Walter Benjamin: The Arcades Project

Walter Benjamin: The Arcades Project


Walter Benjamin (1892-1940), The Arcades Project

(“Passagen-Werk,” translated by Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin)

Dialectics at a Standstill:Approaches to the Passagen-Werk
By Rolf Tiedemann (pp. 932-943):

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The Passagen-Werk is a building with two completely different floor plans, each belonging to a particular phase of the work. During the first phase, from about mid-1927 to the fall of 1929, Benjamin planned to write an essay entitled “Pariser Passagen: Eine dialektische Feerie” (Paris Arcades: A Dialectical Fairyland).8 His earliest references to it in letters characterize the project as a continuation of One-Way Street (Letters, 322), though Benjamin meant a continuation less in terms of its aphoristic form than in the specific kind of concretization he attempted there: “this extreme concreteness which made itself felt there in some instances-in a children’s game, a building, and a situation in life “-should now be captured “for an epoch” (Letters, 348). Benjamin’s original intention was a philosophical one and would remain so for all those years: “putting to the test” (die Probe auf das Exempel) “to what extent you can be ‘concrete’ in historical-philosophical contexts” (Letters, 333). He tried to represent the nineteenth century as ” commentary on a reality’) (0°,9), rather than construing it in the abstract. We can put together a kind of ” catalogue of themes” from the “First Sketches” about the Passagen-Werk. The catalogue shows us what the work was supposed to treat at this level: streets and warehouses, panoramas, world exhibitions, types of lighting, fashion, advertising and prostitution, collectors, the flaneur and the gambler, boredom. Here the arcades themselves are only one theme among many. They belong to those urban phenomena that appeared in the early nineteenth century, with the emphatic claim of the new, but they have meanwhile lost their functionality. Benjamin discovered the signature of the early modern in the ever more rapid obsolescence of the inventions and innovations generated by a developing capitalism’s productive forces. He wanted to recover that feature from the appearances of the unsightly, intentione recta, the physiognomic way: by showing rags, as a montage of trash (0°,36). In One-Way Street his thinking had similarly lost itself in the concrete and particular and had tried to wrest his secret directly, without any theoretical mediation. Such a surrender to singular Being is the distinctive feature of this thinking as such. It is not affected by the rattling mechanisms of undergraduate philosophy, with its transcendental tablets of commandments and prohibitions. Rather, it limits itself to the somewhat limitless pursuit of a kind of gentle empirical experience” (Empirie). Like Goethe’s Empirie, it does not deduce the essence behind or above the thing – it knows it in the things themselves.

The Surrealists were the first to discover the material world characteristic of the nine-

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teenth century, and in it a specific mythologie moderne. It is to that modern mythology that Aragon devotes the preface to his Paysan de Paris while Breton’s Nadja reaches up into its artificial sky. In his essay “Surrealism,’) which he called an “opaque folding screen placed before the Passagen-Werk” (Letters, 348), Benjamin praised the Surrealists as “the first to perceive the revolutionary energies that appear in the ‘outmoded; in the first iron constructions, the first factory buildings, the earliest photos, the objects that begin to be extinct, grand pianos in the salon, the dresses of five years ago, fashionable restaurants when the vogue has begun to ebb from them.”9 This stratum of material, the alluvium of the recent past, also pertains to the Passagen-Werk. Just as Aragon, sauntering through the Passage de l’Opera, was pulled by a vague de reves into strange, unglimpsed realms of the Real, so Benjamin wanted to submerge himself in hitherto ignored and scorned reaches of history and to salvage what no one had seen before him.

The nearly depopulated aquarium humain as Aragon described the Passage de l’0pera in 1927, two years after it had been sacrificed to the completion of the inner circle of boulevards-the ruins of yesterday, where today’s riddles are solved-was matched in its influence on the Passagen-Werk (see Letters, 488). Benjamin kept quoting the lueur glauque of Aragon’s arcades: the light that objects are immersed in by dreams, a light that makes them appear strange and vivid at the same time. If the concept of the concrete formed one pole of Benjamin’s theoretical armature, then the Surrealist theory of dreams made up the other. The divagations of the first Arcades “sketch” take place in the field of tension between concretization and the dream.10 Through the dream, the early Surrealists deprived empirical reality of all its power; they maltreated empirical reality and its purposive rational organization as the mere content of dreams whose language can be only indirectly decoded. By turning the optics of the dream toward the waking world, one could bring to birth the concealed, latent thoughts slumbering in that world’s womb. Benjamin wanted to proceed similarly with the representation of history, by treating the nineteenth-century world of things as if it were a world of dreamed things. Under capitalist relationships of production, history could be likened to the unconscious actions of the dreaming individual, at least insofar as history is man-made, yet without consciousness or design, as if in a dream. “In order to understand the arcades from the ground up, we sink them into the deepest stratum of the dream” (FO,34). If the dream model is applied to the nineteenth century, then it will strip the era of its completeness, of that aspect that is gone forever, of what has literally become history. The means of production and way of life dominant in that period were not only what they had been in their time and place; Benjamin also saw the image-making imagination of a collective unconscious at work in them. That imagination went beyond its historical limits in the dream and actually touched the present, by transferring “the thoroughly fluctuating situation of a consciousness each time manifoldly divided between waking and sleeping,” which he had discovered in psychoanalysis, “from the individual to the collective” (Go,27). Benjamin wanted to draw attention to the fact that architectonic constructions such as the arcades owed their existence to and served the industrial order of production, while at the same time containing in themselves something unfulfilled, never to be fulfilled within the confines of capitalism – in this case, the glass architecture of the future Benjamin often alludes to. “Each epoch” has a “side turned toward dreams, the child’s side” (F°,7). The scrutiny this side of history was subjected to in Benjamin’s observation was designed to “liberate tile enormous energies of history . . . that are slumbering in the ‘once upon a time’ of classical historical narrative” (0°,71).

