by Richard Kazis
Cut, no. 15, 1977, pp. 23-25
In recent years, there has been a surge of interest in the work of a little-known German literary and cultural critic, Walter Benjamin. Until 1968, none of his work had been published in English in book form. Since then, three books and several articles have been translated.(1) Today, no discussion of the German intellectual scene between the world wars is complete without a mention of Benjamin, and no serious appraisal of Marxist aesthetic and cultural criticism ignores his work. His 1936 essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” has become a standard reference for any attempts to analyze and understand the interrelation of political, technological and artistic development under capitalism. His insights are especially useful for the political analysis of film.
Benjamin, like so many of his contemporaries in the German intellectual circles, grew up in an upper middle class, culturally assimilated, Jewish family in Berlin. He was born in 1892; his father was a successful art dealer and antiquarian. Decided upon a university career, Benjamin was thwarted by two events. First, his doctoral study, The Origins of German Tragedy, was rejected as incomprehensible. He lost his only other chance of academic accreditation when he made the mistake of attacking one of the preeminent members of the intellectual circle around Stefan George in an essay on Goethe. His own idiosyncratic and impolitic ways led to Benjamin’s being forced to write for a living, for he had no access to secure academic employment. Throughout his life, he was never able to make ends meet. He lived at home even during his short-lived marriage; he took a monthly stipend from his parents. Later, he received support from Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s Institute for Social Research.
In 1915, Benjamin met Gershom Scholem. It was the first of several deep and important personal and intellectual friendships that Benjamin developed. In Scholem he found a brilliant student of Jewish mysticism, a rare example of “Judaism in living form.”(2) Even after Scholem emigrated to Palestine, Benjamin kept up a correspondence and for many years considered joining his friend in Jerusalem.
In the 1920s, Benjamin developed relationships with both T.W. Adorno and Bertolt Brecht. His studies had led his to a confrontation with aesthetic theory. His own experience of intellectual proletarianization and his friendships with Adorno and later Brecht led him to a serious consideration of dialectical materialism as a critical method. He moved away from earlier mystical-religious formulations toward political analysis. In 1923, Benjamin’s response to the crisis of postwar Germany was for the individual to
By 1928, when the “Travels Through German Inflation” (in which this sentence appears) was actually published, the wording had been changed and the last phrase read:
During the 20s, Benjamin’s thought became more consistently informed by Marxism and revolution; in the 30s, his friendship with Brecht deepened, much to the disappointment of both Scholem and Adorno. His writings developed into practical exercises in materialist aesthetics. Though he never joined the Communist Party, it is clear that his messianic hope (which he never abandoned, ingrained as it was in his way of looking at the world) depended no longer upon the will of God but rather on the will of the proletariat.
The rise of fascism in Europe was the political backdrop to Benjamin’s radicalization. The Nazi seizure of power in Germany also changed his life unalterably. He was forced to leave Germany and moved to Paris. After several years there, he was convinced by Adorno to emigrate to the United States. On September 25, 1940, when refused passage at the Franco-Spanish border, Benjamin, who was then on his way to Lisbon to board a ship for the United States, took his own life rather than fall into the hands of the Gestapo. Brecht, on hearing of his friend’s death, commented that it was the first real loss that Hitler had caused to German literature.
Benjamin was an essayist: his insight came in short blasts. He planned to write a long work on 19th-century Paris but was never able to concentrate his efforts. He had an eye for the fragmentary, an almost gnostic appreciation of the secrets that can be gleaned from each small detail. Ernest Bloch, also a friend of Benjamin’s, noted Benjamin’s eye
His favorite exhibit at one museum was two grains of wheat upon which had been painstakingly inscribed the Shema Yisroel, the one-line affirmation of the Jew’s faith in God, the essence of an entire religion on the tiniest of entities. It was the seemingly insignificant that, for Benjamin, was the most significant. Each fragment of actual, demonstrable reality—physical and social reality—contained implicit in it the key to a much broader understanding. Benjamin’s sensibility was akin to that of a photographer. His eye focused on the moment, on the wonder of appearance as it is now and shall never be again, on the uniqueness of the historical present.
