Benjamin

“The Commodity economy” of today. Benjamin discusses the end of the phantasmagory world of pre-Hausmanization era and how beauty and individualism has become a commodity. The époque post Hausmanization brought on a revolutionized view of the “interior” and one’s “private space.” During this era, space transformed from a place of function to a place of expression. Yet, space as a form of expression can also be a form of consumption in itself, having to get the décor that matches what one chooses to express. This very act of decorating transforms the space into a commodity of itself.

These differentiations between “private space” and “public space” prescribe each its own function inviting consumption: one now wants a private space for reading, for sleeping, etc and that requires additions spaces or furniture. The home transformed from mere function to be one’s private space where one finds freedom and refuge.

According to Benjamin, the house, the private space, is “the expression of personality,” it embodies what he refers to as the theory of individualism (154). Living in the private place becomes the expression of one’s personality—“to live means to leave traces”(155): the mess we leave, the furniture we choose, and the food in the refrigerator is all a sign of life.

As I am writing this I look at the apartment I am living in here in Paris. Clearly it is lived-in by my landlord, with our cheetah print dinner chairs, hundreds of old books both in French and English, flower print couches, memorabilia from trips to Africa and art covered walls. While her home is a glimpse into her personality, her eclectic personality; aspects of it are also comprise the way she wishes to be seen to the rest of the world, especially because she has opened up her home to us to live in. But what is this woman like in the streets, if you met her without seeing her home? I unfortunately have never met her beyond our initial meeting, and I never will. Judging by the things in her though, I know who this woman is in her home but what does she wish to share to the outside world?

Like the house, beauty is an expression of personality, and like the house, beauty becomes a commodity, with fashion as its pinnacle. Fashion is the commodity fetish that wishes to be worshipped and Paris as “the capital of luxury and fashion” sets the rhythm of life in Paris. In this case the dandy, can become the ultimate target, who constantly consumes more to keep him modern and beautiful.

For the flâneur their home is still in the streets of the city, of Paris, they “seek refuge in the crowd” (156). The flâneur’s gaze of the desolating city has been a source of “commodity circulation” that the department store uses. The market place, tries to be both private and public, inviting the flâneur type to come and look yet hoping that the ostensible gaze of those who the flâneur attracts as well as the flâneur himself turns into the gaze of spending. (Is this act of looking and then in turn looking to shop why there aren’t women flâneurs?)

The flâneur is constantly searching for the beauty in all things, and this beauty can easily translate into the beauty of piece of art, clothing or furniture that needs to be bought. The flâneur’s gaze and the object of it, becomes a novelty. This novelty is also given a value, which then becomes in demand by the rest of the world thus creating a market. The act of making things a novelty: making the home, the quest for beauty, even the flâneur, invites the consumerism. The market of the novelty, buying things that are seen as modern or new, also decreases the value of the product since they were valuable because of their individuality.

Benjamin continues this view of the commodity economy with his discussion of Haussmann’s effect on Paris. After Haussmannization “ the quartiers of Paris [lost] their individual physiognomies” but gained a form of unity that could “secure the city against civil war,” this unity, thus made the need for the individual even more dire. The home or the private space thus, became the source of the personal expression. While one could still leave traces of their lives in the city streets, it was anonymous; the connecting of the quartiers, while unified the city, made it less personal.  The private places became the area for this. But what happened to the flâneur? Have they just become novelties? As these public spaces, while simulating private ones, become more and more public?

Let me just say that I really enjoy Benjamin’s work but you can probably tell, I had A LOT of trouble with this reading. While there was so much to talk about I felt like I had very little to say in response to it, I almost wish we could have done this reading later in the semester or have made it a longer portion of the Arcade’s Project.  So if it comes off as scattered, it is because I felt scattered but I guess that accurately represents my response to Benjamin and maybe that is actually a good testament to him…

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