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Benjamin-Walter Benjamin and Art



WALTER BENJAMIN STUDIES SERIES Series Editors: Andrew Benjamin,

Monash University,

University of Georgia

Consultant Board: Stanley Cavell,

Sander Gilman,

Miriam Hansen,

Carol Jacobs,

Martin Jay,

Gertrud Koch,

Peter Osborne,

Sigrid Weigel and Anthony Phelan

A series devoted to the writings of Walter Benjamin

The series aims to set new standards for scholarship on Benjamin for students and researchers in Philosophy,

Cultural Studies and Literary Studies

Walter Benjamin and Romanticism (2002),

edited by Beatrice Hanssen and Andrew Benjamin

Walter Benjamin and Art Edited by Andrew Benjamin

A \ continuum W L'O N D'O N • NEW Y O R K

Continuum The Tower Building 11 York Road London SE1 7NX

® Andrew Benjamin and Contributors 2005 First published 2005 Reprinted 2006 All rights reserved

No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means,

or any information storage or retrieval system,

without prior permission in writing from the publishers

British Library Cataloguing-in-Publication Data A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library

ISBN: HB: 0-8264-6729-6 PB:0-8264-6730-X Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Walter Benjamin and Art/edited by Andrew Benjamin

— (Walter Benjamin sudies series) Includes bibliograpical references and index

ISBN 0-8264-6729-6




Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzier barkeit




Art and Society


Andrew E

E455K868 2004 834'


Norfolk Printed and bound in Great Britain by Cromwell Press,




Introduction ANDREW BENJAMIN 1 1 Reception in Distraction HOWARD EILAND 3 2 The Timing of Elective Affinity: Walter Benjamin's Strong Aesthetics JOANNA HODGE 14 3 Materialist Mutations of the Bilderverbot REBECCA COMAY 32 4 Is There an Answer to the Aestheticizing of the Political

? PETER FENVES 60 5 Benjamin or Heidegger: Aesthetics and Politics in an Age of Technology BEATRICE HANSSEN 73 6 The Work of Art in the Age of Ontological Speculation: Walter Benjamin Revisited ARNE MELBERG 93 7 The Mimetic Bond: Benjamin and the Question of Technology FABRIZIO DESIDERI 108 8 Aura,

Still ROBERT KAUFMAN 121 9 Walter Benjamin and the Tectonic Unconscious DETLEF MERTINS 148 10 Aura,

Photography: Re-reading Benjamin Today DlARMUID COSTELLO

PATKE 185 12 The Work of Art in the Age of its Electronic Mutability KRZYSZTOF ZIAREK 209 13 Rehearsing Revolution and Life: The Embodiment of Benjamin's Artwork Essay at the End of the Age of Mechanical Reproduction SAUL OSTROW 226 Notes Contributors Index

Acknowledgements Earlier versions of a number of these papers appeared in the following publications

All were revised for this publication

Rebecca Comays' 'Materialist Mutations of the Bilderverbot\ in ed

David Michael Levin,

Sites of Vision: The Discursive Construction of Vision in the History of Philosophy (Cambridge,


Fabrizio Desideri,

// fantasma dell'opera: Benjamin,

Adorno e le aporie dell'arte contemporanea (II Melangolo: Geneva,

Howard Giland,

'Reception in Distraction',

in Kevin McLauglin and Philip Rosen (eds),

Benjamin Now: Critical Encounters with The Arabs Project,

Robert Kaufman,


October^ (2002): 45-80

Detlef Mertins,

'Walter Benjamin and the Tectonic Unconscious',

in The Optic of Walter Benjamin,

Alex Coles (London: Black Dog Press,

Abbreviations AP

The Arcades Project,

Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin (Cambridge,

MA: Belknap,

The Correspondence of Walter Benjamin 1910—1940,

Gershom Scholem and Theodor W


Manfred R

Jakobson and Evelyn M

Jakobson (Chicago,

IL: The University of Chicago Press,

CC Theodor W

Adorno and Walter Benjamin,

The Complete Correspondence 1920-1940,

Henri Lonitz,

Nicholas Walker (Cambridge,

MA: Harvard University Press,

GB Gesammelte Briefe,

Christoph Gb'dde and Henri Lonitz (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp,

