Paris, (the) Capital of the Nineteenth Century

In Arcades, reading, Uncategorized on April 13, 2009 at 11:51 am

The two ‘exposes’ (different versions of the same essay) that act as an introduction/preface to The Arcades Project and which Benjamin seems to have used as plan, prospectus, and calling-card for his remarkable investigation into the society & culture of C.19th Paris and the modes of analysis and thought necessary to carry out such a study (the Passagenwerk does seem to be both a analysis of a part of the past and a meta-analysis of the approaches to that study) are in and of themselves some of the most allusive, suggestive, and stimulating material I have ever encountered.  The number of paths (and it is impossible to avoid such punning figure) that could be travelled in response to this pair of short works are remarkable and as a result it has been hard to focus on one of the huge range of possible responses and readings that could have been made.  This vast range of issues is no bad thing, however, as it allows for many approaches to be taken to The Arcades Project.  It is not the intent of this reading project to be prescriptive or directive and as the Passagenwerk does seem to be a warning against false coherences you should take this as but one route to the reading.

The ‘exposes’ thrust an ekphrasis (a richly detailed but fragmentary instance of description) of Benjamin’s method, research and results at us in the form of a patch-work or incomplete mosaic ( a mosaic most brilliant in outline and most detailed in those parts which has been jewelled with tessera but far far from complete, coherent, and concrete) in which the gaps, incomplete areas, and absences are just as interesting/informative as that which is offered. This parataxic presentation (a juxtapositional method of research and communication wherein ideas and concepts are allowed to retain their identity without being confused and diluted by the requirements of false-coherence; which Adorno styled a ‘constellation’ ) that the ‘exposes’ proffer is itself the expression of a massive parataxic research scheme (found in the ‘convelutes’) and so they (the exposes) cannot help but be the briefest of engagements with the Arcades Project whose great bulk they preface.

It is this method and the Benjanim’s presentation of the expressive elements of 19th century Paris qua society as set out in these ‘exposes’ that is my focus for this post.  Benjamin sets out his methodology as six-fold taxonomy in which each taxon consists of a concept, a metonym of that concept and an evidential discussion (e.g. Strategic Embellishment, Haussman or the Barricade, discussion of the role of urban social space in the history of C.19th Paris).  Benjamin is not ranking or causally associating these moments of the expression of the social formation under consideration. Rather this is a horizontal presentation (parataxis) of some of the elements that made up the expression of the society in question (C.19th Paris).  That is to say that what Benjamin is engaged on here is, following Douglas in ‘Deciphering a Meal’ [Douglas 1972], an analysis of culture (Benjamin as anthropologist). Benjamin uses culture as his starting point so as to work on the social formation being expressed by that culture combining the fields of social practice and discourse in one analysis.

This study of culture through the conjunction of different elements of expression of society that Benjamin has lighted on here (the mode of consumption, architectural forms, technofascist [cf Gorz 1983] implementations and institutions, ‘cultural exegisis & exegetes’, modes of display and distinction, and forms of ‘self-fashioning’) are a part of the mosaic of culture and indexical signs of society. Consideration of these issues would be an excellent starting point for the analysis of any socio-cultural formation (regardless of that society’s relationship to modernity).  Indeed the use of this parataxic grappling with culture (re-focalised for different place-times; e.g. technofascism would be a useless approach to the study of the medieval because of the decentralised and localised quality of medieval society although it would be a useful approach to the Roman Empire with its centralising domination through infrastructure) ought to be recommended for all study and analysis of all human activity because it forces us to consider and study the traces of human life as parts of specific and discrete place-times and not as ebb or flow in some incomprehensible continuum.  That is to say that Benjamin’s parataxic method focuses on people and their actions and lives in and as society rather than some reified universal or grand narratives of one form and focus or another (such as tales of progress, social movements, or heroic individuals).

This juxtapositional analysis is not typical of the diachronic mode, i.e. history, and yet there is no doubt that Benjamin was a very historically minded thinker, that The Arcades Project is a ‘historical’ work, and that the parataxic mode is of great utility to historians.  It is the epistemological strength of Benjamin’s parataxic method that is most appealing (and urgent) to the historian. History suffers under the dread delusion of the diachronic [foolishly believing that we can know the past through its remnants when we can only know the remnants and their – synchronic – time] and thus fails as a field for the production of knowledge of the past.  Historians seem wedded to the notion that one can ‘read through’ the partial past survivals we work on to that which lay ‘behind’; ie history believes that our sources of information can allow us into their past (as though a window) so that we can know the past from the sources. This is a nonsense. The rhetorical, discursive, constructed, representational, and partial qualities of all (yes all!) our sources of information about the past (and indeed of all human action and thought) prohibit this. The sources of information about the past that we utilise now were meaningful to the people of the past in there own use of them in their own ‘now’ and that use may have been in the construction of social-memory (or formal ‘history’) but that was a use of their past in their now and it is their now that is the essential part of this. What we encounter when we seek to analyse the past is a series of synchronic assemblies (of texts, objects, landscape – an entire ecology of meaning and use) that relate to a prior ‘now’ and not to some continuum of the past whose ebb and flow we gauge with instrumentation. The past (just as the present) is not a continuum it is series of skeins that we tangle together into one form or another as we see fit. Each skein is concerned with its own ‘now’ and may construct a past as part of that concern with dealing with its ‘now’ but that construction is not part of some diachronic continuum it is a part of a discrete element of a series.

“He [the historian] records the constellation in which his own epoch comes into contact with that of an earlier one.”
Walter Benjamin. On the Concept of History. Addendum A [Benjamin 1999]

The drawing into contact of our skein of ‘now’ with the skeins of the past is the purpose of Benjamin’s method.  The Arcades Project is an attenmpt to bring the vast complexity of past socio-cultural action and discourse into our world so that we might make the best study of that we can, so that we can make it as meaningful as possible, and so that we can see as clearly as we can the uses and rules of use that a prior society was making of its culture.

It may seem both hubristic and pointless to accuse an entire field for the production of knowledge of having failed but there is no doubt that as it stands the academic investigation of the past needs ‘root and branch’ reform and revitalisation especially in it epistemology and ethics if it is not to slip back, under the impetus of a powerful current of anti-history which is presently at work on the discipline, into its prior status of simple instrument of governmentality (as is currently the case with ‘Economics’).  This would be a great shame because history spent most of the 20th century withdrawing from the field of nationalist propaganda and has ‘shown the capacity to change’.  Benjamin provides us with one strong means of avoiding this slippage and so he here joins the ranks of Halbwachs, Foucault and Mann as the most important (and unacknowledged) saviours of history.

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