Archive for the ‘reading’ Category

Miserable Method: flâneur & clochard in the study of the social

In reading on February 8, 2012 at 9:14 am

In Susan Buck-Morss’ article on the sandwichman (Buck-Morss 1986) there is this comment on the flaneur:

The flaneur records the merely apparent reality of the market place behind which the social relations of class remained concealed. The empathic relationships he establishes in their place make not only human misery, but “the [class] struggle against misery into an object of consumption.”

Which referes to Benjamin’s arguments in The Author as Producer about the commodification of misery & of the struggle against misery itself:

I spoke of the operation of a certain type of fashionable photography, which makes misery into a consumer good. When I turn to the ‘new objectivity’ as a literary movement, I must go a step further and say that it has made the struggle against misery into a consumer good. In fact, in many cases its political meaning has been exhausted with the transposition of revolutionary reflexes, in so far as they appeared in the bourgeoisie, into objects of distraction and amusement which were integrated without difficulty into the cabaret business of the big cities. The metamorphosis of the political struggle from a drive to make a political commitment into an object of contemplative pleasure, from a means of production into an article of consumption, is characteristic of this literature.

This contemplative relation to misery is of course the mark of academic analysis and is built into the framework of assumptions of all orders of discipline such that the flâneur is already the standard form of the academic.  Methods of study that acknowledge this and are open & honest about this flânerie of study itself are necessary starting points for overcoming this comfortable orientation to misery.  Ethically we must be concerned with our position as flâneurs if we are to start developing means for being more than just perceptive.

“the value of fragments”

In Arcades, reading on June 13, 2011 at 1:44 pm

“Just as mosaics preserve their majesty despite their fragmentation into capricious particles, so philosophical contemplation is not lacking in momentum. Both are made up of the distinct and the disparate; and nothing could bear more powerful testimony to the transcendent force of the sacred image and the truth itself. The value of fragments of thought is all the greater the less direct their relationship to the underlying idea, and the brilliance of the representation depend as much on this value as the brilliance of the mosaic does on the glass plate. The relationship between the minute precision of the work and the proportions of the sculptural or intellectual whole demonstrates that truth content is only to be grasped through immersion in the most minute details of subject matter.”

Benjamin, The Origin of German Tragic Drama, p28-29


Here we have The Arcades Project at the point of its inception. The theme of the intellectual mosaic which emerges from immersion in the minutia is writ large in Convolutes H, M, & N and can be seen in operation throughout the body of The AP. The process of walking through the field to be studied (M: flanerie), collecting from that field (H: collection) and then assembling the result parataxically (N: method) which is The AP is already present in the ‘Trauerspiel’ book.

Dreams, Drugs and Balconies: A reflection on Convolute M – The Flaneur

In Arcades, reading on August 19, 2010 at 3:00 pm

 “An intoxication comes over the man who walks long and aimlessly rough the streets.  With each step, the walk takes on greater momentum; ever weaker grow the temptation of shops, of bistros, of smiling women, ever more irresistible the magnetism of the next street corner, of a mass of distant foliage, of a street name.  Then comes hunger.  Our man wants nothing to do with the myriad possibilities offered to sate his appetite.  Like an ascetic animal, he flits through unknown districts – until, utterly exhausted, he stumbles into his room, which received him oddly and wears a strange air” (Benjamin AP M1,3)

The intoxication of flanerie is linked explicitly in this convolute to the intoxication produced by Hashish, a drug that Benjamin experimented with in the 1920s.  He makes frequent references to it throughout the Arcades Project and links the hesitant, doubt-filled meanderings of flanerie explicitly to the feelings of “hashish intoxication” (M4a,1), explaining the experiences of walking through crowded streets in these terms too:

“The masses are the newest drug for the solitary.” (Benjamin AP M16,3)

“We know that, in the course of flanerie, far-off times and places interpenetrate the landscape and the present moment.  When the authentically intoxicated phase of this condition announces itself, the blood is pumping in the veins of the happy flaneur, his heart ticks like a clock, and inwardly as well as outwardly things go on as we would imagine them to do in one of those ‘mechanical pictures’ which in the nineteenth century (and of course earlier, too) enjoyed great popularity, and which depicts in the foreground a shepherd playing on a pipe, by his side two children swaying in time to the music, further back a pair of hunters in pursuit of a lion, and very much in the background a train crossing over a trestle bridge…” (Benjamin AP M2,4)