Almost concurrently with his first notes for the Passagen-Werk, Benjamin included in his writings many protocols of his own dreams; this was also when he began to experi-

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ment with drugs. Both represented attempts to break the fixations and the encrustations in which thinking and its object, subject and object, have been frozen under the pressure of industrial production.11 In dreams as in narcotic intoxication, Benjamin watched “a world of particular secret affinities” reveal itself, a world in which things enter into lithe most contradictory communication” and in which they could display “indefinite affinities” (A° ,4-5). Intoxication and the dream seemed to unlock a realm of experiences in which the Id still communicated mimetically and corporeally with things . Ever since his earlier philosophical explorations, Benjamin sought a concept of experience that would explode the limitations set by Kant and regain “the fullness of the concept of experience held by earlier philosophers,” which should restore the experiences of theology.12 But the experiences of the Surrealists taught him that it was a matter not of restoring theological experience but of transporting it into the profane:

  • These experiences are by no means limited to dreams, hours of hashish eating or opium smoking, It is a cardinal error to believe that, of ‘Surrealist experiences,’ we know only the religious ecstasies or the ecstasies of drugs…. But the true, creative overcoming of religious illumination certainly does not lie in narcotics. It resides in a profane illumination, a materialistic, anthropological inspiration to which hashish, opium, or whatever else can give a preliminary lesson. (SW, 2:208-209)

Benjamin wanted to carry such profane illuminations into history by acting as an interpreter of the dreams of the nineteenth-century world of things. The epistemic intention manifest here seems to fit in with the context of Benjamin’s soon-to-be-formulated theory of mimetic ability, which is, at its core, a theory of experience. 13 The theory holds that experience rests on the ability to produce and perceive similarities-an ability that underwent significant change in the course of species history. In the beginning a sensuous, qualitative type of behavior of men toward things, it later transformed itself phylogenetically into a faculty for apperceiving nonsensuous similarities, which Benjamin identified as the achievements of language and writing, Vis-a-vis abstracting cognition, his concept of experience wanted to maintain immediate contact with mimetic behavior. He was concerned about “palpable knowledge” (gefühltes Wissen), which “not only feeds on the sensory data taking shape before his eyes, but Call very well possess itself of abstract knowledge-indeed, of dead facts-as something experienced and lived through” (e°,1), Images take the place of concepts-the enigmatic and vexing dream images which hide all that falls through the coarse mesh of semiotics-and yet those images alone balance the exertions of cognition, The nineteenth-century language of images represents that century’s “deepest level of sleep” (G°,27)-a sleep that should be awakened by the Passagen-Werk.

Benjamin knew that this motif of awakening separated him from the Surrealists, They had tried to abolish the line of demarcation between life and art, to shut off poetry in order to live writing or write life. For the early Surrealists, both dream and reality would unravel to a dreamed, unreal Reality, from which no way led back to contemporary praxis and its demands. Benjamin criticized Aragon for “persisting within the realm of dreams” and for allowing mythology to “remain” with him (H°,l7). Aragon’s mythology remains mere mythology, unpenetrated by reason, Surrealist imagery evens out the differences separating Now from Then; instead of bringing the past into the present, it drives “things back into the distance again” and remains bound, “in the historical sphere, [to] a romantic distance” (C°,S). Benjamin, on the other hand, wanted “to [bring] things near,” to allow them to “step into our lives” (1°,2). What linked his methods to Surrealist ones,

