PRINT April 2000


The Arcades Project

So it was for this that Walter Benjamin summoned voices to blend and to contend with his, and with each other’s, ones that he found to flow along his dreams (e.g., p. 467)—his and (he claims, as a philosopher must) ours (e.g., pp. 212, 391)—from which the work of this work is variously to join in awakening us (e.g., pp. 388, 458), rescuing (e.g., pp. 473, 476) or say redeeming (e.g., pp. 332, 462) the phenomena of our world, processes that require blasting phenomena from their historical successions (p. 475), suggesting thought as a volcano (p. 698), forming new constellations (e.g., p. 463), allegorizing (e.g., pp. 211, 330, 367) the dialectical in every genuine image (e.g., 462, 473), where the place one encounters such an image is language (p. 462), in which the past and future are polarized by means of anticipating as it were the present (p. 470) (a thought Benjamin compliments Turgot for formulating [p. 478]; for us it is quite pure Thoreau), and where, further, “the present” is not a fixed point but a scene of ruins (p. 474), illuminated by flashes of lightning (e.g., pp. 91, 226, 456) (a melodramatic but recognizable vision of Wittgensteins Investigations), each of which marks a now, a dawn, of recognition (e.g., pp. 463, 473), allowing thought to be drawn, as by the magnetic North Pole (p. 456) (which others correct for, which Benjamin claims to correct by), not toward purported permanencies and their petrified (p. 366) understandings (supporting our familiar forms of social cohesion) but to the debris or detritus of a culture (pp. 460, 543), occasions for reading, for rebuking the idea of decline as much as the idea of progress in history (e.g., 460).

FOR THOSE OF US frightened away from this most rumored of unfinished or unpublished or unwritten modern works by how much we must miss in Benjamin’s deployment of German, the labors of love manifested in this English presentation expose us—I speak for myself—to a preliminary question: How much do I understand of my present state, as registered in my opening improvised recording, in reading this work? I assume that anyone concerned with the fate of the arts in conjunction with the state of philosophy and with efforts to uncover the present and the past in one another will know something of Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project and will have an interest in the event of its translation into English—will know that in it, Benjamin takes the emergence and recession of the maze of Paris arcades in its nineteenth century as the key to that Paris, and to its consciousness of itself, and takes that Paris as the capital place from which we are to awaken to knowledge of twentieth-century existence. Since the few pages of a proper review would allow at most for more rehearsals of the text’s appearance, together with a few hasty formulas about why it appears so, I have thought instead to begin a task of responding to the text, seeking some points of orientation toward it from where I find myself—not concealing the anxiety in approaching a work so burdened by ambition and originality, a task that, while no doubt intermittent, suggests no predictable end.

I am not so much asking what it would be to understand the linking of Benjaminian concepts as they come to me, but what it would be to see how such instigations are manifested in the work of The Arcades Project. This is only my way of registering that its form or texture—with its citations, often multiple, ranging from a sentence to a long paragraph, from more than 800 texts, mostly French, otherwise German, bearing on the life and works of Paris through the nineteenth century, interspersed at varying intervals with one or more similarly sized comments of Benjamin’s own, all collected into thirty-six “convolutes”—is as urgent an issue to respond to as any citation or juxtaposition (Benjamin says montage) of citations within the structure; indeed that the form of The Arcades Project, the visibility of its existence as discontinuity and accretion, is its pervasive and inescapable issue. It is this condition of process rather than the question of the work’s evident sense of unfinishedness (or uncompletability) that strikes me as constituting its aura of modernity, together, I mean, with its mode of incessant self-mirroring.

