Arcades Project

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View of an arcade (the passage Choiseul, located in the second arrondissement of Paris), as an example of the characteristic architecture of the covered arcades of 19th-century Paris.

Passagenwerk or Arcades Project was an unfinished project of German philosopher and cultural critic Walter Benjamin, written between 1927 and 1940. An enormous collection of writings on the city life of Paris in the 19th century, it was especially concerned with Paris' iron-and-glass covered "arcades" (known in French as the passages couverts de Paris).

Benjamin's Project, which many scholars[1] believe might have become one of the great texts of 20th-century cultural criticism, was never completed due to his suicide on the French-Spanish border in 1940. The Arcades Project has been posthumously edited and published in many languages as a collection of unfinished reflections. The work is mainly written in German, yet also contains French-language passages, mainly quotes.


Parisian arcades began to be constructed around the beginning of the nineteenth century and were sometimes destroyed as a result of Baron Haussmann's renovation of Paris during the Second French Empire (ca. 1850–1870). Benjamin linked them to the city's distinctive street life and saw them as providing one of the habitats of the flâneur (i.e., a person strolling in a locale to experience it).

Benjamin first mentioned the Arcades Project in a 1927 letter to his friend Gershom Scholem, describing it as his attempt to use collage techniques in literature.[2] Initially, Benjamin saw the Arcades as a small article he would finish within a few weeks.

However, Benjamin's vision of the Arcades Project grew increasingly ambitious in scope until he perceived it as representing his most important creative accomplishment. On several occasions Benjamin altered his overall scheme of the Arcades Project, due in part to the influence of Theodor Adorno, who gave Benjamin a stipend and who expected Benjamin to make the Arcades project more explicitly political and Marxist in its analysis.[2]

It contains sections (convolutes) on Arcades, Fashion, Catacombs, iron constructions, exhibitions, advertising, Interior design, Baudelaire, The Streets of Paris, Panoramas and Dioramas, Mirrors, Painting, Modes of Lighting, Railroads, Charles Fourier, Marx, Photography, Mannequins, Social movements, Daumier's caricatures, Literary History, the Stock exchange, Lithography, and the Paris Commune.

It influenced Marshal McLuhan's studies in media theory.


The project's structure is idiosyncratic. The convolutes correspond to letters of the alphabet; the individual sections of text— sometimes individual lines, sometimes multi-paragraph analyses —are ordered with square brackets, starting from [A1,1]. This numbering system comes from the pieces of folded paper that Benjamin wrote on, with [A1a,1] denoting the third page of his 'folio.'[3] Additionally, Benjamin included cross-references at the end of some sections. These were denoted by small boxes enclosing the word (e.g., ■ Fashion ■).[4]

The sections of text are at times Benjamin's own thoughts, and at other times consecutive quotations. These two types of textual sections are differentiated in their typography, with a large typeface for his writing and a smaller one for citations. This convention comes from the German version, but has no basis in Benjamin's manuscript. The convolutes also make extensive use of epigraphs from obscure publications.

Publication history[edit]

The notes and manuscript for the Arcades Project and much of Benjamin's correspondence had been entrusted to Benjamin's friend Georges Bataille before Benjamin fled Paris under Nazi occupation. Bataille, who worked as a librarian at the Bibliothèque Nationale, hid the manuscript in a closed archive at the library where it was eventually discovered after the war.

The full text of Benjamin's unfinished magnum opus was published in English translation by Harvard University Press in 1999 after years of difficult editorial work undertaken by Rolf Tiedemann, the editor of the landmark 1982 German edition. The book is hailed by some[who?] as one of the milestones of 20th-century literary criticism, history and critical theory. Others, such as Mark Lilla,[2] describe the Arcades project as one of Benjamin's lesser works, suggesting that its importance has been vastly overstated. Lilla argues that apart from occasional flashes of humor and insight, Benjamin's surviving version of the Arcades Project is largely tedious and uninteresting.

The publication of the Arcades Project has given rise to controversy over the methods employed by the editors and their decisions involving the ordering of the fragments. Critics argue that this reconstruction makes the book akin to a multi-layered palimpsest.[citation needed] The Arcades Project, as it stands, is often claimed to be a forerunner to postmodernism.[citation needed]


  1. ^ Agamben, Giorgio (1993). Stanzas. Minneapolis: Uni. go Minnesota Press. pp. xvii.
  2. ^ a b c Lilla, Mark (May 25, 1995). "The Riddle of Walter Benjamin" (preview only; subscription required). Review of The Correspondence of Walter Benjamin, 1910–1940. The New York Review of Books. Retrieved 2017-07-29.
  3. ^ Benjamin, Walter (1999). The arcades project. Rolf Tiedemann. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press. ISBN 0-674-04326-X. OCLC 41176710.
  4. ^ Benjamin, Walter (1999). The arcades project. Rolf Tiedemann. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press. ISBN 0-674-04326-X. OCLC 41176710.


Primary source[edit]

  • Walter Benjamin (2002), Rolf Tiedemann (ed.), The Arcades Project, New York: Belknap Press, p. 1088, ISBN 0-674-00802-2 Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin (Translators)

Secondary sources[edit]

External links[edit]