Esther Leslie surveys the ideas of Walter Benjamin, a Marxist writer who died in obscurity 60 years ago but whose works are now influential in many areas of study.
At the end of September 1940 the writer Walter Benjamin was held up in Port Bou on the French-Spanish border. New visa regulations meant he was refused passage into Spain and he feared being handed over to the Gestapo. Benjamin, as a Jew and as an intellectual who had written for various Communist journals, was already known to the Nazi authorities, and his German nationality had been annulled (specifically because of an article in a communist magazine about the decadence of fascist art and Nazi rule). Benjamin was en route to the United States, somewhat unwillingly beating out the same path westwards as many other European intellectuals. With the victory of Nazism in Germany and the fall of France, his adopted homeland, the spaces of safe Europe were contracting. The east held little promise too. At the end of 1926 Benjamin had visited Moscow for two months, and found an exciting, energetic society - with dangerous tendencies towards leadership cults and corruption. After the signing of the Ribbentrop-Molotov non-aggression pact on 21st August 1939 the USSR could no longer tempt as any sort of place of exile for Benjamin.
A Zionist friend from his youth, Gershom Scholem, had tried for several years to tempt Benjamin to join him in Palestine, but Benjamin did not find the Desert State appealing, and pocketed the money sent for Hebrew lessons. Instead he began to follow the path of other displaced European intellectuals such as Adorno, Horkheimer, Kracauer, Brecht, Stravinsky - to America and the hope of some sort of academic post or government-sponsored work or simply the opportunity to hawk their talents to Hollywood studios. Benjamin did not make it out of Europe. Death ended his journey in a hotel room on the Spanish side of the border under police guard, after ingestion of a powerful dose of morphine given him some weeks before by Arthur Koestler.
Benjamin had first met Koestler in Paris through the Institute for the Study of Fascism and then they were flung together again after the signing of non-aggression pact. The French government panicked, fearing political refugees as potential allies of Hitler, and so rounded up all Germans between the ages of 16 and 50 and kept them for nine days in a football stadium. In the confusing transfer from the stadium to internment camps, Koestler managed to flee. Benjamin and Koestler met again in Marseilles where refugees applied for visas and planned their methods of escape from a country whose capital had fallen and whose Petain government in Vichy had made an accord with Hitler. This was when Koestler divided the supply of pills he carried and gave half to Benjamin. While Koestler found no need for them that time, Benjamin did, taking them at the point when delivery to the Gestapo seemed certain.
Benjamin spent the last decade of his life just as did many contemporary intellectuals and activists: uprooted, always moving on, subjected to external decrees, blown around by the winds of political concords and deals and trying to find a way and a place to survive. The representative nature of his unfortunate fate is acknowledged in the Walter Benjamin memorial that has existed in Port Bou since 1994 - dedicated to all refugees and victims of fascism.
In the 60 years since his death a highly productive 'Walter Benjamin industry' has grown up. His collected writings have been available since the early 1990s in Germany and a substantial portion of his output exists in various languages, including Spanish, Italian, English and Japanese. In addition, scores of studies have asserted the value of Benjamin's insights for philosophy, art history, cultural studies, media studies, geography, architecture, in short, all the academic disciplines as well as interdisciplinary approaches.
Benjamin wrote on a great variety of topics including baroque, Romantic and modern literature, especially Baudelaire and Brecht, the philosophy of history, the social dynamics of technology, nineteenth century Paris, fascism, the city, capitalist time, childhood, memory, art and photography, and all these in various combinations with each other. He has been read as a Kabbalist, a poststructuralist, a messianist, a theological thinker and a more or less 'vulgar' materialist. A variety of political positions have been attributed to him, from Left-liberal to communist to anarchist, from tragic defeatist to revolutionary optimist.
