Walter Benjamin and Cultural Theory

walter-benjamin.pngThe German literary theorist Walter Benjamin (1892-1940) was associated with what is known as the Frankfurt School of German critical theory (although he was never a member of its institutional body, the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research). His work is diverse in both its content (ranging from studies of Romantic and contemporary literature, through photography and cinema, to the nature of language and translation) and its theoretical approaches (and presentation, as aphorism, autobiographical reflection, essay and fragment). His career can be broken up into (at least) three parts. His early essays on literature and language are at once densely textured, and show the influence of Jewish mysticism (Gershom Scholem being a close friend). After the First World War, Benjamin adopts a form of Marxism, not least under the influence of Bertolt Brecht (Benjamin 1973b). At the same time he begins work on a complex and many layered study of nineteenth century Paris, centring on the work of Baudelaire (Benjamin 1973a, 1999c). His last essays indicate something of a return to an interest in Jewish mysticism, and the potential that Jewish imagery has for articulating a Marxist philosophy of history and revolution. Benjamin committed suicide, on the French—Spanish border, while attempting to escape the Nazi occupation.

Benjamin‘s early essays include studies of romanticism and Goethe’s novel Elective Affinities (Benjamin 1996a: 297-360). The earliest of Benjamin‘s works to have a significant impact in English is his study of Trauerspiel (1977). This immensely difficult essay — so difficult that when submitted for a higher degree in Germany, it was failed — focuses upon the ‘play of mourning’ that developed in Germany after the Reformation, but has its supreme example in Hamlet and other Shakespearean tragedies. The Trauerspiel is distinguished from the ancient Greek tragedy not only in that it lacks a true hero, but also in the articulation of a fundamentally different conception of time. Tragedy culminated in human protest against fate and the gods. As the Reformation undermines the Christian sense of historical movement towards the Last Judgement, historical time is drained of any sense of direction or movement. Trauerspiel expresses this empty time through its use of allegory, and through such stock characters as the prince and intriguer. The prince is both tyrant (responsible for controlling the crisis of the state) and a martyr (unable to deal with the crisis in his own soul — consider Hamlet). The prince’s melancholy indecision leaves his action under the control of an intriguer (such as Iago or Lady Macbeth) who choreographs the action of the play. The drama is thus deployed in space, rather than in time. Allegory similarly disrupts notions of developmental time. The allegory has meaning only through a wholly conventional relationship to another object or idea. Yet the allegory can stand for any object. It is thus a medium of exchange, allowing thought to move between, accumulate and also fragment and rearrange ideas and images. The allegory is opposed by Benjamin to the symbol. The symbol expresses true knowledge of the object. Elsewhere Benjamin (1996a pp. 62—74) reflects upon the Jewish creation story of Adam naming creation. The symbol, unlike the allegory, strives to recover the primal Adamite name of things. The allegory is thus a form of communication in a Fallen, post-paradisiacal and ultimately meaningless world. As an art form the Trauerspiel is thus a failure, for its allegory can never become symbolic. But precisely in its failure it expresses the tyrannical politics and theology of its age. This culminates in the image of the ruin — which is as important to the Baroque as to the Romantics. In a ruin, history and nature have merged. History has become natural, fixed in the physical decay of the ruin, and yet the eternal transience (and thus meaninglessness) of nature is also revealed to be the essence of what history now is.

The most cited essay by Benjamin comes from his Marxist period: The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1970b). This essay is an analysis of the impact that photography and cinema have upon the consumption of art, not least in so far as the reproducibility of the photograph undermines traditional ideas of the originality or authenticity of the work (and thus its ‘aura’), and allows mass distribution and possession of the art work. As such it provides a series of provocative insights into the nature of photography and cinema, such as his comparison of film to psychoanalysis (whereby both bring to consciousness that which would otherwise pass as insignificant) or the characterisation of Atget’s late-nineteenth-century photographs of Paris as crime scenes. On the other hand, the essay also attempts to generate aesthetic concepts that cannot be of use to Fascism. It is therefore striving towards a genuinely Marxist aesthetics, but as such an aesthetics that is deeply influenced by Dada and Surrealism. While the  contemplation of traditional works of art leads to one’s absorption by the art work, the shock effect of cinema, grounded in the continual change of images, allows one to absorb the work, albeit in a state of distraction. As with architecture, the audience’s response is at once tactile and absent-minded. Benjamin thus proposes the formation of a politically active and critical audience through the disruption and shock of a montage of cinematic images.

The Arcades Project is Benjamin’s impressionistic and fragmentary study of nineteenth-century Paris (Benjamin 1973a, 1999c). Benjamin is concerned with ephemeral nature of modernism, and particularly with the modern city. The Parisian arcades transform experience of space and social relationships. Again, while more accessible in its written style than the early study of baroque drama, it is perhaps again best approached, at least initially, as a series of brilliant insights. The most celebrated of these is Benjamin‘s account of the flaneur. Edgar Allan Poe‘s The Man of the Crowd represents an observer of the crowd in a London street. While Baudelaire translated this story, Benjamin suggests that a subtly different figure underpins Baudelaire’s own work. The flaneur wanders the streets, but remains aloof from the crowds that would surround and jostle him, always remaining the man of leisure, and yet, again, shocked by this contact with the urban world.

Benjamin‘s last essay, Theses on the Philosophy of History (1970c), presents a Marxist materialist account of history in a strangely appropriate theological language. The most pressing image which Benjamin offers is borrowed from a painting by Paul Klee. The angel of history is represented being blown through time, its back to the future so that it sees only the detritus of the past unfold, and never the destination to which it travels. Again, Benjamin is concerned with the problem of articulating and challenging the emptiness of time in a capitalist society. The language of Messianic theology gives him tools to articulate the possibility (but also perhaps the incomprehensibility) of revolution. The demand is to see history not as unfolding against empty time, but as ‘time filled by the presence of the now’. This, as with the interpretation of allegory, requires the revolutionary to make an interpretative leap, to see through what history has become under the commands of the ruling class.

Source: Cultural Theory The Key Thinkers by Andrew Edgar and Peter Sedgwick, Routledge

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