The Angel Of History And The Ruins Of Paris – Walter Benjamin In France, Part 2 (Richard Rottenburg)

The following is the second of a two-part series. The first can be found here.

The awareness that they are about to make the continuum of history explode is characteristic of the revolutionary classes at the moment of their action. The great revolution introduced a new calendar. The initial day of a calendar serves as a historical time-lapse camera. And, basically, it is the same day that keeps recurring in the guise of holidays, which are days of remembrance. Thus the calendars do no measure time as clocks do; they are monuments of a historical consciousness of which not the slightest trace has been apparent in Europe in the past hundred years. In the July revolution an incident occurred which showed this consciousness still alive. On the first evening of fighting it turned out that the clocks in towers were being fired on simultaneously and independently from several places in Paris. An eye-witness, who may have owed his insight to the rhyme, wrote as follows: Qui le croirait! On dirait, qu’irrités contre l’heure, de nouveaux Josués au pied de chaque tour, tiraient sur les cadrans pour arrêter le jour! – Walter Benjamin, On the Concept of History, These XV, 1940

Stopping the Clockwork

Against the mechanical ticking of the clockwork – as symptom of the modern quantitative, “homogeneous” and “empty” conception of time – Benjamin defends here the qualititative character of calendars, which in the rememoration and repetition of collective events, would symbolize a both heterogeneous and fully significant historical consciousness. Like in the revolutionary calender, the biblical imperative of zakhor! (“remember!”) in the Jewish tradition brings the past into the present in the act of remembering redemptive and catastrophic events, such as the leaving of Egypt (Pessah), the revolt of the Macchabees (Hanoukka) or the rescue of the exiled facing a massacre in Persia (Pourim).

In his last thesis, Benjamin reasserts the qualities of the traditional Jewish discontinuous time conception and tradition of remomeration: “we know that the Jews were prohibited from investigating the future. The Torah and the prayers instruct them in remembrance, however. This stripped the future of its magic, to which all those succumb who turn to the soothsayers for enlightenment. This does not imply, however, that for the Jews the future turned into homogeneous, empty time. For every second of time was the strait gate through which Messiah might enter ” (These XVIII B).

Like the Joshua (Josué) of the Old Testament – who suspends the Sun movement in order to obtain victory – the French revolutionaries attempted in 1830 to shoot at the Parisian city clocks, symbol of the march of a so-called “progress” in an inextricable historical continuum which was considered as not being in their interests, but rather in those of the ruling elites. Benjamin defends precisely a conception of history as a stopping of conventional time, as a necessary interruption of modern catastrophe, in a paradoxical perspective of “dialectics at a standstill”, according Rolf Tiedemann (1).

This refusal to jump on the rapid train of modernity was associated with a methodological interpretation of real historical work as a chronicle from below, which in its generous heterogeneity should not distinguish between macro and micro-levels: “a chronicler who recites events without distinguishing between major and minor ones acts in accordance with the following truth: nothing that has ever happened should be regarded as lost for history” (Thesis III). Benjamin’s revolutionary messianism claims that no one should be forgotten; the apocastasis, the redemption of all souls, shall restore each and every victim of past oppressors: “only that historian will have the gift of fanning the spark of hope in the past who is firmly convinced that even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins. And this enemy has not ceased to be victorious” (Thesis VI).

In this sense, the ideal historian has the task to feel empathy (Einfühlung) with the oppressed of the past, “from the repression of the slaves and the death of Spartacus, to the failure of the Spartakusbund and the assassination of Rosa Luxemburg, from the victims of Roman Imperium, to the ones of Hitlerian Imperium”. “Flaubert, who was familiar with it, wrote: peu de gens devineront combien il a fallu être triste pour ressusciter Carthage. The nature of this sadness stands out more clearly if one asks with whom the adherents of historicism actually empathize. The answer is inevitable: with the victor. And all rulers are the heirs of those who conquered before them. Hence, empathy with the victor invariably benefits the rulers” (These VII).