This sensibility derived from Benjamin’s early fascination with Jewish mysticism. It informed his intellectual and critical method throughout him life, even after he turned to Marxism. Benjamin differed with Georg Lukács, one of Marxism’s most important aesthetic critics, over the question of method. Lukács stressed the importance of the description of the totality of the societal process. He believed that only by a portrayal of the totality could art reflect class antagonisms and reveal the progressive tendencies of history. For Lukács, the novel was the art form of the modern era. Benjamin proceeded from a different point. He saw his investigations as a kind of drilling, of plumbing the depths. He once wrote,
If Lukács constructed his totality horizontally. Benjamin chose vertical coordinates. Benjamin felt that the task of the proletariat and the task of the revolutionary intellectual were “to make the continuum of history explode.” The intellectual—the historical materialist—should reveal the significance of the present historical instant, should analyze the explosive convergence of past and future in the presence of the now, so that it can be transformed.
It should not be construed that Benjamin’s method was static. The historical materialist method, as he saw it, specifically involved an understanding and analysis of the dialectical tension of past and future in the present. To plumb the depths meant for Benjamin to explore dynamic interrelations. To focus on fragments meant to relate those fragments to the broader social reality. Benjamin understood that the social fabric is a complex weave, that
For Benjamin, art must just not be evaluated in terms of its depiction of the social reality of class antagonisms (as Lukács suggested). Aart must also be analyzed in terms of its technique, in terms of its position within the literary production relations of a given era. Benjamin admired his friend Brecht’s demand that intellectuals
The form of art had to be changed as well as the content. Benjamin saw that It is not enough, for example, simply to make people aware of human misery: photography can “make human misery an object of consumption” and can even turn “the struggle against misery into an object of consumption” (p. 96). Art must not stand above and outside the context of living social relations, an almost sacred trust as envisioned by Lukács. Benjamin wanted to see the barriers of competence, the distinctions between artist and audience broken down. He wanted to see new form and now conceptualizations of the role of art and artist.
Benjamin was intensely aware of the cultural crisis of interwar Germany that accompanied the rise of fascism. He saw how literature too was undergoing a profound crisis. In 1934, in an address delivered to the Institute for the Study of Fascism in Paris, Benjamin declared,
The implication of these changes for Benjamin was that artists could no longer afford to stand above the social struggle and look down; artists had to choose sides. Benjamin saw that art was not innocent, that every artist living in those years had to choose between the fascist aestheticization of politics and the communist politicization of art. The Italian Futurists were able to avoid political realities by understanding war as an aesthetic phenomenon, as a new architecture, as a symphony—as anything but the horror and the political event it is. In reaction to the growing support of fascism by artists like the Futurists, Benjamin developed his own contribution to the theory of art. In the preface to his 1936 assay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,.” Benjamin writes that the concepts he introduces in that essay
In the body of the essay, Benjamin explores the interrelation of art and the history of technological development under capitalism; he deals specifically with film as the art form for modern times. Film fascinated Benjamin in the same way that newspapers and photography did. They are all forms of mass communication made possible by the advent of mechanical reproduction, of technologies that allow the reproduction of a word, a picture, or a scene so that it becomes accessible to a wide audience. The mode of artistic production and communication in a given era is determined in large part by the level of technological development at the time. At the same time, the mode of production and communication plays a large role in determining the relation between the working class and bourgeois society.
Benjamin, in this essay, outlines modern development in this way. The introduction of the technology of lithography, which enabled many copies to be printed from the same master plate, increased the potential of the lithograph to reach a mass audience. Once lithography had been perfected, the illustrated newspaper was the logical next step. The development of photography by the late 1800s further accelerated the speed of production. It was only a matter of time and technology before film, the next step in the progression toward more exact representation in mans communications, evolved to its maturity.
What are the effects and significance of these new art forms? Benjamin understood and lauded the potential democratization of the communications media and the arts implicit in advances in mechanical reproduction. A work of art that once could only be seen by the wealthy in a museum or gallery could be reproduced at little cost and made accessible to many more people. The advent of inexpensive illustrated newspapers meant that current events had become the business of the masses. Film allows an event or a performance to be recorded and be available for countless audiences to see. Mechanical reproduction makes possible the involvement of the masses in culture and politics; it makes possible mass culture and mass politics.
