Passages: From Arcade to Virtual Arcadia

Lance Winn 

“What the intellect gives us back under the name of the past is not it. In reality, as happens with the souls of the departed in certain popular legends, each hour of our lives, as soon as it is dead, embodies and conceals itself in some material object. It remains captive there, forever captive, unless we meet with that object. Through the object we recognize it, we summon it, and it is released.”
Marcel Proust, Contre Sainte-Beuve[1]

In The Arcades Project (Das Passagen-Werk), German literary critic, cultural theorist, and philosopher Walter Benjamin (1892-1940) uses the arcades of Paris to tell a story about the industrial revolution and modernity.  The arcades figure in a lengthy allegory he constructs about the West’s confidence in progress and the realities that co-existed with the beliefs supporting capitalism.  Benjamin experienced the arcades in decline during the twentieth century.  He believed that things could finally become visible when they had exceeded their use-value, or were no longer used for what they were initially designed for.  The arcades of Paris, enclosed passageways between buildings reconfigured to create additional spaces for merchants, had been the first spaces uniquely designed to accommodate the flood of new industrially created goods produced for a growing consumer class in Paris in the 1800s (figure 4.1). As Anne Friedberg notes in her book Window Shopping, “The passage was a fitting paradigm for all of modernity.  A public space made possible by the recent advances of iron and glass architecture, the arcade was lined with luxury items produced in the economies of the newly industrialized textile trade.”[2] The arcades, however, were quickly surpassed as sales spaces by the new department stores, which were purpose-built to be larger and even more extravagant.

The allegory Benjamin sets in the rise and fall of the arcades derives from his much larger analysis of how art--visual, architectural, poetic--has been transformed by economic forces, especially capitalism. His work is wide-ranging and prolific. Passages is in effect a long (over 1000 pages) series of notes written between 1927 and 1940, when he committed suicide while trying to escape the Nazis in France. It was not fully published until 1972-1989. Although his commentary can be highly complex, deeply philosophical, often fragmentary, and ambiguous, it can provide rich (insights) into this otherwise seemingly mundane activity: shopping. Benjamin’s (insights) into the transition from arcades to department stores suggest ways to understand later transitions from department stores to suburban mall, from malls to other shopping spaces, and on to cyberspace. Those insights frame this chapter.

“Dialectics at a Standstill”[3]

Like Marx and Engel, who famously proposed a dialectical view of history, Benjamin saw a dialectical pattern in the promises and failures of capitalism made visible in the arcades. For Benjamin, the arcades were the defining architecture of modernity: metropolitan, technologically advanced in the use of glass and steel, a world in themselves, containing their own climate within. As Christopher Rollins writes in The Passageways of Paris, “Arguing that the arcades constitute ‘the most important architecture of the nineteenth century,’ Benjamin reads them as a phenomenon of extreme cultural ambivalence.” Rollins continues, “what [Benjamin] calls the ‘ambiguity of the arcades’ constitutes them as, in the suggestive term employed by his associate and commentator Adorno, a ‘dialectical image,’ pointing in two directions at once and expressive of both oppression (by the ideology of consumption) and liberation (into a utopia of plenty).” [original in-text citations omitted][4]

Benjamin saw dialectics, instead of advancing culture, as being at a standstill, reflecting the situation he found himself in during the twentieth century, sandwiched between World War I and World War II. Benjamin’s dialectical model is based on his questioning of what determines “progress,” which had been brought into full relief as the most advanced industrial technologies were now being used to create products of destruction beyond what humans had previously been able to imagine.  The mood is described by Susan Buck-Morss in her study of the Arcades Project, in which she notes Benjamin’s citation of a passage from the French philosopher Pierre-Maxime Schuhl, writing about the use of air attacks in the Spanish Civil War: “The bombers remind us of what Leonardo da Vinci expected of man in flight: that he was to ascend to the skies ‘in order to seek snow on the mountaintops and bring it back to the city to spread on the sweltering streets in summer.’”[5]  The extraordinary development of human flight that Leonardo dreamed of was now being used as the primary device for mass destruction. 

