Walter Benjamin for Historians

| | December 8, 2023

Pedagogic side of this undertaking: “To educate the image-making medium within us, raising it to a stereoscopic and dimensional seeing into the depths of historical shadows.” The words are from Rudolf Borchardt’s Epilegomena zu Dante, v. 1. [Berlin 1923] pp. 56–7.

 Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project (N 1, 8), 458.

Certain intellectual figures inform and even set the theoretical parameters of historical and historiographical discourse at particular moments. If Michel Foucault seemed to emerge as the philosopher for historians in the 1980s, Walter Benjamin’s ascent in American history happened sometime in the 1990s and is not yet over. The latest stir around Benjamin arrives with the recent publication of the long-awaited translation from German and French of his unfinished magnum opus, which he described as “the theater of all my struggles and all my ideas,” known in English as The Arcades Project.[1] Popular critical opinion about it has ranged from architectural critic Herbert Muschamp’s delight in what he dubbed a “towering literary event” to Mark Kingwell’s trace of contempt for “an intellectual folly, a massive and spectacular ruin.”[2] Part encyclopedia of the nineteenth century, part model of a philosophy of history for the twentieth century, its more than 1,000 pages help to qualify the Harvard University Press edition as a major event in scholarship.

The English translation of The Arcades Project offers an occasion to reconsider the set of insights and organized chaos that lay at the center of Walter Benjamin’s work. The Arcades Project needs to be understood in the context of what Benjamin called his “Parisian production cycle”—his work from One-Way Street written in 1927 to his “Theses on the Philosophy of History” in 1940.[3] It is a body of work that has earned him his reputation in a variety of scholarly disciplines: philosophy, comparative literature, film studies, art history, urban studies, and finally history.[4] This essay considers the insights Benjamin’s Parisian production cycle generates for the field of history. In addition, it asks whether the translation of the incomplete text called The Arcades Project will change Benjamin’s import for historians.

No doubt, part of the interest in Benjamin has always resided in his status as the most tragic member of a group of German intellectuals who eventually became known as the Frankfurt School. Others have already laid out the terms by which Benjamin’s ideas do or do not conform to the Weimar Marxists and their pre-war and then postwar notions of social theory and the culture of capitalism.[5] But his significance extends well beyond his status as the black sheep of the Frankfurt School family. His topics range from the traditional literary critical heights of German allegory to the phenomena of everyday life such as childhood memories, city streets, wax museums, fashion, and films. His cast of characters includes the ragpicker, the flâneur, the collector, the prostitute, and the bibliophile. Benjamin’s writings are also diverse in form, ranging from essays to monographs, to memoirs, and more experimental works of montage and citation. Benjamin’s eye, like that of so many historians, caught the seemingly incidental detail. He was also interested in kitsch. As his friend Theodor Adorno noted, Benjamin was “drawn to the petrified, frozen or obsolete elements of civilization . . . [S]mall glass balls containing a landscape upon which snow fell when shook were among his favorite things.”[6] Rare for a leftist intellectual of the pre-war generation, he was as much enchanted by the consumer spectacle of the modern city as disturbed by the power of this enchantment to produce a public caught in the city’s phantasmagorias—those illusions and spectacles that Karl Marx imagined as repressed wishes.[7] At a time when many of his peers could only see the dangers of mass culture and modern technologies, Benjamin argued for their progressive potentials.

Although Benjamin was very much a product of his times, he has much to offer as a historian for our own early twenty-first century moment. His work can be obscure, opaque, and even poetic, yet we should struggle to understand it, not least because it has already helped unlock new ways of understanding the nineteenth century, capitalism, and historical methodology. Within history, Benjamin’s writings have been most explicitly influential in shaping the study of the modern city. His interest in vernacular culture and mass reproductive technologies also offers important insights for historians of mass culture; his work has been at the heart of the interdisciplinary field of “modernity studies.” His interest in “collective dreams” and his argument that they were embodied in such actual “monuments” as the Paris arcades makes him the most glaringly absent voice among those interested in history and memory. The Arcades Project, I would suggest, is a more complex and less nationalistic version of Pierre Nora’s Realms of Memory before the fact.[8] But the potential value in thinking about Benjamin goes beyond those historians interested in the city, modernity, mass culture, and memory and history.

It has become patently evident that there can be no overarching and all-encompassing theory of history and method at the beginning of our new century, yet Benjamin’s interpretation of the nineteenth century has in many ways laid the groundwork for understanding the central transformations of the twentieth century—not only those transformations that have altered the so-called subjective experiences of people living in that century but also the modes through which historians might imagine, study, and write about the century just past as well as the centuries yet to come. Poised somewhere between philosophy and history, like Foucault, Benjamin put historical practice at the center of both intellectual inquiry and eventual social transformation.

Now readers of English can ponder Benjamin’s monumental yet incomplete meditation on the nineteenth century. Should they bother? While many of the themes and insights of The Arcades Project can be found in the already published “résumés” of 1935 and 1939 also known as “Paris, Capital of the Nineteenth Century” and his other works from the Parisian cycle, actually reading the massive volume, with its inconsistent constellation of citation and explication, is a jarring, difficult, and productive experience. First, the general arguments Benjamin made about modernity are clarified by the material he collected in this project. Reading through the examples he gathered does more than enhance the schematic arguments he made in the summary essays, however. They offer a mode of historical argumentation in which to show is to tell. The effect of wading through the actual “stuff” of the text is a striking exercise in historical method through which the reader encounters history as a conversation between the past and the present (his commentary and his citation from historical sources), in which history is written as an argument advanced by montage and juxtaposition rather than as a systematic presentation of evidence in support of a clearly stated thesis.

If the so-called postmodern moment in historiography seems mired in a linguistic dead end, Benjamin’s questions, topics, and method can help us take cultural history in a new direction—toward the visual. By this, I mean not simply a history of changes and transformations in the materials and experiences of the visual but also an alternative way to think about historical categories and methods—in some measure what Hayden White referred to as “historiophoty”—the representation of history and our thought about it in visual images, as filmic discourse.[9]

Benjamin’s work is particularly suited for understanding the transformations associated with our own digital age because his critique of Rankean historicism, which he announced in no uncertain terms—”The history that showed things ‘as they really were’ was the strongest narcotic of the (nineteenth) century”—offers a starting point for an aphoristic materialist history as an encounter between the past and the present that is articulated as a rapidly emergent image—a flash.[10] Unlike the sort of historicism that assumes the past is always accessible if we are willing to disavow our position in the present, Benjamin believed that history was a constellation of past and present through which the present would find an image of itself and thus see more clearly. In a world such as our own, saturated by the circulation of seemingly decontextualized images, perhaps this dialogue can be best achieved by an enhancement of the historian’s “conversation” of words into one of and with images.

Benjamin’s personal and intellectual story is as sensational as it is catastrophic and bears retelling if only to connect his thought to the world from which his materialist history emerged. Born in Berlin in 1892 to a bourgeois Jewish family, he was active in the Zionist movement in his youth and, over time, became increasingly associated with Marxist cultural and intellectual circles. He wanted to become a professor at the University of Frankfurt, yet his Habilitationsschrift (the dissertation needed to obtain a post as a professor) on the origin of the seventeenth-century German tragic drama was rejected there in 1925. One of his committee members complained that he was simply “unable, despite repeated efforts, to get any understandable meaning out of it.”[11] Blocked from obtaining an academic position, he became a journalist in order to support himself, his wife, and son. He wrote for the Frankfurter Zeitung and created educational radio broadcasts for German children. During the period from 1925 to 1933, he traveled between Paris, Naples, and Moscow, drawn to the latter as much by his love for Asja Lacis, a Latvian Bolshevik, as by the Marxist experiment under way there.[12] He separated from his wife in 1928. That same year, Benjamin managed to publish a version of his thesis, The Origin of German Tragic Drama, and the more experimental Surrealist-inspired work, One-Way Street. He left Germany for Paris in March of 1933 soon after the Reichstag fire. In 1940, when the Germans invaded France, he secured a visa to come to New York, which would have enabled him to follow into exile his good friend and intellectual interlocutor Theodor Adorno as well as the other members of the Institute for Social Research who had already relocated to their wartime home in New York. Benjamin began that journey by way of Marseilles. After a failed attempt to escape on a freighter by dressing as a sailor, he eventually traveled to the Franco-Spanish border in September 1940.[13]