Whether one takes the work as incomplete or as complete in its controlled fragmentation, prior facts are that it exists as a collection, and that the concept of a collection is one of its master tones, surrealist in its reach. Again, if you find that montage is what determines its endlessness, then you must note the pertinence of the concepts of constellation and of dispersion in the text, distinguishing allegorizing from collecting. My emphatic perception at the moment is of this text as work, as production without a product (a way to think about its claim to philosophy, or rather, to philosophizing). It is how I respond to the German title, Passagen-Werk (I believe Benjamin’s working title was Passagenarbeit). This might offer some protection against a tendency to conceive too simply of Benjamin’s volume, or package, as itself arcades, breaking passages through established constructions and putting commodified sayings on display: After all it is the figure of the flâneur, made for arcades, that Benjamin proposes for his reader: “In the flâneur, one might say, is reborn the sort of idler that Socrates picked out from the Athenian marketplace to be his interlocutor. Only, there is no longer a Socrates. And the slave labor that guaranteed him his leisure has likewise ceased to exist.” If Benjamin is here staking his claim to a certain afterlife of philosophizing, his Arcades Project may be taken as establishing the conditions (of memory as thinking, of thinking as explosion, of perception as allegory, of the chances of concurrence in Poe’s crowd) under which philosophy is still possible.

Then if I think how the concept of work (or labor) occurs within Benjamin’s work, I think of his handsome compliment to Fourier: “To have instituted play as the canon of a labor no longer rooted in exploitation is one of the great merits of Fourier. . . . The Fourierist utopia furnishes a model, of a sort to be found realized in the games of children.” Can we say that Benjamin responds to Fourier as allegorizing children’s games so as to rescue the missed opportunities of industrialized human work? How is it that among the dominating presences of modern thought, Benjamin (together perhaps with Wittgenstein, who also remarkably invokes children and games) is unafraid of pathos; or rather, why does he find pathos indispensable to his writing? Clearly not out of nostalgia for the past of which we are the dream and the dreamers. But out of something like the reverse: Kant said that in human knowledge objects are given to us along with the endless conditions of their appearing. Benjamin wishes us to bear the knowledge—that is, demands of his words that each bears the pain of perceiving—that each thing given to us appears not only through the work of endless others but through a contortion in what should count as work.

Is this reading Benjamin? About reading he says, for example: “The image that is read—which is to say, the image in the now of its recognizability—bears to the highest degree the imprint of the perilous critical moment on which all reading is founded”; and “the historical index of the images not only says that they belong to a particular time; it says, above all, that they attain legibility only at a particular time”; and “image is that wherein, by dint of lightning, what has been enters into a constellation with the now.” In which now of recognizability is this bulk of pages legible, compiled in a labor begun in 1927? When they were read and reported on over the years to friends destined for fame (Adorno, Scholem, Brecht), who were variously inspired and dismayed? When they were left hurriedly in 1940 to be buried somewhere Georges Bataille would know about in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris? After they survived the war to be edited and published in Germany in 1982? In the emergencies of translation? May I make a constellation of Benjamin’s repeated idea of a flash of lightning with Emerson’s remark near the opening of “Self-Reliance” (no more famous than it is unknown, to Benjamin for example), also about reading: “A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, more than the lustre of the firmament of bards and sages”? Doesn’t Emerson confirm this advice in his essay “Experience,” when the idea of “persisting to read or to think” is associated with “flashes of light,” marking sudden arrivals (nows) as following perilous journeys?

But then, recursively, how is it that Emerson constitutes a now of recognition for me? (Herman Melville’s image of a “shock of recognition” would have interested Benjamin.) I might say it is because of the way I read Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, the only part completed for publication signed in 1945, after various rumors and dictations to pupils over more than a decade, published with editorial addenda in English in 1953, followed by a stream of Nachlass. It was not until 1960 that I had found the now of legibility (or a now of legibility) for Wittgenstein’s work. And how shall I know that my conviction was or is sound? It might help to say that it is confirmed in noting that Benjamin’s redemptive reading invokes the idea of rescuing phenomena. This is a way of indicating how I put together Wittgenstein’s remarking, “What we do is to lead words back from their metaphysical to their everyday use,” with his observing, “We feel as if we had to penetrate phenomena: our investigation, however, is directed not towards phenomena, but, as one might say, towards the ‘possibilities’ of phenomena.” This latter observation, as I argued a lifetime ago, virtually quotes Kant’s idea of critique, but unlike Kant, for whom our possibilities of phenomena are fixed, Wittgenstein’s vision is rather of human existence as perpetually missing its possibilities; put otherwise, as captivated by false necessities. One of Benjamin’s definitions of “basic historical concepts” is: “Catastrophe—to have missed the opportunity.” Thoreau sometimes puts the perception comically, once, in Walden, when depicting his being interrupted in reading Confucius: “There never is but one opportunity of a kind.” I note that Benjamin declares that his comments are saturated with theology, if necessarily inexplicitly, and that Wittgenstein advised a student to read Philosophical Investigations from a religious point of view.

