:: Article

Phantamasgoric Capitalism: Benjamin’s Arcades Today

By Jim Fearnley.


A landscape haunts

Intense as opium

Stéphane Mallarmé


There seems to be only one way to approach a text like The Arcades Project, namely in the spirit in which it was written – discursively, digressively, impressionistically. Therefore, the following does not follow a conventional scheme, either of chronology or in the form of an imitation of the structure of the text, given its own organic flavour.

Why discuss The Arcades Project now? The book, for all its chaos and eccentricity, is an attempt to provide a record of capitalist development in a particular place and time, namely 19th-century Paris. As we know, capitalism hasn’t gone away, and neither have the particularities discussed by Benjamin – the ‘phantamasgoric’ nature of a society created by an economy in which exchange and representation suppress use and experience, the power of commodity fetishism and its extension into the field of sexual relations, the bourgeois domination of inner-city space, and the voluntary nomadism of the middle-class flaneur.

There is a further reason why this is an opportune moment to critically examine the relationship between cultural studies and radical theory, and Benjamin is perhaps best placed to provide an example for discussion, given he was as much enamoured of the former as committed to the latter.

The global economic infrastructure has been subject to a process of radical development since the crisis proximately initiated in 2007 by the sale of ‘default-ready’ loans to low-income home buyers. One salient result of this has been the progressive immiseration of large segments of the bourgeoisie in the developed world, now subject to the same insecurity of salary and job longevity as the working class has always traditionally been. This unmooring from old certainties has led to an objective loss of ‘stake’ in this society, and it remains to be seen what the reaction to this will be by those affected.

Some will cling to the intellectual sense of superiority pertaining to the possession of “cultural capital” (Pierre Bourdieu), while others will come to realise the truth, namely that art in ‘civil’ society is the amanuensis of a system that prices out the majority in the interests of galloping property valorisation, a system for managing cultural assets (meant in both senses of the term), etc. Having been ‘realised’ in an apparently endless cycle of ‘specialist’ comments on the ‘human condition’, art must now, as the Situationists recommended nearly 50 years ago, be suppressed.


Culture and marketing

The arcades represented the most integrated hybrid thus far of ‘art’ and advertising. What is striking is the extent to which, as the Situationists noted, everything becomes subject to promotion and ideologies that become commodities of the intellectual market-place as much as things are the stock in trade of the agora. Radical, ‘agitational-propaganda’ art illustrates this point – the cause is made more attractive by the application of strong design values.



Military Architecture and Regeneration

Just as the skills of presentation, display, and positioning are brought into the service of the commodity, Haussmann’s pre-emptive re-design of the city makes a militarised architecture the help-meet of social peace, and aesthetics, ambience, and spatial resonance are sacrificed to the straight lines of the city as, [literally] regimented space. Haussmann was not concerned with aesthetics, and could be described as an architectural nihilist, or “demolition artist” as he termed himself, responsible for “strategic embellishment”.

Haussmann’s work displaces and uproots the urban poor, forcibly compressing in time the process of organic assimilation of villages that characterises urban development. We shall return to the theme of time and the city in due course, but we should give honourable mention to Eugene Atget for his evocative photographs of Paris in just such a state of transition.



Planned urban environments from Haussmann to Le Corbusier (by way of Albert Speer) are instances of coordinated and major upheaval based on a grafted ideal or model, designed to engineer human behaviour through the manipulation of the urban landscape. Haussmann’s priority was socio-military pacification, Speer’s was a combination of military and other concerns (the free passage of commodities), and Le Corbusier’s the creation of efficient productive and socially reproductive environments, machines for living.

In the present phase, the agenda has become simultaneously more narrow and more amorphous – the creation of; (A) homes and playpens for the rich in close proximity to financial centres and (B) investment sites, in which the surplus value extracted from proletarians in underdeveloped countries (such as China) is revalorised via property trading in the West.


The Ritual Burial of the Past

When the Boundary Estate in Shoreditch (East London), one of the first social housing developments in the UK, was built, it was constructed on the ruins of the Old Nichol, a notorious and lawless slum. The beneficiaries of this original act of social cleansing were not the super-rich, but the ‘respectable’ working class. A tumulus, now crowned with a bandstand, was built on the debris of the original buildings. In similarly triumphalist (and culturally ‘enriching’) fashion, a pyramidal sculpture was built by an art collective using the rubble from the Heygate Estate (Elephant & Castle, South-East London), demolished to make way for a mega-property development for the rich. The Elephant may have had none of the bucolic charms of a ‘village’, but it was most definitely a ‘manor’. 



