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.