The life of The Arcades Project as we know it began as a photocopy. Hurriedly handed to Georges Bataille in 1940, in secret; stuffed under a floorboard at the Bibliothèque in Paris. That is where the Arcades was born; an illegitimate child, smuggled into its own home country, while its maker fled the Nazi regime. The “original,” if we are to assume that Walter Benjamin had any interest in that word, is missing. Bataille kept it until the furor died down, then dug it out again and patched it together. What was subsequently published was the photocopy; the photocopy is the original.
Benjamin described the project in a letter to Gershom Scholem as “the theatre of all my struggles and all my ideas,” and repeatedly insisted that it was more important than his own life. It may or may not have been the contents of the notorious black briefcase that Lisa Fittko, who smuggled many Jews out of Nazi-occupied France, reported him painstakingly hauling over the Pyrénées Mountains when he attempted to cross the border of France into Spain and then move on to the United States.
Walter Benjamin fled Nazi Germany in 1933 for Paris, leaving behind his hometown of Berlin for the last time. He had been involved in anti-authoritarian efforts since his student days, and spent the 1920s and early 1930s writing literary criticism and analyses of the devastating effects of the war, experimenting with Communism in Moscow, and working on plans for a leftist periodical with a group of other Marxists, including the playwright Bertolt Brecht, one of his closest friends. The Frankfurt School’s Institute for Social Research, which had been founded in 1923 to spread the study of Marxism in Germany, became perhaps Benjamin’s most important affiliation (and source of income), directing in large part the development of The Arcades Project.
Benjamin began The Arcades Project in 1927, a document of the flâneur’s meanderings through the shopping arcades of 19th-century Paris. This document remains shrouded in the mythology of Benjamin’s life and death, which has always been a narrative of almosts: of almost having his thesis accepted and being offered a university job, before he was told that his writing was too dense and dull, only to have another Frankfurt School theorist end up teaching that very thesis a few years after his death; of almost securing a book contract and receiving critical acclaim; of almost making it out of Europe with the US entry visa that was in his pocket the day he died, almost settling on the Upper West Side where his colleagues had established themselves, and fulfilling his dream of strolling along the Hudson River; of almost completing Arcades.
In a way it was this project that killed him. Not as it’s commonly recounted in whispered stories, the image of him, dorky, earnest, brilliant Benjamin with his big glasses and his failing heart, lugging The Arcades Project in the briefcase over the Pyrénées, wheezing — we can never know what he was carrying over the Pyrénées that day — but because this project is what he was working on in his last years in Paris, in the Bibliothèque, and it is the reason he stayed there until it was too late, rather than leave Europe at the first whiff of fascism, when he should have, when his friends did. Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, his fellow Frankfurt School thinkers, quickly moved the Institute for Social Research to New York City around the same time that Benjamin arrived in Paris, and continued publishing influential works on the rise of authoritarianism from America.
Benjamin initially thought The Arcades Project would be a 50-page text that he likened to a “prince’s kiss,” a revelatory essay about the nature of capitalism in modern life that would “awaken” readers from their “phantasmagoria,” the dream-like illusion they were all living under, that obscured, in its enchantment with consumer culture and the new possibilities associated with commodities that could fulfill individuals’ deepest desires, the alienation of labor. The Arcades Project grew under the eternal “painted sky of summer,” the twinkling ceiling of the Bibliothèque, for 13 years, as Benjamin continued to collect more and more notes from an exhaustive range of 19th-century philosophers, novelists, and critics writing about metropolitan life. It was supposed to be his magnum opus; lonely and despondent in his exiled state, Benjamin described the prospect of completing this text as “the real, if not the only reason not to give up on the struggle for existence.”
The text was always moving; it was born moving. There is no such thing as a complete Arcades
As he researched, he copied out quotations from this host of writers and thinkers in addition to his own observations and notes, that he then fit under konvoluts (literally sheaths, or “bundles”) — fashion, idleness, iron construction, museum, mirrors — that reflected the cultural structures of the time. Many of the fragments in the konvoluts are vivid and impressionistic, conjuring up images of life in 19th-century Paris, like the “discount bookstore, in which dusty tied up bundles tell all sorts of failure, and a shop selling only buttons.” Benjamin captures these images of loose change, and places them alongside the aphorisms he is now famous for. Simultaneously evocative and critical, these images invoke a reality that is sheltered and entrenched in materialism. The konvolut on the “theory of knowledge, theory of progress,” on the other hand, traces the methodology of the whole project. “Say something about the method of composition itself,” he writes, a scribble, a mutter: “How everything one is thinking at a specific moment in time must at all costs be incorporated into the project then at hand.”
