Benjamin (1892-1940) was part literary critic, part
philosopher, part historian, and part metaphysician of language.
His unfinished masterwork, "The Arcades Project" (Das
Passagen-Werk), brings all these interests together in
a study of the material world of nineteenth-century Paris. What
survives are his extensive reading notes, two summary essays,
and some preparatory material. The whole, in short, is many
fragments whose relationship to one another is, and was intended
to be, montage.
New York" takes Benjamin’s text as its script and
matches his words to images of New York City. He called the
preliminary version of the project "Paris, Capital of the
XIXth Century"; our working title was "New York, Capital
of the XXth Century." We use Benjamin as a guide to understanding
that century in which New York, like Paris before it, exemplified,
embodied and captured what was most characteristic. But we also
use New York to help interpret Benjamin, one of the most allusive,
oracular and poetic of modern writers.
Our inspiration has been Benjamin’s work. His oblique
approach to Paris through its mirrors, sewers, lighting, fashion,
dolls, and gambling (among many categories, or convolutes) resonates
with our own view that things, whether beautiful or quotidian,
offer valuable evidence for how people in the past understood
themselves. It was his insistence on the might of the fragment
and the revelatory power of juxtaposition that led us to the
modern medium that best reflects these ideas, digital storytelling.
would like to believe that we are doing with Benjamin’s
ideas of montage, citation and fragment what he would have done
had this technology been available to him.
We use desk top movie-making software to re-occupy the uneasy
ground between art and scholarship that Benjamin made his own
in words—but dialectically, as we use images and sound
to interpret words. This is an experiment in fusing form and
content. We have tried to produce movies that are successful
as visual media, but also essays that are successful as exegesis.
Creating this kind of project was the goal of a course taught
at the Bard Graduate Center in the Spring term 2002. We began
with an intensive exploration of the preparatory notes and preliminary
essays. This was followed by an equally intensive workshop in
the tools of digital storytelling, Adobe Photoshop and Adobe
Premiere, taught by Joe Lambert, Co-Director of the Center
for Digital Storytelling at Berkeley, California.
After completion of the first drafts of "New York, Capital
of the XXth Century," the class read and discussed its
way through the entirety of "Benjamin’s Arcades Project."
A period of revisions followed, and then production of a second
set of movies. This entire phase of the project was supported
by Kevin Gordon and the Digital Story Group of
New York. Gordon consulted on the best way of moving the project
forward in its creative and technical dimensions. He also helped
to organize the creation of this web site. For help with the
movies we gratefully acknowledge the work of Adele Ray and Matt
Rubin. The initial mock-up of the web site was made by Elisa
Niemack; the comprehensive design and execution has been the
work of Gary Magder. Leslie Rule offered keen suggestions and
observations on design questions throughout the
All References are to
The Arcades Project, translated
and edited by Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin (Cambridge
MA, Harvard University Press: 1999) and to the two volumes of
Selected Writingsthus far also published by Harvard