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The Dialectics of Seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project (review)
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Reviews149 The Dialectics ofSeeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project, by Susan Buck-Morss; 493 pp. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1989, $29.95. In 1927 Walter Benjamin began work on his study of the first consumer malls, the nineteenth-century Parisian arcades. Originally conceived as a fiftypage essay, the "Arcades Project" blossomed into over a thousand pages of notes on the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, ordered in thirty-six files or "Konvoluts," each subsumed under key words or phrases such as "Fashions," "Catacombs," "The Collector," or "Prostitution." Still uncompleted in 1940 when Benjamin, fleeing from the Nazis, committed suicide, the "Passagen-Werk" was edited by Rolf Tiedemann and published for the first time in 1982. For Benjamin, it was perhaps unimportant that his Arcades Project never became a book, since, in One Way Street, he wrote that "the book is an obsolete mediation between two different card filing systems"—the notebooks of the researcher and those of the future reader. Susan Buck-Morss, who has already written on The Origin ofNegative Dialectics: Theodor W. Adorno, Walter Benjamin, and the Frankfurt Institute, has done an excellent job of assimilating Benjamin's note boxes into her own filing system. Eschewing postmodern and deconstructive readings of Benjamin's writings as a "semiotic free fall," consisting "only" of "language and its textual traces," Buck-Morss insists that a Marxist reading can save the project from arbitrariness and orientthe reader. For her, Benjamin's concern with the previous century always served the (at times admittedly distant) goal of explaining and perhaps changing the present. Beginning with the origins of the Arcades Project in the people, places, and events of Benjamin's personal life, the book then explicates the Arcades Project itself, focusing on three concepts extremely important to Benjamin—Nature, History, and Myth—and their relationship to a fourth concept, the Commodity. The confluence of nature and history is said to produce the fossil, a trace of the past, and, since Benjamin works with Lukác's concept of society's "second nature," these fossils can be obsolete and archaic commodities, which the consumer views with wakeful sobriety. Mythic history produces the fetish, the currendy fashionable commodity in the "phantasmagoria" ofconsumer culture, which the consumer desires in a dreamlike trance. Herdiscovery ofa Benjaminian rehabilitation ofaspects ofnatural and mythic history is more surprising. Under the category of mythic nature, Benjamin is said to see wish images, Utopian desires of the collective unconscious. While aware of the dangers of modern technologies like photography and steel architecture , Benjamin also has great hopes for their progressive possibilities. And, in historical nature, where Buck-Morss locates the Benjaminian category of the "ruin," comes the chance to awaken die masses, so that they understand the progressive side of their collective dreams. This understanding comes 150Philosophy and Literature through allegory, reading the emblematic status ofcommodities, in such a way that one does not sink into melancholy (as the Baroque allegoricists, whom Benjamin had studied in his famous book on the Trauerspiel, had done), but rises to action. After interpreting the "Passagen-Werk," Buck-Morss attempts to produce a synthesis between it and Benjamin's life, showing how the author wanted to encourage workers of his own era to awaken and "read" the "ruins" of their commodity culture. In the Kabbala, Benjamin found a key to a "theological" reading of emblems or commodities, a reading which denied the split between matter and spirit, which was revolutionary, and which had a tradition of examining ancient texts ahistorically to illuminate the current age. He hoped to instill this spirit into the masses who currendy lived in a dream world, but needed awakening. Awakening would come through a Freudian approach to the commodity, which, like the dream, could be seen as the "(disguised) fulfillment of a (suppressed or repressed) wish" for socialism. The key to interpreting the dreams was a return to childlike thinking. However, by the late 1930s, Benjamin had become so disheartened by the rise of fascism in the modern industrial world that his writing centered less and less on the positive possibilities of technology and increasingly became wary of eternally recurring political dangers such as Napoleon III or Hider. Buck-Morss presents Benjamin's...