Like Nietzsche, cited in his twelfth thesis, Benjamin asserts the need for another writing of history, against the conventional historians who like to swim with the stream, in the “nude admiration of success” and the “idolatry of great factual events”. The Benjaminian historian should have the task to “brush History against the grain” (These VII), opposing to the continuum of the governors the discontinuum of the governed.

Against the method of conservative historicism, represented here by the French Fustel de Coulanges (“to historians who wish to relive an era, (he) recommends that they blot out everything they know about the later course of history”) – an equivalent of Ranke – Benjamin demands furthermore to the chronicler to think with the past and not over it, in a co-presence of past and present breaking hereby once again with the usual continuity from past to present (and towards future).

As he writes it in his fourteenth thesis, “history is the subject of a structure whose site is not homogeneous, empty time, but time filled by the presence of the now. Thus, to Robespierre ancient Rome was a past charged with the time of the now which he blasted out of the continuum of history. The French Revolution viewed itself as Rome incarnate. It evoked ancient Rome the way fashion evokes costumes of the past. Fashion has a flair for the topical, no matter where it stirs in the thickets of long ago; it is a tiger’s leap into the past”.

The comparison between fashion and revolution could seem surprising; but if in both cases, the association of past and present enables a “tiger’s leap” out of the temporal continuum between very remote periods of time, the temporality of fashion corresponds in Benjamin’s perspective to an infernal repetition of the same, giving only the external illusion of a constant change. On the contrary, revolution should constitute the stopping of this “eternal return” in the advent of a profound modification of social and temporal order.

The presence of the “now” in his conception of historiography is what Benjamin called the Jetztzeit:  through dialectical images bringing the past into one’s present, Benjaminian historical method aims to reach sensibly
the elements of the past in the “now of their recognizability” (Jetzt der Erkennbarbeit). The re-actualization of past moments and elements in one’s present would though not only be a methodology in the strict sense of the term: it is also understood as a “life-saving intervention” (rettender Einfall), a solution to the mechanical oblivion and disparition of these moments and elements through the deadly march of history and progress. “The true picture of the past flits by. The past can be seized only as an image which flashes up at the instant when it can be recognized and is never seen again.(…) For every image of the past that is not recognized by the present as one of its own concerns, threatens to disappear irretrievably.” (These V). Historical consciousness is with Benjamin comparable to the fleeting sensations of “unvolontary memory”.

The Passagen-Werk, or a Prehistory of Catastrophe

What is expressed here is a feeling of vertigo characteristic of nineteenth century’s conception of history. It corresponds to a viewpoint according to which the course of the world is an endless series of facts congealed in the form of things. The characteristic residue of this conception is what has been called the ‘History of Civilization;, which makes an inventory, point by point, of humanity’s life forms and creations (…). Our investigation proposes to show how, as a consequence of this reifying representation of Civilization, the new forms of behavior and the new economically and technologically based creations that we owe to the nineteenth century enter the universe of a phantasmagoria. These creations undergo this ‘illumination’ not only in a theoretical manner, by an ideological transposition, but also in the immediacy of their perceptible presence. – Walter Benjamin, Paris, Capital of the Nineteenth Century, Exposé of 1939

As Michael Taussig suggested, Benjamin was certainly a Proustian Marxist (15), who loved to collect “madeleines” enabling him to resuscitate the collective past in according more significance to the sensible than to the abstract. The art of catching elements of the past in the “now of their recognizability” and in the “immediacy of their perceptible presence” required consequently not only a redefinition of orthodox Marxist conception of history, but also a new understanding of both material and ideological culture. As Rolf Tiedemann wrote, Benjamin “valued three short sentences by Proust more highly than most of what existed in the field of materialist analysis: the majority of Marxist art theorists explain culture as the mere reflection of economic development: (he) refused to join them” (11).

