That the arcades of Paris were long past their heyday was of no concern to Benjamin; in fact it was a key aspect of his world view that all manifestations of successive civilisations were transitory phenomena. As a consequence of this view, Benjamin saw modernity as transient too. He reverts to his memory of the city and rejects the self-enunciative authority of any technically reproduced image. The Arcades Project is, above all else, the history of a city — Paris, the capital of the nineteenth-century, whose system of streets is a vascular network of imagination. In The Arcades Project, Benjamin puts forward two complementary concepts to explain our human response to modern city life. Erlebnis can be characterised as the shock-induced anaesthesia brought about by the overwhelming sensory bombardment of life in a modern city, somewhat akin to the alienated subjectivity experienced by a worker bound to his regime of labour.
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That the arcades of Paris were long past their heyday was of no concern to Benjamin; in fact it was a key aspect of his world view that all manifestations of successive civilisations were transitory phenomena.
As a consequence of this view, Benjamin saw modernity as transient too. He reverts to his memory of the city and rejects the self-enunciative authority of any technically reproduced image.
The Arcades Project is, above all else, the history of a city — Paris, the capital of the nineteenth-century, whose system of streets is a vascular network of imagination. In The Arcades Project, Benjamin puts forward two complementary concepts to explain our human response to modern city life. Erlebnis can be characterised as the shock-induced anaesthesia brought about by the overwhelming sensory bombardment of life in a modern city, somewhat akin to the alienated subjectivity experienced by a worker bound to his regime of labour.
For Benjamin, the environment of the city, in particular the arcades of Paris, provided the means to provoke lost memories of times past:. However, Lauster does accept the importance of The Arcades Project in assembling excerpts from nineteenth-century sources dealing with the phenomena of novelty — in particular the arcades and department stores, panoramas, exhibitions, fashion, and gaslight.
In short, they resemble observations of a flaneur, the viewer who takes pleasure in abandoning himself to the artificial world of high capitalist civilization. One could describe this figure as the viewing-device through which Benjamin formulates his own theoretical assumptions concerning modernity, converging in a Marxist critique of commodity fetishism. This means that a common type is, as it were, superimposed upon their illustrious type.
Benjamin focuses on the margins of the modern city, scavenging amongst the texts and oral histories that have been omitted or neglected. Literary ragpicking resurrects discarded texts, forming them into new texts. Benjamin was interested not just in what is , but in what was and what might be. He is looking for where the imagined city meets the material one. Ancient peoples had access to numerous rites of passage, transition points and triggers for being jolted from one state of consciousness to another; from reason to myth.
In the same regard, Benjamin also referred to the power of advertising and its dreamlike quality; its capacity to link commodities with the human imagination. Thus, in entering the world created by advertising, one passes through a threshold, thereby achieving a form of transcendence:. Modern idlers attempt a kind of partial transcendence — imitating the gods — that temporarily overcomes the shock experience of modernity. Hence his belief in the importance of the arcades; he believed they were able to bring together all manner of consumer commodities in an environment of mixed interiors and exteriors.
This interior unites all epochs, all parts of the world and all phenomena of contemporary society. Cafes, cinemas and shops in which one is invited to browse, such as bookshops, all have in common that they can be seen as an extension of the street.
Benjamin enjoyed such ambiguity. On the one hand it is clearly a short-sighted and self-destructive occupation. But on the other, it gives the promise and anticipation of a utopian dream with many options and possibilities, and an aura pregnant with notions of superstition and fate. He is the observer, the witness, the stroller of the commodity-obsessed marketplace. He synchronises himself with the shock experience of modern life. He does not, however, challenge that system.
Empathy with the commodity is fundamentally empathy with the exchange value itself. As noted earlier, Benjamin believed that one of the main tasks of his writing was to rescue the cultural heritage of the past in order to understand the present; not just the cultural treasures of the past, but the detritus and other discarded objects:. Thus, we create a history which is not just that of the victor. These are used, asserts Deborah Parsons, as vehicles for his speculations on urban modernity:.
Both are itinerant metaphors that register the city as a text to be inscribed, read, rewritten and reread. The rag-picker too moves across the urban landscape, but as a scavenger, collecting, rereading and rewriting its history. The loiterer refuses to submit to thee social controls of modern industry:. Boredom in the production process originates with its speed-up through machines.
The flaneur with his ostentatious composure protests against the production process. Phantasmagoric experiences, therefore, are created by humans, but have the appearance of seeming to possess a life of their own.
It is, therefore, clear that Baudelaire established a tradition that moved through the early modernists, to the Surrealists and on to the Situationists. A drift is an unplanned walk, usually through a city or marginal area, and a psycho-geography involves the walker creating a mental map of the city which:. Contemporary British writers, such as Iain Sinclair, have used this methodology to write about London.
