- Interview by
- Owen Hatherley
Arcades Materials is a series of three pamphlets inspired by the German-Jewish Marxist philosopher Walter Benjamin’s unfinished Arcades Project, a mammoth work centred on the shopping arcades of 19th century Paris. Like the book, the pamphlets, edited by researcher Sam Dolbear and regular Tribune contributor Hannah Proctor deal with subjects including the Paris Commune, fashion, dust, pet tortoises, sex work, crystal palaces, compass cases, ecological disaster, trains and plants. Culture editor Owen Hatherley talked to them about the pamphlets, and how they feature a small contribution from the leader of the opposition.
(Arcades Materials pamphlets are available to buy here.)
A lot of Tribune readers might have only the vaguest ideas of what The Arcades Project was. Could you (briefly!) explain why it has such importance for you both, and why you decided to publish these three pamphlets around it?
In 1927 Walter Benjamin began taking notes for an essay under the title ‘Paris Arcades: A Dialectical Fairyland’. As he amassed materials, the project soon became unwieldy; his note cards and papers piled up & he began arranging his sheaves of papers into ‘Convolutes’ on various themes, episodes and figures: from ‘Fashion’ to ‘Barricade Fighting’ to ‘Idleness’. The project was never finished. After Benjamin fled Nazi occupied Paris in 1940, Georges Batailles hid the uncompleted manuscript in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris. Bundles of fragmentary citations, images and reflections were later gathered together, edited and published posthumously as The Arcades Project – the resulting book (which wasn’t available in English until 1999) remains unsynthesised, labyrinthine, contradictory, open-ended.
When we wrote the original call for contributions we sought written and visual responses to The Arcades Project that would magnify overlooked fragments, reshuffle material to create new constellations, highlight absences, excavate forgotten figures and movements, and explore marginalised and muted histories, colliding with the present moment ‘to ignite’, as Benjamin says, ‘the explosive materials that are latent in what has been’. We didn’t want to publish something ‘about’ The Arcades Project, or even ‘about’ Benjamin, so much as expose the fragments in the work to further interrogation and elaboration.
We were interested in extending The Arcades Project not only laterally but also forwards, bringing it into the present, into new contexts. There are discussions, for example, of contemporary plant sciences (by Esther Leslie), of life in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria (explored in one of the pamphlets by the writers Bruno Ferrer-Higueras and Noé J. García who are based in Puerto Rico), and of wandering around Paris today.
Could you describe why you felt the need to, in Benjamin’s words break with ‘the pretentious gesture of the book’ in these pamphlets – what appeals to you about pamphlets specifically?
The idea of the pamphlet emerged, at least for me, through a desire to experiment with the form of publication: which was also massively down to the work of Sophie Carapetian, who drew sensitively on a history of radical pamphlet design in determining the size, shape and form of the designs – both the insides and the covers, which she designed with Lucy Killoran. Though what we eventually produced (totally ironically!) became books, we still held onto this word as a shorthand for another form or mode of publication: that they would be experimental, perhaps strange; objects in their own right; that they would be anti-academic, anti-canonical, and easily and quickly distributed without the commercial demands of a publisher or agent or distributor, which we never had. For Benjamin, it was the book, perhaps more specifically the novel, that was a stale form, reflective of a bourgeois culture of isolated consumption. The pamphlet, like the placard or the radio show, might be more punchy and reach people in different ways.
Yeah, I suppose we were thinking of them almost as the kinds of ephemeral publications that activist groups or even bands might have self-produced and distributed rather than as scholarly objects for posterity. You read about people in the sixties first encountering Benjamin’s work in militant publications rather than on university syllabi or in art magazines but obviously there’s a kind of – possibly suspect – nostalgia at work in wanting to recapture that so maybe we were being pretentious after all but thankfully Benjamin’s work is all about dialectics so we can blame these contradictions on that!
You’re very critical of the ‘Benjamin Industry’. What are the hallmarks of this, and what would you put in its place?