Hashish has dissociative properties as well as hallucinatory ones, and although the preceding quotation emphasises the phantasmagorical, optimistic visions offered by flanerie, Benjamin reports in the first that the flaneur suffers from an inability to settle and finds his own environment suddenly strange on his return.  This process of othering and of the breaking of ties is an characteristic of flanerie that is underdeveloped in contemporary appropraitions of the term. Flanerie involves connections being made in a process that can never be fully grasped in its entirity, as the edifice of the Arcades Projects makes clear.  A mode of flanerie in reading is demanded by the Arcades Project in which the reader must enter into the concept to understand it.  This intoxicated mode is another altered state offered by Benjamin in an attempt to provide a framework for understanding the paradoxes of urban life.  Elsewhere it is the language of dreams that gives us the toolkit for understanding the methods that Benjamin is using (convolute N) or the fantastic architectural and cultural forms of modernity (Convolute K).  Influenced by the surrealists and in turn influencing the situationsists, Benjamin is attempting to bend the logic of dreams and drugs to confront a world of fantasy and excess.  The concept he bequeaths most obviously to later urban thinkers is that of the flaneur.

An illustration of the fantastic landscape of the flaneur is given by reference to a guidebook description of a restaurant menu from 1867, described as “Flanerie through the bill of fare” by Benjamin, but also, uncomfortably, reflecting the labyrinthine construction of the Arcades Project itself:

“’Thirty-six pages for food, four ages for drink – but very long pages, in small folio, with closely packed text and numerous annotations in fine print.’ The booklet is bound in velvet.  Twenty hors d’oeurves and thirty-three soups. ‘Forty-six beef dishes, among which are seven different beefsteaks and eight fillets.’ ‘Thirty-four preparations of game, forty-seven dishes of vegetables, and seventy-one varieties of compote’” (AP M3a,1)

This excess of choice offers no logical path through, no rational decision making process for the consumer.  It invites you to soak up is luxury, marvel at its generosity and, ultimately, to open your wallet in a delirium.  This a dreamscape designed to extract profit, a Disneyworld bound in velvet.

Sharon Zukin (1993) summarises the landscapes created by Disney world as ‘The power of facade / the facade of power’ , noting that the production of a constantly evolving, interactive, fantasy landscape that can meet the physical, emotional and social needs of its visors relies on “the centralization of economic power typical of modern society” (224).  Disney create dreams as landscapes, supported by an infrastructure of convenience that means that dream, and the landscape, are unbroken for miles, and for days at a time.

“Landscape – that, in fact, is what Paris becomes for the flaneur.  Or, more precisely:  the city splits for him into its dialectical poles.  It opens up to him as a landscape, even as it closes around him as a room” (Benjamin AP M1,4)

This is the personalisation of landscape, the creation of an architectural form that is both expansive and inspiring on the one hand, and personal and inviting on the other.  Benjamin folds the internal and external together by emphasising the way in which the streets of the city become the living space of ‘the masses’.

“Streets are the dwelling place of the collective.  The collective is an eternally unquiet, agitated being that – in the space between the building fronts – experiences, learns, understands, and invents as much as individuals do within the privacy of their own four walls.  For this collective, glossy enamelled shop signs are a wall decoration as good as, if not better than, an oil painting in the drawing room of a bourgeois; walls with their ‘post no bills’ are its writing desk, newspaper stands its libraries, mailboxes its bronze busts, benches its bedroom furniture, and the cafe terrace is the balcony from which it looks down on its household.  The section of railing where road workers hang their jackets is the vestibule, and the gateway which leads from the row of courtyards out into the open is the long corridor that daunts the bourgeois, being for the courtyards the entry to the chambers of the city.  Among these latter, the arcade was the drawing room.  More than anywhere else, the street reveals itself in the arcade as the furnished and familiar interior of the masses.” (Benjamin AP M3a,4)

But we shouldn’t solely understand this as an emancipatory perspective on the reclamation of urban space by the oppressed, a common tendency in urban theory, but instead look at what Benjamin is pointing us to here.  This section of writing is structured around a series of oppositions between the possessions of the wealthy and the possessions of the masses:

