Around 1925, the Passage de l’Opéra in Paris, a glass-roofed structure housing shops, known as magasin de nouveautés, was slated for demolition. This particular arcade contained a bathhouse, itinerant lodgings, a brothel or two, small restaurants, and Café Certa, a gathering spot for Dadaist and Surrealist writers and artists. Like many an outraged French writer before and since, the poet Louis Aragon blamed the demolition on the United States, complaining that France’s Boulevard Haussmann Building Society had caved to “the great American penchant for city planning.”
In response, Aragon wrote Paris Peasant (1926), immortalizing the soon-to-be obliterated Passage de l’Opéra. The novel inventories the arcade’s “glaucous gleam” and “outlaw principle,” the shops’ exotic merchandise and accessories, the tempting menus, posters, magazines and advertisements, and the sly expressions of passersby — the “fauna of human fantasies,” and “unrecognized sphinxes” embodying Paris’ “contempt for prohibitions” and “irrepressible sense of delinquency.”
Walter Benjamin, a German-born intellectual temporarily living in Paris, was an immediate admirer of this new book. In a letter to Theodor W. Adorno, his friend and eventual executor, Benjamin recalled being galvanized by Paris Peasant. “I could never read more than two or three pages in bed at night,” he admits, “before my heart started to beat so strongly that I had to lay the book aside.”
Benjamin captured his own urban wanderlust in One Way Street (Belknap/Harvard 2016). This book-length essay about aimless walks in Weimar-era Berlin, like Paris Peasant, replicates the arbitrariness of a city, describing encountered shops and objects, and mapping connections among simultaneous activities — walking, looking, thinking, joking, free associating, daydreaming and composing. Reflecting on how the “bloodbath” of World War I had been facilitated by industrialization, Benjamin closes out One Way Street on a rousingly positive note. He proposes that technology, epitomized by the modern city, can be emancipated from the grasp of “the ruling class” and “the imperialists” with their “lust for profit.” The essay rethinks technology as reconciliatory rather than destructive, not a means for conquering nature but an instrument for mastering “the relation between nature and man.”
Of course, that was 1928. How feasible, today, is Benjamin’s hopefulness about humanity and technology? Earlier this year the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists moved its doomsday clock closer to midnight, meaning that the risks of a human wipeout via nuclear weapons has become much more likely. And, if that were not dire enough, as a result of human industry and its toxic waste, the habitability of our planet has deteriorated at a faster rate than climate scientists had previously predicted.
Meanwhile, despite its undeniable efficiencies and freedoms, digital media proceeds apace with fracturing face-to-face solidarities while accelerating the fictionalization of crucial facts. Computer hackers threaten the legitimacy of democratic elections. The current American President is an Internet troll. Given such large-scale technological malpractice, even sympathetic contemporary critics question the ongoing relevance of Benjamin, the prophet who found glimmers of hope in the “mutual penetration of art and science” heralded by what he called our “age of mechanical reproduction.”
In an attempt to save Benjamin from being eclipsed by the very cultural theories and media studies he pioneered, The Arcades: Contemporary Art and Walter Benjamin at The Jewish Museum situates his thought in relation to current — and largely American — photography, painting, film, and sculpture, as well as appropriated texts collaged into bewildering typographic arrangements by Kenneth Goldsmith.
Each gallery room is devoted to a given section – what Benjamin called a “convolute” — in his thousand-plus page tome Das Passagen-Werk (1982), known in English translation as The Arcades Project (Belknap/Harvard 1999), a speculative dive into modernity through Paris’s 19th-century shopping arcades. Lobbing a history lesson into a multimedia funhouse, this uneven yet colorful and busy exhibition provides the prospective reader of the byzantine Arcades Project with timelines of the author’s life, as well as explicatory wall charts, print photographs, and reproductions of handwritten manuscripts, lists, journals and other keepsakes. It turns out that Benjamin’s road to The Arcades Project was a long and winding one.
Born in 1892 into an affluent and secular Jewish family whose father was a sometime art dealer, Benjamin was a devoted student, specializing in the volatility of Baroque and Romantic literature. He preserved traces of religious mysticism in his writing even as he turned into a practical philosopher, social commentator, and cultural journalist. Having left an early marriage and promising academic career behind in Germany, Benjamin’s personal relationships and fact-finding travels in Europe in the 1920s and ‘30s — especially excursions to Russia and to Italy — reinforced the revolutionary beliefs about mass industrialization and rapid urbanization that he had gleaned from his reading of Karl Marx, Max Weber, and George Simmel.
