Thresholds, Passages, Surfaces

As soon as he set foot in the arcade, he felt a strong tingle of anticipation. The woman who sold costume jewellery was sitting right opposite the door to the side passage. He had to wait until she was busy, selling a brass ring or some earrings to a young working woman. Then he slipped into the passage and climbed the dark, narrow staircase, pressing against the damp, sticky walls. Every time he stumbled on one of the stone steps, the noise gave him a burning sensation in the chest. A door opened, and there on the threshold, dazzling in the white glow of the lamp, he saw Thérèse in her camisole and petticoat, her hair tied up tight in a bun. She shut the door and flung her arms round his neck; she had a warm scent of white linen and newly washed flesh. (Emile Zola, Thérèse Raquin, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1998.)

Sexual topographies described through the physical morphology of architectural space inscribe a series of territories, boundaries and thresholds, but the precise contours of this sexual geography vary culturally, historically and according to specific locations. In fiction and non-fiction alike, arcades feature as sites of dangerous sexualities in the city – of prostitution and adultery, of desire and fantasy. In Emile Zola’s Thérèse Raquin, it is a room above a haberdasher’s shop in the Passage du Pont Neuf in 1850’s Paris which allows the narrative of a dangerous love affair to unfold. In early nineteenth century London, arcades with their predominantly female work force and customers were frequently depicted as places of transgressive sexual activity, intrigue, seduction and prostitution. The Burlington Arcade, with its proximate relations of differently owned territories (the external city, the internal walking passage and the individual shop unit) created an erotic choreography of passing, touching and seeing – a series of gendered spaces – which served to articulate male concerns regarding women’s presence in the public spaces of the city.

What follows explores the patterning of these gendered thresholds, passages, boundaries and surfaces in the arcades; both in relation to the specific ways in which activities of commodity consumption, display and exchange were historically configured in the Burlington arcade and its immediate context of early nineteenth century London; and also in more general relation to the ways in which arcades, and their conflation with the figure of the prostitute, feature in current debates in visual, spatial and gender studies. Discussed here with reference to the work of two particular critical theorists and philosophers – Walter Benjamin and Luce Irigaray.

Publication Details: Jane Rendell, ‘Thresholds, Passages and Surfaces: Touching, Passing and Seeing in the Burlington Arcade’, Alex Cole (ed.), The Optics of Walter Benjamin, (London: Blackdog Publishing, 1999).

See also Jane Rendell, ‘Subjective Space: A Feminist Architectural History of the Burlington Arcade’, Duncan McCorquodale, Katerina Ruedi and Sarah Wigglesworth, eds., Desiring Practices, London, Blackdog Publishing, 1996; Jane Rendell, ‘ “Industrious Females” and “Professional Beauties”, or, Fine Articles for Sale in the Burlington Arcade’, Iain Borden, Joe Kerr, Alicia Pivaro and Jane Rendell, eds., Strangely Familiar: Narratives of Architecture in the City, London, Routledge, 1995; Jane Rendell, ‘Displaying Sexuality: Gendered Identities in the Early Nineteenth Century Street’, Nick Fyfe (ed.), Images of the Street: Representation, Experience, and Control in Public Space, London, Routledge, 1998. See also ‘Doing it, (Un)Doing it, (Over)Doing it Yourself: Rhetorics of Architectural Abuse’, Jonathan Hll ed., Occupied Territories, London: Routledge, 1998.

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