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Walter Benjamin

Walter Benjamin

Walter Benjamin’s Favorite Buzzwords

All the stuffiest terms, defined for your Shmooping pleasure.

Arcades

First things first: we're not talking about Chuck E. Cheese, here. Although I could totally see myself writing something up about that. Anyway, arcades are these indoor mall-like structures that were all over the place in France in the 1930s.

I was totally obsessed with them as examples of quintessentially modern architecture, and I dubbed them a "psychosocial space." See, my theory is that by studying the arcades, we can understand the social, spatial, capitalist, and economic patterns that characterized Paris of the 19th century. In fact, the arcades provided a valuable perspective for understanding Parisian culture in general.

My encyclopedic but unfinished study, The Arcades Project, looks at how these structures can reveal insights into human behavior in an expanding capitalist world. I argue that they totally determine many of the consumer habits and visual patterns of the era's bourgeoisie. To me, the arcades represent a dramatic shift into modernity, as people become fixated on "window shopping" and on the lure of distraction through consumption. You could even call the arcades the birthplace of modern shopping and consumer excess.

Word to the Wise: Don't look to The Arcades Project for a narrative, or even an explicit discussion of the arcades though. It's more like a mosaic of thoughts on fashion, prostitution, advertising, iron construction, and, um, a zillion other things. The collection is a Big Deal not just for me, but for the philosophy of our modern world. Just saying.

Aura and Auratic Perception

Forget everything you know about that New Age nonsense. My ideas about the aura have nothing to do with crystal and chakras.

In my famous piece "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," I talk about how, with the development of mass media and mass production (especially photography and film), the power of art changed dramatically.

See, before the arrival of photography and film, art had enormous symbolic power—an "aura." But now, we no longer think of one sculpture or painting displayed all altar-like—or behind bullet-proof glass on the wall of a museum—as having all sorts of magical power because it's authentic and "one of a kind."

With photography and cinema, all of that air of profound meaning that surrounded an object was taken down a notch. Now that art could be mechanically reproduced, it was no longer confined to time and space. Because the same image (say, a film in megaplexes across the country) can be seen in millions of places, it loses its aura.

Bottom line: Photography got rid of auras (and therefore the question of authenticity) and has totally changed the way we looked at art, opening us up to a whole world of awesome possibilities. Don't get me wrong—I'm not anti-aura, I just think it's time to move on.

Phantasmagoria

This one originated in "Paris, the Capital of the Nineteenth Century" and is developed thoroughly in my monumental Arcades Project. Also, it's also fun to say: fan-tazz-ma-GORE-ee-uh.

My Reader's Digest definition? "Visual spectacle" as it developed in the 19th century. What do you think all those people were doing in the Arcades? They were looking at lots and lots of stuff to buy. People were just cruising around these "innermost glowing cells of the city of light" (that's from The Arcades Project) where everyone and everything is on display. Both the consumer and the product are objects to be seen, all combining in a orgy of visual excess that I like to call phantasmagoria.

And yes, I said orgy of visual excess. It has a nice ring to it, don't you think?

Spoiler alert: A lot of these patterns of consumption ended when that tyrannical city planner Baron von Haussmann came along and replaced the little alleys and windowless arcades with his grand architecture and wide streets. As I say in The Arcades Project, "With the Haussmannization of Paris, the phantasmagoria was rendered in stone." Womp womp. Haussmann drove his long, wide boulevards straight through the charming neighborhoods of Paris, and thus ended the era of dreamy meandering and curious wanderings through small streets and alleys.

Flâneur

Do you enjoy strolling down the street, looking in shop windows and people-watching? No? Then you're lying. For the rest of you truth-tellers, you might just be flâneurs.

Sure, you may be wandering down the streets of San Francisco or Boston, but you still bear a distant resemblance to the flâneurs who interest me: the peeps in 19th-century Paris would just meander along, watching and being watched. And when I say meander, I mean meander—these guys were not in a hurry:

A pedestrian knew how to display his nonchalance provocatively on certain occasions. Around 1840 it was briefly fashionable to take turtles for a walk in the arcades. The flâneurs liked to have the turtles set the pace for them. If they had had their way, progress would have been obliged to accommodate itself to this pace. But this attitude did not prevail […] the watchword "Down with Dawdling!" carried the day.

That's from my esssay, "On Some Motifs in Baudelaire," because, in my humble opinion, the French poet Charles Baudelaire epitomized this modern streetwalker who found inspiration in urban life.

Mechanical Reproduction

This sweet little phrase, which comes from my essay, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," refers to the advances of film and photography that came along after the turn of the 19th century. At that point, things started being reproduced… mechanically.

With these new media—which were part of the capitalist means of production—art lost its "aura" [see above] and no longer had its singular aesthetic meaning. What's an image if it can be duplicated thousands of times? Well, for one, it's no longer an object of worship—like a one-off painting or "masterpiece" as some people called them.

So to review: capitalism + modernity = art's loss of authentic aura. But that's not necessarily a bad thing. After all, when we're viewing things at a distance, we're more likely to think about them more critically and more politically.

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