Ποιειν Και Πραττειν - create and do

From Flaneur to passages of time

At the beginning of the Twentieth Century, but already after the First World War, Walter Benjamin starts to focus upon the 'flaneur' as new urban figure. Instead of seeking contact, indeed conversations with others, the ‘flaneur’ passes time by strolling back and forth within the limited space of the passages. He remains idle. He does not consume anything nor attempts to sell something. Literally speaking, he does nothing, not even to inform himself about prices. He does not speak with others or engages himself to undertake some errant.

The 'not speaking' with the others is often missed by critics when attempting to interpret Benjamin's figure of the 'flaneur'. Instead they prefer to link this figure of modern urban life with an imagine Walter Benjamin kept on his desk. Painted by Paul Klee in 1920, it depicts an angel flying backwards, away from earth. The wind sweeps up this figure as if to intend to blow it away from earth. Most notable is that the angel looks back as if a disaster is rapidly approaching. The arms of the angel are raised out of despair.

But if not 'a scorched earth' marks the coming disaster, but a passage with many shops displaying all kinds of luxury items from shoes to chocolates, what is so threatening about this world of consumer goods in which the 'flaneur' appears? To get an answer the figure has to be interpreted differently. One possible understanding can be derived from the paranoia like fear which Surrealists used as method to exaggerate immanent danger e.g. Dali picking one item out of reality, enlarging it and then driving that object back into the same reality where it came from. It is possible that in such a modern world the objects on display for potential consumptioin shall never be consumed but they too are displayed in such an exaggerated sense, that nothing else seems to have space or meaning beside them.

The passages determine the kind of experience to be made. But before someone has a chance to buy these goods, something else shall take place. As a matter of fact, it is merely a matter of time before the message of the passages becomes evident. The real danger of missing out on a more subtle message becomes self-evident once bombs go off and all the shop windows are shattered as shown most convincingly in Luis Bunuel's film "The obscure Object of Desire"!

Since nothing outside these shopping windows but inside the passages gave a clear indication as to what is going to happen, further explanations are needed. The usual one is to link bombs going off arbitrarily to some kind of political statement but this is not very convincing. Rather the blasts seem to be directed against something highly objectionable. For these passages crowded with people who are just shopping are made to let the people appear doing something so innocent that no one could object to that. Indeed, all these people in the passages are just doing simple things including window shopping especially if they do not have enough money to go inside the shops to buy some of the things on display. It seems plausible that against such pretense of innocence a new, till then not seen or felt tension unloads and lets bombs go off.

As a mark of polarization of society, such tensions arise no longer out of the difference between workers and capitalists (or owners). Rather this tension stems out of conflicts between new forces seeking truth and hence risk misunderstandings as to what they are able to assert against a world dominated by a bourgeois society bored to death. Next to the objects, there exists an awful silence in the wake of having succumb to a 'power of boredom'. In such a world of consumption has come to dominate an all dominating impression, namely that real and human experiences have lost any meaning. Benjamin attests to this by seeing everything moving towards the mere reproduction of things. Even the arts are no longer unique but everywhere the same. Daily people encounter a loss of authenticity and experience in its wake more and more painful losses of meaningful relationships.

In such a world people no longer know how to communicate about those things which matter. Instead many pretend at least to know what they are striving for. Hence they engage in endless demonstrations within the confines of these passages to display themselves like those goods are show in the windows with a certain style dominating the day, that they seek a happy life. The display underscores that a basic minimum for such happiness is to engage themselves in the consumption of things. Yet that is not sufficient to provide an orientation or to find true happiness.

Instead of communicating openly about these failures, which are in reality cultural problems, they clothe themselves in the fashions of the day and adapt their words according to what they see being displayed in the shop windows which line these passages. They adapt to the styles on display as they seem to promise as leading models of the day success in society. They do by reinforcing the pretense of being happy as a smiling face can open more easily doors to success.

In other words, the shop windows replace the dialogue people used to engage in when viewing images portrayed by painters in their paintings. There used to exist a 'power of paintings' as it gave the viewer a language to oversee both the immediate reality which surrounds one while offering a possible escape into romantic distances. Now that projection into an outward going world is gone. The shop windows display a new, inner world preoccupied with how one looks rather than with how to perceive other things. Compared to the language of paintings able to stimulate a dialogue with the imagination by which reality can be questioned, and may that be a painting of a landscape or of a human face, the things on display rob language of its imaginative power. People are not supposed to clothe themselves. This should be done by the fashion designer.

