Ποιειν Και Πραττειν - create and do

4. From ‘Flaneur’ to passages of time with a city just used, if not abused

At the beginning of twentieth century, but after First World War, Walter Benjamin starts to focus upon the ‘flaneur’ as a 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 to speak with others or engages himself to undertake some errant.

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

Paul Klee, Angelus Novus (1920)


But if not ‘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 consumption 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 of Surrealist who used this method to exaggerate immanent danger. Possible is that in such a modern world the objects on display for potential consumption shall never be consumed; before something comes to buy these goods, something else shall take place. As a matter of fact, it is merely a matter of time before but the message of the passages becomes evident. The real danger becomes self evident once bombs go off and all the shop windows are shattered as shown most convincingly in Luis Buñuel’s film: “The obscure object of desire”.

Since nothing in the surroundings of these shopping windows gave any clear indication as to what was going to happen, further explanations are needed. The usual one is to link bombs going off arbitrarily because in places crowded with people who are just shopping and therefore apparently innocent in what they are doing, with the unloading of a new, till then not seen or felt tension. As a mark of polarization of society, it is not one between workers and capitalists (or owners), this tension stems out of conflicts between new forces seeking truth and hence misunderstandings what to set against a world dominated by a bourgeois society bored to death. Next to the objects there exists an awful silence. It seems to dominate in a world which experiences the loss of meanings. 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. Consequently people encounter daily a loss of authenticity and therefore experience a loss of meaningful relationships.

In such a world they no longer know how to communicate about things which matter even when many pretend at least to be striving at the very minimum for a happy life. Yet that is not sufficient to provide an orientation. Instead of communicating openly about these cultural problems, they clothe instead themselves and their words according to what they see being displayed in these passages. What they see on display supposed to be the leading models of fashion. The shop windows are the replacements of a dialogue with images portrayed by a painter when he depicts a landscape, face or some human action. As a matter of fact, these shop windows offer quite another view of the world. Compared to paintings, they use a much more powerful language of images since they can rely even on life models. And behind every display there is an advertisement strategy with the aim to hook the consumers into a fake need for these goods. It is suggested that without these goods they will lack identity and certainty of success as the world is dominated by these and no other commodities. And that is the case with expensive advertisement since they reflect who can afford it to have a name and therefore identity in such a world of consumption.

Sadly enough words themselves begin to wear big hats with needles sticking out. No one knows whether this is laughable or a sad admission that fashions produce 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 and again was cut off another aristocratic head once the French revolution had turned to Jacobin moral and terror. By keeping silent despite unjust punishments being inflicted in public, this reminder of bearing witness to unjust justice bears proof even if only at first indirectly that adaptation to the world of consumption can and does mean accepting terror at the same time. For terror helps to produce a silence about the absence of any truth for in such a world no language shall be needed to communicate. It suffices to show what one has bought or consumed.

Benjamin’s forlorn attempt at his time intends to go beyond what critics call ‘Materialism’. The ‘flaneur’ in the world of passages designed to just consume shows that a conscious mind is reduced to a mere raving about objects offered by the contemporary world of conspicuous consumption. Since none of the objects on display are really needed, terror to silence not merely the critics but those seeking an alternative is needed. Terror reinforces the negation of the need to relate to real human needs. With advertisement focusing on these goods and thereby determines perception of the apparently most important order of things, such material world hovers over the city like fog above ground. It covers up and lets forget any real linkage to earth and needs man has to stay in touch with his real self.

It appears that the revolutionary language known to humanity, including that of Viktor Hugo who had witnessed what happened at the barricades from a safe distance, has vanished and with it the ideal, but also interest to converse with everyone for the sake of equality, brotherhood and freedom. The citizen of the world is no longer around. Only the ‘flaneur’ seems to stand out amidst the mass of consumers running in and out or about the passages of time.

Still there are other parts of the world which seem not to 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.

Such a world is dominated by what Adorno calles ‘clever superiority’, followed by a stupidity of a special kind. Rather than speaking with others by listening to them, conversations of high pretence are conducted by keeping gossip going. Jealousy prevails just as much as intrigues are spun. Someone can easily be killed in reputation by intensifying even false rumors. There is no hesitation to cut short conversations if it allows the key enemy to loose face, namely another woman desiring the same man. Such social rivalry includes a highly elevated distinction between those who would still speak in the Salons and those formulating slogans for the next demonstrations. Those deeming themselves as being cultivated compared to those uncouth ones in the streets would not perceive in the same way when freedom would be jeopardized by someone seizing power to upstage, but then put behind him all the power of the masses which was till then expressed politically quite differently, but still in a most threatening way to those who do not wish to engage themselves in political demonstrations.