And he absorbed work by contemporaries like Siegfried Kracauer, a fellow member of the Frankfurt School, who ushered in the study of film and pop culture, and Austrian satirist Karl Kraus, who ridiculed the lies and boneheaded practices of exploitative journalism. Probably the most influential contemporary guiding Benjamin’s evolution was Hungarian philosopher György Lukács. As literary critic, Lukács examined how longings for a lost utopia shaped modern literature. After converting to Marxism, he theorized about the neutering of human self-awareness and initiative by consumer capitalism. This alienating psychosocial development, sometimes known as “reification,” conditions the members of a society to be docile and contemplative once they have conceptualized their existence in terms of a commodity, functioning passively and moving “automatically,” one more object in the capitalist sphere of everyday production and exchange.
In the streets of Paris, Benjamin earned a living as a journalist while hunting out concrete examples on which to field test and then synthesize cutting-edge social theories. Encouraged by fellow German expatriate author Franz Hessel, he learned how to wander Paris with a voyeuristic curiosity modeled on that of the flaneur — a detached, attentive spectator who believed in the “religious intoxication of great cities” — who passed through every line of Charles Baudelaire’s poetry, especially the groundbreaking volume Les Fleurs du Mal (1857).
Through voracious reading of French literature, Benjamin traced how Baudelaire’s flaneur, a nonconformist and “illuminati,” whom the poet himself found in Edgar Allen Poe’s story “The Man of the Crowd” (1854), was reinvented by Surrealist novels like Louis Aragon’s Paris Peasant, Andre Breton’s Nadja (1928), and in the sensory shocks registered by the meandering narrator in Marcel Proust’s introspective epic In Search of Lost Time (1913-1927).
More than a stereotype or poseur, this flaneur represented an alternative form of modern consciousness, a sort of double agent. As Benjamin had learned from firsthand experience, as well as from his reading of Marx and Simmel, urban capitalism had severed the workplace from home. In doing so, it instigated a never-ending psychic tug-of-war over which domain was the more authentic, or real, and this tension played out through the surreal stagecraft of the modern city.
In imaginative literature as in real life, the flaneur sauntered about manufactured spaces, neither a machinelike worker nor a sleepwalking consumer. As a detached outsider, he is able to rip off the optical blinders and sensory filters imposed by civic conformity and functional pragmatism. Instead of submitting to the fate of commoditized subject or capitalist tool, the flaneur just wanders the city, scoping out randomness, changeability and ephemerality at every turn and intersection, stockpiling time itself, as Benjamin puts it, the way batteries store energy for future untold uses.
In a newly published English edition of Franz Hessel’s Walking in Berlin: A Flaneur in the Capital (MIT Press, 2017), Benjamin’s foreword further refines this enigmatic mission of random strolling (known in French as flânerie). The wanderer crosses thresholds without purpose other than observing how fellow pedestrians and even inanimate objects seem to quicken with fresh life and return his gaze. As “a connoisseur of the liminal” and the “fleeting,” the flaneur is “a werewolf roaming restlessly in the social wilderness.”
However wild it may seem at times, the cityscape is technologically determined. Still, its terrain is a magnetic field bristling with meaning. Following the collapse of religion and rituals, Benjamin believed that capitalism’s “commodity fetishism,” apparent in new technologies, had reawakened the human imagination and its progressive motivations. The paradoxical hunger for nonstop novelty and the compulsive re-creation of newness, propelled by modern capitalism, represent transcendent urges that could be tapped for subversive, collectivist action. This potential forms the thesis behind twin iterations of Benjamin’s essay, “Paris, Capital of the Nineteenth Century” (1935 & 1937), his overview of the mountain range that became known as The Arcades Project.
Begun in 1928, contracted as a book in 1930, and unfinished when he died in 1940, The Arcades Project is a hydra-headed “exploration of the soul of the commodity.” Benjamin burrows through archives chronicling the making and remaking of Paris, from the age of the Roman catacombs to periods of street-driven furor during the French Revolution, the 1848 “February Revolution” and the vanquished Paris Commune of 1871. The gargantuan yet well-ordered text brims with lucid annotations, extended quotations from rare source materials, fascinating paraphrases, provocative formulations and philosophical propositions, poetic digressions, lyrical aphorisms and experimental theses.
He researched any topic remotely relevant to the fabrication of fin de siècle Paris — iron construction, doll manufacturing, advertising trends, newspaper deadlines, city grids and barricades, street lighting, Jugenstil décor and kitsch, photography and film, the caricatures of Honoré Daumier and Gérard Grandville, and the architectural and engineering systems put forth by utopian industrialists like Henri de Saint-Simon and Charles Fourier.