Benjamin wished indeed to replace the concept of “reflection” by the one of “expression” (Ausdrück), modifying thereby the traditional Marxist relationship between basis and superstructure from a simple causality link to a more complex link of “expressive correlation”. Indeed, he was mostly interested in the “thread of expression”. In the fourteenth Convolute of the Passagen-Werk, he wishes to make it clear: “the expression of the economy in its culture will be presented, not the economic origins of culture”.

Benjamin was concerned about “palpable knowledge” (gefühltes Wissen) , according to Tiedemann, and “did not set out according to Ideologiekritik; rather, he gave way to the notion of materialist physiognomics (…) inferring the interior from the exterior; it decodes the whole from the detail, it represents the general in the particular”. Here, abstract concepts are being replaced by sensible images, and these “dialectical images” are not only thought as the associations of past and present at a standstill, they are also a constant dialectical back-and-forth between infrastructure and superstructure.

The Passagen-Werk was in Benjamin’s perspective supposed to restitute a “prehistory” (Urgeschichte) of modernity set in the Paris of the nineteenth century, in studying the expressive character of earliest industrial and capitalist Ur-phenomena, namely “earliest industrial products, earliest industrial architecture, the earliest machines, but also the earliest department stores, advertisements and so on”. Benjaminian “physiognomic” thought, his “smooth empiricism” (zarte Empirie) borrowed to Goethe, the method of an “esthetic” Marxism understood as the focalization of critical attention to esthetic phenomena – which would deeply influence the later work of the Institut für Sozialforschung and especially the Adornian critique of industrial mass culture (Durand-Gasselin 2012: 90) – were here assigned the task of “recognizing the monuments of the bourgeoisie as ruins even before they have crumbled” (Paris, Capitale du XIXème siècle, Exposé of 1935, section IV).

In Adorno’s words, cited by Tiedemann, Benjamin’s philosophy “appropriates the fetishism of commodities for itself: everything must metamorphose into a thing in order to break the catastrophic spell of things”.(15) The Marxist concept of “commodity fetishism” (Warenfetischismus) was central to Benjamin’s critique of the phenomenon of “reification of civilization” in the development of industrial capitalist society. Through the veiling of social production relationships and the annihilation of the social utility of commodities under the exaggerated importance accorded to exchange-value, the nineteenth century would have created a world of “phantasmagorias”.

Benjamin revealed his intention to explicate more profoundly this concept in a letter to Gretel Adorno in March 1939, quoted by Kang: “I have busied myself, as well as possible in the limited time, with one of the basic concepts of the Arcades, placing at its core the culture of the commodity-producing society as phantasmagoria” (75). More concretely, phantasmagorias were popular optical spectacles of the European nineteenth century, enabled by the invention of the “phantascope”, which by a game of mirrors and lightnings, would subjugate the attention of the audience in showing animated images, and could be considered as the ancestor of the cinematograph. With his allegorical use of the term, Benjamin expresses the idea that “the nineteenth century is the dream we must wake up from; it is a nightmare that will weigh on the present as long as its spell remains unbroken” . Through “dialectical images” assembled in a “montage”, through the assembling of a “constellation” of fragments under the form of citations, understood as “monads” which would be able to “crystallize” the whole, the Passagen-Werk wishes to dissolve the spell and to demystify the triumph of Parisian nineteenth century, already identifying conventional historicism and the ideology of progress as its best “narcotics”.

The topic of phantasmagoria and collective illusion was explicit in the fact that Benjamin originally intended to entitle his Passagen-Werk as “Parisian Arcades, a dialectical féerie”. At the heart of this motive was the “experience of his generation” that “capitalism would not die from a natural death”, but also the intuition that it was a phenomenon “with which a new dream-filled sleep came over Europe, and, through it, a reactivation of mythical forces” in a society which rather dreamed itself as being fully rational. The ambition of “awakening” contained in Benjamin’s philosophy made his Kulturkritik closer to Ideologiekritik, as it was developed by the earlier members of the Frankfurt school in the denunciation of a “false consciousness”, and at the same time differentiated itself from a Surrealist abolition of the demarcation between dream and reality, or life and art.