The circumstances of Benjamin’s escape from France are dramatic and perhaps particularly resonant for academics, who might well fantasize of themselves as the Walter Benjamin character fleeing the Nazis: out of shape, suffering from a heart condition, and burdened by dragging around a briefcase containing a manuscript that he said was more important than his life. Benjamin made the journey with great difficulty but managed to arrive at Port Bou, the border control town, traveling with acquaintances Henny Gurland and her son José.[14] They all encountered difficulty at the border because they lacked transit visas. The border police informed them that, as “Jews without nationality,” they were prohibited from traveling through Spain. They believed they would surely face deportation to a camp. That night in hopeless despair and perhaps hysterical overreaction, Benjamin took a lethal overdose of morphine. He died by morning. The suicide seems particularly poignant because, with the benefit of hindsight, it appears that Benjamin could have made it to New York, as his companions did. He did not, and neither did the manuscript, whose mysterious disappearance has only heightened the drama of this devastating tale. Narratives of Benjamin’s life and death often identify the manuscript in the briefcase as a finished version of The Arcades Project, but most Benjamin scholars believe instead that the briefcase contained a full draft of what has survived as an eighteen-point aphoristic essay, “Theses on the Philosophy of History.”[15]

Although he left most of his written work in his apartment in Paris (where it was later confiscated by the Gestapo), he gave the notes for the Paris project to Georges Bataille, philosopher and critic and then a conservator at Benjamin’s true home, the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, where it remained hidden during the war. The project made its way to New York in 1947 and into the hands of Adorno, who tried to make sense of the thirty-six separate bundles of French and German notes, long citations, and notebooks of revisions that seemed to defy conventional form and reason. He charged his student Rolf Tiedemann with editing the beast of a project, which appeared in German in 1982 as the fifth volume of Benjamin’s Gesammelte Schriften (Completed Works) under the title Das Passagen-Werk.

In the meantime, many of Benjamin’s essays were translated into both French and English, mostly in the late 1960s and 1970s. Hannah Arendt’s collection of Benjamin’s writings, Illuminations, which included her introduction (first published in The New Yorker in 1968) and many of Benjamin’s important essays written during the period of the Parisian production cycle, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” most notably, was published in 1969. During the same period, “Paris, Capital of the Nineteenth Century” appeared in the New Left Review; Susan Sontag championed Benjamin and also appropriated his ideas through her many publications in the 1970s.[16] Bits and pieces of The Arcades Project were translated from German after 1982. In 1989, two major publications appeared. Cerf Press published a French edition, based on Tiedemann’s work and translated by Jean Lacoste, entitled Paris, capitale du XIXe siècle: Le livre des passages, and MIT published Susan Buck-Morss’s The Dialectics of Seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project, the first and still the best English-language critical analysis of the project.[17]

Ten years later, at the end of 1999, Harvard University Press finally published the much-anticipated 1,055-page English translation of the German edition, by Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin, professors of German and French, respectively. The translations have made Benjamin’s work increasingly accessible to a broader audience and have begun to transform him from a cult figure in the rather arcane field of “Benjamin studies” to a philosopher/theorist whose ideas, like those of Foucault, Antonio Gramsci, Jürgen Habermas, and Pierre Bourdieu, offer a useful framework through which to generate historical questions and research grounded in more general models of social and individual experience.

Some first-time readers might respond by dismissing Benjamin as a failed academic and self-aggrandizer whose confidence in his own genius was not widely shared in his own time. He was, after all, constantly and unmercifully criticized by his friend and junior of eleven years, Adorno. He spent thirteen years working on a project that was still in a shambles and then, overcome by fear, needlessly ended his own life. His unfortunate collision with the rise of Nazism in Germany, which produced his tragic personal circumstances, conspired to make of him a martyr whose last laugh is to have us reading the notes to his unfinished work. I want to suggest that the flurry of interest in Benjamin is not simply an academic fetish about misunderstood genius. To sustain such a position means demystifying that most fetishistic of his works—the “unfinished” Arcades Project.

These notes devoted to the Paris Arcades were begun under an open sky of cloudless blue that arched above the foliage; and yet—owing to the millions of leaves that were visited by the breeze of diligence, the stertorous breath of the researcher, the storm of youthful zeal, and the idle wind of curiosity—they’ve been covered with the dust of centuries. For the painted sky of summer that looks down from the arcades in the reading room of the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris has spread out over them its dreamy, unlit ceiling.

The Arcades Project (N 1, 5), 457–58.

The project that consumed Benjamin from 1927 until the end of his life began, benignly enough, as a newspaper article about the Paris arcades: the pedestrian passages sheltered under roofs of iron and glass that sprang up in the city during the first thirty years of the nineteenth century. Never published in that form, the project then became an essay, “Paris Arcades: A Dialectical Féerie,” and eventually a planned book, Paris, Capital of the Nineteenth Century, for which he wrote two prospectuses, one in 1935 and then again in 1939. These remain the most familiar distillations of many of the insights of The Arcades Project. The essays and the larger collection of notes juxtapose the novel material culture of the nineteenth century, such as the arcades, with forms of experience such as boredom and collecting. He treats writers and philosophers such as Charles Baudelaire, Grandville, Charles Fourier, Karl Marx, and Henri St. Simon, as well as such abstract notions as knowledge, progress, awakening, and dreaming. But in its most general sense, The Arcades Project offers a history of capitalism, with an emphasis on the transformation from a culture of production to one of consumption.

If The Arcades Project is a history of capitalism, why write that history as one in which Paris becomes the “capital of the nineteenth century”? Surely, London could vie for the place where the economic and cultural transformation of emergent modernity first appeared, with its Industrial Revolution and its early and far-flung empire-building. Is the choice of Paris a personal idiosyncracy or a function of life circumstances that had Benjamin working under the “blue sky” of the reading room of the national library in France? Although these notions cannot be brushed aside, Paris stood as the epicenter, for Marx and others, of modern political radicalism; it also generated the most significant cultural movements of the modern era—realism, impressionism, the avant-garde aesthetics of the modernist novelist Marcel Proust. It offered a rich inventory of the burgeoning mass cultural entertainments that set the nineteenth century apart as a watershed in the development of mass society.

Benjamin studied the arcades and other products of the nineteenth century not in the traditional Marxist relation of base and superstructure, in which culture is a reflection of the economy, but in a context that insisted that culture is the economy’s expression. He summarized this approach by saying that “the expression of the economy in its culture will be presented, not the economic origins of culture.”[18] In other words, capitalism as a system must be grasped as a whole and culture seen in a dialogic relation with economy, driving and shaping economics and vice-versa. In particular, Benjamin understood that the formal elements of a cultural product were as important as the ideology that Marxists saw “reflected” in its content. Form embodied and transmitted the logic of an economic system as much as content, which he also saw as more than a superstructural reflection of the base.

Benjamin’s failure to conform to the more orthodox considerations of his peers prompted some of Adorno’s most despairing remarks about Benjamin’s intellectual vision. What is significant for historians, and what the publication of The Arcades Project makes clear, is that, unlike his Frankfurt School colleagues, Benjamin genuinely delighted in the material culture of capitalism—he was dazzled by the modern city, drawn to its institutions and to the traces of capitalist production.[19] He maintained a vision of how capitalism would not simply provide its own undoing but would actually create opportunities for liberation and transformation. He was particularly interested in the way modern cities and the nascent forms of mass culture created a potential for democratization and eventual social transformation, which is why his work has provided a cornerstone in certain areas of cultural studies.[20]

According to Benjamin, capitalism endowed objects with the means to express collective dreams. This drew him to particular urban architectural forms such as arcades, railway stations, department stores, and wax museums, which he called “dream houses of the collective.” Such spaces seemed to acknowledge at the very least, perhaps even call into being, the crowd that would play such a vital role in both modern political revolution and the revolution in consumer culture. “In these constructions, the appearance of great masses on the stage of history was already foreseen.”[21] In these structures, the historian would discern the unfulfilled hopes and desires of the collective. For Benjamin, the nineteenth century resulted in a sleep induced by capitalism, which, by implication, had led to the rise of fascism: “Capitalism was a natural phenomenon with which a new dream-filled sleep came over Europe, and, through it, a reactivation of mythical forces.”[22] A work of history such as this was vital in order to slay capitalism by waking the slumbering collective from its nineteenth-century dream, because, as he wrote, “capitalism will not die a natural death.”[23]

READ MORE: A Short History on Sleep before the Industrial Revolution

The task of the historian thus became to use history as a “technique of awakening,”[24] and this project, he wrote, “deals with awakening from the nineteenth century.”[25] Benjamin’s project of awakening involved the “unconscious world of remembrance” in the form of dream experience.[26] Committed to the Marxist mode of dialectical analysis, Benjamin turned to history because if, as Jules Michelet had observed in a progressive historical mode, “Each epoch dreams the one to follow,” Benjamin added, “Every epoch, in fact, not only dreams the one to follow, but in dreaming, precipitates its awakening.”[27] The nineteenth century’s pace, its enshrinement of novelty, and its insistent rupture with tradition made awakening more likely. By grasping the material traces of the nineteenth century as talismans, Benjamin would, like Proust, “present collective history—not ‘life as it was,’ nor even life remembered, but life as it has been ‘forgotten.'”[28]

