Heterotopia and Benjamin’s Arcade Project

I have been asked whether I think there is any productive link between heterotopia and Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project. I went back to Benjamin’s inspirational book and offer the following initial thoughts. For those unfamiliar with Benjamin’s work, I provide a very brief outline before addressing some similarities and differences between the two. Page references are to the 1999 translation (see below).


Started in Paris in 1927 and unfinished when he fled occupied France in 1940, Das Passagen-Werk (The Arcades Project) was for Benjamin ‘the theatre of all my struggles and all my ideas’. The work is a substantial collection of scattered observations of life in Paris in the nineteenth century in order to grasp the history, not as an account of how or what it was or why it was, but to try something different, to display it in material detail thrown up almost by chance encounter, to avoid uniformity, to record and to let connections, relationships occur, bounce off each other. He avoids a progressive argument, an overall theoretical perspective, but offers instead a constant movement of commentary, reflections and, increasingly, citations – unfinished but still running to nearly 900 pages.

Benjamin attempts to reveal how the innovative construction of the arcades with their open display of bourgeois commodities may provide political illumination. Here luxury is made secular and public for the first time. It was also an era of fantasy (original title – a ‘dialectical fairy tale’) and his experiment is to try to awaken a forgotten collective history and to illustrate how commodities reveal dreams but also how our dreams are commoditised. He concentrates on a period of intense revolutionary change (EG the rise of the bourgeoisie, reactionary monarchist forces and the struggle of workers). The project traces a high point in capitalism, and the transformation through the ‘commodification of things’ – how this affected intimate details of people’s lives – communication, relationships, leisure, art, fashion. It was for Benjamin a disturbing era of ‘crisis in security’ where things become material, close and yet distant and strange.

Post-Card Paris Arcade
Post-Card Paris Arcade


The Arcades and the Flâneur

Arcades were introduced substantially in Paris in years after 1822, originally, elegant shops, full of luxury items. For Benjamin, they are the most ‘important architecture of the nineteenth century’ (834), offering a ‘world in miniature’ (873) where ‘the promiscuity of the commodity’ is displayed in concentrated form (827). They reveal a ‘primordial landscape of consumption’ a maze of ‘contradictory communication’ (EG organic/inorganic, poverty/luxury) like ‘images in the most tangled dreams’. They are ‘the hollow mould from which the image of “modernity” was cast’ (546). Fourier is important here as he saw the arcades as the ‘architectural canon of the phalanstery, full of utopian promise. For Fourier they become places of habitation (5). However for Benjamin, the arcades offer inspiration and promise but also display the suffocating limitations of capitalism. Although Benjamin eschews the methodical, organised vision of Fourier, he is an important visionary as the arcades are the model for Fourier’s truly collective, different, utopian society, using the machinery of industry for the benefit of all, a melding of talents and a freeing of desires.

Benjamin conceives the arcades as introducing ‘phantasmagorias’ unique to the nineteenth century and its modes of production, technology, transport, consumption and exchange (15), where objects are displayed, illuminated (also apparent in trade exhibitions and new forms of the entertainment industry).This idea of phantasmagorias is a reworking of Marx’s notion of the fetishism of commodities, the commodification of relationships in society in the capitalist era. The flâneur is important here as he above all recognises and abandons himself to the phantasmagorias.

The arcades are the special haunt of the flâneur. According to Marx, in bourgeois society indolence has ceased to be heroic (800) – a victory of industry over heroic indolence. In feudal society the leisure of the poet recognised but he becomes an idler in bourgeois society. Benjamin is struck particularly by the idleness of the flâneur as depicted by Baudelaire. (Benjamin’s method shares some of this approach in the ‘essential interminability that distinguishes the preferred obligations of the idler’: a utility dependent on chance, 802). The flâneur’s attitude is however also the ‘epitome of the political middle classes during second empire (420). Baudelaire found an ‘intoxication’ in department stores – something religious even (61).For Benjamin, the flâneur is the ‘virtuoso of this empathy’ with the commodity; his final ambit is the department store; his last incarnation is the ‘sandwich-man’ (448).

Method: Literary Montage and dialectical thinking

Benjamin instigates a process of unending citation and commentary, to cite, to display, in a kaleidoscope of fragments. Avoiding traditional ways of writing about history, he opens up ‘secret affinities’ through his ‘magical encyclopaedia’ (x). The form is montage, presenting jolting juxtapositions, varied perspectives, roller-coaster transitions (xi). The project itself becomes like an arcade, a labyrinth of enticing curiosities, enlisting an assortment of poets, artists, philosophers, revolutionaries, designers, economists, journalists and many more in a running commentary that, following Schopenhauer, embraces both ‘Herodotus and the daily newspaper’ (14). What for others may be deviations are for him ‘what determine my course’ (456). In his ‘literary montage’, he does not say anything, he shows, an ‘actualisation’ from the use of, display of, ‘the rags, the refuse’ of the nineteenth century (460). Using ‘cultural-historical’ dialectical thought (459), Benjamin avoids simple oppositions (EG positive/negative, progress/decline) that set each other off but rather attempts to change points of view and see positive elements in the negative and vice-versa. There is no sense of the continuity or ‘homogeneity of epochs’ (474).

