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Walter Benjamin

We live in a world where the intermingling of media is an everyday occurrence. Artists these days manage to present a creative fusion of music, painting, acting, and architecture. While every art form warrants a critical methodology of itself, the intersection of art forms, currently known as intermediality, has captured the attention of many critical theorists, including the German philosopher and cultural critic Walter Benjamin.

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We live in a world where the intermingling of media is an everyday occurrence. Artists these days manage to present a creative fusion of music, painting, acting, and architecture. While every art form warrants a critical methodology of itself, the intersection of art forms, currently known as intermediality, has captured the attention of many critical theorists, including the German philosopher and cultural critic Walter Benjamin.

Benjamin's ideas have been pivotal in media and cultural studies. Let's look at Benjamin's life, books, and essential Benjamin quotes.

Walter Benjamin: Biography

Walter Benjamin was born in 1892 to a Jewish family in Berlin. He was the firstborn of Emil and Pauline Benjamin and subsequently had two siblings. His early years were spent in Berlin, then one of Europe's busiest metropolitan centres. Benjamin's parents provided him with an upper-middle-class childhood. During this time, Benjamin was tutored by a governess at home. However, the family moved several times within well-to-do areas near Berlin.

Benjamin's sheltered life was disrupted for the first time when he was enrolled in Kaiser Friedrich School just before his ninth birthday. In 1905, Benjamin was sent to a boarding school in Haubinda, outside of Berlin but returned to the Kaiser Friedrich School in 1907. At the school, he completed his final exam in 1912. After completing his primary education, he took a short trip to Italy. Benjamin then enrolled at the Albert Ludwigs University of Freiburg in Freiburg im Breisgau to study philosophy. Benjamin also attended the University of Munich, where he made friends with writers and thinkers like Rainer Maria Rilke (1875–1926). In 1917, Benjamin enrolled at the University of Berne to do a doctoral dissertation.

Benjamin faced many financial and intellectual obstacles while he enjoyed fame and recognition as the foremost cultural critic of his generation. Benjamin travelled widely through Europe and is known for being in correspondence with prominent intellectuals and writers who were his contemporaries, such as Theodor Adorno (1903–1969), Max Horkheimer (1895–1973), and Hannah Arendt (1906–1975). His major work as a literary critic included essays on famous writers of his time as well as translation theory.

During his lifetime, Benjamin wrote for newspapers and journals and spoke on radio broadcasts. He also had a habit of collecting toys and children's books alongside literary and philosophical works. Benjamin died by suicide at the age of 48 in 1940 at Portbou, located on the French–Spanish border, while trying to escape from the German forces.

The Frankfurt School

Benjamin was an associate of the Frankfurt School of critical theory and philosophy. The Frankfurt school was founded in 1929 by scholars and philosophers at the Institute for Social Research at Goethe University Frankfurt. The Frankfurt school was based on ideologies such as Marxism, psychoanalysis, and existentialism. However, the Frankfurt School had a critical approach towards classical Marxism, which they argued was inadequate to explain modern social issues.

Marxism: a socio-economic and political philosophy that originated from the works of the German philosopher and political theorist Karl Marx (1818–1883). Marxists believe that society and economy are shaped by class relations and conflicts between workers and those who own the means of production.

Psychoanalysis: a branch of therapeutic principles and methods based on the work of the Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud (1856–1939). Freud was the founder of psychoanalysis, which inspired the development of psychoanalytic criticism in the study of literature.

Existentialism: a branch of philosophy that examines the existence of human beings as individuals with free will and agency to control their lives.

Walter Benjamin: Books

Benjamin's writing ranged from philosophical, autobiographical, academic, and literary. Benjamin used a series of pseudonyms for publishing his works, for personal as well as political reasons. His pseudonyms include Ardor, J. E. Mabinn (an anagram of Benjamin), C. Conrad, Hans Fellner, K. A. Stempflinger, and Detlev Holz.

Benjamin's pseudonym O. E. Tal is an anagram for lateo. In Latin, it means 'to be concealed').

Between 1914 and 1918, Benjamin wrote essays such as 'The Life of Students' (1915), 'Two Poems by Friedrich Holderlin' (1915), 'On Language in General and on the Language of Man' (1916), and 'On the Program of the Coming Philosophy' (1918).

Walter Benjamin Books StudySmarterFig. 1 Walter Benjamin discussed the representation of art forms in the mechanical age.

