This project has been made possible by a grant from the Creative Arts Council of Brown University.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Student echoes and Walter Benjamin again

One of the printed materials held in the RIHS is an urban studies senior thesis by a Brown student named Susan L. Newman from 1981 entitled "The Providence Arcade: Architecture in a Changing Urban Environment."  She was writing her thesis during the year that the Arcade opened- an important shift and turning point in the site's identity- and her thesis begins with this statement: "The purpose of this thesis is to investigate the meaning of the Providence Arcade".

It is always interesting to see something of yourself in the research materials you are dealing with- and always important to remember how easily the line between researcher and subject blurs.

She has many interesting insights to share, but I will include only one or two here. On page 57 she includes  an excerpt taken from the publicity campaign for the re-opening of the Arcade in October 1980, 31 years ago, reproduced here in my notebook:

In keeping with the idea of mediation and re-mediation that I discussed in a previous post, I want to include an image that Newman used in her thesis, which is held in the RIHS collection, but that also exists in the RIHPHC collection (which is where my copy of the image comes from):

1830 lithograph by Moore after J. A. Underwood showing the Westminster facade of the Arcade

The idea of myth also makes a few appearances. On the same page as the excerpt above, Newman writes that "the Arcade is mythical; it provides more than shops for the working population-- it provides a sense of historical continuity." In her conclusion, she returns to the idea of the myth, setting up her argument by starting with the statement that "the Arcade has a mythical value that may appear to exceed its objective reality. The Arcade is, in fact, only a building." But she closes by offering that the then current developers perhaps realised that "the mythical value of such a building is not something to be contrasted with its objective reality. Instead, such a value is an intrinsic part of the reality binding place to building to people."

Newman's ending evaluation is optimistic and romanticised; it reflects the time at which she was writing, when the Arcade re-opened with high hopes pinned on it. Her reference to "myth", however, was intriguing to me because it brings me back to Walter Benjamin, who used the term frequently in his writings on cities. As I have mentioned in previous posts, Benjamin's work has been influential in my theoretical positioning on urban space, and his work on arcades was in part the reason for this project focusing on the Providence Arcade.

In his analysis of Benjamin's oeuvre, Graeme Gilloch notes that Benjamin uses the word ‘myth’ in various ways that often contrast, and are not really clearly explained. One of these ways is “to refer to erroneous thought and misrecognition....which is clearly derived from the Enlightenment tradition, ‘myth’ refers to archaic forms of perception and experience."1 However, for Benjamin "myth is not simply to be equated with delusion and misrecognition. Myth contains within in positive elements and potentialities which must be preserved and utilized.” 2

This conception of myth resonates with some of my experiences with the Arcade. One example might be conversations with people where "incorrect" details that they remember conflict with other sources of information, and where these ways of remembering are being "preserved and utilized" in this project. Another might be my desire to move beyond relying primarily on visual and written ways of knowing, which are generally privileged over phenomenological (or experiential) forms of knowledge-- under Giloch's framework, these engagements could be viewed as the "archaic forms of perception and experience"; they are perhaps "mythological" ways of knowing.

1 Graeme Gilloch, Myth and Metropolis: Walter Benjamin and the city, (Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1996), 9
2 Ibid, 12

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