Since its publication in 1982, Das Passagen-Werk or the Arcades Project has been highly influential for the development of critical theory. The collection brings together notes on the city of Paris compiled by Walter Benjamin from 1927 until his death in 1940. Although unfinished, the Arcades Project can be seen as the culmination of Benjamin’s studies, both in form and content.
The observations cover a variety of topics from photography to prostitution, however Benjamin’s main focus centred on the shopping arcades that were constructed in Paris between 1818 and 1845. This subject matter had first attracted Benjamin after he read Louis Aragon’s Surrealist novel Le Paysan de Paris of 1926. He cited the book as a direct influence on this work in a letter to Theodor Adorno of 1935:
There stands at its (the Arcades Project’s) beginning Aragon – Le Paysan de Paris…of which, evenings in bed, I could never read more than two or three pages because my heartbeat would become so strong that I would have to put the book down.
This touching quote demonstrates a direct link between the Surrealist notions of the city and Benjamin’s critical investigations. Themes within Le Paysan de Paris can be seen as continued in Benjamin’s investigation of the arcades and how this is translated through methodology, with Benjamin’s note form a device for communicating ideas, influenced by Aragon’s novel. Benjamin used Aragon’s approach for critical historical analysis, utilising this ‘profane illumination’ to break down false imagery, unleash a new understanding of the past, and in turn liberate the present.
Aragon’s Le Paysan de Paris focuses on the life of the dilapidated Passage de l’Opera in Paris prior to its impending demolition as a result of the Hausmann building project. The first chapter describes in detail the shops, brothels, and cafes in the arcade, while the remaining chapters discuss his criticisms of rationality, and depict a ‘derive’ with André Breton and Marcell Noll. The novel can be seen as one of the central texts from the Surrealist project, alongside Breton’s Nadja, which sought to express the tenets of Surrealism as identified in the Manifesto of 1924. Surrealists strove to challenge what they identified as ‘the reign of logic’ through the embracement of the dream state and the mythical, in order to gain a fuller understanding of the ‘real’. Surrealism employed techniques such as automatic writing in an attempt to free thought from restraint, however in relation to the Arcades Project their most important tenet was the re-evaluation of ‘the everyday’.
In Le Paysan de Paris Aragon explores this ‘everyday’ through his detailed concentration on the Passage de L’Opera. His concentration on the contemporary subject of the shopping arcade encourages the reader to re-examine the familiar and question the seemingly banal. Benjamin identified the arcades as the most important symbol to examine in this way. Paris represented modernity, and the arcades were a symbol of the city’s position at the apex of capitalist consumption and luxury. As Pierre Missac suggests, for Benjamin they were a physical manifestation of the past boom in the textile trade and the commodity production as presented in the World Exhibitions. Their rapid demise in popularity around 1880 and the development of the department store captured the speed and reinvention of commodity culture in modern society.
Aragon had also identified this symbolism, describing the arcade as a ‘ghostly landscape of damnable pleasures and professions’. In objects like the modern petrol pumps he sees the deities of the past, pre-empting Benjamin’s recognition of the reification of commodities in the arcades. Aragon encourages a process in which ‘the past and future ceased to be contradictory in the mind’. Through the analysis of the everyday environment Benjamin is able to transcend linear historicism and begin to build up a new understanding of history through modern fragments. For the philosopher Henri Lefebvre this form of criticism is Marxism in practice as the ‘critical knowledge of the everyday’. The objects that surround us need to be ‘excavated from the past’ in order to reveal something about the present. Aragon suggests this, indicating that the societal superstructure can be seen beneath the physical environment, and once identified further truths can be found.
The same sentiment can be found in the Arcades Project, where Benjamin describes architecture as the ‘wish image’, or by extension the ideology, of the recent past objectified. Once identified this illumination can give understanding to the underlying structure of present society. Both the Surrealists and Benjamin were influenced by the work of Freud, with notions of the uncanny, and the collective unconscious present throughout. Freud’s ideas of the unconscious slip as evidence of repressed trauma links heavily to Benjamin’s points of clarity and illumination throughout the Arcades Project, and offers moments of rupture and possibility.
