'The Arcades Project' by Walter Benjamin (1927-1940)

"To great writers, finished works weigh lighter than those fragments on which they labor their entire lives." 

Walter Benjamin.

Conceived in Paris in 1927 and still in progress when Benjamin died while fleeing the Occupation in 1940, The Arcades Project (in German, Das Passagen-Werk) is a monumental ruin, meticulously constructed over the course of thirteen years—“the theater,” as Benjamin called it, “of all my struggles and all my ideas.”
Focusing on the arcades of nineteenth-century Paris-- glass-and-iron roofed rows of shops-- Benjamin presents a montage of quotations from, and reflections on, hundreds of published sources, arranging them under headings like “Fashion,” “Boredom,” “Dream City,” “Photography,” “Catacombs,” “Advertising,” “Prostitution,” “Baudelaire,” and “Theory of Progress.”
What is distinctive about The Arcades Project-- in Benjamin's mind, it always dwelt apart-- is the working of quotations into the framework of montage, so much so that they eventually far outnumber the commentaries.

Translators' Foreword.

The Arcades Project has been posthumously edited and published as a collection of unfinished reflections (or "an advanced stage of research").Walter Benjamin is also the author of The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (German: Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit), On the Concept of History/Theses on the Philosophy of History (1940), and The Task of the Translator (1923). 

Editors note: my arrangement does not strictly follow the Belknap Harvard edition (but does preserve the convolutes ('sheafs') into which Benjamin arranged some of the material).

[Work in Progress]

Paris, the Capital of the Nineteenth Century

Most of the Paris arcades came into being during the decade and a half which
followed 1822. [...] They are the forerunners of departments stores. [...] The arcades were centres of the luxury-goods trade. [...] An Illustrated Guide to Paris says: "These arcades, a new contrivance of industrial luxury, are glass-covered, marble-floored passages through entire blocks of houses, whose proprietors have joined forces in the venture. On both sides of these passages, which obtain their light from above, there are arrayed the most elegant shops, so that such an arcade is a city, indeed a world, in miniature."
The second condition for the emergence of the arcades is the beginning of iron construction. The Empire saw in this technology a contribution to the revival of architecture in the classical Greek sense.

The rail becomes the first prefabricated iron component, the precursor of the girder. Iron is avoided in home construction but used in arcades, exhibition halls, train stations... .

Each epoch dreams the one to follow. Michelet, "Avenir! Avenir!"

World exhibitions are places of pilgrimage to the commodity fetish. "Europe is off to view the merchandise," says Taine in 1855. The world exhibitions are preceded by national exhibitions of industry, the first of which takes place on the Champ de Mars in 1798.

The phantasmagoria of capitalist culture attains its most radiant unfolding int he world exhibition of 1867. The Second Empire is at the height of its power. Paris is acknowledged as the capital of luxury and fashion.

Everything for me becomes allegory. Baudelaire, "Le Cygne"

Baudelaire's genius, which feeds on melancholy, is allegorical genius. With Baudelaire, Paris becomes for the first time the subject of lyric poetry. This poetry of place is the opposite of all poetry of the soil. The gaze which the allegorical genius turns on the city betrays, instead, a profound alienation. It is the gaze of the flaneur, whose way of life conceals behind a beneficent mirage the anxiety of the future inhabitants of our metropolises. The flaneur seeks refuge in the crowd. The crowd is the veil through which the familiar city is transformed for the flaneur into phantasmagoria. This phantasmagoria, in which the city appears now as a landscape, now as a room, seems later to have inspired the decor of department stores, which thus put flanerie to work for profit. In any case, department stores are the last precincts of flanerie.

Deep in the Unknown to the find the new! Baudelaire, "Le Voyage"

The key to the allegorical form in Baudelaire is bound up with the specific signification which the commodity acquires by virtue of its price. The singular debasement of things through their signification, something characteristic of seventeenth-century allegory, corresponds to the singular debasement of things through their price as commodities. This degradation... is counterbalanced in Baudelaire by the inestimable value of novelty. [...] Newness is a quality independent of the use value of the commodity. It is the source of that illusion of which fashion is the tireless purveyor.

