Kenneth Goldsmith, New York: Capital of the 20th Century, Verso, London, 2015, 928 pages, $44.95 paperback, $49.95 hardback, $19.99 E-book, ISBN: 9781784781590
David Kishik, The Manhattan Project: A Theory of a City, Stanford University Press, Redwood City, CA, 2015, 288 pages, $35 paperback, $22.75 cloth, ISBN: 0804786038
It is a strange coincidence that the artist Kenneth Goldsmith should have written his homage to Walter Benjamin, New York: Capital of the 20th Century, at almost exactly the same time as Walter Benjamin’s own manuscripts for The Manhattan Project or New York, Capital of the 20th Century were found in New York’s public library. David Kishik’s discovery of these New York manuscripts—proof that Benjamin did not die in 1942 but successfully escaped to New York and lived there for decades under an assumed identity—is a sensational find. As yet, only a handful of Benjamin scholars have been granted access to The Manhattan Project’s thousands of pages of handwritten script. After spending several weeks with the manuscript myself, I am in a position to comment on Kishik’s insightful analysis of Benjamin’s manuscript, and to compare Goldsmith’s creative reworking of the Arcades Project with Benjamin’s own effort to write a sequel for the 20th century.
Like The Arcades Project, both Goldsmith’s and Benjamin’s New York texts are made up of vast accumulations of fragmentary quotes and citations that cumulatively enact a physiognomy of the city. In this sense, they are citational in both form and content: not only does their content consist almost solely of quotation, but this form is itself a citation of Benjamin’s book on Paris. Kishik offers an exhilarating, insightful roadmap of Benjamin’s (as yet unpublished) manuscript, akin in some ways to Buck-Morss’s The Dialectics of Seeing. Kishik’s book is certainly no dry exegesis, but a creative and original interpretation of Benjamin’s text. So much so, indeed, that Benjamin’s own text at times seems curiously absent.
Benjamin’s late work departs much further from his own Arcades Project than Goldsmith. Goldsmith’s monumental, sprawling collection of quotes and fragments uses many of the same categories as The Arcades Project (Dream City; Flâneur; Panorama; Central Park). Others are new (Gentrification; Downtown; Grid). Robert Moses is an obvious replacement for Haussmann; more surprising is Baudelaire’s role being adopted by the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe (Benjamin himself made the more obvious choice of Warhol). Baudelaire’s hero of modernity famously took on many roles (artist, flâneur, dandy, conspirator, apache). It is the dandyism of Baudelaire that Goldsmith first finds in Mapplethorpe:
Mapplethorpe was the 1970s leather-clad equivalent of the great dandies and decadents of the nineteenth century … What made his personality so intriguing were the same qualities found in his work—the chilling contrast between the viciousness of his sexuality and the grace and finesse of his personal style.
In particular, the Satanic elements in Baudelaire receive expression in Mapplethorpe’s extravagant pursuit of intense lived experience, of voracious perversity, in New York’s homosexual underworld. “He is fascinated by the satanic and confronts his night-based world with the elegant and melancholic stance of the dandy.”
Benjamin found in Baudelaire a figure who could both live the extremities of modernity and hold them still, transfiguring their vitality and excess so that they could show their true face: death and the ever-same. It is unclear whether the reader should find the same in Mapplethorpe. To me, Mapplethorpe’s photography feels more like a celebration of intensity, a wild immersion in the excessive life of subversive sexuality. In this respect, his true analogue is perhaps less Baudelaire than the post-Baudelairean decadent culture of the late nineteenth century and its vitalist fascination with perversity, androgyny, and scatology (see Brigstocke, 2014). Even in the section where Goldsmith explores the aesthetics of death in most detail, it is an image of death-as-living that offers the most compelling image: a photo of a woman who has taken her own life by jumping off a building. Lying peacefully on a limousine at the foot of the building, the body “looks for all the world as if she’s resting, or napping, rather than lying dead amid shattered glass and twisted steel.” This is an inversion of the Baudelairean transfiguration of illusory life into real death.
If the life of the city has a presence in Goldsmith’s text (which has a reflective quality, like the glass architecture he dwells on: the reader, forced to do the work of making connections between the fragments, finds her own passions reflected back at her), it is at the very center of Kishik’s reading of Benjamin’s Manhattan Project. It is clear that Benjamin’s theoretical orientations abruptly changed in the years after he moved to New York. According to Kishik, the theoretical argument of The Manhattan Project can be summarized in Benjamin’s claim that the city is a “landscape built of sheer life.” Sheer life, here, is to be contrasted with the concept of “bare life” that Benjamin discussed in his early essays. New York serves as the primary spatial abstraction of sheer life, defined as “the most intricate and significant human existence possible, where different forms of life are constantly being produced” (page 28). Benjamin’s aim, according to Kishik, is to transform our commonplace conception of the city as built form into a vision of the city as a lived form. Benjamin viewed 20th century architecture as the ultimate reification of life: spectacular modern buildings lead the urban dweller astray by turning the gaze away from the life in the street. “Buildings,” Kishik summarizes, “are veils drawn over life’s face” (page 41).
