Walter Benjamin: An Introduction to His Work and Thought

Walter Benjamin: An Introduction to His Work and Thought

by Uwe Steiner

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Seven decades after his death, German Jewish writer, philosopher, and literary critic Walter Benjamin (1892–1940) continues to fascinate and influence. Here Uwe Steiner offers a comprehensive and sophisticated introduction to the oeuvre of this intriguing theorist.

Acknowledged only by a small circle of intellectuals during his lifetime, Benjamin is now a

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Seven decades after his death, German Jewish writer, philosopher, and literary critic Walter Benjamin (1892–1940) continues to fascinate and influence. Here Uwe Steiner offers a comprehensive and sophisticated introduction to the oeuvre of this intriguing theorist.

Acknowledged only by a small circle of intellectuals during his lifetime, Benjamin is now a major figure whose work is essential to an understanding of modernity. Steiner traces the development of Benjamin’s thought chronologically through his writings on philosophy, literature, history, politics, the media, art, photography, cinema, technology, and theology. Walter Benjamin reveals the essential coherence of its subject’s thinking while also analyzing the controversial or puzzling facets of Benjamin’s work. That coherence, Steiner contends, can best be appreciated by placing Benjamin in his proper context as a member of the German philosophical tradition and a participant in contemporary intellectual debates.

As Benjamin’s writing attracts more and more readers in the English-speaking world, Walter Benjamin will be a valuable guide to this fascinating body of work.

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Editorial Reviews

Michael Jennings

“Uwe Steiner is widely regarded as one of the leading Benjamin scholars working today, with particular expertise in aspects of Benjamin’s work that are less familiar to an English-language audience. In Walter Benjamin, he has produced a truly outstanding introduction to Benjamin’s work; this book is the product of a career spent thinking about Benjamin. Steiner is able not just to open up major works and concepts, but to show, in very short compass, their place in a complex cultural field. His ability to combine deep reading with broad contextualization is the ideal combination for a critical introduction to this major thinker. Written with precision and lucidity, this book does a real service to the legions of readers interested in Benjamin.”

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An Introduction to His Work and Thought


Copyright © 2010 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-77221-9


Translator's Note....................xi
Benjamin's Works Cited in This Study....................xiii
Chapter One: Introduction....................1
Chapter Two: Early Writings, 1914–18....................21
Chapter Three: Art Criticism and Politics, 1919–25....................50
Chapter Four: Journalistic Commitment and Essayistic Work, 1925–33....................80
Chapter Five: Exile Writings, 1933–39....................105
Chapter Six: Primal History of Modernism, 1931–40....................138
Chapter Seven: Posthumous Influence and Stages of Reception....................174
Select Bibliography....................213
Index of Names....................227

Chapter One


I. A Contemporary of Modernity

"A generation that had gone to school in horse-drawn streetcars now stood in the open air amid a landscape in which nothing was the same except the clouds, and, at its center, exposed to a force field of destructive torrents and explosions, the tiny, fragile human body." Walter Benjamin, describing in 933 the experience of his own generation, dated his childhood to the period around 900. Although he was in fact born a few years earlier, in 892, the turn of the century became for him the privileged span of time in which things familiar and long-established collided with new and strange phenomena. This experience is illustrated nowhere more vividly than in the development of technology, evoked here in the shape of a dramatic arc. And it is only as a technological event that the First World War, to which the quotation alludes, became the fiery signal for his generation.

When the writer and literary historian Samuel Lublinski (1868–1910) drew up the balance sheet of Modernity in his book Die Bilanz der Moderne (1904), the year 1890, in which Bismarck submitted his resignation, served as the decisive juncture: "The fall of Bismarck also marked the end of the major achievement that defined his statecraft during his final years in office: the emergency law against Social Democracy of 1878. This law signified a complete turning point in Germany's political life; it was without a doubt the most significant event since the founding of the Reich." Lublinski argued that the rise of Social Democracy had given the masses a clear political profile, and that, for the first time in world history, a mass of millions of citizens had turned into a political entity whose organizational shrewdness and unified drive for power could stand up to the Prussian conservatives. But it was technology no less than the masses that had shaped the true face of modernity: "It is our charging locomotives, our incessantly hammering machines, our science and technology" that assign the modern poets their material, and they must prove themselves worthy of it.