I think for me this meant two quite different things. On the one hand, it was a reaction to the sense that certain essays or concepts or lines from Benjamin’s work have become so familiar in certain – admittedly narrow and rarified – contexts that they lose something of their incendiary quality. So something like the ‘angel of history’ who appears at the end of the theses ‘On the Concept of History’ – even though it’s all about wreckage and catastrophe and is also extremely difficult to understand, the familiarity of the image can make it seem a bit like the dust-covered furniture Benjamin talks about in The Arcades Project (and I’m directing this observation at my own writing as much as anyone else’s).
In terms of The Arcades Project itself this eyes-glazing-over sensation would maybe apply to something like the figure of the flâneur (associated with Benjamin’s discussions of Charles Baudelaire) who seems to have become the kind of tired cliché some posh man who calls himself a dandy, wears a vintage waistcoat and has an old orange Penguin classic book poking ostentatiously out of his pocket might mention in his Tinder profile. But obviously Benjamin wasn’t just saying ‘behold modernity! how interesting to be a bourgeois man wandering around the city gazing at commodities and women!’ We were attempting to find ways of talking about The Arcades Project that avoided these kinds of tropes and emphasised different things instead – like barricades or conspiracies or trains or shells or dreams.
On the other hand, however, the pamphlets were also a reaction against expertise and a particular kind of academic approach to Benjamin that sometimes seems to evacuate his work of both its playfulness and its political urgency. There are all these people (mostly men) who give incredibly detailed and systematic philosophical or philological papers on Benjamin at academic conferences. I’m sure some of that stuff is very good if you happen to be in that world but to me it often seemed to miss something of the tenor of Benjamin’s work, divesting it of its weirdness or treating the weirdness as something to decode or the gaps as things to fill in. I like that his work is sometimes just really really strange and wanted to do something that tried to capture something of that, which is also why the pieces aren’t only essays but also include poems and images and other things.
Yeah, I agree with all this. It’s also about keeping to Benjamin’s own complicated and contradictory method, which warned against the historian as a chronicler who just piles up more and more documents into “homogeneous empty time” without seeking to bring about a rupture, whether of a messianic or political kind, or the philosopher who remains committed to the tied up a system. As Benjamin accrued more and more notes in the library, he also did so through a process of fragmentation – a process of pulling material apart in order to construct it anew. This is partly about constructing the new from the marginal elements of the city and of the past, as they accumulated outside and also on his desk. There’s obviously a contradiction in decrying the Benjamin industry whilst adding to it (!) but we hoped to continue Benjamin’s heretical work through a particular mode of history writing.
A lot of the texts in the pamphlets either obliquely or polemically stress Benjamin’s interest in things the left has often been very scornful about, such as fashion and advertising – the Arcades are basically proto-shopping malls after all. What made Benjamin’s approach to these distinctive?
Benjamin’s arcades are stacked with seductively glittering and gleaming commodities through which people stroll leisurely with their pet tortoises and dripping umbrellas. His bourgeois interiors are hung with plush curtains inhabited by women with long trains on their chiffon dresses and men with pocket watches. But reading The Arcades Project is not like going window shopping to gaze longingly at pretty sparkly things. Benjamin is interested in seemingly trivial, often bourgeois or petit bourgeois, objects – “The refuse of history” – for what they reveal about the oppressive society that produced and consumed them and for what they might suggest about its possible transformation. He perceives that commodity fetishism has an erotic aspect but sees the sexual allure of inorganic things as almost necrophilic so everything is always contradictory: capitalism may be sexy but it’s also deathly. He’s not finger-wagging and saying that sparkly things are inherently bad – far from it – he’s saying social relations under capitalism are bad but his analysis of capitalist modernity is not simply about identifying bad things, it’s about recovering elements from the debris of the past that contain, gesture towards or could be harnessed for something else.
Yeah, perhaps this relates to Hannah Arendt’s description of Benjamin as the pearl diver. It’s a nice image but doesn’t really capture why Benjamin was drawn to certain objects.
I wrote an essay for the pamphlets on dust that includes a discussion of his preoccupation with velvet-lined cases for storing objects like glasses, compasses or pens. Obviously most historians of 19th-century Paris probably wouldn’t single such things out for their historical significance and most orthodox Marxists would be scornful of such an approach – why talk about luxurious little compass cases and not about the epic teleological trajectory of class struggle unless you’re just a weird antiquarian?! – but for Benjamin such objects not only recall the bourgeois interior encasing the bourgeois subject but also act as a metonym for the bourgeois subject’s concern with comfort and obsession with leaving an imprint on the world. There was still a revolutionary impetus to this method, however oblique.