As a matter of fact, these shop windows offer quite another view of what people should do in such a world. In displaying commodities in these huge shop windows, a much more powerful language of images is used since they can rely even on life models. Real models pose behind these windows to underscore the power of movement through non-movement.

It should be noted that behind every window display there is a clever advertisement strategy with the aim to hook the consumer into a fake need for these specific goods on display. It is suggested that without these goods they will lack identity and shall not be happy as long as they do not have them. This is made plain by underlining a 'certainty of success' only when having these goods as the world is dominated by these and no other commodities. That is always the case with such expensive advertisement marking a crucial entry point into the market. They reflect who can afford it to have a name and, therefore, an identity in such a world of consumption. The modern term which reflects once a commodity has gained recognition on this market is to call a commodity by its 'brand name'.

Sadly enough not only ladies, but words begin then to wear big hats with needles sticking out. No one knows whether this is laughable or a sad admission that fashions produce more and more conformity. Yet there is an even more subtle point often overseen. For the needles do remind of the knitting women sitting beside the guillotine when the axe fell yet again to cut off another aristocratic head. That was the case once the French revolution had turned to the Jacobin moral and therefore to terror. By keeping silent and just knitting away despite unjust punishments being inflicted in public, these clattering needles remind of time passing by while bearing witness to unjust justice prompts no other reaction than knitting away. It bears indirectly proof that the passages for consumption function in a similar way as they become passages of time insofar as people no longer seem to notice that the consumption of things means equally a consumption of time without undertaking anything against it. If only pretense of innocence while engaged in consumption of things can be seen as accepting waste of time to the point of not doing anything against growing injustices for those without any time available, then this adaptation to the world of consumption means accepting terror at the same time. That terror prevails in silence about the absence of any truth in such a world. That silence is shattered but merely briefly when the bomb explodes. With that begins the reign of just more terror. It leaves a world of goods and of consumption without any human language not needed when communication does take place in-between those models on display and what goods are offered at a certain range of prices. In such a world it suffices to show that one desires something and is able to purchase one or more of these items with the intention to consume them somehow later.

Unfortunately Benjamin's attempt to go beyond what critics call the world of 'materialism' falls short of making a crucial difference in terms of depicting reality. That was the main criticism by Horkheimer and Adorno of his text. They saw that the 'flaneur' in the world of passages finds no way out of such society. Rather he remains idle in the very same world which is designed to let people just consume. Of course, the 'flaneur' can show in a further going interpretation that a conscious mind will be reduced to a silent witness. Whether or not such a figure will rave about the objects offered by this contemporary world on display in the passages, there is ambivalence already within that silent reaction. For raving can mean becoming angry or on the opposite side of the scale more intense in the desire to have these goods like all the other people going to the passages to consume something. It should be noted that this level of criticism does not deal as of yet with corruption linked to conspicious consumption. Rather it deals primarily with how to resist against being drawn or more precisely sucked into this world of consumption. What makes it more difficult to overcome this hidden ambivalence, is that none of the objects on display are really needed. If no language can be found, and to recall the 'flaneur' does not talk with anyone, then terror seems to be the only alternative to those trapped in consumption. Bombs going off are as senseless as those goods. They document merely that seeking an alternative to such a world of consumption is an action in vain. Thus terror reinforces the negation of the need to relate to real human needs and helps reproduce a senseless felt by everyone even though there are significant differences in the art of pretense in having overcome this inner void or not. The passages are in this sense powerful spaces to convince people not to think about these deeper questions of life. To that has to be added advertisement which focuses on these goods with a brand name and thereby determine perception by occupying all images of what is considered to be right now of importance. Consequently this world of commodities on display becomes the sole order of things and documents at the same time that no other escape is conceivable except to blow up everything.

Such a material world hovers over the entire city like a thick fog which prevents anyone from having a clear vision. Only certain things stand out in the fog. As such it helps to cover up everything else and lets forget any real linkage to earth as everything else appears as unreal. Since the world of consumption ensnares every individual in an illusionary world of the self being projected only against these objects, the need for man to stay in touch not only with the earth but as well with the real self is forgotten.

In such a world as experienced by Benjamin in Paris reminds still vaguely of the revolutionary language which Paris and the world have come to known. Humanity showed itself at the barricades when the Paris Commune started this revolution. This includes what Victor Hugo had witnessed as to what happened at these barricades. He saw from a safe distance what appeared but also vanished immediately again and with it the ideal, but also interest to converse with everyone for the sake of 'equality, brotherhood and freedom'.

