Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings, both essential to our project of making the writings of Walter Benjamin available in English, have prepared a short introduction to Benjamin’s life and works, adapted from their Walter Benjamin: A Critical Life. Read it now »
“To great writers,” Walter Benjamin once wrote, “finished works weigh lighter than those fragments on which they labor their entire lives.” Conceived in Paris in 1927 and still in progress when Benjamin fled the Occupation in 1940, The Arcades Project (in German, Das Passagen-Werk) is a monumental ruin, meticulously constructed over the course of thirteen years—“the theater,” as Benjamin called it, “of all my struggles and all my ideas.”
Focusing on the arcades of nineteenth-century Paris—glass-roofed rows of shops that were early centers of consumerism—Benjamin presents a montage of quotations from, and reflections on, hundreds of published sources, arranging them in 36 categories with descriptive rubrics such as “Fashion,” “Boredom,” “Dream City,” “Photography,” “Catacombs,” “Advertising,” “Prostitution,” “Baudelaire,” and “Theory of Progress.” His central preoccupation is what he calls the commodification of things—a process in which he locates the decisive shift to the modern age.
The Arcades Project is Benjamin’s effort to represent and to critique the bourgeois experience of nineteenth-century history, and, in so doing, to liberate the suppressed “true history” that underlay the ideological mask. In the bustling, cluttered arcades, street and interior merge and historical time is broken up into kaleidoscopic distractions and displays of ephemera. Here, at a distance from what is normally meant by “progress,” Benjamin finds the lost time(s) embedded in the spaces of things.
Differentiation from animals helped to establish the notion of a human being, but the disappearance of animals now threatens that identity. This is the argument underlying Electric Animal, a probing exploration of the figure of the animal in modern culture. Akira Mizuta Lippit shows us the animal as a crucial figure in the definition of modernity—essential to developments in the natural sciences and technology, radical transformations in modern philosophy and literature, and the advent of psychoanalysis and the cinema. Moving beyond the dialectical framework that has traditionally bound animal and human being, Electric Animal raises a series of questions regarding the idea of animality in Western thought. Can animals communicate? Do they have consciousness? Are they aware of death? By tracing questions such as these through a wide range of texts by writers ranging from Friedrich Nietzsche to Jacques Derrida, Sigmund Freud to Vicki Hearne, Lewis Carroll to Franz Kafka, and Sergei Eisenstein to Gilles Deleuze, Lippit arrives at a remarkable thesis, revealing an extraordinary logical consensus in Western thought: animals do not have language and hence cannot die. The animal has, accordingly, haunted thought as a form of spectral and undead being. Lippit demonstrates how, in the late nineteenth century, this phantasmic concept of animal being reached the proportions of an epistemological crisis, engendering the disciplines and media of psychoanalysis, modern literature, and cinema, among others. Against the prohibitive logic of Western philosophy, these fields opened a space for rethinking animality. Technology, usually thought of in opposition to nature, came to serve as the repository for an unmournable animality-a kind of vast wildlife museum. A highly original work that charts new territory in current debates over language and mortality, subjectivity and technology, Electric Animal brings to light fundamental questions about the status of representation—of the animal and of ourselves—in the age of biomechanical reproduction.