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Ground Zero: Walter Benjamin’s Urban Politics
Architecture and Culture (2015)
  • Brian Elliott, Portland State University
This article explores “urban atmosphere” through the lens of Walter Benjamin’s utopian politics. While a city can be defined as a built environment enjoying relative longevity, this stands in tension with the fact that cities are objects of intense technological transformation and hence transitory. Benjamin looked to the aesthetics of architectural purism (Le Corbusier) and surrealist encounter (André Breton) in order to find a redemptive obverse to the destructive technology of capitalist production. Walter Benjamin explores the theme of atmosphere in his 1929 essay on Surrealism. Here he attributes to André Breton the discovery of revolutionary energies concealed in the processes of technological obsolescence. Outmoded objects exude an atmosphere or mood that Surrealism seeks to convert into revolutionary energy. The modern city is the environment in which innumerable processes of obsolescence take place. Hence, Benjamin’s utopian politics inevitably centers on the revolutionary interpretation of urban atmospherics. His reflections on the “decay of aura” in his 1935 essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility” should then be placed within the framework of his urban theory. Once the connections between object obsolescence and Benjamin’s revolutionary theory are grasped, the shift from an aesthetics of concentration to one of distraction can be better understood. Zerstreuung (distraction) does not denote an individual lack of attention but instead a collective condition of somatic self-awareness. Through the media of modern art forms, the urban collective is capable of translating this self-awareness into revolutionary praxis.
  • Utopias,
  • Philosophers -- Germany
Publication Date
Citation Information
Brian Elliott. "Ground Zero: Walter Benjamin’s Urban Politics" Architecture and Culture Vol. 3 Iss. 2 (2015) p. 141 - 157
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