Selected Writings
Walter Benjamin
The Belknapp Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts (USA), 1999 (1999)
Volume 1 (1913-1926), 520 pages.
Volume 2 (1927-1934), 870 pages.
Volume 3 (1935-1938), 480 pages.
Volume 4 (1938-1940), 477 pages.

Many years ago, back during my college days, an acquaintance who, like me, was involved in leftist activism, explained that he was getting ready to write his doctoral thesis on Walter Benjamin. I knew little about him, except that he was a Marxist cultural critic from the period between the two big wars who had belonged to the renowned Frankfurt School and never quite wrote any sistematic philosophical work. To be fair, I knew a little bit more than that thanks to some articles I read in the excellent magazine Debats, published by Alfons el Magnànim with some funding from the Valencian regional government. Nevertheless, the point is that Benjamin was still greatly unknown among the ranks of the Spanish activist left, and I would not bet that the situation has changed at all in the intervening years. Who was then Walter Benjamin? Born in Germany in 1892, Benjamin would later in life come up with an interesting mixture of Jewish mysticism and historical materialism that he applied to the literary and cultural worlds in his philosophical essays. Essays, incidentally, that would never take a very systematic form. After all, he published most of his writings in newspapers and magazines. So, many of the pieces collected in these volumes usually have a few pages at the most with some others (the notes that he took in his own notebooks, mainly) usually comprising no more than two pages. This is, then, a philosopher who left us fragments, pieces of a puzzle that are not easy to fit together into a larger picture that perhaps he never had the intention to paint, quite in the same style as Nietzsche. In that sense, it could be argued that Walter Benjamin preceded and foresaw our contemporary postmodernism. It should therefore surprise no one that his writings were rediscovered in the 1970s and 1980s, precisely at the same time as cultural studies were gaining grounds at our Western universities and the term deconstruction was all the rage in intellectual circles (it should not surprise anyone either that certain people may accuse Benjamin of "nihilistic" and "incoherent", especially if the accusations are coming from conservative circles which are prone to see in this style all the signs of the "liberal evil").

Yet, it is difficult to blame Benjamin or other people of his generation for this nihilism. These are the people who were sent to the battlefields of First World War to be butchered for no apparent reason, no higher ideal (this is, incidentally, a significant difference between the Great War and the Second World War where idealism did play an important, if not vital, role). When it all ended in 1918, there were no partisans to tell us romantic stories, neither could anyone argue that the defeated Germans incarnated pure evil as it would happen in 1945. To make matters worse, both sides had committed the mistake of thinking about war in the same old categories of the 19th century in spite of all the technological advances that took place in between. The consequence was, of course, that millions were simply butchered on the battlefield, human beings counting as little more than numbers in the rooms of the military strategists. As Benjamin himself explains:

... experience has fallen in value, amid a generation which from 1914 to 1918 had to experience some of the most monstrous events in the history of the world. Perhaps this is less remarkable than it appears. Wasn't it noticed at the time how many people returned from the front in silence? And what poured out from the flood of war books ten years later was anything but the experience that passes from mouth to ear. No, there was nothing remarkable about that. For never has experienced been contradicted more thoroughly: strategic experience has been contravened by positional warfare; economic experience, by the inflation; physical experience, by hunger; moral experiences, by the ruling powers. 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, in a force field of destructive torrents and explosions, the tiny, fragile human body.

(Experience and Poverty, Volume 2, pp. 731-732)