Arcades as the means of ingress into secret zones

More than once, Benjamin characterises arcades as passages into the Underworld, an image that conjures up a host of mythological associations with the liminal zones that blur the boundaries between different states of being (and consciousness). More prosaically, perhaps, arcades are interiorised worlds that combine opportunities to both realise the exchange value of goods and fetishize the commodity, separated from the external environment. In turn, this is meant to account for their association with other clandestine activities, such as prostitution.


Commodity Fetishism and the Sacred

Arcade culture represents the commodity artistically and ritually embedded into the environment and daily life. As destination of travel/exercise, as object of aesthetic contemplation, as means of mystical consummation, in contrast to the characterless process of automated self-service in a supermarket.


Time, Space, Capital, and the City

We have already talked, in relation to the Haussmann project, of the compression of time in the forced development of the city. Aggressive hyper-regeneration crushes history, and compacts the accretions of time and lived experience, which almost seem to tangibly press in on you in, e.g., the mediaeval areas of mainland European cities. Depth is flattened into surface, and the class and cultural past of an area is effectively obliterated. This is a process consistent with the abolition of memory (and thus history) in favour of an eternal, banal, and cyclical present.

Large-scale planned urban development flattens across more than the three perceived spatial dimensions, but takes in time as well. At the same time, it applies an a-spatiality to its projects that travels across cities and continents. For example, there was an attempt to name the Elephant & Castle development ‘Tribeca‘ in a nod to a similar regeneration project conducted in the TRiangle BElow CAnal Street in New York City (TRIBECA) (the Regent’s Canal is nowhere near the Elephant). Thankfully, the plan was defeated, although it is instructive to note a similar attempt to re-brand the Holborn area of Central London “Midtown”.

Velocity runs through any consideration of capitalist development, from the carrier birds used to share information that Benjamin mentions were in use in the 19th century, to the edge provided by hyper-fast fibre optic cabling used for high-speed transactions (HSTs) in the current period. Further speed is added by the use of software algorithms for financial market decisions, eliminating time wasted on human hesitation and reflection. Conversely, in the sphere of consumption, time spent on purchase is reduced by the replacement of barter, arguably a social interaction. Whatever its purpose, to barter has a social dimension missing from, e.g., making an automated purchase in a supermarket.

Bourgeois history is envisaged as a vast accumulation of things or facts or events, and Benjamin notes the extent to which velocity affects the nature of perception. To slow it down sufficiently is to be able to view life as an inter-connected process, rather than a series of discrete instances, temporal or substantial.

In an overcrowded and claustrophobic city, social space becomes both a geographical and a psychological phenomenon. The latter dimension is perhaps more apparent in a city such as London, where traditionally, different classes, cultures, and ethnicities have tended to live cheek by jowl in many areas, in contrast to the ghettoisation of cities, e.g., in the USA. This heterogeneity is, however, very clearly the target of the next phase of capitalist valorisation in London.



Distance imposes indifference (‘out of sight, out of mind’), from colonialism through the outsourcing of industrial production, via mass starvation, ‘natural’ disasters, and disease epidemics in the Southern hemisphere, to the lack of interest of the bourgeoisie regarding the experiences of the ‘indigenous’ poor, which translates as a form of ‘domestic colonialism’.

Those who have had no experience of persistent poverty do not have either the epistemological tools or any incentive to understand or empathise with the experiences of the chronically poor. This makes it easier to believe that the privations of the poor are as a result of their own ‘deficiencies’, rather than the structural logic of a society based on the economy of the war of all against all. Equally, those who have applied upward motion to their social bootstraps congratulate themselves that their financial success is attributable to their ‘specialness’. Next stop, eugenics.

Social space becomes more than a demarcation of physical space according to feet and inches, but now also embraces the notion of an unbounded mental zone.

With respect to time and space. Benjamin discusses the sight-lines of the city, and the flâneur following vanishing perspectives into a ‘non-personal’ past, haunted by the melody of a song that pre-dates their own existence. They are driven forward to the next corner, and the succeeding yet-to-be-revealed vista.


Where the Dead Meets the Living

Fetishisms represents the point of intersection between the dead and the living, and in the case of, e.g., sexual fetish objects, can be further described as the point at which the dead revivifies the living, stimulating dormant or jaded appetites.

On the image (particularly the photographic image): “image is dialectics at a standstill” – the coincidence of what was from the perspective of what is.