GS Walter Benjamin: Gesammelte Schriften,

Rolf Tiedemann and Hermann Schweppenhauser (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp,


OT The Origin of the German Tragic Drama,

John Osborne (London: Verso,

SW Walter Benjamin,

Selected Writings,

Michael W

Jennings (Cambridge,

MA: Belknap,


This page intentionally left blank


Central to any discussion of the work of art in the contemporary period,

and this will be the case whether those discussions are situated within philosophy,

is Walter Benjamin's text 'The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility'

There were three versions of the German text and a contemporary French translation by Pierre Klossowski

More exactly,

the final version provides a way into an understanding of the role of art in any analysis of fascism as well as in finding possible avenues of response to its emergence

It should be noted that Benjamin's essay is concerned as much with a diagnosis as it is in the argument that shifts in technical production generate interpretive possibilities that could not be easily recuperated by fascism

On one level the text's history is vital to any sustained investigation of Benjamin's project


the text has had a profound influence on approaches to art that far outweighs its historical particularity

As such the text demands both contextualizing approaches,

as well as others that acknowledge its impact and relevance beyond the hold of its initial setting

(Both are at work in this collection

) While there are many aspects of Benjamin's essay that can be privileged,

one of the most compelling concerns the relationship between,

the history of artistic production in terms of the history of techniques and technological development,

the concomitant effect of that development on the concepts and categories through which art is to be understood

In other words,

while artistic practice may have a history,

that history has a profound impact on the understanding and thus interpretation of art in any one period

What is given centrality therefore is no longer art as occupying a transcendent realm

Techniques open upon different ways of thinking both the history of art and equally any philosophy of art

Here would be the most radical point of departure from the other essay that has come to dominate contemporary discussions of art

? Heidegger's project was to 'discover the essence of art'

Points of affinity and separation between Heidegger and Benjamin cannot ignore questions of production

Walter Benjamin and An

Working from Benjamin's essay,

it can be argued that changes in production have two results that need to be noted

The first is explicit

The history of technical development provides the framework within which contemporary production within the visual arts is to be understood

The second is implicit

Accepting these shifts does not mean abandoning the art of the past

Indeed the contrary is the case

the art of the past is given an after-life by the occasion of its 'now' possible reinterpretation in terms of the changes on a conceptual level demanded by developments on the technical

Art lives on through its reworking

Technical development

The project of this collection of essays is to use Benjamin's text as a way of opening up questions within the practice of art

The term 'practice of art' is to be given as broad an extension as possible,

as moving from the philosophical to criticism passing through the necessity of the political

Hence not only is there the need to view Benjamin's essay refracted through the advent of the digital,

it is also necessary to reconsider it within the differing modalities of music,

literature and architecture amongst others

Each of these reconsiderations allows the potential of the essay to be investigated

This occurs since fundamental to the essay's project is the resistance to any attempt to develop either an essentialist conception of art — a conception that would be constrained to refuse both generic distinctions and therefore fail to see them as sites of differing forms of technical innovation and development

allowing art any place within a large philosophical concern that would,

efface the plurality of media through which it operates

Working for Benjamin means that art takes on a different quality

Attempting to provide an introductory summary of the texts presented here is not an integral part of the project

Another element needs to be noted in advance

While Walter Benjamin's text has an almost lapidary quality,

its argumentative and stylistic elegance has not been fashioned in order to generate simple copies

While canonical in terms of allowing contemporary debates to be staged around the complex interconnections between art,

and while there are principles,

perhaps even allegiances that the text envisages,

there is no one disciplinary position or approach that these principles or allegiances demand

