"To great writers," Walter Benjamin once wrote, "finished works weigh lighter than those fragments on which they labor their entire lives." Conceived in Paris in 1927 and still in progress when Benjamin fled the Occupation in 1940, The Arcades Project (in German, Das Passagen-Werk) is a monumental ruin, meticulously constructed over the course of thirteen years--"the theater," as Benjamin called it, "of all my struggles and all my ideas."
Focusing on the arcades of nineteenth-century Paris-glass-roofed rows of shops that were early centers of consumerism--Benjamin presents a montage of quotations from, and reflections on, hundreds of published sources, arranging them in thirty-six categories with descriptive rubrics such as "Fashion," "Boredom," "Dream City," "Photography," "Catacombs," "Advertising," "Prostitution," "Baudelaire," and "Theory of Progress." His central preoccupation is what he calls the commodification of things--a process in which he locates the decisive shift to the modern age.
The Arcades Project is Benjamin's effort to represent and to critique the bourgeois experience of nineteenth-century history, and, in so doing, to liberate the suppressed "true history" that underlay the ideological mask. In the bustling, cluttered arcades, street and interior merge and historical time is broken up into kaleidoscopic distractions and displays of ephemera. Here, at a distance from what is normally meant by "progress," Benjamin finds the lost time(s) embedded in the spaces of things.
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Some of us don't read fiction. We live on history, biography, criticism, reporting and what used to be called belles-lettres. We will be feasting on Walter Benjamin's Arcades Project for years to come. Just published in its first full English edition, The Arcades Project should also win readers with broader tastes. By any standard, the appearance of this long-awaited work is a towering literary event. A sprawling, fragmented meditation on the ethos of 19th-century Paris, The Arcades Project was left incomplete on Benjamin's death in 1940. In recent decades, as portions of the book have appeared in English, the unfinished opus has acquired legendary status. The Arcades Project surpasses its legend. It captures the relationship between a writer and a city in a form as richly developed as those presented in the great cosmopolitan novels of Proust, Joyce, Musil and Isherwood. Those who fall under Benjamin's spell may find themselves less willing to suspend their disbelief in fiction. The city will offer sufficient fantasy to meet most needs.--Herbert Muschamp "New York Times "
The Arcades Project was a legend before it became a book...This large volume reproduces every relevant scrap in the Benjamin archives, reprinting, verbatim, every entry in the more than 30 notebooks that Benjamin had meticulously maintained to organize his observations and pertinent passages from books pertaining to a variety of different topics and themes, from 'Fashion' and 'Boredom' to 'Barricade Fighting' and 'the Seine.'--James Miller "New York Times Book Review "
[Benjamin's] style of writing has a narcotic effect that soon envelops the reader in Parisian ambiance. Picking up The Arcades Project is like visiting a ghostly city. One becomes familiar with its thematic streets and alleys, its peculiar cultural constructs, its architecture, and its literatures...The Arcades Project is indeed a sort of magic encyclopedia, freeing its subject from traditional historical and literary interpretations and re-inventing it as a living, breathing picture. It is a maze of small revelations, its pages as seductive and confused as the streets, dreams, and arcades of Paris.--Jason Cons "Boston Book Review "
A painstaking act of literary reconstruction has fleshed out Walter Benjamin's lost masterpiece...We may consider here Benjamin's wonderful remark that 'knowledge comes only in lightning flashes. The text is the long roll of thunder that follows.' The Arcades Project is the reverberation of that thunder in a thousand different directions...This posthumous volume suggests that, in its incomplete and fissiparous state, his reflections are themselves an unflawed mirror for the world which he was attempting to explore. He seems to have retrieved everything, and anticipated everything.--Peter Ackroyd "The Times "
[Benjamin's] magnum opus, The Arcades Project, has finally been translated into English...If the low price for such a large academic volume is anything to go by, the publishers expect this to be a major event.--Julian Roberts "The Guardian "
Benjamin was a vital member of what cultural and art historian Robert Hughes has called the 'modernist laboratory' of the early part of the 20th century, and, like Virginia Woolf or Paul Cezanne or any other modernist worth her salt, his masterwork presents its own form as worthy of as much interest as its content...Fragment or not, The Arcades Project is a vast creative work that is one part realist novel, one part cultural anthropology, and one part social history and critique.--Matt Weiland "National and Financial Post "