The question of Benjamin's 'politics' - specifically his relationship to Marxism - has caused much argument and bafflement. Few commentators, especially those of the more recent postmodernist variety, seem able to understand that Stalinism is a negation of Bolshevik Marxism, the defeat of Russian revolutionary intensity. As a result arise confused, mistaken and contradictory readings of Benjamin's political sympathies - which means in fact that Benjamin himself came to be characterised as a confused, mistaken and contradictory theorist. Perhaps, to some extent, the appropriation of Benjamin has been dependent on who has the loudest voice in academia at any one time.
Benjamin was not a celebrated figure when alive, and his writing did not bring him fame and fortune. All that changed some 30 years after his death. The first wave of interest in Benjamin came in the late 1960s when his writings on technological mass culture and revolutionary pedagogy were issued in pirate form as consequence of the German revolutionary student movement's rediscovery of anti-fascist German thought. John Berger imported into England some of Benjamin's ideas on mass reproduction and art in his TV series and book Ways of Seeing in 1972.
Benjamin provided writers and artists on the Left with a vocabulary for art and culture that did not share the assumptions of Socialist Realism. Socialist Realist directives ranked the intelligibility of content above form. The content of the picture or the story had to be clear, unambiguous, delivered through 'realist' means and presenting the inexorable rise of a heroic working class and peasantry.
A key conference in 1934 - the Soviet Writers' Congress - saw Karl Radek champion the realist novel while trashing Joyce's 'cinematographic' approach to everyday life in favour of the 'big events'. The one-time surrealist Louis Aragon communicated similar sentiments at the 'Conference for the Defence of Culture' in Paris in 1935. He took over the editorship of a communist cultural journal Commune, and soon changed its name to Pour la dŽfense de la culture. Aragon's 'Realism, the Order of the Day' (1936) attacked Ferdnand LŽger's use of cinema, wireless, montage and advertising techniques in his art. Typically the communist art theorists flaunted 19th century paragons of realist style. In this way, socialist realist initiatives narrowed down the subject-matter of art, insisted that a particular attitude or line be obvious in the artwork, and also recommended the return to traditional forms of oil painting and novel writing.
Walter Benjamin's analysis was directed against this course. He was a theorist of modernity. He believed that the modern age had thrown up new modes and media of representation, and, for any contemporary engagement in art, whether overtly political or not, these were forms that needed to be explored. He regretted the way that the development of socialist realism repressed a post-revolutionary wave of technological and formal experimentation in art, restoring old models of culture with their disempowering modes of reception, which expected audiences to stand in reverential awe before 'great works'. Benjamin, largely, though not without qualification, celebrated the progressive function of technical reproducibility in art. These thoughts were formulated in a series of theses that formed the basis of John Berger's Ways of Seeing: 'The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction' (1935-1939), and they marked Benjamin clearly as a thinker of the anti-Stalinist Left.
The match of Benjamin with Berger made sense. Like Berger, Walter Benjamin was not an academic. He tried to make a living as a critic, and in the Weimar Republic, he broadcast lectures on the radio, often for children. Clearly his own life circumstances directed him into the world and questions of popular enlightenment and entertainment. He was most concerned with the changing status of the intellectual and the artist over the period of industrialisation. Several of his major studies tracked the changing fortunes of the artistic and intellectual avant-garde in 19th century France.
He wanted to understand the ways in which the avant-garde - originally a rebellious force - is skewered by the contradictions of capital. The failure of social revolution and the inescapable law of the market breed a hardened hoard of knowledge-workers condemned to enter the market place. This intelligentsia thought that they came only to observe it - but, in reality, it was, says Benjamin, to find a buyer. This set off all manner of responses: competition, manifestoism, nihilistic rebellion, court jestering, hackery, ideologueism. The 'Artwork essay' and 'The Author as Producer' (1934) were intended as investigations of the prospects for critical Left intellectuals in the modern age, finding strategies that would avoid pressures on artists to be individualistic, competitive and promoters of art as a new religion.
In 'The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction', written for the America-based Institute of Social Research's journal of critical theory, Benjamin discussed the implications for fine art of the rise of mass media and its technologies of production and reproduction. He related the impact of mass technological reproduction to the social transformations brought about by the massification of society.