While it is essential to write in the wake of Benjamin's text

The latter is the case precisely because Benjamin's oeuvre,

while establishing directions,

resists any straightforward formulation in terms of an unequivocal theory

In sum,

this collection represents a sustained attempt to interrogate Benjamin's text first by putting it to use and second by investigating its utility by situating its concerns within larger philosophical,

critical and political contexts

I take my title from a passage near the end of Benjamin's essay on the technological reproducibility of the work of art

Benjamin italicizes the sentence: 'Reception in distraction [Die Rezeption in der Zerstreuung] — the sort of reception which is increasingly noticeable in all areas of art and is a symptom of profound changes in apperception —finds in film its true training gr0«W[Ubungsinstrurnent]' (GS 1

to highlight a certain inconsistency (if I can put it that way) in Benjamin's handling of the concept of distraction,

a variance in his attitude towards the concept,

and I would like to show how two separate attitudes involved here

I shall refer,

to the first of these attitudes as 'negative',

but it should be kept in mind that,

especially in the case of the 'Work of Art' essay and The Arcades,

the notion of distraction operates in a peculiarly slippery manner,

such as very likely makes this one of the more elusive of Benjaminian topoi

It is at its slipperiest where it bears on the theory of montage

The 'negative' view of distraction is enunciated in Benjamin's discussion of Brecht's epic theatre in two pieces from the early 1930s: the magazine article 'Theatre and Radio',

and the famous (possibly undelivered) lecture from 1934,

'The Author as Producer' ('Der Autor als Produzent1}

In both texts Benjamin distinguishes epic theatre from the big-city 'theatre of convention',

in its complementary functions of cultivation and distraction,

Bildung and Zerstreuung (the latter might also be translated here as 'entertainment'),

'for which everything it touches becomes a stimulant' (GS 2

In the epic theatre,

a certain concrete pedagogics takes the place of sensationalism

Schulung replaces Bildung (that is,

and instead of distraction there is 'group formation' (Gruppierung),

which refers to the formation of both a well-informed audience and a highly trained ensemble of performers on the basis of a set of shared social and political concerns translated on the stage to a series of radically distinct,

Walter Benjamin and Art

Rather than such a bald appeal to the emotions

for identifying with characters — epic theatre engenders critical distance

rather than soothing or warming its audience,

it seeks to astonish them through the well-known 'alienation effect',

by making ordinary objects and actions seem strange,

renders them conspicuous and encourages audience and actor alike to reflect on them

Discovery through alienation


one where the development of plot gives way to the 'lightning-like' ((752

As Benjamin puts it in the first of two essays entitled 'What is Epic Theatre

'The discovery of situations is accomplished by means of the interruption of sequences' (GS 2

Benjamin lays emphasis on the principle of interruption,

with its 'retarding character' (a term derived from Schlegel and Novalis [GS 1

makes for the distinctively punctuated,

intermittent rhythm of Brechtian drama

Whether by means of the sudden intervention of song,

or what Brecht calls the gestic conventions of the actors,

this interruption of sequences creates gaps which undermine the audience's illusion of a 'world' on the stage and make room for critical reflection,

including the possibility of imagining,

'a different set of political and economic conditions' (ST,


In this way the stage is converted from a Bannraum,

to an Ausstellungsraum or exhibition space (GS 2


and the merger of artistic and political projects is realized

In 'Theatre and Radio' and 'The Author as Producer',

Benjamin explicitly connects the Brechtian discovery of the 'gestus' — the element of a gesture,

or word which conveys a particular attitude on the part of a character towards other human beings

On the stage of the epic theatre,

- namely,

The principle of interruption,

which is as central to the method of montage as it is to the alienation effect,

has here a pedagogic function and not just the character of a stimulus

It brings the action to a halt,

and hence compels the spectator to adopt an attitude towards the situation in question,

and the actor towards his or her role

One of the most important responsibilities of the actor,

Benjamin suggests in 'What is Epic Theatre

is the spacing out of his actions,

Brecht himself,

contrasts conventional dramatic theatre with epic theatre in terms very close to these