In particular, the text dissects urban enclosures invented by modern technology. These include mass-produced clothing, shopping arcades, railroad stations, train cars, automobiles, panoramas, bookstores, kiosks, stalls, movie houses, and large palaces constructed for world’s fairs. Taking these apart and examining their mechanisms, effects, and textures, Arcades notes how these technologies replicate, for any user, the time-suspending spatial configuration in dreams. Thus each urban innovation exemplifies an ever-more active responsiveness hardwired into human beings. For Benjamin, human ingenuity and sensory appetite exceeds the surface consumerism and somnambulism of daily city life.
Although The Arcades Project is unapproachable as a linear text, it abounds with insights and quotable gems. “Technology,” writes Benjamin, “is the spark that ignites the powder of nature.” Department stores are “temples.” Personal possessions — termed “phantasmagoria” for the imagined value that their owners project into such objects — are among his favorite topics. In the age of disposability, those who live by the rule of “chance,” such as the vagrant — known in Paris as “ragpickers” — along with addicts, gamblers, and collectors, are, to Benjamin, modernist anti-heroes in the transient city, as they “harken back to medieval times when a person did not dispose of possessions but bequeathed them [all] through a detailed will.”
The predicaments of boredom and anticipation are, Benjamin notes, modern, urbanized constructs. “We are bored,” he writes, “when we don’t know what we are waiting for.” Greed is a byproduct of capitalism that then becomes a state of mind. “The advertisement is the ruse by which the dream forces itself on industry.” The phony positivity mandated by employers in factories and offices reveals how conventional jobs resemble prostitution. “‘Keep smiling’ maintains, on the job market, the practice of the prostitute who, on the love market, flashes a smile at the customer.” And all forms of modern clothing are kinky. “Every fashion,” Benjamin writes, “is to some extent a bitter satire on love.” And every fashion is a fetishism that shows how “sex does away with the boundaries separating the organic world from the inorganic.”
For all its stirring speculations and ruminations, The Arcades Project never quite explains how all that electric human vitality and untamable city energy can be repurposed into political outcomes. Clues about possible transformations, however, lurk in Benjamin’s more famous writings on the history of photography and what he named the “optical unconscious.”
Just as psychoanalysis encourages patients to study memory and dreams in order to acknowledge and then parry the unconscious drives causing unfortunate mental states, Benjamin believed that the modern metropolis contains a corresponding public optical unconscious made visible by technologies that can sharpen and awaken untapped human sensory and expressive capacities. In this vein, the apparatuses within the modern city can be thought of as a hall of mirrors into which the individual can be surprised by the reflection of a multifaceted self, one far more dynamic and creative than had been assumed in the age before photographs and films.
By studying the revelations within, say, the haunted street photographs of Eugène Atget, or the facial tics of Charlie Chaplin on the silver screen, or the montage-style collages of Raoul Hausmann, Benjamin believed the masses could mobilize into new modes of being, creating an effective politics through these hitherto unknown aptitudes. In his essay, “Surrealism: The Last Snapshot of the European Intelligentsia” (1929), Benjamin foresees such transformation, “only when in technology body and image so interpenetrate that all revolutionary discharge becomes bodily collective innervation, and all the bodily innervations of the collective become revolutionary discharge.”
Laboring away in the stacks and archives of the Bibliothèque Nationale well into the 1930s, Benjamin saw the news getting worse by the day. Surely he knew his days in France were numbered. In 1940, stalled in his flight from the Nazis, Benjamin killed himself in Portbou, Spain.
In hindsight, his perseverance and patience are as superhuman as the unrivaled scope of The Arcades Project. As he laid out in his epilogue to “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1935), fascism “introduced aesthetics into politics” and commandeered new technologies in order to shepherd the masses “to express” themselves homogeneously — ruses that forced the populace “to their knees” and unleashed “imperialistic warfare,” solidifying what had been the precarious dominance of the moneyed class over political life.
Benjamin insisted that spectacle-driven fascism involved an “unnatural utilization” of technology against organic life rather than on its behalf. The cataclysms of World War II were not the fault of innovation in itself. That confidence about technical progress is pictorially rendered in Benjamin’s beloved painting, Paul Klee’s “Angelus Novus,” (1920) which he purchased from his friend Gershom Scholem. Klee’s image, as described by Benjamin in “A Concept of History” (1940), resonate as intensely today as they did then:
“Angelus Novus” shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe that keeps piling ruin upon ruin and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them.The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward.
This storm is what we call progress.
The Arcades: Contemporary Art and Walter Benjamin continues at The Jewish Museum (109 5th Avenue at 92nd Street) through August 6.