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.
The prose in One-Way Street is positively electrified by the historical moment…Far more important than any residues of past literature, however prevalent, are the ways in which One-Way Street ushers in a wholly original literary aesthetics. Its formal daring is unmatched by any of Benjamin’s earlier work…One-Way Street is dead set on a new mode of materialism, one that shares with Surrealism an esteem for everyday objects, debris, junk, and dross—for whatever is marginal, marginalized, outmoded, or fleeting. This edition’s index testifies to the dizzying thematic diversity of Benjamin’s undertaking: children’s toys, capital punishment, money, mobs, utopia, fancy goods, misery, souvenirs, beggars, and red neon advertising signs reflected in pools of dirty rain. Form in One-Way Street is no mere envelope, but the very arena in which these objects and phenomena clash and generate their sparks. Benjamin’s aphorisms mimic the rhythms of the street, instantiating the experiences most proper to it: distraction, reverie, shock, haste, detour, etc. Scathing critique is mixed with imagistic commentary and surrealistic prose poetry—all broken into shards and scattered like a mosaic of fragments. But however atomized and heterogeneous, the little pieces of One-Way Street pursue a common goal: an idiosyncratic exposé on history (specifically, the disintegration of culture) as deciphered in the most concrete of its artifacts and rituals.
One-Way Street is Benjamin’s most daring and experimental book; though short, it contains a wide range of genres ranging from aphorisms and political satire to maxims and instructions.
- 144 pages
- 5 x 7-1/2 inches
- Belknap Press
- Preface by Greil Marcus
From this author
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