An ambivalent relationship to progress led Benjamin to a dialectical method that did not result in a simple folding of ideas into a broader narrative of human improvement, but instead focused on objects that reflected both the dream of a potential future and the real conditions of the physical world, time, and history. “Dialectics at a standstill” references what is lost in the wake of progress alongside potential gains.  Instead of being grounded in a set of ideas, the “standstill” was more naturally found in the realm of objects and images--things meant for one use that, when their use had run its course, could be reflected on, and reflect, the dream of their design against the reality of their passage through time.

Benjamin thus saw the arcades of Paris as representing both the dream and the reality of capitalism and consumption.  At first, the arcades were at the center of a new economy and the developing leisure class. Later, as they deteriorated, they become host to the more base items of human desire. That trajectory contained within it a truth about progress and a truth about the complexity of human yearning.

An Alternate Universe of Consumption

Enabling streets to be enclosed and natural light to fill public spaces that had been reclaimed for a new purpose, the arcades created a passage that became the impetus for new ways of being as well as shopping.  At their best, the arcades provided a near utopia of plenty.  They were safe, well lighted, aesthetically pleasing spaces, an alternate universe of consumption that blurred outside and inside while avoiding the bad weather and noise of the external environment. The collection of shops provided a vast choice of goods from around the globe to be compared and considered, if not at one’s fingertips, then at least within arm’s reach.  The long passageways allowed a kind of virtual travel and fostered a new form of shopping described by Friedberg as “a more leisurely examination of the goods…more directly determined by desire than need.”[6]

It also fostered a new kind of shopper: the flaneur, made famous in the works of the contemporary French poet Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867), about whom Benjamin wrote at some length. While accommodating buyers, the arcades also accommodated those less interested in buying and more interested in observing the people and things in the city.  On his leisurely stroll, the flaneur, a tourist in a world of goods brought from far places to one exotic site, could allow his mind to engender correspondences between the people, products, and images that displayed themselves in this environment.

Benjamin sees the flaneur as particularly attracted to the dilapidated arcades of the early-twentieth century, where “a bookshop makes a palace for manuals of lovemaking beside devotional prints in color; next to the memoirs of a chambermaid…one comes upon types of collar studs for which we no longer know the corresponding collars and shirts.”[7] The flaneur delighted in such surrealistic scenes and resisted capitalistic productivity. One sign of their clash with the pace of modernity is the often-cited predilection of the flaneur, at the height of this life-style, for walking with pet turtles on leashes.  Strolling, assessing, noting, and other non-directed activities happened only in a place of comfort.  The turtle-on-a-leash is just one particularly perverse outward form of a new repossession of one’s time against the forces of capitalism’s demand for efficiency.  The flaneur is able to take advantage of the variety of goods created by new methods of production without the anxiety of needing to make choices about what best to buy.)

In his writings about Baudelaire, Benjamin cites more broadly the poet’s call, as in Le Peintre de la Vie Moderne, for “new urban forms of aesthetic expression which will reflect the rhythms of modern life: ‘La modernité, c'est le transitoire, le fugitif, le contingent’ [‘Modernity is the transitory, the fugitive, the contingent’].”[8] Indeed, according to Rollanson, “The great achievement of Benjamin's reading of Baudelaire is, precisely, to show how art throws up new strategies of survival to adapt to the changed conditions imposed by industrial society.”[9]

The Cinema of Vertical Display

In its reflection of the rhythms and transitory nature of modern life, Benjamin saw the arcade as a kind of pre-cinema, a spectacle presenting itself to the strolling audience. Built into the cinematic model was a new kind of vertical display.  As Isenstadt notes earlier in this volume, “arcade shoppers took special delight in admiring one large and well-appointed window display after another in a continuous visual experience that we today call ‘window shopping’.”[10] The thin, narrow passage, as opposed to the more horizontal extension of other stores, necessitated the stacking of goods and information.  Individual shops that lined a street one after another could spread goods out on tables at the appropriate height to be inspected and handled. But shops in the arcades were forced to create a flat, perpendicular model of display, premised on the shelf rather than the table

