The Playparks Project: A Proposal

Again: the toddler’s favourite word. For, as Walter Benjamin reminded us, children are much more inclined to repetition than imitation. And so, with little more than a chiastic reversal of the vowel sounds, what would happen if we turned the Arcades Project into the Playparks Project?

Walter Benjamin never visited Scotland. But he was aware of its existence. In his Small History of Photography he applauded the work of David Octavius Hill, who famously depicted the 1843 Disruption of the Church of Scotland. And for one of his radio talks he chose the subject of the Tay Bridge disaster of 1879. Of Glasgow, however, I have found nothing.

Yet my gamble is that if it is possible to shed important light on the 19th Century through a thick description of the shopping arcades of Paris, then why not try to capture the secret of the 21st by dwelling in Glasgow’s playparks?

Part of the attraction of the arcade for Benjamin was its academic marginality: it suited well his belief in the redemptive power of the overlooked and unfashionable. Now that Benjamin is well-known, and has posthumously acquired more than just the academic post that so eluded him during his lifetime, the lowly objects of his study are lowly no more. I’m an arcade, get me out of here, I can almost hear it scream.

So it’s time to upgrade, and set our sights on a phenomenon still neglected by the trendy cultural theorists. Indeed the whole realm of childhood and childcare seems largely to pass them by, happily consigned to psychology and social policy. If it is now permitted for Benjamin’s flâneur to be a woman, we are still waiting for studies of the wandering parent – the prâmeur if you will – who probably botanises the asphalt more than anyone.

While Benjamin may not have been much of a ‘hands on’ dad – and he probably saw even less of his son after his divorce in 1930 when Stefan was twelve – he actually took a keen interest in children. He collected (and wrote essays on) toys and children’s books. He wrote two memoirs of his own early years in Berlin, collected his son’s opinions et pensées in a journal, and his work in general is sprinkled with remarks on the distinctive sensibility of the very young. Gershom Scholem wrote:

It is one of Benjamin’s most important characteristics that throughout his life he was attracted with almost magical force by the child’s world and ways. This world was one of the persistent and recurring themes of his reflections, and, indeed, his writings on this subject are among his most perfect pieces.1

His radio talks for children have been the subject of a book by Jeffrey Mehlman.2Howard Caygill has suggested that it was Benjamin’s reflections on the child’s experience of colour that prompted him to question Kant’s philosophy and elaborate his own, alternative, speculative critique of experience.3 And, according to Susan Buck-Morss, ‘what Benjamin found in the child’s consciousness, badgered out of existence by bourgeois education and so crucial to redeem (albeit in new form), was precisely the unsevered connection between perception and action that distinguished revolutionary consciousness in adults.’4

That’s my excuse anyway for stepping out and daring to offer some dispatches from the ludic archipelago in Scotland’s largest city.

Notes

  1. Gershom Scholem, ‘Walter Benjamin’ in On Jews and Judaism in Crisis: Selected Essays, ed. Werner J Dannhauser (New York: Schocken, 1976), p175.
  2. Jeffrey Mehlman, Walter Benjamin for Children: An Essay on His Radio Years(Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1993).
  3. Howard Caygill, Walter Benjamin: The Colour of Experience (London and New York: Routledge, 1998), pp83-85.
  4. Susan Buck-Morss, The Dialectics of Seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1989), p263.

Jamaica Kincaid: Among Flowers: A Walk in the Himalaya

For those who know Jamaica Kincaid from the opening salvo of A Small Place – a withering put-down of the tourists who descend on her island, blithely oblivious of what it is like to live there – this may come as a big surprise.

Among Flowers is an account of a trek she made in Nepal, for the purpose of collecting seeds she could plant in her garden in Vermont. She and her three companions are guided by sherpas and supported by a team of porters (whose names she can never remember) who do their best to meet their demand for creature comforts and keep them safe from the attentions of ‘Maoists’ (caricatured as menacing or infantile throughout) who threaten to spoil their vacation.

It is not easy to believe that they were written by the same person. Perhaps she has gotten more conservative as she has gotten older. It’s not unheard of. Or perhaps we would find it more reassuring to believe that if the first was sincere, the second must be ironic.

I’m not convinced.

In one village she refers to the way she becomes the object of curious attention. ‘One woman did make me understand that she thought I was wearing a mask, that my face was not my real face,’ she writes. Maybe this is Kincaid reminding her readers that authors always ‘wear a mask’, whether it be that of the outraged local or the self-absorbed tourist. In each case, it is as if she is adopting a deliberately exaggerated persona and pushing it as far as it can go.

The first-person protagonist of this story is not unaware of the disparities of power and wealth that separate elite travellers from the people they meet (and rely on). Indeed, her disarming tendency to admit how much she moaned about the facilities or felt let down by the porters brings them into sharper relief than an account by a more ‘sensitive’ traveller who might have made more effort to appear to ‘fit in’.

But even when she consciously reflects on these disparities – for example when she contrasts her own perspective with that of the Nepalese (what for her is treasure may be weeds to them, what is ornament, food, and what is exciting and new, dull and quotidian) – it is the way that these reflections unconsciously rob them of the possibility of finer feeling that is telling rather than the prosaic truth they express.

Above all, that these reflections never prompt searching questions of a moral or political nature – while a Communist rebellion gathers pace around her – may be more eloquent in its silence than an approach that offers simple solutions.

For this reason, I think the ‘tourist’ identity Kincaid assumes in the Himalayas exposes contradictions and paradoxes much more effectively than the ‘local’ identity she assumes in Antigua. Whether this is a deliberate strategy is another question, and possibly an irrelevant one.