Perhaps what is most interesting about The Arcades Project is that it is not and was never meant to be a book, or even a singular thing that could be called a “text.” It was essentially a card catalog; a database of debris. Benjamin had a fascination with the unattended and the seemingly unusable: for his card catalog he pulled around quotations, descriptions, excerpts, and observations from authors living and wandering and writing in 19th century Paris, creating a directory of a whole civilization, “using its rubbish as materials rather than its artworks.” His intention for the final revision of the catalog was to remove all of his own writing and leave the excerpts to speak for themselves, believing this to be the best way to tell history — a discipline he fretted was too hegemonic.
It’s a bizarre feeling even to hold the book, which was published in English for the first time by Harvard University Press in 1999. It weighs almost five pounds. There is no saying what previous drafts were like — but what we now have, packaged into what looks like a regular book, is also a draft. Benjamin’s editors called the massive, never-ending text “oppressive,” but its eclecticism was perhaps more honest to the nature of urban life: an assemblage that is as random as it is orderly, like the city itself and the modern world, built on shifting soil and shifting taste. “This common world has to be built from utterly heterogenous parts that will never make a whole,” he wrote, “but at best a fragile, revisable, and diverse composite material.” The text is uncomfortable in its physical cohesiveness, but one can no doubt imagine that the card catalog of The Arcades Project might have been heavier; and in a way, the text is even heavier online. It certainly seems more at home online than it does between two Harvard University Press covers.
Benjamin’s devoted followers make much of the fact that he died unable to complete the Arcades, and wonder about what a finished Arcades would have looked like. The text is frozen in time, mid-moment. Susan Buck-Morss, one of the pre-eminent scholars of Benjamin and among the first to really comb through all his material, wrote in response to this that he left us “everything essential” — that “lamentations over the work’s incompleteness are irrelevant.” Benjamin rewrote the overview and the preface dozens of times, growing it into an unmanageable tome, altering it slightly each time. From its inception, the text was always moving; it was born moving. There is no such thing as a complete Arcades.
Walter Benjamin wrote and compiled the text of what became The Arcades Project based on a Paris that did not exist anymore. The arcades were the physical spaces where consumer culture in 19th century Paris was born — shopping centers that took the form of street markets, narrow and winding, and housed all manner of transaction: cafes, repair shops, brothels, salons, restaurants, boutiques, theaters, gambling-houses. Some were exclusively for the very wealthy; others replicated the street economy for the very poor, who now no longer had to fear oncoming carriages. Benjamin marveled at these “inner boulevards, glass roofed,” at the fact that people could now purchase even a sky full of sunlight or stars without having to also weather the elements: “An arcade is a city, a world in miniature.”
In the mid 19th century, Georges-Eugène Haussmann, the Prefect of Seine, gutted and surgically altered the face of the city. What replaced the arcades were soulless boulevards designed for large carriages and crowd control, hostile to loiterers and flâneurs, or urban wanderers; in light of this, the consumer culture that the arcades represented seemed uniquely human, a bottom-up manifestation of history.
Benjamin was fundamentally opposed to anything nearing history as a linear presentation, as development or progress: “There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism,” he famously wrote in his “Theses on the Concept of History.” That the Paris arcades were long past their heyday when he began writing was no obstacle; perhaps it was even the point. The assembled fragments give us a way of reading history by collapsing time; they create the “dialectical image,” or the meaning that is generated in the sudden moment of insight that makes history recognizable in the present. Fashion, for instance, is one of the central ways Benjamin explores this dialectical image of collapsed time: style, the most transient of all markers, is forced by mass production and exploited labor into an “eternal return,” forever offering modernity.
This immersion in the ruins of history as a way of “telescoping the past through the present,” as Benjamin wrote, has political importance: It is a way of situating oneself under the spell of the enchanting material, and experiencing history in all its contradictions, rather than trying to deny it through the theoretical approach to historicism that Benjamin’s colleagues advocated. Benjamin writes of the need to “rescue” history with a “firm, seemingly brutal grasp,” to physically wrench it through time in order to clearly see the present; readers of his work today would have to do the same.