Haussmann's activity is incorporated into Napoleonic imperialism, which favors investment capital. In Paris, speculation is at its height. [...] In 1864, in a speech before the National Assembly, he vents his hatred of the rootless urban population. This population grows ever larger as a result of his projects. Rising rents drive the proletariat into the suburbs. The quartiers of Paris in this way lose their distinctive physiognomy. [...] Hugo and Merimee suggest how much the transformation made by Haussman appear to Parisians as a monument of Napoleonic despotism. The inhabitants of the city no longer feel at home there; they start to become conscious of the inhuman character of the metropolis. Maxime du Camp's monumental work Paris owes its existence to this dawning awareness. The etchings of Meryon (around 1850) constitute the death mask of old Paris.
The true goal of Haussmann's project was to secure the city against civil war. He wanted to make the erection of barricades in the street of Paris impossible for all time. With the same end in mind, Louis Philippe had already introduced wooden paving. Nevertheless, barricades had played a considerable role in the February Revolution. Engels studied the tactics of barricade fighting. Haussmann seeks to forestall such combat in two ways. Widening the streets will make the erection of barricades impossible, and new streets will connect the barracks in straight lines with the workers' districts. Contemporaries christened the operation "strategic embellishment."

Haussmann's ideal in city planning consisted of long straight streets opening onto broad perspectives. [...] With the Haussmannization of Paris, the phantasmagoria was rendered in stone.

The barricade is resurrected during the Commune. It is stronger and better designed than ever. It stretches across the great boulevards, often reaching a height of two stories, and shields the trenches behind it. [...] [The Commune] dispels the illusion that the task of the proletarian revolution is to complete the work of '89 in close collaboration with the bourgeoisie. This illusion had marked the period 1831-1871, from the Lyons riots to the Commune.

During the Commune, Blanqui was held prisoner in the fortress of Taureau. It was there that he wrote his L'Eternite par les astres [Eternity via the Stars]. [...] The conception of the universe which Blanqui develops in this book, taking his basic premises from the mechanistic natural sciences,... is... the complement of that society which Blanqui, near the end of his life, was forced to admit had defeated him. The irony of this scheme... is that the terrible indictment he pronounces against society takes the form of an unqualified submission to its results. Blanqui's book presents the idea of eternal return ten years before Zarathustra... .

Here is the essential passage:

The entire universe is composed of astral systems. To create them, nature only has a hundred simple bodies at its disposal. Despite the great advantage it derives from these resources, and the innumerable combinations that these resources afford its fecundity, the result is necessarily a finite number, like that of the elements themselves; and in order to fill its expanse, nature must repeat to infinity each of its original combinations or types. / So each heavenly body, whatever it might be, exists in infinite number in time and space, not only in one of its aspects but as it is from each second of its existence, from birth to death. [...] The earth is one of these heavenly bodies. Every human being is thus eternal at every second of his or her existence. What I write at this moment in a cell of the Fort du Taureau I have written and shall write throughout all eternity-- at a table, with a pen, clothed as i am now, in circumstances like these. And thus it is for everyone. [...] The number of our doubles is infinite in time and space. [...] They are by no means phantoms; they are the present eternalized. here, nonetheless, lies a great drawback: ...there is no progress... What we call "progress" is confined to each particular world, and vanishes with it. ...a noisy humanity infatuated with its own grandeur, believing itself to be the universe and living in its prison as though in some immense realm, only to founder at an early date along with its globe, which has borne with deepest disdain the burden of human arrogance.

This resignation without hope is the last word of the great revolutionary. [...] The world dominated by its phantasmagorias-- this, to make use of Baudelaire's term, is "modernity." Blanqui's vision has the entire universe entering the modernity of which Baudelaire's seven old men are the heralds. In the end, Blanqui views novelty as an attribute of all that is under sentence of damnation. Likewise in Ciel et enfer [Heaven and Hell], a vaudeville piece that slightly predates the book: in this piece the torments of hell figure as the latest novelty of all time, as "pains eternal and always new." The people of the nineteenth century, whom Blanqui addresses as if they were apparitions, are natives of this region.

First Sketches

All collective architecture of the nineteenth century constitutes the house of the dreaming collective.

Architecture as the most important testimony to latent "mythology." And the most important architecture of the nineteenth century is the arcade.

Arcades as temples of commodity capital.

Maurice Renard, in his book Le Peril bleu, has told how inhabitants of a distant planet come to study the flora and fauna indigenous to the lower depths of the atmosphere-- in other words, to the surface of the earth. These interplanetary travelers see in human beings the equivalent of tiny deep-sea fish-- that is to say, beings who live at the bottom of a sea. We no more feel the pressure of the atmosphere than fish feel that of the water; this in no way alters the fact that both sets of creatures reside on an ocean floor. With the study of the arcades, a closely related reorientation in space is opened up.

