Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Benjamin and the Arcades

Walter Benjamin's giant book of fragments, The Arcades Project, was an attempt to read the history of the 19th century through the lens of the Paris Arcades. "Part of Benjamin's purpose," write Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin, his English translators,

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." Gutzkow, Brief Aus Paris, vol. 2 , pp. 227-228. Each time, what sets the tone is without doubt the newest, but only where it emerges in the medium of the oldest, the longest past, the most ingrained. This spectacle, the unique self-construction of the newest in the medium of what has been, makes for the true dialectical theater of fashion. Only as such, as the grandiose representation of this dialectic, can one appreciate the singular books of Grandville, which created a sensation toward the middle of the century. When Grandville presents a new fan as the "fan of Iris" and his drawing suggests a rainbow, or when the Milky Way appears as an avenue illuminated at night by gaslamps, or when "the moon (a self-portrait)" reposes on fashionable velvet cushions instead of on clouds--at such moments we first come to see that it is precisely in this century, the most parched and imagination-starved, that the collective dream energy of a society has taken refuge with redoubled vehemence in the mute impenetrable nebula of fashion, where the understanding cannot follow. Fashion is the predecessor--no, the eternal deputy--of Surrealism.

--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.

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