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Modernity and the administrative apparatus

April 6, 2012

Some quotes from Carlo Salzani’s article,  ‘The City as Crime Scene: Walter Benjamin and the Traces of the Detective’

in modernity an increasingly strict and firm net of control has been spread over private life. Examples include the official numbering of houses or the use of photography as a police identification procedure. …[Walter] Benjamin himself observed that since the French Revolution the administrative apparatus has strived to multiply the traces of the individual in an instance of panoptical control.” (179)

Quoting Walter Benjamin: “the invention of photography was a turning point in the history of this process. It was no less significant for criminology than the invention of the printing press was for literature. Photography made it possible for the first time to preserve permanent and unmistakable traces of a human being. The detective story came into being when this most decisive of all conquests of a person’s incognito had been accomplished. Since that time, there has been no end to the efforts to capture [dingfest machen] a man in his speech and actions. (GS, 1.2:550; SW, 4:27)” (Walter Benjamin, quoted 180)

“Personal traces thus become incriminating clues, dangerous evidence in the hands of the detective-as-spy. To erase the traces, as Brecht writes, becomes a necessity not only for those who are illegal but for everyone, since everyone is a sort of criminal.” (180)

The Historian as Detective

[Walter] Benjamin convincingly argues that the detective story developed in the second half of the nineteenth century as a part of the phantasmagoria of modernity. Depicting the city as a place of danger and adventure, it played with the fears and anxieties of bourgeois society, which likes to indulge in the feeling of an ideological terror. Yet it also romanticized the dull existence of the city dweller and rescued—albeit only fictionally—the sense of individuality and singularity that modernity has lost in the labyrinth of the crowd. Benjamin, interested in the detective’s peculiar gifts for observation, explicitly relates the figure to the new optical technologies of modernity. That the detective story developed in a certain way is thus related to a zeitgeist involved in an optical revolution, with a peculiar interest in vision and visibility.” (184)

Ref: Carlo Salzani (2007) ‘The City as Crime Scene: Walter Benjamin and the Traces of the Detective’ New German Critique 100, Vol.34, No.1, Winter: 165-187




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