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the immersion of what has been into layers of dreams, represented not an end in itself for the Passagen-Werk but rather its methodological arrangement, a kind of experimental setup, The nineteenth century is the dream we must wake up from; it is a nightmare that will weigh on the present as long as its spell remains unbroken. According to Benjamin, the images of dreaming and awakening from the dream are related as expression is related to interpretation. He hoped that the images, once interpreted, would dissolve the spell Benjamin’ s concept of awakening means the “genuine liberation from an epoch” (h°,3), in the double sense of Hegel’s Aufhebung: the nineteenth century would be transcended in that it would be preserved, “rescued” for the present. Benjamin defines “the new, the dialectical method of doing history” in these words: “with the intensity of a dream, to pass through what has been (das Gewesene), in order to experience the present as the waking world to which the dream refers” (F°,6). This concept is based on a mystical conception of history that Benjamin was never to abandon, not even in his late theses “On the Concept of History?’ Every present ought to be synchronic with certain moments of history, just as every past becomes “legible” only in a certain epoch – “namely, the one in which humanity, rubbing its eyes, recognizes just this particular dream image as such. It is at this moment that the historian takes up… the task of dream interpretation” (N4,1), Toward this end, we need not a dragging of the past into the mythological, but, on the contrary, a “dissolution of ‘mythology’ in the space of history” (H°,l7). Benjamin demanded a “concrete, materialist meditation on what is nearest” (das Nächste); he was interested “only in the presentation of what relates to us, what conditions us” (C°,5). In this way the historian should no longer try to enter the past; rather, he should allow the past to enter his life. A “pathos of nearness” should replace the vanishing “empathy” (1°,2). For the historian, past objects and events would not then be fixed data, an unchangeable given, because dialectical thinking “ransacks them, revolutionizes them, turns them upside down” (D°,4); this is what must be accomplished by awakening from the dream of the nineteenth century. That is why for Benjamin the “effort to awaken from a dream” represents “the best example of dialectical reversal” (D°,7).

The key to what may have been Benjamin’s intention while working on the first phase of the Passagen-Werk may be found in the sentence, “Capitalism was a natural phenomenon with which a new dream-filled sleep came over Europe, and, through it, a reactivation of mythical forces” (K1a,8), Benjamin shares his project) the desire to investigate capitalism, with historical materialism, from which he may well have appropriated the project in the first place. But the concepts he uses to define capitalism-nature, dream, and myth originate from the terminology of his own metaphysically and theologically inspired thought. The key concepts of the young Benjamin’s philosophy of history center around a critique of myth as the ordained heteronomous, which kept man banished in dumb dependence throughout prehistory and which has since survived in the most dissimilar forms, both as unmediated violence and in bourgeois jurisprudence.14 The critique of capitalism in the first Arcades sketch remains a critique of myth, since in it the nineteenth century appears as a domain where “only madness has reigned until now.” “But,” Benjamin adds, “every ground must at some point have been turned over by reason, must have been cleared of the undergrowth of delusion and myth. This is to be accomplished here for the terrain of the nineteenth century” (G°,13). His interpretation recognizes forms still unhistorical, still imprisoned by myth, forms that are only preparing themselves, in such an interpretation, to awaken from myth and to take away its power. Benjamin identifies them as the dominant forms of consciousness and the imagery of incipient high capitalism: the “sensation of the newest and most modern,” as well as the

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image of the “eternal return of the same” – both are “dream formations of events,” dreamed by a collective that “knows no history” (M°,14). He speaks in direct theological terms in his interpretation of the modern as “the time of hell”:

  •  What matters here is that the face of the world, the colossal head, precisely in what is newest never itself changes – that this ‘newest’ remains in all respects the same. This constitutes the eternity of hell and the sadist’s delight in innovation. To determine the totality of traits which define this ‘modernity’ is to represent hell. (Go,17)

Since it is a “commentary on a reality,” which sinks into the historical and interprets it as it would a text, theology was called upon to provide the “scientific mainstay” of the Passagen-Werk (0°,9), though at the same time politics was to retain its “primacy over history” (h°,2). At the time of the first Arcades sketch, Benjamin was concerned less with a mediation of theological and political categories than with their identity. In this he was very much like Ernst Bloch in Geist der Utopie (Spirit of Utopia), which he explicitly took as his model. He repeatedly had recourse to Blochian concepts to characterize his own intentions, as in “fashion inheres in the darkness of dle lived moment, but in the collective darkness” (O°,ll). Just as for Bloch the experiencing individual has not yet achieved mastery over himself at the moment of experiencing, for Benjamin the historical phenomena remain opaque, unilluminated for the dreaming collective. In Bloch’s opinion, individual experience is always experience of the immediate past; in the same way, Benjarnin’s interpretation of the present refers to the recent past: action in the present means awakening from the dream of history, an “explosion” of what has been, a revolutionary turn. He was convinced that “the whole set of issues with which this project is concerned” would be “illuminated in the process of the proletariat becoming conscious of itself” (0° ,68). He did not hesitate to interpret these facts as part of the preparation for the proletarian revolution. “The dialectical penetration and actualization of former contexts puts the truth of all present action to the test” (0°,5). It is not the action itself but its theory that is at stake here. This defines the task of the historian as ” rescuing” the past or, as Benjamin formulated it with another concept taken from Bloch, “awakening a not-yet-conscious knowledge of what has been (H°,17) by applying the “theory of not-yet-conscious knowing… to the collective in its various epochs” (0°,50). At this stage, Benjamin conceived of the Passagen-Werk as a mystical reconstitution: dialectical thinking had the task of separating the future-laden, “positive” element from the backward “negative” element, after which I’a new partition had to be applied to this initially excluded, negative component so that, by a displacement of the angle of vision… a positive element emerges anew in it too – something different from that previously signified. And so on, ad infinitum, until the entire past is brought into the present in a historical apocatastasis” (Nla,3). In this way, the nineteenth century should be brought into the present within the Passagen-Werk. Benjamin did not think revolutionary praxis should be allowed at any lesser price. For him revolution was, in its highest form, a liberation of the past, which had to demonstrate ” the indestructibility of the highest life in all things” (0°,1). At the end of the 1920s, theology and communism converged in Benjamin’s thought. The metaphysical, historical-philosophical, and theological sources that had nurtured both his esoteric early writings and his great aesthetic works until Urprung des deutschen Trauerspiels (Origin of the German Trauerspiel) were still flowing and would also nurture the Passagen-Werk.

