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Walter Benjamin - Biography

Walter Benjamin (1892-1940), was born in Berlin on July 15, 1892. He was an unusual figure in 20th century thought, considering himself a "Man of Letters" and a literary critic rather than taking the more illustrious title of philosopher. His short career carried him through the ten years leading up to WWII, publishing an essay on Goethe's Elective Affinities in 1924 that earned him swift recognition. He had received his doctorate in Switzerland in 1919, but failed to acquire his Habilitation, making it difficult for him to find work well suited to his abilities. The work he had submitted in 1928 was the only full-length study that he published, The Origins of German Tragic Drama, and it was likely misunderstood by its jurors, for it prominently contained a complex network of appropriated quotations.

In the period between 1925 and 1933 Benjamin eked out a living as a literary critic and translator, as a freelance writer for journals and magazines, meeting a number of left-wing intellectuals. He befriended Bertolt Brecht, an ally who shared with Benjamin both an affinity with the Left, and a suspicion of dialectics (the dominant concept in use at the time). When the Nazi's took office in 1933, Benjamin fled to Paris, maintaining work as a writer for the Institute for Social Research based in Frankfurt. Paris was an inspiration for Benjamin, and it was during this period that he wrote some of his most influential essays and articles for literary journals, including an ambitious (and hence, unfinished) reading of Baudelaire's Arcades Project in the context of nineteenth-century capitalism.

In 1939 the Nazi's drew ever closer to the capital city, and ironically, Benjamin decided to flee Paris and head to Meaux, where Nazi troops were stationed; likely the most dangerous place to be in France during the early period of the occupation. Benjamin was forced to continue running, heading for a well-known passage between France and Spain, with arranged plans to catch a boat to the US. Due to a cardiac condition, the mountain pass between France and Spain was very difficult for Benjamin to travel. Upon learning that he required a visa to be able to leave France, Benjamin despaired and took his own life at the age of 48.

Benjamin kept a rather secretive existence, and the materials left behind are fragmentary, leaving scholars, translators and historians to argue over the nature of his thoughts and texts. Manuscripts have been lost, and his rather turbulent and short life was full of personal and political incompatibilities, leaving much about his life open to debate. Hannah Arendt's introduction in Illuminations gives us some insight into his character, for they were friends in Paris shortly before the German occupation. She is also the editor of the English translation of Illuminations (1968).

Benjamin's legacy was primarily in the hands of Theodor Adorno and Gershon Scholem, who managed to revive interest in his work after the war. Collections of his essays began to be published, the major works of which include Illuminations (1968), The Origin of German Drama (1977), Reflections (1978), Moscow Diary (1986), and The Arcades Project (1999). This posthumous and delayed output of his works did not deter their potency, indeed, his thoughts and philosophical reflections have had a major impact on theorists in literature, philosophy, communications and technology, cultural studies, post-colonial theories, feminism, and historical studies, as well as theories in the contemporary arts.

His rather unusual emphasis on Marx (the avoidance of dialectics in Marx), Judaic notions of Messianic time, along with his attempts to move away from metaphysics, have insured his continuing relevance to thought today. The unique nature of his thought is evident in the essay, Goethe's Elective Affinities, as well as those of Illuminations.

History, modernity, the rise of mass culture in an interrelation of art and technology, as well as nineteenth and twentieth-century literature were particular interests for Benjamin. Due to his philosophies on history and the nature of translation and its effects on languages, time and literature, Benjamin's writings often shocked his contemporaries. Of note is his criticism of linear, causal notions of history preferring the metaphor of a constellation to describe a spatial relation of events/contexts in which the historian should relate the present to the past. Noting further on the relationship of life to history, it is for Benjamin significant that each individual being have a history of its own, therefore having a life of its own, as opposed to each being merely a setting for history. The afterlife of each being is incumbent upon its own striving against its normalization in modern life. That which attests to the confines, the potentialities and possible futuricity of its own status as an historic being experiences something of its life, an imaginary not formed in an image of the "natural" or "nature". Such testimonies of living beings open the possibility of translation, identification, and recognition as historical beings in an undetermined future — they have an afterlife.

Benjamin was thus interested in key figures involved in literature and poetry of the time. He wrote analyses on Hölderlin, Baudelaire, Kafka and Brecht. He criticized their works not in the ordinary sense of endorsement of ideal (modernist) examples of contemporary art works, but for the very reason of liberating the works from the specificity of the context for future purposes, maintaining what he saw as alive in them in the present. This he saw as a part of his duty as a literary critic.

The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction is arguably the most influential of Benjamin's essays, in which he locates a shift in the status of traditional art as technical means of reproduction such as photography and film begin to dominate the imagination of a mass public. Benjamin defines the characteristic of manual production of the traditional artwork as a historical process unique to the original object, manifest in the object as its "aura." The subsequent proliferations of technical reproductions of a traditional artwork bear only an imagistic similitude to the original, lacking the "aura" and therefore any relation to the actual historical dimension thereof. The gradual preference of technical media by the mass public signifies for Benjamin both a radical shift in the arts to the political in the Marxist sense, although this shift in the status of art to the political also allows aesthetic contemplation to become dissociated from the properly lived experience of the autonomous individual.

The viewer of art, from the detached position of the technical media itself, becomes a disinterested critic, evaluating the reproduced object merely in terms of its presentability; that it takes place. Hence, Benjamin notes the various attempts by political parties, namely the Fascists whom Benjamin feared and despised, to aestheticize politics, or as he put it: "All efforts to render politics aesthetic leads to one thing: war." There are many varied readings of this text, ranging from the democratic and revolutionary Marxist assertions, to the more complex analysis of the specular and spectacular, as well as the totalizing nature of media mass culture by figures such as Adorno and Horkheimer, Debord, McLuhan, and more recently, Agamben. Indicative of such conflicting debates is the recent translation of the actual title of the work, which has been read, "The Work of Art in the Age of Technical Reproduction."

To be sure, Benjamin left a complex body of work that surpasses the limits of the context of its own writing, that was both prophetic and timely, neither strictly academic nor mere opinion, but an enigma much like his own life as a writer, a critic, a Jew, and an "Homme des Lettres."


Walter Benjamin was a German Jewish Philosopher. (July 15, 1892 – September 27, 1940)