Since then the citizen of the world is no longer around but the world of consumption has become one and the same for everyone. Only the 'flaneur' of Benjmain seems to stand out of the mass of consumers running into these passages. They are only passages of time insofar as those trapped in them run out of their own lived times. The worst thing is that this supposed to be 'free time' when everyone goes shopping when in fact that all other lived times are banished from this world of consumption. These other times no longer exist or are treated as irrelevant. Consequently people have no other time left. All of the time is spend in these passages and merely the 'flaneur' by doing nothing but to idle around gives time a chance to regain consciousness in not merely lived, but historical terms.

There exists apart from this world of the passages another part which does not necessarily fit into this pattern. For away from such idle life in the passages designed for mere consumption, there exists during those times the salon. The latter allows the participants to pretend that words still matter, especially if skilled at writing or else in giving speeches. [1] These salons of literary discussions are, however, set radically apart from the world of the senses. Thus while the speech may be radical, the Salon-discussions do not really make any difference as to what happens on the street or for that matter in politics. Unfortunately many intellectuals end up caught in the web spun in these salons. They end up somewhere ‘in-between’ social reality outside and real decision making processes. By allowing themselves to be cut off from ordinary people but by being not really shapers of human destiny, they have no real sense in which direction society should go. But by pretending that they are of importance, they cultivate a distinction from other people and thereby reproduce gladly but often blindly segmentation of society. Such pretense is linked to mannerism expressed best by a high nose or scoff at the other. Everything is done to gain distance from the common people. There manifests itself a complete lack of human compassion and explains why the language of overall society has become so empty.

However, a negativity dominates in the world of the salons. They are dominated by what Adorno calls 'clever superiority'. It is followed by a 'stupidity' of a special kind. Rather than speaking with the others by listening to them, conversations of high pretense to know everything are conducted for the sole purpose to keep the rumors spicy and the gossips about the other interesting. Jealously prevails as much as intrigues are the rule. Someone can easily be killed in name and reputation by keeping up false rumors. There is no hesitation in cutting short conversations if this leads to a key enemy to loose face. That can happen when two men or two women desire the same man or woman. Social rivalry determines then the fate of those who can still speak in the Salons while those having lost grace or more importantly the interest of this particular society shall fade away into the shades of these salons.

Of interest is that outside, in the streets, often in pubs or hiden places, there are those who also do not speak with others. Rather they prepare no slogans to be shouted out during the next street demonstrations.

What amazes still more are those who deem themselves of being too cultivated as to be compared with all those uncouth people filling the streets when it is time to demonstrate. They do not perceive the same conditions as the others when freedom is jeopardized but think of themselves as being the privileged and the selected ones to guard over all fortunes of both the state and those with possessions. They prepare themselves to seize power through not necessarily power struggles but by way of marriage. They may be called the Loyalists who wish that the masses remain loyal to a special authority, but they also are clever enough not to express themselves in such political clear terms, as they might loose the chance to gain influence by other means. Definite is that they do not wish to engage themselves in overt demonstrations. Such visibility in the streets they abhor.

Over time different political styles can be seen as having marked various historical phases, but as one consistent configuration there is a certain kind of snobbishness which may be called as well a desire to stay aloof from other people. By adopting a certain style, and it means going with the fashions of the time, they desire to attain something by which it becomes easier to delineate themselves from others. For Kant it was a uniform which his servant had to wear so as not to be confused with his master. It means that they no longer perceive themselves as a common citizen with equal Rights as anyone else. Since they are convinced such equality shall never be achieved, they seek to safeguard their privileges which make all the difference in life styles.

Linked to the world of consumption, these people who set themselves apart from the others no longer consider themselves as being equal members of humanity and as sovereign subjects who wish like all others freedom and peace. Rather the others become through the world of commodities for them but objects of their own rhetorics by which they address them and label them for their own protection and distinction. As this entails a lot of negative projections, methods are devised by which ample proof can be gathered that not they, but the others succumb to this world of consumption. Once carried away by a sub-conscious ideology, the cultivated snobbishness seems to strenghten the belief in their superiority, but despite all cleverness they never come to reflect that this distinction shall not be achieved or can be upheld by honest means. Rather they will have to resort either to naked power or to terror, if not to both at one and the same time.

In the end, the privileged in a world of consumption unite in the knowledge that they have one common enemy: the people. This sense of being enemies is strengthened by their fear that people shall one day no longer fear their lack of identity and revolt against any further suppression.