In “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Benjamin analyzes how mechanical reproduction destroys the uniqueness and authenticity, the “aura” as he labeled it, of the work of art. The withering of aura in the age of mechanical reproduction is inevitable. And, in many respects, it is a good thing. If the mystique of the “original” is broken down, if the work of art is torn from the “fabric of tradition” (p. 211) of which it was a part, then it loses its false importance.
The value of the work of art no longer stems from its ritualistic cult value, whether it be magical cult, religious cult or secularized cult like the cult of beauty. Authenticity is no longer a relevant criterion for evaluating artistic production. In photography, for example, it makes no sense to ask for the “authentic” print.
The affect of this withering of the aura is significant. “Instead of being based on ritual,” Benjamin notes that the function of art “begins to be based on another practice—politics” (p. 224), What this means is that art for art’s sake, the theologizing of art, is rejected for artistic production that serves a purpose, that stands in direct relation to the political struggles of the time. Art and media begin to merge. When the distance (we could call it the mystification, though Benjamin does not use that word) between artist and society is lessened (and this is what accompanies the loss of aura), then the false distinctions between the social roles of artists and educators are negated. Benjamin explains,
For Benjamin, the withering of the aura is the result of two developments unique to film, the new relation between actor and audience and the mass nature of the medium. In the theater, the actor responds to and adjusts to the audience. Each performance is different: there is a subtle interaction, a unique experience of relation between actor and audience. In film, there is no audience for the performance; there is only the camera. In fact, the actor’s performance is not one performance but rather a series of performances. A film is an ordering of multiple fragments, a series of scenes shot in order of expedience rather than in logical or temporal order. The actor is put in the paradoxical situation of operating with his/her whole living person while being robbed of the aura that is tied to his/her presence. The actor is present to the camera, not to the audience; as a result,
The importance of this, in Benjamin’s opinion, is the distancing it forces on the audience. The filmgoer more easily takes on the role of critic, for there is no personal contact with the actor to influence judgments. The film viewer becomes a tester, almost a back-seat director. Benjamin even compares the film shot to a vocational aptitude test, describing both as examples of
This audience attitude is radically different from the audience attitude that appreciates the work of art for its cult value and that bows to the mystery and ritual power of the unique work. Benjamin states clearly,
With the development of film, Benjamin argues, the audience no longer stands in awe of the work of art. The very nature of art is transformed, and it is transformed in m way that encourages—at least potentially—the removal of film from
The actor’s function is radically altered as well. The film can record reality, can document what is. This makes it possible for everyone to participate, as an actor, in the creation of the work of art. In many early Russian films, the people were themselves and they war, collectively the “star” of the film. Benjamin explains that some of these players
The distinctions that normally are considered important in art are blurred and even exploded by means of mechanical reproduction on film. The actor/audience distinction, the art/communications media distinction, and the artist/public distinction—all are broken down. For Benjamin, the most revolutionary contribution of film is “the promotion of a revolutionary criticism of traditional concepts of art” (p. 231).
Even the art/science distinction no longer holds. Benjamin writes,
Film can open up our own world for us, capture the significance of the insignificant moment and consciously explore a space. Film has “burst this prison world asunder by the dynamite of a tenth of a second” (p. 236). Film has a potentially revolutionary use value in that it enables us to explore and understand our world and our historical situation:
When we all become actors, when the passivity of the awed art viewer is given up, then the potential for self-motivated creative and political activity increases. Film and other forms of mechanical reproduction further the possibility of such radical changes of mindset by the way they change the reaction of the masses toward art. Unlike paintings and sculptures, which are placed in museums for the contemplation of the few, film presents an object for simultaneous collective experience. Everyone is as expert: enjoyment and criticism are intimately fused. The masses, just as when illustrated newspapers were introduced, have the potential to know, and that leads inevitably to the potential to act.
