4. Reading, Libraries, and Urban Change in the Shadow of Capitalism and Apocalypse: Walter Benjamin and John of Patmos
Critical Theory and Early Christianity - Walter Benjamin, Gilles Deleuze, Alain Badiou, and Judith Butler - Matthew G. Whitlock
Robert Paul Seesengood [+]
Walter Benjamin’s Marxist critique of urban spaces, as exemplified in his description of the gritty French seaport Marseille in his essay “Chambermaids’ Romances of the Past City” and in his Arcades Project, focused upon the transformation of urban space through the forces of capitalism. Urban spaces become gentrified and made docile by the growth of capital and wealth. The poor who labor to create these spaces soon no longer have the ability to dwell within them. In his essay “Unpacking my Library,” Benjamin brings his attention to the dynamics of collection and ownership; what does it mean to “own” a book, a library? How is this process a secret attempt to commodify and control ideas, a capitalistic urge that shapes the center of even philosophy and spiritual transformation? The canonical Apocalypse by John of Patmos also features urban transformations: the city of Rome (called “Babylon”) and its commercial enterprises are replaced with the Heavenly Jerusalem (Rev 17; 20). Revelation also has a library; its catalog includes a seven sealed scroll (Rev 4 and 5) that initiates God’s wrath and a Living Book (Rev 20:12-15) that contains the names of the select few who survive in the end. The book of Revelation, as a book itself, is foregrounded in the vision; John, its author, appears in the act of writing (1:11; 2:1ff) or of not writing (10:4) and in the harsh warnings that the book must not be edited by later hands as well as a blessing for gentle readers (22:18-19). In this chapter, I want to read John alongside Benjamin. How does John view the city, view reading, and view the dynamics of the two together? Public libraries began in American civic space with the goal of broad, populist access to knowledge and intellectualism. Many today lament the internet replacement of the “brick and mortar” bookstore as a center for American intellectual life. But before that, there was the local bookstore’s replacement of the free public library. Both are indicative of a decline in populist, free access to knowledge. The transformation of urban spaces, with a growth in prosperity, wealth and a decline of poverty and crime, would seem a singular good. In a similar way, the pursuit of reading via the collection of a private library would seem laudable. But, as we note from reading Benjamin and John of Patmos, urban transformation leaves out as many as it includes, and private libraries foster dimmed interest in publically accessible, free archives. These tensions and texts all meet in the urban library.