or Das Passagen-werk of Walter Benjamin, as Collected in Vol. 5 of his Gesammelte Schriften (Edited by Rolph Tiedemann) and Translated to the English by Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin.
“The theater of all my struggles and all my ideas.” –Walter Benjamin
Mr. Bungle sends his regards
Yet not simply a book. . . At one time it haunted Walter Benjamin, trailing him through his life like an incessant poltergeist, the one true project to which this itinerant writer was devoted. Now it is his haunt, the place in which, much more than any of his completed works, his spirit remains. For this it is necessary to sketch a quick portrait, not to repeat what has already been said of him here, but to catch that fuzzy specter in the background of his life: the imp of disaster. Only from there could we hope to proceed, and share a little of what has become of Benjamin.
Hannah Arendt in her introduction to Illuminations calls attention to a German children’s poem. When something breaks or goes awry, when calamity strikes it is the “little hunchback”, Mr. Bungle1 of rhyme. It was a rhyme that Benjamin knew growing up. And one that never left him. For Arendt, its particular cadence paced his days, leaving him always amid “piles of debris”. There were troubles with publishers, financial problems, disjointed familial relations and a poor academic reception. A plague of bad timing and mispoken words prevented the succcess of his writings, a perpetual alteration of political climate kept him moving and losing his feet. Finally, in 1940, in an attempt to escape the Fascist presence in France, a quirk of fate found him on the Spanish border, perhaps on the only day that his documents would not grant him access.
Consequently, like another literary figure of his age, Benjamin’s writings were recognized posthumously, and also somewhat romantically. It was Benjamin who noted: “To do justice to the figure of Kafka in its purity and its peculiar beauty one must never lose sight of one thing: it is the purity and beauty of a failure.” In this, it is fair to say, Benjamin recognized himself, the direction he had taken as if blown backward on out-stretched wings, and the doom to which the imp’s machinations would consign him. But if his life was really such a disaster, it ended as one last pile of debris: an unfinished manuscript as dense and nebulous as the most unkempt of wonder cabinets.
What is this work, then, that it should be the failure of a failure, and how could it be interesting, let alone important? It was a collection of files. Each file was a collection of quotes, clippings and original writings by Benjamin. In my hands is a book, a catalogue of these files as they were transcribed by Benjamin into a manuscript, separated as chapters or “convolutes” under thematic titles such as ‘The Flaneur’ or ‘Panorama’ or ‘Iron Construction’ (see below). For nearly thirteen years Benjamin assembled a wealth of information and ideas, with the intention of producing a study on the Paris Arcades. The evolution of the project can be traced through his letters to Gershom Scholem and Theodore Adorno, and also through reproductions of some early drafts2. The closest Benjamin came to a synthesis of his expansive researches was his study on Baudelaire, and we find nearly one hundred and fifty pages of the Passagen-werk dedicated to him.
This assemblage is no mere scrapbook and, even though the "rough" drafts indicate some heartbreaking work of staggering genius, the importance of Benjamin's work lies in the very mode of production that he conceived for his project. It was a montage, a tissue of quotations, a communion of voices collaged from disparate sources. Finished essays such as "One-Way Street" and "Theses on the Philosophy of History" give some idea of the turns which Benjamin's mind took: away from an authorial narrative voice and the definitive dialectical materialism of the Frankfurt School to a disjointed storytellers meanderings with a historical materialist interest in finding the universal in the particular.
In other words, as Susan Buck-Morss explains, a "picture book of philosophy".
Hidden by Georges Bataille in the National Library of France, the manuscripts came to Benjamin’s long time friend and correspondent Theodore Adorno only when the war had ended. Perhaps Lisa Fitko's tale of Benjamin's second suitcase3, dragged through the steep vineyards to the border of Spain, is fabricated. Speculations of a working copy of the completed Arcades Project end here. It is more fitting that we are left only with the mystery jumble, passed by surrealists to critical theorists. Otherwise we would have just another book, some impenetrable coherence. In the production of any totality, the first thing to disappear are intentions. Walter Benjamin has managed to provide a work of which there is nothing left but intentions.
Then again, to look at the nearly one thousand pages of notes, it is no wonder that the work was never completed. It seems too vast, and it was constantly accruing. And what the hell was it about? To look at the convolutes (provided in the index below), it could have been just about anything, except that Benjamin did leave behind some helpful essays.
