Posts Tagged ‘dialectics’

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)

Skegness Part One…

In Promenades on November 9, 2009 at 9:00 am

Skegness, on the North Sea coast of the east of the country, is one of England’s most famous seaside towns.  It is home to the first holiday camp, set up by Billy Butlin in 1936, which I visited last month ago for a conference on seaside development and culture.  You can read my thoughts on the conference by clicking here.  I spent my spare time over three days in Skegness as a flaneur, experiencing the town and its promenade areas at a walking pace and recording my observations in pictures.  This is the first of a two-part post, in the next post I’m going to sketch out some preliminary thoughts on the general form of the promenade, investigating the layered methodology that we keep encountering.

My first observation on Skegness’ promenade is that it has a similar morphology to the promenade at Teignmouth, which I blogged about here.  Skegness unrolls backwards from the sea, leaving a layered pattern behind as it has developed.  Firstly we have the beach itself, a stretch of golden sand bordering the cold North sea:

steps to nowhere

Separating the encroaching sands from the built environment is the most obvious strip of the promenade itself:

1st level of the promenade

This first layer of the promenade is, at this point fairly level with the sands and the protection offered is for those brave enough to admire the views on a bracing October day.  Walking parallel to the beach, the promenade takes you over the pier itself:

up and over

Descending, we are confronted with a pair of signs that inform us not only of the particular economic rationality of seaside spaces, but also of the aspirations of the planners and architects who constructed them:

tourist attraction

prince edward walk









Despite the regal naming of this strip however, the demands of coastal defences have imposed a less aristocratic and more brutally utilitarian aesthetic on the post-pier promenade:

brutalist defences

concrete aesthetics

The next layer of the promenade is a strip of sand and a path, separated by a low wall from the main walkway.  This forms a mirror image of the area that it borders and appears to be used mainly by dogwalkers and cyclists.  It doesn’t run the full length of the promenade, but forms an interesting feature mainly because of the way it separates the sea from a small moat.  Yes, a moat.

2nd layer

the moat

The moat seems to be there to protect the fun fair, Skegness Pleasure Beach from invasion.  There is small bridge providing entrance from the sea-side,which brings you to a locked gate in the off-season.

bridge over the river skeggy

The fair, seen from the promenade, presents a skeletal sillhouette.  A ferris wheel is an iconic image of leisure and childhood that can’t help but excite the viewer, but it is precisely this suggestion that produces a profound melancholia when confronted with a deserted fair ground.

a lonely sight

This walled-off, empty space is foreshadows the pleasures of summer as well as pointing backwards to the time when the queues for attractions like these would be managed in the same way to those at Disneyworld or Thorpe Park now.  The high walls around the fair ground are a reminder that the very democratic form of cultural capital that is embedded in the seaside town has always been propped up by an entrepreneurial and exclusionary capitalism.  The uncomplicated, unmediated and hence unexploitable pleasures of viewing the fair from the promenade or to look across the elegant steelworks

and out to sea, are denied by the wall that simultaneously obscures and invites you to move from the position of viewer to consumer.

giant wheel

Billy butlins creates his own promenade

The photo above shows the first mock-promenade that I have come across.  The pleasure beach’s own promenade stands between the final layers of the promenade proper and the funfair.  It breaks all the ‘rules’ of promenades; it has no view to the sea and runs both vertically and horizontally in relation to the coastline.  It clearly exists only to extract profit from seaside visitors but borrows the symbolism of the liminal space of the promenade in its marketing.  This excess of this strange dialectic, that which cannot be consumed by the negation of the natural, appears to be the liminal – leaving a space that produces such dissonances, culturally and architecturally, that it cannot be simply synthesised into the form of the seaside economy but instead announces its incongruity as a way of explaining itself.  Turning your back to the sea and walking out through this gate, from this space of managed liminality into the hyper-capitalism of the final layer of the promenade you are immediately confronted with seaside commodities, ice creams, doughnuts, inflatables and alcohol.  In the next post, I’ll pick up on these themes and start to think about the general spatial form of the promenade that we might be groping towards on this blog.