Notes on the Arcades Project

Beginning in 1927 as a planned collaboration for a newspaper article (with Franz Hessel) on the arcades, it became an essay (“Pariser Passagen: Eine dialektische Feerie”) then a book, Paris, die Hauptstadt des XIX. Jahrhunderts. Many sketches were produced, including the short essay “Der Saturnring oder Etwas vom Eisenbau.” Then, in 1934, work resumed on an epic scale. In ‘35, he wrote the first of two “exposés,” for the Institute for Social Research; the second was written to interest an American sponsor.

But the Project proper (which never received a certain title from Benjamin) was in the form of several hundred notes and reflections, which were grouped in sheafs or “convolutes” by topic. And starting in the late twenties, citations were brought into this material, passages so arranged as to comment upon one another and communicate between themselves. Benjamin usually called this project the Passagenarbeit or just the Passagen. Is it the final shape or the research? B worried over this distinction in a letter to Scholem, 3/3/34, where he wonders how to apply his research, or another, 5/3/36, where he tells GS that he hasn’t written any of the actual text of the Passagenarbeit yet.

Yet B was revising passages in the Convolutes, and the question stands: why revise for a notebook? And the elaborate organizational structures deployed in the manuscript of the convolutes speaks of a kind of compositional architecture in which the text is taking shape. B’s fascination with montage, referenced in the text, and its juxtapositions, tigerleaps, distances, and intersections, at least suggests that part of this thinking was working itself out in these arrangements, regardless of the lack of an eventual eigentlichen Buch.

Of this mode of organization: the central portion of the Passagenarbeit is 426 “loose sheets of yellowish paper,” each folded in half. These folios are gathered into 36 sheafs, keyed to letters of the alphabet, which are in turn coded to thematic titles. Within each sheaf, the folios are numbered according to Benjamin’s system. There are letters missing: were further convolutes planned?

B used small squares to signal a cross-reference to rubrics of different convolutes, or rubrics without convolutes. Additionally, “many of the citations and reflections in the manuscript are marked with a system of thirty-two associated symbols (squares, triangles, circles, vertical and horizontal crosses — in various inks and colors),” which haven’t been reproduced. These symbols are part of the structure of the other set of papers left with Bataille, which were found in the Bataille archive at the Bibliothèque Nationale in 1981. These papers include a detailed plan of the Baudelaire book of 1937-38, and the encoded items from the Convolutes (more than 60% from J) are grouped under headings representing themes of the Baudelaire book. There is then a further layer of organization over half of the material for the 1938 essay “Das Paris der Second Empire bei Baudelaire.”

The initial set of Konvoluts that we have as the Project were preserved by Bataille through the war and retrieved and delivered to the Institute in 1947, where Adorno was the first to sort through the “Aufzeichnungen und Materialien,” and the person to name the collections of papers Konvoluts (according to Tiedemann, p. xiv). The 1981 manuscripts were found by Agamben in Bataille’s papers, and complicated the story of the Project, as argued by Michel Espagne and Michael Werner, among others.

Tiedemann lists 850 sources consulted in the second phase of the project, between 1934 and 1940; Espagne and Werner have found a list of 400 additional biographical references that B apparently planned to investigate. The sheer volume of data is fascinating.

Of the material in Tiedemann’s edition, about 75% is quotations B gathered over 13 years. (Similarly, though, B’s Trauerspiel was over 600 quotations in the “craziest mosiac technique imaginable,” cf. Arendt’s intro to Illuminations.)

“Zentralpark” is the clearing at the center of the vast, disorderly city that is the Passagenarbeit.

About montage-practice, and the assembly of a book from nothing but quotations: Rolf Tiedemann emphasizes that the idea is solely from Adorno, who wrote in Prisms that B meant to write a book which “was to consist solely of citations,” to “eliminate all overt commentary and to have the meanings emerge solely through the shock-like montage of the material.” (239) “I am convinced that Benjamin did not intend to work in that fashion,” RT writes (1013). “There is no remark in the letters attesting to this.” Adorno’s argument is based on the interpretation of two passages in Convolute N, which require a stretch. (ft. 6 to “Dialectics at a Standstill”)

The 1939 “Paris, the Capital of the Nineteenth Century” speaks of the “new and far-reaching sociological perspectives” of the project, which, he promised in a letter, would yield “a secure framework of interpretive interconnections” with which to trace the superstructure of 19th-century France.