In one of his first published texts, the short essay "Das Dornröschen" (Sleeping Beauty) of 1911, Benjamin announced that he considers himself a contemporary of this type of Modernity, which he sees as "the age of socialism, of the women's movement, of traffic, of individualism." Barely twenty years later, Berlin Childhood around 1900 (which we, knowing of its author's demurral, should be rather hesitant to read as an autobiography) captures, in its own way, an image of this time. An image not only of the time but even more of the place, that is, of locales indissolubly bound up with memory. In other words, Benjamin's carefully chosen title denotes a "time-space" (Zeit-Raum); and his childhood memories focus on a life lived not in but "with Berlin." It is a life that continued there through the time when Berlin Childhood was being written, a life lived with the city of Berlin that, at the beginning of the 1930s, is no longer the same place it had once been. The child's gaze, conjuring up the text's memory images from the perspective of the second half of the nineteenth century, is directed at the city, at "matter-of-fact and noisy Berlin, the city of labor and the metropolis of business." In these images, however, the child's gaze meets the countering look of the adult, who recognizes in them the prehistory of his own present.

In the sequence of Benjamin's works, Berlin Childhood belongs to a series of significant studies and essays, some of them extensive, that are associated with the Arcades Project. These works occupied his attention almost exclusively until his death in 1940, their importance to him being equal to that of the opus maximum he was not able to complete. What unifies these studies thematically—studies ranging from "The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility" through the "exposé" of the Arcades Project to the essays on Baudelaire—is Benjamin's attempt, grounded in a philosophy of history, to render the nineteenth century as the a priori for all critical insights into the present era, and thus to make this era intellectually perceptible as the prehistory of his own time.

The Paris on which the "exposé" programmatically bestows the honorary title of "Capital City of the Nineteenth Century" is also the Paris of Charles Baudelaire (1821–1867), whom Benjamin, in the title of a projected book, calls a "Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism." Baudelaire, who decisively shaped the concept of modernity, personified for Benjamin two essential aspects: he is the poet whose poetry strove unsuccessfully to endow the consciously experienced, though quickly forgotten, facts (Erlebnis) of modernité with "the weight of insights that are based on long experience," which have become part of memory (Erfahrung). He is also the contemporary of the workers' movement that was taking shape during the Second Empire. More specifically, he witnesses those class struggles in France whose history and political theory Karl Marx wrote. Toward the end of his first essay on Baudelaire, Benjamin states that Blanqui's doctrine of action had been "the sister of Baudelaire's dream." Benjamin's capital city of the nineteenth century, however, is also the Paris of the industrial revolution then spreading through all of Europe, a revolution symbolized by the railroad. Locomotives were the harbingers of a rapidly expanding transit system. They were also the first beneficiaries of an industrially produced construction material—iron—which, when combined with glass, revolutionized architecture. Early examples of this phenomenon are the halls of railroad stations that were being built in the heart of Europe's cities, and, no less importantly, the Parisian arcades.

Paris, finally, is also the site of the world's fairs, of those "pilgrimage sites that display the fetish called commodities." For the first time in 1855, at one of these expositions, a special exhibit had been devoted to photography. And for the visual arts, it is photography that inaugurates the age of their technological reproducibility. Going back to the middle of the nineteenth century, Benjamin traces the development of photography and, as a parallel process, the revolutionary transformation of both art and human perception—a process that culminates in the art of film. The latest productions of the studios in Berlin-Babelsberg, Hollywood, and Moscow are, in the mid-1930s, the subject of those theses in which he seeks to decode, by way of a prognosis, the then current trends in the development of art and to clarify their political implications.

It is not difficult to show the cross-connections that tie the memory images of Berlin Childhood to the various sections of the Arcades Project and to other writings that revolve around it.

During my childhood I was a prisoner of both the old and new western suburbs of Berlin. In those days, my clan lived in these two neighborhoods with an attitude compounded of doggedness and self-esteem, a frame of mind that turned their world into a ghetto they considered their fiefdom. I remained confined within this prosperous district without any knowledge of a different world outside. Poor people—as far as rich children my age were concerned—existed only as beggars.

In the imagination of a child brought up in a wealthy middle-class family, poverty is only a shameful humiliation, unconnected to its economic and social causes. In this way of seeing, the person humiliated has no other recourse but to revolt. In retrospect, the lure of an "escape into sabotage and anarchism," which for a long time cast a spell on Benjamin's nascent political awareness, is a limitation he held responsible for all the difficulty faced by an intellectual from this milieu trying to "see things as they really are." It is hardly fortuitous that he sees Baudelaire's political insights, in principle, as not extending beyond the rebellious pathos of a revolt such as characterizes the posture of the bohémien. The radical questioning of the intellectual's role in society, which for the Benjamin of the 920s turns out to be a one-way street into politics, is prefigured ex negativo in the apolitical attitudes with which the fin-de-siècle bourgeoisie took over the heritage of a century that was coming to its end. Political insight, however, was for him most closely connected to an understanding of the technological status of things, a fact registered subliminally but precisely in his book of memories.