Supposedly the fight between Danto and Robespierre would not have ended where it did, namely with Danton being taken to the guilottine to install the terror of radical morality over a senseful life, if the French Revolution could have been saved by a marriage between a sensual life and an intellectual demanding one, and this on the basis of a clear commitment to humanity. There is always at risk a split between those who wish to affirm life with all its pleasures and those who want to uphold a highly elevated morality. While the former have trust in man, the latter convey an extreme version of justice out of fear of failure onhand of many shortcomings of man, including their very own.

A mediated view of the world based on non violence and respect of others requires an intellectual clarity which is based on a free conscience and 'integrity of memory'. Anything else gives in too readily to the wrong forces which lead in practice to many unjust practices, wrong compromises and suppression of truths. Things are found out only by means of vengeance, jealousy and greed while being too obstinate to listen to the advice of others.

Unfortunately this split in society has contributed towards a permanent misunderstanding between those seeking justice and those simply asserting more their Rights to consume than being prepared to discuss at all their interpretation of what justice should stand for. The latter group is reinforced by those who attain power by supporting the mere consumption of things as the main order. Once in power, they assert such a justice which claims in particular that the market should have the final say or, in reality, the one who can afford to pay the price.

To date that duality defines much of what causes misunderstandings and therefore a kind of political conflict not defined clearly enough either by those out of power or by those in or near power. Rather than practicing true politics by taking recourse to human reasoning, the politics of covering up gaps and the fact that in the absence of happiness people will tend to consume more as the basic truth of the system turned negatively against people themselves, politics is called 'the art of making compromises'. This strengthen the style of pretense and reflects itself in the use of the key criterion of 'consumer confidence' as spelling out the prime condition for a good economy.

Over and again these two different tendencies, with seekers of truth reflected especially in a new generation of youth becoming rebellious for a short period of time, while those living in a world made up of compromises but no longer knowing why anyone should feel happiness, undermined each other when it comes to governance. By neither side following a good practice, the experiences made are not based on a sense for political freedom and justice. Since these contradictory movements can easily get out of hand, they prompt reactions and counter reactions. Insofar as this prompts use of more and more resources till they are all exhausted, and they use resources more to block off each other's chances than to strengthen demands for freedom and justice, they become increasingly unwilling to give anything away. This concerns above all those things which they have not gained beforehand themselves. Thus they seek constantly a position of superior strength over the other side before they enter any kind of negotion about a possible compromise. It would never occur to them to share power, let alone take a step further by making sure no one has any power if not shared by all.

A clear failure is that neither side is not self-critical enough to realize that their understanding of justice means in reality to cement injustice. Socially and politically speaking, the impasse will lead to new forms of movements all seeking power with or without other alliances as support. Since all of these alliances are made up by stipulations, value declarations and prejudgments, all of them enter a dispute about what needs to be done first. Substance meaning honesty is lost as the dispute overshadows everything and pretains only to pretense of being politically engaged in the name of all when in fact their own agenda is highly exclusive of others, and especially of those who do not agree unconditionally with their own agenda. As a matter of fact, they set agendas without fulfilling the basic political requirement of everyone being able to articulate his or her demands within any kind of assembly. Thus is happens when someone else attempts to speak, no one listens. That means someone becomes a leader by pushing through a specific agenda with no one really listening but now the resignation has driven everyone to realize something needs to be done. With talking making no longer any sense, just visible actions are demanded. That leaves any group or movement most willing to follow a highly selective practice by determining with whom to speak, with whom not. Such discriminatory practice leads in the end always to a new kind of self isolation and, therefore, to a loss of reality. Panic if not blind outbursts shall follow once that divorce from reality has become a fact.

One assurance can be given to counter such a description of political reality linked to the world of consumption. Even the most exclusive practices cannot prevent really others from speaking up eventually. Yet the description of reality does make plain how much more difficult it has become in a world with passages for consuming things to resolve social contradictions and to come to terms with especially the issue of prevailing injustices. No one seems sure what can contribute to a search for truth as there looms as well the danger of movements becoming either highly dogmatic or else fanatic, and in the worst of all cases take on both negative features. All the more problematic is that many people do not realize all of the ramifications once this kind of distinction between those wishing to uphold the world of consumption and those wishing another turth becomes a systematic and structural prejudice. Since that undermines any social contract between people to uphold democratic governance, it leaves very few political options on how to get out of this dilemma or even impasse.

In the wake of resignation, it should not be overseen that this helps to reproduce an even more restrictive conformity. Once societies have settled down with this disillusionment about truth being impossible, then the real outcome is that those with claims of success within this system shall no longer speak to those who refuse to consume. Overseen is as well that those who merely consume shall loose as well as they will be without a true and human language to address each other in their own human self consciousness. Instead they shall become too much their own spin doctors and rationalize things by attempting to sell failures as successes while not wishing to deal with the true prices behind all success stories.