Oil paintings vs. Shop signs

Writing desks vs. Street walls

Libraries vs. Newspaper stands

Bronze busts vs. Mailboxes

Bedroom furniture vs. Benches

Balconies vs. Cafe terraces

Vestibules vs. Railings

Drawing rooms vs. Arcades

This list, drawn out here to emphasise its absurdity, highlights the different material positions of the two classes.  To be outside is, in this case, to be kept outside, barricaded off from a world that is as fantastic as the velvet wrapped menu.  The creative possibilities offered by the street are a substitution for the material advantages of wealth, but in no way emancipation from the logic of capital.   The flaneur, taking in this ‘division’ (AP M5,8) as if in a dream, and entering into it with a jouissant  attitude, coasts along on the crest of commodification and offers no challenge to an order which appears as if in a dream:

“Empathy with the commodity is fundamentally empathy with exchange value itself.  The flaneur is the virtuoso of empathy.  He takes the concept of marketability itself for a stroll.  Just as his final ambit is the department store, his last incarnation is the sandwich man.” (Benjamin AP M17a,2)

Collections as methods –Convolute H

In reading on May 6, 2010 at 1:56 pm

Part of our work on this project involves gathering images of promenades and presenting them.  This seemingly uncomplicated activity runs into trouble when confronted with the legacies of decades of ‘authoritative’ social science research.  How will we select these images? How do we find them? How ‘representative’ are they?  What can they tell us about the research process and its inherent qualitative insecurity?

In putting together these collections of photos and quotations we are working within a paradigm of ‘collecting’ and using parataxical methods (see this post) to attempt to produce work that produces dialectical images – constellations of material that allow us to grasp the correspondences between our own time and the objects of history. Eagleton puts this into the context of knowledge production, helping us to understand our own use of these methods:

“A constellatory epistemology sets its face against the Cartesian or Kantian moment of subjectivity, less concerned to ‘posses’ the phenomenon than to liberate it into its own sensuous being and preserve its disparate elements in all their irreducible heterogeneity…what this method then delivers is a kind of poetic or novelistic sociology in which the whole seems to consist of nothing but a dense tessellation of graphic images; and to that extent it represents an aesthetic mode of social enquiry.” (1990: 229-330)

The tessellation of images are not chosen at random by Benjamin within this aesthetic enquiry, they are collected.  There are no limits to the pool from which these images are fished and the collector should seek to be indiscriminate in his search:

“A chronicler who recites events without distinguishing between major and minor ones acts in accordance with the following truth: nothing that has ever happened should be regarded as lost for history.” (Benjamin 1999: 246)

Collectors are people with a ‘tactical instinct’ (ibid:64), a difficult argument to make in the academy where the death of the author has never produced the inevitable death of the researcher, and the vitality of researcher is asserted by their mastery of academic epistemologies.   In order to unpack this idea of instinct we need to work through Benjamin’s instinctive assemblage of materials and observations on collecting, found in convolute H of the Arcades Project.

Collecting for Benjamin is at once an act of separation and of union; selecting objects from a diverse field in order to place them together with objects of a similar kind (H1a, 2).  Objects brought together in this manner form collections. These collections are the fruit of the work of the collector, the individual who is able to ‘pursue and encounter’ objects and to present them in our space, not the space of their origin. Benjamin is clear (H2, 7; H2a, 1) that to present objects in this way is not to divorce them fundamentally from their functional relations, that is, their social existence and their connection to production, but on the contrary to select objects and to arrange them in a way that brings their social being into a constellation with our own.  In effect, the collected object is able to crystallise its social relations and present them to us afresh.  The collector then, “takes up the struggle against dispersion” (H4a, 1), the confusion in which the world presents itself to us, and attempts to piece together a patchwork of objects that, taken together, make order out of chaos.

“We construct here an alarm clock that rouses the kitsch of the previous century to ‘assembly’” (H1a,2)

Benjamin often describes collectors in an almost mystical language, as ‘interpreters of fate’ who can  form a ‘magic encyclopaedia, a world order’.  Equally often, Benjamin offers explanations of how this apparently mystical knowledge might be grounded in material concerns:

“We need only recall what importance a particular collector attaches not only to his object but also to its entire past, whether this concerns the origin and objective character of the thing or the details of its ostensibly external history: previous owners, price of purchase, current value and so on.” (H2,7; H2a,1)

This apparent dichotomy in Benjamin’s conception of the collector can only be resolved dialectically in the practice of assembling a collection.  In creating and maintaining the illusion of an almost theological coherence between seemingly disparate objects and historical periods, the collector must methodically and systematically go about her work, drawing on her expert knowledge within a broader emancipatory project of creating a dream-like constellation of objects and ideas in order to awaken us from the dream-like state of contemporary, phantasmagorical capitalism .  For more on this point, read this post.