Among Benjamin's best-known works are 'The Origin of German Tragic Drama' (1928), One Way Street (1928), Arcades Project (1982), Writings (1955), and the essays 'The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction' (1935), and 'Theses on the Philosophy of History' (1940).

Anagram: a word or phrase created by rearranging the letters of another.

Pseudonym: a false name, usually used to stay anonymous.

Walter Benjamin: The Storyteller

Although Benjamin is known foremost as an essayist and cultural critic, he also experimented with creative writing. The Storyteller: Tales Out of Loneliness is a collection of Benjamin's fictional works. First published in 2016, it was the first compilation of Benjamin's literary efforts. It is divided into three parts based on genre and themes. Benjamin's stories present the drudgery and excitement of city life, navigating the tensions between reason and illusion, games, gambling and similar themes. Benjamin's writing style is considered by many to be modernist as he aptly combines his philosophical inclinations with the literary.

Modernism was an early twentieth-century aesthetic movement that focused on innovation in style.

'The Storyteller' was also the title of an essay by Benjamin published in 1936. The essay discusses the art of storytelling with a hint of nostalgia and is a continuation of Benjamin's critique of art and its representation in a world that is technologically advancing.

Walter Benjamin: Illuminations

Illuminations which was published in 1968, contains two of Benjamin's most famous essays, 'The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction' (1935) and 'Theses on the Philosophy of History' (1942).

'The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction'

In this essay, also published under the title 'The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility', Benjamin raises an important question: what happens to the value of art when you can find cheap copies of even the most famous painting in the world? Benjamin's essay went on to influence theories in the study of visual culture and reproduction and representation of art in the digital age.

The premise of the essay includes:

  • The function of art changes with the emergence of technological art forms like cinema and photography.
  • As a result, art is no longer appreciated or perceived individually but collectively by a mass audience.

Benjamin introduces a number of concepts in the essay, such as aura and authenticity.

Benjamin's concept of 'aura'

Benjamin introduced the concept of aura in the essay 'The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction'. According to him, what sets the original apart from the millions of its copies in the age of mechanical reproduction is its unique existence in time and space, which he described as its 'aura'.

Aura is a characteristic of art that makes it unique. When the existence of art is limited to a particular space in time, its perception is dependent on personal interaction. In contrast, when art is technically recreated on screen or in photographs, it could be consumed by audiences around the world collectively and simultaneously. The essay later inspired the documentary and book The Ways of Seeing (1972) by John Berger (1926–2017).

Walter Benjamin: Quotes

Here are a few notable quotes taken from volumes of Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings (2004-8).

Authenticity is similar to the concept of aura. However, as opposed to aesthetic and artistic qualities of art, Benjamin's concept of authenticity is based on the way a work of art is created and therefore, its reproducibility.

The authenticity of a thing is the quintessence of all that is transmissible in it from its origin on, ranging from its physical duration to the historical testimony relating to it.

'The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility', Selected Writings, 4, 254

Authenticity is not a quality that a work of art can possess. Instead, Benjamin shifts focus to the political function of art.

The moment the criterion of authenticity ceases to be applied to artistic production, the whole social function of art is turned about.

'The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility', Selected Writings, 4, 256

There is no role for contemplation in appreciating technology-based art forms like a film because of its fast-paced nature.

The train of associations in the person contemplating these images is immediately interrupted by new images. This constitutes the shock effect of film, which, like all shock effects, seeks to

induce heightened attention.

'The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility', Selected Writings, 4, 267

Walter Benjamin - Key takeaways

  • Walter Benjamin was a German philosopher, literary critic, and cultural theorist.
  • Benjamin was born in 1892 in Berlin to a Jewish family.
  • He was privately tutored in his childhood and later sent to boarding school.
  • He worked in many roles throughout his life to make ends meet and achieved relative success in his writing career.
  • Benjamin is most renowned for his essay 'The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction' (1935), which discusses the effect the technological reproduction of art has on its artistic value.

References

  1. Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings (ed), Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, 4: 1938–1940, 2006

Frequently Asked Questions about Walter Benjamin

Walter Benjamin died by suicide in 1940.

Walter Benjamin was a German philosopher who made significant contributions to cultural theory. 

As opposed to being created by hand by one person, art in the age of technology is technologically reproduced, like in cinema, for mass consumption.

Benjamin was one of the leading Marxist thinkers of the modern era.

Aura is Benjamin's term for the spatial existence that makes an original work of art unique.

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