In the end, they will do very little needed to be done to hold a city as a whole together. This impasse will endanger the life of everyone still further and shall produce the kind of terror about which Bunel speaks in his film. For everything shall either implode or else erupt out of the frustration of experiencing no real pleasure in the world of objects made to appear as if of human desire when in fact they are not.

Everyone living in the city has at last refuge, namely the sky above the city. Yet when looking closer as to what is at stake in terms of space above cities, it is felt but not really known for certain when it can happen again one day. That day shall come when this space shall be darkened not by heavy clouds, but by airplanes coming in to drop their bombs. One of the first cases of that was prior to the start of Second World War Bilbao in 1937 and which gave rise to Picasso's Guernica. Walter Benjamin must have known about it as well, especially if we think again about Paul Klee's angel being swept up by the wind into the sky above the city and now seeing what approaching danger casts already a growing shadow over the entire city. For when planes penetrate the sky agove the city, then a final protection is gone. The air space above the city should be imagines like a cup of hand held over the entire city for protection. But not only bombs dropped from the sky wiped away that illusion of being protected against violence when in the city. With growing industrialization, and after 1945 with growing traffic but also pollution, climate change alters as well this concept of the sky above the city. Anyone approaching the city can see a smog cloud hovering above it. Even if nowadays pollution has become more invisible, there prevails such a health haphazard that people experience breathing difficulties and with that come all kinds of other health problems. No wonder when many conclude that it is no longer healthy to live in the city. That alters the definition of violence from which they wished to escape by moving to the city in the first place.

Still objects sold, languages spoken or not and a sky polluted and under potential threat do not constitute as of yet 'les mots et les choses' (the order of things) as depicted by Michel Foucault. He was interested in structures of representation and what shifts in power they can indicate (e.g. when a painter includes himself for the first time in the centre of the group being portrayed while the king and queen are shown to just entering the room, that is they are already at the periphery of the image to indicate changing times with feudal ages coming to an end.) Now the question is what orders are brought about by distinct compartments holding certain objects according to definite needs e.g. items for bedrooms, bathrooms or kitchen or else men's compared to women's clothes with a special department existing for children and youth. Such an order explains in a more profound way what inherent contradictions dominate in the city. Like the hospitals which categorize sickness or health problems according to certain diagnosis methods, those with broken legs on a different stations than the ones with heart problems, it influences the overall definition of what is considered to be a consumer. Like the soldier being considered healthy if he shows courage in the face of the enemy, the consumer will tackle all the confusion of items offered and find his or her way. A touch of heroism transforms this act of consumption into a kind of adventure with self claims of making a difference a part of the overall game when it comes to discovering a better item at a more reasonable, i.e. affordable price. As all of this is linked to a healthy being equal to a life in wealth, richness is preferred to anything else. That means anything which does not fit into this overall scheme made up of categories for purpose of directing consumption towards those things made available by an invisible productive side but only visible under the rulership of advertisement and the game to gain a brand name in the process, is ignored or worse excluded to the point of being branded negatively. The latter will remain without the necessary recognition by which anyone can integrate him- or herself into society.

If the criticism by Adorno of Benjamin's 'flaneur'-figure is followed, then it is about his caution on how reality is named. This naming should be done in a much more precise manner in order to prevent that all these contradictions mentioned above are painted or glossed over by brand names and retrospective rationalisations of 'failures' to consume these and other things. The latter tendency towards retrospective rationalizations has been introduced by Post Modernism as well prior to Second World War and become an elegant way to absolve contradictions. When Paul LeMan curated for the Nazis an exhibition of German artists in Holland, he responded to the question why none of the famous 'Jewish' painters are shown, by saying this does not matter as they were merely mediocre. The inherent danger of Post-Modernism is to do away with all human looses as if they do not really matter since now other things count. That method is used more and more to silence contradictions till they cannot be used any longer as entry point into the logic used till then to gain knowledge about the difference between concepts and reality with many possibilities existing to mediate but also to connect the two.

As a rule it means a new order is installed by means of enforcing a silence about all contradictions. Cornelius Castoriadis remarks especially young people growing up in such a world will not longer be able to handle contradictions as they are taught to think only in terms of computer programs, that is according to the binary logic and which entails an iterative process based on saying merely 'yes' or 'no' in order to move on. That command structure leaves them without the imagination to conceive alternatives to the given options. This helps to reproduce such a superficial world that people no longer interact in any meaningful way. The key difference to today's world is that people in Benjamin's time have not succumbed as of yet to total regression but like the angel being swept away see the approaching danger.

