Walter Benjamin, the Flaneur, and the Confetti of History

Article excerpt

Among those who love cities, who could fail to admire Walter Benjamin, that protean philosopher of urbanism, that poet of the sidewalk? In 1927 he began to study the workings of Paris from 1830 to 1870, when it was the capital of the nineteenth century and its entrepreneurs were inventing consumer capitalism. He focused on the shopping arcades, and to learn how they functioned he examined everything from newspaper advertising to Charles Baudelaire's poetry. In his own way, at once casual and brilliant, he made himself at home in that era and made it the subject of his great ambition.

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AS HE SAW IT, the arcades, the ancestors of our shopping malls, existed as a city unto themselves, "a world in miniature." Physically, they were corridors with glass roofs and marble panelling, extending through entire blocks of buildings, where well-to-do Paris expressed its taste in the luxurious shops lining both sides of the corridors. Imaginatively they were much more. They were the generator of dreams, the place where society's ideas about excellence, charm, and style were formulated and spread. They were to their time what magazines like Vogue, GQ, and Vanity Fair are to ours.

Those carefully arranged spaces became "the theatre of all my struggles," Benjamin wrote. Here he would examine and judge even the most commonplace objects and ideas, revealing the true nature of their time and place. He dreamt of writing a new kind of history, liberating the past from the burden of standard narrative and instead presenting a crucial period through a careful collection of facts, ideas, images, minutiae, and esoterica. He wanted to add montage to the tools of the historian, "to assemble large-scale constructions out of the smallest and most precisely cut components. Indeed, to discover in the analysis of the small individual moment the crystal of the total event."

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His friend Theodor Adorno, looking at the early drafts of the work he was doing, predicted in 1935 that the book would be one of the great philosophical achievements of the period. But in 1940, when Benjamin committed suicide in the Spanish Pyrenees because he feared he was about to fall into the hands of the Nazis, the project was far from complete. He had given years of his life to it, had filled thirty notebooks, but had never formulated the ideas that might have pulled it together.

Those ideas would naturally have been critical. Certainly they would have shown no friendliness toward the merchants and property developers who built the arcades. Benjamin was never a thoroughgoing Marxist, and certainly no great student of Marx's writings, but he was Marxist enough to distrust the very idea of organized retail business, secure in his belief (and the belief of most people he knew) that buying and selling could lead nowhere but to exploitation and imperialism. He was in certain ways the most accomplished German intellectual of his day, but he nevertheless suffered from the blindness that routinely afflicts intellectuals.

Exposing the dreams of the bourgeoisie, he never understood that he, too, was living in a dream, the Marxist dream of a society that, against all the odds, would be at once adventurous, free, honest, and egalitarian. He did his best to awaken humanity to the empty rapture of consumerism; but there was no one to awaken Benjamin.

Nor did he understand how shopping, and places where shops cluster, can help create a sense of community. The spirit of commerce, which animates so much of mankind, was alien to him. Today it's a commonplace that even the coldest and most forbidding institutions immediately become more approachable when a retail element is added. Consider, for instance, all the hospitals designed or renovated by Eberhard Zeidler, the Toronto architect, who has been heavily influenced by the ideas of the late Jane Jacobs. In his hands boring, empty spaces become busy, shared spaces through the introduction of retail atria. …