Addressed to W. B., Child A. F., 2021, 165 x 103 cm, acrylic on canvas
The W.B. Collection (2021)...Postcards to W. B. (2021)...Addressed to W. B. (2021)
The Modern Mythology: From Cityscape to Dreamworld of Childhood
In a letter of 30 January 1928 to Scholem, Benjamin wrote:
Once I have, one way or another, completed the project on which I am currently working, carefully and provisionally - the highly remarkable and extremely precarious essay 'Paris Arcades: A Dialectical Fairy Play [Pariser Passagen: Eine Dialektische Feerie] - one cycle of production, that of One-Way Street, will have come to a close for me in much the same way in which the Trauerspiel book concluded the German cycle. The profane motifs of One-Way Street will march past in the project, hellishly intensified ... [I]t is a project that will just take a few weeks. (COR, p. 322)
This is a revealing passage. First, it reiterates Benjamin's conviction that the Trauerspiel study marks the culmination of a particular phase of his work. It is evident, however, as almost all commentators emphasize, that Benjamin's oeuvre is not to be understood in terms of a division into 'early' and 'late' works. Rather, the continuities between his 'production cycles' must be stressed: Benjamin's Parisian writings exhibit numerous, surprising thematic, conceptual and methodological affinities with the Trauerspiel study.
....Secondly, the letter makes clear Benjamin's understanding of his 1925-6 collection of aphorisms, One-Way Street (Einbahnstrasse), and its connection to his subsequent study of the shopping arcades of nineteenth-century Paris as part of a new complex, one which gives voice to his abiding fascination with the French capital as the preeminent site of avant-garde culture, and indeed of modernity itself. It also reveals how modest Benjamin's initial intentions were for this 'Arcades' study. The Passagenarbeit was to prove far more extensive than a 'highly remarkable and extremely precarious essay' and came to occupy him for considerably longer than 'just a few weeks'. It eventually grew to encompass more than 1,000 pages of notes, drafts and sketches, the project remaining unfinished ·- indeed, unwritten - at the time of his suicide more than twelve years later, in 1940.
....The 'Arcades' study may have begun within a 'cycle of production, that of One-Way Street', but, in retrospect, Einbahnstrasse forms a transitional rather than a 'pivotal' text, part of the earliest phases of the 'cycle of production' of the Passagenarbeit. Indeed, the 'Arcades Project' became, if not their actual point of inception, then certainly the sun around which virtually all Benjamin's major writings from the late 1920s onwards revolved: his critical 1929 text on Surrealism; his essays on the transformation of art and perception brought about by new media technologies ('A Small History of Photography' of 1931 and the famous 1935 text 'The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction'); his explorations of memory, flânerie and the cityscape of his native Berlin ('The Image of Proust' of 1929, the reviews of books by Franz Hessel, the reminiscences contained in his 1932 'Berlin Chronicle' and 'Berlin Childhood around 1900'); his studies of the Parisian poet Charles Baudelaire written in the late 1930s; and, finally, the 1940 'Theses on the Concept of History', fragmentary reflections intended to form the historiographic principles underpinning the Paris study. The One Way Street 'cycle' was never brought to a conclusion, but rather, through continual reorientation and reconfiguration, was transformed into the 'Arcades' 'cycle', a 'charmed circle of fragments', a constellation of texts on which he was to work for the rest of his life. Ultimately, then, Benjamin's letter is noteworthy in that what it says is wrong in both cases: neither the Trauerspiel study nor the 'Dialectical Fairy Play' ever really formed moments of closure.
....This chapter examines some of the key early texts in the Passagenarbeit constellation: his urban Denkbilder from the mid-1920s, his intriguing and provocative Einbahnstrasse collection, and his essay on Surrealism. Together these texts begin to articulate a biting, albeit fragmentary, critique of modern urban experience and cultural politics. In Einbahnstrasse, Benjamin's literary meta-critique intensifies, and widens into a vociferous attack upon bourgeois culture, morals and scholarship. Here one encounters an unequivocal demand for a new, vital critical practice informed by the techniques of modern media - film, journalism and advertising - and by the experience of the contemporary metropolitan environment. Velocity, tactility, proximity - these were to be the principles of a radical new criticism. One-Way Street not only advocated, but also exemplified this enterprise in its own distinctly metropolitan literary architectonics. It involved the interpenetration of urban architecture and writing.
....Benjamin's 'thought-images' of Naples and Moscow are of special significance in this context. For him, the highly eclectic, impressionistic Denkbild form is a mode of representation appropriate to the dynamism and disorientation of the cityscape. Explicitly renouncing the claims of theory, Benjamin seeks to discern the cityscape through immersion in its 'concrete' particulars, and to illuminate it through the juxtaposition of images. Moreover, 'Naples' and 'Moscow' focus upon forms of urban life and culture that are the very antithesis of the bourgeois individualism, the private isolation and impersonality, the 'restrained cosmopolitanism' of modern European capitals. Naples is 'oriental', feudal and anarchic; whereas Moscow is 'Asiatic', proletarian and revolutionary. Such vital cities, impossibly chaotic, utterly exhausting and seductively labyrinthine, offer Benjamin the opportunity to reflect scornfully upon the stupidity and sterility of life in the Weimar Republic (and Berlin in particular). Fragmentary construction and devastating critique: these two imperatives transform the genuine radical writer into a textual technician - indeed, into an 'engineer' of the aesthetic, the urban and the erotic.
....In its montage of wordplays and dream-images Einbahnstrasse displays a number of affinities with Surrealist writing. Accordingly, the chapter concludes with a discussion of Benjamin's engagement with Surrealism and, in particular, his critical reception of the writings of Louis Aragon and Andre Breton. Benjamin's 1929 essay is conceived as an intervention in the immediate afterlife of the Surrealist movement for the purpose of identifying and recovering its radical energies and illuminations. In their recognition of the contemporary city as a 'dreamscape' of erotic adventures, chance finds and mythological forms; their preoccupation with marginal phenomena and outmoded objects; and their privileging of the image and the fragment, the Surrealists provide Benjamin with important insights into the reading and representation of modern culture, insights which were to prove valuable not only for One-Way Street but also for the initial conception of the 'Arcades Project'. Moreover, the Surrealist critique of traditional art and aesthetics, and insistence upon proximity, shock and estrangement, also suggested categories and techniques which Benjamin developed later in his writings on film and photography. All this would seem to recommend Aragon and Breton as exemplary 'engineers'. But Benjamin was not convinced. The Surrealists were too immersed in, too intoxicated by, the fantastical forms and uncanny experiences they discovered to provide the necessary dear-sighted, sober criticism. Obscure premonitions of the supernatural, occultism and superstition - such Surrealist predilections had no place in a radical critique of capitalist modernity. For Benjamin, the Surrealists linger in the realm of dreams, whereas what is needed is to awaken from it. Profane illumination is not enough: engineering demands an explosive moment.
