Teeny-Tiny Frilly Fragments


From The Fortnightly Review:

In a world where the whole is beyond coherent representation (as Walter Benjamin believed it to be) we are left with fragments. Fragments and miniaturisations. And the fragmented enigmas of modern experience, as Benjamin knew only too well, can be as beguiling as they are confusing. The commodities in his nineteenth-century study are like so many of the characters in Dickens – voracious, inescapable, grotesque. These latter fascinated Benjamin in many forms: toys, postage stamps, postcards, and those snowshaker glass globes which, we are told, he delighted in agitating and placing reverently in his visitors’ hands. Inside a snowshaker the little buildings and rivers remain motionless, as the snow flurries up into its momentary chaos around them. It is a kind of montage: the discrete sections stay motionless, only the spaces between them permitting movement and speed. And this was the form Benjamin chose for his book One-Way Street. The individual sections are motionless and separate, like placards and advertising hoardings along a city street, but the moving eye travels between them, as though in a tram or a bus or a car. Benjamin was aware of the mimicking here of the effect of movement through a city, and the presentation of the book in its first edition deliberately replicated the effect of urban advertisements superimposing themselves one upon another. The snatches of text one catches while moving through a city arrive like fragments of codes and messages, random splinters of advertising copy, advancing towards you then fading away.

The city itself represented a miniature world. It contained all that might be known. If it was a satisfactory city, then it was also a labyrinth; complicated enough to get lost in, even with the aid of maps. Just as the hoardings jostled their disparate contents one against another, so the streets of different districts offered alternate realities to the city wanderer. Antiquarian bookshops, cinemas, cafés and bars, hotels that doubled as brothels. The city presented itself as a montage. If a text were to convey this reality with any conviction, it had to be a montage too. Apart from a number of essays, reviews and broadcasts, Benjamin’s writings for the last decade of his life were all in the form of montage, and the biggest montage of all was the Arcades Project, where a whole city and a whole age was being pieced back together painstakingly, as though Baudelaire had re-assembled the rubble, after Haussmann’s redevelopment, and tried to recreate the city of old in his verse. Quotation and montage can present a world without the distortion of a dictatorial (and retrospective) authorial voice.

Some cities are more montaged than others. After the Great Fire of 1666, Christopher Wren wanted to rebuild London in a far more symmetric manner than the city had previously ever grown to be. The Commissioners seemed wary (or were perhaps simply in too much of a hurry to put matters right) and finally said no. So London went from wood to brick, but nevertheless continued to be the higgledy-piggledy agglomeration of streets and buildings which Dickens knew so well, and which the architectural historian Rasmussen was later to call ‘the unique city’. Paris was much more symmetrical, but permitted enough unsupervised spaces inside itself for the chaotic to be housed, fed, bedded and pleasured. In the modern city, Benjamin observed the decay of experience. But the city photographed by Atget survived, for a while anyway. Benjamin obsessed over Atget’s images, which he reckoned had drained away the auratic entirely, and produced something different in its place. What? A democracy of displacement, scattered through a thousand images? Or a collage of profane illuminations, perhaps. Atget’s Paris is a crinkle-crankle progression of splendid disparities, a maze of surprises and discontinuities. Classical nude statues along a leafy avenue are followed by the young harlot advertising herself in, of all places, Versailles. Such an urban montage can contain contradiction without falling down. It does not describe or explain; it simply presents.

The arcade that so beguiled Benjamin when he read about it in Aragon’s Paysan de Paris was about to be demolished as the book was published. In this it is like the Paris celebrated by Baudelaire in ‘Le Cygne’: that too was falling before the poet’s eye, as the city reconstructed itself as a new home and shrine of the commodity and the political power that guarded it. Arcades made way for department stores. And the international exhibitions managed to combine the function of department store and museum. The commodity had at last found itself displayed inside its own cathedrals. If, as Benjamin argued, the arcade was a temple of commodity capitalism, then in the great exhibitions the world of commodities was presented as mass entertainment and mass spectacle. They were like giant religious ceremonies whose sole object of veneration was the commodity itself. Who could resist?

“Walter Benjamin and the City”, Alan Wall, The Fortnightly Review

Image by Garry Knight via Flickr (cc).