Walter Benjamin

I don't know why it has taken me so long to get to/arrive at Walter Benjamin. I have known of him for years, in a hazy sort of art-crit way that didn't include the Arcades project, and I've read about his "Little History of Photography" (1931) but I had never read the text itself, or explored his concept of aura. It was because of my reading of Robert Macfarlane's Underland that I was inspired to hunt down a pdf of the Eiland-McLaughlin translation of Das Passagen Werk, The Arcades Project, which then led on to Susan Buck-Morss' The Dialectics of Seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project, and (via Google) to a bunch of articles on various Benjaminic facets, and so to this weblet.

Passagen projects us into and relies upon translation: German, French, English; and temporal translation as well, as meanings and interlinkages change among generations of readers and interpreters. Benjamin was interpreting the 19th century for his contemporaries. The text we deal with in 2020 has its origins more than 80 years ago, in a very different world of ideas, communications technologies, and manifest dangers. All of that must be factored into a present-day reading of Passagen.

At the core of Benjamin's method is montage, "with its philosophic play of distances, transitions, and intersections, its perpetually shifting contexts and ironic juxtapositions..." (from the Translator's Preface to Arcades Project), easily seen as a verbal version of the photomontage techniques explored by Benjamin's Surrealist contemporaries.

Method of this project: literary montage. I needn't say anything. Merely show. I shall purloin no valuables, appropriate no ingenious formulations. But the rags, the refuse—these I will not inventory but allow, in the only way possible, to come into their own: by making use of them. [N1a,8]

Walter Benjamin died in 1940, by suicide after he was refused entry into Spain while fleeing Nazi-occupied France. The manuscript of Passagen was hidden away in the Bibliothèque Nationale by Georges Bataille and, after WWII, passed into the hands of Theodor Adorno, who then passed it on to Tiedemann, who edited a German edition. It seems (according to Diarmuid Costello) that Benjamin's work re-entered the discourse of Anglophone art theory about 40 years ago (in the late 1970s; Hannah Arendt had edited a collection of his essays in 1968, the first publication in English), in the context of modernism/post-modernism argument which I have always found impenetrable and irrelevant to my own interests and activities. Says Mark Lilla, "an enormous Anglo-American industry of post-structuralist and postmodernist interpretation has grown up around the [limited] translations we have, distorting Benjamin's real concerns." (NYRB 1995)

So what is it that I find in Benjamin, in January 2020?

On the one hand, I was initially disappointed to find that Benjamin's concept of aura in photography doesn't seem to have the meaning/sense I wished for it, which is rather more what Barthes encoded in the notion of punctum in photographs, and references the personal experience of the viewer/reader in interacting with the subject (person or thing) depicted in a photograph. My subsequent chase through commentary on aura is described here.

But on the other hand, it is the daring enterprise of the Arcades Project (Das Passagen-Werk) which teems with consonance for me and, seemingly, direct relevance to my own sprawling but interdigitating enterprises, and to my own efforts to tame and make sense of material I have collected and accumulated—texts, photographs, images, sound files, realia... Here are the bits from Macfarlane that tumbled me into this exploration of Benjamin:

...a gigantic, futile, magical attempt at historical comprehension, which understood [Paris's] past in part to be a collective dream and the city's structures to possess a metaphysical aura as well as a material presence. (pg 133)

To enter The Arcades Project by one of its thousands of access points is to enter a labyrinth of passages that do not seem ever to repeat their routes... It deals not in plots but in patterns, echoes, memory-ghosts and tangled subtexts... (pg 134-135)

The Amazon precis of The Arcades Project:
a montage of quotations from, and reflections on, hundreds of published sources, arranging them in thirty-six categories with descriptive rubrics such as "Fashion," "Boredom," "Dream City," "Photography," "Catacombs," "Advertising," "Prostitution," "Baudelaire," and "Theory of Progress." ... In the bustling, cluttered arcades, street and interior merge and historical time is broken up into kaleidoscopic distractions and displays of ephemera. Here, at a distance from what is normally meant by "progress," Benjamin finds the lost time(s) embedded in the spaces of things.

Some other texts that undertake to characterize Benjamin's purposes and methods in The Arcades, "One of the most famous books never written ... a thousand-page midden of notes, fragments, and quotations..." (Adam Kirsch, New Yorker Aug 21 2006):

Fascinated by notions of reference and constellation, his goal in later works was to use intertexts to reveal aspects of the past that cannot, and should not, be understood within greater monolithic constructs of historical understanding...

(Benjamin) made lengthy catalogues of ephemera—advertising posters, shop-window displays, clothing fashions—commenting, "whoever understands how to read these semaphores would know in advance not only about new currents in the arts but also about new legal codes, wars, and revolutions."
...the suspicion that everything in the world carries a hidden message...
(Adam Kirsch)

Could montage as the formal principle of the new technology be used to reconstruct an experiential world so that it provided a coherence of vision necessary for philosophical reflection? And more, could the metropolis of consumption, the high ground of bourgeois-capitalist culture, be transformed from a world of mystifying enchantment into one of both metaphysical and political illumination? To answer these questions was the point of the Arcades project...