Walter Benjamin focused upon the ‘flaneur’ spending his time in those passages with large windows as show cases for consumption. He wished to make out a basic contradiction in this material world. The ‘flaneur’ was to him an idle walker going nowhere but there to demonstrate that he has time to waste. Hence he was a new phenomenon to Benjamin insofar as the ‘flaneur’ demonstrates daily the art of doing nothing. He would not do anything, no shopping whatsoever. His refusal to participate in consumption was most important to Benjamin. He sought to understand this phenomenon further by writing about these ‘passages’. Although the ‘flaneur’ strolled back and forth within a very limited and clearly confined area, it could be read as an attempt to reclaim human reality from forces which had made the articulation of the self in human reality almost impossible.

It should be reminded that human reality is constituted according to leading ideas of those times through the consciousness that people have of themselves. Marx pointed out in the introduction to his dissertation, that the human self-consciousness depends upon the self being spoken to in a language which includes categories of both creativity and productivity. Only then the language spoken would be a human one.

The ‘flaneur’ was, therefore, to Benjamin’s mind a sign of first and last resistance in a world which banished both productivity and creativity to replace it with mere consumerism. The latter implied to him a loss of human reality because such a world reduces the human being to mere consumer of objects which are not really needed. Consumption happens in these passages at a superfluous, equally superficial level. By not participating in consumption, but also not joining the labor forces engaged in production, Benjamin claims that the ‘flaneur’ would by himself constitute a new kind of reality. [2]

The real question to emerge out of that discussion around Benjamin’s thesis has not been clearly spotted despite numerous interpretations. Most of the time these interpretations fail to fulfill what Adorno stipulated as being of great importance in his letters to Benjamin. The two corresponded when the former was already in safe exile in New York while Benjamin remained in Paris despite the growing threat of Hitler ordering the invasion of that city and of the rest of France. The main discussion between the two was whether the article by Benjamin was worthy to be printed in the Journal of the New School linked to what became later on the famous Frankfurter School. A publication would mean not merely recognition, but also financial support, something Benjamin was in great need of at that time. Horkheimer was against publication, Adorno tried to mediate.

Attempting to mediate between Benjamin and Horkheimer, Adorno tried through criticism to affect Benjamin. Adorno maintained that ‘dialectical images’ associated with such subjects as the ‘flaneur’ must still retain a ‘content of consciousness, albeit a collective one’ and, therefore, a ‘relatedness to the future as Utopia’. To fulfill this demand, the concept of the ‘flaneur’ must continue to be a ‘self-contained subject of this content of consciousness’. If that is not the case, then the theory behind the name ‘flaneur’ shall be lost and such simplifications introduced that the text will not be justifiable for purpose of publication. Objectionable are simplifications as they would sacrifice the original theoretical intentions behind the name of ‘flaneur’. The entire text would loose out on what Adorno calls the “subjective nuance as …basic truth” of the content and thus would “fail to preserve that social movement within the contradiction”. [3] In the end, contradictions would disappear altogether and no traces of a vanished world of contradictory movements could be found in the text. Such perception of reality would then be conveyed without a trace of human self consciousness.

In other words, whatever urban based social movements sustain, alter or even cripple, they do affect thoughts and shape every day life within cities. They should heed Adorno’s criticism as the very absence of ‘dialectical images’ explain partially what becomes impossible for those social movements seeking human reality. Accordingly they are derided of an impetus to alter things because they are without such concepts linked to utopia while very realistic in both hope and aspiration. That is especially the case when social movements trade in their original intention to bring about a just world with simpler notions of life by accepting compromises which mean really giving up the demand for social justice.

This kind of reductionism would facilitate, culturally speaking, an adaptation to the kind of role models as portrayed by Hollywood which was already to Adorno during those years in American exile the epigone of the cultural industry. They would mark the pavements as the only road to success and enhance it by people dreaming about their respective stars not in the night sky above the city, but driving in shiny cars down those streets.