Different political styles can be seen throughout history, but as a configuration of a kind of snobbishness which allows delineation from the others, it means all no longer perceive themselves as common citizens of world, as equal members of humanity and as subjects wishing freedom and peace. Rather the others become objects of one’s own rhetoric and projection, till they need to succumb to the sub-conscious ideology the snobbish, all too clever person succumbs to since then superiority shall not be achieved by honest means, but by naked power or terror. In the end both unite as a potential enemy are people once they no longer fear and revolt against further suppression.

Supposedly the fight between Danton and Robespierre would not have ended where it did, if the French Revolution could have been saved by a marriage between the sensual life and a clear intellectual commitment to humanity. At risk is always a split between those wishing to affirm life with all its pleasures and those who want to uphold a highly elevated morality i.e. their extreme version of justice. To displace intellectual clarity based on a free conscience and integrity of memory is already a giving in to false forces. In practice, it leads to many unjust things and doing them only out of vengeance, jealousy and greed.

This split in society has contributed towards a permanent misunderstanding between those seeking justice compared to those who assert their interpretation of justice once they have gained power. To date that duality defines more politics than what is the case when usually characterized as the art of making a compromise work. The duality reduces politics to helplessness. Over and again these two different tendencies undermine any governance based on political freedom and justice. Moreover these contradictory movements get out of hand, insofar as they exhaust resources on the sole aim to block off more demands for justice, if they have not gained themselves a direct share of the power. On the other hand, they are not critical enough either of themselves or of the others when justice becomes injustice. Socially and politically this leads to new forms of alliances based on prejudgments. Automatically when someone from the other side speaks, no one listens. It leads to a negative, highly selective practice with whom to speak, who not! Such discriminatory practice leads in the end always to self isolation and therefore loss of reality. Moreover even the most exclusive practice cannot prevent really the others from speaking up. Yet it does make it more difficult altogether to resolve social contradictions and issues of injustice as no one seems sure what can contribute to a search for truth. Also people do not realize all of the ramifications once this kind of distinction becomes a systematic and structural prejudice, thereby undermining social contacts between people. Also it should not be overseen that it reproduces an even more restrictive conformity once society settles down and the established ones with claims of success no longer speak to those who refuse to consume. Overseen is as well that those who merely consume stand to loose as well any sense for a true language by becoming too much their own spin doctors. In the end, they will do but very little as to what is needed and can be done hold the city together. This impasse will endanger the life of everyone still further and shall produce the kind of terror which Buñuel shows in his film.

Everyone living in the city has a last refuge, namely the sky above the city. Yet when looking closer as to what is at stake in terms of the space above cities, it is felt but not yet really known for certain what can happen one day. That day shall come when this space shall be darkened not by clouds, but by airplanes coming in to drop their bombs. The first case before Second World War was Bilbao (1937) which gave rise to Picasso’s Guernica. Walter Benjamin must have known about it as well. When planes penetrate the sky above the city, then a final protection is gone. The air space should be imagined like a cup of hand held over the city for protection. Not only bombs wiped away that illusion. With growing industrialization and after 1945 with growing traffic, pollution alters as well this concept of sky above a city. Anyone approaching the city can see a smog cloud hovering above it. Even if nowadays more invisible, pollution prevails to such an extent that people experience breathing difficulties and with it come all kinds of health problems. No wonder many conclude it is no longer healthy to live in the city.

However, objects, language and sky do not constitute ‘les mots et les choses’, or the ‘order of things’ as depicted by Michel Foucault. Such an order sets apart into distinct compartments of certain needs objects which can be had e.g. for bedroom, kitchen, men’s or women’s clothes, music etc. Such an order explains in a more profound way what inherent contradictions dominate in the city. Like the hospital categorizing sickness according to certain problems – heart, broken bones, head etc. – it defines altogether how society envisions a healthy i.e. rich life. Anything which does not fit into this scheme of categories is either expelled or remains without recognition, hence unable to integrate itself into society.

If the criticism by Adorno of Benjamin is followed, then it is above this caution to name reality in a more precise manner before all these contradictions are painted over by retrospective rationalizations. The latter are inherent to Post-Modernism and above all furthered by De-constructivism attempting to do away with all the human losses as if they do not really matter for what counts now. As a rule such silencing of contradictions by means of rationalization means an enforced silence. It helps to reproduce a superficial world in which people no longer interact in any meaningful way. The only difference to today’s world is that people in Benjamin’s time have not as of yet succumbed to a total regression towards Nihilism.

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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