Benjamin understood technological reproduction in culture in two ways. Firstly it referred to the easy accessibility of postcard representations of 'great art', illustrations in books and magazines, posters, copies that could be acquired, held in the hand, cut out and incorporated into a viewer's environment. Some sort of experience of artworks, previously available only to those who could travel to the place of deposit, could now be had by all - in copy form. It was as if art had undergone the type of evolvement that the printing press had brought about for the written word.
The second way in which Benjamin considered technological reproduction concerned the development of relatively new cultural forms - film and photography. These were technological, mechanical forms of cultural production in their own right. This has important implications for concepts such as originality and uniqueness - key terms of traditional art understanding. There is no original in film or photography. Each copy of a photographic negative or a film print is of equal value. These developments, Benjamin insisted, bring about the decline of what he termed art's 'aura'.
Aura involves the notion that unique, authored works of art exude a special presence and effect, akin to magical or mystical experience. Art's aura is a sort of fetishised glow that adheres to products of high art, untouchable, unapproachable, made by geniuses, products of immense value in cultural, moral and financial terms. Auratic artworks disenfranchise the spectator, who becomes an individual privileged and lucky enough to have unique communion with the art object. They compel the spectator into the position of a passive beholder who drinks in the vision of untouchable, valuable genius. Benjamin argued that the decline of this 'aura' - the happy by-product of mass reproduction - opened the way to a new appropriation of art by the masses.
Mechanical reproduction also harbours a number of implications for the actual objects produced, specifically in terms of the way they will be valued, both in monetary terms and in terms of their temporality or shelf-life. Benjamin cites the photomontages and book jackets by John Heartfield which, because they are mass-produced items, cannot be turned easily into expensive artwork commodities, enhanced in their value because they are imbued with the aura of creative individualism, durability and uniqueness so prized by collectors of high art.
Mass-produced artefacts are well suited to the industrial modernity of transience, change, permanent revolution - a world in which all that is sold melts into air, and all that is holy gets profaned. A demystified appropriation of culture by audiences could be seen best of all in the cinema, a collectively-produced cultural form. In perceiving artworks in a more casual fashion, and in different environments, and in perceiving more and more of them through the organs of the press etc, audiences learnt to manipulate them, to engage in the production of meaning from artworks, in criticising and evaluating.
This was not without contradiction. Benjamin is keenly aware of the ways in which the production of culture within the property relations of capitalism acts to constrain the progressive, democratic potential of culture. The Hollywood star system, for example, attempted to re-instate that awe before the product, by glorifying certain individuals, creating hierarchies, making them superhuman, creating cults around them. And Benjamin is very aware of the ways in which it is actually the counter-revolutionaries, the Nazis, who are able to make excellent use of modern mass media forms, such as radio and film:
'In the huge rallies, the monster meetings, in mass sporting events and in war, all carried out these days in front of recording machines, the masses look themselves in the face. This process, whose import cannot be emphasised too much, is closely connected to the development of reproductive or recording technology. Mass movements appear more clearly to the apparatus than to the human eye. Hundreds of thousands of cadres are best seen from a bird's eye perspective. While this perspective is just as accessible to the human eye as it is to the apparatus, the image that the eye carries away with it is incapable of enlargement, unlike the photograph. That means, then, that mass movements, and, at their pinnacle, war, represent a form of human behaviour that is especially fitted to the apparatus.'
The star system and capital accumulation re-established barriers between audience and film, and Nazi propaganda films tried to illuminate Hitler and friends with a flattering 'auratic', charismatic glow. But, at the same time, procedures, such as Sergei Eisenstein's workers' cinema or Charlie Chaplin's battles with technology and authority, an argument with modernity in modernist form, showed that cinema had, at least the potential to generate a critical, politically-based culture.