In this context, it is not at all surprising that so many intellectuals (actually, so many individuals of any condition) were so desperate for a solution, a way out, once the war was over, falling in general terms in one of the following three groups: those who thought that the only possible solution was a return to a past that predated the technological, urban and industrial changes that to some extent brought about the horrors of the Marne (i.e., the reactionary conservatives); those who wanted to gamble everything on the Communist revolution with the hope that it would also put an end to the bourgeois wars; and, finally, those who were convinced that both bourgeois capitalism and Marxism were inherently corrupt and society needed to be cleansed of all past sins through a purifying fire (i.e., the Fascists). Benjamin belonged to the second group, although his was a very heterodox form of Marxism, to be sure, if it is that we can consider him a Marxist at all. For, it seems to me, that Benjamin was to some extent a victim of his time. So, of the three paths succintly outlined above, he appeared to have chosen the one that led to Communism more out of disgust towards the other two than anything else. One is prone to think that Benjamin saw it, perhaps, as the lesser evil, difficult as this may be to understand from today's perspectives (but then, to be fair, the Gulag had not even happened yet). Again, it seems too easy to blame those who lived those years for their "nihilism" and "immorality" when they had to face such stark choices. Yes, it is precisely under those circumstances where great men prove themselves, but it is simply not fair to expect that so many great men will exist at one given time.

So, what is a Jew who still regards his own Judaic background as relevant, whose main interest lays in books and cultural issues but who wants to contribute to the Socialist cause to do? As I explained, Benjamin developed a very heterodox form of Marxism, one that, as in the case of Antonio Gramsci, paid more attention to the superstructure (i.e., the world of cultural constructs) than the infrastructure (i.e., the economic relations and direct class struggle). Yet, he could never avoid the uncomfortable feeling that any attempt at inventing a revolutionary art would always end in failure:

Since the end of the war the left-wing intellectuals, the revolutionary artists, have set the tone for a major segment of the public. It has now turned out, all too clearly, that this public esteem was not matched by any profounder impact on society. From this we may conclude, in Berl's words, that "an artist, however much he may have revolutionized the arts, is no more revolutionary than Poiret, who in his day revolutionized the world of fashion". The most advanced and daring products of the avant-garde in all the arts have had only the haute bourgeoisie as their public —in France and Germany alike. This fact does not necessarily imply a judgment on their work, but it does point to the political uncertainty of the groups that stood behind these manifestations.

(The Present Social Situation of the French Writer, Volume 2, p. 760)

He could not avoid either, like so many other intellectuals at the time, the first and damaging evidence that perhaps the Soviet Union was becoming a more perfect form of tyranny rather than the paradise of the proletariat:

Brecht calls Der Prozess a prophetic book. "You can see from the Gestapo what could become of the Cheka".

(Notes from Svendborg, Volume 2, p. 787)

... which is, precisely, why the leftist intellectuals cannot claim ignorance when they are accused of supporting the Communist tyranny during so many years. As I said above, it is way too easy for us to pontificate about what they should or should have not done from our comfortable present day, but it is nevertheless clear that they cannot claim ignorance. They supported Stalinism and knew perfectly what they were doing. Yes, they thought it was a lesser evil, and were convinced that the liberal democracies would necessarily be defeated either by Communism or Fascism, therefore not being a realistic choice, but they knew it was still an evil.

It is only keeping all this, the historical context, in our minds that we can understand how the same Benjamin who calls himself a Communist and writes about the upcoming revolution and the current state of the working class, also resorts to his own Jewish background to analyze the culture of his time:

In a Hasidic village, so the story goes, Jews were sitting together in a shabby inn one Sabbath evening. They were all local people, with the exception of one person no one knew, a very poor, ragged man who was squatting in a dark corner at the back of the room. All sorts of things were discussed, and then it was suggested that everyone should tell what wish he would make if one were granted him. One man wanted money; another wished for a son-in-law; a third dreamed of a new carpenter's bench; and so each spoke in turn. After they had finished, only the beggar in his dark corner was left. Reluctantly and hesitantly he answered the question. "I wish I were a powerful king reigning over a big country. Then, some night while I was asleep in my palace, an enemy would invade my country, and by dawn his horsemen would penetrate to my castle and meet with no resistance. Roused from my sleep, I wouldn't have time even to dress and I would have to flee in my shirt. Rushing over hill and dale and through forests day and night, I would finally arrive safely right here at the bench in this corner. This is my wish". The others exchanged uncomprehending glances. "And what good would this wish have done you?" someone asked. "I'd have a shirt", was the answer.

