On Walter Benjamin
W P Phillips
Benjamin (1982-1940): critic, journalist, historian, social scientist,
The Origin of the German Mourning Play
(1928) is the study of Baroque German “Mourning Play” (translated as “Tragedy”
though the mourning play is not tragic in the sense by which we normally
understand tragedy) and is an ambitious and complex attempt to chart the
secularization of time and the experience of temporality as it manifests in
texts for the stage: the idea of the modern (secular time extending infinitely);
the idea of theatricality (the “-ability” represented by the theatrical).
Arcades Project (Passagenwerk)
(1927-1939): over 1000 pages of notes, citations, short articles, clippings,
images and other fragments in loose juxtaposition, all concerning the 19th
century Paris Arcades (covered shopping centres).
Way Street (1925-26)
OWS is a
modernist classic but not simply an artwork (Benjamin is not an artist or
writer in the traditional sense). It
does not belong to any existing genre (certainly not literary genres like
novels, poems or plays). It is made up
of aphorisms, notes and observations, short essays, accounts of dreams and
reflective descriptions. The organization
is innovative. Each fragment is
collected under a heading or title--often with an at best oblique relation to
the text it designates--that seems to have been taken from some visible street
sign. It is, on one level then, a guide
through city spaces.
departure from traditional notions of progress can be seen most starkly in the
final section, “To the Planetarium,” in which he gives an account of the key
difference between antiquity and modernity.
Guided by the experience of the war (WW1) Benjamin departs from the
standard (and Marxist) account of man’s dominion over nature. The shift has not been one of progressive
mastery of natural elements but rather is characterized by a shift in
collective attitude (a kind of historical way of being). The ancients experienced their world in terms
of a relation to the cosmos that brought the everyday into contact with the
mysterious. The moderns experience
theirs in terms of visual immediacy and technology.
concerns focus around the so-called era
of high capitalism, which is the immediate consequence of the passage from
industrial capitalism. Topics treated
(as it dates from the early modern era—i.e., Renaissance (Elizabethan and
Jacobean if your framework is Britain) and Baroque periods; The passage from
19th century bourgeois culture to 20th century urbanism; Art (classical,
bourgeois and high capitalist); Writing (from critic to journalist); The
minutiae of the quotidian world; Technology and war; Urbanity and urbanism;
Childhood; Dreams; Adverts, placards, pamphlets, newspapers; Spaces (rooms, streets,
maps) and buildings.
By close-ups of the things around us, by
focusing on hidden details of familiar objects, by exploring commonplace
milieus under the ingenious guidance of the camera, the film, on the one hand,
extends our comprehension of the necessities which rule our lives; on the other
hand it manages to assure us of an immense field of action. Our taverns and our metropolitan streets, our
offices and our furnished rooms, our railroad stations and our factories
appeared to have us locked up hopelessly.
Then came the film and burst this prison-world asunder by the dynamite
of the tenth of a second, so that now, in the midst of its far-flung ruins and
debris, we calmly and adventurously go traveling. With the close-up, space expands; with slow
motion, movement is extended. The
enlargement of a snapshot does not simply render more precise what in any case
was visible though unclear: it reveals entirely new structural formations of
the subject. (Walter Benjamin, Illuminations 236)
The Collector and the Critic
work balances, often with paradoxical results, tensions between aspects of
experience: the experiences simultaneously of being too late and too early (too
soon) in the temporal dimension (c.f. Hamlet’s “the time is out of joint”) and
being both distant and close (in the spatial dimension), and anyway of being
both temporal and spatial. The concept
of “aura,” which is one of Benjamin’s most influential contributions, is best
understood in terms of these tensions or oscillations. He says that “aura” is a “strange web of
space and time” or “a distance as close as it can be.” The main idea is of something inaccessible
and elusive, something highly valued but which is deceptive and out of
reach. Aura, in this sense, is
associated with the nineteenth century notions of the artwork and is thus lost,
Benjamin argues, with the onset of photography.
At first photographs attempted to imitate painting but very quickly and
because of the nature of the technology photography took its own direction
contributing to the destruction of all traditional notions of the fine
arts. The stamp and the book are the two
images that perhaps best indicate what is at stake. The enigmatic value that a stamp has for the
collector is superseded by the more communal and critical value suggested by
the knowledge of books, although books too are objects for the collector. Both must be set against the bank-note, which
simply circulates in a system of exchange and has no value beyond its
system. Finally it is film that is most
suggestive for Benjamin.
The Work of Art in the Age of
Benjamin addresses the phenomena
of moving images in cinema and newsreel in his 1936 essay “The Work of art in
the Age of Mechanical Reproducibility.”
It is strongly recommended as one of the clearest and most far-reaching
of all Benjamin’s works. It is a
rigorously dialectical argument, clearly influenced by his ongoing engagement
with Marxism and written with an audience in mind already familiar with the
works of his friend Theodor Adorno. Dialectical
thinking involves moving through contraries without ever letting one term
gain precedence over its other—or apparent opposite—as most oppositional thinking
tends to do. In dialectics each
term only has significance in relation to its apparent contrary or other. Benjamin begins by assuming the main tenet of
dialectical materialism, which states that the the means of production
determine the nature of cultural production, or, more technically, the
substructure determines the superstructure.
