In Search of Paris: The Arcades Project by Walter Benjamin

… A sprawling, fragmented meditation on the ethos of 19th-century Paris, ”The Arcades Project” was left incomplete on Benjamin’s death in 1940. In recent decades, as portions of the book have appeared in English, the unfinished opus has acquired legendary status. ”The Arcades Project” surpasses its legend. It captures the relationship between a writer and a city in a form as richly developed as those presented in the great cosmopolitan novels of Proust, Joyce, Musil and Isherwood…

… For Benjamin, the Paris arcade was the most important building type of the 19th century. The arcade may have lacked the heroic muscularity of train stations, bridges and other feats of Victorian engineering. It had none of the classical gravitas sought by the Beaux Arts-trained architects of monumental public buildings. But the arcade represented a pivotal moment in modern history. With it, society began its transition from a culture of production to one of consumption. Beneath the arcade’s greenhouse roof, the technical apparatus of the industrial society was used to furnish people’s minds with images of desire. Benjamin will now take the apparatus apart…

…But the most important direct influence on ”The Arcades Project” came from Surrealism. From Surrealists, Benjamin acquired the belief that social revolution and psychological analysis went hand in hand. The liberation of society from ancient hierarchies; the liberation of minds from self-imposed repression…

…Haussmann lined the new boulevards with endless dream factories (theaters, cafes, department stores), adorning avenues that had been designed to facilitate cannon fire and troop movement in case of civil unrest. The results were a jarring mixture of pleasure and fear, euphoria and paranoia, a Surrealist composition similar to the one we see today in Rudolph Giuliani’s New York…

…Sixty years after his (Walter Benajamin’s) death, the phantasmagoria has become even more gripping. Industrial production has been shipped overseas. The manipulation industries — advertising, fashion, mass media, spin — have extended their influence to global dimensions. The 19th-century dream has been carried over to the 21st. All of Paris is an arcade, and many American cities have remade themselves as shopping malls in order to survive. Cities are fun! Cities R Us! And the streets are safer than ever!

…Why wake up? And how effective a wake-up call can a choppy, overweight, 60-year-old book possibly be?



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