Proust’s writings become the best possible way to think through this concept of awakening, because Benjamin did not imagine a positivist’s clear demarcation of the difference between dreaming and being awake as a coming to consciousness but instead built on the notions of consciousness articulated by Sigmund Freud and the Surrealists. Benjamin sought to transfer Freud’s insights about the individual onto the collective, especially embracing Freud’s notion that the “clear-cut antithesis of sleeping and waking has no value for determining the empirical form of consciousness of the human being.”[29] Benjamin connected his Arcades Project to the Surrealists in his notorious aphorism, “Dada was the mother of Surrealism. Its father was an arcade.”[30]

Before Benjamin, as Margaret Cohen has forcefully argued in Profane Illumination, André Breton had tried to reconcile Marx and Freud in Surrealism, which set about to blur life and art, waking and dreaming, in a sort of modern marvelousness—what Louis Aragon called “modern mythologies.” Stripping the marvelous and the mythological from commodity fetishism would induce a repressed reality, called surreality, to emerge in the form of the image. Benjamin argued that what emerged from the identification of “modern mythologies” was a “profane illumination,” which served as a materialist, anthropologically inspired way to overcome and surpass the other sort of illumination—religious illumination.[31] Breaking free of Marxism’s traditional embrace of notions of progress and of human subjects as rational, Benjamin sought to determine the “‘significance of psychoanalysis for the subject of materialist historiography,'” as he wrote to Max Horkheimer in 1937.[32] He imagined the mundane objects of everyday life as embodiments of unconscious projections. Dreaming became the medium through which the collective versus the individual psyche related to this world of objects. Benjamin’s Surrealist Marxism infuriated Adorno, who instead understood psychoanalysis as another bourgeois ruse and flatly rejected Benjamin’s notion that psychoanalytic insights developed about the individual (the notion of the individual is the epitome of bourgeois ideology) could be transferred onto the collective. Adorno’s critique ultimately became the basis for the major revisions of the 1935 résumé in 1939 in which Benjamin dropped the project’s dream-language.

If the Surrealists seized on the notion of modern mythologies, Benjamin broke with Louis Aragon and André Breton by insisting that the material facts of modern urban life could serve as a guide in awakening. He wrote, “Whereas Aragon persists within the realm of dream, here the concern is to find the constellation of awakening . . . here it is a question of the dissolution of ‘mythology’ into the space of history.”[33] Benjamin’s notion of history envisioned it as centrally concerned with awakening. This is a key rupture and one of interest to historians, because Benjamin’s materialism led him to the archive, which he thought the essential tool through which history would replace mythology. The most literal archive already mined by scholars inspired by The Arcades Project has been that relating to the modern city.

Benjamin’s reading of modernity as crystallized in nineteenth-century Paris, as well as the interpretations of the German sociologists around Georg Simmel, have come to dominate accounts of urban life as it emerged in the second half of the nineteenth century. Susan Buck-Morss stated Benjamin’s urban question this way: “Could the metropolis of consumption, the highground of bourgeois capitalist culture, be transformed from a world of mystifying enchantment into one of metaphysical and political illumination?”[34] The arcades as architectural structures epitomized the dream houses of the collective in the nineteenth century. The importance bestowed by urban studies scholars interested in modernity on Benjamin’s Parisian production cycle and The Arcades Project, in its various fragments and forms, can be likened to the reverence of the Mormons for Joseph Smith’s tablets. It has become a foundational text, oft-cited and sometimes read. Benjamin’s reading of modernity as crystallized in nineteenth-century Paris, as well as the interpretations of the German sociologists around Georg Simmel, have come to dominate accounts of urban life as it emerged in the second half of the nineteenth century. Susan Buck-Morss stated Benjamin’s urban question this way: “Could the metropolis of consumption, the highground of bourgeois capitalist culture, be transformed from a world of mystifying enchantment into one of metaphysical and political illumination?”[34] The arcades as architectural structures epitomized the dream houses of the collective in the nineteenth century. The importance bestowed by urban studies scholars interested in modernity on Benjamin’s Parisian production cycle and The Arcades Project, in its various fragments and forms, can be likened to the reverence of the Mormons for Joseph Smith’s tablets. It has become a foundational text, oft-cited and sometimes read.

Reading through the thousand pages of the English translation of The Arcades Project, one stumbles upon the vast array of virtually every important topic that materialized in nineteenth-century cities in the West: the poor, revolution, gas lighting, urban renewal, fashion, trains, catacombs, apartments, panoramas, the Stock Exchange, department stores, photography, museums, exhibitions. Unlike the tradition of urban ethnography that emerged from Friedrich Engels’s and Henry Mayhew’s writings about the effects of industrialization on the poor in Manchester and London, Benjamin’s analysis of Paris distinguished itself by also emphasizing the glitzy and glittering modern city. These dazzling effects of modern city life coupled with Benjamin’s interest in Baudelaire’s notion of modernity (the fleeting, ephemeral, and contingent experience) produced a vision of the spectacular qualities of urban existence alongside the images of revolution and poverty.[35] Benjamin’s Paris is deeply indebted to Baudelaire’s vision of the “religious intoxication of great cities” in addition to his sense that the “old Paris is gone.”[36] Benjamin shared Baudelaire’s ambivalent feelings about the modern city; but Benjamin’s extensive reading in the abundant, mundane, and celebratory nineteenth-century Paris literature also contributed to a broader vision of the city than the modernist trajectory that usually traces its origin to Baudelaire. Benjamin’s phrase, “Paris, Capital of the Nineteenth Century” (probably derived from Marx, who called Paris “the new capital of the new world”[37] ), has come to represent a trajectory of scholarship in which the city has become the crystallization of both modern mythology and history.[38]

Benjamin emphasized the way the city and its new institutions, the exhibition, the department store (“temples consecrated to the intoxication of great cities”[39] ), the panorama, the museum, created a sort of commodification on display in which capitalism now put a greater premium on display than use or exchange value.[40] This emphasis thus elaborates on Marxist notions of commodification in the market through the Benjaminian twist of emphasizing form—here, in new institutions and their techniques of display. Through these new institutions, “consumers begin to consider themselves a mass. (Earlier it was only scarcity which taught them that).”[41] In the 1935 draft of “Paris, Capital of the Nineteenth Century,” Benjamin cites the philosopher Hippolyte-Adolphe Taine on the exhibitions, “Europe is off to view the merchandise,” and Honoré de Balzac on the boulevards and arcades as “the great poem of display.”[42] Benjamin announces that “Look at everything, touch nothing” is the logic of this display.[43]

In writing about this culture of display, Benjamin founded a trajectory that extended from the arcades to the department store. More recently, film historian Anne Friedberg has broadened the analysis to take us from modernity’s department stores to postmodernity’s malls and virtual modes of visual consumption.[44] The display of commodities posits a spectating audience, and this notion has generated one of the signal issues of the Benjamin city literature: the meaning of the flâneur and the experience of flânerie, which serve as foundational ways of understanding the viewing habits of the mass-media audience.

Flânerie has become so common a term to describe urban spectatorship that it has begun to seem hollow. But it can still be used to describe the historically specific conditions of spectatorship in the consumer-oriented city that emphasizes mobility and fluid subjectivity and pleasure.[45] Benjamin understood the flâneur, the bourgeois male observer of the patterns and rhythms of city life, as a “type” who exemplified urban spectators. The flâneur delighted in the sight of the city and its tumultuous crowd, while allegedly remaining aloof and detached from it. His sentiments about city life could be found in Baudelaire’s pronouncement that the “life of our city is rich in poetic and marvelous subjects.”[46] An inveterate stroller, the flâneur goes “botanizing on the asphalt,” according to Benjamin, who envisioned the arcade as the flâneur’s home before Haussmannization made the streets a comfortable dwelling.[47]

Critics have used Benjamin’s analysis to emphasize the masculine bourgeois privilege of modern public life in Paris and other cities.[48] Many scholars have argued that the flâneur had no female counterpart because the sexual divisions of the nineteenth-century city prevented women from occupying urban space in the way that men did.[49] Nineteenth-century writers seem to make incarnate this absent representation through their obsessive depiction of prostitutes. More recent literature has begun to reject this framing to see a form of female flânerie in women’s occupation of the new spaces of consumption.[50] Finally, as I have argued elsewhere, the question of the gender and class of the flâneur misses the point. Benjamin’s interest in the flâneur was not as a historically specific person. Rather, his focus on this Parisian urban type has allowed scholars to extrapolate from the descriptions of the flâneur to envision a historically specific mode of experiencing the spectacle of the city in which the viewer assumes the position of being able to observe, command, and participate in this spectacle all at the same time.[51]

If The Arcades Project suggests anything, it is that modernity cannot be conceived outside the context of the city, which provided an arena for the circulation of bodies and goods, the exchange of glances, and the exercise of consumerism. Modern life seemed urban by definition, yet the social and economic transformations wrought by modernity recast the image of the city in the wake of the eruption of industrial capitalism during the second half of the nineteenth century. As Georg Simmel, a major influence on Benjamin’s vision of changing notions of experience in modernity noted, the modern city occasions “the rapid crowding of changing images, the sharp discontinuity in the grasp of a single glance, and the unexpectedness of onrushing impressions.”[52] Simmel’s words could serve as a description of the cinema; the experience of the city set the terms for the experience of the other elements of modernity. As typified by flânerie, modern attention was conceived as not only visual and mobile but also fleeting and ephemeral.[53] Modern attention was vision in motion. Modern forms of experience relied not simply on movement but on the juncture of movement and vision: moving pictures. As Benjamin noted early in Konvolut C (Ancient Paris, Catacombs, Demolitions, Decline of Paris): “Couldn’t an exciting film be made from the map of Paris? . . . From the compression of a centuries-long movement of streets, boulevards, arcades, and squares into the space of half an hour? And does the flâneur do anything different?”[54] It should thus come as no surprise that, in the midst of working on The Arcades Project, Benjamin wrote his single most influential essay, one that examines the transformation of experience through modernity’s signal mode of representation. It focuses on the power and logic of film both as a form of representation and as a burgeoning social institution.

