The Arcades Project

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9780674043268: The Arcades Project

"To great writers," Walter Benjamin once wrote, "finished works weigh lighter than those fragments on which they labor their entire lives." Conceived in Paris in 1927 and still in progress when Benjamin fled the Occupation in 1940, The Arcades Project (in German, Das Passagen-Werk) is a monumental ruin, meticulously constructed over the course of thirteen years--"the theater," as Benjamin called it, "of all my struggles and all my ideas."

Focusing on the arcades of nineteenth-century Paris-glass-roofed rows of shops that were early centers of consumerism--Benjamin presents a montage of quotations from, and reflections on, hundreds of published sources, arranging them in thirty-six categories with descriptive rubrics such as "Fashion," "Boredom," "Dream City," "Photography," "Catacombs," "Advertising," "Prostitution," "Baudelaire," and "Theory of Progress." His central preoccupation is what he calls the commodification of things--a process in which he locates the decisive shift to the modern age.

The Arcades Project is Benjamin's effort to represent and to critique the bourgeois experience of nineteenth-century history, and, in so doing, to liberate the suppressed "true history" that underlay the ideological mask. In the bustling, cluttered arcades, street and interior merge and historical time is broken up into kaleidoscopic distractions and displays of ephemera. Here, at a distance from what is normally meant by "progress," Benjamin finds the lost time(s) embedded in the spaces of things.

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Review:

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

From the Back Cover:

Quite simply, the Passagen-Werk is one of the twentieth century's great efforts at historical comprehension-some would say the greatest.-T. J. Clark

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