Posts Tagged ‘Benjamin’

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.

Packaging liminality: the management and commodification of liminal landscapes in tourism

In Arcades, Conferences, Promenades, Publications on April 18, 2011 at 10:40 am

We’ve just had the abstract below accepted for the ATLAS 2011 conference in Valmeira, Latvia.  The theme of the conference is ‘Landscape and Tourism: a dualistic relationship”.  Our plan for this paper is to take the methodology that we’ve been developing on this blog over the last two years and apply it to other tourist spaces, in order to test its value as a new approach.

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)

Alexander Gelley – Weak Messianism: Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project

In Arcades on February 12, 2011 at 11:33 am

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.

Found images of Brighton promenade

In Promenades on June 9, 2010 at 9:13 am

A short snippet from our paper for the Liminal Landscapes symposium next month.  This shows how we are using web technology to collect material for a ‘working convolute’ on Brighton.  We are gathering images taken by other people that have been uploaded to the web, as a way of accessing representations and uses of the promenade, in an attempt to develop a methodological approach that builds on Benjamin’s methods in the Arcades Project.

“Becker (1974) provides a methodological way of thinking about this potential social research resource.  This relates to the second conception of photography held by Benjamin. The possibilities for producing new constellations of knowledge by using photography suggests possibilities for the collection and reconfiguration of images of the promenade as a way to access its history. Becker imagines the ‘sociologist photographer’ as collecting a plethora of images of a social situation, almost at random, taking care not to pre-judge what is of value in the resultant images.  A consideration of the photographs then guides a further concentration in the research as the sociologist photographer spends time with “his [sic] contact sheets and work prints” and developing questions about the practices and situations that he observes.  This process of collection and interpretation then opens up further avenues of enquiry and begins to produce social knowledge.  In Benjamin’s terms it constructs new configurations of the past, of a kind only accessible through these technological means.  In this study we update Becker’s work, and by seeking to reduce the impacts of sociological bias in our approach to the collection of images we aim to prevent any imposition of the very false coherences that Benjamin had tried to prevent through his parataxic method.

In practical terms, we have utilised web-technology to trawl through the online photo-hosting site flickr in an automated process.  We have set up a yahoo pipe, a relatively new piece of web 2.0 software which aggregates data from the web in the form of RSS feeds, images, blog posts and visual media.  Crucially, a pipe then provides a visual interface through which you can access the aggregated data.  A pipe can be user-customised to a great extent.  Although, following Becker and Benjamin, we aim to collect data without prejudicing it in advance, we are also conscious of sociological / historical practices and the way in which fields of inquiry are constructed to guide even the most inductive studies.  In this respect we have delimited the ‘feeds’ to the pipe to include only the most popular photo-hosting site and also set up keywords to structure these feeds.  Images uploaded to flickr are ‘tagged’ by users to aid retrieval and to publicise the images to a wider audience.  The processes by which images arrive in the virtual public/private spaces of the internet and are distributed throughout them via social networks, direct our attention to ‘sociogram’ quality of all photography.”

*we’re working out how to reference these images accurately.  All of these pictures have been uploaded on a creative commons license and we’ve given links to each of their sources in our bibliography.

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.

A Collection on Convolute H

In Arcades on May 5, 2010 at 8:38 am

“What is decisive in collecting is that the object is detached from all its original functions in order to enter into the closest conceivable relation to things of the same kind.  This relation is the dramatic opposite of any utility, and falls into the peculiar category of completeness.  What is this “completeness”?  It is a grand attempt to overcome the wholly irrational character of the object’s mere presence at hand through its integration into a new, expressly devised historical system:  the collection.  And for the true collector, every single thing in this system becomes an encyclopaedia of all knowledge of the epoch, the landscape, the industry, and the owner from which it comes.  It is the deepest enchantment of the collector to enclose the particular item within a magic circle, where, as a last shudder runs through it (the shudder of being acquired), it turns to stone.  Everything remembered, everything thought, everything conscious becomes socle, frame, pedestal, seal of his possessions.  It must not be assumed that the collector, in particular, would find anything strange in the topos hyperouranios – that place beyond the heavens which, for Plato, shelters the unchallenged archetypes of things.  He loses himself, assuredly.  But he has the strength to pull himself up again by nothing more than a straw; and from out of the sea of fog that envelops his senses rises the newly acquired piece, like an island. – Collecting is a form of practical memory, and of all the profane manifestations of “nearness” it is the most binding.  Thus, in a certain sense, the smallest act of political reflection makes for an epoch in the antiques business.  We construct here an alarm clock that rouses the kitsch of the previous century to “assembly”.”

Benjamin The Arcades Project Convolute H [H1a,2]

“The true method of making things present is to represent them in our space (not to represent ourselves in their space).  (The collector does just this, and so does the anecdote.) Thus represented, the thing allows no mediating construction from out of “large contexts”.  The same method applies, in essence to the consideration of the great things from the past – the cathedral of Chartres, the temple of Paestum – when, that is, a favourable prospect presents itself: the method of receiving the things into our space.  We don’t displace our being into theirs; they step into our life.”

Benjamin The Arcades Project Convolute H [H2,3]

“The language-game of reporting can be given such a turn that the report gives the person asking for it a piece of information about the one making the report, and not about its subject-matter. (Measuring in order to test the ruler.)” [cf LW I, 416; PI II, x, p. 190d-191a]

Wittgenstein Last writings on the philosophy of psychology Vol.2: The inner and the outer, MS169 p8e

“Works of art teach that person how their function outlives their creator and how his intentions are left behind. They demonstrate how the reception of the work by its contemporaries becomes a component of the effect which a work of art has upon us today. They further show that this effect does not rest in an encounter with the work of art alone but in an encounter with the history which has allowed the work to come down to our own age. “

Benjamin ‘Eduard Fuchs: Collector and Historian’, trans  Knut Tarnowski, New German Critique, No. 5 (Spring, 1975)

“Accually, inheritance is the soundest way of acquiring a collection. For a collector’s attitude toward his possessions stems from an owner’s feeling of responsibility toward his property. Thus it is, in the highest sense, the attitude of an heir, and the most distinguished trait of a collection will always be its transmissibility.”

Benjamin, ‘Unpacking My Library’, Illuminations, trans’ Harry Zohn & ed’ Hannah Arendt, Shocken Books NY 2008 p66