Susan Buck-Morss perceptively writes of the origins of the Passagenarbeit: 'the moment is arguably the summer of 1924, and the place is not Paris, but Italy' (1989, p. 8). It was then, and there, that Benjamin's highly idiosyncratic, always unorthodox interrogation and appropriation of Marxist thought began. During his summer sojourn on Capri, Benjamin, busy writing his Habilitationsschrift, was introduced by Ernst Bloch to Lukács's recently published History and Class Consciousness. Benjamin's avid reading of this key work, which was to become a fundamental text in the historical materialist analysis of the commodity form and the processes of fetishization and reification, constituted his first serious engagement with the Marxist tradition. For Benjamin, it was to suggest a new thematic framework and conceptual vocabulary for his abiding, radical critique of modern bourgeois culture. For Lukács, the commodity form must be recognized as 'the central, structural problem of capitalist society in all its aspects', since 'Only in this case can the structure of commodity relations be made to yield a model of all the objective forms of bourgeois society together with all the subjective forms corresponding to them' (Lukács, 1974, p. 83). For Benjamin, the commodity, as fetish, as fashion, as fossil, was to become the privileged monodological form for the 'Arcades Project'.
....Further impetus was given to this new orientation in Benjamin's thinking by another fascinating encounter on Capri that summer. Benjamin embarked on an ill-fated affair with a Latvian actress and theatre director, Asja Lacis, whose own political commitments to Communism and contacts, most notably with the playwright Bertolt Brecht, were to prove highly influential. The significance of Lacis for Benjamin's thinking at this time is indicated by his numerous references in, and final dedication of, One-Way Street to her: 'This street is named Asja Lacis after her who as an engineer cut it through the author' (OWS, p. 45), an image which, as Cohen notes (1993, p. 184), is suggestive of the creation of the Parisian boulevards and the radical reconstruction of the city under Baron Haussmann during the Second Empire, and indeed of the contemporary 'urban surgery' advocated by Le Corbusier.
....Lacis and Lukács were not the only distractions from the Trauerspiel study. The cities of Italy also proved seductive. Benjamin writes:
my inductive way of getting to know the topography of different places and seeking out every great structure in its own labyrinthine environment of banal, beautiful or wretched houses, takes up too much time .... But I do come away with an excellent image of the topography of these places. The first and most important thing you have to do is feel your way through a city so that you can return to it with complete assurance. (COR, p. 254)
It was neither Rome nor Florence which seized his imagination, however, but rather the chaos of Naples. He notes:
as soon as I have finished a fair copy, 'Naples' [Neapel] will be published in Latvian and German. I still have not bid farewell to this city, even with my stay in Rome. The restrained cosmopolitan atmosphere of Rome left me cold, especially after the highly temperamental way of life in Naples. Only now can I really judge how oriental a city Naples is. (COR, p. 253)
Composed in conjunction with Lacis in September I October 1924 'Naples' was the first of Benjamin's numerous, impressionistic city portraits, fragments which he termed Denkbilder ('thought-images'). Others were to follow, indicating a growing fascination with cityscapes and forms of urban experience: 'Moscow' (December/January 1926-7), 'Weimar' (June 1928), 'Marseilles' and 'Hashish in Marseilles' (October 1928-January 1929), 'Paris, the City in the Mirror' (January 1929), 'San Gimignano' (published August 1929) and 'North Sea' (15 August 1930).
....These Denkbilder are imagistic miniatures which seek to capture the fluid and fleeting character of metropolitan existence. The cityscape is not naively perused by the 'banal tourist' (OWS, p. 168), but rather is dissected by the keen, critical eye of the physiognomist en passant, so that it may subsequently be represented with the precision and plenitude of an urban photograph. Dispensing with the superficial overview offered by guidebooks, bypassing conventional tourist attractions, Benjamin seeks a special relationship with the urban setting, an immersion within its spaces and quotidian experiences, a tactile proximity which enables him to 'feel' his way through. His city portraits are concerned with identifying and articulating the structuring principles of the cityscape as they manifest themselves in their particularity and concreteness within everyday urban life. The city is to be read and represented through the scrupulous rendering of its apparent minutiae and trivia: the momentary, the accidental and the neglected.
....This attention to the smallest manifestations and traces of the everyday is fundamental. Abstraction is to be avoided at all costs. In a letter to Buber concerning 'Moscow', Benjamin announces:
My presentation will be devoid of all theory. In this fashion I hope to allow the 'creatural' to speak for itself ... I want to write a description of Moscow at the present moment in which 'all factuality is already theory' and which would thereby refrain from any deductive abstraction, from any prognostication, and even within certain limits, from any judgment. (MD, p. 132)
The theoretical grounding of the Denkbilder is paradoxically the absence of theory, or a willful dissolution of theory. Interpretation and analysis, commentary and critique - these are to be eschewed in favour of an approach which 'can grasp the concrete' (OWS, p. 177) and enable it to speak for itself. The task of the writer is, through selection and arrangement, to show, to demonstrate without comment. Composed of a plethora of carefully gathered, juxtaposed particulars, the Denkbilder are not so much single 'snapshots' as kaleidoscopic representations, miniature mosaics, or, in the new language of the 'Arcades' production cycle, cinematic 'montages'.
....The Denkbilder exhibit many of the methodological innovations and textual strategies of One-Way Street and the 'Arcades Project': tactile intimacy, concreteness, immediacy, and imagistic and fragmentary construction. Further, the thematic contents of the city miniatures prefigure these more extensive studies. The Denkbilder take as their principal focus the energetic, ephemeral spectacle of the urban street: its architecture, objects and spaces; its milling crowds and deafening traffic; its teeming markets and bazaars; the various theatrical performances of street vendors, swindlers, beggars and other eccentric characters; its encounters, contingencies and seductions. These constitute a series of monadological fragments which reveal the true character of the city.
....In 'Naples', Benjamin opens with an anecdote concerning the public humiliation of a miscreant priest (OWS, p. 167), an episode which points not only to the enduring power and authority of Catholicism, but also to the carnivalesque, reversible character of all social arrangements in Naples. 'Porosity' is the 'inexhaustible law' (OWS, p. 171) of Neapolitan life and the key to understanding its 'rich barbarism' (OWS, p. 167), its 'oriental' character. In the design of its architecture and the practices of its inhabitants, Naples retains a 'passion for improvisation' (OWS, p. 170), one which demands and ensures that 'the stamp of the definite is avoided' so that the city can 'become a theatre of new, unforeseen constellations' (OWS, p. 169). It is in Naples, above all, that urban orientation and navigation are a sensuous, tactile experience, where one must 'feel' one's way through 'the tightly packed multiplicity' (OWS, p. 174) and the 'anarchical, embroiled, village-like' centre, into which, in a phrase anticipating Benjamin's Einbahnstrasse dedication, 'large networks of streets were hacked only forty years ago' (OWS, p. 170).
