The German-Jewish writer Walter Benjamin (1892-1940) is now widely regarded as one of the most original and insightful cultural theorists of the twentieth century. An associate of the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research (the Frankfurt School), and close friend of the critical theorist Theodor Adorno, the Judaic scholar Gershom Scholem, and the playwright Bertolt Brecht, Benjamin developed a highly idiosyncratic critical and redemptive theoretical approach to cultural phenomena drawn from, and interweaving in complex and enigmatic ways, Marxism, Judaic mysticism and messianism, and modernism (in particular, surrealism). Principally a literary theorist, his attention was nevertheless drawn to an extremely diverse range of cultural forms, media, and practices: film and photography; architecture, monuments, and urban space; commodities and fashions; and children's toys and fairytales. The significance of his characteristically fragmentary and disparate writings on the theme of the city is now increasingly recognized by urban theorists and scholars. Although they articulated no systematic or totalizing theory of the modern metropolis as such, Benjamin's texts nevertheless provide a rich and suggestive series of concepts and insights for the critical analysis of metropolitan architecture and consumer capitalism in the nineteenth century; of urban experience and memory; and of the cinematic, photographic, and literary representation of the cityscape.
During the mid- to late 1920s Benjamin wrote a series of impressionistic essays under the rubric of “thought images” (Denkbilder), sketching the cities he visited and explored: Naples (1924-1925), Moscow (1926-1927), Weimar (1928), Marseilles (1928-1929), San Gimignano (1929), and a piece on Bergen titled “North Sea” (1930). Deliberately eschewing theoretical specification and elaboration, these journalistic pen portraits were intended to capture and juxtapose vivid images of the concrete lived reality of these contrasting urban settings, foregrounding in this way their colorful street scenes (markets, vendors, swindlers, milling crowds, traffic and tramcars); their differing architectural and spatial configurations (buildings, stalls, streets, squares, interiors); and their myriad experiences (sensory inundation, disorientation, shock, eroticism, intoxication).
Published in 1928, Benjamin's One-Way Street (Einbahnstrasse) is a collection of aphorisms and witticisms influenced by the surrealist vision of the contemporary city as an intoxicating and seductive dreamscape of secret potentialities. Taking the architecture and nomenclature of the city as an organizing principle, the book comprises a series of penetrating observations about the possibilities of personal, individual, and collective experience in contemporary Berlin, Paris, and elsewhere (Riga, for instance, home of his then-lover). Benjamin's own intensely contradictory responses to the contemporary metropolis and urban culture find expression in these fragments: On the one hand, the city is a site of fascination and stimulation, of sexual encounters and intrigue, of inspiration, creativity, and cosmopolitanism; on the other, it is a locus of ruthless capitalist exploitation, of alienation and the diminution of human faculties, of bourgeois snobbery, egoism, and narrow self-interest.
Two cities preoccupied Benjamin: Berlin, the city of his birth and his home until the Nazi seizure of power; and Paris, the city for which he had a particular predilection and where he was to live in exile from 1933 until his suicide in 1940 when attempts to escape from occupied France failed.
Appropriately, Benjamin's various Berlin writings are bound up with the theme of childhood, albeit in rather different ways. Between 1927 and 1933 Benjamin wrote and delivered some 84 radio broadcasts for Berliner Rundfunk and Südwest deutsche Rundfunk in Frankfurt am Main. Mainly written for children's programs, these narratives, stories, and histories frequently took as their theme particular places or settings in Berlin, or aspects of the capital's life and literature. Factories, tenement buildings, toy shops, old marketplaces, and the distinctive Berlin accent—all these became subject matter for Benjamin's scripts. In 1932, the imminent prospect of exile led Benjamin to compose two series of reflections upon his native city: Berlin Chronicle and A Berlin Childhood around 1900. Benjamin was at pains to deny the purely autobiographical character of these two texts, emphasizing instead the elusive, Proustian character of memory itself and, above all, the status of his recollections as memories both of and in the metropolis. Hence, he claimed, the Berlin essays were less concerned with tracing and narrating the life of an individual than with recalling particular spaces and moments of a city one was about to leave for the last time, with redeeming images of the Berlin cityscape seen at “last sight.”
