ArcadesPromenades

Posts Tagged ‘Arcades’

“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.

Documentary photography

In Arcades, photography, Promenades on April 14, 2011 at 3:03 pm

I have been alerted to these two photographers by the sound artist, Reid Dudley-Peirson, who, coincidentally is performing in a new piece called ‘Songs of the sublime’ at the Turner Contemporary gallery in the seaside town of Margate this weekend.

Reid informed me, after reading an early draft of some of our work, that we should supplement our analysis of seaside photography and the Arcades Project with considerations of the work of Eugene Atget and Martin Parr. This may take some time for us to process, but we offer up a couple of images here.

Atget was a contemporary of Walter Benjamin, taking photographs of Paris streets that influenced the surrealists and Dada at the time that Benjamin was working on his study of the Parisian Arcades. Martin Parr is a British documentary photographer, whose study of the seaside ‘The Last Resort’, clearly sheds light on our work on the links between tourism and the everyday within the capitalist constraints of the promenades.

Eugene Atget: avenue des gobelins (1927)

In his ‘little history of photography’, Benjamin makes the case for photography, still in the early stages of its development, to be “moving out of the realm of aesthetic distinctions to social function”. Leslie [2000] locates this movement in the dialectic, claiming that there is always an excess in photography, a residue of the social. In this sense, photography can provide research material, historical evidence that goes far beyond merely that which is represented on the surface of a photographic image.

Leslie goes on to identify three ways in which Benjamin conceptualised photography:

Firstly, as analogical representations of an external reality. Photographs provide a way of capturing natural perception and thus, of making the subjective objective.

Secondly, “the photograph fixes on celluloid a view of reality, held in the consciousness of a class when it imagines itself and the cosmos. Technological art is capable of tendering in ocular form the ideology of the self-representing class” [Leslie 2000: 49]. Benjamin refers to this as ‘optical-unconscious’, a relationship between the unconsciousness of the subject and the a-conscious machine perception of the lens

Finally, photography disrupts the ‘natural’ flow of images and perception and allows for reconfigurations of space and time, new constellations of knowledge.

“Photography…was first adopted within the dominant social class…:manufacturers, factory owners and bankers, statesmen, men of letters and scientists” Gisela Freund, “La Photographie au point de vue sociologique” (manuscript, p.32). Is this accurate? Shouldn’t the sequence be reversed? (Benjamin, AP, Y3, 1)

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)

Images of the liminal

In Arcades, Promenades on July 1, 2010 at 5:08 pm

This is a slideshare version of our paper from the Liminal Landscapes conference, given today in Liverpool.

Unadjusted impressions of the past

In Arcades on April 15, 2010 at 8:24 am

An unlikely early parallel to Benjamin’s thoughts in the Arcades Project can be found in Thomas Hardy‘s preface to his 1901 collection of poems Poems of the past and present:

“Unadjusted impressions have their value, and the road to a true philosophy of life seems to lie in humbly recording diverse readings of phenomena as they are forced upon us by chance and change”

This bears striking similarities to Benjamin’s methods of collecting observations, ephemera and detritus, and of avoiding narrative histories.  There are major differences between the two mens’ work however, and the pastoralist, establishment author would no doubt have been as shocked by the revolutionary, materialist criticism of Benjamin as Benjamin would have been of Hardy’s conservative acceptance of the force of chance.

The Urbane Urban: In Our Time on the City

In Arcades on April 2, 2010 at 8:14 am

The BBC’s excellent In Our Time series has just broadcast an excellent two parter on the history of the city.  They are both thought provoking and the second part especially relevant to the concerns of this blog.

Part 1

Part 2

Liminal Landscapes Symposium 1-2 July 2010

In Arcades, Promenades on March 18, 2010 at 3:27 pm

We will be presenting a paper based on our research at this conference.   Once the paper is finished we’ll post more details up on here, along with a programme for the event, once it is available.

You can read the abstract for our paper by clicking here.  The final paper is quite a development from this point and incorporates some of the material that we have been posting on here over the last year.

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 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.

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.