There’s a famous line in which he describes his approach to writing history – “to discover the crystal of the total event in the analysis of the small, discrete moment” – and The Arcades Project puts this into practice. He even discusses literal crystals at various points, as well as the Crystal Palace in London. The arguments about fashion in The Arcades Project are also arguments about history and temporality, about novelty and repetition – “the eternal … is far more the ruffle on a dress than some idea” – and what’s trivial about trying to understand a moment in history through an analysis of the everyday habits and materials specific to it?
Benjamin’s obsession with the everyday reflects a desire for its transformation. How does history operate if not through the articles of everyday life, whether fashion or advertising or whatever else? The point is not to see the objects of everyday life merely as objects of ideology and exploitation (no doubt they are!) but also as connected to dream and desire: for this, Benjamin remains anti-moralistic. He wants us to dwell with the opulence and as much as with the defiled objects of the city, with the pearls as much as with the rags.
The pamphlets return frequently to the centrality in the Arcades Project of the ‘long French revolution’, from 1789 to 1871 – and especially the Paris Commune. You bring out a lot of overlooked material in this, from a pamphlet by sex workers documented by Chryssa Marinou, to the career of Auguste Blanqui in Xenia Marinou’s essay. What about this political period in France was so crucial to Benjamin’s conception of the Arcades (other places had Arcades in this period after all, but Benjamin didn’t compose an enormous unfinished book about Cardiff)?
It’s interesting to think that the gap of time separating Benjamin from the history he was writing about was relatively small – the Paris Commune was just over fifty years earlier which is much less long ago than the 1930s, when he was compiling these materials, are to us now. It would be a bit like someone writing about 1968 today. Adrien Lejeune who claimed to be the last surviving Communard died in 1942, two years after Benjamin, so it’s not some distant time that he’s exploring but the recent-ish past.
There’s a mammoth book – Arcades: The History of a Building Type – from 1985 by the amazingly named Johann Friedrich Geist, which tracks the arcades as an architectural form all over the world. Looking through it, it strikes me not only how varied the style of arcades was (and is!), but also how it is a phenomenon found not only in the metropolis, but also in the provinces. I grew up near Buxton in Derbyshire and there were arcades there: left behind in the same way that Benjamin’s Parisian ones were. They felt different to other spaces in the town: a suspended atmosphere, aquariums of floating objects and muffled sounds. No doubt there’s a temptation to apply or re-write The Arcades Project to other places. I have tried to do something similar with Glasgow and Lisbon in the past. Kenny Goldsmith did it for NYC. I saw online that some people were organising a festival in the Cardiff arcades soon. It’s seductive, but Paris remains significant for Benjamin for a reason.
Yes, Benjamin was specifically interested in Paris of the Second Empire, the period of the reign of Emperor Napoleon III between 1852 and 1872 (so also the period between the revolutions of 1848 and the Paris Commune). This was a time when the population of Paris grew very rapidly; the time when the city was dramatically transformed by Baron Haussmann’s boulevards. He was asking if the bourgeoisie would ever awaken from its dreamy life of velvet and dust and drizzle and gas lights to participate in collectively transforming the world. So his emphasis is often less on moments of militancy like the Paris Commune than it is on the stultified period that preceded it.
In a 2003 essay ‘Should Benjamin Have Read Marx?’ – which, given The Arcades Project contains pages and pages of direct quotations from the works of Marx and Engels, is a deliberately provocative title – art historian TJ Clark points out just how idiosyncratic and partial Benjamin’s version of 19th-century Parisian history is (betraying his own subjective proclivities in the process): very little on Saint Simonianism, not much conveying the ‘inconsolable’ qualities of the proletariat, so many poets but hardly anything about painting, nothing on Impressionism, very little on science or medicine, too many interiors at the expense of the outside world, “all dream and no spectacle”. An engagement with France’s colonial history and the relationship between the metropole and the colonies is another major oversight on Benjamin’s part.