If Benjamin criticized Aragon for “persisting within the realm of dreams”, his work was nevertheless early inspired by the movement of Surrealist avant-garde, namely in their common fascination for the symbolic of daily objects: “Surrealism can boast of a surprising discovery. It has for the first time identified the revolutionary energies manifesting themselves in the outdated, in the first iron constructions, the first industrial buildings, the first photographies, in the objects which are starting to disappear”. Tiedemann writes that Benjamin’s quest of “the fullness of experience” made him use the concept of “profane illumination” (1929) as “the experiences of the Surrealists taught him that it was a matter not of restoring theological experience but of transporting it into the profane” (6) – the quest for authentic experience is also contained in his concept of “anthropological materialism”, as Berdet calls it, as corrective of a mechanical dialectical materialism (1).

Anthropological Materialism and its Figures – The Flâneur, the Collector and the Chiffonier

In a letter dated from the 10th of November 1938, Adorno writes to Benjamin: “the poetry of Baudelaire attributes precisely to phenomena this sort of spontaneity, this concrete obviousness, this thickness which they happen to have lost through capitalism. This sort of immediate materialism, deeply anthropological, hides a profoundly romantic element. To speak very drastically, we could say that your work situates itself at the crossroads of magic and positivism. It is a bewitched place”. The “bewitched” tradition evoked here could be the one of the Surrealists and their forefathers of the nineteenth century, such as Rimbaud and Baudelaire, who were already adepts of “profane illumination” without naming it in these terms: as Michael Löwy suggests it with the words of André Breton, Benjamin also found himself caught in a paradoxical sensibility “between Rimbaud and Marx”.

Against the disenchantment and sterility of rationalism developed in industrial capitalist societies, only a romantic, poetic and reenchanted form of dialectical materialism would fulfill the promises of utopia, adding to scientific Marxism a bit of its profane theology and exhilaration, rendering it hereby more sensible, concrete and even more “human”. In his Einbahnstrasse (1928), Benjamin already referred to “drunkenness” (Rausch) as being the essence of the magical relationship uniting man to cosmos in ancient times, a kind of “experience” (Erfahrung) and state-of-mind which would have disappeared with capitalist modernity and its productivist functionalism.

The need of reenchantment at times of impoverished experience was already about Rimbaud and Baudelaire associated with the refusal of bourgeois progress: “It can only be the end of the world in going forwards” wrote Rimbaud in his Illuminations in echo with the prophetism of Baudelaire in his Fusées: To transform the world’, said Marx ; “to change the life”, said Rimbaud. These two watchwords shall for us belong together, a sentence which could summarize the ambitions of the Surrealist program, (“the world is going to end”), who also identified the belief in “Progress” as an “extase de gobe- mouches”.

This deep pessimism was also to be found in the first anticipation novels of the French nineteenth century, which on the contrary to a Jules Verne’s positivist optimism, predicted the final ruins of Paris in an ever darker future. The romantic topos of prospective ruins became a commonplace of literary imagination during the Haussmanization of Paris, synonym of the vast modernization of the capital undertook under Napoleon III, and seen by poets and artists as a constant enterprise of destruction.

As Benjamin writes in his Passagen-Werk, “the rêveries over the decline of Paris translate the obscure consciousness of the fact that the infinite growth of cities is always associated with the possibility for them to be entirely destroyed” (122), giving once again echo to a Rousseauist discourse about the disaster of Lisbon. Some commentators of the period would even imagine with irony the extension of Paris as reaching towards the ocean in a near future, “resuscitating hereby the old legend of “Paris, port de mer”.

Without mentioning the destruction of Paris through a tsunami, these apocalyptic narrations seem nevertheless to account for the inherent paradox of the modern regime of historicity, as it was analyzed by Koselleck. The acceleration of time and the erosion of tradition in the aftermath of European Enlightenment would have created a constant need of projection towards an unforeseeable future, annihilating thereby through complexity and uncertainty every lived experience, in a present which was being condemned, at a time of constant change, to become a “past future”.