Walter's Benjamin's The Arcades Project, a doorstopper of a book by one of the leading intellectuals of the 20th century, starts with the specifics of the technologically innovative Parisian shopping arcade, then spins off into a vast and complex universe of ideas about art, architecture, politics and consumer culture. Not unlike the novels of Umberto Eco and Thomas Pynchon, The Arcades Project uses the template of the past to demystify the present.--Joe Uris "Portland Oregonian "
Because his ideas never cohered into a doctrine, The Arcades remained a treatise about everything that never amounted to anything. But, like the vanished bohemia it documented in such obsessive detail, this ruin of a book has its own sublime grandeur.--Daniel Johnson "Daily Telegraph "
The Arcades Project is truly a kaleidoscopic montage of a dream of the meanings of society, a dream deferred by the advance of Nazis into Paris. In 1940, when Benjamin fled, he left behind the sprawling, incomplete masterpiece he had begun in 1927. But by then, it had already become, he wrote, 'the theater of all my struggles and all my ideas.'--Forrest Gander "Providence Journal-Bulletin "
Finally available in English, Walter Benjamin's study of nineteenth-century Paris is brilliant...Benjamin wrote many marvelous essays in the 1930s, but his main energy went into a giant enterprise that he called 'the Arcades project.' The forerunners of modern-day department stores, the arcades of nineteenth-century Paris were arched passageways with shops on each side. Benjamin was confident that the book would be his masterpiece. Not only would it grasp the structure of life and thought and art in Paris circa 1848, it would explain all modern art, politics, and life...Harvard University Press has given [The Arcades Project] to us in English in a sumptuous volume.--Marshall Berman "Metropolis "
If The Arcades Project is still worth reading today, it is not only for the quixotic pleasures of its dead ends, but for the traces of hope it finds within 'the guilty context of the living' (as Benjamin wrote elsewhere). Through an analysis of the 'collective dream' of the 19th century, Benjamin hopes to liberate the 20th.--Diana George "The Stranger "
The Arcades Project, which Benjamin worked on for 13 years before his death, was an attempt to capture the reality that he believed underlay the political, economic, and technological world of the 19th and early 20th centuries. In the phenomenon of the Paris arcades, Benjamin saw a turning away from a communal society based on mutual concern to one based on material well-being and economic gain. To fortify his argument, Benjamin used quotations from a variety of published literary, philosophical, and artistic sources and added his own reflections and commentary. Because of Benjamin's untimely and tragic death, this is not a finished work, but, nonetheless, the architectonic of the whole is impressive in its breadth and as an attempt at historical comprehension. Also included is a poignant, beautifully written eyewitness account of Benjamin's last days and hours.--Leon H. Brody "Library Journal "
Presenting some wonderful social history, The Arcades Project is an incomparable work that only Benjamin could have written. It permits readers who would otherwise never have the luxury of comprehension to examine the workings of one of the most remarkable thinkers of 20th-century Europe.--S. Gittleman "Choice "
Quite simply, the Passagen-Werk is one of the twentieth century's great efforts at historical comprehension--some would say the greatest.--T. J. Clark
Knowledge of The Arcades Project is essential for a full comprehension of Benjamin's intentions and achievement in the 1930s--especially his highly original and influential attempt to define the idea of the modern.--Michael W. Jennings
[This] edition does a fine job with this wild, often intractable material. Its apparatus is helpful, and properly spare...By and large, the edition is a heroic achievement.--T.J. Clark "London Review of Books "
In addition to presenting a considerable intellectual challenge simply by virtue of its ambitious contents, Benjamin's project raises serious and varied questions of form...producing an effect that one finds difficult to label definitively analytic or aesthetic; the montage as Benjamin uses it is both at once: it produces knowledge, yet it does so through a mode of presentation that seems intrinsic to the knowledge produced. The Arcades Project is a work that one not only reads or studies, one "experiences" it as well.--Tim Dayton "Cultural Studies "
Benjamin's crowning achievement...The Harvard University Press edition of Benjamin now in monumental progress is an admirably generous undertaking.--George Steiner "Times Literary Supplement "
