The World Is a Shop of Images and Signs

In my last post I touched upon the historical decline in experience, a major concern of Walter Benjamin. His concept of experience is very complex, but basically Benjamin argues that in modern times we’ve lost the ability to experience ordinary life as meaningful, as an activity connected to tradition. Instead, modern life has become just one thing after another. Modern life is boring and repetitive and empty. It’s as if we’re all on the assembly line.

However, Benjamin said that certain modes of experience retain their depth and meaning. Storytelling is one example. Another is allegory.

For Benjamin, allegory is a form of experience. In fact, experience and allegory have a common origin in German Romanticism. The Romantics devised the concept of experience to describe their notions of empiricism, as concrete and specific, while, at the same time, they regarded allegory as a means of finding moral certainty in art. Consequently, experience generated its own ideal forms out of itself, mediated by the beautiful forms of art.

Benjamin and Baudelaire were both children of Romanticism. However, neither one of them fully subscribed to Romanticism’s idealization of art. For Benjamin and Baudelaire, art is first and foremost a commodity, and the poet produced goods for the marketplace. “Baudelaire knew how things stood for the literary man,” Benjamin writes. “As flâneur, he goes to the marketplace, supposedly to take a look at it, but in reality to find a buyer.”

Baudelaire turned his own experience as a flâneur into a commodity. As a post-Romantic, his primary means of accomplishing this was allegory in an updated form. Instead of seeing moral perfection in art, Baudelaire saw eternal transience in high capitalist culture. Paris in the Second Empire was dazzling, but it could become as useless and unwanted as an old commodity. In other words, it was suffered the same fate as the Paris arcades.

The “entire world is a shop of images and signs,” Baudelaire declared. For the Baudelairan allegorist, reality is encoded to its very core; every thing in the world is a symbol of some deeper meaning. And yet, like the commodity, which links the lofty with the commonplace, symbols in Baudelaire’s poetry often combine the sacred with the profane.

Her polished eyes are made of charming jewels
And in her strange, symbolic nature where
Inviolate angel mingles with ancient sphinx,

Where all is gold, steel, light, and diamonds
There shines forever, like a useless star,
The cold majesty of the sterile woman.

Notice how the form of Baudelaire’s poetry is conventional. His innovation–and claim to Modernism–lies in his tropes as they express his allegorical gaze. Unlike, say, Walt Whitman, Baudelaire’s flâneurie is not a relationship with presence. Baudelaire’s poetry is “archi-ecriture,” Jacques Derrida’s term for a form of experience that regards the world as a text. Baudelaire’s poetry isn’t new by virtue of its radical form; it’s new because the world in which he was immerse was entirely new, and already perishing.

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4 Comments

  1. Thanks, Geraldo. I’ve said most of what I wanted to say in the series on the Arcades Project. I’m putting together some entries on experience and storytelling.

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  2. Nice post! I like Baudelaire’s poetry, amazing poem. I don’t think that modern life is boring and empty. Inversely, the technology is running and it’s so many issues and events happened every moment, that we don’t have a time to follow after everything.

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  3. “Boring and empty” were my words indeed. I oversimplified WB’s account of the decline of experience. I’ve been thinking about the ways in which WB’s theory of experience applies to our screen immersed culture.

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