Against the accelerated tempo of modernity, the flâneurs of the Second Empire would have taken the habit to go for a walk in the already outdated arcades with a turtle kept on a leash, at a time when the reputed Café Anglais served turtle soup as must-have dish of its fastuous dinners. Baudelaire was one of them and his poetry expresses through allegories the sensible experiences made by critical artists at a time of forced acceleration, considered as the consequence of bourgeois tyrannic pragmatism. The decline of the Arcades through Haussmanization from the beginning of the 1850’s and the construction of large boulevards, would have rendered the purely optical experience of the Parisian flâneur, and the appropriation of the streets in his own home through the attention of his gaze, far more difficult.

The Passagen-Werk gives a great role to the figure of the flâneur as illustrated by Baudelaire. As Agamben has suggested, the whole Arcades project could even have been a sole preparation to Benjamin’s book on Charles Baudelaire, ein lyriker im Zeitalter des Hochkapitalismus, which would then have been thought as an autonomous history of the Second Empire – as the title of the text Das Paris des Second Empire bei Baudelaire expresses it. If Adorno and Horkheimer, in the name of the Institut für Sozialforschung which financed the project during more than a decade, would not have protested against the emphasis put by Benjamin on such poetry.

The Benjaminian reference to Simmel and his phenomenological approach to modernity also constituted the object of Adorno’s recurrent critique against Benjamin’s project, just as Lukacs considered Simmelian “impressionism” as having solely an immediate and therefore insufficient behavior towards social phenomena without explaining their mechanisms , Adorno defined the sociologist of modernity as a “nearly-thinker” (Vielleichtdenker) lacking profoundly of critical distance in his analysis.

Despite this sharp critique, Simmelian phenomenological intuition did inspire Benjamin’s project of an empiricist “physiognomy” of modern culture through the sensible study of objects. Benjamin and Simmel were both “collectors” (Sammler) of material artifacts, understood as witnesses of a past, both collective and individual, who were willing to rescue these objects from oblivion in considering at the same time their uniqueness, their uselessness and their non-commercial value; the perceptive tactility of the collector is in the Passagen-Werk an equivalent to the both attentive and disinterested gaze of the flâneur.

In his essay on Eduard Fuchs (1937), Benjamin had already celebrated the activity of the collector as being a practical expression of his conception of historiography, in saving what is condemned to disappear. The chiffonier was another type of collector present in the poorest Parisian areas of the nineteenth century; if the rag-and-bone man (Lumpsensammler) appears a lot later as the Flâneur and the Sammler in Benjamin’s writings, it seems like he intended to give him a decisive role in his final version of the Passagen-Werk.

Like Baudelaire, Benjamin felt a certain love for the outcasts of modern progress; he mentions already several times the chiffonier figure in the unended version of his Arcades: “the ragpicker is the most provocative figure of human misery. Ragtag, Lumpenproletarier, in a double sense: clothed in rags and occupied with rags” (349). He cites further to his own commentary a prose of Baudelaire: “Here we have a man whose job is to pick up the day’s rubbish in the capital. He collects and catalogues everything that the great city has cast off, everything it has lost, and discarded, and broken. He goes through the archives of debauchery, and the jumbled array of refuse. He makes a selection, an intelligent choice; like a miser hoarding treasure, he collects the garbage that will become objects of utility or pleasure when refurbished by industrial magic” ( 350).

If the figures of the flâneur and the collector remained politically ambiguous in the fact that they could potentially yield to the temptations of commodity fetishism, the radical figure of the Lumpensammler would be more reliable, because it pertains to the world of the barricades (Berdet 2013: 426). As Irving Wohlfarth suggested in his articleDer Historiker als Lumpensammler”, one could compare the historical ambitions of Benjamin to the practical work of the chiffonier, both systematically assembling fragments, as mediums of modern waste, in a constellation which could not possibly find an end.