The reader should not assume that Benjamin was Pollyannaish about the future, that he saw the process of revolutionary mass culture as inevitable simply because of the nature of the film audience. On the contrary. Benjamin was all too painfully aware that film was not being used in a revolutionary way under capitalism and that the potential inherent in the medium might never be fully utilized. Throughout this article, Benjamin notes how false consciousness is maintained. Reactionary critics continue to read cult values and ritual elements into film in their efforts to class the film among the arts. Benjamin mentions Franz Werfel, who once stated that film would be a great art form if only it didn't have to copy the exterior world. The very dominance of the cinema by capital (in Benjamin’s day as well as in our own era of communications conglomerates) hides and subverts the revolutionary use value of film. The artist is made into a cult figure: a new ritual is created and sustained. The masses are influenced to reestablish and maintain the false distinctions between actor and audience, between artist and public. A false aura is created, an artificial build-up of the “personality.”(8) For Benjamin, the “spell of the personality” is “the phony spell of the commodity.” The nature of film production under capitalism attempts to mystify the audience further. In contrast to the early Russian tendency to have the masses as the “star of films,
Instead of allowing the masses to participate—to act in and upon their own historical situation - the system of film production and distribution under capitalism forces the masses back into the passive role of spectator. Benjamin saw the film industry
The industry attempts to spur the interest of the masses toward illusion while denying than access to participation in those spectacles that would reflect their true interests.
Benjamin finishes the essay with an analysis of the way in which fascism uses the film medium for its own purposes, and the ways in which the film medium lends itself to such use. Benjamin argues that under capitalism, the mechanical reproduction of reality onto film not only fails to be progressive, but it is dangerous. This is due, in part, to the vary nature of film. Before the painting. Benjamin notes,
The film draws the viewer along. As Duhamel is quoted,
For this reason, the propaganda value of film is great, greater than that of a painting or another more static art form that invites the spectator to contemplation. The Nazis knew this well: Leni Riefenstahl’s films are cases in point. The films are awesome. inspiring, even “artful,” yet they try to sweep the spectator along in a mystified passion for the cult of Führer and Fatherland.
The film is the art and communications medium for modern times, Benjamin claims. He writes in a footnote,
Further, film is the only medium that can reproduce the masses and bring them face to face with themselves.
The struggle for the allegiance of the masses, the central political struggle of our tines, cannot help but revolve around the use and abuse of the film medium.
Culture, communications, art—they constitute a single battleground where, Benjamin argues, fascism and communism have no choice but to fight—given the increasing formation of masses, the historical development of capitalism in the 1930s, and the technological development of art to that time. Fascism introduces aesthetics into political life as a way of giving the masses “a chance to express themselves” instead of a chance to claim their “right to change property relations” (p. 241). Communism responds by politicizing art, by demystifying the production, the distribution, the form, and the content of art, in an attempt to make art serve the cause of the masses and not vice versa.
I explained earlier in this article that Benjamin’s view of history was that of a pessimist, a person whose messianic hopes depended upon a miraculous, cataclysmic revolt of the masses. In his historical analysis. he consciously attempted to be a Marxist: he tried, as he himself acknowledged, to develop an historical materialist critique of art and culture (see Eduard Fuchs: Collector and Historian,” New German Critique, No. 5, Spring 1975, for an example). In his worldview and his conception of human history, though, Benjamin differed significantly from Marx.
Marx, a product of Enlightenment optimism, saw history as a progression, an inevitable passage through historical epochs leading to the triumph of justice and humanity in the triumph of the proletariat. Benjamin, living in a very different era, was less convinced. With less faith in rationality and a more developed understanding—and fear—of the nature and possible uses of art and the communications media, Benjamin always feared the worst. He, too, yearned for the ascendance of the proletariat and, in his own way, worked toward that goal, but ultimately his hope was a messianic hope for an end to history. Marx saw revolutions as the “locomotives” of history; Benjamin saw revolutions as the pulling of the “emergency brake,” as the miraculous rescue of a world gone out of control. The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the
For Benjamin, material progress was not the godsend too many social democrats and Marxists believed it to be. For Benjamin, modern history has been the record of the overpowering of tradition by conformism. The only hope had to be, and for Benjamin it was, an antihistorical messianism.
Much of Benjamin’s popularity today may in fact be attributable to his pessimism and lack of faith in the future. We, like Benjamin, sense ourselves as living in a time of crisis. We see that crisis as permanent, as increasing in its complexity and potential danger until, somehow, it is finally resolved. Progress, growth, and development—these words have all taken on negative value since the mid-60s. It becomes harder and harder to retain Marx’s positiveness and optimism. It becomes easier to understand the world view and belief system of one who, like us all, was witness to the destruction and violence of fascism. With his affinity for Kafka and Karl Kraus,(10) for the lost souls and the street life, Benjamin seems closer to the temperament and outlook of many who experienced the cultural revolution of the 60s than does the patrician Lukács or the strident Marx. Even Benjamin’s essay style, his fragmentary observations and writings, makes him seem more modern. System building, as in the work of Marx or Freud or Einstein, is a thing of the past. The glut of information is modern society makes the quick, the fragmentary. the sharp insight far more accessible then the tome or the well-constructed totality.