Every attempt to capture the Passagen Werk within one narrative frame must lead to failure. The fragments plunge the interpreter into an abyss of meanings, threatening her or him with an epistemological despair that rivals the melancholy of the Baroque allegoricists.
(Susan Buck-Morss)

The flavor of the work is on display in the first entry of the first Convolute:
"In speaking of the inner boulevards," says the Illustrated Guide to Paris, a complete picture of the city on the Seine and its environs from the year 1852, "we have made mention again and again of the arcades which open onto them. These arcades, a recent invention of industrial luxury, are glass-roofed, marble-paneled corridors extending through whole blocks of buildings, whose owners have joined together for such enterprises. Lining both sides of these corridors, which get their light from above, are the most elegant shops, so that the arcade is a city, a world in miniature {Flâneur}, in which customers will find everything they need. During sudden rainshowers, the arcades are a place of refuge for the unprepared, to whom they offer a secure, if restricted, promenade-one from which the merchants also benefit." {Weather}

This passage is the locus classicus for the presentation of the arcades; for not only do the divagations on the flâneur and the weather develop out of it, but, also, what there is to be said about the construction of the arcades, in an economic and architectural vein, would have a place here. [A1,1]
(pg 46 of Arcades)

But when I flip through the entries in the Photography Convolute (Y), I find little that I can connect with. The fragments mostly concerned with commentary on Daguerrotypes and other early processes, Nadar, Baudelaire, extracts from Gisela Freund, "La Photographie au point de vue sociologique"... really just scraps, in which it's hard to see what he was trying to build (or could have built) from them.


Materials to explore further:

mentions of 'Walter Benjamin' in London Review of Books, 1979-2020

TJ Clark's review of The Arcades Project, LRB 2000

This is a book for moving about in, lightly and irresponsibly and, above all, fast. Benjamin seems to have dreamed of a final, rapid-fire, cinematic delivery, accelerating to the speed of exchange—fact after fact, image after image, with relations between them somehow revealed by the glitter and breathlessness of the juxtapositions. Maybe this was one of the fantasies of the book—the book to beat capital at its own game—which drove the convolutes mad. But it is open to us to re-create such a book, in bits and pieces. Not always skittering across the surface, obviously (sentence after sentence is meant to stop the reader dead), but changing pace all the time, gloating over local detail, reading from back to front. Gloating is important—or giggling like a badaud at the sheer parade of unlikely items.


The arcades are thoroughgoing failures and abiding triumphs. They were old-fashioned almost as soon as they declared themselves the latest thing. Their use of iron and glass was premature, naive, a mixture of the pompous and fantastic. They were stuffy, dingy and monotonous; dead dioramas; perspectives étouffées; phantasmagoria of the dull, the flat and the cluttered. 'The light that fell from above, through the panes ... was dirty and sad.' ... The arcades allowed a whole century to be housebound and at loose ends in the company of strangers. They were waiting rooms, caves containing fossils of the primitive consumer, mirror worlds in which out-of-date gadgets exchanged winks, front rooms on endless Sunday afternoons with dust motes circulating in the half-light. ... They were a dream and a travesty of dreaming—in the golden age of capital, all worthwhile utopias were both at the same time. Or perhaps we should say that they were pieces of nonsense architecture, in which the city negated and celebrated its new potential, rather in the way that those other distinctive 19th-century creations, nonsense verse and nonsense novels (Alice or Edward Lear or Grandville's Un Autre Monde), negated and exalted mind, logic, innocence and naivety. What the arcades released, above all, was the possibility—a botched and absurd possibility, but for all that intoxicating—of a city turned inside out. ... We linger, we drift, we fantasise. 'Existence in these spaces flows ... without accent like the events in dreams. Flânerie is the rhythm of this slumber.' The proper inhabitant of the arcade is the stroller. For only the stroller is wordless and thoughtless enough to become the means by which the arcades dream their dream—of intimacy, equality, homelessness, return to a deep prehistory. 'For the flâneur, every street is precipitous. It leads downward—into a past that can be all the more spellbinding because it is not private, not his own.'

note on The Dialectics of Seeing Susan Buck-Morss

New York Review of Books articles extracts


Walter Benjamin: Fragments, salvage and detours Carolin Duttlinger

The Marvels of Walter Benjamin JM Coetzee NYRB 2001

The man who went shopping for truth JM Coetzee 2001

Giles Peaker's Fragments of the Passagenwerk 2002

Montage/Critique: Another Way of Writing Social History George L. Dillon Postmodern Culture 14.2 (2004)

Baudelaire, Benjamin and the Birth of the Flâneur Psychogeographic Review Posted on 14/11/2013 by Bobby Seal

Walter Benjamin Archive Posted on January 31, 2017 by Luisa Greenfield

The Arcades Project: Walter Benjamin's posthumous work as a blueprint for living online Apoorva Tadepalli, December 23, 2019

Photography Theory Nickie Marland

On the Reception of Photography Between Roland Barthes and Walter Benjamin Russell Stephens


And consider Stefanie Posavec's marvelous visualization of Benjamin's 1936 article, 'Art in the age of mechanical reproduction':

Just a few photographs, many more to follow: Wandering in Paris, 2014-2016