UC Irvine

Alexander Gelley

Director's Letter

Dear Colleagues,

I hope that this seminar will bring together scholars representing a variety of approaches and disciplines. While Benjamin's writings have already given rise to a large body of interpretation, they continue to fascinate and attract readers for many and varied reasons. Some acquaintance with his writings will, of course, be useful, but I want especially to invite individuals who have been occupied with the issues that preoccupied him, to whatever extent they may be acquainted with his writings.

The point of departure for the seminar will be The  Arcades Project (1983, English: 1999), a project that Benjamin worked on from 1927 until his death in 1940. The arcades of the title (Passagen in the German) refers to glass-roofed enclosures which began to appear in the mid-nineteenth century and served to house multiple stores and other commercial establishments, much like present-day malls. As a localized form of exposition space for commodities and material artifacts (the world exhibits that began in this period are a parallel phenomenon), the arcades represented a germinating environment for the growing urban population. Arcades constitute a synecdoche for the cultural-historical goal of Benjamin’s object of study. Paris assumes a world structuring or cosmological function as is indicated by the alternative title that he gave the projected work: Paris, Capital of the Nineteenth Century. The book that Benjamin envisaged was, of course, never written. What we possess is a collection of notes, citations, and commentary--over 800 pages in the English edition--that Benjamin had organized in some 36 folders, each labeled with a topic name.

While this archive is often treated in the context of what may be called "the aesthetics of the city," it deals with issues that go well beyond that, including the evolution of commodity practices from the mid-nineteenth century, the reception of technology, the mutation of forms of art, and the dissemination of information. As one looks closely at Benjamin’s writings it becomes clear that The Arcades Project cannot be viewed in isolation but evolved in close interplay with other writings of his later period, such as the essays “Surrealism,”, “Eduard Fuchs, Collector and Historian,” “Short History of Photography,” “Portrait of Proust,” “Franz Kafka,” “The Work of Art in the Age of its Technical Reproducibility,” “Some Motifs in Baudelaire,” and “On the Concept of History.”

At the level of social commentary Benjamin extended Marx’s idea of commodity fetishism to issues of retail practices, fashion, and display. For Marx commodity fetishism was an aspect of the mystification, the pervasive self-deception, of bourgeois society. The tendency of subsequent analyses--in Georg Simmel, Georg Lukács, and then Benjamin--was to treat it as a constitutive category of modernity and a preeminent indicator of new signifying practices. Lukács's elaboration of the idea of reification in History and Class Consciousness (1923) shifted the focus from economics to the sphere of experience and consciousness. What Lukács identified as the deadening imprint of the commodity system onto the collective consciousness became for Benjamin a point of departure for disclosing elements of this system as they are embedded at every level of the social complex, extending to the most diverse forms of social practices and artistic formations. The labels that Benjamin provided for the folders of The Arcades Project provide a differentiated, highly specific approach to questions of production and the circulation of wealth. And he singled out a number of characteristic types--collector, dandy, flâneur, prostitute--to illustrate the social fabric as it emerged in the nineteenth century.

Benjamin’s challenge to the moral-pedagogic premises of traditional aesthetics involved a critique of the “auratic” premises of high art— notably, its ties to ritual and class models— and a reorientation of aesthetic analysis to the perceptual and experiential potential of the social collective. He posited this collective not as an existent audience but by way of a projection of consumption practices and media technologies that were undergoing profound changes in his lifetime. At the same time, he sought throughout his career – from One-Way Street (1926) to “On the Concept of History” (1940) --  to fashion a type of writing that would have the power to intervene in a historical juncture. While he generally eschewed direct commentary on political matters, his conception of criticism was focused on the confluence of forces in a historical moment, and to activate that moment, to incite its transformative potential. Convinced as he was of the hollowness of the history of ideas, Benjamin posited hidden patterns, what he called “constellations,” that cannot be accommodated to causal analysis but manifest moments of maximal intensity. The goal of the critical thinker was to be both diagnostic and enabling.

Benjamin’s reputation has been singularly colored by a legendary “afterlife.” Admittedly, the “legend” of a writer should not supersede the interpretation of the works, but neither may it be ignored in evaluating their historical impact. It represents an indispensable index of cultural-political currents at a given moment. Thus this seminar will consider not only Benjamin’s writings in his later period (1927-1940) but also their reputation and impact following Benjamin's posthumous revival beginning in the 1960’s.