The Passagen-Werk was supposed to become all of that, and it became none of that – to echo a famous phrase of Benjamin’s (D°,6). He interrupted work in the fall of 1929 for

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various reasons. Retrospectively, he placed responsibility on problems of representation: the “rhapsodic nature” of the work, which he had already announced in the first sketch’s subtitle, “a dialectical fairyland” (Letters, 488). The illicit ‘poetic formulation he then thought he was obliged to use was irreconcilable with a book that was to have “our generation’s decisive historical interests as its object” (Scholem Letters) 165). Benjamin believed that only historical materialism could safeguard those interests; the aporias he encountered while composing the Passagen-Werk) then, undoubtedly culminated in the project’s position in relation to Marxist theory. Though Benjamin professed his commitment to Communist party politics to begin with, he still had to convince himself of the necessity to proceed from a political creed to the theoretical study of Marxism, which he thought could be appropriated for his purposes even prior to his actual study. His intention was to secure the Passagen-Werk “against all objections… provoked by metaphysics”; “the whole mass of thought, originally set into motion by metaphysics;’ had to be subjected to a “recasting process” which would allow tlle author to “face with equanimity the objects orthodox Marxism might mobilize against the method of the work” (Letters, 489). Benjamin traced the end of his “blithely archaic philosophizing, imprisoned by nature,” which had been the basis of the “romantic form” and the “rhapsodic naivete” of the first sketch, to conversations with Adorno and Horkheimer that he characterized as “historic” (Letters, 488-489). These took place in September or October 1929, in Franklint and Konigstein. In all probabilily, both Horkheimer and Adorno insisted in discussions of the submitted texts-mainly the “Early Drafts” published with the Passagen-Werk – that it was impossible to speak sensibly about the nineteenth century without considering Marx’s analysis of capital; it is entirely possible that Benjamin, who at that time had read hardly anything by Marx, was influenced by such a suggestion.15 Be that as it may, Benjamin’s letter to Scholem of January 20, 1930, contains the statement that he would have to study certain features of both Hegelian philosophy and Capital in order to complete his project (Letters, 359). Benjamin had by no means concluded such studies when he returned to the Passagen-Werk four years later. The “new face” (5:1103) the work unveiled, due not a little to Benjamin’s political experiences in exile, revealed itself in an emphatic recourse to social history, which had not been wholly relinquished in the first sketch but which had been concealed by that sketch’s surrealist intentions. None of the old motifs were abandoned, but the building was given stronger foundations. Among the themes added were Haussmann’s influence, the struggles on the barricades, railways, conspiracies, compagnonnage, social movements, the Stock Exchange, economic history, the Commune, the history of sects, and the Ecole Polytechnique; moreover, Benjamin began assembling excerpts on Marx, Fourier, and Saint-Simon. This thematic expansion hardly meant that Benjamin was about to reserve a chapter for each theme (he now planned to write a book instead of an essay). The book’s subject was now defIned as “the fate of art in the nineteenth century” (Letters, 517) and thus seemed more narrowly conceived than it had been. That should not be taken too literally, however: the 1935 exposé, after all, in which Benjamin most clearly delineates his intentions in his work’s second stage, still lists every theme the Passagen-Werk was to treat from the outset: arcades, panoramas, world exhibitions, interiors, and the streets of Paris. This exposé’s title, “Paris, the Capital of the Nineteenth Century;’ remained the definitive title and was appropriated for another exposé – a French prospectus – in 1939. This prospectus contains a decisive reference to “the new and far-reaching sociological perspectives” of the second sketch. Benjamln wrote that these new perspectives would yield a “secure framework of interpretive interconnections” (Letters, 490). But his interpretation was now supposed to trace the book’s subject matter – the cultural superstructure of nineteenth-

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century France – back to what Marx had called the fetish character of commodities. In 1935 the “unfolding of this concept” would “constitute the center” of the projected work (Scholem Letters, 159), and by 1938 the “basic categories” of the Passagen-Werk would “converge in the determination of the fetish character of commodities” (5:1166), This notion surfaces only once in the first sketch (0°,38) ; it was then by no means clear that commodity fetishism was destined to form the central schema for the whole project. “When Benjamin wrote the first exposé in 1935, he was probably still unfamiliar with the relevant discussion in Marx’s writings, He apparently only began to “look around…  in the first volume of Capital” after completing the exposé (5:1122). He was familiar with the theory of commodity fetishism mainly in Lukacs’s version; like many other left-wing intellectuals of his generation, Benjamin largely owed his Marxist competency to the chapter on reification in Lukacs’s History and Class Consciousness.

