Benjamin, Walter

views updated May 21 2018


The German writer and cultural critic Walter Benjamin (1892–1940) was born in Berlin, one of three children of assimilated Jewish parents. In 1912 he began his studies in philosophy, German literature, and art history at the University of Freiburg and then moved back to Berlin, where he encountered the teachings of the philosopher Georg Simmel. In 1914 he continued his studies at the universities in Munich and Bern, Switzerland. Benjamin married Dora Kellner in 1917; they had one son, Stefan, in 1918, before the marriage ended in divorce in 1930. Benjamin's doctoral dissertation on German Romanticism was accepted by the University of Bern in 1919. In 1923 he met his closest intellectual friends, the philosopher Theodor Wiesengrund Adorno and the cultural historian Siegfried Kracauer. His attempts to submit another professional dissertation to the University of Frankfurt, on the origin of German tragic drama, were not successful. The work was published in 1928 under the title Ursprung des deutschen Trauerspiels (The Origin of the German Tragic Drama).

Benjamin eked out a precarious existence as writer, translator, and journalist. In 1925–1927 he journeyed to Moscow, to visit Asja Lascis, whom he had fallen in love with. In 1933, in the wake of the rise of Hitler and Nazism, he left Germany for Paris, where he stayed except for brief visits to the German dramatist Bertolt Brecht in Denmark. Before his exile to France, Benjamin had begun to formulate Das Passagenwerk (The Arcades Project), his work on Paris in the nineteenth century; he would devote the remainder of his life to this incomplete magnum opus.

In 1936 he wrote the famous essay "Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit" ("The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction"). The text is the first to postulate the loss of the work's aura, that is the demise of its multi-tiered authenticity in view of the cultural implications of art's reproducibility in modern media. The German occupation of Paris in 1939 drove Benjamin from the French capital, but his manuscripts remained hidden in the vaults of the Bibliothèque Nationale until after the war. Border police halted his attempt to escape to Spain across the Pyrenees in September of 1940. Mentally and physically exhausted, Benjamin committed suicide in Port Bou, Spain. He carried with him a black bag with what is rumored to have been a final version of The Arcades Project. It was never recovered.

Benjamin on Fashion

Benjamin's significance for the interpretation of fashion resides in his unfinished chef-d'œuvre, Das Passagenwerk. A vast array of fragments, excerpts, aphorisms, quotations, metaphysical musings, and sociopolitical observations constitute the material for this book on Paris in the nineteenth century, the "pre-history of modernity," as Adorno called it. Fashion, both as an economic force and a visual signifier, is one of the most important features of The Arcades Project. Benjamin collected some hundred entries that deal with couture, dress codes and the art, literature, philosophy, and sociology of clothing (including a wealth of quotations from Simmel). His works on French literature; translations of Charles Baudelaire and Marcel Proust, with whom he shared sensibilities in regard to fashion; and essays on visual art in France were preparatory to the project, and his collections Thesen über den Begriff der Geschichte (1942; Theses on the Philosophy of History) and Zentralpark (1955; Central Park) are methodological spin-offs. A number of abstracts that he produced over the course of a decade explain and modify his conceptual approach.

Common to all these writings is the centrality of fashion as a historical fact—not simply as a historicized element of the past but more as a force that through its constant self-reference and quotation breaks the historical continuum and activates, at times even revolutionizes, past occurrences for the present. It is Benjamin's principal achievement to use dialectical materialism—that is, the materialist philosophy that regards the process of development in thought, nature, and history as coined by the necessary contradiction of ideas (albeit rather unorthodoxically) in this context as a structuring device against historicism, which uses styles, ornamentation, and motifs from the past often in eclectic and not reflective combination, and also against the notion of history marked by linear progress toward constantly higher levels of technical proficiency and material satisfaction. The potency of Georg Friedrich Wilhelm Hegel's and Karl Marx's concept of history as turning from quantitative progression to qualitative change is used by Benjamin to create an analogy in fashion's willful quotations from its own source book, where a particular style or stylistic element is taken from costume history and brought into present fashion to create reference and friction simultaneously, along with new commodities. This method is seen as particular to fashion, not just as the result of the seasonal structure of haute couture but because fashion operates differently from the historicism inherent in other decorative or applied arts. Thus, for example, quotations in Empire furniture are different from citations of Greek dress in the Directoire fashion. Through the stylistic quote, the console or chair merely offers a consolidation of historical substance, while the high-waisted dress presents the direct impression of the democratic ideal on the body politic.