Benjamin understood his One-way Street collection as his first genuine engagement with Paris. From 1927 onward, and once again inspired and informed by the surrealism of Louis Aragon and André Breton, Benjamin began work on a study of the city's shopping arcades, glass and iron constructions from the early nineteenth century, which had fallen into neglect and disrepair by Benjamin's time. Originally conceived in collaboration with his friend Franz Hessel as a short essay on the remaining ruinous Parisian arcades in the present, the “Arcades Project” (Passagenarbeit) expanded in terms of material gathered and scope to become a panoramic critical historical exploration of the structural and experiential transformation of Paris occurring principally, but not exclusively, during the Second Empire.
Benjamin regarded nineteenth-century Paris as the capital of capital, as the preeminent site of new forms of spectacle, enchantment, and phantasmagoria, phenomena that he understood as modern manifestations and reactivation of mythic domination. Benjamin's attempt to unmask capitalist ideology and mystification came to focus on two key material aspects: the commodity form as fetish and the ostentatious new architecture of the city (boulevards, railway stations, world exhibitions, as well as the arcades) as fantastical “dream-houses.” In exposing both the utopian and illusory character of these, Benjamin hoped to “disenchant” the cityscape, to stimulate a revolutionary collective awakening from the complacent dream-sleep of the recent past.
Although the Arcades Project came to be Benjamin's central preoccupation during the 1930s, it remained unfinished, indeed unwritten, at the time of his tragic death. First published in German as volume five of Benjamin's collected writings in 1982, and first translated into English in 1999, Benjamin's magnum opus, and his most sustained and substantial piece of writing on the city, comprises numerous sketches and drafts and hundreds of pages of notes and quotations, grouped into folders or convoluted under headings and identified by a complex system of numbers and color codes. In this incomplete, incompletable form, the Arcades Project remains today as one of the most enigmatic and provocative studies of the modern city.
During the 1930s, the ill-fated Arcades Project formed the sun that gave life to, and around which circulated, a plethora of much shorter studies. Two of these are of particular relevance for urban theory: Benjamin's famous 1935-1936 essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility” and his essays (1938-1940) on the nineteenth-century Parisian poet Charles Baudelaire.
The “Work of Art” essay constitutes Benjamin's most sustained and coherent discussion of the new medium of film, and as such, articulated most explicitly an idea that finds more indistinct and undeveloped expression in a number of Benjamin's writings: the “elective affinity” between film as the quintessential new mass medium and the city as the definitive modern environment. For Benjamin, film was a privileged medium for capturing the flux and dynamism of the cityscape, for penetrating deeply into its obscure crevices, for illuminating its dark and hidden secrets, and, above all, for bringing the city's own revolutionary energies and tendencies to the point of critical tension and explosion.
Benjamin's studies of Baudelaire emerged from, and were intended to provide a model in miniature of, the wider Arcades Project. For Benjamin, Baudelaire was the first true poet of the modern metropolis, a melancholy figure who sought to give voice to the novel and traumatic urban experiences of his time. Baudelaire demanded a new aesthetic of the fleeting present, modernité, one that insisted upon the representation of the contemporary as the vital subject matter of the genuine modern artist. His own poetry drew upon the vernacular of Paris to evoke the shock encounter with the milling urban crowd, the bohemian life of the boulevards, the fate of the artwork turned commodity, the destitution of the outcasts of the city—heroic figures like flâneurs, prostitutes, ragpickers, and, of course, poets. Of these, the figure of the flâneur, the aloof and aimless stroller in the city, and a self-image not only of Baudelaire but also of Benjamin, has become a key motif for writers and urban theorists today.
Indeed, Benjamin's critical studies in metropolitan experience and representation are now essential reading for scholars and students of the modern city.
Arcade, Berlin, Germany, Paris, France
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