The formal structure of these works aids this process. In Le Paysan de Paris Aragon employs an unusual style, which combines recollections and hypotheses along with adverts, songs and sketches. This produces the feeling of being recorded at the moment of inception in Aragon’s mind; a structured form of automatic writing. One travels back and forth combining responses to exterior signs with the recollection of past events and the formation of new ideas.
On reading Benjamin’s Arcades Project a similar effect emerges. The current publication of the work takes the form of small paragraphs collected under chapters labelled Convolutes, giving the impression of leaves that form an overall whole. The Convolutes are grouped under the direction of the Exposes written by Benjamin of 1935 and 1939. These ‘introductions’ identify themes of the work, such as Fourier, or the Arcades, which offer a framework to the diverse musings. Although it could be argued that the note form found in the final collection is a result of the author’s early death, the influence of Le Paysan de Paris along with the Exposes indicate Benjamin planned this form for the work. Certainly there would be more consolidation of the observations and editing work to be completed however, the form of short paragraphs fits with Benjamin’s theses on historical writing.
In the Expose of 1939 Benjamin compares the history writing of Herodotus with the modern newspaper and suggests that it is in this vein that the work is produced. In Fragments of Modernity, David Frisby describes the work as ‘literary montage’, something that can also describe the work of writers such as Alfred Doblin or James Joyce who had begun to experiment with multiple viewpoints and stream of consciousness writing, in an attempt to record a disjointed modern experience. This is something used heavily by the Surrealists and as mentioned above, the fragmentary nature is apparent in Aragon’s book, which moves away from a linear narrative. An emphasis is placed on form and process in order to create an active response in the reader. The Arcades Project encourages a similar response. In his Theses on the Philosophy of History, which itself is written in fragments, Benjamin describes a history, which does not rely on linear progression and prior conclusions. By employing a montage form for the observations the reader is forced to create their own interpretations and formulate their own bridges between the fragments. This also works when thinking about Benjamin’s entire oeuvre, whereby each piece is further elucidated in comparison with another. By cross-referencing disparate pieces Benjamin could promote new critical responses to objects and a new form of history writing away from historicism.
Aragon liberated Benjamin from historicism and identified the modern environment as valid historical material. Benjamin extends the themes put forth in Le Paysan de Paris toward a critical analysis of the city, moving, as Gilloch identifies, beyond the ‘realm of dream’ toward an awakening from the previous century. Benjamin used the dream process and fragmented observations to offer an insight into the ‘the unconscious past of the modern city’. It is in this way, as Gerhard Scholem suggested, that the Arcades Project can be understood as the ‘philosophical realisation of surrealism’.
Aragon, L, 1926, Paris Peasant, trans. by SW Taylor, (Exact Change, Boston, 1994).
Benjamin, W, 1927-1940, The Arcades Project, trans. by H Eiland & K McLaughlin, (The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, London, 1999).
Breton, A, 1924, ‘First Surrealist Manifesto’ in Surrealism, ed by P Waldberg, (Thames & Hudson, London, 1965), pp. 66-75.
Brewster, B, ‘Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project’, Perspecta, Vol. 12. (MIT Press, 1969).
Buck-Morss, S. The Dialectics of Seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project, (MIT Press, London, 1989).
Cohen, M, Profane Illumination: Walter Benjamin and the Paris of Surrealist Revolution, (University of California Press, California, 1993).
Freud, S., 1930, Civilisation & Its Discontents, ed. by J. Strachey, trans. by J. Riviere, (Hogarth Press: London, 1969).
Frisby, D, Framents of Modernity: Theories of Modernity in the Work of Simmel, Kracauer & Benjamin, (The MIT Press, Massachusetts, 1986).
Gilloch, G, Myth and Metropolis: Walter Benjamin and the City, (Polity Press, Cambridge, 1996).
Lefebvre, H, 1947, Critique of Everyday Life, trans. by J Moore, (Verso, London, 1991).
Marx, K, 1852, The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, trans by Daniel de Leon, (Charles H Kerr & Co., Chicago, 1907).
Missac, P, Walter Benjamin’s Passages, trans. By SW Nicholsen, (MIT Press, London, 1995).