In early 1935, Benjamin wrote “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” which was published in 1936.[55] A response to Hitler’s appropriation of mass culture for fascist ends, it also stands as an elaboration of several of the themes delineated in The Arcades Project. The essay is the most coherent statement of his critical difference from Adorno and Horkheimer and other members of the Frankfurt School who did not see in mass culture anything more than false consciousness. In the essay, Benjamin sought to “take mass culture seriously not merely as the source of the phantasmagoria of false consciousness, but as the source of collective energy to overcome it.”[56] It also stands on its own as a foundational essay in what has become the field of visual culture studies, because of its serious consideration of modern visual culture as more than an interpretation of “art.”[57] The essay focuses intensively on the relation between the history of form and its reception and identifies the transformations of experience and perception that we associate with modernity as it is generally construed. In it, Benjamin lays bare his interest in how forms of technology and media are social facts—not just in their institutionalization but also as embodiments and instantiations of social relations and experiences. A hallmark of the artwork essay, which echoes The Arcades Project as well, is Benjamin’s interest in the relation between a period’s visual technologies and its structures of understanding. He believed that every era has very specific techniques of reproduction that correspond to it.[58] The concern of the artwork essay is the “era of mechanical reproduction” from lithography to film. While it provides useful insights into the many forms of mechanically reproduced representations, the essay’s virtuosity is in its original insights into the apotheosis of the era—film.

The context for Benjamin’s essay was fascism’s uses of mass culture. Rather than assuming that the media associated with the modern masses were inherently fascist, Benjamin argued that fascism appealed to the collective in its unconscious state by aestheticizing politics and recapitulating in the extreme the reactionary tenet of “art for art’s sake.”[59] Benjamin argued that the modern mass media could be equally as progressive as fascistic, if not more so.[60] The essay stands as a blueprint for imagining the ways in which technology changed cultural practice and products in such a way as to set the stage for social transformation. His intention in the piece was to set forth an interpretation that would be useful for “the formulations of revolutionary demands in the politics of art.”[61] Thus we can see the way the artwork essay also emerges from Benjamin’s engagement with the Surrealists and other avant-garde cultural movements that sought to dissolve the traditional high-low distinctions on which both bourgeois society and art and literary criticism were based. Yet Benjamin’s interest in mass culture also separated him from classical Marxist revolutionary aspirations, which continued to be distrustful of the cultural products of bourgeois capitalism, especially through his abiding interest in form applied to the “low culture,” which he then sought to politicize.

The essay examines the nineteenth century’s establishment of a new mode of representation—mechanical reproduction—which is distinct from older forms of reproduction such as copying and imitation. Benjamin traces a lineage that begins with lithography and moves from photography to its fullest expression in film.[62] Not only did mechanical reproduction brush aside such notions as creativity and genius, eternal value and mystery, but its plurality of copies also replaced the aura generated by a work of art. “Aura” is an important concept for Benjamin, as both fundamental to the power of representation and diminished by technological reproducibility. What is new in mechanical reproduction, a mode in which to “ask for the ‘authentic’ print makes no sense,” is the rejection of authenticity and thus the authority of the actual art object and the “traditional value of the cultural heritage.”[63] In particular, Benjamin identifies the diminution of the aura generated by a work of art, which thus positively detaches representation from tradition. Aura depends on distance and reverence, authenticity and originality. In this form, art is embedded in ritual and maintains a cult value attached to traditional hierarchies, in which the art object’s existence is more important than whether the object can be viewed. Mechanical reproduction emancipates the work of art from this relation to ritual and singularity and “begins to be based on another practice—politics.” This notion emerges because he imagined the masses as constituted not just in but by mechanical reproduction.[64] These forms also transformed practices of reception and spectatorship. Whereas art is conceived of as absorbing the spectator’s attention, technologies such as film offer a new mode of reception in a state of distraction that better matches the pace and scale of a public who fast become “absent-minded” examiners. The increased emphasis on reception, and thus on the vital engagement of the masses, forms the core of the progressive politics of mass culture, which allows Benjamin to see in it the “monuments to the Utopian hope of past generations.”[65]

Benjamin was struck by the emphasis the age of mechanical reproduction placed on the masses and their relation to art. Once emancipated from the “purpose” of ritual, a measure of the social significance of art became its enjoyment by the masses.[66] Rather than the distance that accompanies aura, the masses prefer to bring things spatially closer and destroy uniqueness by accepting the reproduction of reality. The new age altered the very ground of valuation in the arts: “Quantity has been transmuted into quality,” he noted. In mass culture, more is better. This transformation has remained at the core of the mass arts, whose success and importance is directly linked to its appreciation by large numbers.[67] In this way, exhibition and display become the key distinctions between art before and after mechanical reproduction. Painting is particularly vulnerable in this new economy of value because, unlike such forms as architecture or film, “it is in no position to present an object for simultaneous collective experience.”[68] Adorno chafed at this notion, concerned that Benjamin was suggesting that all art was thereby counter-revolutionary. Film functioned as the epitome of this new economy of aesthetic value, and Benjamin’s analysis of film emerges as an essential way of critically considering the importance of film as a social fact and as a representational form.

Benjamin considered film to be the most powerful agent of contemporary mass movements as well as the medium of its historical moment because it represented the masses to themselves as a collective. Influenced by Berthold Brecht’s ideas about engaging and empowering the audience in epic theater, Benjamin saw film’s popular appeal residing in the way it turned members of the public into “experts”; the success of a film rested on public opinion (the audience members are the real film critics), and such forms as newsreels even turned passersby into film actors as “extras.” He also believed that film resolved the vexed relation between science and art. Most significantly, however, he observed that film is not simply produced by mechanical reproduction but that mechanical reproduction is inherent in the film as form and product. The “sameness, repeatability, closeness and shock of film,” in pointed counter-distinction to the aura of art, enabled film to offer the potential to constitute “the masses” and for these masses to emerge as a revolutionary proletariat and thus destroy capitalist society with a form of its own making.[69]

Film represents the way in which mechanical reproduction created new forms of subjective experience, particularly in relation to time and space. As Benjamin explained in what have become canonical observations about cinema’s transformations of time and space:

Our taverns and our metropolitan streets, our offices and furnished rooms, our railroad stations and our factories appeared to have us locked up hopelessly. Then came the film and burst this prison-world asunder by the dynamite of the tenth of a second, so that now, in the midst of its far-flung ruins and debris, we calmly and adventurously go traveling. With the close-up, space expands; with slow-motion, movement is extended . . . [T]he camera introduces us to an unconscious optics as does psychoanalysis to unconscious impulses.[70]

Film, in other words, transformed our notions of time and space, showed us life as the naked eye cannot perceive it, an unconscious optics that with the intensity of “dynamite” might have the power to awaken the sleeping collective.

Elsewhere, Benjamin writes of film and shock. The shock effect of film mirrored a response to the overstimulation of urban life.[71] Like Simmel and the other Frankfurt School critic most closely allied with Benjamin’s point of view, Simmel’s student Siegfried Kracauer, Benjamin argued that human sense perception changes with humanity’s “entire mode of existence.”[72] New media such as film, new modes of transport such as the train and eventually the car, new living conditions such as urban apartment dwelling become the keys to transformations in experience. The overwhelming sense of these transformations accompanied by film is captured by its earliest critics (who Benjamin loved to mock) such as Georges Duhamel, who complained, “I can no longer think what I want to think. My thoughts have been replaced by moving images.”[73] Early on, Benjamin identified the way cinema would come to dominate the modern imagination, in which people began to speak of certain experiences “as if they were a movie.”