For us, attempting to produce convolute-style material and to develop the methods of the Arcades Project, this analysis of collecting affirms rather than contradicts the rigorous methodologies of the contemporary social sciences, but encourages an eclecticism and aesthetic perspective in the presentation of our work.  The research ‘process’ that Benjamin describes here is closest to ethnography, in which the general changes in the perspective of the researcher allow her to continuously refine and extend her analysis.

Those other arcades…

In Arcades, reading on January 8, 2010 at 2:43 pm

There are a number of websites and blogs out there that we have come across on the last few months, that are also using Walter Benjamin’s ‘Arcades Project’ as a starting point for new work.  In this post we’ve rounded up a few that we like, we recommend that you visit them all and if you know of any more, please let us know in the comments on this blog.

The Arcades Project Project.

This website takes the Arcades Project as its starting point and furnishes Benjamin’s text with hyperlinks and a web-structure that seeks to move on from the idea of the passagen to something more like a labyrinth.  The site consists of new convolute, multimedia texts, internal and external links and essay style pieces on the project and its conceptual framework.   Like Borges’ map, describing the project would require us to re-create it – the best way to get a ‘feel for the game’ of this website is to engage with it and plot your own journey through it. 

The Arcades Project: a 3D documentary.

From the website: “The Arcades Project : A 3D Documentary, is a series of projects initiated by artist Jennie Savage which took place in Cardiff’s Victorian and Edwardian Arcades between October 2008 and October 2009. Cardiff is known as the city of Arcades because it has the highest concentration of Victorian and Edwardian Shopping arcades in the UK. Between 2008-2009 artist Jennie Savage led an exploration into these spaces, inspired by Walter Benjamin’s Arcades project and constructed in the light of the St David’s 2 Shopping Centre.”

The Leeds Arcades Project.

The city of Leeds has a number of covered arcades.  This blog appears to have taken its inspiration from  this observation:  “A great deal has been written about the Paris Arcades and yet one finds them in a much worse state than those in Leeds. Both the condition of repair and the frequency of trade pale besides those in Leeds”.  Over time this blog has morphed into something that promises “All the Walter Benjamins you can possibly imagine.”

The Olympic Arcades Project.

We’re really enjoying finding out more about this project as it evolves online, which is an “open-source, distributed PhD” taking its “inspiration from Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project, that Paul Caplan of the Internationale is developing at Birkbeck, University of London”.  This project seems to be attempting the construction of dialectical images of the developments surrounding the 2012 Olympics, making use of mobile technology and image sharing, that will eventually even involve a specially designed iPhone app.

The emancipatory politics of the dialectical image

In Arcades, reading on October 8, 2009 at 8:59 pm

At the start of Convolute N, Benjamin quotes from Marx,

“The reform of conciousness consists solely in…the awakening of the world from its dream about itself” (Marx 1932 cited in Benjamin 2002: 456)

This quotation brings together two of Benjamin’s preoccupations at the time of writing,  the emancipatory project of Marxism and the politico-cultural aspects of the Surrealist movement with its focus on the imaginary and dream worlds of the modern subject.  The method of the Arcades Project is an intervention in these concerns that seeks to produce “lightning flashes” (Benjamin 2002: 456) of knowledge, sufficient to jolt the self-dreaming subject out of their slumber and make present to them the world as it is, rather than as it is represented by the conjoined narratives of historical progress and technological change.   This radical, violent interruption of the dreamworld of false conciousness is to be achieved through the construction of dialectical images, which replace the linear narratives of history with a constellation of events frozen momentarily in an image containing histories of the past and present.  It is the construction, presentation and consumption of dialectical images that provides the emancipatory potential of Benjamin’s historical method for the present situation.

