Gone shopping

The Arcades Project

Walter Benjamin <em>Harvard University Press,1074 pp, £24.95</em>

ISBN 06740

In 1940, Walter Benjamin committed suicide in the Spanish Pyrenees. He was 48, had heart disease and believed that his escape from fascism had failed. During those last dreadful days, he carried with him a huge unfinished manuscript which he valued more than his own life. That manuscript - the raw material from 13 years of research into the character of 19th century Paris - was destined to become a legend of elusive promise. It represented the core of a life's work of cultural criticism by one of the best minds of the 20th century.

So the publication in English of The Arcades Project, unlike many other millennial extravaganzas, is indeed an event, something truly to get excited about. But its value as a text - whether it can be considered finished or even written - is disputable.

Arcades is an assemblage of quotations, notes and theses that wrestle with themselves to extraordinary effect. In his lifetime, Benjamin saw published only the fragmentary collection One-Way Street, and he initially conceived The Arcades Project as a continuation of that book. Today, his reputation is based on essays on Kafka, cannabis, bibliophilia and German tragic drama, although he remains perhaps best known for "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction". In this seminal essay, Benjamin argued that the coming of reproductive technologies had destroyed the "aura" of authenticity and originality surrounding art. A newly democratised relationship between the viewer and the work of art reduced its value and authority as an object. That essay, and his obsessive reflections on Baudelaire, are key elements of his research on the passages of Paris - the covered shopping arcades that he described as "the theatre of all my struggles".

To Benjamin, Paris was the capital of the 19th century. He wanted to "unfold", open up and reappraise that century by examining the imperial city through its arcades. He described these as irradiating the city "like fairy grottoes", and as representing the "milieu of Lautreaumont", the poet of montage and reappropriation who so inspired the Situationists.

Benjamin's Parisian grottoes were the original temples of consumer capitalism, generating a kind of empty rapture and dreamlike reverie that his entire critical effort was designed to "awaken" us from. He was not entirely successful. The Arcades divides into bales of notes with quixotic headings and initially appears formidable. There are small but important sections with titles such as Fashion, Dream City, Boredom, Barricade Fighting and Iron Construction. But the heart of the book is Benjamin's discussion of his complex notion of "dialectics at a standstill", in which the past and the present merge in a flash of all-seeing perspective. Suddenly, the history of everyday phenomena - encountered among glittering exhibitions of commodities, or streets of agitated crowds - is illuminated and opened to judgement and change. Benjamin's aim here is to unveil the economic factors behind social formations.

His own best summary of Arcades was published in an earlier essay, "Paris, Capital of the 19th Century", where he argued that a "passage is a city, a world in miniature" and that the culture of a city is revealed in hidden aspects and relationships.

Benjamin's The Arcades Project is a book of (sometimes opaque) wonders, and its publication does not diminish him. It is a privilege, through this collection, to gain access to the workings of such a distinctive mind. A conventionally complete condensation of this material would be priceless and perhaps impossible. But Benjamin's attempt to conjure an entire century by means of one city has already found its optimal form here.

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Ken, the great conductor