Benjamin’s interest in the power of mechanical reproduction led him to reconsider notions of subjective experience in modernity. Such new notions and the actual effects of technological modernity also called for a new method of history, he argued. His aphoristic, snapshot-like writing, first manifested in One-Way Street, also characterizes his last essay, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” and makes greater sense as a potential historical method via an understanding of his artwork essay. Because The Arcades Project is clearly not a finished work in any sense of the term, it is difficult to venture a guess as to the extent to which Benjamin intended to render in a more explanatory prose his ideas about Paris, modernity, the nineteenth century, and the philosophy of history. Whatever Benjamin’s intent, we actually have The Arcades Project in its current published form to consider as we ponder Benjamin’s method. Reading it, it becomes clear that sometime during his work on Paris and mechanical reproduction, key signposts for his consideration of modernity, Benjamin realized that his project was as much a meditation on the potentials of historical method as on capitalism in nineteenth-century Paris. Yet Benjamin’s method was also self-consciously considered in relation to the very transformations he was interested in illuminating. In other words, his historical methodology was one that emerged from and was best suited to understanding history in the “age of mechanical reproduction.”

The true picture of the past flits by. The past can be seized only as an image which flashes up at an instant when it can be recognized and is never seen again.

“Theses on the Philosophy of History.”[74]

If the question of the image is essential to Benjamin’s notion of modernity, it later became the core of his avant-garde notions for the foundations of a materialist history. Some of his historical sensibility hardly seems avant-garde today, especially among cultural historians. For example, The Arcades Project is filled with questions about the everyday and mundane objects, such as “where were . . . mirrors manufactured . . . and when did the custom of furnishing bars with them arise?” or “when did Gavroche [the boy urchin of literature and art] first appear?”[75] He compared his method of research to learning what it is that draws expeditions off course: “Comparison of other people’s attempts to the undertaking of a sea voyage in which the ships are drawn off course by the magnetic North Pole. Discover this North Pole. What for others are deviations are, for me, the data which determine my course.”[76] This sort of reading against the grain as well as following the atypical piece of information characterizes much of contemporary cultural historical practice. For Benjamin, the force determining his interest in deviations was inexorably tied to his own present concerns. In her introduction to the edited collection Illuminations, which anthologizes the “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” Hannah Arendt summarized Benjamin’s historical practice in a way that clarifies why Benjamin resonates with historical practice today:

What guides this [Walter Benjamin’s] thinking is the conviction that although the living is subject to the ruin of time, the process of decay is at the same time a process of crystallization, that in the depth of the sea, into which sinks and is dissolved what once was alive, some things “suffer a sea-change” and survive in new crystallized forms and shapes that remain immune to the elements, as though they waited only for the pearl diver who one day will come down to them and bring them up into the world of the living.[77]

This is a telling statement, for all historians already know that we are those pearl divers, having to acknowledge that we wrench the past from its sometimes-obscure enclosures. But time has changed our objects of study, and historians actually bring them back into our own world motivated by our present concerns. We are thus incapable of showing “how things really were” but instead create a dialogue between the past and present that establishes a usable version of history. Even Benjamin’s notion that “to discover in the analysis of the small individual moment the crystal of the total event” can be integrated into a seemingly ordinary sense of the historian’s method by which the grain of sand becomes the means to understanding the desert—the sort of signature of such genres as microhistory.[78] While these statements about history suggest that Benjamin may have been ahead of his time, historical discourse has at least caught up with him by now. But this is not all that Benjamin had to say about history.

The Arcades Project, despite its incompleteness, along with the “Theses on the Philosophy of History” (Benjamin’s final text) may be considered both a model of and a guide to Benjamin’s project for a philosophy of history. Even if the volume that we call The Arcades Project is in no way complete, its form may not have been far from what Benjamin might have been intending to write all along. Already in One-Way Street, he declared the form of books “an obsolete mediation between two different card filing systems. For everything essential is found in the note boxes of the researcher who writes it, and the reader who studies it assimilates it into his or her own note file.”[79] Perhaps The Arcades Project continued to grow in note-card form because Benjamin intended it to resemble them. After all, in that same aphoristic text, he also asks, “when shall we actually write books like catalogues.”[80] In our own digital era, in which we may now re-present history and our documents in hypertext, we may well not be far from Benjamin’s sixty-year-old notion of the book becoming a catalog, a form germane not simply for its lack of narrative coherence but also for its reliance on the interdependence of image and text.[81] For some critics, Benjamin thus becomes an important way station in the journey toward a postmodern historiography that might be seen to begin with Friedrich Nietzsche. Viewed differently, the very observations Benjamin made about modernity allowed him to reimagine history and its study from the vantage point of a world transformed by capitalism, mechanical reproduction, and changing human perception. Benjamin’s work on modernity challenges our very distinction between modernity and postmodernity.[82]

Benjamin centered his notion of history on the image, the citation, and the telescoping of the past through the present. He blurred the lines between visual and linguistic constructions in order to determine what he took to be the expressive dimension of an era and in that way intervened in both literary and art historical practices. His idea of history was shaped, most of all, by the cinematic, and he insisted on thinking about “the materialist presentation of history as imagistic in a higher sense than in the traditional presentation.”[83] Benjamin’s cinematic history was achieved through the decomposition of cinema into its elements—particularly still photographs—and through the seemingly exclusively cinematic means of narration that had recently been extensively discussed in avant-garde aesthetic circles: montage. “History decays into images, not stories,” he pronounced, offering the means to recompose it through the technique of montage: “the first stage in this undertaking will be to carry over the principle of montage into history.”[84] He believed that his method would conjoin a heightened graphicness with Marxist dialectics. Long before the Internet but after the telegraph and film, Benjamin observed the spectacular and fragmentary qualities of modernity and interposed them into his own historical project. In the early nineteenth century, the Romantics saw ruins as a vital component in a fragmentary history that they could reconstitute. By the twentieth century, only the assemblage of fragments in juxtaposition remained, if history would shake loose the sort of historical awakening to which Benjamin aspired. For Benjamin, the fragment established itself as the trope of the modern. Histories would need to be written not only for their times but to embody the forms of their times if awakening (the goal of history) was to be achieved.

The Arcades Project embodied this trope of the modern in its very form. “To write history is to cite it” became the guiding principle of Benjamin’s method in the Paris book.[85] Thus the published text’s mixture of long citations amalgamated with Benjamin’s commentary, incomplete as it is, may also have been the basis for what Benjamin might have hoped to achieve as a form of historical narration. Elsewhere, he wrote, “Method of this project: literary montage. I needn’t say anything. Merely show.”[86] As Buck-Morss explains, when Adorno was reading through the manuscript in 1948, he came to fear that the project would have consisted only of the “shock-like montage of the material.”[87] This strain in Benjamin, a sort of history written like the messages in Chinese fortune cookies, can be at once inspiring, eye-catching, and frustrating for the historian trained to decode and contextualize emblems and aphorisms and not perpetuate them.[88]

If citation and images became the objects with which historians could work, what Benjamin came to call the “dialectical image” located the past in relationship to the uses and needs of the historical present. In a formulation that cannot but strike the contemporary historian as resonant with Foucault and Nietzsche before him, Benjamin suggested that the past, as the epigraph to this section makes clear, flashes up and can only be seized and actualized by the present. What distinguishes Benjamin is that he conceptualizes the past as flashing up as an image. He continues:

It’s not that what is past casts its light on what is present, or what is present its light on what is past; rather, image is that wherein what has been comes together in a flash with the now to form a constellation. In other words, image is dialectics at a standstill. For while the relation of the present to the past is a purely temporal, continuous one, the relation of what-has-been to the now is dialectical: is not progression but image, suddenly emergent.[89]

Presence for Benjamin came in the form of vision (the image) or what he called “the Now of recognizability,” which facilitated the moment of awakening that The Arcades Project meant to summon. In this manner, Benjamin challenged the model of a universal and continuous history organized by notions of progress; in this way, a different history, but history nevertheless, emerges at the center of political practice and as the key to the process of awakening.

Benjamin’s notions of a history guided by the image as its key concept are suggestive for historians today, whose thinking is shaped by the transformations in temporality and historical method shaped in the shadow of film and newer digital forms. History and film can be thought to, after all, share the common project of presenting us, as Philip Rosen put it, with “an absence, namely that of the represented past.”[90] More than twenty years ago, Stephen Heath noted, “film is like history, absent in the representation, in the past presented; history is like a film, another genre but the same narrative patterns, the same familiarity, without problem or division.”[91] If film and history share certain qualities, film’s temporality may well transform our own historical thinking about time and the past. Film as a medium seems to be fundamentally about an insistent presence—both of objects that are represented (the iconic figuration of a car in a film is achieved through filming an actual car) and a perceptual presence that seems resistant to the passage of time. If film is both like history in that it represents an absence and unlike history in that it seems to erase the pastness of the past, it may very well embody the “Now of recognizability” that Benjamin described as what emerges from his notion of “dialectics at a standstill.” In this way, film becomes a key mode of historical awakening. Although I am not suggesting that all written history would thus disappear, I am suggesting that both still and moving images have not only transformed our own notions of temporality but also may offer the historian a mode and medium through which to awaken from the collective sleep Benjamin outlines. This view would require a genuine reconsideration of the value and uses of mass cultural forms by historians who have generally imagined that such mass-reproduced images perpetuate the dreams and delusions of bourgeois society.

