September 12, 2005
Hello and congratulations on making it this far! I'm looking forward to hearing everyone's ideas, both here and in class later this semester.
I'll try to refrain from entering into the conversations that happen here, but I thought I'd get things started by offering some thoughts on synthesizing the first set of readings and also on using this new technology.
One practical note on reading Walter Benjamin: The first essay is a relatively finished piece and you can read it as you would any piece of theory. But the rest are simply examples of the massive notes he took on the arcades (open-air shopping districts that were something like outdoor malls). They're not coherent pieces, though they do sometimes raise similar themes. Read these as you would any set of notes, paying attention to what seems useful to you, even if that is only a few sentences on a page. This readintg is meant to spur your own thinking rather than to lead to an in-depth understanding of Benjamin.
1. Walter Benjamin's notes on the Paris arcades represent some of the most important writing ever done on modern retail and shopping. His ideas have framed discussions over whether and how commercial spaces reinscribe power relations and the meaning of freedom in an age of commercial culture. Given that he wrote just as fascism was gaining ground, people often read him in conjunction with other theorists who speculate on the role of mass culture in opposing or reinforcing fascist states. We can talk about him in all of these ways. But I also think that he's useful as a kind of "control group" of scholars who acknowledged the significance of sexuality and gender in an era before these things were much studied by historians. That is, he's useful for measuring how much recent decades of scholarship on women's history and the history of sexuality (and the more recent work on masculinity) have mattered. Does Benjamin seem outdated to you? Does it seem that he's missing important insights about gender and sex? about women? How would recent scholarship have changed his ideas? (If this were actually a face-to-face meeting, I'd digress at this point into the story of Benjamin's tragic death as he fled the Nazis. But I'll save that for seminar if it comes up.) One way to synthesize these readings is to think about how the writing on women and department stores echo, challenge, or (particularly intriguingly) ignore Benjamin's ideas about how arcades work.
2. We might also use this space to speculate on how electronic forums reshape (or don't resahpe) the politics of consumption and urban space. This idea of control over space picks up on Benjamin, Harvey, and much of what we read this semester. Do you see control and surveillance here? consumption? Does it change the process of commodification? My own sense is that the web highlights the ways that power is hidden in modern society, but then there are moments (like E-Bay or certain left-wing blogs) that make me reconsider.