At last, we can glimpse Benjamin's avowed masterpiece, The Arcades Project, and pay homage to this strange, vulnerable man, for whom letters and thought and books were everything. It was thirteen years in the making, and scribbled beneath the 'painted sky of summer'--the huge ceiling mural of Paris' Bibliothèque Nationale...Benjamin claimed The Arcades Project was 'the theater of all my struggles and all my ideas.' This struggle, and those ideas, aimed to chronicle the whole history of the nineteenth century, over which Paris, majestically, presided, whose arcades symbolized the city's heart laid bare...Harvard's Belknap [Press] is brave to publish such an esoteric and pricey specimen. Along with its two recent volumes of Benjamin's Selected Writings, and with a concluding collection in its way soon, we are now much better able to assess the man--foibles and all--and his legacy as a creative whole.--Andy Merrifield "The Nation "
Benjamin is important because of his insight into the cultural consequences of capitalism, an insight that gives us a style of thinking about the now inescapable culture of consumerism. We can read Benjamin's enormous fragment on the Paris arcades not so much to gather information about nineteenth-century Paris, of which it is an abundant and pleasurable resource, as to inform our own experience of everyday life. With Benjamin as a guide, one can begin to glimpse a way of reflecting on capitalism that promises to stave off the despair threatening to overwhelm those who choose not to celebrate this age of trademarked emotions, patented identities, and ready-made souls in plastic bags. And if today one is fortunate enough to walk the streets of Paris with his massive book in hand, as I recently was, Benjamin's vision of that city's past begins to haunt the contemporary Parisian streetscape, with phantoms of long-dead dandies and flaneurs, prostitutes and decadents, the ghosts of Baudelaire and Mallarmé appearing and disappearing amid the neon signs and garish billboards advertising American hamburgers and Finnish digital telephones.--Mark Kingwell "Harper's Magazine "
This is a treasure: a translation of Benjamin's great unfinished--and unfinishable--work, a study of the imagination in nineteenth-century Paris, the capital of the nineteenth century, and hence an archaeology of our own strange and wondrous 'consumer society.'--ChristianityToday.com
[Readers can] enjoy the book's open-endedness and follow personal itineraries...As Harvard gradually publishes his collected works, Benjamin's strengths become evident.--Andrew Mead "Architects Journal "
Because of its standing as Benjamin's final, and unfinished, work, this tome will prove a curious blessing for those wearing the right equipment...This kaleidoscopic work is arranged in 36 categories with such loosely descriptive headings as 'Prostitution, ' 'Boredom, ' 'Catacombs, ' 'Dream City, ' and 'Theory of Progress.' It makes sense why Benjamin would refer to this work as 'the theater of all of my struggles and ideas.' Everything seems to be in there, making it at once awe-inspiring and inscrutable in its present form. Had the war not kept him from its final flower, this theater might have been one of the greatest intellectual works of the century. As it stands, it is merely brilliant.--Kirkus Reviews
Now, at last, American readers too have access to [Benjamin's] final, great unfinished work in an edition that is both well translated and helpfully annotated by the editor of the German edition, Rolf Tiedemann. In 1927, Benjamin began taking notes for a book that would critique the cultural, politic, artistic and commercial life of Paris, a city Benjamin thought of as the 'capital of the nineteenth century'...This edition is comprised of the fastidious notes he made from this never-completed study...His perspective is largely Marxist, but not in any conventional or dogmatic sense. Benjamin's chief virtue is an uncanny originality of vision and insight that transcends the constraints of ideology.--Publishers Weekly
It is a rare event when a book as long touted or as eagerly awaited actually lives up to these publishing clichés. But this is undeniably true in the case of this translation of Walter Benjamin's Das Passagen-Werk [The Arcades Project], originally issued in 1982...Anglophone readers can finally begin to take true measure of Benjamin's place in 20th-century thought and literature.--Peter Philbrook "bn.com "
Benjamin's work is the most advanced, most complex, and most comprehensive study of the dominant motifs and unresolved tendencies of the nineteenth century that continue to be of critical importance for us today. No other study has measured up to its methodological inventiveness, or so exemplarily met its demand that history writing be reinvented for every topic and on every occasion.--Werner Hamacher
The force of [Walter Benjamin's] ideas in The Arcades Project is cumulative. You are pulled in and overwhelmed. True, it's a work of cultural history, but it can also be thought of as the greatest epic poem written in the 20th century: fragmented, contradictory, and profoundly suggestive.-- (11/25/2000)
