ArcadesPromenades

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The fantasy of cultural history

In Arcades, reading on June 23, 2009 at 10:11 am

“…fashion…this semblance of the new is reflected, like one mirror in another, in the semblance of the ever recurrent. The product of this reflection is the phantasmagoria of “cultural history” in which the bourgeoisie enjoys its false consciousness to the full.” (Benjamin 2002: 11)

Benjamin launches himself against the fantasy of cultural history here. This is an attack against aesthetics, good taste and capitalism that seeks to collapse these categories into each other at the same time as exposing them to the light of critique.

As a good materialist, Benjamin refuses to accept the narrative of a transcendent culture, a universal aesthetic sense which floats above the social conditions of the day. The false consciousness of the bourgeoisie is the self-referential ideal of cultural superiority, hidden behind fantasies of taste, education and inheritance. This consciousness is false, not because it is not real, but because it is not true.

The high-priest of this doctrine is Kant, who provided a legitimation of the fantasy under the guide of of ‘disinterestedness’, a universally accessible state of being in which the most complex representations become sensible through an aesthetic sense, allowing us all to experience the beauty of the aesthetic object equally. Of course, those of us unable to access this state of disinterestedness must be hindered in doing so in some way and it is a marker of the bourgeoisie that they have taken the time and made the moral commitment to do so effectively.

Most Marxists tend to relegate cultural production and consumption to the superstructure, or assign it some other subordinate role that props up the system, as with Gramsci’s (1998) concept of hegemony. Cultural materialists however, take their cue from the Marx of the Theses who states that the essence of man (sic) is the “ensemble of social relations” (1845 / 1998: 570), and not solely the physical and economic conditions of the age. This version of materialism both elevates social relations to the states of ‘real objects’ and, at the same time, subsumes them into the “practical” (ibid: 571); a productive dialectic that allows to move back and forth between the social conditions and social practice within the same conceptual framework and without having to prioritize one over the other. Embodying this dialectic are those cultural objects which are made by us to exemplify our culture whilst also speaking to us about what our culture is. The cultural object exposes the conditions of its production just as it tells us what cultural production is and is for. The fantasy of cultural history is made explicit in the fantastic objects of cultural production and consumption.

A cultural materialist perspective on Paris’ Arcades leads Benjamin into discussions of the development of iron manufacturing, the textile trade, mechanization, empire, urban planning and poetry. To extend this method to the promenade will necessitate drawing on history, sociology. Economics, cultural studies, literature and other media. Establishing a productive dialectical understanding of the cultural form of the promenade will be important and I hope that Benjamin’s Convolutes, the next section of the Arcades Project text that we are working from can be instructive here.

The Promenade in Action

In Promenades on June 8, 2009 at 2:05 pm

Here we have a few snap shots of Brighton Promenade in action from 7 June 09.

The promenade as public space.

The promenade as public space.

The promenade as social space concerns itself with movement, surveillance and observation, display and distinction, and the integration of urban space with the sea (the ocean with civilisation).

The purpose of the Promenade is to allow and require movement

The purpose of the Promenade is to allow and require movement

Through movement we make the Promenade make sense and legitimise our presence in the social space.

Through movement we make the Promenade make sense and legitimise our presence in the social space.

As suggested by its name stillness is not permitted; only in specified locations can one opt out of movement and more often than not one must leave the promenade in order to be at rest.

Deck chairs are a stereotypical site of rest found to one side of the promenade.

Deck chairs are a stereotypical site of rest found to one side of the promenade. As they also need to be hired they are one mark of the public/private syncreticism that Benjamin found in the Parisian Arcades.

The reason for the prohibition on stillness lies in the surveillance and observation which is such a key part of the use of this social space.  We use the promenade to watch and be watched and the prohibition on stillness prevents this watching developing into voyeurism.  The beach, a temporary space governed by the sea, is the proper site of the voyeuristic on the public shore.  The promenade marks the limit of civilisation (i.e. the urban space) and beyond it one enters the realm of nature where the rules of civilisation need not apply.

The pier is the extension of the Promenade, and thus of the limit of civilisation, into the 'natural' space of the sea.

The pier is the extension of the Promenade, and thus of the limit of civilisation, into the 'natural' space of the sea.

In this sense the pier and the groins are the ‘strategic embellishment’ of the public shore.  It is just that this is a symbolic defence of the space of civilisation rather than a concrete defence of the  elite of society.

This gateway to the pier has the quality of the bastion as well as those of the turnstile.

This gateway to the pier has the quality of the bastion as well as those of the turnstile.

The main use of the promenade is for leisure and it is this activity that most marks this social space.  The various needs of those engaging in leisure are to be met here.

One of the roles of the promenade is to allow leisure.  It is a source of leisure and it permits access to other facilities for leisure.

One of the roles of the promenade is to allow leisure. It is a source of leisure and it permits access to other facilities for leisure.

One of the paradoxes of the promenade is its nostalgia and entanglement in its own past.  The promenade is a nineteenth century, Victorian, social construct and we know that to be its origin.  The promenade thus has the odd quality of being of the past and of now and so it is a key locus of that strangest use of the past, Heritage.

Leisure as Heritage

Leisure as Heritage

The heritage of the public shore becomes part of our leisure.

The heritage of the public shore becomes part of our leisure.

We allow the past to be still as we move by it.

We allow the past to be still as we move by it.

Heritage becomes a part of the whole experience and meaning of the promenade because of the promenades connexion to the Victorian age.  The entire social space has the quality of Heritage and so we can expect the Heritage Industry to be found here.

The Heritage Industry organises our understanding of the past and as such is a problematic institution.

The Heritage Industry organises our understanding of the past and as such is a problematic institution.

The Heritage Industry privileges certain elements of the past over others in order to simplify the tale being told.  Here we have reduction of the shore to space of industry.  The leisure and pseudo-medical side of the promenade's past are suppressed.

The Heritage Industry privileges certain elements of the past over others in order to simplify the tale being told. Here we have reduction of the shore to space of industry. The leisure and pseudo-medical side of the promenade's past are suppressed.

The Heritage Industry is the mask of capitalism; it is the past as Culture Industry.

The Heritage Industry is the mask of capitalism; it is the past as Culture Industry. Shell Fish are one of the 'fetish commodities' of the promenade.

The Culture Industry is disguised within the Heritage Industry.

The Culture Industry is disguised within the Heritage Industry.

The Victorian origins of the promenade and the presence of the Heritage and Culture Industries in this social space force us to recognise the fundamentally capitalist nature of the promenade.  This is to be expected; just as the Arcade was an expression of 19th Century French Capitalist Society so the Promenade was and is an expression of British Capitalist (or one might argue ‘european’ capitalist) society.