(Franz Kafka, Volume 2, p. 812)

This is obviously not your usual Marxist. On the contrary, Benjamin emphasizes the sphere of the cultural, the literary, the superstructure that dogmatic Marxists always despised so much:

Since the transformation of the superstructure proceeds far more slowly than that of the base, it has taken more than half a century for the change in the conditions of production to be manifested in all areas of culture. How this process has affected culture can only now be assessed, and these assessments must meet certain prognostic requirements. They do not, however, call for theses on the art of the proletariat after its seizure of power, and still less for any on the art of the classless society. They call for theses defining the tendencies of development of art under the present conditions of production. The dialectic of these conditions of production is evident in the superstructure, no less than in the economy. Theses defining the developmental tendencies of art can therefore contribute to the political struggle in ways that it would be a mistake to underestimate. The neutralize a numbre of traditional concepts —such as creativity and genius, eternal value and mystery— which, used in an uncontrolled way (and controlling them is difficult today), allow factual material to be manipulated in the interests of fascism.

(The Work of Art in the Age of Its Reproducibility, Volume 3, pp. 102-103)

It certainly sounds much closer to the New Left of the 1960s, grounded both on unorthodox forms of Marxism and a good degree of Anarchism. One finds it difficult to believe that Benjamin's ideas could be acceptable to those Stalinists who actually controlled the Party and the Komintern. His philosophy comes across as "too bourgeois", too worried about about issues that your average working class individual could not care any less about. In this sense, chances are he was just viewed by the apparatchik as little more than an useful travel fellow. He even goes as far as mending Marx and reinterpreting his main ideas for us:

Marx says that revolutions are the locomotive of world history. But perhaps it is quite otherwise. Perhaps revolutions are an attempt by the passengers on this train —namely, the human race— to activate the emergency brake.

Three basic concepts can be identified in Marx's work, and its entire theoretical armature can be seen as an attempt to weld these three concepts together. They are the class struggle of the proletariat, the course of historical development (progress), and the classless society. The structure of Marx's basic idea is as follows: Through a series of class struggles, humanity attains to a classless society in the course of historical development. = But classless society is not to be conceived as the endpoint of historical development. = From this erroneous conception Marx's epigones have derived (among other things) the notion of the "revolutionary situation", which, as we know, has always refused to arrive. A genuinely messianic face must be restored to the concept of classless society and, to be sure, in the interest of furthering the revolutionary politics of the proletariat itself.

(Paralipomena to "On the Concept of History", Volume 4, pp. 402-403)

Benjamin dares to call for "a messianic face" that is "to be restored" on top of Marxist ideas, which must have amounted to something close to mortal heressy among the dogmatic left of the time. He does not seem interested at all in economic issues or the explotation of labor under the capitalist system, but rather writes about pretty much everything else he can think of: aesthetics and art in general, the avant-garde, films and the movie industry, the concept of semblance, Franz Kafka, Baudelaire, Goethe, epic theater, newspapers, Marseilles, Moscow, Naples, Ibiza, astrology, the trade of lizards from the Balearic Islands, his own experiences with hashish... Benjamin was a writer who simply could not put down the pen, an author with a kaleidoscopic approach to reality. Even in this respect he managed to predict our blogging days, although thank goodness his interests went way beyond the monothematic rants that tend to characterize this contemporary medium. Nevertheless, he managed to predict this development too:

For centuries it was in the nature of literature that a small number of writers confronted many thousands of readers. This began to change toward the end of the past century. With the growth and extension of the press, which constantly made new political, religious, scientific, professional, and local journals available to readers, an increasing number of readers —in isolated cases, at first— turned into writers. It began with the space set aside for "letters to the editor" in the daily press, and has now reached a point where there is hardly a European engaged in the work process who could not, in principle, find an opportunity to publish somewhere or other an account of a work experience, a complaint, a report, or something of the kind. Thus, the distinction between author and public is about to lose its axiomatic character.

