Approaches to Walter Benjamin’s «The Arcades Project»

by Paweł Stachura (Volume editor) Piotr Śniedziewski (Volume editor) Krzysztof Trybuś (Volume editor)
Edited Collection 180 Pages
Series: Literary and Cultural Theory, Volume 52


Walter Benjamin is one of the most important figures of modern culture. The authors focus within this book on Benjamin as a philosopher, or rather as a critic of modernism entangled in tradition (mainly Jewish), but also as a writer. Philosophical and philological readings are accompanied by essays presenting the complex biography of Benjamin and numerous, often unexpected, parallels which indicate traces of his reflections in works of other artists. In consequence, «The Arcades Project», which can be described as Benjamin’s opus vitae, is not only a picturesque history of Parisian arcades of the mid-19th century. It is also a polyphonic text, composed of quotations, commentaries and footnotes, a discussion of the sense of history and the literary work of art that surprises with its meandering quality.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Introduction
  • Table of Contents
  • Frequently Cited Editions
  • Philosophical Approach
  • Return of the gaze. The name as idea and dialectical image (Adam Lipszyc)
  • Man as Name Giver: Some Non-Elective Affinities between Benjamin and Heidegger (Agata Bielik-Robson)
  • Biographical Approach
  • Benjamin, a Jew (Katarzyna Kuczyńska-Koschany)
  • A Discourse of the Master Benjamin with Death and Life (Roman Kubicki)
  • Textual Approach
  • In the Labyrinth of Benjamin’s Arcades Project: The Flâneur, the Collector, and the Gambler as Readers of the Nineteenth Century (Jerzy Kałążny)
  • Paris in Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project – on the Threshold of Modernity (Lidia Banowska)
  • The Poet of Awakening (Jerzy Borowczyk)
  • Photography and The Arcades Project (Wiesław Ratajczak)
  • The Arcades Project, or the Melancholy of “Editing” (Piotr Śniedziewski)
  • Context-Based Approach
  • Benjamin as a Commentator on Norwid (Krzysztof Trybuś)
  • Myths in the Polish People’s Republic. Iwaszkiewicz avec Benjamin (Michał Mrugalski)
  • Series index

| 9 →

Frequently Cited Editions

References to the following books will be made parenthetically in the text:

Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings, ed. Michael W. Jennings and Marcus Bullock, Howard Eiland, Gary Smith, vol. I–IV (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1996–2003). Cited as Selected Writings.

Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin, prepared on the basis of the German volume edited by Rolf Tiedman (Cambridge Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1999). Cited as The Arcades.

Walter Benjamin, The Origin of German Tragic Drama, trans. John Osborne (London – New York: Verso, 1998). Cited as The Origin of German Tragic Drama.

The Correspondence of Walter Benjamin 1910–1940, ed. Gershom Scholem and Theodor W. Adorno, trans. Manfred R. Jacobson and Evelyn M. Jacobson (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1994). Cited as The Correspondence of Walter Benjamin 1910–1940.

| 11 →

Philosophical Approach

| 13 →

Adam Lipszyc

Return of the gaze. The name as idea and dialectical image

Abstract: The paper offers a detailed analysis of the development of Walter Benjamin’s epistemological project from his Ursprung des deutschen Trauerspiels to the Arcades Project. The author sets the development against the background of the linguistic turn, the essential feature of the 20th century philosophy, understood here as an attempt to focus on the singular. Benjamin is seen as moving from the epistemology conforming rather clearly to the general move of the linguistic turn to the one which sets the paradoxical ‘image in language’ at the very center of the epistemological endeavors. By referring to Lévinas, Gadamer and Foucault by means of contrast and comparison, the author argues Benjamin’s focus on the image, far from undoing the linguistic turn, in fact rescues its very essence.

Keywords: Walter Benjamin; linguistic turn; image; name; Hans-Georg Gadamer

The most characteristic mark of the 20th century philosophy was the linguistic turn. This gesture, undertaken in different ways by thinkers representing different philosophical schools, essentially boiled down to the establishing of an unbreakable bond between human thought and the realm of language. If we set aside early Wittggenstein and a few similar philosophical enterprises, we may say that the linguistic turn was to break with absolutist claims of modern philosophy, or perhaps of the philosophical tradition as such. The linguistic notion of cognition was to account for human finiteness, individuality and corporeality, as well as for our involvement in the historical element and for the variety of human experience. Now, the acceptance of such a notion often puts such categories as image, vision and gaze into the enemy’s camp, into the camp of those who defend the realm of absolute concepts purified of the contigent word. Thus, on the one side of the barricade we would have the concept and the image, the Platonic belief in the possibility of conceptual vision of the absolute truth outside of the cave, and on the other side – the word, understood as the basic element of the relative and the plural.

