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Walter Benjamin

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walter benjamin

 Walter Benjamin (1892-1940)

Biography

Walter Benjamin was a German-Jewish Marxist literary critic, essayist, translator, and philosopher. He was at times associated with the Frankfurt School and was also greatly inspired by the Marxism of Bertolt Brecht and Jewish mysticism. As a sociological and cultural critic, Benjamin combined ideas of historical materialism, German idealism, and Jewish mysticism in a body of work which was an entirely novel contribution to western philosophy, Marxism, and aesthetic theory. (Wikipedia)

He was born in Berlin in 1892 to a wealthy Jewish banking family. As a child his health was poor which may have contributed to his early interest in books and literature. At the age of 20 he studied  at the University in Freiburg but soon returned to Berlin to study philosophy, where he became president of the Student Association. During this time he also travelled to Paris and Italy before returning to Berlin. He returned again to Freiburg, then in 1915, during the First World War between France and Germany he significantly began to translate the works of Baudelaire into German. He moved to Munich to continue his studies where he met and befriended Rainer Maria Rilke (one of Germany's greatest 20th Century poets) and Gershom Scholem, the German Jewish philosopher and mystic. Scholem was to become Benjamin's lifelong friend. In 1917 he married and moved to Berne where he met  Ernst Bloch . He received his PhD in 1919,  but found it difficult to find remunerrative work that matched his interests and abilities. As a result, he and his wife moved back to Berlin to live with his parents. Wnen they separated in 1921 he moved to Heidelburg to teach at the University. By 1923, following Germany's defeat in war, the German economy was failing and Benjamin's father was unable to continue his financial support. During all of this time he had been supporting himself with literary criticism and the publication of essays on the works of modernist poets. At this time he mat  Theodor Adorno and Georg Lukács whose 1920 Theory of the Novel made a big impression on Benjamin.

At the end of 1923, Scholem had moved to the fledgling state of Israel in Palestine and tried to persuade Benjamin to join him, but he declined and the following year he moved with Bloch to the Italian island of Capri where he settled down to write is Habilitation on The Origin of German Tragic Drama. While there met Asja Lacis, a Bolshevik actress living in Moscow who remained an important and lasting intellectual and erotic influence on him throughout the rest of his short life. In 1927 he began work on his massive Arcades Project - an analysis of the Paris of Boudelaire which integrated the developing modernist project in the context of the evolving cafe society of the French capital. This work would occupy him for the remainder of his life and would remain unfinished. He submitted the Habilitation in 1928, but it was rejected by his examiners at the University of Frankfurt, making it difficult for him to attain high academic positions. He therefore turned back to writing for journals and publishing literary and theatre reviews and essays and writing translations of important modernist works.

During this time he met and befriended a number of other prominent left-wing writers, including Bertolt Brecht. He divorced in 1930 and for the next three years moved around, seeking refuge from the increasingly threatening and ominous Nazis. He stayed in Ibiza, Nice and in Svenborg with Brecht and Sanremo where his ex-wife lived. He fled to Paris in 1933 when the Nazis gained power in Germany. His years in Paris were enormously productive and it was here that he wrote much of his most influential work - much of it written for the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt. While in Paris, he met other German intellectual and artist refugees and became friends with Hannah Arendt, Hermann Hesse and Kurt Weill. In 1936 his most influential work The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction was first published in French by Max Horkheimer, in the Institute for Social Research Journal.

By that time, the Frankfurt School had moved into exile in New York, and it was from there that  Adorno, Horkheimer and others attempted to support Benjamin and to assist him to emigrate to the USA. He visited Brecht for the last time in Denmark in 1938, and then was incarcerated for three months after Hitler revoked the German citizenship of Jews. In 1940, with the Nazis advancing on Paris, he fled with his sister to Lourdes, and in August,of that year, attained a visa to the USA organised by Max Horkheimer. He attempted to reach Portugal (a neutral country) to embark to the US but was intercepted by the gestapo at Portbou on the Midi border between France and Spain and committed suicide by taking an overdose of morphine.

Despite his brief life, Benjamin's influence has been extensive. His colleagues at the Instuitute succeeded in promoting his works and they have, since the 1960s been increasingly influential. His collection of essays Illuinations (1968) edited by Hanna Arendt, has been particularly powerful, His The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, predated and preempted the works of other cultural and media theorists like Marshall McLuhan. A brief biography shows that the range of his influence is extensive. He has had a lasting impact in the fields of literature, philosophy, communications and technology, cultural studies, post-colonial theories, feminism, and historical studies, as well as theories in the contemporary arts:

"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." 

His unfinished Arcades Project was only published as recently as 1999.

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