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Diacritics 30.4 (2000) 3-13

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Benjamin's Arcades Project and the Postcolonial City

Rajeev S. Patke


Walter Benjamin. The Arcades Project. Trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1999. [AP]


Post-this, post-that, post-the-other, yet in the end
Not past a thing.

—Seamus Heaney, "On His Work in the English Tongue"


Among the several Benjamins to be conjured from The Arcades Project is the one who invites a speculative discourse on the idea of the postcolonial city. We can imagine him first conceding, and then qualifying, three propositions about himself: he mitigates the force of the first—that he was Eurocentric—with the counterproposition that the cities he wrote about were formative of a discourse that can be transposed to other cities whose patterns of urban development were shaped by forces analogous to those he studied in the period of their inception. He then concedes that his work on the city remains problematic in several ways related to an uncertain temperament and method, but urges the recognition that his method came to resemble his object of study; the fortuitous correspondence reinforces the self-reflexive relation between modern cities and the discourse they generate. His third concession—that his use of Marxian ideas mixes them with elements of bourgeois thought—is marginalized by the recognition that he always took his Marx with such a difference that to confine him within such a debate would be to take him in the wrong spirit. He then proceeds to reiterate in the specific instance of the postcolonial a more familiar general claim made by many contemporary readers of the metropolitan experience, that the set of approaches he uncovered continue to remain valid wherever the project of modernity is at work. They help us address "[t]he split image of modernity, modernity's promises for social and individual emancipation, as well as modernity's failures" [Paetzold 216a].


Benjamin would begin by reminding us that his "modern" and "modernity" refer primarily to the industrial transformation of society by technology, as part of the Enlightenment project of progress through the application of reason to nature and society. He would [End Page 3] qualify his sense of the project of "modernity" through the image of "[t]he world dominated by its phantasmagorias" [AP 26]. He would then shrug off the cloak of the Eurocentric by turning, for illustration, to the many Asian manifestations of the postcolonial. Here, he would make the twofold claim that the postcolonial experience brings out the disillusionment latent in the myth of progress, just as the postmodern brings out the phantasmal that is incipient in the myth of an evenly distributed access to capital and goods in the era of globalization. He would argue that the cities of contemporary Asia are the sites for a partial and uneven overlap between the postmodern and the postcolonial. This overlap, he would say, invites us to treat the idea of the city in a generic mode, without discounting the fact that the diversity separating the metropolitan centers in Asia makes little sense of an Asian city except as banal literalism. He would note that colonialism did not affect all of Asia, nor did it follow quite the same course from colony to colony, though the term retains some usefulness in accounting for the general factors that link different cities in Asia to what happened after colonialism. He would treat the postcolonial and the postmodern as three-tiered phenomena: each is a historical phase of world history, a predicament affecting collectivities, and an attitude or state of mind. The aptness of the notion of the postcolonial city, he points out, increases in direct proportion to the degree to which a city has acquired a distinctive identity through colonial administration or commerce, and decreases in direct proportion to the degree of discontinuity between the colonial and postcolonial phases of its history. He would add the corollary that any contemporary city in the developing world approximates to the postcolonial condition when its role in the network of power relations negotiates...