Terrestrial atmosphere as undersea.

Arcades: houses, passages, having no outside. Like the dream.

...topography is the ground plan of every mythic space of tradition, and... it can become indeed its key-- just as it became the key for Pausanias in Greece, and just as the history, layout, distribution of the Paris arcades are to become the key for the underworld of this century, into which Paris has sunk.

...we present the new, the dialectical method of doing history: with the intensity of a dream, to pass through what has been, in order to experience the present as the waking world to which the dream refers. (And every dream refers to the waking world. Everything previous is to be penetrated historically)

Awakening as a graduated process that goes on in the life of the individual as in that of the generation. Sleep its initial stage. A generation's experience of youth has much in common with the experience of dreams. Its historical configuration is a dream configuration. Every epoch has such a side turned toward dreams, the child's side. For the previous century, it is the arcades. But whereas the education of earlier generations explained these dreams for them in terms of tradition, of religious doctrine, present-day education simply amounts to the "distraction" of children. What follows here is an experiment in the technique of awakening. The dialectical-- the Copernican-- turn of remembrance.

In the fields with which we are concerned here, knowledge comes only in lightening flashes. the text is the long roll of thunder that follows.

Say something about the method of composition itself: how everything one is thinking at a specific moment in time must at all costs be incorporated into the project then at hand. Assume that the intensity of the project is thereby attested, or that one's thoughts, from the very beginning, bear this project within them as their telos. So it is with the present portion of the work, which aims to characterize and to preserve the intervals of reflection, the distances lying between the most essential parts of this work, which are turned most intensively to the outside.

...the historian... knows things as they are at the moment of their ceasing to be.

Boredom, Eternal Return

In 1903, in Paris, Emile Tardieu brought out a book entitled L'Ennui, in which all human activity is shown to be a vain attempt to escape boredom.  [...] But it is only the self-satisfied shabby scholarship of a new Homais, who reduces all greatness, the heroism of heroes and the asceticism of saints, to documents of his own spiritually barren, petty-bourgeois discontent.

"The miserable routine of endless drudgery and toil in which the same mechanical process is repeated over and over again is like the labor of Sisyphus. The burden of labor, like the rock, always keeps falling back on the worn-out laborer." Friederich Engels, Die Lage der arbeitenden Klasse in England (18  ), cited in Marx, Kapital (   ).

Boredom began to be experienced in epidemic proportions during the 1840s. Lamartine is said to be the first to have given expression to the malady. It plays a role in a little story about the famous comic Deburau. A distinguished Paris neurologist was consulted one day by a patient whom he had not seen before. The patient complained of the typical illness of the times-- weariness with life, deep depressions, boredom. "There's nothing wrong with you," said the doctor after a thorough examination. "Just try to relax-- find something to entertain you. Go see Deburau some evening, and life will look different to you." "Ah, dear sir," answered the patient, "I am Deburau."

"Romanticism ends in a theory of boredom, the characteristically modern sentiment; that is, it ends in a theory of power... . Romanticism, in effect, marks the recognition by the individual of a bundle of instincts which society has a strong interest in repressing; but, for the most part, it manifests the abdication of the struggle. [...] The Romantic writer... turns toward... a poetry of refuge and escape. The effort of Balzac and of Baudelaire is exactly the reverse of this and tends to integrate into life the postulates which the Romantics were resigned to working with only on the level of art. [...] Their effort is thus linked to the myth according to which imagination plays an ever-increasing role in life." Roger Caillois, "Paris, mythe moderne," Nouvelle Revue Francaise, 25, no. 284 (May 1, 1937), pp. 695, 697.

The Guys chapter in L'Art romantique, on dandies: "They are all representatives... of that compelling need, alas only too rare today, for combating and destroying triviality. [...] Dandyism is the last spark of heroism amid decadence... ." Baudelaire, L'Art romantique, vol. 3, ed. Hachette (Paris), pp. 94-95.

In the essay on Guys, the crowd appears as the supreme remedy for boredom: "'Any man,' he said one day, in the course of one of those conversations which he illumines with burning glance and evocative gesture, 'any man... who can yet be bored in the heart of the multitude is a blockhead! A blockhead! And I despise him!" Baudelaire, L'Art romantique, p. 65.