Benjamin saw a capacity, a tendency in mass culture. It could be the realm of engagement with representation of the masses and a presentation of the actual world - albeit it in critical, analytical ways, for film's very technical basis is montage. Film records traces of an external reality, but editing a film means working with cuts, and so reconstructing elements of the real. Through such constructed encounters with actuality Benjamin hoped that knowledge and analysis of the modern world could be broadcast far and wide.
More recent appropriations of Benjamin's work have concentrated on the early and late writings, leaving out the theory of mechanical reproduction and the analyses of Brecht or the theory of 'the artist as producer'. Benjamin has been painted as a melancholic and a tragic failure. Much of the focus has been on his final piece of writing, 'Theses on the Philosophy of History' (1939/1940).
Gershom Scholem sounded the keynote for many interpretations, marking them a result of Benjamin's bewildered awakening to the reality of Marxism, at the moment when the Hitler-Stalin pact was signed. Scholem coined the image of Benjamin as a naive, disillusioned utopian and insinuates that the theses move away from politics in order to 'leap into transcendence'. In many studies of Benjamin's 'testament' the theses are construed as offspring of a theological messianism. Such messianism is seen to break definitively with the political philosophy of Marxism, a creed that apparently proposes inevitable progress in history. Scholem's deciphering (an apt word, for the theses are written in a rather cryptic style and were not intended for publication) annulled Benjamin's own account of the theses' motivation in a letter to Gretel Adorno. They represent well-pondered thoughts, for the theses, he reveals, had been germinating for twenty years. That is to say, from 1939 backwards two decades to 1919 - when the seed of the thoughts is planted by the final, fatal struggle of the one political group enthusiastically cited in the theses, Rosa Luxemburg's and Karl Liebknecht's Spartakus, leaders of the revolutionary challenger to social democracy, and cut down with its tacit approval.
The theses are indeed critical of the Left, but this is the Left of social democracy and Stalinism. The social democratic reformists are implicated in betrayal. They had been so convinced of progress and their mass base, under any circumstance, that they had engaged in complicitous deals with the political establishment and with capital, just as the Communist Parties had entered into a pact with Hitler. Benjamin argues that ideas of automatic progress, accepted amongst the social democrats, have their origins in bourgeois thought, and represent a degraded form of Darwinism with all its implications of a naturalising of capitalism, technology and ideology. One of the most exciting things that the theses do is to present a theory of history that breaks with any sort of automatic idea of progress. The theses refuse to endorse any idea of progress that avoids the active participation of the working-class in their own emancipation.
Benjamin's theses attempt to compose Marxist materialist theory in a tremendously violent world, during the ghastliest days of working class defeat. He is dispirited, for, at the moment of writing, the proletariat is not proving itself to be the struggling, conscious class. The German working class has been corrupted by the opinion, promoted by social democracy, that it is they who 'are swimming with the current' of technological development. In fact the world working class has been sold down the stream, and split apart through fascism and nationalism. And revolutionaries have allowed their energies to be sapped in strategic deals and misplaced alliances.
There is reason for despair - despair is not a result of Benjamin's tragic disposition, as Scholem and others suggested. It is objective. But the theses offer hope too, or at least they attempt to formulate a way of thinking that may be of use for a revived revolutionary practice. Benjamin is clear: 'Not man or men but the struggling, oppressed class itself is the depository of historical knowledge.' Just as in the analysis of reproducible art, the accent is on the mass as active participants in their culture and history. And he adds that in Marx this last enslaved class is the avenger that completes the task of liberation in the name of generations of the downtrodden.
Throughout the theses the emphasis is on the intimate connection between struggle, historical practice, and knowledge, theory. Liberation can come only after breaking with some of the inherited modes of thinking the world in terms of automatic progress, crisis as exception and history as objective unfurling towards an ever-better future that never arrives - modes that could neither foresee nor prevent fascism. Perhaps the moment is right to re-inject Benjamin's alternatives into the channels of Left discussion.
* Esther Leslie is the author of Walter Benjamin: Overpowering Conformism (Pluto Press).