In his Theses on the Philosophy of History Benjamin finds a poetic definition of fashion in history, a definition that moves from metaphysical to material questions and perceives fashion as a structural device. Through the sartorial quotation, fashion fuses the thesis of the eternal or "classical" ideal with its antithesis, which is the openly contemporary. The apparent opposition between the eternal and the ephemeral is rendered obsolete by the leap that needs the past for any continuation of the present. Correspondingly, the transhistorical describes the position of fashion as detached both from the eternal, that is, an aesthetic ideal, and the continuous progression of history. Benjamin conjures up the image of the "Tiger-sprung" to explain how fashion is able to leap from the contemporary to the ancient and back again without coming to rest exclusively in one temporal or aesthetic configuration. This generates a novel view of historical development. Coupled with the dialectical image, the tiger's leap under the open skies of history marks a convergence that is revolutionary in its essence.

The text that contains the Tigersprung thesis indicates what The Arcades Project could have constituted in terms of a radical rethinking of fashion in modern culture, if Benjamin had finished it. Its excerpts demonstrate the leap from a sociological, art historical, or material observation of clothes to an understanding of fashion's unique character as a historical constituent, a structuring device, potentially even a revolutionary force. Benjamin tempts us in his unfinished work with glimpses of a new abstract perception of fashion viewed independently of its material basis (textile industry, haute couture, distribution, representation, and so forth), but retaining its materialism, that is, its sociopolitical significance. It is seen as part of intellectual culture, to be debated and interpreted simultaneously as sensuous and poetic, that is, as an expression of contemporary beauty, and on an abstract and metaphysical level, as an independent structure of modern existence and cognition.

See alsoFashion, Historical Studies of; Fashion, Theories of; Historicism and Historical Revival; Simmel, Georg .


Works by Walter Benjamin

"Theses on the Philosophy of History." Illuminations. London: Cape, 1970: 263.

The Correspondence of Walter Benjamin 1910–1940. Edited by Gershom Scholem and Theodor W. Adorno. Translated by Manfred R. Jacobson and Evelyn M. Jacobson. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994.

The Arcades Project. Translated by Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 1999.

Selected Writings of Walter Benjamin. 4 vols. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 1996–2003.

Works about Walter Benjamin

Bolz, Norbert W., and Richard Faber, eds. Antike und Moderne: Zu Walter Benjamins "Passagen." Würzburg, Germany: Königshausen and Neumann, 1986.

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

Bulthaupt, Peter, ed. Materialien zu Benjamins Thesen "Über den Begriff der Geschichte": Text, Varianten, Briefstellen, Inter-pretationen. Frankfurt, Germany: Suhrkamp, 1975.

Frisby, David. Fragments of Modernity: Theories of Modernity in the Work of Simmel, Kracauer, and Benjamin. Cambridge, U.K.: Polity, 1985.

Lehmann, Ulrich. Tigersprung: Fashion in Modernity. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2000.

Smith, Gary, ed. On Walter Benjamin: Critical Essays and Recollections. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1988.

——. Benjamin: Philosophy, Aesthetics, History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990.

Steinberg, Michael P. Walter Benjamin and the Demands of History. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1996.

Vinken, Barbara. "Eternity—A Frill on the Dress." Fashion Theory 1, no. 1 (1997): 59–67.

Wismann, Heinz, ed. Walter Benjamin et Paris: Colloque international 27–29 Jun 1983. Paris: Le Cerf, 1986.