....If in 'Naples' the abiding metaphor is the 'theatre of the new', then in 'Moscow', composed during a visit to the new Soviet capital in the winter of 1926-7, it is the revolutionary 'experiment'. Although Benjamin notes unsuspected similarities between Moscow and Naples (its labyrinthine character, the chaotic vitality of the street markets, the persistence of beggars, the dazzling sunlight and whirl of colour), and traces the interaction between archaic and modern forms, the signature of Muscovite urban experience is not so much the 'porosity' or interpenetration of traditional and contemporary elements, but rather their radical incongruity and unpredictable transformation. In 'Moscow', Benjamin juxtaposes an 'Asiatic' sensibility and the spatial and temporal demands of the incipient Bolshevik system, ones which have 'accelerated the process of Europeanization' (OWS, p. 197).
....Moscow is a city in a state of constant mobilization, perpetual flux. Accordingly, it is the pace and rhythm of motion in the city which are decisive for Benjamin's Denkbild. 'Moscow' registers the distinctive challenges and experiences - technical, tactical and tactile - encountered by the visitor who wishes to explore the cityscape. The newcomer to Moscow must abandon all lofty pretensions. To make progress along the overcrowded, narrow pavements, the pedestrian must devise a 'strategy of shoving and weaving', a distinctive 'serpentine gait'. Simultaneously, one must master again 'the technique of achieving locomotion' in that on the 'thick sheet ice of the streets walking has to be relearned' (OWS, pp. 178-9). One becomes like a child again. Similarly, in the sleigh, the city's principal mode of transport, 'You feel like a child gliding through the house on its little chair' (OWS, p. 191). This involves a particular sense of intimacy:
The passenger is not enthroned high up; he looks out on the same level as everyone else and brushes the passers-by with his sleeve. Even this is an incomparable experience for the sense of touch. Where Europeans, on their rapid journeys, enjoy superiority, dominance over the masses, the Moscovite in the little sleigh is closely mingled with people and things. (OWS, p. 191)
Benjamin sees the child as having a privileged proximity to, and special tactile appreciation of, the urban environment. The child sees the city 'at first sight', with a gaze unencumbered by the tedium of familiarity and habit, with a receptivity and acuity the recovery of which occupies Benjamin in One-Way Street and in his later reflections on Berlin. In Moscow, 'The instant one arrives, the childhood stage begins' (OWS, p. 179). Nothing could be more precarious, nothing more precious.
....It is, however, neither the unsteady pedestrian nor the gliding sleigh, but rather the streetcar which provides Benjamin with the definitive monadological fragment in 'Moscow'. This, too, is 'a tactical experience' for the newcomer. Boarding involves 'A tenacious barging and shoving', until the vehicle is 'overloaded to the point of bursting' (OWS, p. 190). It is an unpredictable journey. Unable to see through the windows of the tram, and unable to get out in any event because of the 'human wedge' barring the exit, one awaits a suitable moment to alight with the mass of fellow passengers, wherever that happens to be. The streetcar ride is a 'mass phenomenon' in which one is even more 'closely mingled with people and things' (OWS, p. 191).
....To 'feel' one's way through a city, be it Naples or Moscow requires and privileges a familiarity and reciprocity with its jostling crowds, a proximity to its profusion of objects, an expectancy and excitement in its encounters. This receptivity to, and appreciation of, public urban experiences may be seen as the antithesis of the attitude of the haughty, insular bourgeois subject, who, maintaining distance and shunning contact, hurries joylessly past to seek refuge in exclusive cultural spaces or private interiors. Hence 'Moscow' foregrounds a series of pointed, ironic asides on the modern bourgeois urban sensibility as manifested in Benjamin's native Berlin. Indeed, Moscow becomes the lens through which the German metropolis is rendered comprehensible, the 'touchstone' (OWS, p. 177) of contemporary experience and politics. Hence, 'Moscow' opens with the bold assertion: 'More quickly than Moscow, one gets to know Berlin through Moscow' (OWS, p. 177). Berlin seems like 'a deserted city' by comparison, a setting of 'Princely solitude, princely desolation' awash with 'unspeakable' luxury, a cityscape wherein the streets 'are like a freshly swept, empty racecourse on which a field of six-day cyclists hastens comfortlessly on' (OWS, p. 178).
....This critical link with Berlin is important, because Benjamin's vehement rejection of bourgeois culture and intellectuals, of the bourgeois subject and private space, finds its fullest and most bitter articulation in a text prompted by another journey he undertook, one which did not result in a city portrait as such, but in a text which, given its form and themes, appears as a series of urban thought-images: his 'Imperial Panorama: A Tour of German Inflation', Benjamin's Denkbilder of the Weimar Republic.
The 'charmed circle'
Benjamin confessed to Rang on 24 February 1923: 'these last few days of travelling through Germany have again led me to the brink of despair and let me peer into the abyss' (COR, p. 207). The reflections prompted by this journey were to become, under the title 'Imperial Panorama: A Tour of German Inflation', the longest and most vitriolic section of Einbahnstrasse. This critique is pitched at a high level of abstraction, however. The material deprivation of his crisis-ridden homeland features little in 'Kaiserpanorama'. His target is 'the amalgam of stupidity and cowardice constituting the mode of life of the German bourgeoisie' (OWS, p. 54). The collapse of the German economy becomes a metaphor for the bankrupt German intellect. The contrast with 'Naples' is striking and illuminating. The Neapolitans, who also tend to appear in the guises of 'starveling or ... racketeer' (OWS, pp. 59-60), live a precarious economic existence based upon speculation and chance. Yet, in this city, 'Poverty has brought about a stretching of frontiers that mirrors the most radiant freedom of thought' (OWS, p. 175 such that 'Even the most wretched pauper is sovereign in the dim, dual awareness of participating, in all his destitution, in one of the pictures of Neapolitan street life that will never return, and of enjoying in all his poverty the leisure to follow the great panorama' (OWS, p. 170). The 'great panorama' of Weimar Germany presents a very different spectacle. Here, the most selfish, 'narrowest private interests' combine with the dullest 'instincts of the mass' (OWS, p. 55), such that 'The people cooped up in this country no longer discern the contour of human personality. Every free man appears to them as an eccentric' (OWS, p. 58). If in Moscow the intellectual energies and creative powers of the collectivity are directed towards the transformations and possibilities of an uncertain future, in Germany 'everyone is committed to the optical illusions of his isolated standpoint' (OWS, p. 58), ensuring that the banal mind clings with forlorn fervour, with hopeless hopefulness, to the remnants of a thoroughly redundant mode of existence. Incomprehension and inaction reign supreme. Benjamin writes:
society's attachment to its familiar and long-since-forfeited life is so rigid as to nullify the genuinely human application of intellect, forethought, even in dire peril. So that in this society the picture of imbecility is complete: uncertainty, indeed perversion of vital instincts, and impotence, indeed, decay of the intellect. This is the condition of the entire German bourgeoisie. (OWS, p. 55)
Although he remained in Berlin until 1932, it is not surprising that, in this uninspiring intellectual scene, Benjamin came to see his own 'German cycle' as finished. Indeed, it is an ironic moment for the German bourgeoisie, mired in pettiness, stupefied and paralysed by indecision at the onset of crisis, resigned to the catastrophe remorselessly engulfing it, comes to resemble both the doomed"" figures in Goethe's Elective Affinities, who fall under the power of daemonic forces, and the irresolute tyrant of the Trauerspiel, transfixed by the melancholy spectacle of his own inevitable destruction. Herein lies further evidence both of the acute actuality of Benjamin's engagement with these texts, and of the pressing need to 'recreate' German criticism.
