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The Arcades Project (1927 - 1940) - Walter Benjamin

Author: Walter Benjamin

Related: list of convolutes or chapters in the Arcades Project - flânerie - boulevards - Baron Haussmann - interconnectedness - fashion - hypertext (precursor to) - node - note - 19th century - Paris - social history - what is an arcade?

Main characters: Honoré de Balzac - Charles Baudelaire - Blanqui - Baron Haussmann - Théophile Gautier - Fourier - Grandville - Victor Hugo - Marx and Engels - Edgar Allan Poe - Pierre-Joseph Proudhon - Marcel Proust - Sainte-Beuve - Eugène Sue

See also: my blog entry

Reviews: Esther Leslie on the Arcades Project - more reviews

The Arcades Project (1927 - 1940) - Walter Benjamin [Amazon.com] [FR] [DE] [UK]
Written between 1927 and 1940, The Arcades Project is a collection of notes (in fact, it is sometimes referred to as one of the most famous books never written). It was first published as a single text in 1950 (in a very small edition) and in a bigger edition - again in German - in 1982. The first English translation dates from 1999.

The files comprised a vast array of interlinked scraps. When Benjamin fled Paris he gave over his collected notes of the Arcades Project to Georges Bataille, librarian at the National Library in Paris. He hid them well. He might have hoped to return one day to complete his researches. But completion was itself an issue. Gretel Adorno once joked that Benjamin inhabited the ‘cavelike depths’ of the Arcades Project and did not want to complete it ‘because you feared having to leave what you built’. --Esther Leslie via http://www.militantesthetix.co.uk/yarcades.html [Feb 2005]

"Walter Benjamin, writing in the 1920's and 30's, used the Paris Arcades, as the focal point of a study of 19th century Paris. He constructed The Arcades Project by mixing many citations of other authors with his own comments, generating understanding as much by the content of a particular bit as its juxtaposition with other texts. For example, advertising copy might appear right before a citation from Frederick Engels. The quotes functioned as a bit of newspaper collaged onto a painting to provide concrete evidence from the past. Benjamin used montage and fragmentation as a new way to understand and write history. " --e-Arcades by Robin Michals via http://molodiez.org/dms420/samples.htm [Feb 2005]


The Passagenwerk or Arcades Project, was Walter Benjamin's lifelong project, an enormous collection of writings on the city life of Paris in the 19th century, especially concerned with the roofed outdoor "arcades" which created the city's distinctive street life and culture of flânerie. The project, which many scholars believe might have become one of the great texts of 20th-century cultural criticism, was never completed. Written between 1927 and 1940, it has been posthumously edited and published in many languages in its unfinished form. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Arcades_Project [Oct 2006]

Publication history

The notes and manuscripts for the Arcades Project and much of Benjamin's correspondence had been entrusted to his friend Georges Bataille before Benjamin left Paris. Bataille saw to that it was hidden in a closed archive at the Bibliothèque Nationale, where it was finally discovered. The full text of Benjamin's unfinished magnum opus (as far as it could be reconstructed; of course this is in many ways a multi-layered palimpsest and some of the allusions in the parts that were "notebook material" are highly elliptic) was printed in the 1980s after years of difficult editorial work: it was hailed as one of the milestones of 20th century literary criticism and theory (and surrounded by controversy over the methods of the editor) and as a forerunner of postmodernism. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Arcades_Project [Oct 2006]

Amazon review

You could spend years trying to read Walter Benjamin's The Arcades Project--after all, he spent much of the last 13 years of his life doing the research. When he committed suicide in 1940, he destroyed his copy of the manuscript, and so for decades the work was believed lost. But another copy turned up, and Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin have translated it into English. It is a complex, fragmentary work--more a series of notes for a book than a book itself--which probes the culture of the Paris arcades (a cross between covered streets and shopping malls) of the mid-19th century and the flaneur ("the man who walks long and aimlessly through the streets" in an "anamnestic intoxication [that] ... feeds on the sensory data taking shape before his eyes but often possesses itself of abstract knowledge--indeed, of dead facts--as something experienced and lived through"). The Arcades Project is, frankly, so dense a work that one hardly has enough time to glimpse fleetingly at its sections--over 100 pages of notes on Baudelaire alone!--before mentioning it to you, though one certainly looks forward to the opportunity to peruse it at leisure. --Christine Buttery via Amazon.

Commodity fetishism

'World exhibitions were places of pilgrimage to the fetish commodity'. --Walter Benjamin, Arcades Project

If the commodity was a fetish, then Grandville was the tribal sorcerer. --Walter Benjamin, Arcades Project (1927 - 1940)

Montage, collage, juxtaposition

Walter Benjamin never completed his opus magnum, the Passagenwerk (1927 - 1940). But from what he left at the time of his death in 1940, it is clear that Benjamin aimed at developing collage and montage as constructive principles for a progressive form of writing. He stated once that the Passagenwerk "must develop to the highest point the art of citing without citation marks. Its theory connects most closely with that of montage". At another occasion Benjamin declared: "Method of this work: literary montage. I have nothing to say only to show" (Benjamin 1991: 572, 574; translation by Buck-Morss 1991: 67, 73). --https://tspace.library.utoronto.ca/citd/holtorf/3.2.html [Feb 2005]

Using the Arcades as a model

When the Paris-based German intellectual Walter Benjamin committed suicide trying to escape Nazi-occupied France in 1940, he left behind one of the most daring and original uncompleted manuscripts of the twentieth century. Only recently translated into English in 1999, what survives as Benjamin's Arcades Project is an enormous text composed of hundreds of pages of quotations collected by Benjamin, interspersed with his commentary and organized into idiosyncratic categories like "Dream House, Museum, Spa," "Mirrors," "Boredom, Eternal Return," and "The Collector." Using the decaying Paris arcades (urban iron-and-glass precursors to the shopping mall) as his conceptual model, the Arcades Project was meant to be a history of 19th century capitalism, uncovering several decades after the fact "a world of secret affinities" that would be produced from a study of the previous era's "ruins."

Using Benjamin's work as our guide, this class will be organized around an analogous "twilight" moment in film culture: the superceding of downtown Philadelphia's "golden age" movie houses by suburban multiplex theaters. Looking to the Arcades Project as a model, we will construct online our own "Chestnut Street" version of the project as a way both of coming to terms with the implications of Benjamin's radical philosophy of history, and also of understanding and posing some key questions about film as an institution and as an object of study. In addition to Benjamin's large work, we will read selected works in film studies by writers like André Bazin and Dudley Andrew, read some fictional texts like Louis Aragon's Paris Peasant, study Philadelphia-based movies like Blow Out and 12 Monkeys, and survey some key concepts of urban studies. Most importantly, this class will introduce a wide array of possibilities for both traditional and non-traditional research, which will be required of all students in both individual and collaborative situations. --http://www.english.upenn.edu/Courses/Undergraduate/2002/Fall/English-291.401 [Feb 2005]

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