Benjamin, Walter (1892–1940)

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Walter Benjamin, philosopher, literary and social critic, and aesthetic theorist of the modernist period, was born to a liberal, middle-class Jewish family on July 15, 1892, in Berlin. He died in 1940 by suicide, having failed to cross the border from France to Spain. Many of his writings were published posthumously. He lived mainly in Germany, but spent his last years in exile in Paris barely surviving as an independent writer. Although close friends such as Gershom Scholem and Theodor W. Adorno encouraged him to move to Israel or to New York, he chose fatefully to stay in Europe.

Benjamin had a seminal impact, especially after the 1960s, on critical theory, art history, and aesthetics; on political philosophy and the philosophy of language and history (in the continental vein); on linguistics, literature, and criticism; on communications, technology, and mass media; even, later, on anthropology, cultural studies, and postcolonial and feminist theory.

Benjamin developed his central concept of critique from his extensive reading in philosophy, poetry, and literature, especially of Immanuel Kant, Johann von Goethe, Friedrich Hölderlin, and Friedrich Schlegel. Critique was a concept or, better, a philosophical approach to establishing the parameters of knowledge and experience (Erfahrung ). Lifelong, Benjamin attempted to move beyond the limits that he saw the neo-Kantians to have imposed far more dogmatically than Kant himself. He saw in the Enlightenment concept of experience the gradual movement toward "scientism" and with this toward an ever more severe limitation and impoverishment of its promise. Experience, he argued, ought not to be reduced to the "object realm" of science.

His earliest work on educational reform was influenced by Gustav Wyneken's Youth Movement. Again, as that movement became more dogmatic, the more Benjamin distanced himself from it. He resisted partisan thinking all his life, given his unwillingness to compromise either "the life of the spirit" or the claims of the early Karl Marx's historical materialism. Similarly, though instructed by well-known professors, he showed himself to be as anti-academic and anti-programmatic as he was anti-partisan. He was wary of any well-trodden path or anything that smacked of matter-of-factness.

Benjamin became not only a philosophical thinker but also a writer who would sharply oppose those who aimed in thought and language simply to stipulate the principles of method. He wondered how a writer could release the truth in a world that acts as if it would rather have a "higher," "absolute," or "certain" truth imposed upon it. He thought about how one writes "against the grain" or how one writes oneself out of restrictions by which one, as a writer, is historically and socially conditioned. He wrote against the dominant positivist idea or myth of progress which, he maintained, far more concealed than brought truth to appearance.

Benjamin was wary of traditional forms of philosophical argument. He used literary and visual images to develop a language he regarded as more appropriate or truthful for modern times. He wrote sometimes in fragments, sometimes with quotations or aphorisms, in part to demonstrate his interest in what he called constellations or dialectical images. He experimented with both the long and the short form of the (literary) essay. He was particularly interested in story-telling as still historically able to transmit genuine experience.

In his "On Language as Such and on the Language of Mankind" (1916), he argued against the idea that writing was either transparent or merely a vehicle for the communication of an independently existing meaning. Meaning was, rather, contained and usually concealed within language, a view that necessitated entirely rethinking the task of translation. Given a secularized Messianic myth of the fall of humanity and of humanity's entry into history, Benjamin maintained that the more a society misuses its language the more the language (like society) falls into decay. The aim of critique was double-sided: to describe language's decay or the loss of meaning under present social or historical conditions at the same time that one seeks to bring that meaning back to presence. Critique as retrieval was no straightforward matter: It demanded different modes of extreme and explosive, but also fragile and experimental, thought.

Although influenced both by classicism and early romanticism, he explored in modernist terms the complex relations between the truth and deception of language, sign, and image. Between 1919 and 1920 he completed his doctorate in Switzerland with "The Concept of Criticism in German Romanticism." In 1928 the University of Frankfurt refused him his Habilitation for his Origin of German Tragic Drama. This dissertation, written largely through quotation and focused on a distinction between allegory and symbol, explored the modern form of tragedy. Benjamin often described modernity in terms of ruins: to modernity he liked to attach the terms of meaninglessness, mortification, and fragmentation. Allegory, as one critic has put it, was "a poetic response to the degradation that language undergoes in the instrumental conception that modernity gives to it" (Rochlitz 1996, p. 99). However, though Benjamin so described modernity, he did not engage merely in a conservative lament about how the world once was. Instead, through allegory, he sought the redemptory, and at times also the revolutionary, promise of the new languages, images, and cultural forms as given from the temporal perspective of the "here and now." Benjamin's work on allegory later proved most influential on the thinking of Jacques Derrida and Paul de Man.

Benjamin refused to treat works of art, literature, or philosophy as if one were attending a funeral, as if the works were situated merely in the monumentalized context of a dead past. As he argued in his "Theses" on the philosophy of history, so he argued in his work on literary criticism, that the critic should aim to keep works alive by showing how their meaning, described as belonging to the past, was still present or available to us albeit in enigmatic or allegorical form.

In his writing on history, he argued against the dominant teleological, progressivist and perfectibility visions which saw the world as ordered, rational, and, purposive. He rather presented a view of the past as radically fragmented and of history as something that narrates a story far less of victory and inclusion and far more of failure and exclusion. Inspired by a painting of Paul Klee, he pictured the historian as an angel (the "angel of history") who, though propelled by progressive forces toward the future, would prefer rather to look backward. He described the historian as a guardian of the past, as one who desires to subvert future catastrophe by awakening the dead in an attempt to make whole again what has been destroyed.