Dramatic theatre is distinguished by 'growth',

Reception in Distraction

the 'fate' of central characters),

by the fact that 'one scene makes another'

epic theatre is distinguished by 'montage',

and by the fact that 'each scene [is] for itself (ST,

For the productions of epic theatre Brecht insists on 'a radical separation of the elements'

This means,

music and setting must become more independent of one another' (ST,

but in referring to 'elements' Brecht also has in mind single incidents,

movements of figures or groups,

even single sentences and exclamations (57


The separate constellations of the action,

and even the distances between them have dramatic significance (57


In theory at least,

the spacing out of the elements,

makes for a recurrent shock effect — a hallmark of montage — and it is this shock-engendered form,

by means of which situations are set off against one another,

that creates a transitory space in which contradictions in social conditions can present themselves and society's causal network can be traced

The individual gestus,

which as such is always a social gestus,

at the same time figures in an historical discourse

in Benjamin's interpretation (in the first version of 'What is Epic Theatre

it discloses the actuality of 'dialectics at a standstill' (6*5 2

The dialectically charged gestus is the rock of astonishment on which the stream of things breaks (GS 2

the gestus is an eddy formed in reflecting the currents of history at a particular point in space and time

Brecht calls it a 'nodal point',

an emergent knot of tension at which the situations of the story collide to reveal specific social forces at work or to unmask the crisis of authority

In his didactic,

indeed combative intention (deliberately opposed to the process of catharsis that has marked traditional theatre since Aristotle),

the radical montage of elements works against the goal of 'fusion',

whether this be understood in terms of the generation of a dominant mood,

or in terms of the empathic identification with characters on the stage

In Brechtian parlance,

montage counteracts the 'witchcraft' (Magie),

the state of 'trance' (Entruckung) induced in the spectators of bourgeois theatre

and which we might liken to the 'strange stare' and 'spell-stopped' stance of the characters in Shakespeare's Tempest who come under the influence of Prospero's art

'And these,

are all knit up/ In their distractions'

Here is a classical locus for the conception of distraction as not just counter-productive but actually stupefying

a 'sordid intoxication' and bondage

In place of the theatre as witches' caldron or sirens' isle,

Walter Benjamin and Art

establishes the theatre as laboratory,

which seeks to induce clarified emotion and pleasurable knowledge

the method of montage is opposed to that of distraction

in his attitude towards the idea of intoxication

- Rausch,

is a pivotal term in Nietzsche's later philosophy — Benjamin parts company with Brecht

This will be immediately apparent to any reader of The Arcades Project who remembers the emphasis placed on the anamnestic intoxication of the flaneur wandering the streets at all hours,

on the gambler's presence of mind in the intoxication of play,

or on the enchantment of the collector who both loses himself and renews himself in gazing on his object (Ml,5

All these instances of'intoxicated experience' (rauschhafte Erfahrung [Mla,2])

implicitly conjoins Baudelaire's evocation of the 'religious intoxication of great cities' (J34a,3




This more complicated attitude,

is developed in Benjamin's most famous essay,

'The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility',

which focuses the problem in the workings of film

In the third version of the essay,

with which he was occupied from 1936 to 1939,

and which expands the discussion of distraction,

Benjamin quotes the author Georges Duhamel,

who voices a complaint made often enough by critics of the cinema during the second and third decades of its commercial existence: 'I can no longer think what I want to think

My thoughts have been replaced by moving images' (GS 1


the train of associations in the person wishing to contemplate one of these images is immediately interruptedly new images,

Benjamin goes on to say,

constitutes the shock effect of film,

seeks to induce heightened attention [Geistesgegenwart,

meaning also 'presence of mind']'- One may think here not only of the Brechtian alienation effect

- which,

aims to sharpen attention by means of interruption

trading on the floor of the stock exchange,

or collective jazz improvisation

such high-speed vigilance is as much a defining feature of modern experience as distraction itself is

