Against the Day: Benjamin, Pynchon and the Arcades Project. Part I

October 13, 2009

Ok, so this is what I was supposed to write before I got distracted with the post below. Pynchon’s Against the Day (that labyrinthine brick of a novel), Anne Friedberg’s Window Shopping: Cinema and the Postmodern, and Benjamin’s Arcades Project: what do they have in common? Well, firstly, I am going to pop a disclaimer on the following: I have not actually read any of the Arcades Project, but I have read about the Arcades Project (I shall be reading the Arcades Project in the coming months for those who are doubting whether this will contain anything relevant at all) in the Friedberg book which is one of those delightful academic texts that happens to be eminently readable and contain a large number of pictures. Secondly, this will be continued as a dialectical response to the lack of continuation of other posts further down this blog that have not been continued (so far).

In Adorno’s introduction to Schriften, he writes:

He correctly called the images of his philosophy dialectical: the plan for the book Pariser Passagen envisages as much of a panorama of dialectical images as their theory. The concept of a dialectical image was meant objectively, not psychologically: the preservation of the modern as at once the new, the already past and the ever-same was to have been the work’s central philosophical film and central dialectical image.

The first sentence, regarding the correctly called dialectic of Benjamin’s philosophical image is a softening of Adorno’s stance that Benjamin was not dialectical enough in his work: another fine example being his letter written in response to the second (?) draft of ‘The Work of Art’ essay. However, the key in this Adorno penned quotation, is the latter part, the dialectical image of the ‘new, the already past and the ever-same’.

What ties the Arcades Project and Against the Day together is that they are both studies of modernity. Freidberg, through studying Benjamin, gives a detailed account of the development of a mobilised gaze (structurally coerced gaze towards consumption) that develops through modernity, and capitalist compact at the end of the 19th, and beginning of the 20th centuries. I’m not going to provide a summation at the moment, but I will do in due course. The idea is then, that this development fascinates Benjamin, that the Arcades of Paris, followed by the qualitative evolutionary shift to the department store, are descendants in a lineage that takes into account the World’s Fairs of the 19th century, the mobilisation of women as consumers, and the shift in the gaze (and concurrently consumption) that accompanies the technological developments of the panopticon, through to the cinema. Similarly, Against the Day is concerned with the same period – that spans the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, to the end of the First World War – and the same themes: it’s a study of the development of modern capitalism, of the resistance of the Colorado Anarchists, and the insidious effects of the railroad on global commerce (the man to good transformative).

It becomes increasingly apparent when reading Against the Day that Pynchon has spent a great deal of time familiarising himself with the currents of critical theory. There are a number of references that make this clear through the text (again, more details to come), to the evolutionary development of its broadly Marxist approach, concerned, as it is, with the flow of history towards capital’s first significant destructive telos: that of the First World War.

I’m going to stop there for now. So, what I then propose to try and structure is some account of the broad structural similarities of the two projects towards the dialectical image of the whole that Adorno outlines. Whether Benjamin prefigures postmodernism with the Arcades Project? What can be derived from the shared thematic preoccupations of developmental modernity?


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