Flaneurs and Whores of Our Time
[An excerpt from a talk I gave in Bangalore recently, on Benjamin's work and its influence on my research.]
Benjamin’s writings defy disciplinary forms and notations of most circles of the academy. Susan Buck-Morss says, Benjamin has re-appeared as a fashionable theoretical instrument in many circles of the American academy. Perhaps, she was hinting at Benjamin’s own emphasis on after-histories, a form of which, his own work has transformed into today. Most of Benjamin’s work is in unconventional forms – essays, vignettes – some incomplete. I rely heavily on philosopher Susan Buck-Morss’ lifelong discovery and rendering of Benjamin to the uninitiated. The Arcades Project and One Way Street, both written quite un-academically, are often over-emphasized in their lyricism, says Buck-Morss. The Arcades Project which he worked on for thirteen years, and left unfinished in 1940 when he committed suicide, is a puzzling ensemble of text. Benjamin, SB reminds us, was writing as a philosopher and not a literary/aesthetic theorist. It was his specific methodological affinity to show philosophy in the visually perceptible form, that many of his writings took the shape that they did. Buck- Morss begins her essay ‘The Flaneur, The Sandwichman and the Whore’ with an unpacking of the nature of the Arcades Project:
In the Passagen-Werk, Benjamin left us his note-boxes. That is, he left us ‘everything essential’. Lamentations over the work’s incompleteness are thus irrelevant. Had he lived, the notes would not have become superfluous by entering into a closed and finished text. And surely, the card file would have been thicker. The Passagen-Werk, as it would have been: a historical lexicon of the capitalist origins of modernity, a collection of concrete, factual images of the urban experience. Benjamin handled these facts as if they were politically charged, capable of transmitting revolutionary energy across generations. His method was to create from them, through the formal principles of montage, constructions of print that had the power to awaken political consciousness among the present-day reader.
The Passagen-Werk, as the 1935 expose indicates, was to be a commentary on ‘text’ and ‘reality’. Benjamin recognized the difference. In the former case, he tells us ‘philology is the fundamental science’, in the latter case, it is ‘theology’. (PW 574) Crucially important to a theological reading was what Benjamin described as ‘telescoping the past through the present’ (PW 588). It means the elements of the nineteenth century which he chose to record reflected the concerns of his era. These connections are most often not spelled out in Passagen-Werk. Still we can, and indeed must, assume their existence.
Buck – Morss writes about Benjamin’s historian hat: “…he called historicism the greatest narcotic of the time – but for the shock of historical citations ripped out of their original context with a ‘strong seemingly brutal grasp, and brought into the most immediate present. This method created ‘dialectical images’ in which the old-fashioned, undesirable suddenly appeared current, or the new, desired appeared as a repetition of the same.” (34). Benjamin’s insistence on a spatial reading of history emerges from this dialectical view of the present that he provides in the Arcades Project and other city-writings – the present as a hellishly cyclical, repetition of nothing-new, an amalgam of historical residue formed out of debris from various fleeting spectacles from distant eras of history.
In the Howrah crossroad constellation of men, vehicles, concrete, asbestos, sound, smell, garbage – the quotidian comes alive from within a complex spatial relic. Many epochs, many histories seem to collide here in a transient yet euphoric sensation of the ‘new’, immediately turning into an ash-like heap of nothing-new. In a Benjaminian moment of a loosely arranged constellation of objects, images, texts and voices, I got thinking about origins and their relation to relics. “Origin”, as Benjamin understood it, is that which emerges in the ‘process of becoming and disappearing’. It is this constant process of becoming and disappearing that I refer to as the making of the ‘now’ time. In between the becoming and the disappearing is where we struggle to locate ourselves, very often, to be left out on its edges, sometimes in its shadows. I imagine it as a momentary flash of the arclights on an intersection of time and space, only to swiftly relocate its focus somewhere else, in some other time. So, the petty entrepreneur, the casual laborer, the migrant cab-driver, the elite Bengali ethnographer-in-exile came to inhabit this spatial relic at the same moment and shared a collective dream. The actors in this dreaming collective wore hats that I identified from the collective dream of nation, community and polity that I am familiar with – but the scene of the crossroad dream was unfamiliar, distant, unnerving. I theorized it in a research proposal as a case of time-warp – an aberration in an otherwise constant case of historic progression. At the time, I was not quite prepared to accept that the reading of the crossroad, much like the reading of the nation and the community through familiar sign-systems and theatrical scenes, was a desperate attempt on my part to locate myself on the boundary walls of the illegible and the legible, things I recognized and things I did not. As an ethnographer and trainee anthropologist, I found myself awakening from and recognizing the most recent registers of history (the postcolonial socialist regime of the state of West Bengal) as my parental world, the world that had given birth to me – I was Benjamin’s ‘child’ – navigating the thicket of objects that my parental history had surrounded me with; mimicking and re-enacting as a coping mechanism to compensate for the absence of empathy. [ Slide 5] And the pack of cards shuffle again, and again. Benjamin’s ‘historical object’ remains a solidified heap of ruin - necessary constituents of the present. This debris has a constitutive and not a causal relationship with the ‘present’. For Benjamin, the turgid ‘temporal nucleus’ that constitutes the ‘present’, is necessarily made of debris from the past, and is thereby, a re-arrangement of debris in the making of the spectacularly ‘new’. In such an argument, Benjamin sees the bourgeois and proletarian united in the affliction of dreamlikeness - to experience time as a dream, in the intoxication of mass cultures of industrial capitalism –a dreaming reverie that makes existence possible through the trauma of industrialization and industrialism. In this, industrialism provides its own antidote. He did not share the emphasis of his structural Marxist friends of the Frankfurt School of class-cleavage being the crucial lens through which this ‘temporal nucleus’ could be captured. The reduction of the world into dizzy kaleidoscope of wish-images in which to locate one’s consciousness was as traumatic for the consuming bourgeois as it was, he believed, for the producing proletariat. The force of the crowds on the streets of cities returned a sense of healing in the trauma of losing the capacity for experience. In One Way Street, Benjamin speaks of the magic visual power of print that assails the consumer/citizen in newspapers, advertisements, film and so on. He says (OWS, 78):
And before a child of our time finds his way clear to opening a book, his eyes have been exposed to such a blizzard of changing, colourful, conflicting letters that the chances of his penetrating the archaic stillness of the book are slight. Locust swarms of print, which already eclipse the sun of what is taken for intellect for city dwellers, will grow thicker with each succeeding year.