Parisian Arcades and Other Ruins of Modernity

“And so it is with our own past. It is a labor in vain to attempt to recapture it: all the efforts of our intellect must prove futile. The past is hidden somewhere outside the realm, beyond the reach, of intellect, in some material object…which we do not suspect. And as for that object, it depends on chance whether we come upon it or not before we ourselves must die” – Marcel Proust, Du côté de chez Swann.

And finally, in Baudelaire, these reminiscences are still more frequent and obviously less incidental and therefore, in my opinion, decisive. Here it is the poet himself who, with more variety and more indolence, purposely seeks in the oador of a woman’s hair or her breast, for example, inspiring resemblances which shall evoke him ‘the canopy of the overarching sky’ and ‘a harbor filled with masts and sails’. – Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project.

At the origins of the Passagen-Werk would have been the intense reading of Aragon’s Le paysan de Paris (1928), which Benjamin had undertook to translate for the Literarische Welt: in it, the itinerant figure of the flâneur and the dying landscape of the Arcades are omnipresent, in the aftermath of the destruction of the century-old Passage de l’Opéra in 1925 (Berdet 2013: 434); “we must now for sure endure a turmoil in the modes of flânerie” (Aragon, 1928: 82), wrote the Surrealist poet, still in mourning. “Surrealism was born in an Arcade” (1999: 82), writes Benjamin at the beginning of his Convolute over the “demolitions and decline of Paris”: indeed, if “the father of Surrealism was Dada, its mother was an Arcade”, “just as the history and situation of the Paris Arcades are to become the key for the underworld of this century, into which Paris has sunk” (Benjamin, 1999: 83). At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the Passages, architectures of glass, iron and gas, were still emblematic of the Parisian conversion to industrial modernity; Benjamin cites for proof the already outdated Illustrated Guide to Paris from the year 1852: “these arcades, a recent invention of industrial luxury, are glass-roofed, marble-paneled corridors extending through whole blocks of buildings, whose owners have joined together for such enterprises. Lining both sides of these corridors, which get their light from above, are the most elegant shops, so that the arcade is a city, a world in miniature, in which costumers will find everything they need. During sudden rain showers, the arcades are a place of refuge for the unpeprared, to whom they offer a secure, if restricted, promenade – one of which the merchants also benefit” (Benjamin 1999: 31). At their beginnings and until the mid-nineteenth century, the arcades were frequented by the best Parisian society as they still enjoyed the character of their novelty: “as soon as the Parisians had got a taste of the new galleries, they lost all desire to set foot in the streets of old – which, they often said, were fit only for dogs” (Benjamin 1999: 53); but with the Haussmanization and consecutive electrification of the streets of Paris, the further development of department stores like the Bon Marché, and the increasing use of cabs as means of transport, the arcades were condemned to become forgotten places of perdition, mainly frequented by cheap prostitutes and nostalgic poets by the end of the century. Jules Clarétie tells the story of this decline in La vie à Paris (1896): “they are fleeing the arcades, the arcades are dying (…). The arcade that for the Parisian was a sort of salon-walk, where you strolled and smoked and chatted, is now nothing more than a species of refuge which you think of when it rains. Some of the arcades maintain a certain attraction on account of this or that famed establishment still to be found there. But it only is the tenant’s renown that prolongs the excitement, or rather the death agony of the place. The arcades have one great defect for modern Parisians: you could say that, just like certain paintings done from stifled perspectives, they’re in need of air” (Benjamin 1999: 121).

The modernization of Paris undertook under Napoleon III in the works of the Baron Haussmann was mainly justified as being an enterprise of public salubrity, as the medieval narrow streets of the capital were also “in need of air”. The construction of a network of large avenues and boulevards right in the middle of the capital at the beginning of the 1850’s changed the face of the city drastically, and the life of its inhabitants with it.

