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Walter Benjamin and the City.

[No. 10 in a Series.]


MODERNITY FINDS ITS FORM in cities. The implication of this is that modern experience takes place inside an urban space. Despite certain exceptions – those rural scenes that help get Cubism started at L’Estaque, or much of the work of Cézanne as he stared daily at Mont Sainte Victoire – the urban texture of modernism is hardly a matter for dispute. And experience, as Benjamin understood, is inseparable from memory. Benjamin shaped his own lexicon regarding memory and experience so as to approach the distinctive features of the modern. As we shall see, the keywords of his analysis were: Erfahrung, Erlebnis, and Chockerlebnis. In modernity we find new ways of experiencing and remembering. Which means we also find new ways of forgetting, though how precisely are we meant to remember them? In lyricizing a chance encounter in the crowd of the modern city, Baudelaire was presenting us with one of the exemplary experiences of urban modernity. Every day such spots of time occur, never to be repeated. The randomness is structured into the experience; it is part of its perceptual warp and woof.

The city reconfigures humanity, and re-constellates experience. This was true in Ur or Jericho, and it is true in nineteenth-century Paris.

portrait_logoThe city reconfigures humanity, and re-constellates experience. This was true in Ur or Jericho, and it is true in nineteenth-century Paris. Administrative concentration, an arable and pastoral surplus supplied from the surrounding countryside (though Jericho was founded as a city before agriculture began), trade and conquest with distant lands: all these deliver to the city an unprecedented focus of power and communication. In the great capitals kings rule; courtiers translate their power for the populace; coinage is minted. In the first epic we created, the Uruk of Gilgamesh is presented as fundamentally different from the life of the country. The mighty lord Gilgamesh orders vast stoneworks to be constructed, then withdraws for years inside his palace. He is an early representation of the brooding tyrant, the melancholy ruler, listening to the agents of heaven, those priests and astrologers atop the ziggurat, while issuing commands on earth. Enkidu, by contrast, is a creature entirely of the country. He is hirsute and powerful, and he communicates with animals. But once he has lain with the temple prostitute, and had his body shaved, the animals turn away from him; they will speak to him no more. He has been civilized, a word that points to the city, both geographically and etymologically, and the city stains the country from which it derives its resources, just as the sin of Thebes contaminated the surrounding fields and crops and rendered them sterile in the myth of Oedipus. The kings and palaces and women who bestow sex like a deadly charm make a new constellation of the oldest human realities. The poem can be read as an allegory of the dialectical interplay between country and city. When Gilgamesh finally returns to his palace at the end he has come to understand that, although he is two-parts divine, he is also one-part human. And like Enkidu, he must die. The great metropolis is also a great necropolis. Our first epic, whatever else it might be, is a poem of the city, and its transformative effects. Our history is inseparable from the history of the cities that arise out of it.

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The exemplary figure whom Benjamin centralized in his study was Baudelaire, though he was aware that Dickens was another great portraitist of the nineteenth-century urban experience. For Baudelaire the city was most certainly a great necropolis, effectively a graveyard of the past. Paris was built upon the wreckage of all the cities that had preceded it. It stood on the foundations of its own ruins. As Haussmann bulldozed his way through the old street configurations, so as to render the city safe for executive and political power, by widening the boulevards and lighting the darkness, Baudelaire walked back and forth, often through the night, in a ceaseless act of urban remembrance. The liturgy he recited in this act of profane anamnesis became the shape of his lyric poetry. Hence Benjamin’s titling of him: a lyric poet in the era of high capitalism. Baudelaire’s world is a world of the perpetual present, hence its usual childnessness. All the objects in Baudelaire’s Paris provoke weariness. All expectations appear to be already exhausted. It is the spectre on the street corner that excites him. Occasionally a child does arrive, with his defamiliarizing wonder, as in the opening stanza of ‘Le Voyage’.