“It is not that what is past casts its light on what is present, or what is present its light on what is past; rather, image is that wherein what has been comes together in a flash with the now to form a constellation.  In other words, image is dialectics at a standstill.  For while the relation of the present to the past is a purely temporal one, continuous one, the relation of what-has-been to the now is dialectical: is not progression but image, suddenly emergent” (Benjamin 2002: 262)

I have used the same quotation here that Wesley brought into play in his last post.   In what follows I will re-present some of the entries from Convolute N that provide an insight into my own reading of this idea of the dialectical image and its emancipatory role.   These could help us to  think through the politics of our own project and draw out similarities and tensions within our work. 

“In the dialectical image, what has been within a particular epoch is always, simultaneously, ‘what has been from time immemorial.’  As such, however, it is manifest, on each occasion, only to a quite specific epoch – namely, the one in which humanity, rubbing its eyes, recognizes just this particular dream image as such.  It is at this moment that the historian takes up, with regard to that image, the task of dream interpretation.[N 4, 1]” (Benjamin 2002: 464)

“The realisation of dream elements in the course of waking up is the canon of dialectics.  It is paradigmatic for the thinker and binding for the historian.[N 4, 4]” (Benjamin 2002: 464)

“The materialist presentation of history leads the past to bring the present into a critical state [N 7a, 5]” (Benjamin 2002: 471)

“The now of recognizability is the moment of awakening. [N 18, 4]” (Benjamin 2002: 486)

” ‘Our election cry must be: Reform on conciousness not through dogmas, but through the analysis of mystical conciousness that is unclear to itself, whether it appears in a religious or political form.  Then people will see that the world has long possessed the dream of a thing – and that it needs only to  the conciousness of this thing in order really to possess it.’  Karl Marx, Der histrorische Mposessesaterialismus: Die Fruhschriften, ed. Landshut and Mayer (Leipzig <1932>), vol. 1, pp.226-227 (letter from Marx to Ruge: Kreuznach, September 1843) [N 5a, 1]” (Benjamin 2002: 467)

But, how to access this mystical conciousness?  Clearly not be approaching it from within the mysterious, but by engaging with the lived experiences of everyday life, by attending to the details and the debris of existence in the face of the compelling stories of the sweep of history.

” ‘I regret having treated in only a very incomplete manner those facts of daily existence – food, clothing shelter, family routines, civil law, recreation, social relations – which ave always been of prime concern in the life of the great majority of individuals.’  Charles Seignobos, Historie sinecere de la nation francaise(Paris, 1933), p.xi. [N5a, 5] (Benjamin 2002: 467)

This method, which draws on the experiences of the majority in order to construct dialectical images which can reform conciousness like a flash of lightning, finds more contemporary echoes with the heirs of the surrealists, in one of the situationist slogans of 1968:

“People who talk about revolution and class struggle without referring explicitly to everyday life, without understanding what is subversive about love and what is positive in the refusal of constraints, such people have a corpse in their mouth” (Vaneigem 1967: 1:4) 



Reading for September – ‘Convolute N’

In Arcades, reading on September 8, 2009 at 2:02 pm

The next piece of reading that we are going to tackle from the Arcades Project is ‘Convolute N’ (pp.456-488 of the Harvard University Press edition that we are using – details in the bibliography).  This chapter deals with what Benjamin refers to as ‘On the theory of knowledge, Theory of Progress’ and is an important chapter for understanding the method that Benjamin is using in his project, and that we are applying to the seaside promenade in our own.

Our plan is to respond to this chapter by highlighting what we, individually, see as important sections and posting these on here along with our own commentaries.

As always, other contributors are welcome, just get in touch.  There is a free downloadable version of the entire Arcades Project  in 4 parts available here.

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.

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.

Reading for March: “Paris, the Capital of the Nineteenth Century”

In Arcades, Promenades, reading on March 9, 2009 at 7:09 pm

We’re going to post up a series of readings on here that, although they will necessarily impose a structure on to the project that the text itself will almost certainly resist, are intended more as an aid to collaboration.  We will post up our responses to the reading and discuss it online.  We hope that others will want to join us in this effort, so please feel free to contribute your own response or get in touch if you would like to find out more about the project.

The first reading is the two Exposes at the start of the work, the 1935 and 1939 versions of “Paris, the Capital of the Nineteenth Century”  pp.1-14 of the 2002 Harvard University Press edition.  We plan to post up our responses to these pieces in the first week of April.