Around 1925, the Passage de l’Opéra in Paris, a glass-roofed structure housing shops, known as magasin de nouveautés, was slated for demolition. This particular arcade contained a bathhouse, itinerant lodgings, a brothel or two, small restaurants, and Café Certa, a gathering spot for Dadaist and Surrealist writers and artists. Like many an outraged French writer before and since, the poet Louis Aragon blamed the demolition on the United States, complaining that France’s Boulevard Haussman Building Society had caved to “the great American penchant for city planning.”
In response, Aragon wrote Paris Peasant (1926), immortalizing the soon-to-be obliterated Passage de l’Opéra. The novel inventories the arcade’s “glaucous gleam” and “outlaw principle,” the shops’ exotic merchandise and accessories, the tempting menus, posters, magazines and advertisements, and the sly expressions of passersby — the “fauna of human fantasies,” and “unrecognized sphinxes” embodying Paris’ “contempt for prohibitions” and “irrepressible sense of delinquency.”
Walter Benjamin, a German-born intellectual temporarily living in Paris, was an immediate admirer of this new book. In a letter to Theodor W. Adorno, his friend and eventual executor, Benjamin recalled being galvanized by Paris Peasant. “I could never read more than two or three pages in bed at night,” he admits, “before my heart started to beat so strongly that I had to lay the book aside.”
Of course, that was 1928. How feasible, today, is Benjamin’s hopefulness about humanity and technology? Earlier this year the Bulletin of Atomic Scientistsmoved its doomsday clock closer to midnight, meaning that the risks of a human wipeout via nuclear weapons has become much more likely. And, if that were not dire enough, as a result of human industry and its toxic waste, the habitability of our planet has deteriorated at a faster rate than climate scientists had previously predicted.Benjamin captured his own urban wanderlust in One Way Street (Belknap/Harvard 2016). This book-length essay about aimless walks in Weimar-era Berlin, like Paris Peasant,replicates the arbitrariness of a city, describing encountered shops and objects, and mapping connections among simultaneous activities — walking, looking, thinking, joking, free associating, daydreaming and composing. Reflecting on how the “bloodbath” of World War I had been facilitated by industrialization, Benjamin closes out One Way Streeton a rousingly positive note. He proposes that technology, epitomized by the modern city, can be emancipated from the grasp of “the ruling class” and “the imperialists” with their “lust for profit.” The essay rethinks technology as reconciliatory rather than destructive, not a means for conquering nature but an instrument for mastering “the relation between nature and man.”
Meanwhile, despite its undeniable efficiencies and freedoms, digital media proceeds apace with fracturing face-to-face solidarities while accelerating the fictionalization of crucial facts. Computer hackers threaten the legitimacy of democratic elections. The current American President is an Internet troll. Given such large-scale technological malpractice, even sympathetic contemporary critics question the ongoing relevance of Benjamin, the prophet who found glimmers of hope in the “mutual penetration of art and science” heralded by what he called our “age of mechanical reproduction.”
In an attempt to save Benjamin from being eclipsed by the very cultural theories and media studies he pioneered, The Arcades: Contemporary Art and Walter Benjamin at The Jewish Museum situates his thought in relation to current — and largely American — photography, painting, film, and sculpture, as well as appropriated texts collaged into bewildering typographic arrangements by Kenneth Goldsmith.
Each gallery room is devoted to a given section – what Benjamin called a “convolute” — in his thousand-plus page tome Das Passagen-Werk (1982), known in English translation as The Arcades Project (Belknap/Harvard 1999), a speculative dive into modernity through Paris’s 19th-century shopping arcades. Lobbing a history lesson into a multimedia funhouse, this uneven yet colorful and busy exhibition provides the prospective reader of the byzantine Arcades Project with timelines of the author’s life, as well as explicatory wall charts, print photographs, and reproductions of handwritten manuscripts, lists, journals and other keepsakes. It turns out that Benjamin’s road to TheArcades Project was a long and winding one.
Born in 1892 into an affluent and secular Jewish family whose father was a sometime art dealer, Benjamin was a devoted student, specializing in the volatility of Baroque and Romantic literature. He preserved traces of religious mysticism in his writing even as he turned into a practical philosopher, social commentator, and cultural journalist. Having left an early marriage and promising academic career behind in Germany, Benjamin’s personal relationships and fact-finding travels in Europe in the 1920s and ‘30s — especially excursions to Russia and to Italy — reinforced the revolutionary beliefs about mass industrialization and rapid urbanization that he had gleaned from his reading of Karl Marx, Max Weber, and George Simmel.
And he absorbed work by contemporaries like Siegfried Kracauer, a fellow member of the Frankfurt School, who ushered in the study of film and pop culture, and Austrian satirist Karl Kraus, who ridiculed the lies and boneheaded practices of exploitative journalism. Probably the most influential contemporary guiding Benjamin’s evolution was Hungarian philosopher György Lukács. As literary critic, Lukács examined how longings for a lost utopia shaped modern literature. After converting to Marxism, he theorized about the neutering of human self-awareness and initiative by consumer capitalism. This alienating psychosocial development, sometimes known as “reification,” conditions the members of a society to be docile and contemplative once they have conceptualized their existence in terms of a commodity, functioning passively and moving “automatically,” one more object in the capitalist sphere of everyday production and exchange.
In the streets of Paris, Benjamin earned a living as a journalist while hunting out concrete examples on which to field test and then synthesize cutting-edge social theories. Encouraged by fellow German expatriate author Franz Hessel, he learned how to wander Paris with a voyeuristic curiosity modeled on that of the flaneur — a detached, attentive spectator who believed in the “religious intoxication of great cities” — who passed through every line of Charles Baudelaire’s poetry, especially the groundbreaking volume Les Fleurs du Mal (1857).