If Benjamin had been as obsessed by London as he was by Paris, he would surely have encountered the Sir John Soane Museum in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, and one suspects he would have found it fascinating. Benjamin thought all buildings were inescapably pointing towards their own ruin; all elevations doomed ultimately to be reduced to their original groundplans, fashioned at last from stone rather than parchment. He used the analogy when he thought of literary works. All the subjective intentionality, all the period detail, would finally settle down to the ruin of its own denuded truth. The work was the death mask of its own conception. Sir John Soane in fact envisaged his buildings in ruins, sometimes before they had even been built. Like Jeremiah, he seemed to have the fall of his beloved city constantly before his eyes; it haunted him. He employed Joseph Gandy, an illustrative painter of genius, to depict these anticipated ruins. Over and over again, Gandy painted London in ruins, and those ruins often contained buildings designed by Soane, some of which had been built, some of which never would be. Four gothic corbels are set into the loggia of the exterior of his museum. They are fourteenth century, from Westminster Hall. They jut out symmetrically like announcements of architectural mortality. The Book of Lamentations has found a home, and an architectural expression, in the centre of London.

LIKE THE ARCHAEOLOGIST, the architect is a student of ruins; Soane understood that he was constructing his own in his turn. Although his work appears before the customary dating of modernism, Soane was certainly a proto-modernist. He was modernist in this crucial sense: all the elements in the formal structure of a building should either have a function and display it, or have no function but a decorative one, and own up ostensibly to that fact. Soane also understood that every building, when constructed with enough thought and care, represents the museum of its own motifs. Thus did he shift from pilasters to incised lines. The incised line on the exterior of a building gestures formally towards the classical orders, but makes it clear that the ghost of the orders is now a symmetric decoration, no longer an organizing principle of structure.

One of the functions of language that Roman Jakobson enunciates is the phatic. This is the linguistic gesture of reassurance that our interlocutor is still attending — the way we say ‘Yes, yes’ on the telephone, not in agreement, but merely to register that we are efficiently receiving whatever code and message is being spoken. The equivalent of the phatic in architecture is the miming of previous structural necessities, which have now become mere decorative additions. Adolf Loos thought such decoration a crime. He detested the insouciant historicism of the Ringstrasse in Vienna. He built a shop to the rear of the royal palace, so radically undecorated that the Emperor Franz Josef swore he would never again leave the palace by that entrance, in case his royal sensibilities should be assaulted by this insult to architectural propriety. This was a building without its clothes on. According to Loos, every element of the structure must have a function (hence his adaptation of the term Functionalism) even if it is only as a cultural mnemonic.

The historicist architect might well have replied, by appealing to another of Jakobson’s linguistic functions, namely the poetic. The poetic function foregrounds usage and play. We understand that the words do not have a literal referent. I can stand on stage and shout ‘London is burning!’ and the audience will remain seated, even though our theatre is situated in the centre of London. With the poetic function, it is understood that usage is ludic; we permit ourselves a certain degree of play between signifier, signified and referent. Similarly, the architect can quote a function in his building, without having to employ that function structurally. The guttae and triglyphs of a Greek temple are a vestigial allusion to actual details in the original trabeated wooden structure. By the time the building has become stone, these details left over from the primitive lintel and post have become purely ceremonial. They have transmuted, to use Jakobson’s terminology once more, into aspects of a poetic function. But by the time such details are reproduced on a life insurance company in nineteenth-century London, the poetic functions is surely in danger of becoming merely phatic, just as so many conventions of eighteenth-century poetry (saying Diana or Selene whenever one meant the moon, for example) were poetic functions that had now degenerated into the phatic. Lyrical Ballads was an attempt to divest verse of so many phatic accretions, to find a genuinely poetic function using the actual language of the day.

Symbols carved in the tympanum of the human sensibility were proclamations of what Wittgenstein called ‘a form of life’.

