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  • Raumgewordene Vergangenheit: Walter Benjamins Poetologie der Geschichte
  • Alexander Gelley (bio)
Isabel Kranz . Raumgewordene Vergangenheit: Walter Benjamins Poetologie der Geschichte. Munich: Wilhelm Fink, 2011. 285 pages.

If one takes seriously Irving Wohlfarth's comment, "Almost all of Benjamin's works that were written between 1927 and 1940 circle like satellites around the half-covered sun of the Passagenarbeit,"1 one would hesitate to undertake the task that Isabel Kranz has set for herself: to attempt an integral, immanent interpretation of the "Passagen-Werk," as Rolf Tiedemann called it in his 1982 edition, though some have questioned the propriety of the term Werk. Kranz is well aware of the risks and in the early part of the book has guarded against any facile assumption regarding the unity of the Passagenarbeit. The great value of this book is to test the usefulness of a largely intrinsic reading, or werkimmanente Lektüre, of Benjamin's project.

This book raises many questions that have beset interpreters of Benjamin's Arcades Project, as the 1999 Harvard edition calls the text, and if it does not resolve them, it does much to articulate them. The archive of handwritten excerpts and commentary that Benjamin put together between 1927 and 1940 and left to Georges Bataille for safekeeping was stored in the Bibliothèque Nationale during the war. Although the material was not published until 1982, rumors about its content played a significant role in literary-political debates in the prior decades.2 When the work finally appeared, it had become part of the charged discourse that accompanied the discovery of Benjamin by the postwar generation. His elevation to a preeminent place among modern thinkers was fed by passionate debates reflecting divergent and, in some cases, radically opposed ideological positions. This is perfectly in line with Benjamin's own conception of the meaning of a work, where the afterlife is as intrinsic to the work as its antecedents and its contemporary impact.3 The intractable nature of the work—the sheer mass of data and the apparent miscellany of the selections—was explained in terms of either the "fragmentary" mode of Romantic writing or as "montage" and "citation" in a modernist sense. In [End Page 681] short, one could say that a reductive monumentalization of the Passagen-Werk blocked a more considered approach to Benjamin's writings of the 1930s.

Even now, some three decades after its publication, the Passagenarbeit has elicited few comprehensive studies. Irving Wohlfarth puts the matter pointedly in the title of a recent essay, "Warum wurde die Passagenarbeit bisher kaum gelesen? Konjektur über eine Konjunktur."4 His own essays on the project, including the one here cited and a lengthy contribution to the Benjamin-Handbuch, go in a different direction than Kranz's book in focusing on the status of the Passagenarbeit in the context of Benjamin's later writings.

Kranz must be credited with producing one of the few detailed, systematic studies that examines the whole of the Passasgenarbeit, including what she aptly calls the "Paratexts" in Gérard Genette's terminology. This material includes the drafts, letters, and two "Exposés" prepared for the Institut für Sozialforschung. She does not deal in detail with the Baudelaire materials (Das Paris des Second Empire bei Baudelaire, "Über einige Motive bei Baudelaire," Konvolut J, and the Zentralpark fragments), but this topic is outside the scope of her study. Hers is by no means the first detailed study of the Passagenarbeit. This distinction must be accorded to Susan Buck-Morss's pioneering, but still in many ways authoritative book, The Dialectics of Seeing. Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project (1989). What is more, Buck-Morss developed two concerns that are given less attention in Kranz's book, namely, the messianic and the analysis of commodity fetishism.

In one of the methodological reflections on her project, Kranz undertakes a close reading of the very first entry of the Passagenarbeit that includes both an excerpt from a nineteenth-century publication (an 1852 Illustrierter Führer durch Paris) and a commentary by Benjamin. The short excerpt from the guidebook provides a succinct account of the Passagen as architectural and commercial urban constructs, an account intended to convey...


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