Benjamin wished to treat culture in the era of high capitalism like Lukacs’s translation back into philosophy of the economic fact of commodity fetishism, as well as his application of the category of reification to the antinomies of bourgeois thought. Marx showed that capitalist production’s abstraction of value begets an ideological consciousness, in which labor’s social character is reflected as objective, thing-like characteristics of the products of that labor. Benjamin recognized the same ideological consciousness at work in the then-dominant “reified conception of culture:’ which obfuscated the fact dlat “the creations of the human mind… owe not just their origin, but also the ways in which they have been handed down, to a continuing social labor” (5:1255). The fate of nineteenth century culture lay precisely in its commodity character, which Benjamin thereupon represented in “cultural values” as phantasmagoria. Phantasmagoria: a Blendwerk, a deceptive image designed to dazzle, is already the commodity itself, in which the exchange value or value-form hides the use value. Phantasmagoria is the whole capitalist production process, which constitutes itself as a natural force against the people who carry it out. For Benjamin, cultural phantasmagorias express “the ambiguity peculiar to the social relations and products of this epoch” (Exposé of 1935, section V). In Marx, the same ambiguity defines “the economic world of capitalism”: an ambiguity “exemplified quite clearly in the machines which aggravate exploitation rather than alleviate the human lot” (K3,5). The concept of phantasmagoria that Benjamin repeatedly employs seems to be merely another term for what Marx called commodity fetishism, Benjamin’s term can even be found in Marx’s writings: in Capital’s first chapter (on fetishism), in the famous passage about the “definite social relation” which molds labor under capitalist conditions of production, that very relation is said to “assume… the phantasmagoric form of a relation between things” for the people concerned.16 Marx had in mind the circumstances of the bourgeois economy’s “necessarily false” consciousness, which is no less false for being necessary. Benjamin’s interest in culture was less for its ideological content, however, whose depth is unearthed in ideology critique, than for its surface or exterior, which is both promising and deceptive. “The creations and life-styles that were mainly conditioned by commodity production and which we owe to the previous century” are “sensuously transfigured in their immediate presence” (5:1256). Benjamin was interested in that immediate presence; the secret he was tracking in the Passagen-Werk is a secret that comes to appear, The “luster with which the commodity-producing society surrounds itself” (5:1256) is phantasmagorical – a luster that hardly has less to do with the “beautiful appearance” of idealist aesthetics than with commodity fetishism. Phantasmagorias are the “century’s magic images” (1:1153); they are the Wunschbilder, the wish symbols or ideals, by which that collective tried “both to overcome and to transfigure the immaturity of the social product and the inadequacies in the social organization of production”

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(Exposé of 1935, section I). To begin with, the phantasmagoria seems to have a transfiguring function: world exhibitions, for example, transform the exchange value of commodities by fading, as in a film, from the abstractness of their valuation. Similarly, the collector transfigures things by divesting them of their commodity character. And in this same way, iron construction and glass architecture are transfigured in the arcades because “the century could not match the new technical possibilities with a new social order” (5:1257). As Benjamin in late 1937 came across Auguste BIanqui’s” L’Eternité par les astres – a cosmological phantasmagoria written by the revolutionary while in prison – he reencountered his own speculation about the nineteenth century as Hades. The semblance character (Scheinhafte) of all that is new and that the century liked to show off as modern par excellence was consummated in its highest concept, that of progress, which Blanqui denounced as a “phantasmagoria of history,” as “something so old it predates thinking, which struts about in the clothes of the New,” as the eternal recurrence of the same, in which mankind figures “as one of the danmed” (5:1256). Benjamin learned from Blanqui that the phantasmagoria embraced “the most bitter criticism;’ the harshest indictment of society” (5:1256-1257). The transfiguring aspects of phantasmagoria change to enlightenment, into the insight “that mankind will remain under the power of mythical fear as long as phantasmagoria has a place in that fear (5:1256). The century always transcends the “old social order” in its cultural phantasmagoria. As ”wish symbols,” the arcades and interiors, the exhibition halls and panoramas are ”residue of a dream world.” They are part of BIochian dreaming ahead, anticipating the future: “Every epoch, in fact, not only dreams the one to follow, but, in dreaming, precipitates its awakening. It bears its end within itself.” Insofar as dialectical thinking tries to define as well as to expedite this end of decaying bourgeois culture, it became for Benjamin the “organ of historical awakening” (Exposé of1935, section VI, end).

