Walter Benjamin’s urban thought: critical analysis

Walter Benjamin

Walter Benjamin

The ideas of the German cultural critic Walter Benjamin (1892- 1940) are of significance to the study of urbanism which is reflected strongly in Berlin. He has taken ‘culturalist’ approaches to urbanism. In the late 1970s and early 1980s it was widely believed that concepts of ‘urban culture’ were unsustainable as advanced capitalist societies were characterized by the breakdown of a distinction between the city and the country with the result that cities lost any cultural distinctiveness they might once have possessed. However, later as a result of poststructuralist influences there has been a growing interest in reading cultural artifacts as ‘texts’ and the city has been no exception to this. Keith and Cross (1993: 9) argue that ‘the urban narrative has reemerged triumphantly as a genre in which the city can be read as both emblem and microcosm of society’.

Benjamin examined the relationship between history, experience, memory and the built environment. His autobiographical sketch ‘A Berlin chronicle’ (1932) incorporates his own childhood memories into an account of Berlin and uses a complex narrative form involving ‘photographic’ recollections of his youth.  From the variety of his urban writings it is evident that Benjamin wavered and experimented in his textual approach between journalistic narrative, memoir, aphorisms, essays and montage. Similarly, the urban as ‘object’ shifted from being the general properties of the built environment to specific buildings, the nature of urban experience, accounts if particular cities and their histories and the ability of certain forms of representation to ‘picture cities.’

Benjamin’s thoughts on the modern urban experience are relevant to analyse Berlin as a modern urban city. Refering mainly to Proust and Freud in developing his arguments, he looks at modernity not as a progress but as the latest episode of the ‘ever- same’. His interest in cities was related to his critique of narrativity. Conventional narratives promote a linear account of historical progress and their disruption involves breaking their conventions. Benjamin therefore ‘spatialised’ time. His strategy was to displace by questioning the boundaries between past and present, the notion of linear historical time which was sustained by narrative form. The city could be used to disrupt ideas of new and old with the result that ‘antiquity is revealed in modernity and modernity in antiquity’ (Adorno and Scholem, 1994: 557).

Bejnamin retained a dialectical perspective on urbanism by interpreting cities as the site of the new. But also saw them as antique. One of his best- known theories is the theory of the ‘aura’ but it is also controversial as it has been criticized for being too reductionist and technologically determinist. For Benjamin objects are constituted specifically in time and space when they are unique and cannot be reproduced. The undermining aura goes hand in hand with the creation of a desire amongs the masses for authenticity. The consequent attempt to recover ‘real’ aura in tourism, cultural life and so forth becomes an important force in modern societies.

Benjamin offers a distinctive view of urbanism, stressing the relationship between the built environment, personal and collective memory and history. His insight is that the urban built environment has a number of qualities which allow meanings to be encoded and decoded in ways which are specific to it. Cities cannot be incorporated easily into his account of mechanical reproductability and this fact explains his fascination for their distinct properties and qualities. Benjamin’s conception of aura is interesting because it is relational concerned with both the production and the reception of cultural artifacts. His theory of aura is also suggesting that much contemporary tourist and place- making activity is concerned with trying to reconstruct ‘urban authencity’ through carefully restored and marketed tourist spectacles in order to bring ‘things closer, to the masses’ (Benjamin, 1979a: 250).



Source: Crang, M.; Thrift, N. (2000) “Thinking space”

London: Routledge

(By Eva Spirova)


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