was to document as concretely as possible, and thus lend a "heightened graphicness" to, the scene of revolutionary change that was the nineteenth century. At issue was what he called "the commodification of things." He was interested in the unsettling effects of incipient high capitalism on the most intimate areas of life and work--especially as reflected in the work of art (its composition, its dissemination, its reception). In this "projection of the historical into the intimate," it was a matter not of demonstrating any straightforward cultural "decline," but rather of bringing to light an uncanny sense of crisis and of security, of crisis in security. Particularly from the perspective of the nineteenth-century domestic interior, which Benjamin likens to the inside of a mollusk's shell, things were coming to seem more entirely material than ever and, at the same time, more spectral and estranged.
"Whether you translate Russian fairy tales, Swedish family sagas, or English picaresque novels--you will always come back in the end, when it is a question of setting the tone for the masses, to France, not because it is always the truth but because it will always be the fashion."
--The Arcades Project (Harvard ed. 1999), pp. 64-65.
And today, the Paris Arcades--that is, what's left of them--are enjoying a renaissance. According to the Times, Benjamin "is as responsible as any urban planner for their present adoration and recovery. In an irony that he might not have appreciated, and that could perhaps only have happened in Paris, this fierce Marxist critic of the bourgeoisie has made shopping here an intellectual pursuit and unquestionably fashionable again." Behold.