“The property appertaining to the commodity as its fetish character attaches as well to the commodity-producing society – not as it is in itself, to be sure, but more as it represents itself and thinks to understand itself whenever it abstracts from the fact that it produces precisely commodities” (X13a). That was hardly Marx’s opinion. He identifies the fetish character of the commodity through the fact that the features of man’s labor appear to him as what they are: “as material relations between persons and social relations between things.”17 The analysis of capital establishes the quid pro quo of commodity fetishism as objective, not as a phantasmagoric. Marx would necessarily have rejected the notion that the conmodity-producing society might be able to abstract from the fact that it produces commodities in any other way than by really ceasing to produce commodities in the transition to a higher social formation. It is not difficult – though also not very productive – to point out Benjamin’s miscomprehensions of Marxist theory.

Benjamin showed little interest in a Marxist theory of art, which he considered ”one moment swaggering, and the next scholastic” (N4a,2). He valued three short sentences by Proust more highly than most of what existed in the field of materialist analysis (K3,4). The majority of Marxist art theorists explain culture as the mere reflection of economic development; Benjamin refused to join them. He viewed the doctrine of aesthetic reflection as already undercut by Marx’s remark “That the ideologies of the superstructure reflect relations in a false and distorted manner.” Benjamin followed this remark with a question:

  • If the infrastructure in a certain way (in the materials of thought and experience) determines the superstnlcture, but if such determination is not reducible to simple reflection, then how should it be characterized’? As its expression. The superstruc-

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  • ture is the expression of the infrastracture. The economic conditions under which society exists are expressed in the superstructure, precisely as, with the sleeper, an overfull stomach finds not its reflection but its expression in the contents of dreams, which, from a causal point of view, it may be said to ‘condition.’ (K2,5) 

Benjamin did not set out according to ideology critique;18 radler, he gave way to the notion of materialist physiognomies, which he probably understood as a complement, or an extension, of Marxist theory. Physiognomies infers the interior from the exterior; it decodes the whole from the detail; it represents the general in the particular. Nominalistically speaking, it proceeds from the tangible object; inductively it commences in the realm of the intuitive. The Passagen-Werk “deals fundamentally with the expressive character of the earliest industrial products, the earliest industrial architecture, the earliest machines, but also the earliest department stores, advertisements, and so on” (Nla,7). In that expressive character, Benjamin hoped to locate what eluded the immediate grasp: the Signatur, the mark, of the nineteenth century. He was interested in the “thread of expression”: “the expression of the economy in its culture will be presented, not the economic origins of culture” (Nla,6). Benjamin’s trajectory from the first to the second sketch of the Passagen-Werk documents his efforts to safeguard his work against the demands of historical materialism; in this way, motifs belonging to metaphysics and theology survived undamaged in the physiognomic concept of the epoch’s closing stage, describe the expression of economics in culture was an attempt “to grasp an economic process as perceptible Ur-phenomenon, from out of which proceed all manifestations of life in the arcades (and, accordingly, in the nineteenth century) ” (Nla,6). Benjamin had already enlisted Goethe’s primal phenomenon (Urphänomen) to explicate his concept of truth in Origin of the German Trauerspiel:19 the concept of “origin” in the Trauerspiel book would have to be ” a strict and compelling transfer of this Goethean first principle from the realm of nature to that of history,” In the Passagen-Werk, then:

  • I am equally concerned with fathoming an origin. To be specific, I pursue the origin of the forms and mutations of the Paris arcades from their beginning to their decline, and I locate this origin in the economic facts. Seen from the standpoint of causality, however (and that means considered as causes), these facts would not be primal phenomena; they become such only insofar as in their own individual development-’unfolding” might be a better term-they give rise to the whole series of the arcade’s concrete historical forms, just as the leaf unfolds from itself all the riches of the empirical world of plants. (N2a,4)

Metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties reappear here in the theory of epistemology, even though they seemed vanquished after they learned of their ironic masking by economics. How could Ur-phenomena, which represent themselves as the expression of economic facts, distinguish themselves from those ideas in Benjamin’s Trauerspiel book which represent themselves by empirical means? Benjamin resolves tlns problem with his early notion of a monadological truth, winch presides at every phase of the Passagen-Werk and remains valid even in the theses “On the Concept of History,” whereas in the Trauerspiel book the idea as monad “contains the image of the world” in itself,20 in the Passagen-Werk the expression as phenomenon contains the image of history in itself. The essence of capitalist production would be comprehended vis-a vis the concrete historical forms in which the economy finds its cultural expression. The abstractions of mere conceptual thinking were insufficient to demystify this abhorrent state of affairs, such that a mimetic-intuitive corrective was imposed to decipher the code of the universal in the

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image. Physiognomic thought was assigned the task of “recognizing the monuments of the bourgeoisie as ruins even before they have crumbled” (Exposé of 1935, section VI, end). The prolegomena to a materialist physiognomies that can be gleaned from the Passagen-Werk counts among Benjamin’s most prodigious conceptions. It is the programmatic harbinger of that aesthetic theory which Marxism has not been able to develop to this day. Whether Benjamin’s realization of rus program was capable of fullfilling its promise, whether his physiognomies was equal to its materialist task, could have been proven only by the actual composition of the Passagen-Werk itself.