Paris now ceased forever to be a conglomeration of small towns, each with its distinctive physiognomy and way of life (…). The centralization, the megalomania, created an artificial city, in which the Parisian (and  this is the crucial point) no longer feels at home; and so, as soon as he can, he leaves. And thus a new need arises: the craving for holidays in the country. On the other hand, in the city deserted by its inhabitants, the foreigner arrives on a specified date – the start of ‘the season’. The Parisian, in his own town, now seems like one deracinated. (…) But above all, the Paris of the Second Empire is cruelly lacking in beauty. Not one of these great straight avenues has the charm of the magnificent curve of the rue Sainte-Antoine, and no house of this period affords anything like the tender delights of an eighteenth-century façade…” (Lucien Debech and Pierre d’Espezel, Histoire de Paris.

Beyond esthetics, the “surgical experiments” led by Haussmann had a heavy social cost – the “strategic embellishment” was implicitly thought as a good prevention against the too recurrent construction of barricades, when the forced dislodgements through the systematic destruction of buildings were widespread. Anyway, “the widening of the streets, it was said, was necessitated by the crinoline”.

The story of the decline of the Parisian Arcades is also in Benjamin’s perspective the expression of a history of “modes of lightning” (from the name of the twentieth Convolute of the Passagen-Werk), which followed a constant modification throughout the nineteenth century, from oil to gas candelabras, and finally from gas to electricity.

“Arcades – they radiated through the Paris of the Empire like fairy grottoes. For someone entering the Passage des Panoramas in 1817, the sirens of gaslight would be singing to him on one side, while oil- lamp odalisques offered enticements from the other. With the kindling of electric lights, the irreproachable glow was extinguished in these galleries, which suddenly became more difficult to find – which wrought a black magic at entranceways, and which looked within themselves out of blind windows” .

As the “yellowish flickering” and “butterflies” of argand and gas lamps (“the old gas torches that burned in the open air often had a flame in the shape of a butterfly, and were known as papillons”) had to be replaced by “the lunar frigidity of electric light”, the Parisian flâneurs had furthermore to endure “the covering over of the sky in the big city as a consequence of artificial illumination”. Under such circumstances, how could have one possibly enjoyed true experiences (Erfahrungen) in a place of the earth where the stars are not to be seen anymore? “On Baudelaire’s Crépuscule du soir: the big city knows no true evening twilight. In any case, the artificial lighting does away with all transition to night. The same state of affairs is responsible for the fact that the stars disappear from the sky over the metropolis. Who ever notices when they come out?”

The decline of the Arcades is also an opportunity for Benjamin to evoke another emblematic material of the industrial nineteenth-century: “the two great advances in technology – gas and cast iron – go together; aside from the great quantity of lights maintained by the merchants, these galleries are illuminated in the evening by thirty-four jets of hydrogen gas mounted on cast-iron volutes on the pilasters”. Railroad networks, train stations, universal exhibitions, the Eiffel tower, the Palais de l’Industrie, and even the Crystal Palace of London; all these monuments of the century were made of iron, and Benjamin dedicates his sixth Convolute to the cold and grey element (“Iron construction”).

The Paris Arcades were also the witnesses of “the vogue for Panoramas”, these visual spectacles, also commonly named “phantasmagorias”, who knew a constant progression throughout the nineteenth century,
from “the panoramas, dioramas, cosmoramas, diaphanoramas, pleoramas, fantascopes and phantasmagorical experiences, to (…) cinéoramas (…)” . Panoramas can be considered as the ancestors of cinema, and raised already at the beginning of the nineteenth century the issue of the reproducibility of art and its relationship to technique as it had been problematized by Benjamin in his article Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit (1936): “the fact that film today articulates all problems of modern form-giving – understood as questions of its own technical existence – is important for the following comparison of panoramas with this medium.

The vogue for panoramas corresponds to the vogue for cinematrographs today. The covered Arcades, of the type of the Passage des Panoramas, were also beginning their Parisian fortunes then” (Benjamin 1999: 530). Despite their first triumphant novelty, the Panoramas were also condemned to be forgotten at the end of the century; Max Brod would ask with nostalgy from Leipzig in 1913: “Does anyone still want to go with me into a Panorama?”