....In a letter of 5 June 1927 to Hofmannsthal, Benjamin reflects upon his predicament and upon alternative sources of intellectual stimulation:
Given my activities and interests, I am completely isolated among those of my generation .... In France individual phenomena are engaged in something that also engages me - among authors Giraudoux and especially Aragon; among movements, surrealism. In Paris I discovered the format for the notebook. I sent you some excerpts from it a long time ago, very prematurely. (COR, p. 315)
This 'notebook', Einbahnstrasse, was first mentioned in a letter to Scholem some two and a half years earlier (22 December 1924):
I am preparing ... 'Plaquette für Freunde' ['Plaques for Friends']. (In France, a plaquette is a narrow, brochurelike, short, special issue containing poems or something similar - a bookdealer's terminus technicus) . I intend to collect my aphorisms, witticisms and dreams in several chapters, each of which will carry the name of someone close to me as its only heading. (COR, p. 257)
Benjamin's visit to Paris in the spring of 1926 was to prove decisive in recasting this collection. Writing to Jula Radt, 30 April 1926, Benjamin muses: 'I am very patiently wanting to test the efficacy of a persistent courtship of this city. Such a courtship will turn time into its ally' (COR, p. 298). This is significant because it was to be precisely this combination of the metropolitan and the erotic that was to inform his fragments for friends. A month later the transformation is evident in a letter to Scholem (29 May 1926): 'I am working only on the notebook that I am reluctant to call a book of aphorisms . . . The latest title - it has already had quite a few - is "Street Closed" [Strasse Gesperrt!]' (COR, p. 302). On 18 September 1926, Benjamin informed Scholem that the text - now complete and retitled One-Way Street (Einbahnstrasse) -- 'has turned out to be a remarkable arrangement or construction of some of my "aphorisms" ' (COR, p. 306), a 'street' of textual fragments. The kaleidoscopic, surrealistic city of Paris was to provide Benjamin with the architecture, the 'format' for One-Way Street, his exploration and expression of an urban eroticism dedicated in the final instance not to his various friends, but to his own metropolitan muse, the 'engineer' of the city who 'cut it through the author'.
....Under headings derived from the 'linguistic cosmos' (P3,5, ARC, p. 522) of the metropolis (street and traffic signs, the names of places and edifices, billboards and advertisements), One-Way Street collects an eclectic and eccentric assortment of aphorisms, dream-images, jokes and other fragments, 'nothing but bitter, bitter herbs' (COR, p. 298) which together offer a stinging critique of the sterility of contemporary bourgeois life and culture. One-Way Street is a constellation, or montage, of insights, whose power lies not so much within the individual elements, but rather in the sparks occasioned by their juxtaposition and incongruity. It incorporated and relied upon exactly that sense of extremity, of polarity, which Benjamin sought in the wake of his Trauerspiel study. The book constitutes a provocation, both a timely and an untimely critique: untimely, because Einbahnstrasse was to be out of step with prevailing conventions and fashions, and heap scorn upon the affected ' "scholarly" stance' (COR, p. 281) of current German academic 'style', the "'tenor of the age" ' (COR, p. 325); timely, because of its formal and thematic modernity, its resonance and preoccupation with the fleeting and momentary. Benjamin endeavours to discern and trace 'topicality' (Aktüalität) in its multitudinous and most concrete manifestations: dismal bourgeois interiors choked with monstrous, outdated furniture; children's games and play; curios, souvenirs and postage starnps; fairground attractions; the activities of beggars and prostitutes. In attending to such disparate phenomena, there is an enduring attempt - often insightful, sometimes baffling, occasionally banal to articulate innovative modes of intellectual engagement, imaginative encounter and tactile experience which privilege proximity, immediacy, playfulness and eroticism. These are to be understood not as points of departure from which to escape moribund German bourgeois culture, but rather as tactics and techniques with which to accomplish the urgent task of its ultimate abolition.
....In 'Closed for Alterations' Benjamin writes: 'In a dream I took my life with a gun. When it went off I did not wake up but saw myself for a while lying. Only then did I wake' (OWS, p. 91). One may understand this suggestive dream as an allegory of the afterlife of German bourgeois culture. Unable to endure its thoroughly useless existence any more, this culture belatedly implodes. Incapable of recognizing its own death, it momentarily contemplates itself lying lifeless. Only then, after this terrible moment of final confirmation, is the nightmare at an end and the dreamer restored to his or her senses. One-Way Street articulates this moment of delayed reaction in which the old stares in blinking disbelief at its own corpse and the new remains dormant. In this instant of intellectual rupture, when cultural activity is fleetingly 'closed for alterations', Benjamin's study writes the epitaph for what was, and pioneers the programme for what already is and must be. Such radical intentions are evident from the outset. One-Way Street both announces and embodies a profound transformation in the character and purpose of intellectual activity, literary production and criticism:
true literary activity cannot aspire to take place within a literary framework this is, rather, the habitual expression of its sterility. Significant literary works can only come into being in a strict alternation between action and writing; it must nurture the inconspicuous forms that better fit its influence in active communities than does the pretentious universal gesture of the book in - leaflets, brochures, articles, and placards. Only this prompt language shows itself actively equal to the moment. (OWS, p. 45)
Lean times require 'slender' (COR, p. 284) texts rather than 'Fat Books' (OWS, p. 63). The 'Weighty Tome' is being displaced by more pertinent and potent forms of writing, which correspond to the demands for immediacy and concreteness, precision and concision. Benjamin is under no illusion that the book has already long renounced any claim to genuine intellectual insight, and 'in this traditional form is nearing its end' (OWS, p. 61). Only those befuddled by bourgeois sentimentality and nostalgia lament this demise and hanker for the book's comforting certainties and completeness. The true writer has other, more demanding ambitions:
To great writers, finished works weigh lighter than those fragments on which they work throughout their lives. For only the more feeble and distracted take an inimitable pleasure in conclusions, feeling themselves thereby given back to life. For the genius each caesura, and the heavy blows of fate, fall like gentle sleep itself into his workshop labour. And about it he draws a charmed circle of fragments. 'Genius is application.' (OWS, pp. 47-8)
Similarly, the true reader, the critic, is transformed. He or she does not approach the text with reverential awe, but confronts it with a destructive capability and a ravenous appetite. Criticism must become a tactical act in a compressed space wherein, like the Muscovite street, there is precious little room for manoeuvre. Benjamin notes that 'Fools lament the decay of criticism. For its day is long past. Criticism is a matter of correct distancing. It was at home in a world where perspectives and prospects counted and where it was still possible to take a standpoint. Now things press too closely on human society' (OWS, p. 89). Too closely for traditional forms of criticism perhaps. But this new proximity suggests other modes of perception and representation: in particular, the 'insistent, jerky nearness' (OWS, p. 89) of film and the immediacy of advertising. But it is neither advertising nor the cinematic which are most significant, but rather their location within and affinity with the city.
