Walter Benjamin “Some Motifs”


Commentary by John Phillips


Studying                                                Learning

Erlebnis                                                 Erfahrung

mémoire voluntaire                               mémoire involuntaire

Consciousness                                       Memory



We can begin by observing a distinction that Walter Benjamin makes in his review of Franz Hessel’s Spazieren in Berlin [“On Foot in Berlin”], between studying [studieren] and learning [lernen].  “A whole world separates these words,” he argues, “Anyone can study, but learning is something that you can only do if you are there for the duration.”[1]  To study a city is to take it as an object to be analyzed and otherwise accounted for.  To learn, on the contrary, would be to become transformed by experience (not Erlebnis—the experience of a remarkable event—but Erfahrung—which would be more like an ethos or way of being).  Benjamin’s review of Hessel’s book emphasizes two motifs that will throughout the remainder of his career gather in intensity: that of cultural memory and that of the flâneur.  In their underdeveloped state these motifs remain provocative if perhaps somewhat idealistic.  Hessel learns his city, Berlin, by walking its streets and remaining open to the city’s random stimulations, suggestible to chance encounters and the involuntary associations that they trigger.  A crucial factor in this is Hessel’s resident’s memory, which is what conjures the senses of change and transformation, as well as the relative permanence and impermanence of people and places, some of which remain while others are palpably—often surprisingly—lost to some principle of renewal or decay.  And it is this alternative temporality of cultural memory, Benjamin suggests, that informs the dweller’s understanding of his dwelling environment.


Later in “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire” (1939), which is the culmination of Benjamin’s engagement with modern urbanism in general, he harnesses a range of key texts and arguments concerning memory, historicity, modernity and urbanism, and creates what is now one of the single most influential studies of the modern city through a sustained reading of Charles Baudelaire’s lyric poetry.[2]  Here the distinction between Erlebnis and Erfahrung has been considerably developed and it allows Benjamin, perhaps for the first time, to outline what he understands as the basic conditions for an adequate, historically informed, engagement with modernity.  The fact that he chooses to do this through his own admittedly peculiar form of literary criticism is wholly significant.  For in Baudelaire’s poetry (Benjamin argues that with Baudelaire this was possible for the last and thus the only time) the lived events of urban life were given the weight of an Erfahrung: an experience.  It is this experience, otherwise obliterated from the urban dweller’s consciousness, that constitutes for Benjamin the cultural memory of late 19th and early 20th century urban life.


Already suggested in the Hessel review but axiomatic by the time of the Baudelaire article, the vicarious role of the written text is no less a resource for Benjamin than the supposedly (though never in fact) more direct encounter with the urban environment itself.  There are good technical reasons for this, which Benjamin develops out of dichotomies like the studying/learning one, and which involve the mutually exclusive categories of consciousness and memory.  By critically engaging with texts of philosophy, psychoanalysis and literature, Benjamin develops an analysis of urban experience that would have eluded any attempt to grasp it directly via the intellect.  His analysis is based on what he calls the method of historical materialism.[3]  The assumption here is not simply that the written text records or is impressed by experiences (and thus functions as a kind of memory) beyond or even against the conscious intention of its authors.  Rather Benjamin acknowledges an historical privilege to particular works, for their ability to register the shocks or anxieties of their times.  For instance, in Baudelaire, the crisis of artistic representation that manifests itself in the 19th century through the emergence of photography is registered as a critical urban phenomenon on the level of perception and memory.  Both the image of the past and that of the present are radically transformed in ways that are brought to crisis in Baudelaire’s lyric.  Henri Bergson’s philosophy of memory, on the other hand, does its best to avoid (and thus reveals in another way) the historical forces behind it.


Benjamin’s method is simultaneously historical and aesthetic but the notions of history and aesthetics are transformed in the process.  The question that underlies Benjamin’s text would be as follows: how and to what extent is urban experience determined by historical conditions?  The main answer that his readings provide would be that, under the conditions of modern urbanism, the ways in which history determines experience do not become matters of conscious awareness.  The proof of this, Benjamin suggests, begins with an acknowledgement of the decline in popularity of lyric poetry.  Accordingly, because it is thus reasonable to assume that lyric poetry is now only very rarely in accord with the experience of its readers, the structure of their experience may have changed (156).  Moreover, when one turns to philosophy for an account of the structure of experience (during Benjamin’s time there is a proliferation of such “philosophies of life” as they were known), one finds not just an explanation, but also a symptomatic exclusion:

Towering above this literature is Bergson’s early monumental work, Matière et mémoire.  More than the others it preserves links with empirical research.  It is oriented to biology.  The title suggests that it regards the structure of memory as decisive for the philosophical pattern of experience.  Experience is indeed a matter of tradition, in collective existence as well as private life.  It is less the product of facts firmly anchored in memory than of a convergence in memory of accumulated and frequently unconscious data.  It is, however, not at all Bergson’s intention to attach any specific historical label to memory.  On the contrary, he rejects any historical determination to memory.  He thus manages to stay clear of that experience from which his own philosophy evolved or, rather, in reaction to which it arose.  It was the inhospitable, blinding age of big-scale industrialism. (157)