Walter Benjamin's effort to unlock the mystery of industrial culture became his central mission, which he pursued by combing the streets of the Paris he loved--or, more exactly, by combing old books about these streets. The materials he culled from these books and his commentary on them constitute The Arcades Project, his masterpiece, which he worked on for 13 years...For students of urban life and industrial culture, The Arcades Project is a gold mine of insights and apercus.-- (12/03/2000)
[The Arcades Project] suggests a new way of writing about a civilization using its rubbish as materials rather than its artworks: history from below rather than above. And [Benjamin's] call elsewhere for a history centered on the sufferings of the vanquished, rather than on the achievements of the victors, is prophetic of the way in which history writing has begun to think of itself in our lifetime..."What does The Arcades Project have to offer? The briefest of lists would include: a treasure hoard of curious information about Paris, a multitude of thought-provoking questions, the harvest of an acute and idiosyncratic mind's trawl through thousands of books, succinct observations, polished to a high aphoristic sheen, on a range of subjects...and glimpses of Benjamin toying with a new way of seeing himself: as a compiler of a 'magic encyclopedia'...[A] magnificent opus.-- (01/20/2001)
Whether the theme is fashion, collecting, gambling--or any other key to the period--Benjamin lays out a gripping commentary on each. The result is a city-in-miniature. But it is the method underpinning the work that is perhaps the most interesting. In the methodological convolute 'N' Benjamin refers to it as a form of 'literary montage'--Benjamin's shorthand way of saying that each convolute is composed of numerous quotations which are lifted from various sources and then spliced together on the same page. The method enables Benjamin to blast away at received notions of art and cultural history...Besides a useful introduction, this first English edition also contains a number of early drafts and the as yet untranslated second exposé from 1939. Together, these pieces give an insight into Benjamin's anarchic working method, whereby he constantly reshuffles his material.-- (08/01/2001)
The Arcades Project must be among the most influential works of modern literature. Expansive and visionary, it reinvented pretty much every academic discipline by rejecting the autocratic storytelling of history in favor of elegant notes and vignettes which gather into a picture which seems to be endlessly modifying.-- (01/28/2007)
[This book is] the sort of work that will make a considerable dent in the academic landscape or at the very least lead to a new line of thematic inquiry and stream of responsive academic publications...[This edition] provides us with a wealth of material...It stands to be worked and reworked endlessly by its readers and this is why Eiland and McLaughlin's phenomenal work of labour should be recognized as a major contribution to the field of critical and cultural theory today.-- (01/01/2004)
A tragic, fractured masterpiece...It is a truly interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary work, appealing across the broadest range of arts, humanities and social science disciplines imaginable. Benjamin's collage of sourced texts, informed commentary and ingenious speculation leads us through architecture to artistic movements; technology to economics; fact to fantasy. To read this book is to witness a fragmented phantasmagoria: we experience utterance and aphorism; snippets and snapshots; public declamation and private letters; historical minutiae and spectacular scenes. It is a global work, its explorations ranging far beyond 19th-century Paris to illustrate and unravel the universal essence of urban experience. Benjamin was an authentically democratic thinker, inasmuch as he diligently explored, analysed and understood the widest range of cultural forms, no matter how elitist or populist: in The Arcades Project, the reader will encounter political proclamations or philosophical pronouncements in one place and jokes or pornography in another. Is The Arcades Project we read now the one that Benjamin envisioned? Absolutely not. But this eclectic work, a coruscating palimpsest, is a modernist, perhaps even a proto-postmodernist, masterpiece. It is a form of textual flanerie where the journey of exploration is infinite and adaptable: it is ever-open, ever-fresh and, uncannily, when one dips into it, it seems to be ever-changing. Like other formidable creations by writers taken too soon--Lord Byron's Don Juan, Jaroslav Hasek's The Good Soldier Svejk, Thomas Mann's Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man, Franz Kafka's The Castle--Benjamin's The Arcades Project lives, breathes and goes on for ever.-- (12/17/2009)
It is those who parody our world who help to unmask its craziness, and to offer pointers as to how what is might be otherwise...Benjamin indulges in this customary "brushing against the grain of history"...My aim in stressing this side of the book is simply to suggest how kaleidoscopic an object it is, offering the reader challenge of construction, deconstruction, and reconstruction, not once, but over and over again.--Michael Hollington "Southern Review "