Reading history through the lens of contemporary consumer culture is perhaps not so radical today as it was then, but writing in the 1930s, Benjamin was attempting to identify ideas that had little articulate scholarship at the time; Thorstein Veblen had written his Theory of the Leisure Class at the turn of the century, but critical works examining this newly emergent culture of consumerism were rare. Benjamin was horrified and fascinated by the mass production of culture, the idea that labor was employed to create the literature he read. He considered himself, perhaps before most of his contemporaries, as a part of the information age that he saw around him and saw coming.
Modern life was, according to Benjamin, itself a phantasmagoria, the dream-state produced by capitalism; to reclaim our consciousness from this sedated state, something of a jolt would be required. “The reform of consciousness consists solely in … the awakening of the world from its dream about itself,” he writes in The Arcades Project, quoting Marx. Benjamin considered himself a Marxist, and his contributions to Marxist literature and modern critiques of capitalism are incomparable; but what is perhaps most useful about Benjamin’s vision of this dream-like existence is that this reading does not infantilize the bewitched dreamer, the consumer, the way that some Marxist criticism does. For Benjamin, being “awake” or enlightened is not the point so much as the moment of awakening, the moment when the past’s dream-state and the present’s wakeful state converge. This is the moment when meaning is spontaneously generated, when reality is illuminated — always only for the immediate present. Knowledge and meaning are not contingent on a structural historical event (revolution), but rather arrive in a constant stream of nows.
Modern life was itself a phantasmagoria, the dream-state produced by capitalism
Though it isn’t mentioned explicitly, The Arcades Project was created under the shadow of Paris’s 1937 International Exposition of Art and Technology in Modern Life. While the Exposition attempted to showcase progress and capitalist consumer culture, Benjamin’s project of collecting and displaying the wares of his research was trying to complicate how the commodity could be understood. The Arcades Project is a collector’s project, but it collected the photographic negatives of capitalist progress — the junk, the detritus. Unlike most of his contemporaries on the left, Benjamin was heavily influenced by Jewish mysticism, leading to an aesthetic and literary style that was considerably more ambivalent than his colleagues. Consumers’ “enchantment,” for Benjamin, was what enabled them to empathize with the commodity.
Benjamin’s aversion to the “whole” and in turn the affinity for the “fragment” largely defines his approach to both history and urban life; it seems to be what enabled him to see something charming in the commodity as a poetic object in itself, rather than merely a lifeless component of a larger, more threatening system. Benjamin invoked the object as a near-sentient being, contemplating its thingness, frequently; it would not do, he thought, to simply write it off as a symptom of capitalism from which we all might someday be freed, as his comrades did. To him, the commodity, as the object circulated by capital, was almost charming, even magical. At the very least, it was worthy of a special kind of attention, because in housing the labor that created it, it represented something important about exchange, and value. The commodity engaged in passionate relationships with human beings as customers or potential customers. “If there were such a thing as a commodity-soul,” Benjamin writes winkingly, “it would be the most empathetic ever encountered in the realm of souls, for it would be bound to see every individual as a buyer in whose hand and house it wants to nestle.”
Theodor Adorno, who in large part financed Benjamin’s project and served as its frustrated editor, worried about Benjamin’s departure from traditional Marxist theory. He thought that Benjamin’s fascination with and near-veneration of the commodity was a kind of defense mechanism, of Stockholm Syndrome, “protect[ing] yourself from the feared object with a kind of inverse taboo.” The “feared object” he is referring to is the commodity, but perhaps Benjamin rejects this interpretation because it also implicates the individual moving through Paris, participating in the circulation of commercial goods, essentially becoming a commodity himself. To place the individual participating in modern capitalism under “taboo” would be a defeatism that did not interest Benjamin; his idea of the “dialectical image” — unlike Adorno’s negative dialectic, which resisted moving towards a reconciled singularity — shows us another, perhaps more valuable way to get at the reality of the modern consumer.