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

Ulrich Lehmann

Benjamin, Walter (1892-1940)

views updated May 21 2018

Benjamin, Walter (1892-1940)

Walter Benjamin was a German philosopher, literary critic, and writer who worked in exile in Paris after 1933. Besides being the author of Berlin Childhood around 1900 (Berliner Kindheit um neunzehnhundert ) which was written throughout the 1930s, Benjamin published book-length studies on the Romantic concept of criticism, on Goethe, and on allegory and melancholy in the German mourning play, along with influent critical essays on authors such as Kafka, Proust and Baudelaire, as well as a seminal essay on art in the age of technical reproduction. As part of his research for the Frankfurt Institute of Social Research, Benjamin worked until his death on the Passagen-Werk (his so-called Arcades Project ), studying the glass covered passages of nineteenth-century Paris as a microcosm of urban modernity.

Resulting from Benjamin's passion for children's books and Russian toys as well as his activity as a radio narrator for children around 1930, his urban childhood memoir Berlin Childhood reflects upon the experiences of children in private and public spaces of the metropolis. Originally conceived by Benjamin as a way of writing on contemporary Berlin issues, his childhood recollections soon turned away from chronological narrative in order to explore a deliberately fragmented mode of literary presentation. Focusing on the spaces and images through which childhood becomes mentally accessible to the adult writer, aged forty, in the light of his present situation, Berlin Childhood is composed of more than thirty minor chapters that may be read separately or arranged in various configurations. Detailed descriptions of bourgeois interiors as (uncannily) experienced by a child join renderings of the child's encounters with public places such as the Tiergarten park or a market hall as well as with urban characters inhabiting the real and imaginary world of urban childhood. In this way, modern urban childhood is represented in a series of enigmatic and intimate miniatures.

Benjamin's Berlin Childhood provides insight into a variety of private, semi-private, and public spaces, all of which prove important to the amnesia of an intellectual adult living an insecure life after having fled the Nazi regime of Germany in early 1933. As a modern literary critic and intellectual, Benjamin was trying to understand what was fundamental about childhood as a contemporary urban experience. Although the narrator's childhood was indeed socially privileged, the young individual's entire experience is recalled under the sign of what Benjamin terms "entstellte Ähnlichkeit " (disfigured similitude). The child identifies fully with the things, images, and words surrounding him; on the other hand, this mimetic approach takes the elements of the world for granted to such an extent that reality appears as magic or at least as inhabited by many forcescontradicting the idea of an autonomous individual mastering his own life. In this way, a powerful constellation of mimesis and "misunderstandings" (from the adult point of view) is laid bare at various situations of everyday life that seem to anticipate and even out-line the adult urban life of the narrator in exile. With a description of the particular approach to life provided by the backyard "Loggias" of his childhood apartment, Benjamin establishes a literary self-portrait of an extraterritorial child, neither fully inside the family apartment nor successfully integrated into the society of the metropolis. With all its contradictions, this Berlin childhood seems to point out the cultural and social sphere of the city as the adequate place for addressing the essential issues of modern life, private and public alike.

A preface by Benjamin, found in the only version of Berlin Childhood to provide a table of contents indicating the order of the individual chapters, also outlines some of the basic methodological assumptions informing the book. Writing his urban childhood memories first in order to limit nostalgia in exile, the narrator further suggests to leave out individual details, focusing, instead, on "the images in which the experience of the metropolis settles in a child of the bourgeois class," as Benjamin terms it (1989, p. 385). In this way, the author hopes to contribute to a new literary and historiographic genre, capable of providing a language that may successfully articulate the experiences of childhood in the modern city.

See also: Autobiographies.


Barlyng, Marianne, and Henrik Reeh, ed. 2001. Walter Benjamins Berlin: 33 laesninger i Barndom i Berlin omkring a r 1900. (Walter Benjamin's Berlin: 33 readings into Berlin Childhood around 1900. ) Hellerup, Denmark: Spring Publishers.

Benjamin, Walter. 1972-1989. Gesammelte Schriften, vol. IVII. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag.

Benjamin, Walter. 1985. "Berliner Chronik." In Gesammelte Schriften, vol. VI, pp. 465-519.

