Walter BenjaminFirst published Tue Jan 18, 2011
Walter Benjamin's importance as a philosopher and critical theorist can be gauged by the diversity of his intellectual influence and the continuing productivity of his thought. Primarily regarded as a literary critic and essayist, the philosophical basis of Benjamin's writings is increasingly acknowledged. They were a decisive influence upon Theodor W. Adorno's conception of philosophy's actuality or adequacy to the present (Adorno 1931). In the 1930s, Benjamin's efforts to develop a politically oriented, materialist aesthetic theory proved an important stimulus for both the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory and the Marxist poet and dramatist Bertolt Brecht.
The delayed appearance of Benjamin's collected writings has determined and sustained the Anglophone reception of his work. (A two-volume selection was published in German in 1955, with a full edition not appearing until 1972–89; English anthologies first appeared in 1968 and 1978; the four-volume Selected Writings, 1996–2003.) Originally received in the context of literary theory and aesthetics, the philosophical depth and cultural breadth of Benjamin's thought have only recently begun to be fully appreciated. Despite the voluminous size of the secondary literature that it has produced, his work remains a continuing source of productivity. An understanding of the intellectual context of his work has contributed to the recent philosophical revival of Early German Romanticism. His essay on ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technical Reproducibility’ remains a major theoretical text for film theory. One- Way Street and the work arising from his unfinished research on nineteenth century Paris (The Arcades Project), provide a theoretical stimulus for cultural theory and philosophical concepts of the modern.
Benjamin's messianic understanding of history has been an enduring 1 source of theoretical fascination and frustration for a diverse range of recent philosophical thinkers, including Jacques Derrida, Giorgio Agamben and, in a critical context, Jürgen Habermas. The ‘Critique of Violence’ and ‘On the Concept of History’ are important sources for Derrida's discussion of messianicity, which has been influential, along with Paul de Man's discussion of allegory, for the poststructuralist reception of Benjamin's writings. Aspects of Benjamin's thought have also been associated with the recent revival of political theology, although it is doubtful this reception is true to the tendencies of Benjamin's own political thought.
1. Biographical Sketch
Walter Bendix Schoenflies Benjamin was born on July 15, 1892, the eldest of three children in a prosperous Berlin family from an assimilated Jewish background. At the age of 13, after a prolonged period of sickness, Benjamin was sent to a progressive co-educational boarding school in Haubinda, Thuringia, where he formed an important intellectual kinship
with the liberal educational reformer Gustav Wyneken. On his return to Berlin, he began contributing to Der Anfang (‘The Beginning’), a journal dedicated to Wyneken's principles on the spiritual purity of youth, articles which contain in embryonic form important ideas on experience and history that continue to occupy his mature thought. As a student at the universities of Freiburg im Breisgau and Berlin, Benjamin attended lectures by the neo-Kantian philosopher Heinrich Rickert and the sociologist Georg Simmel, whilst continuing to be actively involved in the growing Youth Movement. In 1914, however, Benjamin denounced his mentor and withdrew from the movement in response to a public lecture in which Wyneken praised the ethical experience that the outbreak of war afforded the young.
In 1915 a friendship began between Benjamin and Gerhard (later Gershom) Scholem, a fellow student at Berlin. This relationship would have a lifelong influence upon Benjamin's relation to Judaism and Kabbalism, notably in his interpretations of Kafka in the early 1930s and in the messianic interpretation of the Paul Klee painting Angelus Novus in his later theses ‘On the Concept of History’. Scholem would prove instrumental in establishing and, in part, shaping the legacy of Benjamin's works after his death.
Benjamin's doctoral dissertation, ‘The Concept of Art Criticism in German romanticism’, was awarded, summa cum laude, by the University of Bern, Switzerland, in 1919. His celebrated essay on Goethe's novella, The Elective Affinities, was begun shortly after and put into practice the theory of art criticism developed in his dissertation. Benjamin's Habilitationsschrift on the Origin of the German Mourning- Play (Ursprung des deutschen Trauerspiels)—the thesis which would have enabled him to become a professional academic—had, he feared, with the death of his intellectual ally, the Protestant theologian Florens Christian Rang, lost its “only legitimate reader” (B, 374).