In addition, Friedberg claims that “shopping, like other itinerancies of the late nineteenth century--museum- and exhibition-going, packaged tourism and, of course, the cinema--relied on the visual register and helped to ensure the predominance of the gaze in capitalist society.”[11]  In the enclosed public space of the arcades, space itself became a commodity, and merchants invented ways to draw the consumer’s gaze. Working within the constraints of the arcade’s architecture, they designed a layering of signs (literal and semiotic), creating multiple visual intersections to attract attention. The arcades hint at how the larger space of the contemporary world would become promotional: blimps and planes write messages in the sky; billboards along highways address a captive audience of drivers in their cars; motorists can rent their cars for wrap-around advertising signage.  Guy Debord examined this shift almost half a century ago, declaring that “in societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles.  Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation.”[12]

Left-over Spaces

The arcades were surpassed as a model for shopping by the department store, extravagant and massive spaces designed specifically to create the ideal shopping experience under one roof.  Benjamin experienced the arcades as spaces that had lost their original purpose only to become containers of the goods and services that did not make it to the department stores. They had come to represent, in Adorno’s terms cited earlier, “oppression (by the ideology of consumption).” The arcades were repositories for cheap goods, mechanically reproduced not to meet real needs but to serve newly developed wants that the arcades helped to invent. And this is where the dialectic is revealed in the form of the arcade.  The spaces, in their very nature, harbor their own demise. The precise form of progress that they embodied ensured their failure. The heightened sense of perspective and condensed space created by the long passage created the illusion that there is no end to the arcade, no end to the goods available. The form of display and the structure had built into it the demand for an increasing range of products to select from; a mandate for availability and choice. This demand would be filled, however, by the department store, architecture designed--not invented, like the arcades, out of the ingenuity of merchants--specifically for the expectations of the modern consumer.

With the rise of the department store, the arcades became, as Benjamin read them, left over spaces for shadier forms of consumption, housing brothels, palm readers, and other forms of entertainment. Quoting Benjamin, Friedberg notes, “What were sold in the Passages were souvenirs [Andenken].” They were its “form of commodity.” Interpreting Benjamin’s statement, Friedberg continues, “Andenken translates as souvenir, but also as memory; memory was the commodity-fetish retailed in the arcade, a ‘world in miniature’.”[13] Moreover, to Benjamin, the arcades physically embodied the modern psyche, as argued by philosopher Marshall Berman:

“Modern environments and experiences cut across all boundaries of geography and ethnicity, of class and nationality, of religion and ideology: in this sense, modernity can be said to unite all mankind. But it is a paradoxical unity, a unity of disunity: it pours us all into a maelstrom of perpetual disintegration and renewal, of struggle and contradiction, of ambiguity and anguish. To be modern is to be part of a universe in which, as Marx said, “all that is solid melts into air”.”[14]

Adding Things Up, or, Things Add Up

Concurrent with the Industrial Revolution and mass production, such poets of the nineteenth century as Baudelaire were already writing about the complicated feeling of the individual caught in the web of consumption.  According to Buck-Morss, “The devaluation of the old nature that found expression in Christian allegory is experienced sui generis by Baudelaire in the marketplace, where the ‘meaning’ of commodities is not their act of creation, but their extrinsic and arbitrary price.”[15] In analyzing Benjamin’s discussion of Baudelaire as an allegorist, the theorist Max Pensky cites this notable account by Benjamin: “Relation of commodity and allegory: ‘value’ as natural magnifying glass outdoes ‘meaning’.”[16]  With industrially produced goods, personal meaning is overturned by a more prescriptive meaning that one simply assumes but does not really take part in.  There is a distancing between the merchandise and its history, signaled most clearly by Adorno’s definition of a commodity as “a consumer item in which there is no longer anything that is supposed to remind us how it came into being.”[17] 

