chapter  16
Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project
A prehistory of modernity
Pages 20

In his prehistory of modernity, Benjamin’s intention of reading the nineteenth

century as a text that speaks to us in the twentieth should not be taken to imply

that a restricted hermeneutic interest lay behind the project. The reality of the

nineteenth century was presented to itself as a phantasmagoria, as a dream

world, a world of illusions, a mythical world. It was a particular form of ‘reason’

that would ‘clear the entire ground and rid of it of the underbrush of delusion

and myth. Such is the goal here for the nineteenth century’.1 The recognition

and subsequent destruction of that dream world was undertaken with the

purpose of our awakening through remembrance of the hidden past. Benjamin

was impressed by one of the young Marx’s aims of ‘waking the world … from its

dream about itself’. Like Marx, Benjamin came to realise that this was no easy

task for even the most critical method. Benjamin’s starting point was the ‘pro-

fane illumination’ of surrealism which confronted ‘the world distorted in the

state of resemblance, a world in which the true surrealist face of existence

breaks through’.2 Like the work of Aragon, Breton and others it used the city of

Paris as its focal point; it was both historical and critical, and not prepared to

celebrate the myths of modernity but to undermine them. Benjamin sought to

reveal the dreams of the collectivity wherever they were housed – in the arcades

and other ‘dream houses’ – through the process of awakening. As a historical

project this meant the unification of awakening and remembrance: ‘indeed,

awakening is the exemplary instance of remembering: the instance in which it is

our fortune for us to recall the most immediate, most banal, most nearby things.

What Proust meant by the experimental rearrangement of furniture in the half

sleep of early morning, what Bloch recognised as the darkness of the lived-out

moment, is nothing other than what is to be secured here and collectively, at the

level of the historical.’3