This propensity for detail, for the “signposts” (Illuminations, p. 225) and “cultural wealth” of contemporary society, have also made Benjamin popular with those interested in semiology, the study of signs. The French editor of a collection of Benjamin’s essays proclaimed him “the least known precursor of semiology.”(11) Whether the relation was linear or not, there are many shared concerns between Benjamin and semiologists. To “read” the values of s society through its artistic production, to drill through an item in order to place it in its larger societal context, to work almost as an archeologist would—Benjamin’s method in his unfinished study of 19th century Paris is very similar to the style and goal of a writer like Roland Barthes in the short pieces collected in Mythologies. Barthes writes,
Benjamin studied these “ideas-in-forms,” these “signifying fields.” They were the details that, properly understood, properly placed in context, revealed great insights into the dominant ideology and its development. Benjamin looked at the architecture and street plan of Paris, at gambling, at photography. He tied their development to a broad analysis of the “era of high capitalism.” Parallel quotations from both Barthes and Benjamin reveal their affinity. Benjamin writes,
Benjamin’s popularity is on the rise, and many who have never heard of him by name are aware of the arguments he advanced. Current trends in both political and avant-garde cinema reflect concerns similar to those of Benjamin’s. The desire to unite the scientific and the artistic can be seen in many cinema verité pieces. The desire to give the people access to and representation in their own spectacles is evident in much videotape work and in films like BLOW FOR BLOW and THE AMAZING EQUAL PAY SHOW. Concern with “signposts” and “cultural wealth” have informed the work of Godard (as in TWO OR THREE THINGS I KNOW ABOUT HER) and others after him. Recent Cuban cinema, like THE OTHER FRANCISCO, has tried to analyze and expose the nature of bourgeois filmmaking and storytelling in an effort to defuse the counterrevolutionary propagandistic power of U.S. and other bourgeois films. Other parallels suggest themselves. Whether Benjamin was a model for any of these developments is unclear. What is clear is that he analyzed mode of film production that still exists today, except in an even more highly developed form than it did in the late 1930s. He understood both its dangers, its potential and the critical necessity for it to be used in the cause of socialism. It is remarkable that 40 years ago, only eight years after the first talkie, a German cultural critic interested primarily in literature could have been so perceptive about the nature of the film medium under capitalism that the implications of his ideas are only now being investigated fully.
1. Benjamin’s work in translation includes: Illuminations, New York: Schocken Books, 1969; Understanding Brecht, London: New Left Books, 1973; Charles Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet in the Age of High Capitalism, New Left Books, 1973; “Eduard Fuchs: Collector and Historian,” New German Critique #5, Spring 1975, pp. 27-58. All page numbers in this paper refer to the essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” in the Schocken edition of Illuminations.
Articles on Benjamin that I have found useful include the following:
2. Illuminations, p. 35.
3. Bernd Witte, “Benjamin and Lukács: Historical Notes on their Political and Aesthetic Theories, New German Critique, #5, Spring 1975, p. 9.
4. As quoted by Stanley Mitchell in the introduction to Understanding Brecht.
5. Understanding Brecht, p. 110.
6. “The Artist as Producer,” Understanding Brecht, p. 87.
7. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Illuminations, p. 218.
8. Often, the cult of the actor is given up for an even more mystified aura that champions object over subject—the cult of technology itself. Benjamin notes, “If the actor thus becomes a stage property, this latter, on the other hand, frequently functions as actor” (Illuminations, p. 246).
9. “Theses on the Philosophy of History, Illuminations, p. 257.
10. Karl Kraus (1874-1936), Austrian-Jewish journalist, poet and critic. Not yet translated, but a very influential member of the loose network of Jewish intellectuals that included Scholem, Benjamin, Block, Kafka. Benjamin wrote an essay on Kraus.
11. L'homme, le langage, et la culture, Paris: De Noel, 1971.