The newfound freedom of access to so many products and the variety contained within the arcade also created an anxiety about choice and made one deeply aware of what is not known about the things we buy.  And while the profusion of so many goods in one site glorified the progress of industry, it also made one acutely, physically sensitive to how much there is to have, and what one doesn’t have. Perhaps hoarding, an affliction of modernity, could be viewed as a response to the new “gaze” first developed in the arcade and now multiplied in virtual space; the hoarder desires to turn the home into the store and to fill it to the visual register of having everything.  Pensky hints at this condition in his further investigation of the souvenir, describing them as

“saved, but saved as dead.  The souvenir is the complement of Erlebnis (life experience).  In it the increasing self-alienation of the person who inventories his past as dead possessions is distilled…it is the graphic depiction of the death of experience, of life reduced to the null point of significance, as static object or hollow fragment.”[18]

Shopping seems to be a particularly good place to pinpoint these ambiguous feelings in the midst of global capitalism.  Shoppers are part of a forward moving machine that they cannot stop; they have infinite choice, but no choice to stop the choices.

Shopping in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

While the arcade helps consumers move towards the capitalistic, consumer utopia of the world at one’s fingertips, it also distances them from understanding how or where things are made, and how they came to be available for appraisal.  Today, as commodities become flattened pictures (representations), coupled with a price and gridded to be scanned, the object is devalued.  Laid out on a flat illuminated screen, a product has value only through its “extrinsic and arbitrary price,” linked only to supply and demand rather to any real purpose or connection with the thing one is buying (buying into?).  There is the pleasure of shopping, which implies the power of selecting, but also the anxiety that comes with selection, meaning something is also lost or left. Slowly the pleasure of selecting becomes supplanted by a sense of being part of a machine that devalues independent appraisal of the qualities of things towards a dehumanized, collective determination of cultural value. One is implicated in a system whose workings are not visible and which seems to run with no one person at the wheel, unable to be steered. The system has taken on a life of its own.  Shopping on the internet brings access to goods on a scale never before realized, and yet shoppers know so little about the goods, the laborers who made them, and the environment in which they were made.  Now things simply arrive at our doors in boxes.

In another seminal essay published in 1936, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Benjamin states, “To an ever greater degree the work of art reproduced becomes the work of art designed for reproducibility.”[19]  What insight does this statement provide concerning virtual shopping today? From the development of merchandise to be selected as image over other qualities, to the determinates of packaging and shipping (first developed by the big box stores, most brilliantly by Ikea, where all things needed to break down to fit in the trunk of a vehicle), new ways of shopping are once more changing the relationship between the consumer and products to be consumed. If the arcades created the ideal space for the development of the flaneur, what have the virtual spaces of shopping online done for how goods are valued and selected? What is the body’s role in online shopping (touching the finger pad as opposed to walking a turtle)? How are objects of consumption presented? The space of the screen compacts the walls of the arcades even further and demands new ways of making information and goods available to the consumer. 

While commercial sites on the Web may seem organized in a neutral way, they are not; the tabs, forms of scrolling, and other elements hide a subtle belief system.  As the arcades hinted at nearly two centuries earlier, when one organizes things vertically they become compared and contrasted, they become “read” more than considered as individual objects, and that organization affects the way we understand things. In the end, The Arcades Project was not really about the arcades per se, though Benjamin does deconstruct their materials and forms of display. The architecture is really just a starting place for understanding how we are organized, how our thinking might be structured, by the material world we inhabit.