(The Work of Art in the Age of Its Reproducibility, Volume 3, p. 114)

Who cannot see the direct connection between this idea and Andy Warhol's "five minutes of fame" theory? We already live in the world described by Benjamin where the distinction between author and public is pretty much non-existent. After all, what do we think all those TV stations pretend to do out there when they "take the microphones out to the streets"? Is it even possible to watch a debate these days where the audiences' opinions are not aired no matter how inane they may be? And should we even consider the constant presence of the poll everywhere? The lines are definitely disappearing very fast.

Alongside plenty of comments and thoughts about a myriad of issues, Benjamin also shares a few gems with us, reflections that can be taken as a springboard to study a given topic and write more about it. In that sense, Benjamin's writings are a constant source of inspiration, provided that one knows how to separate the wheat from the chaff. Thus, he reflects about the nature of the Greek classical myths apropos contemporary reinterpreations such as Stravinsky's Oedipus Rex or Cocteau's Orphée, in what would come to be referred to as Neoclassicism.

The Greek myths are fundamentally rational, and for this very reason a man may say, without its making him a bad Christian, that they are much easier to grasp than the teachings of Paul. Now it is important not to misunderstand this. Gide does not claim that reason produced Greek myths, nor even that for the Greeks the meaning of myth lays in its rationality. What is important, rather, is how the modern meaning gains a distance from the old, and how that distance from the old interpretation is just a new closeness to the myth itself, from which the modern inexhaustibly offers itself up for renewed discovery.

(Oedipus, or Rational Myth, Volume 2, p. 578)

Of all the topics Benjamin discusses in these four volumes of writings, I would select two where his thoughts are particularly inspiring. First of all, he notices how the ages old tradition of storytelling is in clear decline in modern society (I believe it is safe to affirm that this is even more true in our days). But why? How can we explain this near extintion of an oral tradition that had been with us since the early days of humanity itself? Benjamin may have found the answer.

Why is storytelling on the decline? —This is a question I often asked myself when I sat with other guests around a table for an entire evening feeling bored. (...) I realized that people who are not bored cannot tell stories. But there is no longer any place for boredom in our lives. The activities that were covertly and inwardly bound up with it are dying out. A second reason, then, for the decline in storytelling is that people have ceased to weave and spin, tinker and scrape, while listening to stories. In short, if stories are to thrive, there must be work, order, and subordination.

(The Handkerchief, Volume 2, p. 658)

As a matter of fact, in order to preserve storytellign we would also have to cherish another old tradition that appears to be disappearing at a very fast pace, that of conversation. In contemporary society, we have replaced many sorts of direct inter-personal relationships with entertainment, which is much more controllable as a commodity. It is quite simple: without dialogue, without human warmth, there is no storytelling. The show business finds it much easier to deal with atomized realities, with defenseless individuals incapable of taking their own initiative who prefer, therefore, to be entertained in a passive way. I am not sure Benjamin foresaw the importance of entertainment in late capitalism, but he somehow managed to notice its seeds. Some might try to argue that storytelling has simply been replaced with journalism but Benjamin also considered that:

Every morning brings us news from all over the world. Yet we are poor in remarkable stories. Why is that? It is because no events reach us without being permeated by explanations. In other words, hardly anything redounds to the advantage of the story; nearly everything, to that of information. In fact, half the art of storytelling is that of keeping it free of all explanations during the telling.

(Little Tricks of the Trade, Volume 2, p. 729)

Furthermore, he also dismisses pre-emptively another possible counter-argument: that today's storytelling tradition is simply continued by the novel.

The earliest indication of a process whose end is the decline of storytelling is the rise of the novel at the beginning of modern times. What distinguishes the novel from the story (and from the epic in the narrower sense) is its essential dependence on the book. The dissemination of the novel became possible only with the invention of printing. What can be handed on orally, the wealth of the epic, is different in kind from what constitutes the stock in trade of the novel. What distinguishes the novel from all other forms of prose literature —the fairy tale, the legend, even the novella— is that it neither comes from oral tradition nor enters into it. This distinguishes it from storytelling in particular. The storyteller takes what he tells from experience —his own or that reported by others. And he in turns makes it the experience of those who are listening to his tale. The novelist has secluded himself. The birthplace of the novel is the individual in his isolation, the individual who can no longer speak of his concerns in exemplary fashion, who himself lacks counsel and can give none.

