I remember when I first heard of blogging, my immediate thought was that Walter Benjamin would have enjoyed the medium. I’m currently reading Benjamin’s Arcades Project – a vast, dense constellation of quotations, commentary and notes, associatively mobilised around the central metaphor of the Paris arcades as quintessential symbol of 19th century capitalism.
Although Benjamin never seems to have intended to construct a conventional linear narrative for the Arcades Project, nevertheless, the version of the work that has come down to us is not a finished product – Benjamin may have been carrying that completed draft with him when, believing he would be unable to avoid capture by the Nazis, he committed suicide. After his suicide, the heavy briefcase he had carried with him during his flight was lost, along with whatever manuscript it might have contained.
What we have, instead, is a draft on which Benjamin worked for years – organising and reorganising, adding and subtracting, ordering and deconstructing, constantly exploring new relationships and connections among his vast array of source materials and commentaries. The draft has a very bloglike form: Benjamin often begins with a quotation – or a series of quotations – from other materials, inviting his readers to react, to leap to a meaningful gestalt by engaging with these references. He intersperses commentaries in his own words, written in a brief, dense, incisive style that problematises the connections among his cited material. If hypertext links had existed when Benjamin was writing, one imagines that he would have been an enthusiastic proponent.
At the same time, I don’t want to overstate Benjamin’s status as a proto-blogger. Benjamin worked very privately – systematically collecting and struggling over the proper organisation of his materials, publishing very little relating to what he intended as his magnum opus. I feel fairly comfortable asserting that the blogosphere would have attracted Benjamin, appealing to his liking for the ephemeral, for cultural detritus, even for kitch. At the same time, I believe that Benjamin embraced fragments strategically, as a mode of communication, rather than as a means of opening his own provisional thoughts to his readers. Benjamin’s attraction to fragments (like Adorno’s, following him) related to his sense that a contradictory whole could be communicated more effectively when presented in the form of fragmentary parts, with the task of constructing the conceptual unity then falling to the active conceptual work of the reader.
I’m currently collecting my own small collection of fragments from the Arcades Project, some of which I’ll reproduce here as I move through the work over the next several days.