2 Thinking writing doing 2 Thinking writing doing

Walter Benjamin

Walter Benjamin worked freelance, as an independent scholar. As a young man, he was President of the Free Students’ Union in Berlin; he was involved in the radical political journal Die Aktion. He thought of himself as a literary critic, publishing essays on Goethe and Hölderlin, on the origins of German tragedy, on Baudelaire and Proust, on Kafka, Walser and Kraus. He wrote seminal treatments of translation and of the changing nature and status of the artwork once it came to be reproduced and distributed in print form. He left behind a colossal manuscript known as the Passagenwerk or Arcades Project, consisting almost entirely of notes on aspects of nineteenth-century society and culture, as expressed and experienced in Paris, and articulated specifically in its bourgeois shopping arcades.

He was friends with Scholem, Bloch, Adorno, Lukacs, Horkheimer and Brecht. He was influenced by both Marxism and surrealism, and was associated with the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research (the Frankfurt School) until it left Germany for America. Benjamin himself left Berlin for Paris in 1933, and took his own life waiting to cross the border to Spain in September 1940. He was a cousin of Hannah Arendt’s first husband, Günter Stern (later Günter Anders); Arendt edited and introduced a posthumous yet seminal collection of Benjamin’s essays published as Illuminations in 1968.

One-Way Street came out in 1928, a short collection of prose fragments including notes and observations, theses, musings, tributes, quotations, and critical commentary. It used slogans as subheads for each brief section, the kind of thing to be seen walking down a city street, on signs and hoardings and in shop-windows (though they mostly bore little or no relation to the text they announce).

One-Way Street is important for the themes it prefigures in Benjamin’s later work. It already points to his interest in objects or commodities, and the way in which they seem to stand for modes of life. It suggests that whole worlds – of production and exchange, values and ways of living – might be read into the material properties of the artefact. A second element is the significance of images and visual experience. It is present here in his accounts of dreams and memories, which are sometimes introduced as such while at other times his writing simply adopts a tone of dream-like imagining, seeming to reach for something it can’t quite catch.

True literary activity cannot aspire to take place within a literary framework; this is rather the habitual expression of its sterility. Significant literary effectiveness can come into being only in a strict alternation between action and writing; it must nurture the inconspicuous forms that fit its influence in active communities better than does the pretentious, universal gesture of the book – in leaflets, brochures, articles and placards.

Walter Benjamin, One-Way Street, 1928

A third theme of One-Way Street is Benjamin’s frequent reflection on writing, on reading, and specifically on the eclipse of a particular way of reading and writing and the need for or ready presence of a new one. Benjamin wants to escape the composition in continuous prose of the monograph, assembling his text partly from found fragments and partly from remarks of his own. He’s interested in and writes about the associated technologies of print communication: the typewriter, the card-file, the newspaper, the stamp.


(T)he writing consists largely of quotations – the craziest mosaic technique imaginable.

Walter Benjamin, correspondence

Benjamin worked on the Arcades Project in 1928-1929, and took it up again in Paris in 1934. It remains a collection of textual fragments, some a few words but most a few lines long, some as long as half a page or more. They are set down one after another, like items in a list, but don’t immediately express any more extended train of thought. They are grouped under headings such as ‘Fashion’, ‘Boredom’, ‘Barricade fighting’ and ‘Iron construction’, and labelled alphabetically rather than numerically. Most entries are citations, taken from a wide range of sources: scholarly works, city guides and traveller’s notes, excerpt from novels, plays and poems, correspondence, journalism, autobiographies, histories, contemporary advertisements and prospectuses, treatises on architecture, economics or politics which somehow bear on his topic. Some simply record the existence of other sources.

Method of this project: literary montage. I needn’t say anything. Merely show. I shall purloin no valuables, appropriate no ingenious formulations. But the rags, the refuse – these I will not inventory but allow, in the only way possible, to come into their own: by making use of them.

Walter Benjamin, Arcades Project

Some of these fragments are themselves lists, for example of names of arcades, as if to show that what he’s describing really existed, in a volume and variety we should take account of. Many offer descriptions, among which eye-witness accounts are especially privileged: ‘The name of the shopkeeper, the name of his merchandise, inscribed a dozen times on placards that hang on the doors and above the windows, beckon from all sides; the exterior of the archway resembles the exercise book of a schoolboy who writes the few words of a paradigm over and over. Fabrics are not laid out in samples but are hung before door and window in completely unrolled bolts. Often they are attached high up on the third story and reach down in sundry folds all the way to the pavement. The shoemaker has painted different-colored shoes, ranged in rows like battalions, across the entire façade of his building’, followed assiduously by its source: ‘Ludwig Borne, Schilderungen aus Paris (1822 und 1823), ch 6 (‘Die Läden’), in Gesammelte Schriften (Hamburg and Frankfurt am Main, 1862), vol 3, pp 46-49′.