This single road to success left the obvious discrepancies between images and reality without any dialectical tension. Instead dreams of a better life became equated with having a similar life style as those Hollywood stars with swimming pools besides their large houses and a double garage up front to mark the importance of the automobile. The latter indicated the only way to reach the city but to keep it as well at a distance by living in the suburbs. That set a priority, namely to have at all times private means of transportation readily available. Without it, a person would not be recognized as being successful in such a society. It was compulsive and as a solution implemented throughout the city thought through to the very hair style and coat to be worn when taking the car for a drive. It reinforced the importance of design and meant success was based on not merely coping, but to find an innovative way to introduce something new rather than merely copying other life styles. Naturally the designs accepted did contribute towards reproducing a similar life style. The basic design aims to continue and to further this adaptation process, for everything was meant to refute old ways of doing things while aiming to overcome daily demands by doing or rather producing and consuming more for the sake of still greater profits.

The Hollywood film star did not treat the ‘flaneur’ as anti-pole; rather it was a way to shape life without a future by playing out the key thesis that no future was needed if everything can be had ‘here and now’: life in paradise, in affluence, in being able to waste time (and life), in order to determine the prize above and beyond normal needs (Bataille). Herbert Marcuse called it the making of the ‘one dimensional man’. He meant by that specific aesthetical experiences. They are to be made independent from any question as to how the future could be shaped. After all experience of ‘beauty’ is a source of inspiration and creation of beautiful things already a way to shape them. For consumerism linked to making a profit, that aesthetics is missing; profit has become an end in itself and is at the same time the most powerful guideline and accounting principle for justifying everything while claiming accordingly success. Above all no one needs to talk about the concept by which life and work is sustained since making a profit is an undisputed method and goal. In short, profit linked to having more money and thereby being rich has become in Capitalism the prime mover of everything. For example, consumer confidence says everything about the well being of the economy and of a city. Forgotten is what Anna Seghers said, namely what people need if they are to become creative: a ‘horizon’ which allows them to look ahead, into the future while experiencing in the present the beauty of life.

Adorno speaks a lot about the loss of ‘magic’ which happens once dialectical images are reduced to psychological levels of interpretations such as ‘dreams’. It leaves the utopian aspect in such images short changed. That means the immanent character inherent in these images is not heeded. Usually that goes hand in hand with declarations that this is impossible and therefore actions are undertaken without thinking ahead as to what would bring about a just society. Once that link is dropped, the tension spills only empty handed into the streets and the pragmatic style will dictate everything that moves from cars with trailers taking sail boats to the harbor and a life style reducing itself to merely eating out in expensive restaurants while everything else in the vicinity has died as if there is no longer life around.

Dialectic thinking not in categories but with images upholding even impossible demands brings about another kind of consistency. Philosophically speaking, it is called working through the concepts until they can be articulated within reality not just as it is, but can now be responded to in a most humane way by addressing the problem and going further than just labeling reality with what is by relating to future potentials and hence solutions. Simon and Garfunkel brought that to words in their song “Bridge over troubled waters!”

Unfortunately no common philosophical practice is understood as being a part of a society which bases decisions on knowledge derived from concepts which reflect perception of reality over time. Furthermore the relationship between experiences and empirically establishes facts is in constant need to be re-defined as new experiences want to speak up! Instead of a clear development path, there dominates merely a wish to put up only ‘ontological signs’. While people may wish of ‘being alive in the city’, philosophy tends to distort that wish by ontological claims as if things can come only to life, if entangled in a fight. (Heidegger) Since such a fight requires artificially induced tensions, it evokes a polarized consciousness of us as opposed to them. The polarization follows a devious mechanism to manipulate and to gain power at the expense of all others. Such politics cannot compensate the loss of a dialectical thinking with images about a positive future. The latter is linked to people being alive and happy. They do not need to trespass the life of others or to get involved in wrong fights.

The flow of thoughts cannot be compared to the flow of the traffic nor concepts based on real human images to the suggestive nature of speculation, if this is not done, then the outcome will be that and always this kind of speculation is connected not to people’s consciousness but to how the value of money fluctuates. Such a suggestive nature builds up on metaphorical analogies e.g. like man, so dog. That requires then the creation of illusions that people can only by becoming a mere mass of consumers sustain their lives in the city. It explains why there is such a loss of consciousness as being free subjects and why debates within the various political movements succumb always to the same mechanisms linking power to the ability to insert into the system only certain notions as to what makes the entire thing work. Yet the criticism that the ‘fetish character of the commodity language’ affects consciousness to the point of loss of identity in the real human sense proved to be ineffective as well. The commodity language linked to certain consumption patterns as dictated by fashions, tastes, designs and finally to such illusions which have been certified within the system (market) as being substantiated claims of reality. The proof of that is the validation that with them it is really possible to earn money with. If women buy fur coats, then the very proof goes beyond any kind of protest wishing to protect those animals. As successful models they lead then the way to still further going adaptation processes to ongoing changes with the most successful ones being really those able to keep up by being updated all the time.