(The Storyteller, Volume 3, p. 146)

The formula in which the dialectical structure of film —film considered in its technological dimension— finds expression runs as follows. Discontinuous images replace one another in a continuous sequence. A theory of film would need to take account of both these facts. First of all, with regard to continuity, it cannot be overlooked that the assembly line, which plays such a fundamental role in the process of production, is in a sense represented by the filmstrip in the process of consumption. Both came into being at roughly the same time. The social significance of the one cannot be fully understood without that of the other. At all events, our understanding of this is in its infancy.

(The Dialectical Structure of Film, Volume 3, p. 94)

In principle, the work of art has always been reproducible. Objects made by humans could always be copied by humans. Replicas were made by pupils in practicing for their craft, by masters in disseminating their works, and, finally, by third parties in pursuit of profit. But the technological reproduction of artworks is something new. Having appeared interminttently in history, at widely spaced intervals, it is now being adopted with ever-increasing intensity. Graphic art was first made technologically reproducible by the woodcut, long before written language became reproducible by movable type.

(The Work of Art in the Age of Its Reproducibility, Volume 3, p. 102)

The here and now of the original underlies the concept of its authenticity, and on the latter in turn is founded the idea of a tradition which has passed the object down as the same, identical thing to present day. The whole sphere of authenticity eludes the technological —and of course not only technological— reproduction. But whereas the authentic work retains its full authority in the face of a reproduction made by hand, which it generally brands a forgery, this is not the case with technological reproduction. The reason is twofold. First, technological reproduction is more independent of the original than is manual reproduction. (...) Second, technological reproduction can place the copy of the original in situations which the original itself cannot attain.

(The Work of Art in the Age of Its Reproducibility, Volume 3, p. 103)

To an ever-increasing degree, the work reproduced becomes the reproduction of a work designed for reproducibility. From a photographic plate, for example, one can make any number of prints; to ask for the "authentic" print makes no sense. But as soon as the criterion of authenticity ceases to be applied to artistic production, the whole social function of art is revolutionized. Instead of being founded on ritual, it is based on a different practice: politics

(The Work of Art in the Age of Its Reproducibility, Volume 3, p. 106)

The Greeks had only two ways of technologically reproducing works of art: casting and stamping. Bronzes, terra cottas, and coins were the only artworks they could reproduce in large numbers. All others were unique and could not be technologically reproduced. That is why they had to be made for all eternity. The state of their technology compelled the Greeks to produce eternal values in their art. To this they owe their preeminent position in art history —the standard for subsequent generations. Undoubtedly, our position lies at the opposite pole from that of the Greeks. Never before have artworks been technologically reproducible to such a degree and in such quantities as today.

(The Work of Art in the Age of Its Reproducibility, Volume 3, p. 109)

The masses are a matrix from which all customary behavior toward works of art is today emerging newborn. Quantity has been transformed into quality: the greatly increased mass of participants has produced a different kind of participation. The fact that this new mode of participation first appeared in a disreputable form should not mislead the observer. The masses are criticized for seeking distraction [Zerstreuung] in the work of art, whereas the art lover supposedly approaches it with concentration. In the case of the masses, the artwork is seen as a means of entertainment; in the case of the art lover, it is considered an object of devotion. —This calls for a closer examination. Distraction and concentration form an antithesis, which may be formulated as follows. A person who concentrates before a work of art is absorbed by it; he enters into the work, just as, according to legend, a Chinese painter entered his completed painting while beholding it. By contrast, the distracted masses absorb the work of art into themselves. Their waves lap around it; they encompass it with their tide.

(The Work of Art in the Age of Its Reproducibility, Volume 3, p. 119)

Write about the Frankfurt School and its concept of rationality. Contrast it to Postmodernism and today's leftist conundrum.

Entertainment factor: 5/10
Intellectual factor: 7/10