The Dialectics of Seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project
Walter Benjamin's magnum opus was a book he did not live to write. In The Dialecticsof Seeing, Susan Buck-Morss offers an inventive reconstruction of the Passagen Werk, or ArcadesProject, as it might have taken form.Working with Benjamin's vast files of citations and commentarywhich contain a myriad of historical details from the dawn of consumer culture, Buck-Morss makesvisible the conceptual structure that gives these fragments philosophical coherence. She uses imagesthroughout the book to demonstrate that Benjamin took the debris of mass culture seriously as thesource of philosophical truth.The Paris Arcades that so fascinated Benjamin (as they did theSurrealists whose "materialist metaphysics" he admired) were the prototype, the 19th century"ur-form" of the modern shopping mall. Benjamin's dialectics of seeing demonstrate how to read theseconsumer dream houses and so many other material objects of the time - from air balloons to women'sfashions, from Baudelaire's poetry to Grandville's cartoons - as anticipations of social utopia and,simultaneously, as clues for a radical political critique.Buck-Morss plots Benjamin's intellectualorientation on axes running east and west, north and south - Moscow Paris, Berlin-Naples - and showshow such thinking in coordinates can explain his understanding of "dialectics at a standstill." Sheargues for the continuing relevance of Benjamin's insights but then allows a set of "afterimages" tohave the last word.Susan Buck-Morss is Professor of Political Philosophy and Social Theory atCornell University. The Dialectics of Seeing is included in the series Studies in ContemporaryGerman Social Thought, edited by Thomas McCarthy.
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