John Soane troubled himself greatly about such matters. He mused how a Roman eagle, in being transported from the Danube to the Euphrates, was perhaps a symbol translated too far. Such symbolic transportations meant that the symbol itself can become amnesiac, forgetting what those feathers actually signified in the fore-time of their begetting, while reproducing them as classic decoration. Soane was obsessed by the symbolism buildings displayed. Symbols carved in the tympanum of the human sensibility were proclamations of what Wittgenstein called ‘a form of life’. Such systems do not necessarily die with the original systems that generated them. Soane was, for example, much preoccupied with snake symbolism. For his own tomb he contrived a stone ouroboros, a snake swallowing its own tail, an ancient emblem of eternity and endless renewal. The present swallows the past, as the future will swallow the present, as the loggia at Lincoln’s Inn Fields contained the corbel stones that could never have imagined such a future for themselves. As an eminent Freemason, Soane knew well enough that old symbols find new life, new meaning, new uses. They resurrect through allegory and interpretation. So Francis Bacon saw in Pan an allegory of Nature; so Freud (a great admirer of Bacon) saw in Oedipus an allegory of murderous infantile desire.

What troubled Soane was not such vivifying acts of translation, but the retention of ancient symbols as mere ballast, part of the architectural heritage when it has become a dead language that will not shut up. What did the Roman eagle mean by the time it arrived north of Hadrian’s Wall? On the other hand, any set of symbols can start to shine brightly once more, should they discover themselves formed into a novel constellation. Let Psyche be intellectual inquiry, however devoted, bringing dangerous light into the dark chamber of love. The hot oil scorches the beloved features, since we often murder to dissect, even erotically. And Psyche is for her punishment sent far below, to obtain from Persephone the secrets of happiness. But this casket turns out to contain something quite different: a dark secret, a sleep so potent no one can ever awaken from it. Now darkness is scattering through the universe, with the same velocity that a supernova scatters light. Perhaps the ancient Greeks were on to black holes before we ever dreamed of them ourselves.

Wunderkammer, Museum, Exposition.

A museum is the prosthetic device of cultural memory…After all, it is the museum that makes the objects inside it historical.

IF ALL CITIES are spaces of concentration, the museum (like the arcade) is a space of concentration within the space of concentration. The loot of imperialism here becomes the object of anthropological scrutiny; the bric-à-brac of Empire awaiting the scholarly gaze. A museum is the prosthetic device of cultural memory. It is distinguished from the Wunderkammer that preceded it by a system of taxonomy. The vitrines and room classifications indicate that the objects collected here do not merely constitute a random pile. Benjamin understood that the taxonomic spaces inside museums are always governed by cultural ideologies. After all, it is the museum that makes the objects inside it historical. In their creation, all the objects simply inhabited the present moment of their making. It is their collocation and classification that makes the interstitial spaces between them historical, diachronic, chronological. So this is never a neutral space. The Wunderkammer is there to display its wonders, the fantastical creations of nature, sometimes of a sinister variety; sometimes these curious makings clearly came from the left hand of God, or Nature during one of her darker dreams. If the Wunderkammer should find itself short of any item, then that can be manufactured by the artisans who occupy the room next door. The post-Enlightenment taxonomy of the museum cannot be seen to do this, since that would constitute a form of intellectual fraud. But no such compunction existed for the owner of the Wunderkammer.

Benjamin was aware that there is a connection between the display of the museum and the display of the international exhibitions and expositions of the nineteenth century. The commodity must exhibit itself somehow; that is after all part of its nature. The cocotte at the entrance to the arcade was pitching one commodity (her body) against those others displayed beneath the gas lighting within. The transcendental homelessness of the arcades was in effect the antithesis of domestic architecture, and the whores in the upper storey, where they sometimes took a room, represented a welcome parody of the family. All commodities pitch themselves against all other commodities; that is the universal market of exchange value which constitutes a capitalist economy. The mighty expositions of the nineteenth century, including the Great Exhibition of 1851, were vast displays of commodities. This, they said, is what we now manufacture and sell. In gazing upon these beloved objects, you are gazing upon your new identity.

