In The Arcades Project, why did Walter Benjamin call Paris the capital of the nineteenth century?
Hardly unique among European and American intellectuals and artists in finding in Paris the closest approximation to a transcendental existence imaginable on Earth, Walter Benjamin was unique in the extent to which he devoted his life to the study and appreciation of Paris as a cultural milieu unlike any other. And, the center of that cultural milieu, he argued, were the city’s arcades, a nineteenth century product, Benjamin emphasized, of the industrial revolution and, in particular, of the development of metallurgy, specifically, the use of iron in the construction of great complexes previously impossible. Benjamin was fascinated, particularly from his Marxist dialectical perspective, of the process by which these arcades came about, and came to define Paris. Early in his essay “Paris, the Capital of the Nineteenth Century,” which opens the presentation of his writings collectively titled The Arcades Project, he quotes an Illustrated Guide to Paris to describe these innovative complexes:
“These arcades, a recent invention of industrial luxury, are glass-roofed, marble-paneled corridors extending through whole blocks of buildings, whose owners have joined together for such enterprises. Lining both sides of these corridors, which get their light from above, are the most elegant shops, so that the passage [arcade] is a city, a world in miniature.”
Benjamin’s essay goes on to explain in impressive detail the developments and innovations that made possible the construction of these enormous and architecturally impressive arcades:
“Most of the Paris arcades come into being in the decade and a half after 1822. The first condition for their emergence is the boom in the textile trade. . .They are the forerunners of department stores. . .The arcades are a center of commerce in luxury items. In fitting them out, art enters the service of the merchant. Contemporaries never tire of admiring them, and for a long time they remain a drawing point for foreigners. . .The second condition for the emergence of the arcades is the beginning of iron construction. The Empire saw in this technology a contribution to the revival of architecture in the classical Greek sense. . . For the first time in the history of architecture, an artificial building material appears: iron.”
Benjamin’s essays and thoughts account for over one-thousand pages of text. The Arcades Project, a carefully constructed posthumous compilation of his writings, provides a social history of nineteenth century France, and Paris in particular, in excruciating detail. In the political context in which he was putting his observations and thoughts to paper, with the writings of Marx and Engels having seriously influenced his perspective, Benjamin was struck by the anti-proletarian role in the creation of modern Paris of that country’s social and economic elite. In discussing the prominent role in modern Paris’ development of the arcades that would exemplify its emergence as the capital of the nineteenth century, Benjamin notes the decision by Napolean III to have France’s capital be the site of an 1867 World Fair, or Exposition Universelle, that would serve to showcase the city’s advanced level of development and its architectural and artistic contributions. Central to that vision was the prominence of France’s advanced stage of industrial development, and the convergence of that development with the nation’s architectural innovations. The 1867 World Fair would demonstrate to the civilized world France’s cultural superiority. As one scholar has written:
“It was also the first World Fair to have pavilions, restaurants, and amusement parks around the main building. The oval structure of the Palais allowed having thematically organized sections in the concentric circles and national exhibits in the galleries radiating from the centre. The last concentric circle (the nearest to the centre) was dedicated to the first thematic cultural exhibit to take place in a World Fair: it was entitled “Histoire du travail” (History of Work) and was a highly successful exhibit.” [http://library.brown.edu/cds/paris/worldfairs.html]
The net result, Benjamin suggests, the 1867 World Fair was a signature accomplishment for France’s emperor – a notion that implicitly indicts Napolean III as the reigning embodiment of capitalist exploitation. As Benjamin himself described the event:
“The phantasmagoria of capitalist culture attains its most radiant unfolding in the world exhibition of 1867. The Second Empire is at the height of its power. Paris is acknowledged as the capital of luxury and fashion. Offenbach sets the rhythm of Parisian life. The operetta is the ironic utopia of an enduring reign of capital.”
Paris, with its magnificent representations of capitalist indulgence, was, to Walter Benjamin, the capital of an era that would be consigned to the dustbin of history. Forced to flee Paris with the ascendance of the fascist movement, Benjamin eventually ended up, temporarily, in Marseille. That he was repulsed by this dreary, depressed city of the lower-class masses, and having fled the far more cosmopolitan Paris, one can only contemplate the possible contradictions inherent in such a situation: the Marxist more enchanted with the capitalist capital than with proletarian city to the south.