For Benjamin, ‘the realisation of dream elements, in the course of waking up, is the paradigm of dialectical thinking’ (13).  The arcade provokes the dream, captures dream elements as a precursor. The past and present come together in a ‘flash’ – not a seeing one in the light of the other; they form a ‘constellation’: famously ‘image is dialectics at a standstill’ (462).  ‘Thinking comes to a standstill in a constellation saturated with tensions – there the dialectical image appears’ (475). It is not an attempt to grasp what has been but a reversal, an ‘awakened consciousness’ that places ‘politics over history’ (389). He frequently has explicit reference to Bloch: ‘the not-yet-conscious knowledge of what has been’ an awakening in the present, an immediate memory: ‘awakening and remembering are intimately related’ (389).

Panopticon Wax Museum, Berlin.
Panopticon Wax Museum, Berlin.


The Arcades and Heterotopia

Foucault’s brief description of heterotopias does have some similarity to aspects of the arcades as Benjamin depicts them. Benjamin notes that formerly the topology of Paris would be marked by churches and markets, but in the nineteenth century it is marked by arcades, cemeteries, bordellos, railway stations (83). He refers to various ‘dream houses of the collective’, for example, winter gardens, panoramas, factories, wax museums and casinos (405). For Baudelaire the arcades were an ‘enchanting haunt’; the entrance of which is easily missed. (60).  The arcades’ thresholds are significant commercially for, as with skating rinks, swimming pools, railway platforms, Benjamin records how they are marked with automated slot machines offering trinkets, fortune telling, name tags. These machines guard the threshold magic of the arcades (88); they mark ‘transitions’. Similarly, when entering a bourgeois house such items as chairs and photographs mark the threshold (214) and the mailbox at the entrance  makes ‘some sign to the world one is leaving’ (88). He reflects on the wax museum as a ‘panopticon’ (the Castans panopticon established itself in Berlin in the early 1870s at the Schlossplatz , 532) but also ‘a total work of art,  a monument to the universalism of the nineteenth century, as everything is represented there and one can see from all angles: ’not only does one see everything, but one sees it in all ways’ (531). Benjamin also links wax museums to the ‘colportage phenomenon of space’ and the ‘fundamental ambiguity of the arcades’ (531). Benjamin has a section on the magic of mirrors, helping the ‘interweaving of space’ and encouraging the flâneur: where doors and walls are made of mirrors ‘there is no telling outside from in’ (537). Mirrors adorned Paris in the nineteenth century, ‘an oppressive magic’ alluring people into the ‘seductive bazaars’ (541).

For those familiar with Foucault’s account of heterotopia, some of the above will find echoes. However, is it productive to link Benjamin’s arcades and heterotopia? Stavrides (2006) thinks so. Certainly, the context of the spaces of modernity does seem to overlap – see for example, Hetherington’s (1997) discussion of the Palais Royale. Shane (2005) considers the arcades as ‘spaces of illusion’. Benjamin’s work may also be useful to those who have argued that the modern shopping mall and other consumer outlets are heterotopian – in the transition from arcades, to department stores to malls – see, for example, chapters in Dehaene, M. and De Cauter (2008). Moreover, the  fundamental ambiguity of the arcades as described by Benjamin, for example,  the surrealist juxtaposition of items on display, the mixture of the virtual and the real, the disorienting role of mirrors, the importance of thresholds, the ‘illusion’ they produce-  all seem to chime here. Benjamin’s work, at least in the initial phases, was heavily influenced by his reading of Aragon’s Le Paysan de Paris (1926) and, curiously, a passage from the same book by Aragon appears in Foucault’s (2010 [1966]) radio broadcast introducing heterotopia. However, I think we have to tread carefully. Benjamin’s Marxist outlook, tinged with utopian hopes and regrets – with particular influences from Fourier, Bloch and Adorno, for instance – are far removed from Foucault’s. Some of the spaces that intrigue both Benjamin and Foucault are the same but they use them distinctly and take them to different places. For example, in Foucault’s thumb-nail sketch of heterotopia what is interesting about the brothel is the contrast between this space and the rest of society. For Benjamin the interest lies in how the prostitute is both a commodity and a seller of commodities, typifying aspects of exchange in capitalist society. Foucault’s notion provides some loose, initial thoughts on how certain spaces in all cultures and through different eras distinguish themselves, mirroring and contesting remaining space. In major works, he takes up the thorough genealogy of some of these spaces, but not explicitly as heterotopia. As we have seen, in contrast, Benjamin picks up a very different cultural-historical dialectic. It is possible to read the arcades as heterotopia. Some critics would say that Benjamin provides insights lacking in Foucault’s rather confused account, namely politics. But each writer offers a different way of seeing and with a very different set of tools.

Aragon, L. (1926) Le Paysan de Paris. Paris: Gallimard.

Benjamin, W. (1999) The Arcades Project, translated. H. Eiland and K. McLauglin. Cambridge MA and London: Harvard University.

Dehaene, M.  and De Cauter, L. (eds.) (2008) Heterotopia and the City, London and New York: Routledge, 75-87.

Foucault, M. (2010) [1966] Les Corp Utopique, Les Hétérotopies, with introduction by D. Defert. Clamercy: Éditions Lignes.

Hetherington, K. (1997) The Badlands of Modernity: Heterotopia and Social Ordering, London: Routledge.

Shane, D. G. (2005) Recombinant Urbanism: Conceptual Modelling in Architecture, Urban Design, and City Theory. Chichester, UK: Wiley.

Stavrides, S. (2006) ‘Heterotopias and the Experience of Porous Urban Space’ in Loose Space Eds. K. Franck and Q. Stevens. London: Taylor and Francis 174-19.


12 June 2015