Insofar as the consumption language is not governed according to Adorno really by a ‘dream’, that language begins to depict reality as if all dreams have been poisoned or else proven to be mere dreams especially if they did not bring about a life with money. Once the utopian idea of human reality is spoiled, human beings respond to reality in ‘equal measure with desire and fear’. Consequently they desire to be a part of the reality as depicted by cities, but this in a highly contradictory way. While wishing to go shopping, they fear at the same time to loose themselves in such a world of consumption. Consequently what shapes attitudes towards the city is highly ambivalent.

For instance, the poetess Anne Born describes her attitude towards the city as preferring to live in the countryside, while confessing that she needs the city for her cultural articulation as poet and translator. Between outright rejection and just using the city, there is a huge cultural gap. It is not easily to be bridged and depends upon what urban experiences are made and narrated independent from both poles. Predictable is with greater deterioration of the urban environment (pollution, traffic congestion, rising costs, insecure streets, poor schools, inadequate services at all levels etc.) that attitudes will become ever more ambivalent. Conversations and opinion polls will then oscillate between hating the city but still seeking certain advantages, if not some spoils of such a system.

No wonder then that this fearful ambivalence governs many discussions about cities and their inherent characteristics. City governance can often be seen as weak with regards to structural matters, while engaged in a kind of superficial aesthetical program. Clearly visibility of measures is reciprocated by streets being cleaned to facilitate at least the life and the work of those who use the city during the day for all kinds of businesses and activities, but then leave for the evening the inner core to escape to the outskirts. Hence problems are mentioned but without any clear reference to something like a common consciousness for the city and to validated knowledge about life in the city. As a result confusion reigns all the more. And popular things dominate e.g. support for the main football team of the city. Again this is a matter of visibility as supported by the way modern media works.

Ambivalent is also the desire to preserve things, as expressed by the term of ‘cultural heritage’. Always there are forces which wish to transform the city into a new range of opportunities for large scale business regardless what citizens think or where resistance would come from. The resulting urban reality follows a pattern of various kinds of interventions. They all follow a path of modernization, but without learning out of past mistakes. Adorno calls this mix of preserving elements of the past while giving in to all kinds of new forces a mere “replica realism” (sit venia verbo). It is a negative version of the dialectical image of the city to express what “people have and wish to retain”. For example, Athenians tend to connect the image of the Acropolis with the ideal of a city, but when going through the streets of Athens stretching far beyond visual contact with the Acropolis, that ideal is not replicated anywhere. Paul Tillich explains why the many unresolved problems of a city like Athens are not really seen since ‘tradition’ can be used to distort the perception of what takes place in the present.

Usually people oscillate between complete rejection, expressed by painting everything in the darkest colors, and uncritical embracing everything related to the city. In the latter case, they do so out of a full fledged patriotism. Hence at one level the city is perceived like a holy place whose existence spells out a unique meaning nowhere else to be found in the world. On the other hand, ‘the replica realism’ says it all. People mean then there reigns only corruption, abuse and lawlessness in the city with its street unsafe day and night. But by staying silent as to what is happening in reality around them, by pretending that it is possible to keep up an appearance of normality, it merely helps to mask the real problems. It makes discussions about the real problems cities face most difficult, if not impossible. Few seem to be really interested in finding such solutions which would benefit everyone. Others seek outside forces as they believe no one within the city can manage to resolve the issues e.g. Athens’ Metro was build finally once the EU imposed the condition management must be done by a foreign organization. Unfortunately that is not always a guarantee of a good solution. Many a times outside forces seek merely to benefit from the city wherever possible but without concern for the impact of such exploitation. Some are not even conscious to what extent this exploitation has become a rational way to treat the city, namely as if something to be used, if not abused.


[1] For instance, Siegfried Kracauer describes scenes in Paris during the time of Jacques Offenbach and what led to can-can being performed as dance to imitate the soldiers all marching in a row into certain death.


[2] See here the works by Susan Buch-Morss, “Der Flaneur, der Sandwichman und die Hure, Dialektische Bilder und die Politik des Muessiggangs” in: Passagen, Walter Benjamins urgeschichte des XIX Jahrhundersts, hrg. Norbert Bolz und Bernd Witte, Muenchen, 1984, p. 96 - 113

[3] Theodor Adorno, “Letters to Walter Benjamin”, in: Aesthetics and Politics, ed. Fredic Jameson and Ronald Taylor, New Yori, 1988, p. 110 - 133

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