....Immediacy, brevity, proximity, tactility, strategy - these are urban imperatives. What One-Way Street articulates first and foremost is an 'urbanization' of the text. Benjamin's ambivalence is apparent here. On the one hand, with the demise of the book, the text is rudely hauled from between the covers, 'pitilessly dragged out onto the street by advertisements and subjected to the brutal heteronomies of economic chaos. This is the hard schooling of its new form' (OWS, p. 62). Here, in the sober light of day, the book is revealed as an intellectual impostor and an already utterly prostituted form. On the other hand, the proliferation of texts and images may obscure more than it illuminates. Benjamin writes:
before a child of our time finds his way clear to opening a book, his eyes have been exposed to such a blizzard of changing, colourful, conflicting letters that the chances of his penetrating the archaic stillness of the book are slight. Locust swarms of print, which already eclipse the sun of what is taken for intellect for city dwellers, will grow thicker with each surrounding year. (OWS, p. 62)
Most important for Benjamin, however, is that the metropolitan environment itself comes to offer a model of innovative textual practices, a radical, vital literary architectonics. With its abrupt, often bewildering captions pilfered from the semiological cityscape, its profusion of startling signs and distracting images, One-Way Street mimics urban forms and experiences. It is imbued with that sense of disorientation, transience and shock which Benjamin identifies in the Denkbilder and his subsequent Paris studies as the hallmarks of metropolitan life. The text becomes 'city-like' just as the city becomes a 'linguistic cosmos', a text.
The urban 'engineer'
In One-Way Street, the urban environment becomes the terrain of erotic encounters and assignations. For Benjamin, as for Baudelaire, the metropolis promises sexual intrigue. For the poet, it is the prospect of 'love at last sight', the fleeting, unexpected encounter with the stranger in the crowd, which provides for passionate excitement and melancholy longing. For Benjamin, it is a first sighting of the beloved, the exhilarating possibility of an unplanned rendezvous with Lacis, which generates an erotic charge electrifying the cityscape. In 'Ordinance', he recalls:
I had arrived in Riga to visit a woman friend. Her house, the town, the language were unfamiliar to me. Nobody was expecting me, no-one knew me. For two hours I walked the streets in solitude. Never again have I seen them so. From every gate a flame darted, each cornerstone sprayed sparks, and every streetcar carne towards me like a fire-engine. For she might have stepped out of the gateway, around the corner, been sitting in the streetcar. But of the two of us I had to be, at any price, the first to see the other. For had she touched me with the match of her eyes, I should have gone up like a magazine. (OWS, pp. 68-9)
In such games of urban hide-and-seek, the mundane cityscape is transformed by the beloved's simultaneous presence and absence into a sensual site of illumination and seduction. It is through Lacis and the places she 'haunts' that the city is disclosed and comprehended, while at the same time, the secretive city becomes a metaphor for her alluring, enigmatic otherness. As the intellect penetrates the mysteries of the cityscape, so the imagination imbues it with new life. The dead and decaying spaces and objects of the modern, bourgeois city are revitalized and eroticized. The metropolis is both disenchanted and re-enchanted. This is the key to understanding Benjamin's attempt to 'feel' his way through the urban environment: he seeks to rediscover and reactivate it through proximity and tactility, to develop new modes of receptivity and representation, to interweave a metropolitan aesthetic sensibility with an urban erotic sensuality.
....There is a second model for this transformation of the city in One-Way Street: not the erotic imagination of the adult, but the ludic practices of the child. In an extended series of reflections, which were later to be rewritten and incorporated in his 1932 Berlin studies, Benjamin sees in children's play an imaginative, magical engagement with the world of objects, which is antithetical to the insatiable avariciousness, calculating instrumentalism and cold estrangement of bourgeois adulthood. Mimesis, reciprocity, creativity - these are the hallmarks of the child's spontaneous, playful activity and the prerequisites for 'dexterity' and 'warmth'. Far from complicity with 'the degeneration of things' (OWS, p. 58), the child salvages and redeems despised and discarded objects. The child does not scorn such wretched things - perhaps this is why they do not 'insistently repel' him or her with their icy sharpness. Rather, childhood is a time when one is 'closely mingled with people and things' (OWS, p. 191). In 'Construction Site', Benjamin contends:
the world is full of the most unrivalled objects for childish attention and use .... They [Children] are irresistibly drawn by the detritus generated by building, gardening, housework, tailoring or carpentry. In waste products they recognise the face that the world of things turns directly and solely to them. In using these things they do not so much imitate the works of adults as bring together, in the artefact produced in play, materials of widely differing kinds in a new, intuitive relationship. Children thus produce their own small world of things within the greater one. (OWS, pp. 52-3)
This 'small world of things' is a collection of chance finds, obsolete artefacts and discarded fragments. In combining such material into new configurations, new constellations, the child as bricoleur magically transforms the mundane into the precious and exotic. Under the gaze of the playing child, things acquire unforeseen, multiple meanings, become allegorical objects imbued with secret significance. The child playfully composes an enchanted realm of objects, a 'charmed circle of fragments', wherein he 'hunts the spirits whose trace he scents in things' with an intensity and passion 'which lingers on, but with a dimmed and rnanic glow, in antiquarians, researchers, bibliomaniacs' (OWS, p. 73).