Bergson’s rejection of any historical determination to memory is symptomatic of the historical conditions that determined his philosophy.  And this forgetting, this elision, is exactly what those conditions would determine.  Here in this essay and elsewhere, Benjamin argues for the great consequences that the camera and the photograph have had on both memory and culture.  In a startling analogy, rich with the metonymic vocabulary of photography, Bergson’s work becomes in Benjamin’s description the snapshot of his age: “In shutting out this experience the eye perceives an experience of a complementary nature in the form of its spontaneous after image, as it were.  Bergson’s philosophy represents an attempt to give the details of this afterimage and to fix it as a permanent record” (157).  Just as the photograph provides a permanent record of a transient moment, the philosophy of the time fixes on a contingent image of memory and renders it essential.  Experience has, then, perhaps become blind to the conditions out of which it arises.  Benjamin observes in his review of Hessel that, “Baudelaire is the source of the cruel aperçu that the city changes faster than a human heart” (265). 


Benjamin locates what he sees as an immanent critique of Bergson’s terms in the works of Marcel Proust and Sigmund Freud.  The distinction in Proust between the mémoire voluntaire and the mémoire involuntaire decisively excludes one from the other, making it in theory impossible to access what for Bergson was mémoire pure (conscious recollection of the durée, the stream of life) through contemplation.  Proust, on the contrary, insists on the confrontation of mémoire volontaire, which would be a work of the intellect, by mémoire involontaire, over which the conscious thinker has no control and which is experienced more often in the register of forgetting.  This loss of memory must be surprised or shocked by the uncanny experience, where a minor event appears both strange and deeply familiar.  Such an event triggers a forgotten (and thus unconscious) feeling, giving access to a fragment of lost time, which is registered at the level of lived experience.  So in Proust the taste of the madeleine pastry transports his narrator to a past that had hitherto been beyond conscious recollection.  The Freudian reference is to Beyond the Pleasure Principle, where Freud, in attempting to unravel the dreams and associations of trauma victims—specifically First World War victims—notes that “consciousness comes into being at the site of a memory trace” (Benjamin 160).  What Freud argues, in fact, is that it is not unreasonable to assume that consciousness arises instead of a memory trace:

One might thus say that the Consciousness system has the particularly distinguishing feature that excitation processes do not leave their mark in the form of an enduring alteration of its elements, as they do in all other psychic systems, but simply evaporate, as it were, in the process of entering consciousness.[4]  

Consciousness, in other words, functions not for the reception or perception of stimuli—which would in “other systems” (i.e. the unconscious) become permanent traces and as such the basis of memory—but for protection against overwhelming stimuli.  Shock, anxiety, trauma—these virtually interchangeable terms in Freud name situations where a source of stimulus has failed to leave any impression that could be recalled.  For Benjamin, then, this pattern—not simply a theory to be applied, of course, but also part of the symptomatic textual inscription of the time—is best read directly back into the situation that gave rise to it: the hypermodernity of which the 19th century urban tabula rasa, the motorized ravages of the World War, and the ubiquitous clicking and snapping of the camera, were only the most powerful of a whole range of assaults on the human sensorium. 


So long as consciousness—the human intellect—can remain alert as a screen against stimuli, Benjamin suggests, then the shock impulses of an increasingly hazardous urban environment will remain in the sphere of Erlebnis, lived through safely but without registering much as Erfahrung, or cultural experience.  Benjamin chooses to engage with the historicity of urbanism through the lyric poetry of Baudelaire because this poetry bears the traces—a prosthetic memory for a culture without one—of the poet’s struggle against the shocks of city life.  “A case in point,” he remarks, “is the telephone, where the lifting of a receiver has taken the place of the steady movement that used to be required to crank the older models” (174).  In modern 21st century life the telephone is now ubiquitous and even the mobile-phone, which nestles permanently in the palm of its user’s hand or rests blinking up at them from the coffee table, is fast being replaced by micro models that nestle invisibly behind the user’s ear, the mouthpiece discretely hanging down to access the back of the jaw, to receive the spoken or whispered instructions that will dial the next address.  Increasingly city dwellers communicate with each other on a day to day basis remotely.  Two can go shopping though only one will actually be there at the shops.  The telephonic Short Message Service has been responsible for a new written language that spreads rapidly into the magazines, newspapers and written reports.

[1] Published as “Die Wiederkehr des Flaneurs” and translated as “The Return of the Flâneur” in Selected Writings Volume II (Cambridge: Harvard, 1999). 262-267.

[2] “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire,” translated by Harry Zohn in Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, edited by Hannah Arendt (New York: Schocken, 1968) 155-200.  A slightly modified version of Zohn’s translation can be found in Selected Writings Volume IV1938-40 (Cambridge Mass.: Belknap, 2003) 313-355.   

[3] See his “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” in Illuminations 253-264, for a late account of his understanding of historical materialism.

[4] Sigmund Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle: and Other Writings, translated by John Reddick (London: Penguin, 2003) 64.