Benjamin, Walter. 1989. "Berliner Kindheit um neunzehnhundert [Fassung letzter Hand]." In Gesammelte Schriften, vol. VII, pp. 385-433.

Henrik Reeh

Walter Benjamin

views updated May 29 2018

Walter Benjamin

Walter Benjamin (1892-1940), a German philosopher and critic, published widely on such topics as technology, language, literature, the arts, and society. He left a large body of mostly unfinished work that has been slowly published in his native country. Since the 1980s, this fragmented work has elicited much commentary, including several thousand studies.

"Wemust expect great innovations to transform the entire technique of the arts, thereby affecting artistic invention itself and perhaps even bringing about an amazing change in our very notion of art," wrote the French poet and essayist, Paul Valery, in his work Pieces Sur L'Art. Benjamin used that thought as the basis for what became one of his most famous essays, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. It served as a foundation for the evolution of thought that emerged from the Postmodern school philosophy. In the face of Nazi oppression, the world lost Benjamin to suicide at the age of 48. Those who study the work of Benjamin can only speculate about how much more he might have produced had he not died at such an early age.

A Prosperous Family

Walter Benjamin was born into an affluent Jewish family in Berlin, Germany on July 15, 1892, the son of an art dealer. He was a perennial student until the age of 28, studying philosophy at universities in Berlin, Freiburg, and Munich, Germany. Benjamin graduated from the University of Bern, in Switzerland, earning a Ph.D. in 1919. He had a certain expectation of what his family's wealth could provide. Had events not altered plans for many German Jews during the Nazi era, he might have remained a privileged scholar in his parents' home. Gershom Scholem, the leading authority on Jewish Mysticism and a longtime friend of the philosopher, recalled his first encounter with Benjamin at a 1964 lecture at the Leo Baeck Institute in New York. The experience is described in his book, On Jews and Judaism in Crisis, published in 1976. "I first set eyes on Walter Benjamin late in the autumn of 1913 at a discussion between the Zionist youth and Jewish members both of Wynecken's 'Anfang' and the Free German Student Association, which he attended as the main spokesman of the latter group. I have forgotten what he said but I have the most vivid memory of his bearing as a speaker. This left a lasting impression because of his way of speaking extempore without so much as a glance at his audience, staring with a fixed gaze at a remote corner of the ceiling which he harangued with much intensity, in a style incidentally that was, as far as I remember, ready for print … he was considered the best mind in that circle in which he was fairly active during the two years before the First World War, for awhile as president of the Free Student Association at Berlin University." By the time the two men met and began their friendship, Scholem said, Benjamin had abandoned that social circle and was living almost entirely in seclusion, harshly casting aside his former friends without warning. He was completely absorbed in his studies by then. "What thinking really means I have experienced through his living example," noted Scholem.

In 1920, Benjamin began work as a literary critic and translator in Berlin. He had considered an academic career, but that pursuit was cut short when the University of Frankfurt rejected his doctoral thesis, The Origin of German Tragic Drama, in 1928. The rise of Hitler in 1933, caused Benjamin to leave Germany permanently and settle in Paris, where he wrote radio scripts, as well as essays and criticism for literary journals. He married at this time and had a son. The marriage was not successful, however, and the couple eventually divorced. Benjamin's decision to remain in Paris in 1939 rather than join friends in Palestine proved to be a fateful one when German troops invaded France. He soon found himself in German-occupied territory.

Benjamin and a group of refugees managed to escape from an increasingly hostile Paris and travel to Spain en route to the United States. When the group was not allowed to board a boat and a local official threatened him with extradition to France, Benjamin took an overdose of morphine and refused medical attention. He died on September 27, 1940 in Port Bou, Spain. As he lived his life in seclusion, so, too, did he die—without hinting to the others of his intentions.