Some are constative: it was in the Cour du Commerce, Benjamin remarks, that, using sheep, ‘the first experiments were conducted with the guillotine’, inevitably suggesting, at the same time, a relationship between commercial and security interests in the development of new technologies. One note says simply ‘There was a Passage du Désir’: it reinforces the tone or mood of what he’s gathered and presented so far, hints at the shiny desirability of what’s available, of the new phenomenon of shop-window display. He’s writing about the array of specialist small shops, predominantly in food or fashion, retailing luxury goods, ‘objects of desire’, but he’s also saying something elusive about the erotics of consumption, the production and satisfaction of demand. Sometimes he’s more analytic: ‘Specifics of the department store: the customers perceive themselves as a mass; they are confronted with an assortment of goods; they take in all the floors at a glance; they pay fixed prices; they can make exchanges’.

In this way, the text glitters and shimmers, shifting between surfaces and depths; we have the feeling less of reading than of walking through it, looking. The book itself is a textual shop-window, an arcade. It offers an array of information, some of it fascinating, some of it detailed and relentlessly obscure; it is full of insight, both others’ and Benjamin’s own; it creates a sense of suddenly being interested in something we had never noticed before, of wanting to go and see for ourselves what he has seen, to see if all that he says might be true.


Benjamin’s was the work of the collector: the value of his fragments lies in their authenticity, the sense of the genuine they impart, the access to the ‘real’ that they seem to give. And they are at the same time fragments of the past: they recover the past and preserve it. The archivist’s work is in some sense that of the ‘salvage’ ethnographer. The process of decay that Benjamin worked both with and against, as Arendt notes, ‘is at the same time a process of crystallisation’. Just as the arcades were a reduction of Paris and its past, so his fragments were reductions of all he had to say about them.

Perhaps the most deeply hidden motive of the person who collects can be described this way: he takes up the struggle against dispersion. Right from the start, the great collector is struck by the confusion, by the scatter, in which the things of the world are found… The collector, by contrast, brings together what belongs together; by keeping in mind their affinities and their succession in time, he can eventually furnish information about his objects.

Walter Benjamin, Arcades Project

To make a collection is to find, acquire, organize and store items, whether in a room, a house, a library, a museum or a warehouse. It is also, inevitably, a way of thinking about the world – the connections and principles that produce a collection contain assumptions, juxtapositions, findings, experimental possibilities and associations. Collection-making, you could say, is a method of producing knowledge.

Hans Ulrich Obrist, Ways of Curating, 2015

One of the ways his collection is held together is in his recurrent references to certain types or figures, which seem to have particularly interested him as being characteristic of the world he wanted to describe: they include the flâneur, the gambler and the prostitute. He made much of a Baudelaire poem about ragpickers, who searched street-refuse for whatever might be sold or used. Another is the way in which his fragments are collected into bundles of notes and other materials, and which are known in the Benjamin literature by the German term Konvoluts. Each bundle or folder constitutes a collection of things-in-relation-to each-other, as each folder stands in relation to others.

What happens between traces and fragments, between the different elements of the text, in its interstices? In and of itself, juxtaposition says nothing, or perhaps equal and opposite things: it says that these things seem to belong together, that they seem to be but different instances of the same thing, but then look how different they are. It compares and contrasts, at one and the same time. It is a sorting without synthesizing: it seeks to be synoptic, not synthetic.

It creates a kind of interstitial thinking: thinking about two concrete elements happens in a third, abstract space. Fragments come into resolution in the line of fracture between them: what is this category of which they are instances, what are its properties? It is in the interstices in which there is space to think, to write and to read.

To present material in this way is of course purposeful, though it’s neither authoritative nor comprehensive; it’s indicative, suggestive. It wants to show and tell about plurality, multiplicity, variety and diversity, to render contingency and possibility or perhaps, in Arendt’s word, natality. Benjamin used the term Umweg to describe it, a walking around rather than toward, a diversion, a roundabout way.

[His collection of quotations] was not an accumulation of excerpts intended to facilitate the writing of the study but constituted the main work, with the writing as something secondary. The main work consisted in tearing fragments out of their context and arranging them afresh in such a way that they illustrated one another and were able to prove their raison d’etre in a free-floating state, as it were. It definitely was a sort of surrealistic montage.

Hannah Arendt, ‘Walter Benjamin’, 1968

His method expresses an underlying philosophical position, which is that truth cannot be represented, only presented. It allows him, the author, to withdraw, inviting the reader to make sense of the material she encounters, turning the space of the text over to her, to do as she sees fit. His non-linear presentation draws attention to his subject or topic, while also acknowledging the impossibility of capturing it directly or wholly. It is a form of teaching, though its method is anything but that of the standard textbook. As Ori Rotlevy explains: ‘(B)eyond its presentational function, the method of indirection has a further, pedagogical function. Benjamin’s concept of truth requires thinking in a manner that does not impose any exterior form, any conceptual or intuitive intention on truth and the materials in which it might be exhibited. The methodological adoption of digressive and intermittent writing is supposed to transform the way we think, or more accurately, the position (Haltung) from which thinking occurs.’

