Frank H. Strauss – an evidently frustrated reader of Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project – posted the following in Amazon’s reader reviews:
This book is a nihilistic, incoherent work, and I dare anyone who reads this review to argue to the contrary. Admiration for this book is humbuggery in action. The emperor has no clothes.
There is, of course, a veritable cottage industry commenting on the quality of the Arcades’ vestments. It doesn’t hurt that the fragmentary nature of the work can function as a kind of theoretical rorschach, such that the resulting interpretations tell you a great deal about the commentators, but possibly not so much about what Benjamin was seeking to accomplish.
Since I am not personally a Benjamin scholar, this rorschach quality doesn’t worry me unduly – as I’ve previously commented on my occasional use of Marx, while I do my best to interpret the work accurately, my main concern is identifying interesting questions, and perhaps uncovering better conceptual tools for answering them. It is in this spirit that I approach Benjamin, who provides, I believe, excellent source material for both questions and conceptual tools.
In most sections of the Arcades Project, those questions remain very tacit, implied in the grouping of material. So, Convolute B, relating to fashion, seems fascinated with the question of historical cycles of consumption – with the turnover rate of taste, and also with the tendency for particular fashions to recur after set intervals. Convolute C, relating to the Paris catacombs, demolition, and concepts of decline, seems drawn to the emergence of a historical sensibility that is attuned to the long sweep of history, from whose perspective we can readily imagine a time when everything around us will, in its turn, be destroyed. Convolute D, on boredom and eternal return, again draws attention to perceptions of historical time – in this case, time that moves on and on without a substantive endpoint. In many convolutes, Benjamin therefore seems to be operating on a parallel track to Weber’s famous diagnosis of modern society:
Now, do they have any meanings that go beyond the purely practical and technical? You will find this question raised in the most principled form in the works of Leo Tolstoi. He came to raise the question in a peculiar way. All his broodings increasingly revolved around the problem of whether or not death is a meaningful phenomenon. And his answer was: for civilized person death has no meaning. It has none because the individual life of civilized man, placed into an infinite ‘progress,’ according to its own imminent meaning should never come to an end; for there is always a further step ahead of one who stands in the march of progress. And no person who comes to die stands upon the peak which lies in infinity. Abraham, or some peasant of the past, died ‘old and satiated with life’ because he stood in the organic cycle of life; because his life, in terms of its meaning and on the eve of his days, had given to him what life had to offer; because for him there remained no puzzles he might wish to solve; and therefore he could have had ‘enough’ of life. Whereas civilized man, placed in the midst of the continuous enrichment of culture by ideas, knowledge, and problems, may become ‘tired of life’ but not ‘satiated with life.’ He catches only the most minute part of what the life of the spirit brings forth ever anew, and what he seizes is always something provisional and not definitive, and therefore death for him is a meaningless occurrence. And because death is meaningless, civilized life as such is meaningless; by its very ‘progressiveness’ it gives death the imprint of meaninglessness.(“Science as a Vocation”, pp. 14-15)
At the same time, Benjamin does not descend fully into Weberian pessimism. Instead, Benjamin holds out the potential for emancipatory alternatives. In this vein, Convolute E, on Haussmann and the barricades, tacitly contrasts two different forms of action oriented to bringing about a better future – town planning (conscious in its aims, but not necessarily oriented to emancipation) and revolutionary uprising (oriented to emancipation, but not necessarily fully conscious of its aims). Further convolutes – particularly the most explicitly theoretical material in convolute N – work and rework the concept of the “dreamtime” of modernity, holding out the possibility that it might somehow be possible to awaken potentials for emancipation.
In my own personal rorschach, therefore, what I see everywhere in Benjamin’s images are tacit questions about why we experience and perceive history the way we do, and how those experiences and perceptions relate to the historical emergence of emancipatory ideals – and, possibly, to our ability to achieve greater freedom in practice. I see Benjamin, then, as quintessentially concerned with questions of epistemology – how do we know what we claim to know? why do we perceive the world in a certain way? – and with the relationship between epistemology and critique – why do we believe (at least in some ways, in some times) that more freedom is possible? This is, of course, not a bad diagnosis of the central goals of my own work – which may mean that I have merely taken a “tiger’s leap” into Benjamin’s writings, scenting only what is relevant to my own interests. If so, I believe it has been a productive hunt. I’ll try in future installments to flesh out more fully what I have captured from Benjamin’s work.