ArcadesPromenades

Posts Tagged ‘dreams’

Émile Cohl: Fantasmagorie & The Hasher’s Delirium

In Arcades on December 24, 2010 at 5:16 pm
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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.

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)