In form and content alike, Paris Arcades was to be Walter Benjamin’s most demanding project for a new method of gaining insight into history: a history in images reflecting the multilayered character of the past. Benjamin’s historical-philosophical approach was directed against the authority of dogmatic systems, taking the marginal, the peculiar, and the fault lines as its orientation. Benjamin outlines the importance of things, images, architectures, and experiences for historical insight using the figure of the ragpicker. The shadowy labyrinths and crowded merchandise backdrops of the Parisian arcades constituted for Benjamin the historically charged districts in which the metropolis was concentrated and the Second Empire spatialized.

The philosopher, critic, and translator Walter Benjamin (1892–1940) undertook his first literary explorations of the arcades during a stay of several months in Paris in 1927. Before the year was out, he formulated the observations he had gathered on his wanderings through the town in an essay drafted in collaboration with Franz Hessel for the Querschnitt. The opening of the newest Parisian arcade passage triggered the memory of the already demolished passage de l’Opéra and formed the prelude to a work that evolved from the early entries in the blue leather notebook to an enormous conglomeration of excerpts, subjective commentaries, and theoretical deliberations—and nevertheless remained a fragment…

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