Summary of Walter Benjamin’s essay Paris the Capital of the 19th century

Walter Benjamin, Summary of Walter Benjamin's essay Paris the Capital of the 19th century

Following is a summary of Walter Benjamin’s essay “Paris the Capital of the 19th century.” Each section of his essay is dealt with separately and succinctly.

Fourier or the Arcades 

According to Walter Benjamin, most of the Parisian arcades came into being fifteen years after 1822. With this started the trend of keeping large stocks of merchandise on the premises to showcase them and the same trend became the forerunners of department stores.

The arcades are centers of commerce in luxury items. For a long time, they remained an attraction for tourists i.e. they helped pull tourists to Paris.

In the first condition for the emergence of arcades, there was a boom in textile arcades. Likewise, in the second condition of their emergence, iron construction began. Consequently, iron was seen as a contribution to the revival of architecture in the classical Greek sense. However, architects of the time failed to understand the functional nature of iron, with which the constructive principle begins its domination of architecture.

The concepts of engineering, that dates back to the revolutionary war times, started to gain ground and the rivalry began between decorator and builder.

Benjamin believes that iron will undergo an evolution whose pace will accelerate in the course of the century. In fact, iron enters yet another decisive phase when it becomes clear that the locomotive is compatible only with iron rails.

Iron is avoided in home construction but used only in arcades, exhibition halls, train stations – buildings that serve transitory purposes.

The secret cue for the Fouririest utopia is the advent of machines. The phalanstery is designed to restore human beings to a system of relationships in which morality becomes superfluous. One of the most remarkable features of the Fourierist utopia is that it never advocates the exploitation of nature by man. Instead, in Fourier, technology appears as the spark that ignites the power of nature.

As a matter of fact, Fourier imagines collective psychology as a clockwork mechanism. In the arcades, Fourier recognized the architectural canon of a phalanstery.

The arcades, originally designed to serve commercial ends, become dwelling places in Fourier. The phalanstery is a city composed of arcades.

Grandville, or the World Exhibitions 

The world exhibitions are preceded by national exhibitions of industry. According to Walter Benjamin, world exhibitions arose from the wish to entertain the working classes, and for them, it became a festival of emancipation.

The Saint-Simonians envisioned the industrialization of the earth and they took up the idea of world exhibitions. They anticipated the development of a global economy, but not the class struggle.

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World exhibitions glorified the exchange value of the commodity. They created a framework in which its use value became secondary.

World exhibitions provided access to phantasmagoria where a person entered in order to be distracted. The enthronement of the commodity, with its luster of distraction, is the secret theme of Grandville’s art.

World exhibitions constructed a universe of specialties. The fantasies of Grandville achieved the same thing. They modernize the universe.

Toussenel’s zoology classifies the animal world according to the rule of fashion. He considers women the intermediary between man and the animals. She is in a sense decorator of the animal world which, in exchange, places at her feet its plumage and its furs. Fashion prescribes the ritual according to which the commodity fetish demands to be worshipped.

Grandville extends the authority of fashion to objects of everyday use as well as to the cosmos. It couples the living body to the inorganic world. To the living, it defends the rights of the corpse.

The fantasies of Grandville correspond to the spirit of the fashion that Apollinaire later described with this image: “Any material from nature’s domain can now be introduced into the composition of women’s clothes. . . .”

Louis Philippe, or the Interior

Under the reign of Louis Philippe, the private individual enters history. For the private individual, places of dwelling are for the first time opposed to places of work.

The place of dwelling constitutes itself as the interior and its complement is the office. The private individual, who in the office has to deal with reality, needs the domestic interior to sustain him in his illusions.

In the formation of a man’s private environment, both commercial and social considerations are left out. Phantasmagorias of the interior represents the universe for a private man. In the interior, he brings together remote locales and memories of the past.

The interior is the asylum where art takes refuge and its true resident is the collector. The collector delights in evoking a world that is not just distant and long gone but also a better world in which human beings are not properly provided with what they need in the real world, but in which things are freed from the drudgery being useful.

