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Toward a Copernican Revolution: Flanerie, Critique and Capitalist Modernity in Walter Benjamin

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Thesis type
(Thesis) M.A.
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Walter Benjamin refers to the commodified dream world of nineteenth century Paris as a ‘little universe’, in which the Parisian Arcades first form a modern cosmos of intoxicating ‘phantasmagoria’ that blunts the human capacity to perceive things as they ‘truly are’. Benjamin’s proposed methodology for the ‘dialectical image’ describes a potentially explosive force that would serve to disrupt the centrifugal balance of the historicism of this phantasmagoric universe. Benjamin hoped that his Passagen-Werk would spark a ‘Copernican turn of remembrance’ to generate a revolutionary awakening in his own time. Key to these ambitions is the figure of the flaneur who first found his entrepreneurial niche strolling the glass and iron corridors of the Parisian Arcades, and who became progressively alienated from both the city as well as his social class in the years that followed 1848. This thesis demonstrates how the intersection of the flaneur with Walter Benjamin’s work enriches our understanding of both in turn. By engaging with the notion of the flaneur/flanerie as it specifically applies to Benjamin’s work, as well as with how Benjamin’s work is enriched through a broader, deeper historical understanding of the flaneur, I argue that the flaneur becomes a multifaceted and in-depth means of theorizing capitalist/urban experience. The redeeming potential that can be found in the expressions of those who have been most marginalized in society exists as an important theme to Benjamin’s concept of historical awakening and the dialectical image, particularly as it pertains to the work of Charles Baudelaire. From this context, I explore the relationship of Benjamin’s work on the flaneur to his own vantage point at the dawn of the Second World War. The tragic fate of the flaneur foreshadows the political nihilism and, ultimately, self-destructive impulses of inter-war Europe. Yet the redeeming hope and value that Benjamin finds in fragments of poetry and prose left behind by Baudelaire’s alienated flaneur lies in its revolutionary potential as a source of dialectical images.
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Supervisor or Senior Supervisor
Thesis advisor: Gunster, Shane
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