do not evoke in him a personal and private past through the interior realm of memory. 12 . On the contrary. surpassed graphic fantasies and answered uneasy expectations. boulevards. the fixity of the signs deposited there allows him to visit the past in his memory. the voyeuristic stroller who discovers the city as a landscape of voluptuous extremes. stalking. The photographer is an armed version of the solitary walker reconnoitring. Brandt.As a photographer of urban spaces I am particularly interesting in the overlap between the spatial practice of the flâneur and the spatial practice of the photographer. arcades.
mannequins and illuminations. the establishment of relationships between disparate objects.My view of the flâneur is somewhat romanticized. For Benjamin montage was not only a style but a philosophy of history: it entailed focusing on the discontinuities separating past and present. however this is the attitude that has been consistently expressed by historians of the flâneur. window displays. In placing them onto index cards and arranging them into konvolute (convolutes) he set out to create his map of the nineteenth century. Benjamin compiled in his arcade project a vast array of interlinked scraps made up of quotes and notations. The title ‘Arcades Project’ derives both its name and its structure from the nineteenth century architectural form. It is 13 . Montage: Benjamin was especially interested in the potential of montage. Montage construction treats its material elements as contrasting segments that must be bolted together for maximum impact. a technique made famous by the European avant-garde of this time. montage was no longer a prescript or construction in technology but was now used to describe art and literature: from the arcades to Dada and surrealism to the city novels of James Joyce and others. apercus. and emphasizing a utopian rather then progressive notion of historical transformation. The arcades were an architectural montage of iron and glass which housed juxtapositions of shop-signs. As the nineteenth century evolved into the twentieth century. as a way to preserve a reservoir of hope in otherwise damaged life. swift shifts of though. In literary form this involves fragments.
one star in a constellation: from that star. forms.”  Furthermore Benjamin states the following in his file on methodology: “Method of the project: literary montage. The dream presents an array of images. In One Way Street. But the rags.impossible to determine if Benjamin intended the Arcades Projects to result in the book we have now: a collection of mostly fragments of other books. which are not understood until contemplated and worked out to form a narrative through patterns of causation. to come into their own: by making use of them. It was the capital of dreams and the dream of capital. Benjamin introduces a new kind of reading suited to the new non narrative form that was montage. the refuse – these I will not inventory but allow. Benjamin wrote: “The quotations in my works are like robbers lying in ambush on the highway to attack the passerby with weapons drawn and rob him of his conviction. Each individual section of the text. Paris was an appropriate city to extract these fragments from for it was the ‘most dreamed of object of the surrealist’. Both in the Arcades Project and in One Way Street. I shall purloin no valuables. Merely show. I needn’t say anything. often at a considerable remove. appropriate no ingenious formulations. It is very possible that he intended this work to result in a literary montage interspersed with occasional comments.  14 .” Benjamin’s methodology was analogous to dream interpretation. in a favourite Benjaminian metaphor. The arcades housed the dreams of the nineteenth century masses and so too did the city. vivid fragments. as one element in a montage. in the only way possible. prospects and “eccentric figurativeness” open out onto other sections of the text.
much like a cubist collage. modernist aesthetic. In his literary montage Benjamin assembled his fragments without regard for disparities. Benjamin writes: “The new dialectical method of doing history teaches us to pass in spirit-with the rapidity and intensity of dreams-through what has been. a world to which every dream at last refers”. because its juxtaposed elements were not the true urphenomenon of the principle of montage as a constructive principle”  At the end of the nineteenth century the first architectural manifestation of this principle of montage came into existence with the building of the Eiffel Tower. to the point of waking. One Way Street is a good example of an avant-garde. in order to experience the present as a waking world.Historical awaking is a key aim of the Arcades Project as a whole. But it was preceded by the Chinese Puzzle which. Benjamin represents a kind of dream interpreter of history. “The Kaleidoscope was itself an invention of the nineteenth century. 15 . Benjamin understands montage to be a form that evolved from technology during the course of the nineteenth century.  Through studying the nineteenth century the reader is brought to the threshold of the present.
He read them as a phenomenon of extreme cultural ambivalence. Capitalist modernity had come to focus in Paris under the monarchy of Louis Philippe (1830-48) and the Second Empire of Napoleon III (1852-70). He achieved this by systematizing his mountain of research notes into colour-coded index cards.A Dialectical Image: Benjamin claimed that the arcades were “the most important architecture of the nineteenth century” . As a leftist intellectual of the pre-war generation Benjamin was somewhat unique in being just as enchanted by the consumer spectacle of the modern city as disturbed by the power of this enchantment to produce a public caught in the city’s phantasmagorias.”  Theodor Adorno used the term “dialectical image” to describe that which points in two directions. The various exposés and plans for the project provide a sort of guide for the purposes of orientation in the Arcades Project. How could Benjamin describe the regressive elements and utopian potentials of this culture in “dialectical images”? He wanted to show the regressive elements along with the utopian potentials of this culture in tangible and effective “dialectical images”. Louis- 16 . Daguerre or the Panoramas. Grandville or the World Exhibitions. The arcades had two faces. they were a significant historical object and a “dream and wish image of the collective. Marx’s used the term phantasmagoria in his work ‘Das Kapital’ to present the illusions and spectacles that he imagined as repressed wishes. Its sections are named after a charged nineteenth century space and a figure that is closely associated with that space: Fourier or the Arcades. For example the 1935 exposé emphasises the architectural interests of the project. Here was Benjamin’s clue to depicting sensual immediacy.