For the Passagenwerk to be of use… it would be necessary… to remember the value of experimentation, the importance of interdisciplinarity, the breaking down of the distinctions not just between philosophy, history, literary criticism and cultural analysis, but also between art and criticism, not for the sake of the new, but of social change and transformation.

Angela McRobbie, Postmodernism and Popular Culture, 1994
A man at a desk, taking notes from a library catalogue.
Gisèle Freund: Walter Benjamin in the Bibliothèque Nationale, 1939, © IMEC, Fonds MCC, dist RMN-Grand Palais | Gisèle Freund

According to the conventions of the portrait, this one doesn’t really work: the subject of interest is confined to the bottom right corner of the frame, our focus settling on him only after working through an expanse of files on bookshelves, empty chairs and figures turned away from us.

The book is already, as the present mode of scholarly production demonstrates, an outdated mediation between two different filing systems.  For everything that matters is to be found in the card box of the researcher who wrote it, and the scholar studying it assimilates it into his own card index.

Walter Benjamin, ‘Attested auditor of books’, One Way-Street, 1928

Benjamin is intent on an entry in the catalogue. He’s poised to take notes, and the perspective makes his hands look big. The catalogue is in the form of a folder, which allows new entries to be inserted among existing ones: it’s part of the mechanical apparatus of the archive, which includes the card index, ranks of files and the numbered bookshelves behind him. So this is not – and perhaps was never meant to be – a portrait, but a scene. It’s not Walter Benjamin, but Walter Benjamin in the Bibliothèque Nationale, Walter Benjamin in his world.

We know now, in retrospect, that he’s searching for sources and references, traces which will become entries in his study of the Paris arcades, which will itself take the form of a catalogue. His work is no more or less than a recataloguing, a selecting and reordering of fragments of its holdings. He’s concentrating, lost in his work, wandering the catalogue as he might have wandered the arcades. He’s undisturbed by the photographer a few feet away, whom he’s used to seeing in the library. She’s a friend.

She’s Gisèle Freund, who also worked in the Bibliothèque Nationale on her doctoral thesis, which was a history of photography in France in the 19th century, and which Benjamin cited frequently. She was born in Berlin, studied sociology and the history of art in Freiburg and then at the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt under Adorno, Mannheim and Elias, and where she also knew Benjamin and Brecht. She documented the 1 May demonstration in Frankfurt in 1932 and the International Congress for the Defence of Culture held in Paris in 1935, and made further reportages in Newcastle and in exile in Mexico and Argentina. She pioneered the use of colour photography, and later concentrated on portraits, developing a progressive, naturalistic style. Like Fred Stein, she connected especially with writers and artists, and read their works and engaged in long conversations with them before taking their pictures.


The Benjamin texts used here are One-Way Street, trans Edmund Jephcott, edited and with an introduction by Michael W Jennings and with a preface by Greil Marcus, Cambridge MA: Belknap/Harvard UP, 2016, and The Arcades Project, trans Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin, Cambridge, MA: Belknap/Harvard UP, 2002. Biographical and related material is drawn from portraits of Benjamin by Hannah Arendt (1968) and Susan Sontag (1983): ‘Walter Benjamin: 1892-1940’, in Hannah Arendt, Men in Dark Times, New York: Harcourt Brace; Susan Sontag, Under the Sign of Saturn, London: Writers and Readers

‘True literary activity…’ is in the first paragraph of One-Way Street, titled ‘Filling Station’: Benjamin, op cit, p 21

‘The writing consists…’ is cit Arendt (1968), p 160. The Borne material and reference is in The Arcades Project, pp 60-61, and quotations in the following paragraph pp 33, 48, 60

‘…a process of crystallisation’ is Arendt, op cit, p 206, and ‘…not accumulation of excerpts…’ p 202

‘To make a collection…’: Obrist, H U (2015) Ways of Curating, London: Penguin, p 39; note the play on Berger’s Ways of Seeing, which was itself inspired by Benjamin’s ‘Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’

‘(B)eyond its presentational function…’: Rotlevy, O (2017) ‘Presentation as indirection, indirection as schooling: the two aspects of Benjamin’s scholastic method’ Continental Philosophy Review 50 493–516; abstract

‘For the Passagenwerk to be of use…’: Angela McRobbie, Postmodernism and Popular Culture, London: Routledge, 1994, p 118

Benjamin in the Bibliothèque Nationale: there are several photographs like this in existence, some differently cropped and dated variously 1936-1939 but surely taken from the same session. This one appears in Marx, U, Schwarz, G, Schwarz, M and Wizisla, E (2015) Walter Benjamin’s Archive, Images, texts, signs, trans Leslie, E, London: Verso, and is referenced to the Adorno Archive.  Much of Freund’s work is in the Collection of Marita Ruiter, Galerie Clairefontaine at http://www.gisele-freund.com

‘The book is already…’: Benjamin, op cit, p 43