According to a passage in Berlin Chronicle, the posthumously published first version of Berlin Childhood, the latter book was written at a time "when the railroads were beginning to become obsolete." One consequence of this, he says, is the fact that the train stations, generally speaking, were "no longer the true 'gateways' through which the city unrolls its outskirts, as it does nowadays along the approach roads built for the Automobilist, the driver of a car."

In 1921, a good ten years before Benjamin jotted down this observation, the Avus (Auto-Versuchs- und Übungsstraße), the so-called Auto Test and Practice Road in Berlin, had been officially opened after a long period of construction that had been interrupted by the war. It is a road of nearly ten kilometers, perfectly straight and without intersections, whose two separate lanes were reserved exclusively for automobiles. It led from the southwestern suburbs directly into the western center of the city. This first autobahn in the world was open to all motorists for a small fee, day and night. It was also less than a year before the publication of Benjamin's One-Way Street (1928) that one-way streets and the appropriate traffic signs (which Sasha Stone used in the photo montage he designed for the book's dust cover) had been officially introduced in Germany. The first filling stations—"Tankstelle" is the title of the book's first piece—appeared in 1924.

It is not known whether Benjamin shared Brecht's appreciation for the products of the Steyr Company. But as a front-seat passenger in the car of a friend, the writer Wilhelm Speyer (1887–1952), he gathered relevant experiences during various vacation trips. In a letter he reports, for example, that after several starts they had succeeded in crossing the Gotthard Pass, though not without incurring some damage to the car. In September 932, during another trip to Italy with Speyer, he used the unpleasant delay caused by a flat tire to start writing the first draft of Berlin Childhood. In the summer of 1927—the same year in which, on May 2 , Charles Lindbergh had safely landed his plane, the Spirit of St. Louis, at Le Bourget Airport near Paris, thereby bringing the first airborne nonstop crossing of the Atlantic to a triumphal conclusion—Benjamin announced on a postcard mailed from Corsica that he is about to "drive" (fahren) in an airplane from there to Antibes on the Côte d'Azur.

Technological progress is a fact of life that Benjamin faced with an open mind and as an observer who is given to ambitious theorizing. He perceived that the new means of transportation also bring about a no less fundamental change of perception that in turn accompanies the fundamental transformation of the technological media. The railroad station, he continues his note in Berlin Chronicle, issues, as it were,

the instructions for a surprise attack, but it is an outdated maneuver, one that strikes at nothing but things of the past. And this is very much true of photography, even including the snapshot. Only the cinema opens up optical access roads into the center of the urban environment, the same way these new roads guide the motorist into the new City.

Around 900, however, it was still the Kaiserpanorama (Imperial Panorama) in Berlin, a late successor of the panorama Daguerre had set up in Paris in 1822, that marks the state of affairs with respect to media technology. But Daguerre's name is associated more closely with photography, an invention that Benjamin, child of a bourgeois family, experienced as a veritable sacrificial victim when he was taken to a photographer's studio. This child was still able to watch the horse-drawn streetcar from his parents' apartment, and it was a "rattling hackney" that took him to Berlin's railroad stations, to those departure points and final destinations for summer journeys that were inevitably taken by train. The one technological innovation of the nineteenth century, however, that was especially close to Benjamin's heart was the telephone, an invention Alexander Graham Bell had patented in 1876. The telephone, he remembers, made its entry into the apartments of Berlin's prosperous bourgeoisie at precisely the same time that he himself did, which is the reason why, in Berlin Childhood, he welcomes it as his "twin brother."

The image of Benjamin the esoteric scholar is incomplete, to say the least. It is the image of a man who, in the Bibliothèque nationale in Paris, buries himself under books on the cultural history of the nineteenth century, reading incessantly and accumulating innumerable excerpts and notes, the results of his studies, as far as we know them, nowadays providing the material and starting point for learned endeavors that seem at times no less esoteric than Benjamin's. The image is incomplete not only because the bookish scholar had started as early as the beginning of 1927 now and then to exchange his workplace in the library for a place behind the microphone of a radio station. It is characteristic in Benjamin's case that a good measure of close attention and perspicacity is required to discover in the outlines of his thematically diverse oeuvre those traces that his life—during politically turbulent years and during every other kind of upheaval—has left in it.

Benjamin claimed self-assuredly that he "writes a better style of German than most writers" of his generation thanks to observing one little rule: "Never use the word 'I' except in letters." As a result, he included autobiographical information in his writings as infrequently as he referred directly to historical events. His own time provides him with the material not for historical, but for philosophical, inquiries. Likewise, the memory images of Berlin Childhood, which give a kind of spectral shape to the child's experience during the era around the turn of the century, reveal the inescapable experience of obsolescence to the adult.


Excerpted from WALTER BENJAMIN by UWE STEINER Copyright © 2010 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
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