Walter Benjamin (1982-1940)

One Way Street (1925-26)



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).


The 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).


Benjamin: critic, journalist, historian, social scientist, philosopher, collector.


Messianism: each 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.  


Marxism: a 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 Marxism.


Benjamin draws together a number of strands that have provoked a range of responses, most impressive of which are probably those of Jacques Derrida, who as in his other readings painstakingly reproduces Benjamin’s texts while removing the mystical aspects, to leave a rather magnificent affirmation of absolute alterity in place of religion.  For those who have the interest and the time (I won’t bother with a hit counter on this page) you can find out about Derrida’s Messianic Principle here.



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).


Benjamin’s 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.


One Way Street

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.


Topics treated include:


Modernity (as it dates from the early modern era--i.e., Renaissance (Elizabethan, Jacobean if your framework is Britain) and Baroque;


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






Adverts, placards, pamphlets, newspapers


Spaces (rooms, streets, maps) and buildings


Main concerns focus around the so-called era of high capitalism, which is the immediate consequence of the passage from industrial capitalism.


Implications for art: from a notion of Aura (associated with originality, uniqueness and value) to one of mechanical reproducibility (cinema, photography, print).



More on Aura


The Website of JWP