If “dialectics at a standstill” puts the study of history at the center of fostering social change, Benjamin’s notion of history in The Arcades Project is not, however, without its contradictions. In particular, his 1939 version of “Paris, Capital of the Nineteenth Century” seems downright anti-historicist. His increasingly desperate living situation, I would suggest, inflected his vision of history. In his 1939 exposé of the project, Benjamin gave up on the surrealist dream language that so annoyed his interlocutor Adorno and that seemed at the crux of a historicist consideration of the hopes and projective desires of the collective, whom he rescued from Adorno’s classical embrace of false consciousness. Literary critic Terry Eagleton stresses that Benjamin’s notions were always anti-historicist because they offered instead a Trotskian, twentieth-century Marxist notion of permanent revolution, suggesting his notion of shock and constellation replaced nineteenth-century linear notions of historical evolution.[92] Benjamin’s eventual anti-historicism may have been motivated by the escalating potential for violence in Europe or by reasons we cannot explain.

In his 1939 summary of the project, Benjamin had discovered his thinker for that anti-historicist turn: the radical Auguste Blanqui and his L’éternité par les astres (1872). Blanqui was an activist and writer who was committed to permanent revolution and who spent more than half of his life in prison because of his views. Blanqui did more for Benjamin than echo his increasing personal pessimism. Blanqui allowed Benjamin to connect what are clearly anti-progressive Nietzschean perspectives to the French revolutionary genealogy in which Benjamin had been engrossed as part of his history of the nineteenth century. It is here that he abandons the utopian strain that ran through the French socialists and Marx as well. He noted that Blanqui strove “to trace an image of progress that (immemorial antiquity parading as up-to-date novelty) turns out to be the phantasmagoria of history itself.”[93]

His attachment to Blanqui also locates Benjamin in a sort of anti-historical and nihilistic mire in which all there is is an eternal present, a perspective that has made Nietzsche so unpalatable for historians. Again, Benjamin cites Blanqui,

There is no progress . . . Always and everywhere in the terrestrial arena, the same drama, the same setting, on the same narrow stage . . . The same monotony, the same immobility, on other heavenly bodies. The universe repeats itself endlessly and paws the ground in place. In infinity, eternity performs—imperturbably—the same routines.[94]

Blanqui’s notion of time at first glance might match Benjamin’s notion of imagistic history, especially in its structural sameness, which evokes the infinite repeatability of mechanical reproduction (the universe repeats itself endlessly). But Blanqui’s perspective was as surely shaped by a life of almost continuous imprisonment as Benjamin’s was by the closing off of the world he had known by the rise of fascism. The only open sky he felt by then was an artificial one—painted on the ceiling of the Bibliothèque Nationale. He would be forced to abandon that one forever in 1940. As a Jew in what was fast becoming Hitler’s Europe, it should come as no surprise that he became fixated on notions of eternal return, which those who link Benjamin to Jewish Messianism remind us.[95]

The Arcades Project encapsulates most of Benjamin’s intellectual concerns and matches his own life’s trajectory in its unfinished and unrealized quality. In addition to his observations about the history of capitalism and his grasp of the vicissitudes of urban culture and the power of technologies of mechanical reproduction to create and potentially liberate the masses through its cultural product, he was a historian before his time, of his time, and also for our time. Reading Walter Benjamin in our own context, in which socialist revolution in Europe has failed but Marx’s predictions about the global nature of capitalism and its potential to transform the modes of representation could not have been more true, should be instructive for historians. At a recent conference concerning the city of Paris before Baron Haussmann’s transformations, an exasperated French architectural historian tired of what he perceived to be the incessant evocation of Benjamin and urged that scholars lock Walter Benjamin in the closet for fifty years.[96] That would be too soon for the field of cultural history. With the publication of the English translation of The Arcades Project, he may finally be coming out of the closet of the specialized arcana of Benjamin studies and into the mainstream of historical discussions, as we cross the threshold of this new century. Historians interested in maintaining a materialist and dialectical base for our inquiry should welcome the opportunity to ponder Benjamin that the translation of The Arcades Project provides. Benjamin’s Paris may have earned its label as the “capital of the nineteenth century,” but it can also help us interpret and narrate the past in a way that better embodies twentieth-century transformations in experience, knowledge, and notions of temporality. We will do so in the context of a new, more visual and imagistic historiography that reconfirms the materialism of archival practice while wedding historical method to modes—the image, the clip, the byte, the digital, and the virtual that structure and characterize our own “modern” times.

Vanessa R. Schwartz is an associate professor of history at the University of Southern California. A historian of modern visual culture, she is the author of Spectacular Realities: Early Mass Culture in Fin-de-Siècle Paris (1998) and co-editor with Leo Charney of Cinema and the Invention of Modern Life (1995). She received a PhD from the University of California, Berkeley, where she worked under the direction of Susanna Barrows and Thomas Laqueur. Walter Benjamin stands at the crossroads of her abiding interest in urban culture and the history of film and other visual media. Schwartz is currently co-editing a reader on the history of visual culture in the nineteenth century and working on a full-length study of clichés of “Frenchness” in French and American visual culture in the 1950s.

The author wishes to thank Lenard R. Berlanstein, Margaret Cohen, Philip J. Ethington, Sarah Farmer, Lynn Hunt, Sharon Marcus, Jeannene Przysblyski, Steve Ross, Jeffrey Wasserstrom, and the anonymous readers of this article. The author also acknowledges Miriam Hansen and her work with admiration and respect.

1 Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin, trans. (Cambridge, Mass., 1999), translators’ foreword, x.

2 New York Times (January 16, 2000): B1; Mark Kingwell, “Arcadian Adventures: Walter Benjamin, the Connoisseur of Everyday Life,” Harper’s (March 2000): 70–76, quote p. 71.

3 Margaret Cohen, Profane Illumination: Walter Benjamin and the Paris of Surreal Revolution (Berkeley, Calif., 1993), 3. The other Benjamin essays that are central are “Surrealism—The Last Snapshot of the European Intelligentsia” (1929), “A Short History of Photography” (1931), “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1936), “The Story Teller” (1936), “Eduard Fuchs, Collector and Historian” (1937), “The Paris of the Second Empire in Baudelaire” (1938), and “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire” (1939).

4 This essay is not meant to summarize the field of Benjamin studies. For such a survey, see David Ferris, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Walter Benjamin (Cambridge, forthcoming).

5 See Martin Jay, The Dialectical Imagination: A History of the Frankfurt School and the Institute of Social Research, 1923–1950 (Boston, 1973); Jay, Marxism and Totality: The Adventures of a Concept from Lukács to Habermas (Berkeley, Calif., 1984); John McCole, Walter Benjamin and the Antinomies of Tradition (Ithaca, N.Y., 1993); Richard Wolin, Walter Benjamin: An Aesthetic of Redemption, rev. edn. (Berkeley, 1994).

6 Anne Friedberg, Window Shopping: Cinema and the Postmodern (Berkeley, Calif., 1994), 49.

7 Walter Benjamin, “Exposé of 1939,” in Arcades Project, 14.

8 Benjamin is not in the index of Realms of Memory: Rethinking the French Past, 3 vols., Lawrence Kritzman, ed. (New York, 1996–98), nor is he mentioned in Nora’s introduction. None of the articles in the AHR 102 (December 1997): 1372–1412 Forum on history and memory mentions Benjamin, nor does Hue-Tam Ho Tai, “Remembered Realms: Pierre Nora and French National Memory,” AHR 106 (June 2001): 906–22. The literature cited in those articles on history and memory inexplicably ignores Benjamin as well. An exception to this is Matt K. Matsuda’s book, The Memory of the Modern (New York, 1996). The historical literature may have failed to consciously integrate Benjamin because it is so oriented to “national” memory, and Benjamin, like Matsuda after him, is more interested in the category of the “modern” and other such framing categories as capitalism.

9 Hayden White, “Historiography and Historiophoty,” AHR 93 (December 1988): 1193–99.

10 Benjamin, Arcades Project (N 3, 4), 463. Most citations to the Arcades Project hereafter will refer to the citation’s location in one of the “convolutes” or bundles of notes and to its page number in the English translation.

