As an occasional feature on TELOSscope, we highlight a past Telos article whose critical insights continue to illuminate our thinking and challenge our assumptions. Today, Michael Bacal looks at Howard Eiland’s “Superimposition in Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Projects,” from Telos 138 (Spring 2007).
Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project is likely the most jarring and ambitious work of cultural history of the twentieth century. Breathtaking in its scope, brilliant in its insight, and stamped throughout with his inimitable style, it is the unfinished, thirteen-year project Benjamin attempted as an encyclopedic capture of the emergence of Paris as the capital of the nineteenth century. Touching on everything from urban development to literary analysis and revolutionary consciousness, it presents a vast palimpsest of quotations, theoretical reflections, and minutiae taken from the most quotidian aspects of Parisian life. In a recent Telos article, Howard Eiland, one of the translators responsible for bringing the Passagenwerk into English, offers a compelling overview of Benjamin’s text and a stable set of theoretical coordinates with which to navigate it. His essay, “Superimposition in Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project,” does this by putting forth the figure of the flâneur as the organizing locus of the book and by developing his unique experience of the world as central not only to the text but also to Benjamin’s theoretical project as a whole. By elaborating this through the notion of “superimposition,” Eiland outlines the singular experience of the flâneur and connects it with the broader historical and political dimensions to which it opens.
Most famously developed by Baudelaire, the flâneur is the casual, often aimless urban roamer, who leisurely ambles through the city streets. Unlike his counterpart, the thoroughly modern man who passes by in his routinized hurry, the flâneur takes up a new stance to the world he passes through. He embodies a simultaneous attitude of detachment and involvement, disengaging himself from the crowds and humdrum street life, yet nonetheless engages from a distance, gazing and probing his surroundings. This curious perspective, Eiland notes, enables the flâneur to take up a position that permits a privileged mode of experience, one that poises him to consciously register many of the overlooked textures of modern life. For Benjamin, who brought together a wide range of seemingly disparate influences to inform this idiosyncratic conception of experience—Baudelaire, Freud, Bergson, and surrealism, to name a few—it is an intensely heightened kind of receptivity. It is a transformed experience of both space and time that has been shaken loose from deadened habit, and which has become open to the disclosure of deeper truths about both the past and the historical embeddedness of our social, cultural, and political present. As Eiland notes, with this experience of “superimposition” the flâneur finds himself suddenly awakened from the urban somnolence that lulls the modern man, newly aware of his surroundings:
At streetcorners, before housefronts and shopfronts, in proximity to particular doorways, particular stretches of cobblestone, particular entrances to the catacombs, particular cafés and cabarets, he experiences an uncanny thickening and layering of phenomena, an effect of superimposition, in which remembered events or habitations show through the present time and place, which have suddenly become transparent, just as in film an image may bleed through one or more simultaneously perceptible, interarticulated images in multiple exposure. It is a dreamlike effect, with the moving imagery characteristically yielding, in the flâneur’s case, a “felt knowledge” that is not yet conceptual.
Critically, Eiland makes it clear that this uncanny experience is central to Benjamin’s historical materialist phenomenology and a feature of his alternate practice of historiography. Benjamin thematizes it via Marx and offers it as something that, for the flâneur, can break through the reified and rationalized experience of bourgeois modern life. This not only opens up to new experiences of the world, but also unlocks the possibilities for a historical anamnesis that holds within it latent redemptive impulses. As Eiland notes, in this new experience of his social and historical world, the flâneur is able to recapture the disavowed histories sedimented in the seemingly mundane and banal. The barbarity in each document of civilization, the injustices and traces of suffering and domination built into the historical objects of our present: by unearthing these and becoming aware of them, the flâneur is able to “redeem” these objects and draw attention to them, developing the resources for broader forms of collective utopian consciousness. Eiland’s essay develops a remarkable account of this in its consideration of the tropes of dreaming/awakening and spectrality at work in the Arcades Project. For instance:
In Benjamin’s dialectical conception, to awaken from the dream is not to leave the dreamworld behind but to reappropriate it, to “pass through and carry out” some part of what has been . . . historical awakening entails descent into “the deepest stratum of the dream”—that is, into the most obscure and dusty recesses of some particular region of the past. . . . The embeddedness of the present in the past—or the vibration of the past in the present—is for Benjamin an index of authentic experience, tied as this is to the dialectic of nearness and distance . . . [a] reversion, namely, of the waking world into the dreamworld in order to generate more complete wakefulness, the reversion of the sober into the intoxicated in order to fortify sobriety, the reversion of the newest into the most ancient in order to become truly original. Reflecting the unreflective, what is not yet conscious, the dialectical reversal—as a function of remembrance—serves to deepen the present, so that the present can become what it is: the inmost image of what has been. . . . Such experience of the past is contrasted to historiographic rehearsal of facts. Referring to citation as a “calling to life” of what has been, an “extracting” of “what has remained inconspicuously buried.”
This is the flâneur’s awakening not from, but to the past that haunts us, to the nightmare which, following Marx, weighs on the brains of the living and which, for Benjamin, we must confront if we want to begin the necessary redemptive repair that can correct the past in the present in the hopes of a better future.
Read the full version of Howard Eiland’s “Superimposition in Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Projects“ at the TELOS Online website. If you are affiliated with an institution that is an online subscriber to Telos, you have free access to our complete online archive. If not, you can purchase 24-hour access to this and other Telos articles at a per-article rate. Follow the article link for more details.