Modified concepts of history and of the writing of history are the link between both Arcades sketches. Their polemical barbs are aimed at the nineteenth-century notion of progress. “With the exception of Schopenhauer (by no coincidence, his objective world bears the name “phantasmagoria”), idealist philosophers had turned progress into the “signature of historical process as a whole” (N13) and by doing so had deprived it of its critical and enlightenment functions. Even Marx’s thesis in the unfolding of the productive forces hypostatized the concept of progress, and it must have appealed untenable to Benjamin in light of the experience of the twentieth century. Similarly, the political praxis of the worker’s movement had forgotten that progress in terms of proficiency and information does not necessarily mean progress for humanity itself – and that progress in the domination of nature corresponds to societal regress.21 In the first Arcades sketch Benjamin already demanded “a philosophy of history that at all points has overcome the ideology of progress” (0°,5), one such as he later worked out in the historical-philosophical theses. There the image of history reminds the reader more of Ludwig Klages’s lethal juggling with archetypal images (Urbilder) and phantoms than of the dialectic of the forces and the relations of production, It is that Angel of History who appears in one of the theses as an allegory of the historical materialist (in Benjamin’s sense)22 and who sees all history as a catastrophe “which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of our feet” (Illuminations, p. 259). The Angel abolishes all categories which until then have been used for representing history: this materialist sees the “everything ‘gradual’ about becoming” as refuted, and “development” is shown to be only “seeming’) (1′°,6; Kl,3). But more than anything else, he denounces the “establishment of a continuity” (N9a,5) in history) because the only evidence of th:”1t continuity is that of horror, and the Angel has to do with salvation and redemption. The Passagen-Werk was supposed to bring nothing less than a “Copernican revolution” of historical perception (F° 7 ; K1)1-3), Past history would be grounded in the present, analogous to Kant’s epistemological grounding of objectivity in the depths of the subject. The first revolution occurred in the relationship in which subject and object, present and past meet in historical perception:

  • Formerly it was thought that a fixed point had been found in “what has been” and one saw the present engaged in tentatively concentrating the forces of knowledge on this ground, Now this relation is to be overturned, and what has been is to become the dialectical reversal-the irruption of awakened consciousness. Politics attains primacy over history. The facts become something that just now first happened to us, first struck us; to establish them is the affair of memory, (K1,2)

The historical line of vision no longer falls from the present back onto history; instead it travels from history forward. Benjamin tried to “recognize today’s life, today’s forms in the life and in the apparently secondary, lost forms” of the nineteenth century (N1,U). Our contemporary interest in a historical object seems “itself preformed in that object,

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and, above ail,” it feels “this object concretized in itself and upraised from its fonner being into the higher concretion of now-being [Jetztseins] (waking being!)” (K2,3). The object of history goes on changing; it becomes “historical” (in this word’s emphatic sense) only when it becomes topical in a later period. Continuous relationships in tllIle, with which history deals, are superseded in Benjamin’s thought by constellations in which the past coincides with the present to such an extent that the past achieves a “Now” of its “recognizability:’ Benjamin developed this ” Now of Recognizability;’ which he sometilnes referred to as his theory of knowledge (5:1148), from a double frontal position against both idealism and positivistic historicism. While the latter tried to move the historical narrator back into the past, so that he could comprehend “emphatically” (solely from within) the whole of the Then, which filled “homogeneous, empty time” as a mere “mass of data” (Illuminations) p. 264), idealist constructions of history, on the other hand, usurped the prospect of the future and posited in history the existence of the natural plan of a process, which runs on autonomously and can, in principle, never be completed. Both relegate “everything about history that, from the very beginning, has been untimely, sorrowful, unsuccessful” (Trauerspiel, p. 166) to forgetting. The object of that materialist historical narrative Benjamin wanted to try out in the Passagen-Werk would be precisely what history started but did not carry out. That the lineaments of the past are first detectable after a certain period is not due to the historian’s whim; it bespeaks an objective historical constellation:

  • History is the object of a construct whose site is not homogeneous, empty time, but time filled by now-time [Jetztzeit]. Thus, to Robespierre ancient Rome was a past charged with now-time, which he blasted out of the continuum of history. The French Revolution viewed itself as Rome incarnate. It quoted ancient Rome. (Illuminations, p. 263)

Benjamin wished to continue along this line in the Passagen-Werk. The present would provide the text of the book; history, the quotations in that text. “To write history… means to cite history” (Nll,3).