Clark’s statement that “The Arcades Project is not a book to be read deferentially” is very much what we were aiming for with the pamphlets, which is why we were interested in including pieces that magnified things Benjamin mentions only in passing or brought in things he didn’t talk about at all. Chryssa Marinou’s essay, for example, analyses a petition written by Parisian sex workers that Benjamin mentions in The Arcades Project but does not discuss at length. Rather than simply talking about Benjamin’s own sometimes problematic discussions of sex work and the figure of the Parisian sex worker (about which a lot has already been written), she situates the document in relation to struggles around sex work and its policing taking place in the city, drawing out sex workers’ connections to other Parisian workers, mostly with members of the lumpen proletariat, like grocers and lemonade sellers. One of my favourite pieces, written by the people who translated The Arcades Project into Norwegian, is about August Strindberg – drawing out thematic connections with a figure who isn’t a major one in Benjamin’s own materials but with whose work there are many resonances.
Arcades – Red centres on Benjamin’s ideas about time, and his criticism of the ideas of ‘progress’ held by the Second International. It includes texts on this by Benjamin Noys and Bolivar Echeverria that relate this fairly explicitly to climate change; as Esther Leslie points out he also had some deeply unusual and interesting ideas on nature. Do you think there’s a way of reading Benjamin as an ecosocialist thinker?
Ecosocialism isn’t especially associated with Benjamin, but his work might offer some lessons. In his theses ‘On the Concept of History’ (1940), one of the final things he wrote before his death, he argues that the fascists had been successful in the creation of a state of emergency, but goes onto to call for one, on our terms – anti-fascist, communist of sorts. Here I think of the climate crisis, our emergency is one of total catastrophe, but it is also about new forms of emergency. For Benjamin, this requires a critical relation to nature: one that doesn’t understand nature as something pure, pre-existing and distant – that would be the fascist sentiment – but also something that has a violent relation to modernity’s conception of ‘progress’. This is something Ben Noys explores through the image of the train in his piece in the pamphlets. Benjamin thinks technological advancement is possible and that it could be positive, but that it’s currently tied to militarism and violence and exploitation of various kinds. With movements of climate justice reviving, I would be interested to see if any relations develop with the Frankfurt School. From my experience, lots of activism around Climate Camp in the late 2000s, engaged more with French philosophical currents, the work of, say, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari…
Maybe what a conception of nature drawing on works by people associated with the Frankfurt School helps to articulate is the idea that nature is always historical – that it’s not some previous state that was corrupted and can be returned to. These thinkers also often pointed out the ways far-right discourses appeal to ‘nature’, to a fantasy of the natural as some prior state of perfection and purity, in deeply ideological ways – in discussions of race and gender and the nation, for example. And acknowledging the historicity of the natural world also connects ecological movements with other social movements, because climate change will only exacerbate existing historically produced structural inequalities in the world.
Finally, there is a photographic contribution in Arcades – Yellow by the Leader of the Opposition. We know that he’s read Ulysses, that other famously daunting and labyrinthine modernist account of urbanism, sex, mythology, politics and media, but has Jeremy Corbyn read The Arcades Project?
We are yet to find out if he’s read Benjamin! I’m so keen to get his copy to him, wondering if we might get a picture of him clutching it. His contribution all came about through a sudden thought after a theme developed around the various layers of the city: from the sewers and the catacombs to the street and the cosmos. Our friend Andrew Witt, who contributed images of rag clogged drains in Paris to the pamphlets, had also collected pictures of coal lids in London after reading of Corbyn’s similar collection of electricity grids in an article, perhaps in the Daily Mail. I asked a friend’s mum who knows Corbyn and she kindly asked him about it. He sent back a picture from his iPhone early one morning, his shoes poking into the elongated frame, and we were so happy to include it.
The way Corbyn described reading Ulysses – dipping in without worrying too much about understanding every single word – would really suit reading The Arcades Project too. And unlike those ridiculous people who sneered at Corbyn for saying he liked something as notoriously ‘difficult’ as Ulysses, our approach to Benjamin also assumes anyone can read his work and that there’s no ‘correct’ way to do so.