Walter Benjamin, "Paris, Capital of the Nineteenth Century"
Biography/Context: Benjamin was a German philosopher born in 1892, in Berlin. He attempted to obtain a position at the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research, but was denied a position because of his unusual approach to philosophy. He ultimately wrote for magazines and periodicals and lived off a stipend from his father. He became interested in Leftist politics, read the works of Karl Marx, and even visited USSR. His friendship with Bertholt Brecht--the playwright (Threepenny Opera, Mother Courage) and sometime filmmaker--was very influencial. Brecht's emphasis on the "framing" components of the production--actors sometimes directly address the audience, read their lines as if they are "quoting" them. Benjamin was alos prominently influenced by the Surrealist attempts to become conscious of ,and therefore, transform everyday experience. Benjamin was also influenced by Dziga Vertov's (Man With a Movie Camera, Three Songs About Lenin) experimental cinema, including Vertov's notion of the Kino-Eye.
This political commitment led Benjamin to focus on the "everyday," the "refuse" of a rapidly expanding mass culture, which was tied to industrialism. He often focused on the discarded fashions, seeing them as an emblem of an acceleration of everyday experience associated with industrial capitalism. Benjamin's interest in the everyday produced some of his most challenging work, the Arcades Project, a massive archive of materials that Benjamin collected throughout his career that focused on the nineteenth century Paris Arcades.
With the rise of Nazism, Benjamin fled for Paris in 1933, where he continued to focus on an analysis of everyday/popular culture. It is during this period of his life that Benjamin wrote "Work of Art." In his later essays, "The Storyteller," and "Paris, Capital of the 19th Century," Benjamin focused on these concerns as well. With the fall of France, Benjamin was forced to flee (with basically nothing more than a few manuscripts), traveling through the Pyranees into Spain. However, the Spanish border patrol wouldn't let him and his party cross, and in a fit of despair Benjamin took his own life.
Terms/Topics in "Paris:" "Paris" is a shorter version of Benjamin's dream project, an aanalysis of the Paris Arcades, teh shopping spaces that were built in the nineteenth century to accomodate the significant increase in commodity production, most significantly within the textile industry. Sensing that the Arcades signalled a transformation that was still being felt a century later, Benjamin took this space to be emblematic of the human condition since the advent of industrial capitalism. For example, the rise of high fashion (and the speed with wich fashions became obsolete) speaks to an acceleration of temporal experience that Stephen Kern describes in slightly different terms. Like the Arcades themselves, Benjamin's arguments can be difficult to negotiate, and I encourage you to read Benjamin's essay thoughtfully and carefully. To that end, I've included a short glossary that might explain some of Benjamin's terms. The terms themselves are in no particular order.
outmoded: objects that have been recently supplanted by newer, more fashionable objects; commodities that are no longer in fashion. In "Surrealism," Benjamin is more explicit in definiing the outmoded to be found in: "the first iron constructions, the first factory buildings, the earliest photos, the objects that have begun to be extinct, grand pianos, the dresses of five years ago, fashionable restaurants when the vogue has begun to ebb from them" (Reflections 181). The outmoded reflects the acceleration of temporal experience in that objects that were only recently in fashion, or naturally a part of our culture, now seem archaic--think for example of the humorous treatment of the past in That '70s Show.
Dialectical image: describes images or objects produced by a new mode of production (in Benjamin's case, industrial capitalism), "in which the new is intermingled with the old" (148). An example of a dialectical might be the use of ancient figures in the iron construction of the late nineteenth, early twentieth century. Benjamin suggets that "these images are wishful fantasies" through which the proletariat (or collective) could preserve the novelty of the present system of production while appealing to "prehistory," in order to imagine a classless society. Benjamin derives this concept in part from the historian, Jules Michelet, who claimed that "Each epoch dreams the one that follows." Benjamin suggests that the dialectical image can be presented by the commodity, but only as a fetish object, or substitute for the actaul dialectical image.
panorama: a type of painting, often built into a circular auditorium (much like Atlanta's Cyclorama) that attempted to capture the changes over the course of a day. Benjamin sees the panorama as a precursor to photography in cinema in its attempt to capture and represent time.
Daguerre: pupil of panorama painter who invents an early version of photography known as the daguerrotype. Benjamin makes the point that photography comes to supplant the painted portrait, in part because of the time required to make a painting.
montage: a concept that Benjaim derives from film theory, specifically the works of Sergei Eisenstein, the Soviet filmmaker who made Battleship Potemkin. Eisenstein was influenced by Marxist dialectical theory and recognized cinema's ability to reproduce dialectical thinking through the relationships between shots. Benjamin extends montage to think more broadly about the relations between objects and his massive, unfinished Arcades Project was structured around the principle of montage.
July Revoltion: revolt in France in July, 1830, against the government of King Charles X. Benjamin believed that the July Revolution failed the working class.
flâneur: a threshold figure; an individual who is not yet part of the bourgeoisie who moves through the crowds found in the city, particularly the arcades of Paris. He is associated with observation, with the gaze, rather than being seen as an active participant in the crowd. Benjamin developes this figure through his reference to the poetry of Charles Baudelaire, a 19th century French lyric poet.
Haussmann: urban architect responsible for building many of Paris's avenues. Benjamin's essay reminds us to consider the price we pay for Haussmann's transformations of the city, including teh fragmentation of neighborhoods.
More than anything, I hope that Benjamin's essay allows us to consider carefully the role of new technologies in transforming the way that we live in and experience the world. At the same time, these technologies are informed by existent social relations that make certain technologies possible and produce certain uses for some technologies (rather than other uses).
For section outlines, visit Benjamin Page 2
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