In its synchronous display, the museum collapses time into its inner space. We stand before tyrannosaurus rex and forget that we are looking at a reassembly of bones that have never in fact held together in that form for seventy million years. The space of all those years disappears in the collapsed distance between ourselves and the display. So does the space between the places and modes of manufacture disappear in a great exhibition, just as they vanish in an arcade window or a department store extravaganza.

By the time of the Great Exhibition of 1851 industrial speed could now guarantee the prompt delivery of any of the commodities on offer.

BY THE TIME of the Great Exhibition of 1851 industrial speed could now guarantee the prompt delivery of any of the commodities on offer. The railway and the steamship had become the new transporters of commodities across the surface of the earth and the ocean. Turner’s Rain, Steam and Speed of 1844 conveys a swiftness of transport which would have been impossible twenty years before. The previous sailships and canals and horse-drawn carriages would between them not have been able to get anywhere near the velocities now possible for a steam locomotive. Commodities travel faster than ever before; the world is the market through which they speed.

In its accumulation of objects for display, the John Soane Museum is remarkably like the interior of the department store. It appears to stand midway between the Wunderkammer and the modern museum, and was deemed shockingly chaotic by certain observers at the time, precisely for that reason. If apparent incommensurabilities are rendered commensurable by taxonomies in the post-Enlightenment space, then this is not what is happening in the Soane Museum. Here incommensurabilities are rendered commensurable, if at all, primarily by their contextualisation in this space of study and meditation, a space sanctioned only by Soane’s scholarly and architectural gaze. It is what Benjamin called the space of the collector, and it is the collector’s obsessive gaze, and only that, which holds everything together in this charmed circle. Even so, any museum must display assumptions about the structure of knowledge. Without a set of cultural assumptions the inside of a museum can be little more than an epistemological chaos.

When Picasso stood in the Trocadéro in Paris in 1907 he made a kind of sense of what he saw that no one else in Paris was making at the time. The objects scattered before him all had for him the power of fetishes. Their potencies were forms of visual simplification resulting in cultural power. They had been put where they were in the museum for anthropological purposes, but that day he saw their possible artistic use. He adopted the same strategy when he got back to his studio. Simplify, foreground, enshrine. Forget post-Enlightenment causality; this was the causality of magic. Look hard enough and the power will soon be seen to emanate. Imagine a museum room filled with pieces of wood. Some are so tiny they are no more than splinters; others constitute substantial chunks of dead trees. A cultural stranger has to try to make sense of this collection, with no display cards to help. Botanical analysis shows no similarity whatsoever between the variegated arboreal remains. Dendrochronology indicates that the difference in dates of growth covers thousands of years. Without some cultural orienteering our analyst will never be able to establish what all these pieces of wood are doing collected together in this same room: they are in fact all remnants of the true cross as displayed in late medieval places of worship across Europe. Upon them the saviour of the world had been crucified; or so believed the worshippers who gazed with wonder on each one, touching them if possible, for their curative value. On reflection, their commensurability is closer to Picasso’s principle than to that of any botanist.

With Surrealism the museum is turned inside out…Every sacrosanct object is evicted and told it can fend for itself.

With Surrealism the museum is turned inside out. It spews its hallowed goods out into the street and the square. Every sacrosanct object is evicted and told it can fend for itself. Ancient armaments, antique clocks, the statues of gods and goddesses, machines so lost to history that their function has now become impenetrable – all these jostle with one another in the Surrealist city; a city which is often a nocturnal panorama, or even diorama. The Surrealists insisted that the only museum worth visiting inhabited the labyrinth inside us: the unconscious, and the besmeared trottoirs of our all-too-vivid dreams, where the gendarmerie are as demented as the desires they set out to pursue.

To treat a city street as the manifestation or scenario for a dream is to privilege visionary intelligence over empiric reality. Now the most potent aspect of history might also be its most hidden side: its facility for dreaming. Like a vast planet beyond the reach of our telescopes, the presence of this dark oneiric mass might only make itself felt in its effect on other bodies. Like our own, disengaged from the paltry control of our daylight egos.