The law of destruction followed by technical progress had reached the domain of arts by the mid-nineteenth century, and “in the same year in which Daguerre invented photography, his diorama burned down…1839” . The development from the first Daguerreotypes up to modern photography signed the end of the humble art of portrait paintings; “symptom, it would seem, of a profound displacement: painting must submit to being measured by the standard of photography (…). The old Dutch masters looked upon themselves less as artists than as photographers, so to speak; it is only today that the photographer is absolutely determined to pass for an artist”.

Beyond the problematic loss of the “Aura” and the uniqueness of the piece of Art as a consequence of limitless reproduction, Benjamin cites further the words of Brecht in order to illustrate the idea of “regression in progression”: “so let us take an example of technical progress, which actually is regress, the perfection of photographic devices. They are much more sensitive to light than the old boxes with which daguerreotypes were produced. One hardly need concern oneself about lighting when operating them now (…). But the portraits which one makes with them are doubtless much poorer than before” (Versuche, 1931, p. 280; Benjamin 1999: 687). Baudelaire holds further his own plaidoyer against the fascination for the developments of photography: “since photography provides us with every desirable guarantee of exactitude (they believe that, these poor madmen!), ‘art is photography’ (…). I am convinced that the badly applied advances of photography – like all purely material progress – have greatly contributed to the impoverishment of artistic genius, already so rare… Poetry and Progress are two ambitious men who hate each other with an instinctive hatred, and when they meet along the same road, one of them must give away”.

The Parisian Arcades, symbol of “dialectical féérie”, were in Benjamin’s perspective the first matrix of commodity fetishism, which was then fully developed in department stores, industrial exhibitions and thenew modes of advertising. “Le Tintamarre now remarked, after recommending “La Chaussée d’Antin” to its female readers as the ‘foremost house of fashion in the world’: ‘the entire French railway system comprises barely ten thousand kilometers of tracks. This one store, with its stock of textiles, could virtually stretch a tent over all the railroad tracks of France’ (…). But we cannot help asking: how are stores supposed to find room to stock this gigantic quantity of goods? The answer is very simple and, what is more, very logical: each firm is always larger than the others”.

Industrial exhibitions had become a tradition of the century since its start: “beginning in 1801, the products of newly emerging industries were exhibited in the courtyard of the Louvre (…). Then, following the example of England, which had organized an international exhibition in 1851, Imperial France held world exhibitions on the Champ de Mars in 1855 and 1867. The first saw the birth of the Palais de l’Industrie, demolished during the Republic; the second was a delirious festival marking the high point of the Second Empire (…). It is characteristic of these enormous fairs to be ephemeral, yet each has left its trace in Paris. The exhibition of 1878 was responsible for the Trocadéro, that eccentric palace (…), the exhibition of 1889 left behind the Galerie des Machines, which was eventually torn down, although the Eiffel tower still stands…”.

Finally, “the great goal so long sought had finally been achieved: that of making of Paris an object of luxury and curiosity, rather than of use – a ville d’exposition, a display city under glass… an object of admiration and envy to foreigners, unbearable for its inhabitants”. In the same context, the futuristic posters of the illustrator Grandville were “the sybilline books of publicité”, which announced the new tempo of life, at a time when “one could wake up some morning to find one’s window placarded”; and “within frames of the pictures that hung on dining room walls, the advent of whiskey advertisements, of Van Houten cocoa, of Amieux canned food was being heralded”. The fetishism of brands was entering daily life.

Richard Rottenburg is professor of science and technology studies at WiSER at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa. He has founded at the Martin Luther Universität at Halle-Wittenburg, Germany, a research network focusing on the anthropology of “Law, Organization, Science and Technology” (LOST). Inspired by social studies of science and technology and renditions of pragmatist social theory, the emergence of material-semiotic orderings and their institutionalizations are at the heart of his current work.

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