The Arcades Project

One of the leading cultural theorist of the twentieth century, Walter Benjamin, was not well known during his lifetime. Born in Berlin, Germany, in 1892, Benjamin grew up in a well-to-do Jewish family. During the 1920’s, he wrote some of his most important cultural essays. He also became a Marxist. When Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany in 1933, Benjamin began living full time in Paris. He was fascinated with city life in Paris and French culture in general.

Originally conceived while in Paris in 1927, Benjamin imagined a massive project in which he would analyze the nineteenth century Paris “arcades” or shopping malls. Through this detailed examination of the culture growing up in and around these arcades, he would shed light on the modern industrial world to come. The topics covered ran into the hundreds and included such items as advertising, boredom, the idea of progress, prostitution, fashion, and photography.

During the mid-1930’s, Benjamin’s “arcades project” grew into what should have become his magnum opus. Sadly, he committed suicide in 1940 after the German invasion of France. After his death, Benjamin’s reputation as a cultural theorist grew. Scholars read through every manuscript that he had left behind. This labor intensive process finally bore results in 1982 when the German edition of Benjamin’s unfinished opus was published as Das Passagen-Werk. This massive volume included all that could be pieced together from the thirty notebooks left by the author. It would take another seventeen years before an English translation could be published. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin have done a remarkable job of bringing The Arcades Project to an English audience. Since Benjamin was unable to finish this work, it does lack the coherence necessary to be a fully-realized creation. As configured now, The Arcades Project is a fragmentary work of sketches, quotations, gleanings, and reflections. In the end, it is an ambitious and complex puzzle that probably only scholars and disciples of Benjamin will want to study.