Benjamin began The Arcades Project in 1927, as an essay about the arcades, the glass-and-iron-roofed shopping streets of Paris. By the time of Benjamin's death in 1940, the still-unfinished Arcades Project included analyses of Paris communes, photography, prostitution, the eternal return, and commodity fetishism, to name only a few shards of this vast mosaic. The Arcades Project, now available in English translation for the first time, is the published form of Benjamin's sheaf of handwritten notes: page after page of brief citations from Marx or Baudelaire or Saint-Simon, among others, occasionally interspersed with Benjamin's compressed commentary.
No one knows whether Benjamin meant The Arcades Project to be what it is now: a book made up of fragments of other books. Maybe The Arcades Project -- this thousand-page, five-pound monster -- is the lamentable, accidental form of an unrealized Arcades Work. Or maybe this dizzying montage was Benjamin's intention. If the sheer mass of quotations puts his book at the limit of readability, perhaps he meant it that way. In One-Way Street, Benjamin wrote: "The quotations in my works are like robbers lying in ambush on the highway to attack the passerby with weapons drawn and rob him of his conviction."
Whatever Benjamin intended, mega-encyclopedia or ambush-by-quotations, The Arcades Project has "the purity and beauty of a failure" (to quote Benjamin on Kafka). The terms in which Benjamin described the work-in-progress -- "the theater of all my struggles and all my ideas" -- were no less grand than his ambitions for it. Benjamin said that he was writing not just a history of the 19th century -- the century of the rise of capitalism -- but a book that would shake the 20th century out of its delusions.
In The Arcades Project, Benjamin writes that each epoch dreams the next; the 20th century is still asleep, still bewitched by the 19th-century dream of capitalism. The Arcades Project is to be "an experiment in the technique of awakening." The most generous reading of the book, and of the century, would have to conclude that the awakening has yet to take place.
Of course, failing to change history is a charge that could be leveled at many books. If The Arcades Project has more of the "beauty of a failure" than most books, it is because of its strange mixture of immensity and incompletion. With all the grandeur and illogic of a Borgesian encyclopedia, The Arcades Project obsessively collects citations, observations, and fragments. Sometimes Benjamin's writing dwindles to nothing but a collection of things: "Masks for orgies. Pompeian tiles. Gateway arches. Greaves. Gloves."
Benjamin once wrote that all collections are structured by a "peculiar category of completeness"; the collector attempts to overcome the irrational disorder of the world by gathering objects in "a new, expressly devised historical system: the collection." Who can doubt that The Arcades Project is structured by just such a "peculiar category of completeness" when Benjamin writes: "World of particular secret affinities: palm tree and feather duster, hairdryer and Venus de Milo, champagne bottles, prostheses, and letter-writing manuals [text broken off]."
It is typical of The Arcades Project that the text breaks off without revealing the secret behind its affinities. The Arcades Project is strewn with dead ends. Themes are dropped, plans announcing the work's final shape are canceled by still other plans, and there are revisions and repetitions. With its blind alleys and its maze-like tangle of passages, The Arcades Project resembles nothing so much as a city. As Jonathan Raban writes in Soft City, "the city and the book are opposed forms: to force the city's spread, contingency, and aimless motion into the tight progression of a narrative is to risk a total falsehood." The Arcades Project, then, is the book, or anti-book, of the city -- a book to get lost in. To read it is to take on the aimless motion of the flâneur, the idle urban stroller whose habits Benjamin so memorably describes.
Benjamin observes urban phenomena -- the flâneur, the arcades, the street -- with such obvious affection that it is possible to overlook the critical urgency of his writing. Benjamin's strategy of unfolding an entire cultural history from an analysis of a marginal cultural artifact has been so widely adopted in literary and cultural studies nowadays that it nearly passes beneath the notice of today's reader. If The Arcades Project is still worth reading today, it is not only for the quixotic pleasures of its dead ends, but for the traces of hope it finds within "the guilty context of the living" (as Benjamin wrote elsewhere). Through an analysis of the "collective dream" of the 19th century, Benjamin hopes to liberate the 20th.
It may seem strange that Benjamin centers this work of liberation on the one architectural form that is more responsible than any other for strangling the life out of present-day cities. The arcades were the forerunners of today's enclosed shopping centers; they were the ur-form of the mall, and yet they are the touchstone of Benjamin's analysis of the collective dream of the 19th century. The city as shopping mall, whether enclosed physically (Pacific Place) or discursively (the "no-protest" zone), is a city whose possibilities for any sort of collective dream are drastically stunted. If a city of shoppers has dreams, they are of a collective phantasmagoria of consumption: everybody in fleece, everybody in leather, everybody in full riot gear....
The answer to the apparent puzzle of the liberating force of the shopping mall is that Benjamin analyzes the arcades in the hour of their decay. When Benjamin began the project, the 19th-century arcades had long fallen out of fashion, and their nearly abandoned stores offered only a jumble of the useless and the outmoded. In looking at the city, not as it was but as it had once promised to become, Benjamin makes the familiar strange.
The Russian formalists called this ostranenie, the "making-strange" by which artworks alter our sense of the world. And this is how Benjamin's Arcades Project lets us see our city, as though we are strangers to it; as though its decay has already begun. Benjamin: "In the convulsions of the commodity economy, we begin to recognize the monuments of the bourgeoisie as ruins even before they have crumbled."
[Editor's note: Here, the text of the review breaks off. What follows are fragments.]
"Walter Benjamin committed suicide at the border between France and Spain in 1940." -- David Markson, Reader's Block.
"It is in a small village in the Pyrenees where no one knows me 7that my life will come to a close.... There is not enough time remaining for me to write all the letters I would like to write...." -- Walter Benjamin. A quotation from Benjamin's last letter, written the night of his suicide, included in supplementary material to The Arcades Project.
"But hope appears only in fragmented form. Benjamin overexposes objects for the sake of the hidden contours which one day, in the state of reconciliation, will become evident, but in so doing he reveals the chasm between that day and life as it is. The price of hope is life...." -- Theodor Adorno, "A Portrait of Walter Benjamin."
"In the right condition, as in the Jewish theologoumenon, all things would differ only a little from the way they are; but not even the least can be conceived now as it would be then." -- Theodor Adorno, Negative Dialectics.
Benjamin: "The Hassidim tell a story about the world to come that says everything there will be just as it is here. Just as ours is now, so it will be in the world to come; where our baby sleeps now, there too it will sleep in the other world. And the clothes we wear in this world, those too we will wear there. Everything will be as it is now, just a little different."
In that other world, I imagine, Benjamin's flight across the Pyrenees will be both possible and unnecessary. But his Arcades Project in that world will be as it is here: endless, open, unfinished....