The Revelations of Ruins

Benjamin was able to read a certain history into the architecture of the arcades in decay.  Because they were physical objects, they were able to hold that history, becoming a literal record of their change and, with the help of photography and writing, a record of culturally changing attitudes about the city, society, and consumption.  Benjamin’s investigation provides a useful framework for considering the way that we shop now, nearly a century later.  While we are not stuck between two world wars, we have, in 2014, endured a decade of wars and are only slowing emerging from a wide-spread economic crisis. In the U.S. the collapse of the housing bubble and the increasing divide between the wealthy and the poor have led to questions concerning the efficacy of an economic system that might go unquestioned when more of the population has enough to be comfortable.  Entire countries are in jeopardy in Europe as bubbles continue to burst, revealing a system that was conceived, as Pensky phrases it, in “the phantasmagoria of capitalist ‘eternal progress’.”[20] Unfinished building projects, the large empty spaces of unused shopping centers, and such bankrupt, shrinking cities as Detroit, constructed on the dream of industrial progress, alongside the immense development and popularity of increasingly virtual and mobile forms of technology, make us question our economic assumptions and recalibrate our thinking.

Friedberg reminds us in Window Shopping that “The nineteenth-century passage was readable to Benjamin while in its decline.  Perhaps, equally, the contemporary shopping mall now emerges as a comprehensible cultural space as it is threatened with its own obsolescence.”[21] A 2012 article in The New York Times gives insight into what ruins can reveal:

“Cleveland’s Galleria at Erieview, like many malls across the country, is suffering. Closed on weekends because there are so few visitors, it is down to eight retail stores, eight food-court vendors and a couple of businesses like the local bar association. 

So part of the glass-covered mall is being converted into a vegetable garden.

“I look at it as space, I don’t look at it as retail,” said Vicky Poole, a Galleria executive. “You can’t anymore.”[22]

Shopping Virtually

The malls, like the glass ceilinged arcades, are being repurposed from consumer paradise to a mix of uses, including greenhouses, as these monuments to consumption, increasingly empty, are too expensive to tear down.  The utopic world of shopping first created in the arcades led to malls, but where it is finally and most accurately realized is in the online shopping experience.  Online shopping promises a new arcadia, a wilderness of unbounded, fresh possibilities. On the screen, space has been truly flattened. Where the arcades provided respite from the elements, the internet provides the means to shop without leaving one’s home. In the hyperlinks of the internet, the intertexuality that had developed in the sign systems of the narrow passage extends into an infinite passage through virtual space.      

In virtual space, our distance from the products we purchase has been increased to a degree that Benjamin could not have imagined. On a lit, flat screen, photographs of the products (often with many views) are stacked to be scrolled through, reorganized with a click to suit an individual browsing customer: price (high to low or low to high); most popular; and so on. The grid is easily scanned, nothing is behind anything else, nothing is hidden, prices can vary wildly.  But it is hard to know the reality of these products: weight, construction, surface, even color (where the same palette varies from screen to screen). We know what they look like, what they cost, how much it costs to ship them to our door, whether it is worth it to pay for shipping. Often, it is, because physical spaces can be messy and require travel; things are not organized according to our direct need; a store runs out of product or we cannot find what we are looking for; and large chains, after having made it difficult for small businesses to survive, have shut down themselves in the face of online competition, creating a vacuum in our neighborhoods for certain goods.

It may be too soon to look dialectically at how shopping behaviors are determined by new technologies, especially the internet and such portable devices as pads, pods and smart phones that can connect to it. But it is interesting to look at the megastores that such technologies both encouraged, in their creation of near immediate gratification, and are now coming to displace. One significant example is the large chain bookstore. These megastores arose out of public demand to have an ever-greater availability of physical titles. They incorporated economies of scale to solve some of the problems that local bookstores faced: making an educated guess about what the public would want, purchasing those books in hopes of selling them at profit, paying for the shipping of small numbers of weighty books from a variety of locations, and pulping what did not sell.  The stores tended to be housed in massive, library-like spaces to hold large numbers of books that could be made in a single shipment from the publisher. Books could be easily shifted to differing markets and their local demands, and a national/international network could be established to cut down on the cost for moving the hefty physical objects.