Fascination with Judaism

Benjamin was an avid student of Marx and traveled to the Soviet Union in 1927 in order to view the communist system firsthand. Yet his efforts to understand his own faith and culture remained his persistent passion. Benjamin's Zionist leanings led him to consider resettling in Palestine for many years. By 1930, however, his attempts to immerse himself in the study of historical materialism as a basis for his literary work, kept him from doing so. Still, his love of books, particularly children's books, occupied much of his attention. Benjamin felt that it was the French novelist, Marcel Proust, whose work most exemplified the point at which the child and the adult came together. In the 1930s, his own book, A Berlin Childhood Around 1900, which appeared in the Frankfurter Zeitung, dealt with his own recollections of childhood. In discussing his work, Scholem had these recollections of Benjamin: "Though lacking in all the attributes of a German patriot, Benjamin had a deep love for Berlin. It was as a Jewish child whose forefathers had settled in the regions of Mark, Brandenburg, Rhineland, and West Prussia that he experienced his native city. In his description the city flagstones and its hidden corners, which open themselves up before the child's eye, are transformed back into a provincial island in the heart of the metropolis." As a scholar who would generate thousands of commentaries on his work decades after his death, that reflection provided a glimpse into the way his logic was formed. "In my childhood I was a prisoner of the old and the new West, the two city quarters my clan inhabited at the time in an attitude of defiance mingled with self-conceit. This attitude turned the two districts into a ghetto upon which the clan looked as its fief." Benjamin's small and self-contained world of his childhood prepared him for the solitary life of a thinker, traversing cultures, eras, and a future in which he would lay the groundwork for others to understand.

In 1921, Benjamin obtained Angelus Novus, a painting by Paul Klee. It would remain his most precious possession for the next 20 years. As early as July 1932, when he considered taking his own life, Benjamin bequeathed that picture to Scholem. According to Scholem, it represented more than an object of meditation, or memento of a spiritual vocation: "… the Angelus Novus also represented something else for him: an allegory in the sense of the dialectical tension uncovered in allegories by Benjamin in his book about tragic drama." Benjamin spoke and wrote about the picture often. "If one may speak of Walter Benjamin's genius, then it was concentrated in this angel," remarked Scholem.

Prolific Writer

Benjamin is best known in the United States for his literary and cultural criticism, though his political, philosophical, and religious essays have been studied in greater detail by European commentators. Benjamin was first introduced to the American public in 1968 by Hannah Arendt in a lengthy New Yorker article. According to R. Z. Sheppard in Time, Arendt claimed that he "… was the most important German critic between the world wars." In addition to those noted previously, his many works included, [titles here translated into English, noting the original German publication date, not the later publication of the English translations] One-Way Street, and Other Writings, 1928; A Short History of Photography, 1931; Theses on the Philosophy of History, 1942; Illuminations, 1961; Understanding Brecht, 1966; Moscow Diary, 1968. His works that have not yet been translated into English are, Goethes "Wahiverwandtschaften", 1924-25 (title translated as: "Goethe's 'Elective Affinities"'); Berlliner Kindheit un Neunzehnhundert, (memoirs) 1950; and Derr Beegriff der Kunstkritik in der deutschen Romaantik, (criticisms) 1973. The full scope of his work was not realized even 60 years after his death, in part due to the slowness in publishing and translating hundreds of his works. Critics are in general agreement that Benjamin possessed a uniquely intuitive and keen mind. He was perhaps the most brilliant intellectual of his generation.

Further Reading

Benjamin, Walter, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, English translation, 1968.

The New Encyclopedia Britannica, Volume 12, 15th edition, 1995.

Scholem, Gershom. On Jews and Judaism in Crisis, Schocken Books, 1976.

Literature Resource Center, The Gale Group, 1999. Available at:

