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On making-up and breaking-up: woman and ware, craving and corpse in Walter Benjamin's Arcades Project

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Walter Benjamin's writings on the Paris shopping arcades and nineteenth- century urban industrial culture are frequently referenced in contemporary examinations of ‘modernity'. In current cultural studies Benjamin's investigation of the aesthetics of merchandise and his insights into the social fact of mass consumerism are repeatedly invoked. Indeed these investigations may be alluded to even more frequently than reference is made to Benjamin's once much reproduced essay ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction'. A decade and a half ago Benjamin's ‘Artwork’ essay (1935—9) was one of the most frequently cited essays in new art history and cultural studies academic textbooks. To put it crudely, a turnaround has occurred. In the 1970s academic (and non-academic) attention spotlit Benjamin's materialist history of artistic production, distribution and reception as presented in the ‘Artwork’ essay and in ‘The Author as Producer’ (1934). The political events of 1968 had made Benjamin extremely readable. His thoughts discharged after some years delay. Most alluring to the German 68ers were the statements on political art and Benjamin's dissections of fascism. Also entrancing were Benjamin's analyses of experience. Benjamin wrote extensively, and from early on, about ways of expanding the conceptualisation of experience: sometimes philosophically - by means of Kant-critique, sometimes aesthetically — by a probing of surrealism and psychoanalysis, and sometimes practically – through experiments with hashish, which were later written up as protocols. John Berger's Ways of Seeing (1972) represented an original attempt to introduce Benjamin to an English audience, via the appropriately mass mediation of television. Benjamin was adopted as a leftist mascot, and a materialist who could recommend directions for art interpretation and more importantly, cultural practice. The approaches of the 1980s and 1990s, inflected by the priorities of feminist and postmodernist scholarship as they have loomed in cultural studies, art history and sociology, increasingly turned to those aspects of Benjamin's work that appear to illuminate a burgeoning interest in urbanism and consumerism. Interest has shifted away from cultural production and critique towards consumption and characterization. These days, Benjamin is regularly served up as one of the theorists who can vindicate a feel-good consumerism, lending a glamourizing and theoretical loftiness to the activity of shopping. Indeed, far from blasting the chimeras of commodity fetishism, Benjamin becomes the commodity's high-priest.


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