“That which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art”
Walter Benjamin (1892-1940) was a philosopher and social critic who was forced to flee his native Germany when the Nazis came to power and died on the Franco-Spanish border at the start of the Second World War.
Benjamin’s position is difficult to tie down, as he was influenced by the critical theory of the Frankfurt School, by Marxism, by German idealism and by Jewish mysticism.
Michael Löwy places him broadly within the tradition of “anti-capitalist Romanticism” which he identifies as being particularly influential among German-speaking Jewish intellectuals at the time.
One of Benjamin’s early sources of inspiration was Friedrich Hölderlin (1) and he also studied the work of organic radical thinkers such as Friedrich Schelling, (2) Georg Hegel, (3) Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, (4) Gustav Landauer, (5) Martin Buber, (6) and Ernst Bloch, (7) who became a friend.
Gershom Scholem says Benjamin was “a great metaphysician” (8) who was guided by a “deeply-rooted messianic faith” (9) and a concept of myth and tradition “which over the years was going to take on an increasingly mystic hue”. (10)
“He declared that he still didn’t know himself what the aim of philosophy was, given that there was no need to discover the ‘meaning of the world’, since this had been defined by myth, which, for Benjamin, was everything”. (11)
Benjamin was a strong critic of industrialism. He denied, for instance, the authenticity of mass-produced art.
He wrote: “That which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art. This is a symptomatic process whose significance points beyond the realm of art. One might generalize by saying: the technique of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the domain of tradition”. (12)
He challenged the official story of ‘progress’ with his imagining of the angel of history, as inspired by Paul Klee’s painting Angelus Novus.
Wrote Benjamin: “His face is turned towards the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet.
“The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them.
“This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress”. (13)
For Benjamin, opposition to industrialism was part and parcel of his opposition to capitalism. His deconstruction of the ideology of progress was not carried out in the name of conservation or of restoration, but in the name of revolution. (14)
He pointed out that, in stark contrast, fascism involved the typically modern combination of technological progress and social regression. (15)
From this radical organic perspective, fascism is clearly revealed to be a counter-revolutionary force protecting the industrial capitalist system.
Benjamin stressed that being inspired by pre-industrial societies, and comparing those societies favourably with our own, does not amount to a simple yearning for yesterday.
We would never be looking at an impossible retour (return) to the past, but to a détour via the past to a future of our choice.
Löwy says that Benjamin believed that “revolutionary utopia is reached through the discovery of an ancient, archaic, prehistoric experience”. (16)
In Benjamin’s outlook, says Löwy, “the archaic societies of Urgeschichte [the distant past] feature a harmony between man and nature which has been destroyed by ‘progress’ and is in need of reinstatement in the emancipated society of the future”. (17)
As a young man Benjamin was a leading light in the pre-WWI Jugendbewegung, (18) the Wandervögel often wrongly maligned as “the beginnings of the Hitler Youth”. (19)
Scholem says that he and Benjamin later shared a kind of “theocratic anarchism” (20) which led them, on August 23, 1927, to attend a huge and angry protest in Paris against the impending execution, in Massachusetts, USA, of the anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti.
Recalls Scholem: “The police, partly on horseback, charged the protesters. We were caught up in a human maelstrom and, near the Boulevard de Sebastopol, we managed to narrowly avoid the police batons by diving into a side street. Benjamin was very fired up”. (21)
Benjamin was drawn to surrealism and then Marxism, under the influence of the dramatist Bertolt Brecht and the Frankfurt School.
But he found himself caught between two ways of thinking: metaphysics on the one hand and socialist materialism on the other.
Scholem writes: “The liquidation of magic in language for which he was calling, in conformity with the materialist theory of language, was blatantly at odds with all his earlier ideas on the subject, which were founded on theological and mystical inspiration”. (22)
These poles were never fully resolved and remained a source of philosophical tension in Benjamin’s work, lending his writing a unique flavour. Brecht remarked, somewhat disparagingly, that Benjamin was “mystic even in his denunciation of mysticism”. (23)
Video link: Who killed Walter Benjamin?
1. Gershom Scholem, Walter Benjamin: Histoire d’une amitié, trans. by Paul Kessler (Paris: Presses Pocket, 1989), p. 28.
2. Scholem, p. 24.
3. Scholem, p. 53.
4. Scholem, p. 117.
5. Scholem, p. 24.
6. Scholem, p. 52.
7. Scholem, p. 123.
8. Scholem, p. 111.
9. Scholem, p. 86.
10. Scholem, pp. 88-89.
11. Scholem, p.53.
12. Walter Benjamin, Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn, (London: Jonathan Cape, 1970) p. 223.
13. Benjamin, Illuminations, pp. 259-260.
14. Michael Löwy, Juifs hétérdoxes: Romantisme, messianisme, utopie (Paris: Éditions de l’ éclat; 2010), p. 36.
15. Löwy, Juifs hétérodoxes, p. 121.
16. Michael Löwy, ‘Walter Benjamin et le surréalisme in Europe’, Revue littéraire mensuelle, April 1996, p. 83.
17. Michael Löwy, Rédemption et utopie: le judaïsme libertaire en Europe centrale (Paris: Éditions du Sandre, 2009), p. 148.
18. Scholem, p. 11
20. Scholem, p. 130.
21. Scholem, p. 208.
22. Scholem, p. 301.
23. Bertolt Brecht, Arbeitsjournal, 1938-1955, cit. Scholem, p. 256.