Saturday, February 9, 2013

Walter Benjamin Goes Public (Again)

European Jewish Intellectuals

Walter Benjamin [1892-1940]: The noted German-Jewish philosopher in Paris in 1939. 
Photo Credit: Gisela Freund
Source: Wikipedia

An article, by Anca Pusca, in the the Public Domain Review revives the writing of Walter Benjamin [1892-1940], the once-popular European Jewish intellectual, associated with the Frankfurt School, who was friends with both Bertolt Brecht, the playwright, poet and theatre director; and Gershom Scholem, the founder of the academic study of Jewish mysticism. Benjamin's writing show influences from both thought streams:
If Benjamin’s public is mainly of an academic nature today, that was certainly not the case at the time of his writing. With his habilitation rejected by the University of Frankfurt, Benjamin was forced to survive outside of academia, and hence to write accordingly: most of his work appears in fragments – essays, short stories, journal entries, letters, newspaper and journal articles, radio broadcasts – which mainly appeared in the public domain through his journalistic and radio work, with the exception of a few pieces intended for publication by the Institute for Social Research led by Horkheimer and Adorno. This significantly affected not only his writing style – making most of it much more accessible to a larger public – but also his thoughts on the role of language and text. The fragmentary nature of his work, initially a result of financial and practical constraints, later became a trademark of Benjamin’s methodology, particularly obvious in his unfinished magnus opus, the Arcades Project.
The publication of his writings on technology, online, particularly his essay ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Its Mechanical Reproducibility’, but also his other writings on media, could not be more appropriate and relevant at this particular point in time. His essay on the ‘Work of Art’ has been used by many of today’s artists and theorists to understand the impact of digital technologies, as a form of reproductive technology, on art, culture and political mobilization. His arguments about the prioritization of the act of seeing, the increased speed through which information/the image in processed when reproduced by mechanical means, but also, the extent to which the technically reproduceable image is now completely removed from the actuality, and intentionality of the scene where it was initially created, remain strangely relevant today.
That Benjamin's writings on technology are relevant today is not surprising. Benjamin was one of the many caught up in the hysteria of fascism; he committed suicide on September 26th, 1940, in Portbou, Spain, near the French border, while on the run from the Nazis in 1940.

You can read the rest of the article at [Public Domain]


  1. Hitler had absolutely nothing to gain by killing Jews. My high school and college schoolmate, Roald Hoffmann, was hidden during World War II and, miraculously, survived. He then went on to win the Nobel Prize in chemistry. How many potential prize winners did not survive? We can never know.

    1. I am glad that your schoolmate survived. Many fine minds did not, caught in the hysteria and hatred of fascism. Have we learned anything since then?


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