The mega-bookstore developed alongside, and to some degree because of, internet models for the distributions of books.  But they were bound to lose. Internet-based sellers, chief among them Amazon.com, didn’t have to guess what the public wanted; they could print books on demand. Without the limits of physical space, they could expand their model of selling to any number of other industrially produced goods beyond books. To compete, the mega-bookstores needed to carry music, videos, toys, and other products.  Perhaps the one thing the megastore could provide that the virtual could not was coffee, and thus part of their massive space was set aside for cafés.  Less space was available to dedicate to the physical books they had been designed around, and they began to look more like general stores. 

As Benjamin’s “dialects at a standstill” predicted, the very desire the new bookstores helped to develop could be better filled by a new technology. The mega-bookstore helped create the demand for immediate gratification that the electronic tablet currently fulfills par excellence.  The last remaining chain mega-bookstore has dedicated a great deal of its space to the selling of digital reading pads, which presumably, when enough are sold, will render the physical building unnecessary. 

The closing of the original U.S. mega-bookstore, Borders, seemed ripe with allegorical implications as they went bankrupt and slowly closed.  My local Borders started its decline with the obvious move of putting merchandise on sale. As items were sold, the remaining goods were brought forward from the carefully categorized sections in the back of the store. The massive space was shuttered in stages, back to front. With further price drops, only the front eighth of the store was occupied. Goods were simply piled together, no longer organized, just a mass of items to be sold.  I remember looking back at the rest of the space, now dimly lit to avoid attracting attention, its rows of industrial-spec bookshelves, the hallmark of the bookstore, now empty, bare. The shelves had become awkward objects that, not unlike the cost-efficient architecture of the megastore itself, served no purpose, being too large to be useful in a house, and no longer required for a commodity that could be better warehoused and sold in another way.

The last time I entered the former Borders it was being used as “The Halloween Store.”  The dialectic seemed tangible as I took my daughter in to complete her costume. The temporary holiday store was something Foucault would describe as a “heterotopic space”: a fluid space that houses the temporal flow of goods, specific to a particular time or season. Here were the cheaply manufactured “souvenirs” of Halloween, all under one roof. For a short time, the store became a new kind of town hall for the consumer class, where every holiday is commodified to sell goods.  Because even the abundant costumes could not fill the space, it was divided in half by a temporary curtain wall.  Searching briefly for an Alice in Wonderland costume for my tall eleven-year-old daughter, I was finally sent to the adult section, which offered only “sexy” versions of the standard Halloween characters–the cute, gruesome, and erotic comingling happily under the vaulted, though in this case, not-glass ceiling. 

The Future of Shopping

One can only guess at the ramifications of whatever technology comes after the tactile electronic pads that scroll through the world of goods at the swipe of a finger. The most recent techno-utopic discussion is about home 3-D printers. With such technology, the place of production and the store are now the consumer’s home; a printer there makes a wide variety of objects from digital models. The most newsworthy use is the printing of operational guns out of plastic undetectable by metal detectors; another early use is personalized sex toys.  Both remind us, as in the passages of Paris, about the intricate way that progress is entangled with human desires and their fulfillment.  As technology advances, something may be gained and some things may be lost.  And this is why shopping can be a fraught and complex activity.  Benjamin understood the complexity of feeling that comes with the immense freedom of choice that the arcades hinted at in the nineteenth century and that internet shopping offers us today, coupled with awareness that our forms of shopping are subtly impacting how we think about the world.

Shopping on the internet brings a nearly infinite array of goods.  Sites like Shopzilla have forgone tabs altogether, instead opting for the Google-like single window that accesses all of virtual space. Embedded in the portal is the phrase “what are you shopping for,” as Shopzilla searches other shopping sites. Not a “store” of its own, it digests the huge number of stores available in virtual space and organizes them for specific personal needs.  Shopzilla is a virtual world of consumption, laid out, mapped, and organized for efficiency.  It is the dream of networks and the hope of community as it works from grass-roots manufacturing to massive distribution.