Stock Exchange, Bourse, Casino.

THE STOCK EXCHANGE in London, and the Bourse in Paris, were, in the nineteenth century, vast gambling houses domiciled in neo-classical buildings. Capital in all its grandeur could speak in a stately Latin here, should it so choose. And if its words might not be understood inside, say, the African continent or the Malay Archipelago, its actions most certainly were. The money could be placed in joint stock companies in either of these places, or in the more recent Stock Exchange in New York, for one reason and one only: to accrue. To swell investment into profit. To make money reproduce itself in its orgy of unlimited fecundity. The Bourse de Bruxelles understood quickly that capital supplies itself with multiple dividends wherever a valuable commodity (like African white ivory) is supplied by a degraded and oppressed native population (like the inhabitants of the Belgian Congo). King Leopold II continued to speak of the civilizing mission of the West. Christianity, as Marx frequently pointed out, was an invaluable prop to schemes of European exploitation and colonization. Travelling back into its cultural past, Europe generated its financial present, and started to dream the phantasmagoria of its future.

In its first use in the letters of Walpole in the eighteenth century, the word casino indicates a space for dancing. It is only in the middle of the nineteenth century that it starts to signify a place dedicated exclusively to gambling. Benjamin noted some curious parallels. For the flâneur strolling through the city, it was space that became the phantasmagoria, but in the casino, time becomes the phantasmagoria – there are no clocks in a casino. Here there is no ‘clocking in’ or ‘clocking off’, both terms that came into use early in the twentieth century, to signify that for worker and capitalist alike, time is money; time itself becomes commodified. The unpredictable fluctuations of the Stock Exchange or the Bourse are mirrored in the winnings and losings of the gambler at the table. And the automatism of the gambler’s movements mimics the automatism of the factory hand, whose rhythms are dictated by the motions of the machinery being tended. The ghost in the machine is that promise of success which is always, to some degree, aleatory. The hidden hand does not indicate in advance which card it will turn over.

Gambling disconnects the present round from what immediately preceded it, or what immediately succeeds it. It frees the present moment from causality. The mise en jeu wagers the present moment, and its infinite burden of possibility, against the oppressive probablilities of both the past and the future. Thus does gambling overcome another urban ephiphenomenon: monumental boredom, the boredom that the flâneur is always walking away from. And prostitution and gambling are linked by the benignity of chance; or at least the dream of its possibility. In Surrealism, André Breton argued, the human spirit rebels against the monumental boredom to which the modern city subjects it.

Commodity and Display.

IF THE COMMODITY is the central object of an industrial capitalist society, then if we could properly understand the logic of this object, we would understand the logic of the world in which it situates itself, the world of which it is the exemplum. This is what Marx sets out to do in the first chapter of Capital: to understand the language which the commodity utters, even though it is a language of bafflement, alienation and self-concealment. Meaning itself has become commodified, given the dislocation of exchange value and use value. With the universal currency of exchange value, the commodity starts to be like the photographs of Cindy Sherman: the subject changes utterly according to the mode of its representation. A medieval altarpiece becomes a commodity in a Manhattan art gallery, and its ritual function is displaced by an aesthetic, even a recreational, one. The fracture of signifier and signified at the moment of the Fall in the Edenic paradise is re-enacted every day as industrial capitalism spews forth its commodities. In such a context the body itself becomes a commodity. Sex under the aegis of prostitution translates the human physique into the market, in parallel to the way a waxworks translates humanity to wax, for purposes of necrophiliac display.