Sunday Dec. the epoch and the project itself. and help to give shape to the city. Speaker corner. 17 . Baudelaire or the Streets of Paris. London.Philippe or the Interieur. Haussmann or the Barricades. Image 2: The preacher speaks of a utopian dream. These section headings are like pharoses on a city plan. 18th 2005.
18 . this culture also offers to its inhabitants the opportunity for individual and collective freedom librating them from small-town prejudice and enlarging one’s experience and frame of reference.Benjamin and the city of Paris: Benjamin first visited Paris in 1913. As mentioned already Benjamin’s image of the city was a “dialectical image”. Like his former teacher. its dissonance and unexpected upheavals. A place where money was the common measure of all human worth and value and quality is reduced to quantity. one large division of labour exchange.” The tempo of the city. its endless interactions and encounters. Paradoxically. contrasted markedly with the slower pace of the village or small town. In the same year Benjamin attended a series of lectures by the modernist Georg Simmel. Benjamin in his Arcades Project recognized how the metropolis “intensified emotional life” and presented the “continuous shift of external and internal stimuli. On the one hand he knew that the city was a manifestation of a huge economy. a two week trip made during his Berlin student days. whose Philosophy of Money and Metropolis and Mental Life left a huge impression Benjamin.
” “idleness” and “prostitution. Soho.” “fashion. Baudelaire’s allegorical style influenced Benjamin greatly. a man he had great admiration for.Layla: meaning intoxication. Boulevards blasted open by the Emperor’s master builder Baron Georges Haussmann. Labels of commodity fetish. 19 .” “boredom. London Benjamin’s perspective on the city was tempered in no small way by Baudelaire. “mirrors.” all these Baudelairean motifs feature heavily in the Arcades Project. It is through Baudelaire that Benjamin takes us on a tour of the Paris of the Second Empire of Louis Napoleon.
Once a place from which to communicate. the Arcades Project can be read as a history of capitalism. He was drawn to its institutions and to the traces of capitalist production. all vying for the unreasonable and excessive 20 . The city is primarily a place for commerce. Image 4: In the age of mobile phones the phone box begins to look redundant. Benjamin was intrigued by the material cultural that was capitalism and the modern city. now a place where a mysterious specific other can communicate with you. with an emphasis on the transformation from a culture of production to one of consumption. presenting a juxtaposed collection of disparate window displays. The high street like a montage. A space where buying and selling is the order of the day.Consumerism Conceptually. and indeed night. And yet it takes on new roles.
These building tend to be aesthetically bland but extremely functional. Inside. They are situated outside the city centre to accommodate the ever-expanding communities that constitute the city suburbs. accommodating all kinds of shopping experiences. especially the middle classes. which featured in the early arcades. In contrast. In 21 . However. The arcade was the forerunner to the shopping mall: The Parisian bourgeoisie and the California Valley Girl share the same ancestral heritage. These cinemas play a similar role to the panoramas. trying to seduce them into the game of consumer fetishism. increasingly in the form of a cinema or a Cineplex. self-supporting community. everybody would relish the good life and experience and the utopian charm of modernity.” a recuperative environment where human beings could come together in an authentic. many of the shopping malls in existence today have little or no aesthetic value. Benjamin upholds the central city street. Fourier viewed the arcades as “the architectural canon of the phalanstery. His city is a city of hope. increasingly retreat into suburban havens that include shopping malls. and the car. a place alive with pedestrians and activity. They no longer partake in the culture of street life but rather disengage it. and offering a huge array of eating options and entertainment. unlike the elegant glass and iron structures that were the Parisian arcades.attention of the passing public. Today we see people. both geographically and politically. The shopping mall serves a similar role as the original arcades.
What did we get instead of the promised utopia that modernity did not deliver? Benjamin doesn’t attempt to answer this question. whether it is in the form of literature. Benjamin. in his writing sings a paean to this expansive and all inclusive urban space. His search for the Urgeschichte (the original history. 22 . individually and collectively. Conclusion: The unfinished work. The Arcades Project fails in this regard. and to apprehend the past that lives in the present. Like Mahler’s unfinished 10th Symphony the Arcades Project leaves us in a wilderness of the unknown.the streets the outside becomes inside and the idle wanderer becomes the flâneur. the utopia that lies beneath the homogenous city) has become an end in its own right. These conclusions however can never accompanied by resolution. In the broader context of cultural history. Benjamin’s writings have been most explicitly influential in shaping the study of the modern city. in this case Benjamin’s wilderness. art or music can offer little in the way of resolution. To look beyond the monolith to the fragments which constitute it. Above all he has taught us to question how we define or perceive the city. free in the wilderness to draw our own conclusions. He leaves us free in this regard.
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