In other words,

when he asserts that reception in distraction is becoming increasingly noticeable in all areas of art today,

and is moreover a symptom of profound changes in human 'apperception' (such as unsettling the possibility of relaxed contemplation,

he is offering both a description and a challenge

by the dynamics of modern technology,

Reception in Distraction

the rapid transitions of modern media,

the press of commodities and their programmed obsolescence,

At the same time,

it is a covert measure of the ability to perform new tasks of apperception,

for successful reception in distraction presupposes that a mastery of certain tasks has become habitual

What is at stake here,

is a dialectical mode of reading that effectively masters the technological apparatus

The actor places the apparatus in the service of his triumph over it

this triumph of what appears to the audience to be the actor's humanity is a product of the use which the actor makes of his own self-alienation in the face of the camera

His mastery therefore presupposes,

an interpenetration of nature and technology,

His and the audience's humanity is vindicated insofar as it is absorbed by,

The essay on technological reproducibility makes it evident that distraction,

must itself be understood dialectically

beyond the simple opposition of distraction and concentration (or,

The challenge,

Benjamin suggests (in a notational schema to the 'Work of Art' essay entitled Theory of Distraction' [G57

which he associates with a convergence of educational value and consumer value (Lehrwert and Konsumwert) in a new kind of learning (eine neueArt des Lernens)

In this positive attitude towards the production and experience of distraction,

he is anticipated by his colleague Siegfried Kracauer

To be sure,

Kracauer's discussion of the Berlin Lichtspielhduser (or picture palaces) of the mid-1920s,

with their incorporation of film-screenings into a revue-like show involving a series of production numbers,

and with their 'homogeneous cosmopolitan audience

addicted to distraction [Zerstreuungssuchti$

? appears at first to echo the viewpoint represented by Duhamel in Benjamins 'Work of Art' essay: the interior design of the Lichtspielhduser,

as well the character of their programmes,

serve 'to rivet the viewers' attention to the peripheral,

so that they will not sink into the abyss

The stimulations of the senses succeed one another with such rapidity that there is no room left between them for even the slightest contemplation' (314/326)


Kracauer argues,

what the audience encounters in 'the fragmented sequence of splendid sense impressions' is its own fragmented reality

In their motley parade of'externalities',

these shows convey a momentary sense,

- unless,

the motley has been concealed beneath a contrived appearance of 'artistic unity',

which in fact is usually the case

In Kracauer's view,

this evasion of the truth of fragmentation implicit in the discontinuous revue form is part of a more general failure on the part of film producers: namely,

their subordination of the revolutionary potential of cinematography

Walter Benjamin and Art

its ability to reveal the most hidden facets and unexpected stations of ordinary existence

Putting an original spin on what was by then a familiar demand for a cinema freed from the influence of theatre,

Kracauer calls for 'a kind of distraction that exposes disintegration instead of masking it' (317/328)

Such distraction would have a 'moralsignificance' (315/326)

Kracauer does not himself use the term 'montage' in connection with the revue form that occasions a positive idea of distraction

But we have only to recall the references to 'music hall and circus' in Eisenstein's discussion of the 'montage of attractions' to grasp the pertinence of the term here

Eisenstein's conception of montage,

develops out of his work as set designer and director in the Moscow Proletkult Theatre in the early 1920s,

where he experimented with multiple planes of action on the stage,

mounting several scenes simultaneously and cross-cutting between them,

where he sought to obviate conventional perspective by disjoining and foregrounding all the elements of the composition or by employing several perspectives at once (as in a cityscape),

and where he came to regard acting itself as a form of montage insofar as a character's gestures and movements are meant to epitomize an extended emotional and intellectual process within a particular person

On the stage,

turned each episode of the play into a separate "number" and gathered them into a unified "montage" on the pattern of a music-hall programme'

a paradox hiding in this term),

the montage of attractions necessitated a dynamic composition in time,

a construction in transformation,

through which the various individual 'cells' of the action would compose a rhythmic whole in the collision of sequences

