The Dialectics of Seeing
Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project
512 pp., 6 x 9 in,
- Published: November 17, 1989
- Published: July 1, 1991
Walter Benjamin's magnum opus was a book he did not live to write. In The Dialectics of Seeing, Susan Buck-Morss offers an inventive reconstruction of the Passagen Werk, or Arcades Project, as it might have taken form. Working with Benjamin's vast files of citations and commentary which contain a myriad of historical details from the dawn of consumer culture, Buck-Morss makes visible the conceptual structure that gives these fragments philosophical coherence. She uses images throughout the book to demonstrate that Benjamin took the debris of mass culture seriously as the source of philosophical truth. The Paris Arcades that so fascinated Benjamin (as they did the Surrealists whose "materialist metaphysics" he admired) were the prototype, the 19th century "ur-form" of the modern shopping mall. Benjamin's dialectics of seeing demonstrate how to read these consumer dream houses and so many other material objects of the time—from air balloons to women's fashions, from Baudelaire's poetry to Grandville's cartoons—as anticipations of social utopia and, simultaneously, as clues for a radical political critique. Buck-Morss plots Benjamin's intellectual orientation on axes running east and west, north and south—Moscow Paris, Berlin-Naples—and shows how such thinking in coordinates can explain his understanding of "dialectics at a standstill." She argues for the continuing relevance of Benjamin's insights but then allows a set of "afterimages" to have the last word.
Buck-Morss has written a wonderful book. Although rigorously analytic, the book doesn't sacrifice those qualities in Benjamin's writing that are not reducible to method. His lyrical, hallucinatory evocation of the city as a place of dreams, myths, expectations.
Wonderfully imaginative...Like Benjamin, Buck-Morss is a surrealist explorer, her mysteries unraveled by intuition, revealed by illusion.
The New Republic
Susan Buck-Morss delves into Walter Benjamin's 'Arcades Project' with the same passionate thoroughness, critical wisdom, appetite for irony and subversion, and the sleuth's love for the search with which Benjamin himself explored/late 19th century Parisian arcades. It is a wonderful commentary on both Benjamin's important work and the formation of our consumerist presebt. The Dialectics of Seeing provokes one to think in new ways about many things.
Professor Paul Breines, Department of History, Carney Hall Boston College
In the vast literature on Walter Benjamin which has taken on almost industrial proportions, this book of Susan Buck-Morss is a true relief—a brilliant reconstruction of the almost invisible text of Benjamin's Arcades Project. Reconstructing the philisophical and political meanings hidden in the fragments of Benjamin's quotes and notes, this book represents a magistreral masterpiece illuminating Benjamin's philosophy of mass culture and its redepmtive features. Critical theory has found in her one of its few incorruptable and irreplaceable interpreters.
Leo Lowenthal, Professor of Sociology, University of California and Frankfurt University, West Germany