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Walter Benjamin

Walter Benjamin

First 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

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