Benjamin, Walter

views updated May 21 2018


BENJAMIN, WALTER (1892–1940), German philosopher and literary critic. Born in Berlin, Benjamin attended Haubinda, a country educational establishment, where he met the radical school reformer Gustav Wyneken. From 1910 to 1914 Benjamin took an active part in the youth movement influenced by Wyneken and was for some time the students' president at Berlin University. He published his first articles under the pseudonym Ardor in Der Anfang edited by Wyneken. In 1915 Benjamin broke off with Wyneken and his movement because of their acceptance of World War i. Benjamin studied philosophy in Freiburg, Berlin, Munich, and Berne. He returned to Germany in 1920 and lived there till 1933. His thesis written to obtain the qualification to teach aesthetics and history of literature at the university in Frankfurt was not accepted. Today, however, this work on the origin of the German drama (Berlin, 1928) is regarded as one of the most important philosophical interpretations of this field. In 1929 Benjamin joined Bertold Brecht (Versuche ueber Brecht, 1966), with whose ideas he identified himself to a large extent. Benjamin felt his Jewishness intensely and had for several years toyed with the idea of going to Palestine. When the Nazis came to power he first went to the Balearic Isles and then to Paris. At the outbreak of World War ii he was interned as a German citizen, but was released in November 1939. He fled to the south of France and, with a group of refugees, crossed the Spanish border. When the police chief of the border town Port-Bou threatened to send them back to France, Benjamin took his own life.

Between 1914 and 1924, he did not publish much. Then he wrote a long essay, Goethe's Wahlverwandtschaften (publ. by H. v. Hofmannsthal in Neue deutsche Beitraege, 1924–25; in book form 1964), and continued his intensive activity as essayist and literary critic, especially in the Frankfurter Zeitung, Literarische Welt, and Die Gesellschaft. During his lifetime, Benjamin published only two books: a volume of philosophical aphorisms Einbahnstrasse (Berlin, 1928), and, during the Nazi era, under the pseudonym Detlev Holz, Deutsche Menschen, eine Folge von Briefen (Lucerne, 1936), an annotated collection of 25 letters from 1783–1883), in which he discussed the flowering and the first decadence of German bourgeois culture. The first collection of his writings appeared posthumously in 1955 (Schriften, 2 vols., Frankfurt), edited by Theodore Adorno who had always stressed Benjamin's importance as a philosopher. Illuminationen (1961; Illuminations, 1969), Angelus Novus (1966), Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit (1963), Staedtebilder (1963), and Zur Kritik der Gewalt (1965) contain more of his essays, some taken from his literary legacy. G. Scholem and Th. Adorno published a selection of his correspondence (2 vols., 1966).

Benjamin is considered as the most important critic in the German language between the two wars, and his importance is growing. His thought, formed by Kant and the religious-philosophical current, had been metaphysically oriented in the beginning. Later, especially from 1930 on, Benjamin showed an inclination toward Marxism, whose ideas he, however, interpreted in a highly personal way. Benjamin considered himself as a philosophical commentator of important literary events, stressing especially historical, philosophical, linguistic, and social motives. Intellectually, he was extremely independent, a fact felt in everything he wrote, even in the short book reviews. His concentrated prose makes him difficult to read. He had a strong poetic streak, expressed clearly in his Berliner Kindheit um Neunzehnhundert (first published in Frankfurt, 1950). Benjamin was also important as a translator, especially of French literature, which attracted him deeply. He translated from Baudelaire (Tableaux Parisiens, 1923), several volumes of Proust (1927–30), and several novels by M. Jouhandeau.

[Gershom Scholem]

It was Gershom *Scholem who quoted the following remark by his friend Walter Benjamin: "Whenever I will find my own philosophy, it will be somehow a philosophy of Judaism" ("Wenn ich einmal meine Philosophie haben werde, so wird es irgendwie eine Philosophie des Judentums sein"). Scholem wished to point to Benjamin's hidden commentary on Judaism when he dealt with the philosophical question of language and translation (since Benjamin's early Essay Über die Sprache überhaupt und über die Sprache des Menschen, 1916), the question of a philosophy of history (e.g., in Benjamin's theses which promote a messianic philosophy of history), and also when he discussed German-Jewish writers like Karl Kraus and Franz Kafka (cf. Benjamin/Scholem, Benjamin über Kafka, 1980). In his philosophical as well as in his critical works Benjamin remains ambivalent, however: On the one hand he avoids the construction of Jewish or even less Zionist perspectives, on the other hand he engages in a subtextual and also critical dialogue with Judaism and Zionism, his philosophical starting point being the Neo-Kantianism of Hermann *Cohen, his early letters to Ludwig Strauß and, from summer 1916, his friendship with Scholem. Both Scholem and Benjamin agreed in taking a critical attitude towards assimilation as well as towards Buber's type of cultural Zionism and his legitimization of war during the World War i period. But whereas Scholem found a clear Zionist alternative, Benjamin placed himself intellectually between universal Judaism and Marxism. And whereas – after the failure of Benjamin to qualify as a teacher in 1925 at the University of Frankfurt with his thesis Der Ursprung des deutschen Trauerspiels – Scholem tried to convince him to come to Jerusalem between 1926 and 1930, Benjamin became inspired by the syndicalist French thinker Georges Sorel, the communist Asja Lacis, whom he met in Capri 1924 and in Moscow 1926, and approached the Frankfurter Institut für Sozialforschung and later on Bert Brecht, whom he joined in his Danish exile in 1934.