However, he goes on to show that the superstructure changes much more
slowly than the substructure, with the effect that cultural phenomena always lag
behind the conditions that produce them.
For this reason, he is observing the conditions of present culture at
the point of their earliest development and with an eye for the present state
of productive (and reproductive) technologies.
His mode of observation (as he puts it) is designed to draw attention to
changes in the conditions of production as a way of intervening in the process.
His theses are, thus, regarded as weapons in the war against fascism.
Two modes of observation are regarded
as modes of action, the fascist or reactionary and the progressive
or revolutionary. To the fascist
mode belongs the attempt to render politics aesthetic, manifested in propaganda
as well as by Hitler’s mass rallies and, ultimately, in war, as expressed by
Marinetti and the futurists.
of reproduction replace earlier conditions of producing and consuming
artworks. Photography does not gradually
culminate in the moving images of cinema, but implies cinema and foreshadows it
from the beginning, just as the camera obscura foreshadows the fixed
image of the photograph.
The destruction of “aura” in
mechanical reproduction signals the passage from the artwork as cult (i.e., as
a religious object) to the artwork as exhibit (in museum and inevitably in
cinema). The transitions in question
occur over vast historical reaches, beginning with cave drawings (magic),
moving through religious iconicity (altar paintings and cathedrals), to the
post-renaissance cult of beauty. At each
of these stages the cult value of “magic” (occult value) remains the deciding
factor in the ideological value of the artwork.
The final stage involves the transition from all residual cult
associations to exhibition value (this of course is capitalism’s gradual and
then sudden contribution to the development of world history). One exhibits
(puts on display or into performance).
Aura implies authenticity
but there is no authenticity without its destruction in mechanical
reproducibility (i.e., the idea of authentic art only emerges when authenticity
is a threatened species of artwork).
Reproducible art replaces authenticity with an added extra—unheard of
perceptions are made possible.
Aura (the eliminated term) is
explained in analogy with the experience of nature (a mountain range or the
shadow of a branch perceived in a unique moment) superseded in the experience
of mechanically reproduced images, for which, however perfect they are as
images, are missing the point of presence—the presence of the object—that gives
it its aura. The difference is like the
loss of the presence of the actor in the passage from stage to screen. But cinema makes so much more possible than
the stage can do. The elimination of
aura implies the loss of any the sense of unreachable (divine, mysterious,
So the mode of sense
perception is irrevocably changed.
The movie takes over from the epic poem the function that architecture
has always played: an object is presented for simultaneous collective
experience. The masses have reactionary
responses to art (i.e., to Picasso) and progressive ones (e.g., to Charles
Chaplin). The future of a technical mode
can be glimpsed in the desire it awakens (e.g., to reproduce images in an
increasingly detailed way—with sound and, ultimately, of course, in
colour). And quantity is transmuted into
quality: “The greatly increased mass of participants has produced a change in
the mode of participation.”
Philosophy: Messianism and Marxism
together a number of strands that have provoked a range of responses, including
those of Jacques Derrida, who as in his other readings painstakingly reproduces
Benjamin’s texts while highlighting the mystical aspects, to leave a rather
magnificent affirmation of absolute alterity (which means otherness). You can
find out about Derrida’s Messianic Principle here.
moment in time presents a unique revolutionary possibility.
Franz Rosenzweig (Star
of Redemption from 1921), Gerschom Scholem, Hannah Arendt, Franz Kafka,
Paul Celan, Emmanuel Levinas and Jacques Derrida each have
a role in the tradition of Jewish thought in the 20th century.
materialist conception of history (and the love affair with Asja Lacis)
Theodor Adorno and
Max Horkheimer (and The Frankfurt School); Georg Lukacs; Bertold
Brecht each have a part to play in the tradition of 20th century Marxist
Continental Philosophy: The
tradition, especially in Germany, from Immanuel Kant and including the German
Romantics (Goethe and the Schlegel Brothers) F. W. J. Schelling and G. W. F.
Hegel to 20th century philosophy, Edmund Husserl and his prodigious student
Martin Heidegger (whose work compares in striking ways with that of Benjamin).
For Klee’s Angelus Novus
and Benjamin’s Commentary on it (as “the Angel of History”) click on this
Images of Camera Obscura Rooms
Modernism and Film
A hypertext version of Benjamin’s
Walter Benjamin Research Syndicate
The Dialectics of Allegoresis: Historical
Materialisms in Benjamin’s Illuminations
Illuminations: The Critical Theory Web Site
Here William N.
Northcutt uses his reading of Benjamin to read Ezra Pound (!)—quite interesting.
Reclaiming the Fragments: On the
Messianic Materialism of Walter Benjamin By Stephen Bronner
The Website of JWP