In 1925, he was forced to withdraw his submission from the University of Frankfurt am Main and with it the possibility of a future academic position (this decision was based partly on the negative opinion of Max Horkheimer, Benjamin's future patron in the Institute for Social Research). However, despite this academic failure, an excerpt from the work appeared in a literary journal two years later and the book was published the following year (1928), quickly receiving favourable attention in a number of well regarded newspapers and periodicals in Germany and further afield (Brodersen 1996, 154). In an ironic twist, Benjamin's failed Habilitation study became the subject of a seminar course taught at Frankfurt University in 1932–3 by Theodor Wiesengrund (later Theodor W. Adorno).
Much of the writing for his thesis was completed in 1924 on the Italian island of Capri, where Benjamin had retreated for financial reasons. The stay would prove decisive, however, since it was here he met the Bolshevik Latvian theatre producer Asja Lacis, with whom he begun an erotically frustrated but intellectually productive affair. ‘Naples’ was jointly written with Lacis in 1925, whilst One-Way Street, a quasi- constructivist collection of fragments written between 1923–1926 and dedicated to Lacis on its publication in 1928, and the unfinished Arcades Project, begun in the late 1920s, both exhibit a modernist experimentation with form that can in part be attributed to Lacis' influence. His Marxist turn towards historical materialism was compounded by his enthusiastic study of Georg Lukács' History and Class Consciousness whilst on Capri and a visit to Lacis in Soviet Moscow in the winter of 1926–7.
By the early 1930s Benjamin was closely involved in the plans for a left- wing periodical to be entitled ‘Crisis and Critique’, in collaboration with Ernst Bloch, Sigfried Kracauer and, among others, the Marxist poet, playwright and theatre director Bertolt Brecht (cf. Wizisla 2009, 66–98). Benjamin had been introduced to Brecht by Lacis in 1929 and over the following decade developed a close personal friendship, in which their literary and political affinities had been cemented under the difficult conditions of political exile. Benjamin undertook a series of studies of Brecht's “epic theatre” and modelled the radio broadcasts he wrote and presented during this period upon the latter's experiments in theatrical didacticism (cf. Brodersen 1996, 193). In 1933, Benjamin departed Nazi Germany for the last time, following Adorno, Brecht and many other Jewish friends into an exile he divided between Paris, Ibiza, San Remo and Brecht's house near Svendborg, Denmark.
During the 1930s the Institute for Social Research, by this point under the directorship of Horkheimer and exiled from its base in the University of Frankfurt, provided Benjamin with important opportunities for publishing as well as an increasingly necessary financial stipend. Theodor W. Adorno, who had been introduced to Benjamin a decade earlier by a mutual friend, Siegfried Kracauer, was instrumental in securing this support. An important consequence of this dependence, however, was the editorial revisions to which key essays in which Benjamin developed his materialist theory of art were subjected, such as ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technical Reproducibility’ and those on Baudelaire and Paris that grew out of The Arcades Project.
With the outbreak of war in 1939, Benjamin was temporarily interned in the French “concentration camps” established for German citizens. On his release a few months later he returned to Paris and there continued his work in the Bibliothèque Nationale on The Arcades Project. The notes for his unfinished research were left in the safekeeping of librarian and friend, the writer Georges Bataille, as Benjamin fled Paris before the advancing German army in the summer of 1940. The last few months of Benjamin's life reflect the precarious experience of countless other Jewish Germans in Vichy France: a flight to the border and preparations for emigration by legal or illegal means. Lacking the necessary exit visa from France, he joined a guided party that crossed the Pyrenees in an attempt to enter Spain as illegal refugees. Turned back by customs officials,
Benjamin took his life in the small, Spanish border town of Port Bou, on September 27, 1940.
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Spring 2011 Edition 5