Already in the last years of the Weimar Republic, Benjamin moved to Paris, "the capital of the 19th century," where he also spent the most time after March 1933. Here (in the Paris National library) he worked on an encyclopaedic historiographical project on the modernity of Paris in the 19th century, the socalled Passagen-Werk, which was not published until 1982 (in two volumes) and since then has come to be considered one of Benjamin's most important scientific works. Here he was combining the Marxist analysis of the "Warenwelt," the psychoanalytic method of "Traumdeutung," and the surrealist techniques of writing and quoting. On this basis he found a new method of performing history and by this means "saving" its neglected aspects much better than telling its linear story as the 19th century "Historismus" did. In the Passagen-Werk as well as in his thesis Ueber den Begriff der Geschichte (1940) he developed a philosophy of history which is apocalyptic and messianic at the same time: The historiographer is entitled to save the forgotten and the dead. Benjamin has seen here also a Jewish conception of history, which understands time not as "empty" and "homogeneous" but every "now," every "second" as "the little gate through which the Messiah may enter."

[Andreas Kilcher (2nd ed.)]


G. Scholem, Walter Benjamin (= Leo Baeck Memorial Lecture, no. 8, 1965); R. Tiedemann, Studien zur Philosophie Walter Benjamins (= Frankfurter Beitraege zur Soziologie, vol. 16, 1965), includes bibliography; W. Kraft, in: Merkur, 21 (Ger., 1967), 226–32; H. Heissenbuettel, ibid., 232–44; R. Alter, in: Commentary (Sept. 1969), 86–93; H. Holz, in: Sinn und Form, 8 (1956), 514–49; P. Missac, in: Critique (Aug.–Sept. 1966), 692–710 (Fr.). add. bibliography: H. Arendt, Benjamin, Brecht, Zwei Essays (1971); G. Scholem, Walter Benjamindie Geschichte einer Freundschaft (1975); idem, Walter Benjamin und sein Engel (1983); W. Menninghaus, Walter Benjamins Theorie der Sprachmagie (1980); St. Mosès, Der Engel der Geschichte (1994); S. Weigel, Entstellte Ähnlichkeit. Walter Benjamins theoretische Schreibweise (1997); A. Deuber-Mankowsky, Der fruehe Walter Benjamin und Hermann Cohen (2000); H. Peukert, Wissenschaftstheorie, Handlungstheorie, Theologie (1980); H. Ruttnies and G. Smith, Benjaminiana (1991); S.B. Plate, Walter Benjamin (2005).

Benjamin, Walter

views updated May 18 2018


Walter Benjamin (1892–1940), a German-Jewish intellectual born in Berlin on July 15, was a cultural sociologist, literary critic, and translator of Charles Baudelaire and Marcel Proust. His works are informed by a mixture of Marxism and Jewish mysticism. Benjamin most often is associated with the Frankfurt School as well as with his friends and colleagues Teodor Adorno (1903–1969), Gerschom Scholem (1897–1982), and Bertolt Brecht (1898–1956), all of whom influenced his thought. Believing that the Gestapo was about to capture him, Benjamin committed suicide on September 27 at Port Bou on the French-Spanish border while fleeing from the Nazis. He left behind a large collection of notes and published and unpublished writings, most of which have been compiled, edited, and translated since his death.