A dialectical reading meanders through and navigates seemingly contradictory ideas; with it, Benjamin offers two images of our reality. The dream-image, to be “awakened” from, and uncovered, is that of the flâneur as commodity and advertisement, participating in the economy of the arcades. But there is also always the wish-image, the fact that the flâneur continues to represent a certain aesthetic, an appreciation for the details of the urban environment, a life devoted to leisure and to beauty. This dialectic offers us a useful way of reading our own realities as modern consumers online: not only as commodified parts of a process, but capable of observation and absorption, through the joy of loitering. Likewise, he believed in the revolutionary potential of an audience or readership as a collective of consumers: reading this “literary montage,” he believed, would enable readers to generate their own commentary, the way a cinema audience generates meaning and story simply through a series of images. The text is consequently not just a lesson in history but also a lesson in how to read history: from the very bottom, from the debris.
Adorno was overwhelmed by The Arcades Project; he accused Benjamin of pummeling his readers with ideas that lacked an authorial director’s “mediation.” But this was precisely the point: The Arcades Project is not a critical analysis but a documentation of the experience of capitalism. “Commentary on a reality,” Benjamin observes, “calls for a method completely different from that required by commentary on a text.” This dream-reality of modernism, of capitalism, cannot be captured in theories or by a unified, directive narrator. Benjamin’s unique ability to frustrate and confuse Marxists is what made him so suited for the age of the internet, and his cinematic montage technique, a fiercely democratic ideal, is part of what presents Benjamin as a better prophet of the digital age. His project did not need the infusion of theory, because the facts were their own theory; the images and art and commodities of the modern era were ideas in and of themselves.
Living online is an immersive, totalizing experience of capitalism, softened into a comfortable, pleasant dream — an experience Benjamin tried to replicate in his text to mirror the experience of the arcades themselves. To respond to the reality of capitalism in the way Benjamin called for — impulsively, almost sensorially, rather than cerebrally — is to not resist this totalization, but still to somehow escape it. His insistence that there was something almost human about the commodity is what most panicked his fellow Marxists, but it is also perhaps the most urgent of his arguments: the commodity must be redeemed and recognized as humanlike, he insisted, because the modern human was something of a commodity.
Benjamin places the flâneur as the central figure in The Arcades Project, as both the product and the facilitator of these dream-centers of commerce. The flaneur was first explored by Baudelaire in his poem on modernity, “Les Fleurs du Mal,” as a figure who strolled through the city, reporting on modern life. In contrast to the truly modern man, who walked with purpose and followed the demands of the Taylorist clock, the flâneur was fundamentally nostalgic, always looking at the past, at a city around him that was long gone; his aim, as Christopher Butler writes in Early Modernism, was to derive “the eternal from the transitory.” Benjamin’s flâneur is the lens through which he could wrench the past into the present.
The flâneur always made it a point to look like the picture of leisure and idleness (he would famously walk so slowly that turtles could be taken for walks in the arcades), but was often not the dandy he posed to be: more likely he was a “journalist,” writing for the circulars and tabloids that were just beginning to explode in popularity, and more often than not, quite poor. But to look like one was idling through the arcades, willing to spend money, was to convince others to look at what he was looking at, to compel them to consider purchasing what he probably could not. The flâneur’s rise as a figure in society corresponds with the beginning of mass production of culture: the tabloids, the classified ads; his loitering was a part of the process of consumption or influencing consumers.
The flâneur was among 19th century Paris’s early “influencers,” as much the product as was what he was advertising. “He takes the concept of being-for-sale itself for a walk,” Benjamin writes. “Just as the department store is his last haunt, so his last incarnation is as sandwichman.” Standing on street corners with two boards draped over their shoulders, sandwichmen were, along with the flâneur, their class difference notwithstanding, human advertisements: creating culture, desire, and consumption practices through a highly conscious performance and selling of the idea of the self. “Empathy with the commodity is fundamentally empathy with exchange value itself,” he writes, “The flâneur is the virtuoso of this empathy.” Only in empathizing with the commodity could the individual really understand and appreciate the labor that produced it — as well as the labor that had to “sell” it: the flâneur, the buyers, the “influencers,” the sandwichmen. The flâneur’s empathy with the commodity came from the knowledge that he, too, was a commodity.
The flâneur’s rise corresponds with the beginning of cultural mass production. His loitering was a part of the process of influencing consumers
In the glass interiors of the arcades, objects were transformed into commodities, and so the flâneur was transformed into a consumer, and simultaneously a product for consumers. Idleness and leisure were transformed into economic work. The internet, like the arcades, feels like “a city, a world in miniature”; it feels like there is a transfer of capital with every interaction. Social media creates its own kind of flânerie, where our internet personas are defined by the products and ideas that we consume, or present ourselves as consuming. Life on social media is an endless window-shopping trip through the arcades, of simultaneously curating our own taste, and observing others doing the same. Like the flâneur, we are only as valuable as we are visible. The “cyberflâneur” is the man of the crowd online, loitering, but making “use-value” out of the image of leisure, and creating what Baudelaire called the “cult of oneself.”