As you enter ever-narrower search terms, the number system alone (pages 1-10 and a button for “next”) makes the selection seem never-ending. You cannot be sure about what you might be missing. You are encapsulated in an ambiguous relationship to global capitalism as you try to find uniqueness in the realm of mass-production; you become a selector, not an inventor. The layout of the screen reminds you that you are subject to someone else’s assumptions about goods, and, with so much seeming control, still caught in a system that is not of your own making.  Even though it may seem the obvious choice for display, the scrolling grid is not “natural,” but constructed.

The Nature of Passages

In a well-known segment from his “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” Benjamin describes a painting by Paul Klee, “Angelus Novus” that

“shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.”[23]

We, too, are being propelled into the future at such speed that we may not be able to witness the wreckage. Our arcades today are not material but virtual, showing decay in ways we might not have imagined. The empty big box stores sit as physical reminders of one dream of mass consumption and the easy availability of goods, now temporary spaces for holiday merchandise.  Before virtual space began to overcome them, these stores were the models for bringing the world of goods to us.   It is hard to feel sympathy for the rectangular husks of these big box stores, and yet we know so little about their replacement: the small rectangular box that we now hold in our hands.  The efficiently constructed big box stores could as least be walked into, with the goods really there, in their somewhat bloated quantity.  The small rectangular box of the smart phone shows so little of how it functions.  The screen links endlessly to other screens, yet we know almost nothing of how we got there.  Imagine Klee’s angel being replaced by the smart phone, its back towards the future, recording what it has left in its wake. But the phone looks both ways; it has a lens in its back, eyes in the back of the proverbial head, so that one can face time while scanning an item to find the best cost. 

This scenario, almost science fiction, has become such a common reality that we do not even consider it.  The liminal yet expansive space of the screen, if a space, is the new dream of the world coming to you, perhaps another incidence of “dialectics at a stand-still.”  Benjamin’s description of mechanical reproduction enabling “the original to meet the beholder halfway, be it in the form of a photograph or a phonograph record,”[24] seems both prescient and quaint against the realities that we have developed.  The world, or at the least the universe of products and entertainment, is quite literally at our fingertips through a touch-screen. We can compare and contrast in a flash: no bartering, no messy interactions with other people. Goods delivered to our door.  This is the environment that we now inhabit and, if Benjamin’s insights hold, embeds within it the next spaces and structures for shopping in a post-modern world.


[1] Translated by Bruce D. Bromley and quoted in Making Figures: Reimagining Body, Sound and Image in a World That is Not for Us (Champaign, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 2014).

[2] Anne Friedberg, Window Shopping: Cinema and the Postmodern (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), 49.

[3] Rolf Tiedemann, "Dialectics at a Standstill: Approaches to the Passagen-Werk," as cited in Christopher Rollason, “The Passageways of Paris: Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project and Contemporary Cultural Debate in the West,” accessed online January 3, 2014 http://www.wbenjamin.org/passageways.html.

[4] Rollason.

[5] Susan Buck-Morss, The Dialectics of Seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1991), 245.

[6] Friedberg, 57.

[7] Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project (Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1999), 120.

[8] Rollason.

[9] Rollason.

[10] Sandy Isenstadt, this volume.

[11] Friedberg, 37.

[12] Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (New York: Zone Books, 1995), 12.

[13] Friedberg, 49.

[14] Marshall Berman, All That Is Solid Melts Into Air: The Experience of Modernity (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1982), 15.

[15] Buck-Morss, 239.

[16] Max Pensky, Melancholy Dialectics: Walter Benjamin and the Play of Mourning (Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1993), 168.

[17] Rollason.

[18] Pensky, 181.

[19] Walter Benjamin, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" in Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken, 1969), 224.

[20] Pensky, 168.

[21] Friedberg, 109.

[22] Stephanie Clifford, “How About Gardening or Golfing at the Mall?,” The New York Times, February 6, 2012, A1.

[23] Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” Illuminations, 257.

[24] Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” 220.