The multiplication of mimic - technologies, for Benjamin, were instructive of this traumatized collective trying to keep alive a rudiment of its capacity for experience. Film, for Benjamin, was such a cathartic medium, which enabled drawing out of a moment, in a montage of visuals, in response to the ruthless shrinking of time and fragmentation of space. He speaks of the curious coping mechanisms that capital itself yielded for the numbing of feeling that it caused in the experiential worlds of its victims, he says (OWS, 86):
Thereby “matter-of-factness” is finally dispatched, and in the face of the huge images across the walls of houses, where toothpaste and cosmetics lie handy for giants, sentimentality is restored to health and liberated in American style, just as people whom nothing moves or touches any longer are taught to cry again by films. For the man in the street, however, it is money that affects him in this way, brings him into perceived contact with things. And the paid critic, manipulating paintings in the dealer’s exhibition room, knows more important if not better things about them than the art lover viewing them in showroom window. The warmth of the subject that is communicated to him, stirs sentient springs. What, in the end, makes advertisements so superior to criticism? Not, what the morning red neon sign says – but the fiery pool reflecting it in the asphalt.
Flaneurs and Whores of our time
The flaneur is marked out by Benjamin as a peculiar product of early industrialism - subjects who have found an individuated existence strong enough to narrate with critical distance, as though in a tragic amusement. A light-footed urban stroll is the wont of the flaneur through the boulevards of Paris to experience the rhapsody of installation of modern capitalism. The last incarnation of the flaneur is the sandwichman, and his last haunt the department store. Here ‘things appear divorced from the history of their production’. Flanerie as a state of perception of the ‘phantasmagoria of space’ that is put together by modern capitalism, is recognized as this quality of perceptiveness even in the midst of the most urgent and overwhelming of sensory experiences induced by capital. Hence, it is a reactive critique to the influences that capital seeks to blind and numb its subjects with. The whore or the street-walker was the female flaneur. The woman of modern capitalism, emerges as a commodity, emitting many wish-images – of forgotten pasts, and forbidden desires – to a ‘distracted’, dreamy public of consumers. The flaneur and the whore continue to loiter their interpretation of the phantasmagoria of space that the modern city rendered. In their loitering lay their somewhat idle critique. As if they didn’t care for it much, but if you asked them they would tell you why things were fucked up this way and not any other. They were not enthusiastic deliberative participants of a public sphere. They were travelers in a spatial domain of time – collecting, kicking around, moving on. Remembering and re-enacting flanerie in the time of late capitalism, is one of nervous artificiality. Brooklyn hipsters who read poetry at bookstores, and sport cigarette pants and ironic top-hats could be read as the after-narrative of Benjamin’s flaneur. And maybe the loiterers at Koshy’s. The flaneur survives in a fraught relationship with capital. He is not the angry activist, neither the numbed consumer. The character of the amused and stroller journalist/blogger/columnist/photographer, much like some of you here, are probably contemporary versions of the flaneur. The flaneur gets more and more entrenched in the processes of capital, but even in his last avatar of the sandwichman, retains a fragile independence, in his ability and penchant for loitering.
Many years have passed since Benjamin wrote about the dreaming collective being led around by industrial capitalism in a reverie. He wrote as an ethnographer of the intimate – his most famous essays being about cities that his life was closely wound up in – Berlin, Paris. We are gathered here today in Bangalore, pumped with expectation of new wish-images in the same kaleidoscopic trauma that Benjamin described at the onset of modern capitalism in Europe. We walk around retaining a flaneur-like tragedy in our footsteps, pushed around by a crazy dazzled crowd. I am uncomfortable about asking questions like who amongst us is the real flaneur? Who is the sandwichman? Who is the Whore? How are they different in the Indian condition? I simply want to put forth the idea that in the flanerie of our time is contained in the tussle between heightened and tired temporalities, between events and their narrations, between spectacles and relics. Dreamworlds are constituted not only by wish-images of new commodities, spectacles and temporalities, but also in constant re-enactment of myths of uncertain and distant origins. The ingredients of this urgently new are then essentially components of old, and some very old.