Walter Benjamin’s Passagenwerk or Arcades Project is his never completed collection of research and writing on life in 19th century Paris. Specifically, Benjamin focuses on the influence of Haussman’s urban redesign, at the request of Napoleon, that resulted in grand boulevards, parks, and the covered glass and steel arcades that gave Benjamin his title. What he also chronicles is the creation of a class of ideal consumers he terms, flâneurs. The Flâneur is a shopper who strolled the new shopping districts of Paris, taking in the sights and sounds without necessarily having a purpose or need. Shopping became a kind of pleasure or sensory experience, a chance to take in the latest fashions to experience the pleasures of anonymity. As Benjamin describes it, “the city splits for him into its dialectical poles. It opens up to him as a landscape, even as it closes around him as a room” (Benjamin, 417).
What Benjamin, provides us, in addition to his insights into the rise of a capitalist mode of consumption, is an example of using browsing and random encounters as a method for research. Just as the flâneur takes in the world of the arcades, so to does Benjamin browse through the archival material available to him, cutting out newspaper clippings, illustrations, and quotes along the way.
So how might we apply Benjamin’s approach in this era of online browsing and the seemingly endless pathways through networked computers? The first step would appear to be to start collecting. We can all be digital Flâneurs, at least those of us with access to the internet, but it another thing to examine how these online spaces are constructed, to think about what they show and do not show.
As mentioned last class, we will be doing a bit of collecting using
screen capture via the “shift Prt Scr” key combination. Below are a couple of examples. One showing the Venetian Macau’s “Streetosphere” and the other City of Dreams’ “Retail Fantasies.” Both retail spaces owe much to the legacy of the arcades project as they sell the experience of shopping as much as the actual products.