11 As cited in Susan Buck-Morss, The Dialectics of Seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project (Cambridge, Mass., 1989), 22.

12 For Benjamin’s experiences in Moscow, see his Moscow Diary (Cambridge, Mass., 1986). Benjamin’s relation to the Soviet experiment is complex. He was never a member of the Communist Party, for example. His writings on “shock” and the machine age reveal a very different sensibility from that of the Soviet regime. For more on this, see Susan Buck-Morss, Dreamworld and Catastrophe: The Passing of Mass Utopia in East and West (Cambridge, Mass., 2000).

13 Lisa Fitko, “The Story of Old Benjamin,” in Benjamin, Arcades Project, 947.

14 Buck-Morss, Dialectics of Seeing, 331.

15 Andy Merrifield, “Benjamin and the City of Light,” The Nation (January 31, 2000): 25–28. See also Marshall Berman, “Paris under Glass,” Utne Reader (July–August 2000): 94–97. Susan Buck-Morss makes a good case in Dialectics of Seeing that it was not the Arcades in the briefcase. A recent article by Stephen Schwartz, Weekly Standard (June 11, 2001), offers what seems like a far-fetched suggestion that Benjamin was murdered by Joseph Stalin’s agents and did not commit suicide. See also the “Connections” column by Edward Rothstein, New York Times (June 30, 2001): A17.

16 The first English translation was by Quentin Hoase and appeared in The New Left Review (January 1968): 77–88, n. 48. The translation with which English readers are most familiar by Edmund Jephcott was published first in The Partisan Review in 1978 and was collected in Walter Benjamin, Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings, Peter Demetz, ed. (New York, 1978). See also Susan Sontag, On Photography (New York, 1977); and “Fascinating Fascism,” orig. pub. in the New York Review of Books, rpt. in Bill Nichols, ed., Movies and Methods, Vol. 1 (Berkeley, Calif., 1980).

17 Walter Benjamin, Das Passagen-Werk, 2 vols., Rolf Tiedemann, ed. (Frankfurt am Main, 1982), part of the Gesammelte Schriften, 7 vols., Rolf Tiedemann and Hermann Schweppenhäuser, eds., with Theodor Adorno and Gershom Scholem (Frankfurt am Main, 1972–89); and Paris, capitale du XIXe siècle: Le livre des passages, Jean Lacoste, trans. (Paris, 1989).

18 Arcades Project (N 1a, 6), 440.

19 Some critics might maintain that this is pushing Benjamin’s delight in capitalism too far. See, for example, McCole, Walter Benjamin. Although it does seem to make him a less-than-perfect Marxist, I think this perspective nevertheless represents Benjamin more accurately than the characterizations that suppress what I would call the “bourgeois booster of urban life” strand that runs through his work.

20 See Tony Bennett, et al., eds., Culture, Ideology and Social Process (London, 1981); Iain Chambers, Popular Culture: The Metropolitan Experience (London, 1986).

21 Arcades Project (M 21a, 2), 455.

22 Arcades Project (K 1a, 8), 391.

23 Arcades Project (X 11a, 3), 667.

24 Arcades Project (K 1, 1), 388.

25 Arcades Project (N 4, 3), 464.

26 Eduardo Cadava, Words of Light: Theses on the Photography of History (Princeton, N.J., 1997), 69.

27 Walter Benjamin, “Paris, Capital of the Nineteenth Century” (1935), in Arcades Project, 13.

28 Buck-Morss, Dialectics of Seeing, 39.

29 Arcades Project (K 1, 5), 389.

30 Arcades Project (C 1, 3), 82.

31 The definitive study of Benjamin and the Surrealists is Margaret Cohen’s Profane Illumination. See also her “Modernity as Phantasmagoria,” in Ferris, Cambridge Companion to Walter Benjamin. Cohen’s framing of Benjamin in the context of Surrealism is a vital element missing from many analyses of what sets Benjamin apart from the rest of the Frankfurt School. Profane Illumination, 3.

32 Cohen, Profane Illumination, 6.

33 Arcades Project (N 1, 9), 458. Louis Aragon and André Breton were influential figures in the Dadaist and Surrealist movements respectively. On the history of these movements, see Maurice Nadeau, The History of Surrealism, Richard Howard, trans. (1967; Cambridge, Mass., 1989); Mary Ann Caws, André Breton (New York, 1971). See also André Breton, Manifestoes of Surrealism, Richard Seaver and Helen Lane, trans. (Ann Arbor, Mich., 1969).

34 Buck-Morss, Dialectics of Seeing, 23.

35 For analyses of the city as spectacle, see T. J. Clark, The Painting of Modern Life: Paris in the Art of Manet and His Followers (Princeton, N.J., 1984); Vanessa R. Schwartz, Spectacular Realities: Early Mass Culture in Fin-de-Siècle Paris (Berkeley, Calif., 1998); and several essays in Leo Charney and Vanessa R. Schwartz, eds., Cinema and the Invention of Modern Life (Berkeley, 1995).

36 Arcades Project (A 13), 61, and (C 7a, 11), 96.

37 Cohen, Profane Illumination, 4.

38 The literature about city life in the nineteenth century is vast. Graeme Gilloch’s Myth and Metropolis: Walter Benjamin and the City (Cambridge, 1996) takes Benjamin and the city as its subject. There is a sort of declension model based on proximity to Paris as to whether an analysis of the city seems dependent on Benjamin’s reading of modern urban life. Studies of Paris predominate the field. In addition to Clark and Schwartz, key studies include Priscilla Parkhurst Ferguson, Paris as Revolution: Writing the Nineteenth-Century City (Berkeley, Calif., 1994); Christopher Prendergast, Paris and the Nineteenth Century (Oxford, 1992); Nicholas Green, The Spectacle of Nature: Landscape and Bourgeois Culture in Nineteenth-Century France (Manchester, 1990); Philippe Hamon, Expositions: Literature and Architecture in Nineteenth-Century France, Katia Sainson-Frank and Lisa Maguire, trans. (Berkeley, 1992); Sharon Marcus, Apartment Stories: City and Home in Nineteenth-Century Paris and London (Berkeley, 1999); Shelley Rice, Parisian Views (Cambridge, Mass., 1997); Molly Nesbit, Atget’s Seven Albums (New Haven, Conn., 1992); Naomi Schor, “Cartes Postales: Representing Paris 1900,” Critical Inquiry 18 (Winter 1992): 188–244; Adrian Rifkin, Street Noises: Studies in Parisian Pleasure, 1900–1940 (Manchester, 1993); Jeannene Przybliski, The Camera on the Barricades: Photography and the Paris Commune of 1871 (Minneapolis, forthcoming). Other considerations engaged with Benjamin include Peter Fritzsche, Reading Berlin 1900 (Cambridge, Mass., 1996); Judith R. Walkowitz, City of Dreadful Delight: Narratives of Sexual Danger in Late Victorian London (Chicago, 1993); Victorian Literature and Victorian Visual Imagination, Carol T. Christ and John O. Jordan, eds. (Berkeley, 1995); Erika Diane Rappaport, Shopping for Pleasure: Women in the Making of London’s West End (Princeton, N.J., 2000); Giuliana Bruno, Streetwalking on a Ruined Map: Cultural Theory and the City Films of Elvira Notari (Princeton, 1993); Joachim Schlör, Nights in the Big City: Paris, Berlin, London (1840–1930), Pierre Gottfried Imhof and Dafydd Rees Roberts, trans. (London, 1998); Women in the Metropolis: Gender and Modernity in Weimar Culture, Katharina von Ankum, ed. (Berkeley, 1997). Benjamin is surprisingly absent from the history of U.S. cities, especially New York; see William B. Scott and Peter M. Rutkoff, eds., New York Modern: The Arts and the City (Baltimore, 1999). Lauren Rabinovitz, For the Love of Pleasure: Women, Movies and Culture in Turn-of-the-Century Chicago (New Brunswick, N.J., 1998), is one important study that uses Benjamin in relation to an American city. In an interesting account of urban culture in Shanghai, Leo Ou-Fan Lee evokes the Benjaminian model: Shanghai Modern: The Flowering of a New Urban Culture in China, 1930–1945 (Cambridge, Mass., 1999). For the problem of comparative urban studies, see Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom, “Comparing ‘Incomparable’ Cities: Postmodern L.A. and Old Shanghai,” Contention 5 (Spring 1996): 69–90.

39 Arcades Project (A 13), 61.

40 Buck-Morss, Dialectics of Seeing, 81. See Tony Bennett, The Birth of the Museum: History, Theory, Politics (London, 1995).

41 Arcades Project (A 4, 1), 43.

42 “Paris, Capital of the Nineteenth Century,” 7 and 3.