Then I should not forbear seeking, or questioning, another of my nows in the antitheological Freud (not unrelated to a certain rescuing of Freud in the philotheological Lacan), when early in the Introductory Lectures, Freud confesses: “The material for [the] observations [of psychoanalysis] is usually provided by the inconsiderable events which have been put aside by the other sciences as being too unimportant—the dregs of the world of phenomena.” This picks up Benjamin: “Method of this project: . . . I shall purloin no valuables. . . . But the rags, the refuse—these I will . . . allow, in the only way possible, to come into their own: by making use of them.” (Freud’s dregs and Benjamin’s refuse are each interpretable with Wittgenstein’s ordinary; the differences are where I come in.) But ours does not seem to be a time in which for many people Freud is legible, or usable. Nor is it a propitious time for the later Wittgenstein, nor for the other philosophers of missed possibility I have cited. None has the intensity of prestige that Benjamin’s work seems to have acquired. If this is true, is it because Benjamin now brings something seriously new, unheard of, which would have to mean, for him, some other access to the archaic? Is it somehow his old capacity for having to be cared for taking hold on a large scale? Does it express our drive to reparation for having missed him? Is it that his isolation, expressed in his unforgettable suicide, is now to become legible?

Sometimes, in The Arcades Project, one reads what is a citation as something from Benjamin’s own pen, neglecting to have noticed that the entry began with a quotation mark or some other signal, and then finds that an interesting stretch of prose is identified as the work of some monster of fame, such as Baudelaire or Hugo or Zola or Balzac or Proust, or alternatively of someone quite unknown. (There is ample reason for this: Benjamin declares it essential to his work “to develop to the highest degree the art of citing without quotation marks.”) Is this to be allegorized as the impenetrability of the ways of fame, or say of the needs of a culture, or of a culture’s interpretation of its needs; or a reminder of the insufferable, seemingly unsurmountable taste and talent of the French for literary discussion? The perpetual assault of expressiveness, of the sheer clamor of articulateness, becomes an oppressive demand for response, for the reader, for the writer. In the Baudelaire dossier—much the longest, mined variously by Benjamin for separate publications, real and imagined, to reveal something of the ungovernable Project beyond the circle of friends who found it sane—there comes eventually a stretch of some ten pages (pp. 330–40) of entries from Benjamin alone. The intensity becomes so cruel that one finds oneself longing for a citation that could relieve this obligation to perform with incessant, simultaneous brilliance, surprise, and philosophy. A measure of the size of the Baudelaire material: The following two entries (I mean the flash of illumination that may arc between them) span more than 100 pages: “His [Baudelaire’s] utterances, Gautier thought, were fully [full?] of ‘capital letters and italics.’ . . . I do not even criticize his jerky gait . . . which made people compare him to a spider. It was the beginning of that angular gesticulation which, little by little, would displace the rounded graces of the old world” (p. 248); “The ‘jerky gait’ of the ragpicker is not necessarily due to the effect of alcohol. Every few moments, he must stop to gather refuse, which he throws into his wicker basket” (p. 364).

Why (according to what allegories) make a work that cannot be read through? Perhaps to remind the reader that his and her work must perpetually find its own end. Why make a work that cannot be written to an end? Perhaps to remind the writer of a reason to suffer awakening without end. It is work that is capable of recognizing, in a response to Nietzsche, “suicide as signature of modernity.” Then The Arcades Project, constructive, modernist, and unending, is not so much an argument against suicide as it is an attestation, so long as the work can continue, that deprives suicide of its point.


Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, translated by Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1999, 1,074 pages.