....On his or her various 'hunts', the child transforms not only the object world, but also the moribund spaces of the city - not least the nightmarish bourgeois interior, a setting where 'luxury' ensures impoverishment. In 'Hiding Child', Benjamin notes how the dead domestic environment is enlivened through mimetic play:
Standing behind the doorway curtain, the child becomes himself something floating and white, a ghost. The dining table under which he is crouching turns him into the wooden idol in a temple whose four pillars are the carved legs. And behind a door he is himself a door, wears it as his heavy mask and as a shaman will bewitch all those who unsuspectingly enter. (OWS, p. 74)
In the eyes of the child, the interior becomes a site of exoticism and magical discovery: 'once each year, in mysterious places, in their empty-eye sockets, their fixed mouths, presents lie. As its engineer the child disenchants the gloomy parental apartment and looks for Easter eggs' (OWS, p. 74).
....The reference to 'engineer' here is both intriguing and unmistakable: it links the child as the source of the imaginative transformation of the private dmnicile with the figure of Lads, the 'engineer' of the public spaces of the city, and indeed of One-Way Street itself. Just as Benjamin's erotic quest for Lads in Riga electrifies the cityscape, so the child imbues another hunting ground, the bourgeois interior, with expectation. To be such an engineer, one must have a good nose for the 'spirits' one 'scents in things', and a sharp eye for the 'hidden spindles and joints' of the 'vast apparatus of social existence' (OWS, p. 45). It is in the guise of such an expert engineer that the contemporary critic must energize the world of objects, set it in motion, in perpetual revolution. 'Genius' is to be found, not in philosophical contemplation, but in technical, tactical 'application'.
....This critic-as-engineer is an exponent of a new technology, constructs a new relationship between human beings and nature, one based upon neither the ecstatic excesses of irrationalism nor the calculating instrumentalism of Enlightenment science. Instead, he or she privileges the erotic, the mimetic and the ludic, experiences and activities which point to an intimacy between human beings and their environment based upon reconciliation, reciprocity and harmonious intercourse. Benjamin's fragmentary argument in One-Way Street is intricate and complex in this regard. Alternative, earlier experiential forms are both a promise and a threat. 'Imperial Panorama' concludes with a positive vision of ancient modes of interaction with nature, in contrast to degenerate modern practices:
An Athenian custom forbade the picking up of crumbs at the table, since they belonged to the heroes. If society has so degenerated through necessity and greed that it can now receive the gifts of nature only rapaciously, that it snatches the fruit unripe from the trees in order to sell it most profitably, and is compelled to empty each dish in its determination to have enough, the earth will be impoverished and the land yield bad harvests. (OWS, p. 60)
In 'To the Planetarium', the final section of One-Way Street, there is greater ambiguity, however. Although Benjamin appears to write appreciatively of the long-lost, communal 'ecstatic contact with the cosmos' (OWS, p. 103) enjoyed by the ancients, the mythic and the daemonic perpetually threaten to reassert themselves in the modern context as a violent, catastrophic return of repressed drives. For Benjamin, the recent Great War constitutes precisely such an instance where the frenzied forces of chaos and destruction were unleashed with the able assistance and terrifying destructive capabilities of contemporary military technology.
....We moderns have disenchanted the cosmos and nature, but only under the auspices and imperatives of capitalism and imperialism, the frenzied 'lust for profit' (OWS, p. 104) and the ruthless, remorseless pursuit of power. Benjamin comments: 'The mastery of nature, so the imperialists teach, is the purpose of all technology. But who would trust a cane-wielder who proclaimed the mastery of children by adults to be the purpose of education? And likewise technology is not the mastery of nature but of the relation between nature and man' (OWS, p. 104). The expertise of the critic is important here. Neither magic nor science, astrology nor astronomy, neither the 'ecstatic trance' of the shaman nor the brutal indifference of the 'cane-wielder' enable such insight. Rather, Benjamin advocates the sober scrutiny, the aesthetic sensibility, the erotic sensitivity of the urban engineer, the master of technology, who knows how and when to 'feel', how and when to 'cut', her way through the city and the author.
Surrealism and profane illumination
Benjamin's collection of urban aphorisms and his fragmentary Passagenarbeit are indebted not only to a Latvian engineer, but also to a Parisian peasant (Louis Aragon's Le Paysan de Paris, 1926) and an urban apparition (Andre Breton's Nadja, 1928). Of all the avantgarde movements of the time, it was Surrealism which most excited and influenced Benjamin, though this enthusiasm did not blind him to its limitations, as his 1925-6 fragment 'Dreamkitsch' (Traumkitsch and the 1929 essay 'Surrealism: The Last Snapshot of the European Intelligentsia' make clear. Einbahnstrasse is shot through with Surrealist techniques and motifs: the poetic envisaging of an imaginatively, erotically energized cityscape as a site of intoxication and seduction; the reconfiguration of the seemingly banal object world into a source of evolutionary illumination and explosive critique; the development of new modes of writing which foreground dream-images and jokes; the emphasis upon imagistic modes of representation like montage. In conceiving modernity as a 'dream-world' of phantasmagoria and mythic forms, Surrealism articulated an, albeit nebulous, vision of contemporary commodity culture which would prove central to Benjamin's Passagenarbeit. Moreover, the Surrealists' emphasis upon 'profane illumination' and a 'dialectics of intoxication' would mesh with and serve to refocus some of Benjamin's key critical principles (the monadological fragment, the afterlife of the artwork/object, mosaic and constellation) so as to form some of the methodological foundations for the 'Arcades' study.
....In the writings of Aragon and Breton, contemporary Paris becomes the privileged site of new forms of aesthetic experience and practice, forms which lead to a radical recognition of the 'marvellous suffusing everyday existence' (Aragon, 1987, p. 24). The mundane becomes a source of inspiration, illumination and intoxication. The city becomes a dreamscape. Taking the derelict Passage de l'Opéra as his point of departure, Aragon presents a series of extravagant imaginings in which the metropolitan environment is transformed into the setting for distinctively modern fonns of euphoria and hallucination. In the contemporary city, the proliferation of objects, the profusion of signs, and the dizzying tempo of movement lead to a 'vertigo of the modern' (Aragon, 1987, p. 129), an ecstatic sensibility which enables the writer to behold the secret enchantments of the urban setting. Forsaking the tedious (and treacherous) guide provided by conventional reason, Aragon searches for a new sensory (and, especially, tactile) appreciation of the metropolis, to feel his way through the city:
I no longer wish to refrain from the error of my fingers, the error of my eyes. I know now that these errors are not just booby traps but curious paths leading towards a destination that they alone can reveal to me .... New myths spring up beneath each step we take. Legend begins where man has lived, where he lives .... A mythology ravels and unravels. It is a knowledge, a science of life open only to those who have no training in it. (Aragon, 1987, p. 24)
....These intuitive and imaginative perambulations uncover the city's hidden, fantastical features, its real 'unreal' character. Paris has a surreal visage, a mythic quality. Aragon writes: 'I set about forming the idea of a mythology in motion. It was more accurate to call it a mythology of the modern. And it was under that name that I conceived it' (1987, p. 130). This notion of a 'modern mythology' identifies not the ancient worship of the daemonic forces and creaturely compulsions of nature, but rather the contemporary subservience to the powerful machines, the alluring commodities and suggestive brand-names and logos of modern capitalism. While seemingly the 'overheated fantasies' (OWS, p. 232) of a fevered artistic imagination, Aragon's mythologie moderne nevertheless represents for Benjamin a technique of estrangement which disturbs our complacent, habitual gaze, and thereby re-sensitizes us to the quotidian cityscape. In 'the dialectics of intoxication' (OWS, p. 229), Surrealism affirms the distinction between what appears to be and what is, attends to the beguiling and duplicitous character of surface manifestations. In making the cityscape bizarre, monstrous and outlandish, Aragon intimates its profane secrets, brings us closer to the hidden truth of things. Proximity creates a new sense of estrangement, estrangement a new intimacy. Surrealism disenchants the city though enchantment - this is the power and the promise of Surrealist 'profane illumination' (OWS, p. 227).