Benjamin’s Copernican revolution of historical intuition also (and above all) meant that the traditional concept of truth was to be turned on its head:

  • Resolute refusal of the concept of “timeless truth” is in order. Nevertheless) truth is not – as Marxism would have it – a merely contingent function of knowing, but is bound to a nucleus of time lying hidden within the knower and the known alike. This is so that the eternal, in any case, is far more the ruffle on a dress than some idea. (N3,2)

The temporal core of history cannot be grasped as really happening, stretching forth in the real dimension of time; rather it is where evolution halts for a moment, where the dynamis of what is happening coagulates into stasis, where time itself is condensed into a differential, and where a Now identifies itself as the “Now of a particular recognizability.” In such a Now, “truth is charged to the bursting point ·with tune” (N3,1). 11le Now would have thus shown itself to be the “inmost image” (00,81) of the Arcades themselves, of fashion, of the bourgeois interior – appearing as the linage of all that had been, and whose cognition is the pith of the Passagen-Werk. Benjamin invented the term “dialectical images)’ for such configurations of the Now and the Then; he defined their content as a “dialectic at a standstill” Dialectical image and dialectic at the standstill are, without a doubt, the central categories of the Passagen-Werk. Their meaning, however, remained iridescent; it never achieved any terminological consistency.2:

We can distinguish at least

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two meanings in Benjamin’s texts; they remain somewhat undivulged, but even so cannot be brought totally in congruence. Once – in the 1935 expose, which in this regard summarizes the motifs of the final draft – Benjamin localized dialectical images as dream and wish images in the collective subconscious, whose “image-making fantasy, which was stimulated by the new” should refer back to the ” Ur-past”: “In the dream, in which each epoch entertains images of its successor, the latter appears wedded to elements of Ur-history – that is, to elements of a classless society. And the experiences of such a society as stored in the unconscious of the collective-engender, through interpenetration with what is new, the utopia” (Expose of 1935, section I). “‘The modem is said to quote history “by means of the ambiguity peculiar to the social relations and products of this epoch.” In turn, “Ambiguity is the manifest imaging of dialectic, the law of dialectics at a standstill. This standstill is utopia, and the dialectical image, therefore, dream image. Such an image is afforded by the commodity per se: as fetish” (Exposé of 1935, section V), These statements drew the resolute criticism of Adorno, who could not concede that the dialectical image could be “the way in which fetishism is conceived in the collective consciousness;’ since commodity fetishism is not a “fact of consciousness” (Letters, 495). Under the influence of Adorno’s objections, Benjamin abandoned such lines of thought; the corresponding passages in his 1939 expose were dropped as no longer satisfactory to their author (see 5: 1 1 57). By 1940, in the theses “On the Concept of History,” “dialectic at a standstill” seems to function almost like a heuristic principle, a procedure that enables the historical materialist to maneuver his objects:

  • A historical materialist cannot do without the notion of a present which is not a transition) but in which time stands still and has come to a stop. For this notion defines the present in which he himself is writing history… Materialist historiography… is based on a constructive principle. Thinking involves not only the flow of thoughts, but their arrest as well. “Where thinking suddenly stops in a configuration pregnant with tensions, it gives that configuration a shock, by which it crystallizes into a monad. A historical materialist approaches a historical subject only where encounters it as a monad. In this structure he recognizes the sign of a messianic cessation of happening, or, put differently, a revolutionary chance in the fight for the oppressed past. (Illuminations, pp. 264-265)

In fact, Benjamin’s thinking was invariably in dialectical linages. As opposed to the Marxist dialectic, which “regards every… developed social form as in fluid movement;’ 24 Benjamin’s dialectic tried to halt the flow of the movement, to grasp each becoming as being. In Adorno’s words, Benjamin’s philosophy “appropriates the fetishism of commodities for itself: everything must metamorphoze into a thing in order to break the catastrophic spell of things.”25 His philosophy progressed imagistically, in that it sought to “read” historical social phenomena as if they were natural historical ones. Images became dialectical for this philosophy because of the historical index of every single image. “In the dialectical image” of this philosophy, “what has been within a particular epoch is always simultaneously ‘what has been from time immemorial’” (N4,1). By so being, it remained rooted in the mythical. Yet at the same time, the historical materialist who seized the linage should possess the skill to “fan the spark of hope in the past;’ to wrest historical tradition “anew… from a conformism that is about to overpower it” (Illuminations, p, 255), Through the mobilizing of dialectic, the historical “victors” have their accounts with history canceled, and all pathos is shifted toward salvation of the oppressed…




Theses on the Philosophy of History

A Klee painting named “ Angelus Novus “shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating . His eyes are staring, his mouth is open,  his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them.  This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.

Gerhard Scholem, “Gruss vom Angelus”

Mein Flügel ist zum Schwung bereit,
ich kehrte gern züruck,
den blieb ich auch lebendige Zeit,
ich hätte wenig Glück

My wing is ready for flight,
I would like to turn back.
If I stayed timeless time,
I would have little luck.



The Little Hunchback

The story of an automaton constructed in such a way that it could play a winning game of chess, answering each move of an opponent with a countermove. A puppet in Turkish attire and with a hookah in its mouth sat before a chessboard placed on a large table. A system of mirrors created the illusion that this table was transparent from all sides. Actually, a little hunchback who was an expert chess player sat inside and guided the puppet’s hands by means of strings. One can imagine a philosophical counterpart to this device. The puppet called “historical materialism” is to win all the time. It can easily be a match for anyone if it enlists the services of theology, which today, as we know, is wizened and has to keep out of sight.