To wrest the secret directly, in the concrete and the particular, without any theoretical mediation, resistant to all transcendental tablets of commandments and prohibitions, instead limiting itself to the “somewhat limitless pursuit of a kind of gentle empirical experience.” Not the essence behind or above a thing, but the things themselves, the expressive character of machines, department stores, advertisements … “This extreme concreteness which made itself felt there in some instances — in a children’s game, a building, and a situation in life.” (Letters, 322) As he writes in N3,2: “The eternal, in any case, is far more the ruffle on a dress than some idea.”

N2,6: “In what way is it possible to conjoin a heightened graphicness [Anschaulichkeit] to the realization of the Marxist method? The first stage in this undertaking will be to carry over the principle of montage into history. That is, to assemble large-scale constructions out of the smallest and most precisely cut components. Indeed, to discover in the analysis of the small individual moment the crystal of the total event.”

N2a,3: “It’s not that the past casts its light on what is present, or what is present its light on what is past; rather, image is that wherein what has been comes together in a flash with the now to form a constellation.”

N1a,8: “Method of this project: literary montage. I needn’t say anything. Merely show [zeigen]. I shall purloin no valuables, appropriate no ingenious formulations. But the rags, the refuse — these I will not inventory but allow, in the only way possible, to come into their own: by making use of them.” (Zeigen: to show, to exhibit, to indicate, to say by pointing, to silently name.)

N1,10: “This work has to develop to the highest degree the art of citing without quotation marks. Its theory is intimately related to that of montage.”

N1,1: “In the fields with which we are concerned, knowledge comes only in lightning flashes. The text is the long roll of thunder that follows.”

N1,3: “Say something about the method of composition itself: how everything one is thinking at a specific moment in time must at all costs be incorporated into the project then at hand. Assume that the intensity of the project is thereby attested, or that one’s thoughts, from the very beginning, bear this project within them as their telos. So it is with the present portion of this work, which aims to characterize and to preserve the intervals of reflection, the distances lying between the most essential parts of this work, which are turned most intensively to the outside.”

H4,3: “Collecting is a primal phenomenon of study: the student collects knowledge.”

H1a,2: “Collecting is a form of practical memory, and of all the profane manifestations of ‘nearness’ it is the most binding. Thus, in a certain sense, the smallest act of political reflection makes for an epoch in the antiques business. We construct here an alarm clock that rouses the kitsch of the previous century to ‘assembly.’”

H2,7; H2a,1: “… It must be kept in mind that, for the collector, the world is present, and indeed ordered, in each of his objects. Ordered, however, according to a surprising and, for the profane understanding, incomprehensible connection. This connection stands to the customary ordering and schematization of things something as their arrangement in the dictionary stands to the natural arrangement. We need only recall what importance a particular collector attaches not only to his object but also to its entire past, whether this concerns the origin and objective characteristics of the thing or the details of its ostensibly external history: previous owners, price of purchase, current value, and so on. All of these — the ‘objective’ data together with the other — come together, for the true collector, in every single one of his possessions, to form a whole magic encyclopedia, a world order, whose outline is the fate of his object.”

From the “First Sketches,” O°,37: “Notes on montage in my journal. Perhaps, in this same context, there should be some indication of the intimate connection that ‹exists› between the intention making for nearest nearness and the intensive utilization of refuse — a connection in fact exhibited in montage.”

The passages in “Idleness,” Convolute m, contain a great deal of relevant material. B is expanding on the role of the collector in the relation to objects, and the idea of the arrangement of objects. (Re. blogging, see the note on the feuilletoniste in m3a,2.)

“Just as the industrial labor process separates off from handicraft, so the form of communication corresponding to this labor process — information — separates off from the form of communication corresponding to the artisanal process of labor, which is storytelling. … This connection must be kept in mind if one is to form an idea of the explosive force contained within information. This force is liberated in sensation. With the sensation, whatever still resembles wisdom, oral tradition, or the epic side of truth is razed to the ground.” m3a,5

B quotes Pierre Mabille, from Minotaure, as an epigraph to Convolute K: “Library where the books have melted into one another and the titles have faded away.” It’s from a meditation on the idea of the collective unconscious; he quotes it in greater detail elsewhere in the Convolute.

cf. Sieburth: The Tiedemann-edited Arcades Project is a quarter of a million words in hundreds of tiny folios, the whole thing, according to Bataille, a stack no more than fifteen or twenty cm high. It speaks to B’s passion for the diminutive, the feeling, as Arendt observed, that the smaller something was the more likely B thought it to contain the most concentrated form of everything else.

The recurring theme of the project is the list: lists of names, of shops, of streets, of activities.

As early as mid-1932, in a letter to Scholem, B laments how much of his work constitutes “disaster areas whose boundaries I can no longer survey,” and includes the study of the Paris arcades, already five years old.