....In Breton's Nadja, this heightened appreciation of the cityscape coincides with the erotic · sensibility engendered by the author's encounters with his haunting, elusive eponymous muse. In Breton's seductive adventures, Paris takes on a combustible character, just as Riga did for Benjamin. Benjamin writes:
Breton and Nadja are the lovers who convert everything that we have experienced on mournful railway journeys ... on God-forsaken Sunday afternoons in the proletarian quarters of the great cities, in the first glance through the rain-blurred window of a new apartment, into revolutionary experience, if not action. They bring the immense forces of 'atmosphere' concealed in these things to the point of explosion. (OWS, p. 229)
Surrealism charges the banal and monotonous with incendiary power. Under such hazardous conditions, one must handle things with care. A new proximity to the realm of objects emerges: Breton is 'closer to the things that Nadja is close to than to her. What are these things? Nothing could reveal more about Surrealism than their canon' (OWS, p. 229). 'These things' are objets trouvés, obsolete and unfashionable artefacts from the recent past, remnants unearthed in the ruinous arcades and the Parisian flea markets, the 'bazaar of the bizarre' (Aragon, 1987, p. 114). Liberated from their original context and use, these eccentric, expiring objects have a particular 're-use' value for the Surrealists as images and sources of illumination. Obsolescence reveals the secrets of modernity. This insight is Breton's most 'extraordinary discovery' (OWS, p. 229). In a key passage Benjamin writes:
He was the first to perceive the revolutionary energies that were to appear in the 'outmoded', 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. The relation of these things to revolution - no one can have a more exact concept of it than these authors. No one before these visionaries and augurs perceived how destitution -· not only social but architectonic, the poverty of interiors, enslaved and enslaving objects can be suddenly transformed into revolutionary nihilism. (OWS, p. 229)
Benjamin discovers in Surrealism a radical appreciation of the afterlife of the object which mirrors his own understanding of the afterlife of the text. In the posthumous existence of architecture, commodities and technological innovations, original intentions and meanings are superseded and negated. The hidden truth content of these things manifests itself only through a process of ruination. The moment of extinction is that of a final profane illumination. Here, too, Surrealism comes to annihilate the tastes, prejudices and sensibilities of bourgeois art and culture through relentless ridicule. Surrealism is, Benjamin observes, nothing other than 'the death of the nineteenth century in comedy' (N5a,2, ARC, p. 56).
....Abolishing the reverential distance between spectator and traditional artwork, Surrealism inaugurates new aesthetic practices based on immediacy in time and space. Aragon offers 'entrance to the realms of the instantaneous, the world of the snapshot' (1987, p. 78), where the powers of intoxication and imagination (understood here as the formation of images) are unleashed. He writes:
jThe vice named Surrealism is the immoderate and impassioned use of the stupefacient image, or rather of the uncontrolled provocation of the image for its own sake and for the element of unpredictable perturbation and of metamorphosis which it introduces into the domain of representation: for each image on each occasion forces you to revise the entire Universe. (Aragon, 1987, pp. 78-9)
jThe image is not simply the pre-eminent mode of representation; it is also the only point of access or insight into the profane world, 'the path of all knowledge' (Aragon, 1987 p. 214). It is in Aragon that the sphere of images, the possibilities of genuine thought, and the capturing of the concrete come together, and that Benjamin's thought-images, his miniature and fragmentary Denkbilder, find their inspiration and necessity.
....For Aragon, the image is 'a secret stairway' to the 'fantastic or marvellous' (1987, p. 213), the realm of the unconscious, of dreams and visions. The everyday as a dreamworld awaiting interpretation - this was one of Surrealism's profoundest insights for Benjamin. Surrealism directs our attention to those startling perceptual transformations brought about by accidental occurrences, lucky finds, half-remembered dream fragments, felicitous misunderstandings, jokes, puns and wordplays. Coincidences and contingencies provide entry into, and intervention within, the sphere of images. Above all, it is in the incongruous juxtaposition of fragmentary elements, in the technique of montage, that Surrealism maximized the shock-value of the trivial utterance, the inconsequential expression, the arcane object. In montage, images, sounds, words, even individual letters, are recomposed in startling configurations. The distinctions and boundaries between things are sometimes accentuated, sometimes erased. This is the price and the pleasure of the dialectics of intoxication. Benjamin writes of Surrealism:
jEverything with which it came into contact was integrated. Life only seemed worth living where the threshold between waking and sleeping was worn away in everyone as by the steps of multitudinous images flooding back and forth, language only seemed itself where sound and image, image and sound interpenetrated with automatic precision and such felicity that no chink was left for the penny in the slot called 'meaning'. Image and language take precedence. (OWS, p. 226)
And thus a new mode of writing is imperative: 'the writings of this circle are not literature but something else - demonstrations, watchwords, documents, bluffs, forgeries if you will, but at any rate not literature' (OWS, p. 227). Could there be a more fitting description of One-Way Street than this?