In his book on his friendship with Benjamin,1 Scholem says that his friend dragged him off to see Madame Tussaud’s in Paris. He was misremembering here. The place Benjamin took him to must presumably have been Madame Grevin’s, a display also of great fascination for André Breton. Waxwork displays are like Surrealism avant la lettre. Certain Surrealist paintings employ verisimilitude to present the object convincingly, according to long-established realist protocols. It is then juxtaposition that produces the frisson of shock. In the painter Paul Delvaux’s ville inquiète the naked women are only feet away from the tramlines. And the same effect can be observed in the waxworks, which is to say: verisimilitude double-crossed by juxtaposition. A large enough collocation of such figures starts to become allegorical, which is to say – in Benjamin’s terms – it becomes, epistemologically, a ruin. Allegory here is configured meaning from which the experience has already been drained. In this it is similar to Eugène Atget’s photos of Paris. In a world of commodity fetishism, all the makings that surround us seem to have been constructed by aliens. If there are any vestiges of experience left in them, then they do not appear to be ours. The Surrealists were obsessed with dolls, fetishes of our own desire, alienated from us into a lurid objectivity. Benjamin also collected them.

Baudelaire displayed the shrewdness of genius when he noticed the crossover between the Parisian rag-picker and himself. They even sometimes kept the same hours.

There are no flâneurs in a Neolithic village, and interestingly there would have been none in Le Corbusier’s cité radieuse either. Had the plan for Paris which he and Pierre Jeanneret concocted between 1922 and 1925 ever been built, then whatever other human specimens one might have spotted crossing the trimmed greensward beyond the piloti, the flâneur would surely not have been amongst them. This form of self-regarding stroller needs a crowd to offset the distinctiveness of his own solitary figure, and sizeable plate-glass windows in which he might catch a glimpse of his dandified profile. He represents a form of cultural surplus inside the urban density. His function is to renounce function, in any received social sense. He is, in human terms, detritus. And Baudelaire displayed the shrewdness of genius when he noticed the crossover between the Parisian rag-picker and himself. They even sometimes kept the same hours. Flânerie is not a means of seeking out experience so much as a means of parrying the ceaseless stimuli of the city, and avoiding boredom. The commodities seem endless in their volume and variety, and so are the experiential encounters in the city that houses them. And here we come to Benjamin’s distinctions between types of experience and the types of memory to which each one is married.

In a city, ‘interruption is the norm. Experiences and observations do not accrue in continuity; they assault the sensibility in an array of discontinuities.’

In his essay ‘The Storyteller’,2 Benjamin describes how a collective wisdom, an accrued social sensibility, can articulate itself through the conduit of a storyteller. This experience is of the sort he called Erfahrung. It is uninterruputed and cohesive, the narrative a summation of undoubtedly veracious observations. We might find such a phenomenon in a traditional village. But then we come to the big modern city. Here interruption is the norm. Experiences and observations do not accrue in continuity; they assault the sensibility in an array of discontinuities. We are presented not with a slowly swelling narrative, but with a speedy montage. How is the mind to deal with this? It must bypass Erfahrung, and instead adopt Erlebnis, a form of experience, which is shallower, more tactical than strategic, learning how to encounter a myriad stimuli, register them briefly, and then dispose of them, so as to avoid experiential congestion. The shock value of this continual bombardment becomes a structural feature of contemporary experience, and Benjamin sought to convey this by his employment of the Franco-German neologism, Chockerlebnis. He sees it as part of Baudelaire’s peculiar achievement to have confronted this modern response of the psyche, this urban shallowing-out and speeding-up, and to have made distinctive lyric poetry out of it. It is the contingency of life in the city that Baudelaire understands to be his true subject. Experiences which, by their fleetingness, resist memorialization, are what he memorializes in lyrics of great formality and control. The sensibility of shock has found its memorialist.