Sexual and Commodity Fetishism

The male flâneur has the liberty to wander unmolested and uncategorised through the urban environment, and his female counterpart is speculated by Benjamin to be the street sex worker. Benjamin regards the interaction between these two protagonists as the ultimate expression of commodity fetishism, in reducing the human female to the status of object. While this is a refraction of the truth, it is partial. Capitalism reduces all proletarians to the status of commodities through their ownership of labour power of a generalised, not simply sexual, variety.


The Flâneur

The middle-class flâneur (particularly those originating in the UK) adopts a voluntary itinerant status with no attachment to place, and idealising, e.g., Italian cuisine ,French culture, etc. This sampling extends beyond a simple consumption of goods, in order to embrace life as a series of purchasable experiences. One of the disadvantages of this status is of course, the ultimate non-existence or dissolution of the flâneur as actual individual rather than type, who is forever condemned to be a witness and never an actor in the events they ‘encounter’ (rather than experience).

The flâneur is an expression of the bohemian archetype, who, up to a given point only, is the bourgeois equivalent of the ‘lumpen-proletarian’, in the sense of being unmoored from the conventional values of their class. The middle-class flâneur has the potential for cultural ‘innovation’, for example via ‘radical’ art, or at the least the expression of a limited form of social freedom. In contrast, the ‘lumpen-proletarian is free even from this tie to the old world) the possibility of material success via the commodification of their cultural production) and realises, through the critique of insurrection, that the only thorough-going innovation of this world must be a subversive one.


Social Class and the Variants of Tedium

Boredom – an index to participation in the sleep of the collective”.

To be bored is a proxy declaration of the need not to work, and is therefore an indicator of labour aristocracy whereby the urban bourgeois can mimic the identity of the landed gentry.



For the proletarian, boredom means something entirely different, of course. Repetitious work or ‘drudge’ activities produce their own boredom, generated by the imperatives of economic survival.


The Artefact and the Commodity

Benjamin makes reference to Honoré de Balzac in noting that the 19th-century development of productive forces reduces artefacts (products of skill) to commodities, whose mass-produced identity with each other reduces them to the status of interchangeable things.


The Consumer and the Collector

Implicitly, Benjamin seems to draw a distinction between the consumptive appetites of the ‘regular’ consumer and the lofty pretensions of the collector. This latter figure aspires to achieve a detached view of the object, which is thus appreciated as a ‘ding-an-sich‘ (thing in itself), attested to by its individual pedigree or provenance. This stands in contrast to the mere commodity, which serves only as the means to the end of gratification. The activity of collection (and by extension grouping/ordering) becomes compulsive, and thus even further removed from the act of ‘base consumption’.

Benjamin initially opposes the figure of the allegorist to that of the collector. In this scheme, the allegorist universalises in order to demonstrate essence and commonality, by the formation of associations between things. In contrast, a collector particularises and orders.

While this is superficially true, it does not allow for the excavation of latent meaning by reference, comparison, or juxtaposition. The latter was a process applied through the filter of Dadaism by the Situationist use of ‘detournement‘, Benjamin himself concludes that “in every collector hides an allegorist, and in every allegorist a collector”. Each seeks completeness in a unified network of meaning, whose constituent elements for the collector are things, and for the allegorist, ideas. Perhaps the taxonomist would be the most appropriate intermediating figure.


Paris as the Citadel of Babel

Benjamin refers to a plan to ‘make Paris the world’, that is to rename the streets after famous sites across the globe, in order to create a micro-cosmos. This appears reminiscent of a Jorge Luis Borges story, where the physical model in some sense is, according to a notional discontinuous pictorial guide, the same as what it depicts. The text becomes our imagining of the world ‘out there’, streets take on the characteristics of the places after which they are named, adjacent streets set up imaginal encounters between two otherwise unconnected locations.


The Reciprocal Relationship between Dream and Waking Life

Dream and waking life have a reciprocal relationship where the everyday or ‘profane’ is viewed through the spectrum of the dream and made ‘unheimlich‘ (strange or, literally, ‘unhomely‘). At the same time, the dream is grounded as a legitimate form of reality. Just as the Situationists were mindful of the opportunity presented by ‘détournement‘ (the juxtaposition of incongruous or conflicting elements) to bring out or create new meanings inherent in the constituent elements of a composition or situation as a form of subversion (e.g., to mock the Spectacle), dreams have the capacity to draw hidden meanings from waking life.


Jim Fearnley used to reach for his gun every time he heard the word ‘culture‘, but time is running out for him to participate in the suppression and realisation of art. He now finds himself on the Clapham omnibus of social space, digital hegemony, cultural unheimlichkeit, and meta-temporal immanence.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, August 25th, 2014.