Such projects may, in fact, be easier than they were for previous generations of flaneur; the modern subject is comfortable with the presence and the use of photographic equipment. The camera is no longer exotic; it belongs to the sphere of the familiar.
This society which eliminates geographical distance reproduces distance internally as spectacular separation. If the flaneur has disappeared as a specific figure, it is because the perceptive attitude which he embodied saturates modern existence, specifically, the society of mass consumption and is the source of its illusions. In commodity society all of us are prostitutes, selling ourselves to strangers; all of us are collectors of things.
Flaubert, the father of the realist novel, was trying to conceal the artistry in his authorial selection of details, in aid of satisfying his readers. My blog is not a novel, clearly, and I think I might be trying to do the opposite — to reveal the default settings of my brain, to understand why I think things are worth noticing.
Bottom up, so to say. Thanks Bobby. Yes, Ramblings was a good boost. It is brilliant to have someone so accomplished to sit next to. I try very hard in my writing to avoid using received phrases. But, on this occasion, I really have to say: small world! Both Flaubert and Baudelaire seem to have led the lives of modern 19th century gentlemen, enjoying the privileges of various sexual proclivities as they could.
Anyway, even without that post, there is still a huge drift to enjoy, compare and be provoked by. Julian, thanks for taking the time to post such an interesting, considered contribution to this debate. I suspect, though, that the whole picture is more complex….
Thank you Bobby. The contents alone of that dissertation are an education. I will read more of the dissertation this coming week. Oh eM Gee. You are saying James Wood is wrong. I have therefore booked seats on the Chinese flight to Mars. As someone who lives in Leeds and spends a lot of time in Paris, and given the time I spend as a flaneur! Loved the essay. This is a really helpful introduction to the field. I recognise that this is a fascinating subject, but the daunting aspect is the amount of theory and reading it entails, if one is to engage with it meaningfully.
I wonder if you would be so good as to recommend some examples of works and authors that employ optical metaphors in their writing on the city. Thanks again for helping me to get a handle on this complex subject. Thanks for adding a comment Griffin. Optical metaphors? Great artictle! And here for all the flaneurs of the world — join us for the O.
Join us in exploring the hidden, the beautiful, the dark, the unlikely, the public, the unseen, the private, the fantastic Oslo. Pingback: Benjamin Flauneur — A journey beyond. And whom among us can not lay claim to that? I surrounded myself with the smaller natures and the meaner minds.
Thank you for your very interesting and cogently argued comment, Jon. Pingback: Transcendence and the Flaunter — A journey beyond. Thanks for your reply, Bobby. Who am I to argue with such seminal thinkers as these? Again, my issue with the word is in its fairly recent application if you can call years recent as the best one to fit the mold — a contrivance, if you will, as there may not have been a more apposite one for such an abstraction. What do you call someone who strolls around town observing people, architecture and commerce, making discerning judgements and yet remaining both detached and involved at the same time?
I do it all the time. So I will accept it gladly, if ever one sees fit to label me as such. I wanted to draw a comparison between them in regard to their respective transformation by those with vested interest in their meaning.
And words continue to be manufactured where there is a need, or simply where there is popular support. Neologisms are integral to the English lexicon; Shakespeare himself invented around 1, Pingback: Going Underground. Pingback: Deserters in Literature Deserter. Pingback: Realism — Joanne Carrubba.
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Jointly they would emerge, for Benjamin, as the ultimate arch of fascism, lending new depth to our understanding of the present historical crisis, as well as acting as an augur for future generations. He associated the rise of fascist terror with a breakdown of the threshold that separated the living from the dead, a threshold that had become increasingly ambiguous with the modern advent of global colonial warfare and the attendant call for the total mobilisation of entire civil populations. Benjamin became fascinated with charting the social narrative of the future dead, whether they existed in a celebrated state as it was the case with heroic suicide or as tragic disposable bodies that National Socialism would eventually excise by deeming them unworthy of life. It was hard to locate a singular perpetrator within the scheme of the new system of violent explosion from the body of the state. The spectre of the crowd is never far from this scene of bodily danger.
A near-synonym is 'boulevardier'. He is an ambivalent figure of urban riches representing the ability to wander detached from society with no other purpose than to be an acute observer of society. The word carried a set of rich associations: the man of leisure , the idler, the urban explorer, the connoisseur of the street. It was Walter Benjamin , drawing on the poetry of Charles Baudelaire , who made this figure the object of scholarly interest in the 20th century, as an emblematic archetype of urban, modern experience. By then, the term had already developed a rich set of associations. It was, rather, a way of understanding the rich variety of the city landscape. The crowd is his element, as the air is that of birds and water of fishes.
Baudelaire, Benjamin and the Birth of the Flâneur