All About the Benjamins

Benjamin's Marxism looked for where the things nationalism missed might connect. So deeply rooted in concrete things and human meanings it can look almost libertarian, his thought was nonetheless ambitious enough to expound the historical meanings of Kabbalistic mysticism. It's no accident that Benjamin, more of an improviser than a Marx expert, still has the power to hook people on such questions: His ability to put things in terms of individual experience offers the chance of turning alienation into exploration.

Naturally, when Sante was trying to make sense of all of this, he reached for Benjamin too, finding an eerily prescient quote about how early photography of Paris made every street look like a possible crime scene, each of the anonymous passerby a potential criminal. Part of Sante's choice may be due to Benjamin's cachet — but most of it's not. In addition to its interest in the magic of objects and the forces inherent in the everyday, the quote he pulled is telling because of its humility and usefulness. Rather than a pronouncement out of nowhere, it's a commentary on the work of someone else (the photographer Atget), with a quality that begs to be pulled out of context and reused. Even here Benamin is finding and unlocking objects — in the form of other people's texts — and becoming a reusable object himself. The possiblity for anonymity, excitement and danger in the modern city is captured, in line with Benjamin's pervasive interest in the meaning of public places and publics. But Benjamin is simultaneously so productive and so unwieldy because his writing, which urgently calls for projects like Sante's, also makes you think about why such projects are even possible now.

The 1,074-page Harvard University Press edition of the Arcades Project is a work composed mostly of quotations. Benjamin finds, extracts, and reuses someone else's statement about the transition from painting to photography to explain how photographs began to pervade daily life in a way paintings never could: "In Marseilles, around 1850, there were at most four or five painters of miniatures, of whom two, perhaps, had gained a certain reputation by executing fifty portraits in the course of a year. These artists earned just enough to make a living...a few years later, there were forty to fifty photographers in Marseilles...they each produced, on the average, between 1,000 and 1,200 plates per year, which they sold for 15 francs apiece; this made for yearly receipts of 18,000 francs, so that, together, they constituted an industry earning nearly a million. And this same development can be seen in all the major cities of France." It's pulled from an unpublished manuscript entitled "Photography from the point of view of Sociology" that an acquaintance, Gisele Freund, had given him. The method is almost an intellectual Judo throw, as he brings someone else's force and ideas into his space, to power his own goals, without doing violence to them. A musty issue of technology and economics — how many pictures and Francs could someone make in Marseilles in 1850 — shows a transition to a form of documentation that will allow modern people to casually document themselves, Parisian police to open a crime lab, New York cops to archive murder photos, and Luc Sante to gather them up.

So what was Benjamin trying to accomplish with the Arcades? In 1933, Germany's greatest critic went to France and threw himself into a study of 19th-century Paris. It was a literally self-effacing act: the study was supposed to be made of quotations, containing not a single word of his own. The Germany of 1933 seems far away and exotic now, buried under a mass of newspapers, dead bodies and collector's items; his move looks like a retreat into the greatest possible obscurity. A master of language fled his own country and culture, renouncing his very voice behind other people's words. But what if he'd gone to France to pick a different kind of fight, one where neither guns nor the kind of propaganda then beginning to blare from mouthpieces on every side (Goebbels on the bad and Orwell the good) would work? Now that we can read them casually in English, the documents he left behind suggest an exciting possiblity: It's a fight he may have won.

Living on today mostly as giant caricature heads on the cover of ...for Beginners books, Benjamin and his friend Theodor Adorno have now been canonized in U.S. intellectual life as the Good Cop/Bad Cop of cultural studies: Adorno critically smacks up pop for its sleazy complicity with monopoly capitalism; Benjamin, warm to its liberating possibilities, lets it go play. But now that "liberation" is a way critics magnanimously bestow the permissive conformism we're stuck with anyway, and "critical" a pose commodifying bogus outrage over "commodification", the impasse might encourage us to look at other ways of doing criticism and history. Benjamin's answer was to challenge Marxism by taking it at its word: "The materialist presentation of history," he wrote, has to be literally materialist, leading the raw materials of the past itself "to bring the present into a critical state." Benjamin spent the last years of his life trying to create one, working in the Bibliotheque Nationale, culling these thousands of quotes about Paris as the "capital of the 19th century."

There is a cutaway hole in the dust jacket of the Harvard edition, and Benjamin's face peek-a-boos out, like the forlorn dead girl in one of those V.C. Andrews paperbacks you find waterlogged beside lawn chairs in the summer. In keeping with the implicit challenge Benjamin's work presents to anything less ambitious, critics generally refuse to take him at his word; they seem to find this ineffectual, dead Benjamin most charming. They tend to see the book as a failed attempt at the sort of history they might write, the kind Benjamin refused as a dead end, inadequate to the demands of his time. "Given more time," the Times' Howard Muschamp sympathizes, "he might well have rendered his encyclopedic insights into seamless, panoramic prose." But in the time he had, Benjamin offered something a lot weirder, more interesting and powerful, and more useful to us today: a really historical way of seeing history.


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courtesy of Hypatia Sanders

pictures Terry Colon

Hypatia Sanders