Online, as in the arcades, the line between product and experience, profession and personality, blurs, and we are all somewhat in the business of selling leisure: by making our consumption public, we are turning what reddit users call “slack” into economic output. Slack is, in its technical term, a natural hybrid of leisure and work: the two are by definition inextricable from each other. The online “slacker” is the embodiment of simultaneous production and consumption — and Benjamin’s feuilletonist, the flâneur-observer in the arcades who helped birth the new classified ads and entertainment news, is her ancestor.
My mother always used to tell me when I was growing up, during exam season, that I should strictly delineate my work and play hours. The more breaks I took during study time, the longer study time would go on; if I just focused on getting to the end of my work, I would have more time for play. Perhaps because my studying never involved the endless wealth of resources that the internet offered, there was always an end to this work; the stack of books always eventually thinned. But the work I do now is different; I now “research” and write about social media and “life online,” and so I am required to use social media, and “live online.” This magazine is a growing document of all the ideas and knowledge that continually come out of the unclocked time we spend online, of the realization that nothing we do can fully be separated from our state of living online. Contributing thoughts and ideas to it requires me to be well-versed in the cross-streets and sidewalks and highways and back alleys of the internet, observing the mundane like the flâneur, distractedly half-waiting for the “knowledge” that Benjamin described as coming in “lightning flashes.”
In Beyond the Blogosphere: Information and its Children, Aaron Barlow and Robert Leston identify the catalog that is The Arcades Project as a kind of precursor to the internet, both being as they are fragmentary and incomplete, built on fits and starts. Both are in their own way “scrapbooks,” documenting the realities and experiences of what is essentially “a giant social club, with back rooms for whatever peculiarity an individual might exhibit,” or, more simply put, “a more convenient shopping mall.” They also make the distinction that The Arcades Project had a “single controlling mind” behind it in a way the internet does not — they don’t note, however, that the text was never meant to. Benjamin was not intending for his own direct analysis, which he inserts at various points in this version of the text that we have, to be a part of the finished catalog at all: he described his intention for the project to be a pure “montage” of diverse voices from across time. Benjamin’s aversion to imposing on readers a directive narrative about what they were consuming makes it easy to imagine that he would have appreciated the fundamentally democratic, spontaneous, organic nature of internet use.
The text is an attempt to “desanctify” a deified approach to history — an approach that, Benjamin warned, could be and was being effectively used as a tool of oppression by fascism — and resist historicization by “flooding it with its own debris.” But the flood that is The Arcades Project is also a very meticulously labeled and organized system. Benjamin used a tagging system not unlike the ones we use on our websites today: every fragment was filed under a primary category, or its konvolut, and often one or more other konvolut names would be added onto the end of the fragment, as a guide to where else the fragment can and should be read. The text encourages the same nonlinear practice of flânerie as the most vibrant, democratic, uncontrollable cities — and the internet itself. The Arcades Project is unusually suited to be read in the digital era, where consumerism and “cyber-flânerie,” the act of idle strolling transplanted online, are common enough not to need names. Reading The Arcades Project, we have to wholly see our time as an extension of Benjamin’s, and at moments the same, wrenching him into our present; we imagine The Arcades Project as his Tumblr, his extensive footnotes as hyperlinks and geotags. The catalog of modernity morphs as our lives online do.
We can imagine what Benjamin’s blog may have looked like if he had lived in our time, and the tag “arcades-project” on Tumblr provides one account of this: like the text itself, the page is a collection of quotations and images, some by Benjamin and others by his sources, all patched together to create a mosaic of these strange children of capitalism. “Researching Benjamin Researching,” a WordPress site that began as a thesis about The Arcades Project in the context of the digital age, attempts to do justice to the kind of careful and nontraditional archival method that Benjamin’s catalog was. It uses internal links in the way that Benjamin’s subject tags did — the same content shows up under multiple headings, defying traditional categorization. The website is clearly unfinished and not very sleek, maybe deliberately so. It is its own particular kind of “refuse,” overwhelmed with tacky advertisements, and has an early-age blog feel to it, with room for comments (though the only one I can see is my own).
