One-Way Street is a thoroughfare unlike anything else in literature--by turns exhilarating and bewildering, requiring mental agility and a special kind of urban literacy. Presented here in a new edition with expanded notes, this genre-defying meditation on the semiotics of late-1920s Weimar culture offers a fresh opportunity to encounter Walter Benjamin at his most virtuosic and experimental, writing in a vein that anticipates later masterpieces such as "On the Concept of History" and The Arcades Project.
Composed of sixty short prose pieces that vary wildly in style and theme, One-Way Street evokes a dense cityscape of shops, cafes, and apartments, alive with the hubbub of social interactions and papered over with public inscriptions of all kinds: advertisements, signs, posters, slogans. Benjamin avoids all semblance of linear narrative, enticing readers with a seemingly random sequence of aphorisms, reminiscences, jokes, off-the-cuff observations, dreamlike fantasias, serious philosophical inquiries, apparently unserious philosophical parodies, and trenchant political commentaries. Providing remarkable insight into the occluded meanings of everyday things, Benjamin time and again proves himself the unrivalled interpreter of what he called "the soul of the commodity."
Despite the diversity of its individual sections, Benjamin's text is far from formless. Drawing on the avant-garde aesthetics of Dada, Constructivism, and Surrealism, its unusual construction implies a practice of reading that cannot be reduced to simple formulas. Still refractory, still radical, One-Way Street is a work in perpetual progress.
What form would literature take if it was the expression of the organising principles of an urban street rather than those of literary tradition? Between 1923 and 1926, Walter Benjamin wrote a series of unconventional prose pieces in which “script - after having found, in the book, a refuge in which it can lead an autonomous existence - is pitilessly dragged out into the street by advertisement and subjected to the brutal heteronomies of economic chaos.” On the street, text, long used to being organised on the horizontal plane in a book, is hoisted upon the vertical plane, and, having been long used to a temporal arrangement like sediment, layer upon layer, page upon page, text is spread upon a single plane, requiring movement from instance to instance, walking or, ultimately, scrolling across a single temporal surface, a surface whose elements are contiguous or continuous or referential by leaps, footnotes perhaps to a text that does not exist, rather than a structure in three dimensions. Even though Benjamin did not live to see a scroll bar or a touch screen or a hyperlink he was acutely aware of the changes in the relationship between persons and texts that would arrive at these developments.“Without exception the great writers perform their combinations in a world that comes after them,” he wrote, not ostensibly of himself. As we move through a text, through time, along such one-way streets, our attention is drawn away from the horizontal, from the dirt (the dirt made by ourselves and others), away from where we stand and walk, and towards the vertical, the plane of desire, of advertising, towards the front (in all the meanings of that word), towards what is not yet. It is not for nothing that our eyes are near the top of our bodies and directed towards the front, and naturally see where we wish to be more easily than where we are (which would require us to bend our bodies forwards and undo our structural evolution). In the one-way street of urban text delineated by Benjamin, all detail has an equivalence of value, “all things, by an irreversible process of mingling and contamination, are losing their intrinsic character, while ambiguity displaces authenticity.” The elitism of ‘the artwork’ is supplanted by the vigour of ‘the document’: “Artworks are remote from each other in the perfection [but] all documents communicate through their subject matter. In the artwork, subject matter is ballast jettisoned by contemplation [but] the more one loses oneself in a document, the denser the subject matter grows. In the artwork, the formal law is central [but] forms are merely dispersed in documents.” What sort of document is Benjamin’s street? It is a place where detail overwhelms form, a place where the totality is subdued by the fragment, where the walker is drawn to detritus over the crafted, to the fumbled over the competent, to the ephemeral over the permanent. The street is the locus of the personalisation and privatisation of experience, its particularisation no longer communal or mediated by tradition but haphazard, aspirational, transitory, improvised. Each moment is a montage. Writing is assembled from the fragments of other writing. Residue finds new value, the stain records meaning, detritus becomes text. In the one-way street, particularities are grouped by type and by association, not by hierarchy or by value. The here and now of the street is filled with referents to other times and other places. The overlooked, the mislaid, the abandoned object is a point of access to overlooked or mislaid or abandoned mental material, often distant in both time and space, memories or dreams. Objects are hyperlinked to memories but are also representatives of the force that drives those experiences into the past, towards forgetting. But the street is the interface of detritus and commerce. Money, too, enables contact with objects and mediates their meaning. New objects promise the opportunity of connection but also, through multiplication, abrade the particularity of that connection. Benjamin’s sixty short texts are playful or mock-playful, ambivalent or mock-ambivalent, tentative or mock-tentative, analytic or mock-analytic, each springing from a sign or poster or inscription in the street, skidding or mock-skidding through the associations, mock-associations, responses and mock-responses they provoke, eschewing the false progress of narrative and other such novelistic artificialities, compiling a sort of archive of ways both of reading a street as text and of writing text as a street, a text describing a person who walks there.
Michael W. Jennings is Class of 1900 Professor of Modern Languages at Princeton University.