In the second draft of his exposé, "Paris, Capital of the Nineteenth Century", Benjamin poses the idea of his Passagen-werk. "The subject of this book is an illusion expressed by Arthur Schopenhauer in the following formula: to seize the essence of history, it suffices to compare Herodotus and the morning newspaper." In the Arcades of Paris he would locate a phantasmagoria of historical elements in the premiere architectural form of nineteenth century capitalist production. The Arcades, of course, were not twentieth-century video game halls, but the initial efforts of newly developed engineering processes allowing for railroads and crystal palaces. These long glass-covered front-runners to the present day mall were the high fashion of France in the eighteen hundreds. The bourgeoisie could walk their tortoises, and retailers could sell the fashions of modernity. The Arcades were the first mass-consumer vistas, the first storefront displays of mass-produced goods. Far from an architectural study, we have every indication that Benjamin was attempting, as Rolph Tiedemann puts it4, "nothing less than a materialist philosophy of the history of the nineteenth century".
If you are looking for definitive interpretations, there are none to be found. The closest you might hope for is Susan Buck-Morss' book The Dialectics of Seeing, which is subtitled 'Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project'. When she calls it a 'picture book', she doesn't mean Philosophy 101, this stuff is more like Film 520. Her reading is leaps above the huddled mumblings of most Benjamin scholars precisely because it doesn't claim to announce the projected meaning of his notes. Instead she re-edits his collection, draws it up into the present and arranges her own text. It is as reliant on Benjamin as the Arcades Project is on the myriad quotes which are its meat and bones. This book has its own brilliance, but to dwell too heavily on its designs would move us away from the material of which it is made. Buck-Morss, for better or worse, invokes a golem of words that only the reader can animate.
. . . in a moment of danger
Maybe some twisted homunculus did follow Walter Benjamin his whole life, tripping him up, preventing his fame, and preventing this magnum opus from coming to the world in an easy form. But then, in the end, perhaps Benjamin got the best of this creature. Perhaps his final project was an effort to capture this thing that plagued him in the last years before total war, and to keep it hidden away. Some idea that, however disastrous, had the power to undermine systems like fascism from the inside, one tea-pot at a time. And what would it look like? The table-scraps of modernity? A jumble of random paragraphs and images, the contents of Benjamin's mind? What is this thing, this book, this beast?
1) Not Mike Patton’s rhyme of course. I'm not aware of much of it, but some things happened before Faith No More. A sample runs as follows:
When I go into my kitchen
There my soup to make,
A little hunchback in there
My little pot did break.
2) A short essay entitled "The Ring of Saturn, or Some Remarks on Iron Construction"
was later expanded into an exposé "Paris, Capital of the Twentieth Century". His
letters to Adorno concerning his growing enthusiasm for the project can be found
in the third volume of his Selected Works.
3)"The Story of Old Benjamin", Lisa Fitko. Collected in the English translation of The Arcades Project.
4) From "Dialectics at a Standstill" by Rolph Tiedmann, also in the English translation of The Arcades Project.
Here I provide the indexed headings of the Arcades Project manuscript, its convolutes, in the order they appear. Some sections were untitled and so have been left out.
A Arcades, Magasins de Nouveautés, Sales Clerks
C Ancient Paris, Catacombs
D Demolitions, Decline of Paris
E Boredom, Eternal Return
F Iron Construction
G Exhibitions, Advertising, Grandville
H The Collector
I The Interior, the Trace
K Dream City and Dream House, Dreams of the Future, Anthropological Nihilism, Jung
L Dream House, Museum, Spa
M The Flaneur
N On the Theory of Knowledge, Theory of Progress
O Prostitution, Gambling
P The Street of Paris
S Painting, Jugendstil, Novelty
T Modes of Lighting
U Saint-Simon, Railroads
V Conspiracies, Compagnonnage
Z The Doll, the Automaton
a Social Movement
d Literary History, Hugo
g The Stock Exchange, Economic History
I Reproduction Technology, Lithography
k The Commune
l The Seine, The oldest Paris
p Anthropological Materialism, History of Sects
r Ecole Polytechnique
s . . .
Illuminations, Walter Benjamin. Schocken Books, 1968.
Selected Writings, Vol. 1, 1913-1926, Walter Benjamin. Ed. Michael Jennings. Harvard, 1996.
The Dialectics of Seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project, Susan Buck-Morss. The MIT Press, 1997.
The Arcades Project, Walter Benjamin. Belknap/Harvard, 1999.
Selected Writings, Vol. 3, 1935-1938, Walter Benjamin. Ed. Michael Jennings. Harvard, 2002.