Benjamin's books and essays deal with a multitude of subjects, with their most common themes being the degradation of contemporary experience and the need for a radical break with tradition and the past. Among his best-known works are Einbahnstrasse [One-way street] (1928), the essay "Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit" [The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction] (1936), Geschichtsphilosophische Thesen [Theses on the philosophy of history] (1939 but published posthumously), and the monumental Das Passagen-Werk [The Arcades Project] (written between 1927 and 1940 and published posthumously). Among these works The Arcades Project is the most pertinent to science, technology, and ethics because it deals with the ways in which modern technology in the form of new architectural constructions altered human perception and experience.

Left unfinished at his death, The Arcades Project is an extended set of notes and quotations loosely arranged in thirty-six categories with titles such as "Dream City," "Baudelaire," "Fashion," and "Prostitution." For Benjamin the glass-enclosed streets of nineteenth-century Parisian arcades exemplified the commodification of experience and the distracted perception of reality. At home in these arcades is the flâneur, the "heroic pedestrian" or tourist who wanders aimlessly in the crowd, deriving pleasure from the exercise of what might be called a shopper's gaze. For the flâneur the city is a text to be read, but only from always changing vantage points and thus distractedly, with shifting glimpses of meaning in the kaleidoscope of signs. For Benjamin such distraction is the defining characteristic of contemporary perception, and some interpreters have argued that such perception has been extended in MTV-style editing, multitasking, channel and Web surfing, and the experience of cyberspace in general.

Benjamin also dealt with this issue in the essay "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," which considers how technology has altered not just aesthetic perception but the nature of art. For millennia even the most perfect artistic reproduction lacked the essential element of the original, "its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be." That uniqueness bestowed authenticity. However, contemporary technologies of reproduction, especially sound recording, photography, and film, have undermined the traditional appreciation of originality and authenticity. Indeed, reproduction may favor the copies, which can be placed into situations impossible for the original: "The cathedral leaves its locale to be received in the studio of a lover of art; the choral production, performed in an auditorium or in the open air, resounds in the drawing room."

Among all technological media, Benjamin considered film especially significant for two reasons. First, like contemporary life, film is saturated by and dependent on technology, with the performance of a film actor mediated by a series of machines (camera, editor, projector). Second, it is film that best accommodates the distracted perception of the flâneur. At the cinema people simply sit back, relax, and watch the movie; they do not have to discipline themselves to pay attention: "The public is an examiner, but an absent-minded one." ("Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction")

Benjamin's writings, including meditations on literature, history, philosophy, sociology, and art, are so broad that they have stimulated numerous fields of scholarship, and his meticulously crafted, indirect, and at times enigmatic style has influenced succeeding generations of reflections on technological culture. At the same time Benjamin has been criticized for a nostalgia that does not always appreciate the democratizing ethos at the core of the new forms of technological art he examined.


SEE ALSO Consumerism;Science, Technology, and Literature;Tourism.


Benjamin, Walter. (2002). The Arcades Project, trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Benjamin, Walter. (2003). Selected Writings, Vol. 4: 1938–1940. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Contains the third and final version of the essay here titled "The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility."

Brodersen, Momme. (1996). Walter Benjamin: A Biography, trans. Malcolm R. Green and Ingrida Ligers. New York: Verso.

Rochlitz, Rainer. (1996). The Disenchantment of Art: The Philosophy of Walter Benjamin, trans. Jane Marie Todd. New York: Guilford Press. A critical study of Benjamin's thought and works.

Smith, Gary, ed. (1991). On Walter Benjamin: Critical Essays and Recollections. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. Twelve critical essays by colleagues of Benjamin and contemporary scholars dealing with a wide range of Benjamin's interests.

Benjamin, Walter

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Benjamin, Walter (1892–1940) A literary critic associated with the Frankfurt School of critical theory in the 1930s, taken up by sociologists of literature in the 1970s, mainly because of his analysis of the material aspects of literary production (see J. Roberts , Walter Benjamin, 1982