Biography/Context



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Notes on Walter Benjamin's, Paris, Capital of the Nineteenth Century
Biography/Context: Benjamin was a German philosopher born in 1892, in Berlin. He attempted to obtain a position at the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research, but was denied a position because of his unusual approach to philosophy. He ultimately wrote for magazines and periodicals and lived off a stipend from his father. He became interested in Leftist politics, read the works of Karl Marx, and even visited USSR. His friendship with Bertholt Brecht--the playwright (Threepenny Opera, Mother Courage) and sometime filmmaker--was very influential. Brecht's emphasis on the "framing" components of the production--actors sometimes directly address the audience, read their lines as if they are "quoting" them. Benjamin was also prominently influenced by the Surrealist attempts to become conscious of ,and therefore, transform everyday experience. Benjamin was also influenced by Dziga Vertov's (Man With a Movie Camera, Three Songs About Lenin) experimental cinema, including Vertov's notion of the Kino-Eye.

This political commitment led Benjamin to focus on the "everyday," the "refuse" of a rapidly expanding mass culture, which was tied to industrialism. He often focused on the discarded fashions, seeing them as an emblem of an acceleration of everyday experience associated with industrial capitalism. Benjamin's interest in the everyday produced some of his most challenging work, the Arcades Project, a massive archive of materials that Benjamin collected throughout his career that focused on the nineteenth century Paris Arcades.

With the rise of Nazism, Benjamin fled for Paris in 1933, where he continued to focus on an analysis of everyday/popular culture. It is during this period of his life that Benjamin wrote "Work of Art." In his later essays, "The Storyteller," and "Paris, Capital of the 19th Century," Benjamin focused on these concerns as well. With the fall of France, Benjamin was forced to flee (with basically nothing more than a few manuscripts), traveling through the Pyranees into Spain. However, the Spanish border patrol wouldn't let him and his party cross, and in a fit of despair Benjamin took his own life.

Benjamin believed that the Arcade (Passage Couvert), as an architectural form and socio-cultural space, was a way into an understanding of Paris, France and the wider world in the 19th century.


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