The essential point of reference of my rather modest inquiry is a certain general point about the 20th century linguistic turn and about its hostility towards the visual. It states, roughly, that when philosophy gives up vision as such and embraces the idea of the linguistic mediation of experience, it risks a dialectic return to the oculo- and logocentrism it tried to escape; on the other hand, the liguistic ← 13 | 14 → notion of human experience can defend its intellectual assets, if, paradoxically enough, at its very center it will accept a certain notion of the image.

It seems that one of the prominent figures in the 20th century philosophy that has understood this (or whose intellectual development at least agrees with the above postulate) was Walter Benjamin. In the following I will simply try to show how and why at a certain stage of development a theory of image becomes a central part of Benjamin’s philosophy of language.

Having expressed these two high-flown declarations (the one concerning the linguistic turn as such, and the other concerning the general structure of Benjamin’s thought), I may now submerge into the element of the schoolish in which I shall move in this essay. The plan is simple: first, I shall sketch Benjamin’s theory of the idea and of the origin presented in the foreword to his book on Baroque and then I shall take a look at certain aspects of the thoery of dialectical image as presented in the file N of the arcades project. Similarities and contrasts between these two theories should give some substance to the general declarations I have formulated. Yet, in order not to bore the reader with Benjamin only, from time to time I shall be referring also to Emmanuel Lévinas, as well as to Michel Foucault and Hans-Georg Gadamer.

It is well known that the methodological foreword to the Ursprung des deutschen Trauerspiels is one of the most eccentric of all Benjamin’s texts (see The Origin of German Tragic Drama, pp. 27–56). Certainly, to a large extent it can be blamed for the fact that nowadays we refer to Benjamin’s book on Baroque as “would-be Habilitationsschrift”. The foreword is composed of short pieces with separate titles, but the whole text can be easily divided into three bigger parts. The third part deals mostly with the failed reception of the German Baroque drama and, although highly interesting, will not be my concern here. The first two part, on the other hand, are of strictly philosophical nature and present a deeply insane methodology of the work. The first of the two – from the beginning of the text till the fragment entitiled “Das Wort als Idee” – presents Benjamin’s theory of ideas, while the second one develops it further by introducing the category of the origin. Let as have a look at this idiosyncratic conceptual edifice.

In its critical dimension the first part of the foreword is an attack on the notion that truth may become the object of cognition. Cognition is an intentional relationship; it is a form of possession. Yet, truth does not enter any relationships and in particular – any intentional ones. “Truth – according to the famous formula – is the death of intention” (The Origin of German Tragic Drama, p. 36). Benjamin identifies the intentional, possessive act of cognition with vision which is characteristic of Neoplatonic paganism. Hence, he claims quite consistently ← 14 | 15 → that truth cannot become the object of the mystical, intellectual or of any other kind of vision.

It is perhaps worth noting that if we take into account the identification of the philosophy of vision with paganism as well as the Biblical sources on which Benjamin draws, the criticism is reminiscent of Emmanuel Lévinas’s attack against the ontological approach in theology. The author of Totality and Infinity insisted that the relation with transcendence cannot be of intentional nature, for the intentional cognitive act would violate the strict otherworldliness of the divine. He also liked to link such an immanentist approach to paganism. The solution which Lévinas offers is to recognize the ethical nature of the true relation with transcendence. God is present in the world only as a trace which we come into contact with only by doing good to the other.

Biographical notes

Paweł Stachura (Volume editor) Piotr Śniedziewski (Volume editor) Krzysztof Trybuś (Volume editor)

Paweł Stachura is an Associate Professor with the Faculty of English at Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań. He has published on 19th-century American literature, American science fiction, literary theory, and comparative literature. Piotr Śniedziewski is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Romanticism of the Polish Studies Institute at the Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań. He has published on 19th-century French and Polish literature, literary theory, and melancholy. Krzysztof Trybuś is a Full Professor at the Polish Studies Institute at the Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań. His research focuses on the history of Polish literature of Romanticism, mainly on works by Norwid and Mickiewicz, and on literary tradition and cultural memory.


Title: Approaches to Walter Benjamin’s «The Arcades Project»