43 Arcades Project (M 4, 7), 805.

44 Friedberg, Window Shopping. Friedberg’s book was published in 1993 and thus before the real wave of Internet and other digital technologies extended the paradigm, perhaps in a way that dissipates the specificity of urban culture. See Samuel Weber, Mass Mediaurus: Form, Technics, Media, Alan Cholodenko, ed. (Stanford, Calif., 1996). For more on department stores, see Geoffrey Crossick and Serge Jaumain, eds., Cathedrals of Consumption: The European Department Store, 1850–1939 (Aldershot, 1999); Rappaport, Shopping for Pleasure; Michael B. Miller, The Bon Marché: Bourgeois Culture and the Department Store, 1869–1920 (Princeton, N.J., 1981); and William Leach, Land of Desire: Merchants, Power and the Rise of a New American Culture (New York, 1993).

45 For a description of the various uses of the term, see Keith Tester, ed., The Flâneur (New York, 1994).

46 Charles Baudelaire, The Salon of 1846, cited in Janet Wolff, “The Invisible Flâneuse,” in Wolff, Feminine Sentences: Essays on Women and Culture (Berkeley, Calif., 1990), 37.

47 Walter Benjamin, Charles Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism, Harry Zohn, trans. (London, 1989), 37.

48 Wolff, “Invisible Flâneuse,” 5.

49 Wolff, “Invisible Flâneuse.” See also Deborah Epstein Nord, Walking the Victorian Streets: Women, Representation and the City (Ithaca, N.Y., 1995).

50 See Friedberg, Window Shopping; Rabinovitz, For the Love of Pleasure; Rappaport, Shopping for Pleasure; and Patrice Petro, “Perceptions of Difference: Women as Spectator and Spectacle,” 41–66, and Anke Gleber, “Female Flânerie and the Symphony of the City,” 67–88, in von Ankum, Women in the Metropolis; and Rita Felski, The Gender of Modernity (Cambridge, Mass., 1995).

51 See Schwartz, Spectacular Realities, 9–10.

52 Georg Simmel, “The Metropolis and Mental Life,” in The Sociology of Georg Simmel, Kurt Wolff, ed. and trans. (1903; rpt. edn., New York, 1950), 410.

53 For more on notions of attention in modernity, see Jonathan Crary, Suspensions of Perception: Attention, Spectacle and Modern Culture (Cambridge, Mass., 1999).

54 Arcades Project (C 1, 9), 83.

55 Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” in Illuminations, Hannah Arendt, ed., Harry Zohn, trans. (New York, 1969), 217–52. The English translation of the essay’s title has been disputed by Samuel Weber, who translates it as “The Work of Art in the Time of Its Technical Reproducibility,” in “Mass Mediauras; or Art, Aura and Media in the Work of Walter Benjamin,” in David Ferris, ed., Walter Benjamin: Theoretical Questions (Stanford, Calif., 1996), 27–49, and by Miriam Hansen, who translates the title as “The Artwork in the Age of Its Technical Reproducibility,” in “Walter Benjamin and Cinema: Not a One-Way Street,” Critical Inquiry 25 (Winter 1999): 306–43. I use the Zohn translation because it is the most cited of Benjamin’s essays. In addition, I think Zohn’s more idiomatic translation, which results in the use of “mechanical,” may not be as literal as “technological” but may well better express the qualities of photography and film he describes.

56 Buck-Morss, Dialectics of Seeing, 253. The most important work that has been done on Benjamin and film is by Miriam Bratu Hansen. See “Benjamin, Cinema and Experience: ‘The Blue Flower in the Land of Technology,'” New German Critique 40 (Winter 1987): 179–224; “Benjamin and Cinema: Not a One-Way Street”; “America, Paris, the Alps: Kracauer (and Benjamin) on Cinema and Modernity,” in Charney and Schwartz, Cinema and the Invention of Modern Life.

57 See Nicholas Mirzoeff, An Introduction to Visual Culture (London, 1999); and Mirzoeff, ed., The Visual Culture Reader (London, 1998).

58 This point is also elaborated in Walter Benjamin, “Eduard Fuchs: Collector and Historian,” in The Essential Frankfurt School Reader, Andrew Arato and Eike Gebhardt, eds. (New York, 1982).

59 Buck-Morss, Dialectics of Seeing, 309.

60 This perspective also suggests Benjamin’s familiarity with the views of the Soviet revolutionary avant-garde in the 1920s and V. I. Lenin’s appreciation of film in particular. What it also makes clear is that totalitarian regimes, whether to the left or right, were deeply aware of the importance of mass culture in cementing their power.

61 Benjamin, “Work of Art,” 218.

62 For an excellent conceptualization of Benjamin’s influence in the history of photography, see Jeannene M. Przyblyski, “History Is Photography: The Afterimage of Walter Benjamin,” afterimage 26 (September–October 1998): 8–11. This perspective is central to the collective contribution of the essays in Charney and Schwartz, Cinema and the Invention of Modern Life.

63 “Work of Art,” 221.

64 “Work of Art,” 224.

65 Buck-Morss, Dialectics of Seeing, 336.

66 “Work of Art,” 234.

67 “Work of Art,” 239.

68 “Work of Art,” 234.

69 Hansen, “America, Paris, the Alps,” 381.

70 “Work of Art,” 236.

71 See Leo Charney, “In a Moment: Film and the Philosophy of Modernity,” and Ben Singer, “Modernity, Hyperstimulus and the Rise of Popular Sensationalism,” both in Charney and Schwartz, Cinema and the Invention of Modern Life.

72 “Work of Art,” 222. Siegfried Kracauer, The Mass Ornament: Weimar Essays, Thomas Y. Levin, ed. and trans. (Cambridge, Mass., 1995). For more on Kracauer, see Miriam Bratu Hansen, “‘With Skin and Hair’: Kracauer’s Theory of Film, Marseille, 1940,” Critical Inquiry 19 (Spring 1993): 437–69.

73 “Work of Art,” 238.

74 Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” in Arendt, Illuminations, 255.

75 Arcades Project (R 1, 4), 538 and (B 1a, 6), 743.

76 Arcades Project (N 1, 2), 456.

77 Arendt, Illuminations, 51.

78 Arcades Project (N 2, 6), 461.

79 One-Way Street, as cited in Buck-Morss, Dialectics of Seeing, 336.

80 One-Way Street, in Marcus Bullock and Michael W. Jennings, eds., Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, vol. 1, 1913–1926 (Cambridge, Mass., 1996), 457.

81 See Philip J. Ethington’s multimedia web site essay, “Los Angeles and the Problem of Urban Historical Knowledge,” in the electronic American Historical Review 105 (December 2000), at .

82 See Michael P. Steinberg, ed., Walter Benjamin and the Demands of History (Ithaca, N.Y., 1996); David Frisby, Fragments of Modernity: Theories of Modernity in the Work of Simmel, Kracauer and Benjamin (Cambridge, Mass., 1986); Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism: or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Durham, N.C., 1991).

83 Arcades Project (N 3, 3), 463.

84 Eduardo Cadava’s Words of Light is very suggestive on this point and one of the most interesting discussions of Benjamin and history to date. Benjamin quote from Arcades Project (N 11, 4), 476, and (N 2, 6), 461.

85 Arcades Project (N 11, 3), 476.

86 Arcades Project (N 1a, 8), 460.

87 Both Tiedemann and Buck-Morss believe that Adorno overreacted to what might have been a mixture of citation and commentary.

88 At the end of The Dialectics of Seeing, Buck-Morss proposes a Benjamin-inspired photo essay about the Arcades Project. Her most recent book, Dreamworld and Catastrophe, extends this as it juxtaposes images, texts, and notes in an analysis of the collapse of the Cold War and the Soviet Union.

89 Arcades Project (N 2a, 3), 462.

90 Philip Rosen, “Securing the Historical: Historiography and the Classical Cinema,” in Patricia Mellencamp and Philip Rosen, eds., Cinema Histories, Cinema Practices (Frederick, Md., 1984), 31.

91 Rosen, “Securing the Historical,” 19.

92 Terry Eagleton, Walter Benjamin: or, Towards a Revolutionary Criticism (London, 1981).

93 “Exposé of 1939,” 25.

94 “Exposé of 1939,” 26.

95 See McCole, Walter Benjamin, 106–10; Buck-Morss, Dialectics of Seeing, 242–46; Irving Wohlfarth, “On the Messianic Structure of Walter Benjamin’s Last Reflections,” Glyph, no. 3 (1978): 148–212; Gershom Scholem, Walter Benjamin: The Story of a Friendship, Karen Ready and Gary Smith, eds. (London, 1982); Rolf Tiedemann, “Historical Materialism or Political Messianism? An Interpretation of the Theses ‘On the Concept of History,'” Philosophical Forum 15 (Fall/Winter 1983–84): 71–104.

96 Many of the papers from that conference have been published in Karen Bowie, ed., La modernité avant Haussmann: Formes de l’espace urbain à Paris, 1801–1853 (Paris, 2001).


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