There is a linkage here with Freud. Benjamin at times noted (though never systematically) similarities between his own perceptions and those of the Viennese analyst. Freud came to believe that certain forms of modern experience (in cities, on the battlefield) were a way of avoiding psychic trauma. If we can experience events efficiently and then dispose of them, we do not have to receive traces in the least conscious parts of ourselves, of a sort which will cause trouble later. The reliving of traumas from the Great War in dreams and neuroses he came to believe was a way of compensating for the unpreparedness of the psychic apparatus, and the shocks that had been delivered to it. This was a form of compensation in reverse. What Benjamin called Erlebnis was a way of experiencing the hammerblows of modern discontinuity so as to provide a means of dispersing their shock potential. Thus does modern experience turn into a kind of experience-disposal unit; thus does the modern sensibility void itself of meaningful content and therefore potential trauma. If the crippled soldiers in post-war Vienna had been more practised in Erlebnis, while battling on the Eastern Front, they might not have been in such need of Freud’s attentions.

The City as Miniature World.

IN A WORLD where the whole is beyond coherent representation (as 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.

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? Ruskin certainly could, and was happy to stay away from the Great Exhibition of 1851, unlike Queen Victoria, who is reported to have arrived for a further inspection every other day. It is a curiosity worthy of remark that, although the contents of the exhibition are festooned with over-elaborated and historicized ornamention, hardly a vase to be seen without its outgrowth of rococo curlicues, the building itself was a leap towards the modernist style. Joseph Paxton’s building of iron and glass, a building that arrived in prefabricated units, won the admiration of Le Corbusier when he saw it after its translation to Sydenham. It was symmetric, brave in its employment of new materials, and splendidly functional. The most compelling objects inside, as a glance at the Illustrated Catalogue makes clear, were the products of Wedgwood at Etruria. They had borrowed their cleanliness of line from antiquity, as Picasso had realised he might do that day in 1907 inside the Trocadéro.

It is impossible to draw an isometric section of modernity, because it will not stop moving long enough for the measurements to be made. Instead of holistic representation, we are now obliged to console ourselves with fragments.

To make a map is to miniaturize the world, just as an orrery miniaturises the solar system, or a snowshaker miniaturizes a landscape. Benjamin made them throughout his life, and studied the maps of many cities with assiduity. A street map is the diagram of a miniaturised world, and also the key to a labyrinth. A metropolis, as Dickens understood, is also the asylum of criminals. It is, as Baudelaire constantly noted, the scenario for encounters so exotic and random that they can only take place in the concentrated urban landscapes of modernity. In the modern city, Benjamin observed the decay of experience. Here, experience shallowed out and speeded up. Erfahrung gave way more and more to Erlebnis, and even to Chockerlebnis. Continuities were fractured. Holistic representation shattered into montage, a kaleidoscope of impressions hammering away at the sensorium. It is impossible to draw an isometric section of modernity, because it will not stop moving long enough for the measurements to be made. Instead of holistic representation, we are now obliged to console ourselves with fragments. Out of our discrete, fleeting experiences we attempt to construct a whole that is elusive and diagrammatic rather than three-dimensional and stable. As though we had found the single fossil bone of an extinct creature, and must now try to reconstruct the whole animal out of one tantalizing clue. Like the four corbel stones set into the loggia of the Sir John Soane Museum; we are constantly confronted with the emblems of ruin.

Alan Wall was born in Bradford, studied English at Oxford, and lives in North Wales. He has published six novels and three collections of poetry, including Doctor Placebo. Jacob, a book written in verse and prose, was shortlisted for the Hawthornden Prize. His work has been translated into ten languages. He has published essays and reviews in many different periodicals including the Guardian, Spectator, The Times, Jewish Quarterly, Leonardo, PN Review, London Magazine, The Reader and Agenda. He was Royal Literary Fund Fellow in Writing at Warwick University and Liverpool John Moores and is currently Professor of Writing and Literature at the University of Chester and a contributing editor of The Fortnightly Review. His book Endtimes was published by Shearsman Books in 2013, and the following year, Badmouth, a novel, was published by Harbour Books and a collection of his Fortnightly Review essays was published by Odd Volumes. A second collection of his Fortnightly essays, a series of reflections on Walter Benjamin, was published in 2018.


  1. Walter Benjamin: The Story of a Friendship.
  2. In The Storyteller: Tales out of Loneliness.

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