....Caution is needed here, however. Notwithstanding its numerous surrealistic elements and techniques, it would be a mistake to regard Benjamin's Einbahnstrasse as an experiment in Surrealist writing. It also reflects his strong reservations regarding the writings of Aragon and Breton. Margaret Cohen states that 'while multiple features of One-Way Street recall Surrealism, a polemic against the movement runs through the text', one which is most acute 'in what might seem like its most obvious nod to the movement' s practices, the use of dreamlike juxtapositions to produce arresting descriptions' (1993, p. 174). Benjamin's dream imagery, Cohen argues, is of a different order from that of the Surrealists. Her example is a fragment from Benjamin's 'Travel Souvenirs' section, in which he draws a series of parallels between the newly built Marseilles cathedral and the railway station. While the playful juxtaposing of these edifices suggests Surrealist influences, Benjamin offers 'a striking but thoroughly intelligible synthesis more resembling Eisensteinian montage than the transformations of the surrealist image' (Cohen, 1993, p. 178). The meaning of Benjamin's metaphor is clear, contained and available - whereas the Surrealist image is extraordinary, excessive and elusive. For all its dream imagery, Einbahnstrasse is an exercise in literary sobriety, not poetic abandon. Indeed, for Benjamin, dream-images have critical value only for those who are fully awake and in possession of themselves. The distinction between sleep and wakefulness must not be 'worn away', since, Benjamin warns, 'only from the far bank, from broad daylight, may dream be recalled with impunity' (OWS, p. 46). The error of 'Recounting dreams on an empty stomach' (OWS, p. 45) when one is 'still half in league with the dream-world' (OWS, p. 46) is one to which the Surrealists were all too prone. For Benjamin, there must be a 'rupture between the nocturnal and day-time worlds' and a 'combustion of dream in a concentrated morning's work' (OWS, p. 46). The genuine critical theorist does not languish drowsily in the realm of dreams, but rather perceives the pressing need to bring about awakening. The shock of recognition is intended not as an intoxicant, but rather as a call to action, as an alarm clock.
....Benjamin's essay on Surrealism is not a paean to its 'heroic phase' (OWS, p. 226), but rather a critical intervention in its brief afterlife so as to tease out and redeem its own revolutionary truth content. To do this, Benjamin points out in an extended analogy, one must stand a little downstream from the source, away from the first babbling torrents, to see whether such 'intellectual currents can generate a sufficient head of water for the critic to install his power station on them' (OWS, p. 225). Down 'in the valley', one is less likely to dismiss it as a 'paltry stream' (OWS, p. 225) or to be swept away in gushing enthusiasm. Here one can calmly 'gauge the energies of the movement' (OWS, p. 225), test the clarity, purity and power of its ideas. And for Benjamin, Surrealism is all too often found wanting.
....The 'dubious books of the surrealists' (COR, p. 277) tend to be 'enmeshed in a number of pernicious romantic prejudices' (OWS, p. 237). While Benjamin praises their uncompromising, 'radical concept of freedom', one purged of bourgeois 'sentiment' and 'sclerotic liberal-moral-humanistic' pieties, the 'ecstatic component' of their politics remains problematic (OWS, p. 236). Benjamin comments: 'To win the energies o f intoxication for the revolution - this is the project about which Surrealism circles in all its books and enterprises' (OWS, p. 236). But it is an undertaking which is only ever circled. In tarrying too long among dreams and visions, the Surrealists suffer from 'an inadequate and undialectical conception of the nature of intoxication' (OWS, p. 236). It is only in the active interrogation of the phantasmagorical and mythic that insight is acquired. Benjamin writes that 'histrionic or fanatical stress on the mysterious side of the mysterious takes us no further; we penetrate the mystery only to the degree that we recognise it in the everyday world, by virtue of a dialectical optic that perceives the everyday as impenetrable, the impenetrable as everyday' (OWS, p. 237). Hence, his verdict is pointed: 'profane illumination did not always find the Surrealists equal to it, or to themselves' (OWS, p. 227). Aragon is enthralled by the marvellous modern mythology he discerns; Breton is bewitched by mysterious hauntings and the occult. But freedom is compromised by superstition. If one possesses 'character', one has no need to enquire as to one's 'fate'.
....Surrealism's significance can be gauged only by its political efficacy. Its 'poetic politics' (OWS, p. 237) intervene in the sphere of images to break with bourgeois aesthetic and cultural hegemony, and move beyond mere 'contemplation' (OWS, p. 238), but its esoteric inclinations limit any appeal to the revolutionary proletariat. The transformation of everyday material life (of technologies and bodies) is prefigured by, and must come to accord with, 'that image sphere to which profane illumination initiates us' (OWS, p. 239), that realm of the free play of the imagination. For Benjamin, the Surrealists are the only ones to recognize this imperative, and flow in its direction, albeit via some distinctly eccentric meanders and murky courses. Surrealism's radical currents, its revolutionary energies, its electrifying potential, are to be rechannelled and reutilized in the mobilization of discontent. To rouse the dreaming collectivity from its complacent slumbers - this becomes the key to Benjamin's abiding fascination with Paris, and the point bf departure for his fragmentary exploration of the city's recent past: the 'Arcades Project'. The Critical Theorist must learn to be both hydraulic and urban engineer.
Benjamin's writings from the mid-1920s onwards start to develop a vital, virulent critique of modern culture. Although he was to remain a prolific literary critic and reviewer, his Einbahnstrasse 'production cycle' recognizes that the task of recreating criticism is not simply a literary endeavour, but rather a political undertaking encompassing domains such as commodity culture, the new mass media, and metropolitan architecture and experience. Influenced by historical materialism, and encouraged by the Surrealist integration of aesthetics, politics and the everyday, Benjamin increasingly recognized the obsolescence of 'literary criticism' as a distinct genre or activity divorced from wider cultural, social, economic and political concerns. The genuine contemporary critic is not the follower of a narrow vocation, but rather a cultural 'jack-of-all-trades', a bricoleur. He or she must be transformed through a polytechnical apprenticeship from a reader and writer of weighty tomes into an explosives expert, an engineer demolishing the dreamworld of modernity itself.
....This widening of critical horizons does not mean abandoning the principles of immanent criticism developed by Benjamin in his German 'production cycle'. On the contrary, these are to be transposed from the textual realm to that of material analysis, and given a contemporary inflection: the commodity form rather than the artwork as monadological fragment, architectural ruins rather than mortified texts, thought-image rather than treatise, cinematic montage rather than mosaic, the dialectical image rather than the origin of the constellation. Benjamin's conceptual vocabulary may have changed, but the principles remained the same: destruction, fragmentation, (re)construction, representation. Notwithstanding his perception of production 'cycles', closure and caesura, Benjamin himself was fully aware of the continuities of his approach. If the neglected, despised form of the Trauerspiel gave expression to, and could disclose, the Weltanschauung of the baroque, then perhaps modernity too could be deciphered by the critical recovery, interrogation and depiction of its marginalia, its waste products, its outcasts and cast-offs. This was to be the goal of the 'Arcades Project', his 'prehistory' of the present, or 'origins' of modern culture. The 'origins' of the Passagenarbeit are to be found not only in Italy in 1924, but also in Switzerland in 1919. Indeed, one could write of it with some justification: 'Conceived 1916. Unwritten 1940.'
* Graeme Gilloch; Walter Benjamin, critical constellations,
Special issues on Benjamin:
The Modern Mythology: From Cityscape to Dreamworld of Childhood