As Kishik shows, Benjamin’s thought, through his encounter with theorists such as Hannah Arendt and Jane Jacobs, underwent a significant shift after the Arcades Project. A number of key themes and concepts are abandoned. There is no analogue to the Parisian arcades, and Benjamin in fact deliberately abandons the city’s built form in favor of its human life. Gone is the notion of phantasmagoria, and the image of the city as a dreamhouse of the collective. Similarly, Benjamin abandons his materialist theology of redemption, replacing it with a Spinozist theology of immanence. His conception of dialectics at a standstill gives way to a radical immanentism; New York becomes a “dialectical Sabbath, where all dualistic structures melt into immanent events” (Kishik, page 37). Rather than humanizing the city, Benjamin wants to urbanize the subject: “The ultimate goal is … not to be in a city but, as strange as it may sound, to be a city, to let it live, to let it affect us—with no fear and remorse—to such an extent that we become it rather than expect it to become more like us” (Kishik, page 216). In this respect, it is the figure of the flâneur who undergoes the biggest transformation. The Baudelairean flâneur was fascinated by the life of the city, the intoxicating rush of the street, but only partially gave himself to its destructive force; this partial self-destruction was part of an aesthetics of existence devoted to arresting that life and transfiguring it, revealing the death inherent within the life of the city (see Brigstocke, 2013). In New York, however, the telos is neither to describe the city nor to transform it, but to become it. According to Kishik, “Benjamin … describes his Manhattan Project as the work of a spectre haunting a city. But he no longer saw himself as the spectre of communism. He had become the spectre of sheer life.” Given that New York too is, in essence, sheer life, this is effectively a case of a ghost haunting itself.
As Kishik readily admits, synthesizing Benjamin’s sprawling work is an impossible job and requires a lot of omissions. Here I would like to point to a few omissions that seem important. In my reading of Benjamin’s Manhattan Project, a number of themes play an important theoretical role that are underplayed by Kishik. Perhaps most importantly, whilst Kishik’s reading of Benjamin is to some extent depoliticized, there is evidence in Benjamin’s manuscripts that he never fully abandoned the notion of the city as the material infrastructure for a revolutionary, technically-constituted political collective. Rather than seeing it as a “dreaming” collective that needed to be innervated through revolutionary shock, however, Benjamin now viewed the collective as an expression of the immanent life of the city, a force made up of human relations but also a broad assemblage of material capacities and non-human forms of life.
However, it is possible to discern in Benjamin a more ambivalent take on the idea of the city as pure immanence than Kishik describes. In his most Deleuzian formulation, Benjamin suggests that the aura of the city “is ‘a life‘, and nothing else.” For Kishik, this is effectively the conclusion of Benjamin’s theoretical argument. Yet Benjamin never lost his determination to develop a post-auratic politics, a politics that abandons the temporal depth of tradition, ritual, or historical progress, but inhabits the space created within a violent interruption of the temporal course of things. Benjamin was fascinated by the life of the city, and attempted endlessly to capture its force and its magic, but he wanted to bring it to a standstill, to make room for a new form of urban temporality in which the built environment and the material infrastructure of human society were not radically alienated from the city’s life. If the aura of the city is “a life,” then a post-auratic urban politics is also a post-bio-politics. In the 1930s, Benjamin had devoted a lot of time to critiquing the vitalism of fascist thought, and there is evidence that this suspicion of emerging biopolitical forms and their appropriation of the life of the city never waned. Indeed, this critique of the elevation of life as a supreme value and organizing principle of society partly explains his fascination with Arendt’s philosophy, which highlights the de-politicizing effects of reducing society to the organization of life. Benjamin’s concern remained one of wresting new forces of life from the destructive, alienating and violent life of the city of modernity.
Goldsmith’s book offers a disorienting maze, simultaneously captivating and frustrating, through which to navigate the history of New York’s built form and culture. In many ways, it remains a kind of displaced reproduction of The Arcades Project, albeit shorn of its theoretical elements (thereby completing the magical positivism, shorn of theoretical mediation, that Adorno once accused Benjamin of). Kishik, by contrast, develops a philosophical account of the city that takes far more analytical risks, revealing Benjamin’s work in a very new light, moving it from the warm glow of the gas lanterns of 19th century Paris into the colder, bluer light of 20th century Manhattan. Amidst the large volume of recent writing on Benjamin, this makes an original and distinctive contribution, even if the reader may come to the conclusion that some of Benjamin’s incendiary political energy seems to have dampened in his later life.
 Kishik’s book imagines that Walter Benjamin, rather than committing suicide in 1940, escaped to New York and led a long, solitary life there. Kishik imagines and analyses a sequel to the Arcades Project, written by Benjamin in New York in the decades after World War Two.
Brigstocke J (2014) The Life of the City: Space, Humour, and the Experience of Truth in Fin-de-siecle Montmartre. Farnham: Ashgate.
Brigstocke J (2013) Artistic parrhesia and the genealogy of ethics in Foucault and Benjamin. Theory, Culture & Society 30(1): 57 – 78.
Buck-Morss S (1989) The Dialectics of Seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.