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Walter Benjamin (1892 - 1940)

Walter Benjamin was one of the few Modernist philosophers who was optimistic about new media and new technologies. He is best contrasted to Theodor Adorno, whose pessimism about popular culture developments is well documented. [Mar 2006]

Lifespan: 1892 - 1940

Key concepts: aura - culture theory - Marxism - mass production - media theory - profane illumination (Benjamin and drugs) - translation

Influential to: John Berger (Ways of Seeing)

Related: Weimar Germany - German philosophy - Frankfurt school

Key texts: The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1935) - The Arcades Project (1927 - 1940)

Walter Benjamin, photo unidentified


Walter Benjamin (July 15, 1892 – September 27, 1940) was a German Jewish Marxist literary critic and philosopher. He was at times associated with the Frankfurt School of critical theory, and was also greatly inspired by the Marxism of Bertolt Brecht and the Jewish mysticism of Gershom Scholem.

Benjamin was known during his life lastly for his philosophical essays and as a critic. As a sociological and cultural critic he combined ideas of Jewish mysticism with historical materialism in a body of work which was an entirely novel contribution to Marxist philosophy and aesthetic theory. As a literary scholar, he translated texts written by Marcel Proust and Charles Baudelaire, and Benjamin's essay "The Task of the Translator" is one of the best-known theoretical texts about translation.

His most important writings were:

The Passagenwerk or "Arcades Project," Benjamin's lifelong project, was to be an enormous collection of writings on the city life of Paris in the 19th century, especially concerned with the roofed outdoor "arcades" which created the city's distinctive street life and culture of flânerie. The project, which many scholars believe might have become one of the great texts of 20th-century cultural criticism, was never completed; it has been posthumously edited and published in many languages in its unfinished form.

Benjamin corresponded extensively with Theodor Adorno and Bertolt Brecht and occasionally received funding from the Frankfurt School under Adorno's and Horkheimer's direction. The competing influences of Brecht's Marxism (and secondarily Adorno's critical theory) and the Jewish mysticism of his friend Gerschom Scholem were central to Benjamin's work, though he never completely resolved their differences. The essay "On the Concept of History" (often referred to as the "Theses on the Philosophy of History"), among Benjamin's last works, is the closest approach to such a synthesis, and along with the essay "The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility" (more commonly printed in English under the title "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction"), is the most often read of his texts.

In the ninth thesis of the essay "Theses on the Philosophy of History" Benjamin interpreted a painting by the Swiss modernist painter Paul Klee. Benjamin focused on epistemology, theory of language, allegory, and the philosophy of history. Furthermore, he wrote essays on Baudelaire, Kafka, Proust, and Brecht.

Benjamin allegedly committed suicide in Port Bou at the Spanish-French border, while attempting to escape from the Nazis, when it appeared that his party would be denied passage across the border to freedom. The rest of the group was allowed to cross the border the next day, possibly because their desperation was made clear by Benjamin's suicide. A completed manuscript which Benjamin had carried in his suitcase, which some critics speculate was his "Arcades Project" in a final form, disappeared after his death and has not been recovered. He was brother-in-law to Hilde Benjamin. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Walter_Benjamin [Mar 2006]


  • http://www.obsolete.com/artwork/commentary.html, see also obsolete.com --Simon Crab
  • http://www.tasc.ac.uk/depart/media/staff/ls/WBenjamin/THESES.html [Sept 2004]

    The Writer of Modern Life: Essays on Charles Baudelaire (2006) - Walter Benjamin

    New English-language collection of Benjamin's writing on Baudelaire: the title an obvious pun on Painter of Modern Life (1863) - Charles Baudelaire

    The Writer of Modern Life: Essays on Charles Baudelaire (2006) - Walter Benjamin
    [FR] [DE] [UK]

    Book Description
    Walter Benjamin's essays on the great French lyric poet Charles Baudelaire revolutionized not just the way we think about Baudelaire, but our understanding of modernity and modernism as well. In these essays, Benjamin challenges the image of Baudelaire as late-Romantic dreamer, and evokes instead the modern poet caught in a life-or-death struggle with the forces of the urban commodity capitalism that had emerged in Paris around 1850. The Baudelaire who steps forth from these pages is the flâneur who affixes images as he strolls through mercantile Paris, the ragpicker who collects urban detritus only to turn it into poetry, the modern hero willing to be marked by modern life in its contradictions and paradoxes. He is in every instance the modern artist forced to commodify his literary production: "Baudelaire knew how it stood with the poet: as a flâneur he went to the market; to look it over, as he thought, but in reality to find a buyer." Benjamin reveals Baudelaire as a social poet of the very first rank.

    The introduction to this volume presents each of Benjamin's essays on Baudelaire in chronological order. The introduction, intended for an undergraduate audience, aims to articulate and analyze the major motifs and problems in these essays, and to reveal the relationship between the essays and Benjamin's other central statements on literature, its criticism, and its relation to the society that produces it.

    See also: Walter Benjamin - Charles Baudelaire

    The Dialectics of Seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project (1989) - Susan Buck-Morss

    The Dialectics of Seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project (1989) - Susan Buck-Morss
    [FR] [DE] [UK]

    "Wonderfully imaginative.... Like Benjamin, Buck-Morss is a surrealist explorer, her mysteries unraveled by intuition, revealed by illusion." -- Eugen Weber, The New Republic

    "Buck-Morss has written a wonderful book. Although rigorously analytic, the book doesn't sacrifice those qualities in Benjamin's writing that are not reducible to method. his lyrical, hallucinatory evocation of the city as a place of dreams, myths, expectations." -- Herbert Muschamp, Artforum

    From the publisher:
    Walter Benjamin's magnum opus was a book he did not live to write. In The Dialectics of Seeing, Susan Buck-Morss offers an inventive reconstruction of the Passagen Werk, or Arcades Project, as it might have taken form.

    Working with Benjamin's vast files of citations and commentary which contain a myriad of historical details from the dawn of consumer culture, Buck-Morss makes visible the conceptual structure that gives these fragments philosophical coherence. She uses images throughout the book to demonstrate that Benjamin took the debris of mass culture seriously as the source of philosophical truth.

    The Paris Arcades that so fascinated Benjamin (as they did the Surrealists whose "materialist metaphysics" he admired) were the prototype, the 19th century "ur-form" of the modern shopping mall. Benjamin's dialectics of seeing demonstrate how to read these consumer dream houses and so many other material objects of the time - from air balloons to women's fashions, from Baudelaire's poetry to Grandville's cartoons - as anticipations of social utopia and, simultaneously, as clues for a radical political critique.

    Buck-Morss plots Benjamin's intellectual orientation on axes running east and west, north and south - Moscow Paris, Berlin-Naples - and shows how such thinking in coordinates can explain his understanding of "dialectics at a standstill." She argues for the continuing relevance of Benjamin's insights but then allows a set of "afterimages" to have the last word.

    Susan Buck-Morss is Professor of Political Philosophy and Social Theory at Cornell University. The Dialectics of Seeing is included in the series Studies in Contemporary German Social Thought, edited by Thomas McCarthy.

    Susan Buck-Morss is Professor of Political Philosophy and Social Theory, Department of Government, and Professor of Visual Culture, Department of Art History, Cornell University.

    See also: seeing - dialectic - Arcades Project

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