The interior is not just the world of the private individual, it is also his etui. Ever since the time of Philippe, the bourgeoisie has shown a tendency to compensate for the absence of any traces of private life in the big city.

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The liquidation of the interior took place during the last years of the 19th century, in the works of Jugendstil. The art of the interior was an art of genre, but Jugendstil sounds the death knell of the genre.

The new elements of iron construction command the attention of ‘modern style’. In the domain of ornamentation, it endeavors to integrate these forms into art. Concrete puts at its disposal new potentialities for architecture.

As Fourier had foreseen, the true framework for the life of the private citizen must be sought increasingly in offices and commercial centers.

Baudelaire or the Streets of Paris

With Baudelaire, Paris becomes for the first time the subject of lyric poetry. This poetry of place is the opposite of all poetry of the soil.

The gaze of the allegorist, as it falls on the city, is the gaze of the alienated man. It is the gaze of the flaneur, whose way of life conceals behind a beneficent mirage the anxiety of the future inhabitants of metropolises.

The flaneur seeks refuge in the crowd and the crowd is the veil through which the familiar city is transformed for the flaneur into phantasmagoria. The department store is the last precinct of flanerie.

In the flaneur, the intelligentsia sets foot in the marketplace. It surrenders itself to the market, thinking merely to look around, but in fact, it is already seeking a buyer. In this stage, in which it is beginning to familiarize itself with the market, it appears as the Boheme.

The uncertainty of its economic position corresponds to the ambiguity of its political function. Baudelaire’s rebellion is always that of the asocial man; it is at an impasse. The only sexual communion of his life was with a prostitute.

While the flaneur plays the role of a scout in the marketplace, it also explores the crowd. To the flaneur, the crowd inspires a sort of darkness, accompanied by very specific illusions. The man flatters himself that he has accurately classified a passerby, just on the basis of his appearance.

Baudelaire binds the allegorical form with the specific signification which the commodity acquires by virtue of its price. This degradation is counterbalanced in Baudelaire by the inestimable value of novelty. Newness is a quality independent of the use-value of the commodity.

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The fact that art’s last line of resistance should coincide with the commodity’s most advanced line of attack – this had to remain hidden from Baudelaire.

Baudelaire recognizes, in the spleen, the latest transfiguration of the ideal; the ideal seems to him the first expression of spleen. Baudelaire has given the liveliest form to the concept of modern by presenting the supremely new as ‘supremely old.’

The linchpin of Baudelaire’s theory of art is modern beauty.

Haussmann, or the Barricades

Haussmann’s activity is incorporated into Napoleonic imperialism which favors investment capital.

The rulings of the court of Cassation, inspired by the bourgeois and Orleanist opposition, increase the financial risk of Haussmannization.

Haussmann tries to establish his dictatorship by placing Paris under the emergency regime. He publicly told that he hated the rootless urban population. This population grows every larger due to his projects. However, the rising rents drive the proletariat into the suburbs.

Haussmann gave himself the title of ‘demolition artist’. The central marketplace passes for Haussmann’s most successful construction. It had been said of the cradle of the city that in the wake of Haussmann, only one church, one public building, and one barrack remained.

The inhabitants of the city no longer feel at home there; they start to become conscious of the inhuman character of the metropolis. The true goal of Haussmann’s project was to secure the city against the civil war.

Haussmann wanted to make the erection of barricades in the streets of Paris impossible for all time. However, barricades had played a considerable role in the February Revolution.

Haussmann saw his project possible because widening the streets would make the erection of barricades impossible, and new streets would connect the barracks in straight lines with the workers’ districts. As a matter of fact, contemporaries christened the operation ‘strategic embellishment’.

Haussmann’s ideal in city planning consisted of long straight streets opening onto broad perspectives. With the Haussmannization of Paris, the phantasmagoria was rendered in stone. The barricade is resurrected during the commune and it is stronger and better designed than ever before.

The barricades stretch across boulevards, often reaching a height of two stories. Just as the Communist Manifesto puts an end to the age of professional conspirators, so the commune ends the phantasmagoria that dominates the earliest aspiration of the proletariat.



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