Walter Benjamin’s “On Some Motifs on Baudelaire”

Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1968. “On Some Motifs on Baudelaire”

 

Who is the man of the crowd? In Baudelaire’s poetry, it is the flaneur, the man who surrenders to the intoxication of the city and the commodity, surging among the crowd from one street to the next. The flaneur is an intoxicated subject, one whose eyes scroll through commodities like a piece of metal in an assembly line as it is propped and “perfected” with new ornaments in an effort to become complete. Likewise, in Walter Benjamin’s essay, “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire,” he positions the flaneur as a passionate spectator:

 

the crowd [as] his element, as the air is that of birds and water of fishes.  His passion and profession are to become one flesh with the crowd.  For the perfect flaneur, for the passionate spectator, it is an immense job to set up house in the middle of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite.

 

The “immense job” of completing themselves, to set house—to live in the multitude—is thus no more achievable than the ideal “completeness” in a drug addiction, in the intoxication of the flaneur as a scroller among commodities. Though his passion is merged with the crowd, he at once “becomes their accomplice even as he disassociates himself with them” (172). Benjamin then makes some attempt to distinguish the flaneur, who walks the city in order to experience it, from the conforming, one-dimensional man of Marcuse’, the “man of the mob”. Where the flaneur functions as a deliberately aimless pedestrian, the one-dimensional man of the mob is akin to Benjamin’s “boy of the street corner,” an expert in the social eco-system of the streets and who is yet subject to the ever-present uniformity of the crowd and its potential to mob violence. To Marcuse as well as Benjamin, in the mob mentality commodities turn from being an external object to an extension of the self, other “parts” that built on a “one-dimensional man’s” completeness: “The people recognize themselves in their commodities; they find their soul in their automobile…social control is anchored in the new needs which it has produced.”[1] The synthesis of the man with the commodity creates a one-dimensional man, a man of the mob, while it is the hollowness and the egotism of commodities as external objects that is reflected in the flaneur and the figure’s countless attempts to fill in the empty void through the arcades.

Is it possible then that the “loss of self” in the urban crowd has thus transferred, in Marcuse’, to the “Crowd of commodities”, and it is no longer the crowd that becomes an extension of the self, but rather technological objects and commodities as the very whole of which the self becomes only a part. In other words, rather than a piece of metal strolling on a conveyor belt, has the man of the mob finally experienced that “Completeness?” Has he filled in the void so completely with the commodity that what is left becomes a disintegrating self, a self inebriated by television, which comes to act, as David Foster Wallace put it, as an “anesthetic against loneliness?” The loneliness of the crowd continues even when that crowd is a more perfect commodity form.

The use of this mass production of commodities that sets the attitude of the flaneur has yielded new ways for the Bourgeois artist to become a producer through the mediated influence towards the crowd. Benjamin saw this method reflected in Brecht’s “Epic Theater.” Brecht defines his dramaturgy as “the careful choice of theme and formal structural means, to inculcate in the audience the detached, distancing attitude of the historian towards the events portrayed.”[2] Brecht sought to utilize the very means of creating the “one-dimensional man” into a more reflective individual, a cigar smoker, and as Brecht would say, a judge and arbiter of values.

 


[1] Marcuse, Herbert. One-Dimensional Man; Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society. Boston: Beacon Press, 1964. 11.

[2] Brecht, Bertolt, and John Willett. Brecht on Theatre; The Development of an Aesthetic. New York: Hill and Wang, 1964.

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