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The Passagenwerk or Arcades Project was an unfinished project of German literary critic Walter Benjamin, written between 1927 and 1940. An enormous collection of writings on the city life of Paris in the 19th century, it was especially concerned with Paris' iron-and-glass covered "arcades" (known in French as the passages couverts de Paris).
Benjamin's Project, which many scholars believe might have become one of the great texts of 20th-century cultural criticism, was never completed due to his suicide on the French-Spanish border in 1940. The Arcades Project has been posthumously edited and published in many languages as a collection of unfinished reflections.
Parisian arcades began to be constructed around the beginning of the nineteenth century and were sometimes destroyed as a result of Baron Haussmann's renovation of Paris during the Second French Empire (ca. 1850–1870). Benjamin linked them to the city's distinctive street life and saw them as providing one of the habitats of the Flâneur (i.e., strolling in a locale to experience it).
Benjamin first mentioned the Arcades project in a 1927 letter to his friend Gershom Scholem, describing it as his attempt to use collage techniques in literature. Initially, Benjamin saw the Arcades as a small article he would finish within a few weeks.
However, Benjamin's vision of the Arcades project grew increasingly ambitious in scope until he perceived it as representing his most important creative accomplishment. On several occasions Benjamin altered his overall scheme of the Arcades Project, due in part to the influence of Theodor Adorno, who gave Benjamin a stipend and who expected Benjamin to make the Arcades project more explicitly political and Marxist in its analysis.
The notes and manuscript for the Arcades Project and much of Benjamin's correspondence had been entrusted to Benjamin's friend Georges Bataille before Benjamin fled Paris under Nazi occupation. Bataille, who worked as a librarian at the Bibliothèque Nationale, hid the manuscript in a closed archive at the library where it was eventually discovered after the war.
The full text of Benjamin's unfinished magnum opus was published by Harvard University Press in 1999 after years of difficult editorial work. The book is hailed by some[who?] as one of the milestones of 20th-century literary criticism, history and critical theory. Others, such as Mark Lilla, describe the Arcades project as one of Benjamin's lesser works, suggesting that its importance has been vastly overstated. Lilla argues that apart from occasional flashes of humor and insight, Benjamin's surviving version of the Arcades Project is largely tedious and uninteresting.
The publication of the Arcades Project has given rise to controversy over the methods employed by the editors and their decisions involving the ordering of the fragments. Critics argue that this reconstruction makes the book akin to a multi-layered palimpsest. The Arcades Project, as it stands, is often claimed to be a forerunner to postmodernism.
- Walter Benjamin (2002), Rolf Tiedemann, ed., The Arcades Project, New York: Belknap Press, p. 1088, ISBN 0-674-00802-2 Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin (Translators)
- Susan Buck-Morss. The Dialectics of Seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project (Studies in Contemporary German Social Thought), Boston: MIT Press, 1991, 505 pages. (English) ISBN 0-262-52164-4
- Beatrice Hanssen (ed) Walter Benjamin And the Arcades Project (Walter Benjamin Studies), London: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2006), 256 pages. (English) ISBN 0-8264-6387-8.