Comparably, in his literary criticism, he argued that meaning does not reside in works as if fixed, saturated, or completed; it exists rather as possibility or as a suggestion still flickering in the flames of the coherence the world once had. To retrieve the meaning present in a work is to retrieve that which critics of antiquarian tendency have allowed to fall into oblivion. For Benjamin, art cannot do without this act of retrieval, as he demonstrated in his early mammoth essay on Goethe's Elective Affinities. Here, Benjamin distinguished critique from commentary. Whereas the latter focuses on material content, the realities more immediately apparent to the eye, the former focuses on the concealed, but historically gradually to be revealed, ideal- or truth-content of the work; his point was always to demonstrate the intricate relation between the two.

Increasingly influenced by Baudelaire, Benjamin exposed the contradictory or antagonistic structures of modernist, urban, bourgeois or capitalist life in the metropolis: Berlin, Moscow, Paris. In his late and unfinished Arcades Project, he traced the allegorical significance of advertising slogans and neon signs attached to the aging architectural structures of the Parisian Arcades. He looked at the postures of prostitutes, mannequins, and gamblers, and at the movements of the trains and the stock exchange. He looked at the speed of pedestrian traffic and at the exhibition in the shoppers of their boredom, idleness, desire, and satisfaction. Stamps, toys, newspaper headlines revealed the city in its smallest details. No detail and no commodity were treated as trivial or insignificant.

Influenced by the Parisian surrealists, he described fantasies and dreams as collective forms of social experience; he experimented with opium to gain access to new forms of experience. He wrote about dialectical images, which, while structured by capitalist relations of production, nonetheless contained a redemptory potential that would appear to the viewer in momentary or disoriented experiences. He investigated the psychical processes (influenced by art, writing, and drugs) that would crack habitual forms of life or break through the apparent fixity of social forms. To interpret the world was to reorder (change) the world through profane illumination. With André Breton, it was to release the world from its chains or to allow the uncanny dimensions of experience, suppressed under the social construction of ordered appearance, to emerge.

Benjamin's work is often distinguished by earlier and later periods, by decisive transitions from his more esoteric and elitist interest, inspired by Jewish Messianic thought, to his late, often Bertold Brechtinspired, more revolutionary work in (Marxist) historical materialism. As, however, his last writings on history and art show, there are significant continuities across these transitions. In perhaps his best-known essay, "The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility," he argued that how we receive or view art is changed not only by radical alteration in conditions of production, but also, more esoterically, by how the art, in its experimentation, may surrealise (transform or shatter through creative disorientation) how we think and feel. He showed how the mediation in art between aesthetic concepts and technological conditions matters both for the sake of art and for that of politics.

Crudely, to speak of the "aestheticization of the political" was to speak with the Fascists or the totalitarian thinkers, of how new forms of technology were being regressively employed to sustain outdated aesthetic concepts. He described how concepts of aura and aesthetic absorption had come increasingly to be employed to produce political rather than merely artistic forms, hence, the use of aesthetic concepts and artistic techniques in modern war and propaganda. Contrarily, to speak of the "politicization of art" encouraged a production of art that would more truthfully adapt to currently existing conditions, a production that would rather help liberate a people, so Benjamin argued at his most committed revolutionary moment, than be used to promote knowingly false political illusions.

Benjamin juxtaposed his concrete and diverse reflections on mass art, film, photography, epic theater, and spectatorship with reflections on violence, war, and militarism. In turn, his reflections on violence and fragility were inseparable from his own thinking and writing on the modern condition and possibility of experience.

See also Adorno, Theodor Wiesengrund; Aesthetics, History of; Critical Theory; Derrida, Jacques; Enlightenment; Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von; Historical Materialism; Hölderlin, Johann Christian Friedrich; Kant, Immanuel; Marx, Karl; Neo-Kantianism; Political Philosophy, History of; Schlegel, Friedrich von.


works by walter benjamin

Illuminations. Translated by Harry Zohn; edited and with an introduction by Hannah Arendt. New York: Schocken Books, 1969.

The Origin of German Tragic Drama. Translated by John Osborne. Introduction by George Steiner. London: New Left Books, 1977.

Charles Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism. Translated by Harry Zohn. London: New Left Books (Verso), 1983.

Understanding Brecht. Translated by A. Bostock. London: New Left Books (Verso), 1983.

The Arcades Project. Translated by Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999.

Selected Writings. 4 vols edited by Michael W. Jennings and Howard Eiland. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002.

works about walter benjamin

Benjamin, Andrew, ed. Walter Benjamin and Art. London and New York: Continuum, 2005.

Bolz, Norbert, and Willem Van Reijen. Walter Benjamin. Translated by L. Mazzarins. Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, 1996.

Buck-Morss, Susan. The Dialectics of Seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1989.

Hanssen, Beatrice, and Andrew Benjamin, eds. Walter Benjamin and Romanticism. New York and London: Continuum, 2002.

Jennings, Michael W. Dialectical Images: Walter Benjamin's Theory of Literary Criticism. Ithaca, NY, and London: Cornell University Press, 1987.

McCole, John. Walter Benjamin and the Antinomies of Tradition. Ithaca, NY, and London: Cornell University Press, 1993.

Richter, Gerhard, ed. Benjamin's Ghosts: Interventions in Contemporary Literary and Cultural Theory. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2002.

Rochlitz, Rainer. The Disenchantment of Art: The Philosophy of Walter Benjamin. Translated by Jane Marie Todd. New York and London: The Guilford Press, 1996.

Smith, Gary, ed. Benjamin: Philosophy, Aesthetics, History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989.

Smith, Gary, ed. On Walter Benjamin: Critical Essays and Recollections. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1991.

The Walter Benjamin Research Syndicate. Available from

Wolin, Richard. Walter Benjamin: An Aesthetic of Redemption. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1994.

Lydia Goehr (2005)

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Benjamin, Walter (1892–1940)

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