Arcades Awakening, a similar blog, attempts to provide readers with an experience closer to what the site’s creator believes Benjamin intended for readers of his text. “I wanted so badly to get to the meat of his ideas,” the author of the website writes in the introduction, “But the linearity of reading [The Arcades Project] on paper made wading through his ideas difficult, when ultimately they were modular — more like a constellation than a simple chain.” This website, too, encourages a meandering reading method through its attention to Benjamin’s detailed cataloging system, each page displaying either one fragment or only the fragments under a certain tag.
These attempts to re-birth The Arcades Project online seem to understand that crucial to the reading of this text is a reading of how history is told, and therefore a reading of power. The internet rose to the task that Benjamin set for a readership he knew he would not see in his lifetime: the task of scrambling official or hegemonic narratives, which makes its current physical manifestation as a collection of pages printed and bound by Harvard University Press something of an oddity.
The Arcades Project is meant to capture the intense emotional and psychological experience of metropolitan life in all its contradictions: It explores both the commodification of the metropolis, as well as the city as the site of liberation. In the arcades, as in the city, everything was defined by alienated labor. But like the city, the arcades also offered the space to escape this alienation, and the most intense, enchanting human experience Benjamin could imagine. Online life is metropolitan life in the 21st century: all feelings of intimacy or fellowship online come with the undertone of transaction, and we are perpetually aware of our own “exchange value.”
Benjamin is always to a certain degree skeptical of empathy, since it is an inherent aspect of the phantasmagoria — but in infusing his ideas about magic and enchantment into his interpretation of exchange value, he resists the idea that the human as commodity has no real value in addition to exchange value. What Benjamin called “empathy with exchange value” might become, for us, empathy with the other human-commodities on the internet. Every interaction maneuvers between contradictory points; it becomes dialectical, between commoditized and simultaneously human. The commodified interactions that result from our life online are strangely democratic: in recognizing ourselves as commodities, we can recognize other commodities as human — and therefore life online, as in Benjamin’s metropolis, involves not just isolation but also some kind of integral connection, and humanization.
Benjamin’s flâneur somehow embodied both a sense of attachment — with the physical space, with its history, with the crowd occupying it — and of observing distance. He is the most obsessive recorder of human details, and so most aware of the human traces left in the urban environment. Benjamin evokes images of rooftops and street corners, tightly cluttered and with the fingerprints of the crowd everywhere, so much so that homely objects — “two brushes, an open knife, a closed tin” placed on the sidewalk, “clay pipes, half-broken and stooped with age” on the sides of chimneys — created the “shadow of an intérieur,” a private space in a public site. The crowded alleys full of people with both purchasing power and leisure time created both familiarity and anonymity at the same time, and in the space between intimacy and anonymity emerged a bursting, teeming Paris, “a landscape built of sheer life.”
The internet, like the consumer society that Benjamin was trying to describe, is the source of both our suffocation and our liberation. We make our lives online our most intimate intérieur, pour ourselves into this anonymous space, where we can be at our most private because we are perfectly visible in the crowd. The space of danger is the only one we can really trust; the exposure we bring on ourselves by offering ourselves up for sale comes with an inevitable sense of thrilling, uncomfortable comfort. Benjamin’s unique fondness for the commodity was inseparable from the fact that it fundamentally obscured the true horror of production and economic interaction. Materialism was charming for him because it was always dancing on the edge of danger, of what Adorno outright called fascism.
Benjamin’s elevation of perception over knowledge is what makes this text, and also the arcades themselves, a document of an experience rather than a system
Adorno’s response to this new modern capitalist totalitarianism was to call for Marxists’ accumulation and dissemination of knowledge and theory about it; Benjamin’s was to explore the new sensations that came with it. There is a lack of irony and emotional distance in the way he wanted to experience the materialism and modernity that the arcades represented — he welcomes the engulfment that comes with the new consumer culture; he resists the erasure. His elevation of perception over knowledge is what makes this text, and also the arcades themselves, a document of an experience, rather than a system.
