Walter Benjamin and the Antinomies of Tradition

By John McCole | Go to book overview

Chapter Seven
The Antinomies of Tradition: Historical
Rhythms in Benjamin's Late Works

1. "Paris, Capital of the Nineteenth Century"

In 1934, Benjamin resumed work on the "Arcades" project he had put aside in 1929. He now expanded the planned article into a full-scale undertaking that became the master matrix for his work until his death in 1940. As his letters explain, he understood virtually all his major projects of the 1930s as pieces broken out of it. " ' Paris Arcades' ... to tell the truth it is the theater of all my battles and all my ideas": these words, already addressed to Scholem in 1930, proved to have an unhappily prophetic value (B 506). The Benjamin who began gathering citations in the Bibliothèque Nationale was an exile who had lost his political theater of operations with the demise of the Weimar Republic. From now on, Paris would be both his new base of operations and an object of historical exploration.

With the "Arcades" project Benjamin shifted his focus from literary history and criticism to the larger field of social and cultural history. His models for understanding those larger processes drew on concepts derived from his literary studies, and one of the themes that continued to fascinate him was the effect of capitalist industry and urbanization on inherited cultural forms. But he also began to range more freely onto a broader terrain of social experience. He assembled his copious notes in bundles whose headings range from the material culture of the nineteenth century (arcades, fashion, iron construction, interiors, railroads, panoramas, photography, world exposition halls) to forms of experience (boredom, collecting, flanerie, prostitution, gambling), individual writers and artists ( Baudelaire, Grandville, Fourier, Marx, Blanqui, Saint-Simon), and constructive principles (epistemological notes, critiques of historicism and the idea of progress, observations on

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