Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project

Let’s start with the caveats. This is the first piece by Benjamin that I’ve read, prior to reading this I knew next to nothing about 19th century Paris and I acknowledge that what we have is incomplete. I also recognise that Benjamin is achingly trendy and has attained sainthood in some academic circles.
Having read it (and re-read certain sections), I have to say that it isn’t very good. The basic premise of the project is sound enough, bringing the 19th century into the ‘now’ of the 20th so that we may awaken
from the dream/nightmare that was the 19th century is perfectly reasonable. The format, a compendia or montage of quotes interspersed with observations from Benjamin, is also an interesting notion. The problem is that it doesn’t actually work either as a work of history or of criticism.
The theory that Benjamin deploys, ‘dialectics at a standstill’, isn’t a dialectic- the prime ingredient of which is flow or process. To take the notion of movement out of a dialectical analysis is to render it worthless. For a man who admired and befriended Lukacs and who worked with Adorno and Horkheimer, this is very strange indeed. Less weird is Benjamin’s attempt to move culture up a rung or two in the Marxist model of the way the world works. This has been a pipe dream of many bourgeois critics and thinkers since the turn of the century and marks a reluctance to understand the Marxist point that everything derives from economic relationships. Benjamin recognises this departure from orthodoxy but still seems to think that he can retain a Marxist framework. He can’t and he doesn’t.
I appreciate that everyone chooses their sources as they see fit and the following observations reflect my own prejudices and inclinations. Their is far too much time and space devoted to Charles Baudelaire. I admit that I don’t like Baudelaire’s brand of miserablism, nor do I like the man. I first read Baudelaire in the mid-seventies and found his stuff utterly forgettable, at Benjamin’s prompting I’ve read him again with the same reaction. In this book Benjamin doesn’t make a case for Baudelaire (although he may do elsewhere) but contents himself with lengthy quotations and biographical snippets. The other problem is that I don’t feel that this poor little rich boy rake is all that representative of the 19th century.
The are no women in the Arcades Project except as objects of desire or as shoppers and they don’t get a ‘voice’. This may be symptomatic of the 1930s when it was still acceptable to exclude half the human race from most things but it is still very disappointing, especially when the references to women as objects of desire are a bit perverse.
Also absent is the working class except for two brief references to rag pickers and a glancing reference made by Auguste Blanqui to the class composition at the barricades. Michel Foucault once said “Marxism fits that nineteenth century like goldfish fit into a goldfish bowl” by this he meant that the early industrial period formulated and consolidated class positions in the way that Marx describes. The proletariat obviously have a key role in this process and Benjamin shouldn’t have ignored them. The working class, as ever, also formed the bulk of the population during this period. I can’t accept that there wasn’t the French equivalent of Henry Mayhew writing in Paris
Benjamin expostulates on the link between fashion and death, this strikes me as overly romantic and a little sentimental. There is a perfectly good class-based explanation for why fashion is the way it is. This explanation holds true to this day and it speaks volumes that Benjamin didn’t use it. He does make a sneering reference to one work as being ‘class-bound’ but the absence of any class analysis is a serious omission.
We now come to the figure of the flaneur. I may not know much about Paris but I did know about flaneurs and flanerie prior to reading this book. I don’t know how I arrived at this knowledge but it’s been in my head for at least the last twenty years. I was therefor delighted to find that Benjamin devotes a whole section to this almost mythical figure. The extended definition given by Benjamin is at serious variance with mine. We both agree that the flaneur is an aimless stroller but the Benjamin starts to give this stroller a much more active part, someone who can spot criminals in the crowd, someone who studies the faces of individuals in the crowd, someone who compulsively window shops in the arcades. My definition is, in essence, a stroller who is in the crowd but not of the crowd someone who (to quote Fournel) gives himself over, with all his senses and all his mind, to the spectacle. That is flanerie for me, I’m not saying that I am right and that Benjamin is wrong, merely suggesting that you can say anything you want to with the right quotes.
In conclusion, the sheer size of the book and the variety of subjects made me want to keep on reading to the bitter end and when I’d finished it I did want to argue with it so it can’t be that bad.


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