In an old neighborhood in the middle of Bombay, a seashell juts out of the concrete on the outer wall of a 150-year-old single-room house. In my memory of happening upon this seashell, there is a building contractor with me, who finds me staring at it and says, “They built these houses with sand from the sea.” The neighborhood we are in is actually an ancient fishing village, where the fisherfolks’ descendants still live and still trade in fish — but new land around them has now been built on top of the sea; today they find themselves deep inland, walking over the sea’s corpse. The villages are packed with narrow lanes that open into traditional courtyards, and dense clusters of old stone houses. Bombay, like Paris, is a city of contradictions: some of its fastest-growing industrial areas now surround this fishing village. The ground is still marked with ridges where you can almost feel the water sloshing around your ankles from the ghost of a seashore now miles away. That seashell is my dress ruffle, the object that holds in it the history of Bombay’s fishermen and construction workers, continually creating modernity and bringing history out in flashes.
Political theorist Jane Bennett, in her joyous study of materialism The Enchantment of Modern Life, analyzes commodity culture, “a fantastic realm in which things act, speak, rise, fall, fly, evolve….” In her world, advertisements bring objects to life, transcendent and disturbing, where the objects behave as humans do; in her reading of Kafka’s stories, a spool of thread laughs and teases the reader; a bucket transports a man sitting on it with “more dignity” than a camel rising up from a squat. Bennett refutes the hopelessness in Adorno’s criticism of the culture industry through the idea of the sentience of objects; objects are inextricably linked to our physical experiences and reality. Capitalism’s power is not necessarily “lodged in men’s minds,” as Adorno and Horkheimer write, but also, according to Bennett, “in bodily sites of potentially critical thought: the eyes that widen, the stomach that roils, the skin that galvanizes and registers ‘the relentless rush of facts.’” Bennett’s question is not whether to exist among the world of commercial things, but how; and with enchantment there is the potential also for enlivenment.
My first recognition of the enchantment of the commodity originates in a narrow alley outside a train station in Bombay, directly below my little apartment. In the alley is a fish market, mainly, but wedged into the stone walls are also tailors’ shops full of spools of silk and cotton; tiny wooden stalls selling sweets and cigarettes; little corners with makeshift furniture carved into enormous tree trunks, where chai is constantly boiling. Loose change falls to the ground, is dropped or picked up, exchanged for beedis. A one-inch long tube of oil has its pride of place inserted between two stones that make up the wall, pushed up against which is a juice-seller’s cart; he uses the oil for his ancient juice maker. Next to him, on the ground, a woman sells single boiled eggs, peeled, the newspaper wrapping imprinting forgotten headlines on its soft, hot flesh.
Online, as in the arcades, the line between product and experience, profession and personality, blurs
These are all enchantments that come with the bodily experience of moving through this “arcade” outside my old home; as Bennett acknowledges, there is a physicality to our interaction with commodities. In the arcades, this physicality seems inextricable from the experience of loitering, of experiencing urban history in lightning flashes in the present. Benjamin embraced the “commodity-fetish” less as a kind of false consciousness than as an insight into a historical and emotional reality; if our integration with the flows of commercial exchange in a commodified Paris is our truth, he seems to ask, how then can we get at the nature of the relations within it at the most personal scale?
In his introduction to another Walter Benjamin text about the urban experience, Greil Marcus observes that in the 1920s, “The momentum was all toward what was not yet called totalitarianism, and the embrace of the fragment … the affirmation of [its] truth and beauty, was an instinctive if not always political or aesthetic resistance.” While Stalin, Hitler, and Adorno’s “faceless capitalist totality,” Marcus argues, “makes one argument about life: the whole explains the fragment … Benjamin countered: the fragment reveals the whole — and, like a tiny mammal scurrying under the feet of dinosaurs, escapes it.”
Benjamin’s most significant departure from Adorno is in his offering of some kind of magic, or laughter, or joy; then as now, in both the arcades and online, this impishness seems to make the totally engulfing experience of consumer culture, fundamentally and before all else, human. Perhaps in resisting a codified understanding of our online lives in the context of the systems that create them, we somehow engage in a resistance to being codified ourselves. Rather than wait for a revolution, Benjamin suggests that we might create meaning out of our relationship with objects and consumer culture in a constant stream of nows. In engaging instead with the sensation of living online, space may be left for spontaneous, impulsive responses to our surroundings; moments of “enchantment” within our reality of commodification. Perhaps to locate ourselves within what we’re immersed in, the day-to-day engagement with capitalism — and to recognize the charm scurrying through it — is in some sense to finally make room for going about the business of life.