The belief in progress-- in an infinite perfectibility understood as an infinite ethical task-- and the representation of eternal return are complementary. They are the indissoluble antinomies in the face of which the dialectical conception of historical time must be developed. In this conception, the idea of eternal return appears precisely as that "shallow rationalism" which the belief in progress is accused of being, while faith in progress seems no less to belong to the mythic mode of thought than does the idea of eternal return.


The Flaneur

...the new metropolis, with its uniform streets and endless rows of houses, has given material existence to those architectures of which the ancients dreamed-- the labyrinths.  [note: from 'First Sketches' but substituted for M6a 4]

On the Theory of Knowledge, Theory of Progress

"The present German regime..., the nullity of the ancien regime exhibited for all the world to see,... is only the comedian of a world order whose real heroes are dead. History is thorough, and passes through many stages when she carries a worn-out form to burial. The last stage of a world-historical form is its comedy. The gods of Greece, who had already been mortally wounded in the Prometheus bound of Aeschylus, had to die yet again-- this time a comic death-- in the dialogues of Lucian. Why does history follow this course? So that mankind may take leave of its past gaily." Karl Marx, Der historische Materialismus: Die Fruhschriften, ed. Landshut and Mayer (Leipzig), vol. 1, pp. 268 ("Zur Kritik der Hegelschen Rechtsphilosophie"). Surrealism is the death of the nineteenth century in comedy.

"There is no history of politics, law, science, etc., of art, religion, etc." Marx [Editors note: see Nietzsche in ---- decrying the same thing but enumerating a slightly different list, all the sort of things to which Foucault, among others, was to respond]

...the observation by Ghrillparzer which Edmond Jaloux translates in "Journaux intimes" (Le Temps, May 23, 1937): "To read into the future is difficult, but to see purely into the past is more difficult still. I say purely, that is, without involving in this retrospective glance anything that has taken place in the meantime."

Julien Benda, in Un Regulier dans le siecle, cites a phrase from Fustel de Coulanges: "If you want to relive an epoch, forget that you know what has come after it."

Pursue the question of whether a connection exists between the secularization of time in space and the allegorical mode of perception.

Historical materialism must renounce the epic element in history. It blasts the epoch out of the reified "continuity of history." But it also explodes the homogeneity of the epoch, interspersing it with ruins-- that is, with the present.

For the materialist historian, every epoch with whcih he occupies himself is only prehistory for the epoch he himself must live in.

Prostitution, Gambling

Love is a bird of passage.

-Nouveaux tableaux de Paris, 011 Observations Jur irs rnoeurs et usages des Parisiem au commencement du XIX' sihle (Paris, 1828), voL 1, p. 37

. . . in an arcade,
Women are as in their boudoir.

-Braziel; Gabriel and Dumersan, Les Passages et Ies rues, au La Guerre declaree (Paris, 1827), p. 30

Hasn't his eternal vagabondage everywhere accustomed him to reinterpreting the image of the city? And doesn't he transform the arcade into a casino, into a gambling den, where now and again he stakes the red, blue, yellow jetons of feeling on women, on a face that suddenly surfaces (will it return his look?), on a mute mouth (will it speak?) ? What, on the baize cloth, looks out at the gambler from every number--luck, that is-- here, from the bodies of all the women, winks at him as the chimera of sexuality: as his type. This is nothing other than the number, the cipher, in which just at that moment luck will be called by name, in order to jump immediately to another number. His type-- that's the number that pays off thirty-six-fold, the one on whim, without even trying, the eye of the voluptuary falls, as the ivory ball falls into the red or black compartment. He leaves the Palais-Royal with bulging pockets, calls to a whore, and once more celebrates in her arms the communion with number, in which money and riches, absolved from every earthen weight, have come to him from the fates like a joyous embrace returned to the full. For in gambling hall and bordello, it is the same supremely sinful delight: to challenge fate in pleasure. Let unsuspecting idealists imagine that sensual pleasure, of whatever stripe, could ever determine the theological concept of sin. The origin of true lechery is nothing else but this stealing of pleasure from out of the course of life with God, whose covenant with such life resides in the name. The name itself is the cry of naked lust. This sober thing, fateless in itself-- the name-- knows no other adversary than the fate that takes its place in whoring and that forges its arsenal in superstition. Thus in gambler and prostitute that superstition whim arranges the figures of fate and fills all wanton behavior with fateful forwardness, fateful concupiscence, bringing even pleasure to kneel before its throne.

It is only by comparison with the ancien regime that one can say that in the nineteenth century the bourgeois takes to gambling.