In other words,

'there is no lack of composition' where montage is in force,

'but the composition does not take precedence over the detail'

Eisenstein could herald an 'entirely new era of constructive possibilities' made possible by 'the magic power of montage',12 a power historically conditioned,

since the forms it assumes in the movies reflect contradictions and conflicts within actual events

The main outlines of what he called 'montage thinking',13 as it operates in both horizontal and vertical dimensions,

could be traced in virtually all the contemporary arts,

though film remained the model for such thinking

With this invocation of the exemplary status of the cinematic medium

which is also a theory of perception,

and the key role played by film in habituating 'the masses' to this new mode of experience and this new architectonics

To cite once more the programmatic language of Benjamin's 'Work of Art' essay: the cinema is the authentic Ubungsinstrument,

for the sort of reception in distraction which is coming into being in all areas of contemporary

Reception in Distraction

and which is symptomatic of a new kinetic apperception,

What makes film instrumental in the cultivation of such a decentred reception is,

the metamorphic mechanism of montage

The opposition now would seem to be between mere distraction and,

productive distraction — between distraction as a skewing of attention,

or as abandonment to diversion,

and distraction as a spur to new ways of perceiving

In either case,

a certain wandering or dispersion makes itself felt

As I suggested at the beginning of this chapter,

both ideas of distraction can be found in The Arcades Project

The negative view is reflected in passages concerned with commodity fetishism,

specifically with the world exhibitions and with the entertainment industry

In section III of the Expose of 1935,

we are told that the world exhibitions that began to be organized in Europe after 1850 'open a phantasmagoria which a person enters in order to be distracted \um sich zerstreuen zu lassen}

The entertainment industry makes this easier by elevating the person to the level of the commodity

He surrenders to its manipulations while enjoying his alienation from himself and others' (GS5

Several of the Brechtian themes (they are Marxian themes as well,

of course) are noticeable here,

in particular the association of distraction with complacent self-surrender in a crowd and willingness to be manipulated by the apparatus

this makes for alienation in a negative sense,

morally paralysing estrangement from oneself and others

The experience is one of being mastered by the apparatus

of the fascist mass rallies of his own day

The Expose goes on to connect the 'enthronement of the commodity' to,

thus caricaturing the fatal 'lustre of distraction' that emanates from the commodity

to the conception of the Gesamtkunstwerk,

that finds its chief representative,

Whereas Grandville's satire encourages critical awareness of the technologized cult of commodities,

the Gesamtkunstwerk would 'seal art off from the developments of technology' and,

conceal from its audience the fact of its own commodification

The techniques of distraction serve here

Even Baudelaire 'succumbs' to the 'rage' for Wagner (GS 5


Of course,

with their corridors of shop windows and their sundry allures (including the allure of prostitutes)

In this 'strange zone',

as Louis Aragon puts in his Paysan de Paris (that Surrealist travel guide which helped

Walter Benjamin and Art

allis distraction (tout est lapsus) — 'lapse of attention as well as of inattention'

knowingly absorbed in a 'cult of the ephemeral' (21/14),

as celebrated in this modern-archaic 'underwater world' (52/40),

Aragon's narrator confesses himself the 'master-slave of his vertigos' (125/102)

'Everything distracts me indefinably,

except from my distraction itself [tout me distrait indefiniment,

A feeling akin to nobleness of heart prompts me to exalt this surrender,

and my ears are closed to the reproaches you make me' (12/7-8)

What is striking about these passages from Aragon is the way they blithely transcend our duality of positive and negative distractions

The most ordinary or workaday objects

to phantasmagoric inventories of such objects,

as encountered in strolls through the Passage de 1'Opera (a display of sponges,

a target pinned on the back of an old telephone directory at a gunsmith's,

an emerald-coloured skin lotion bearing the name Veloute Naturel,

oak-panelled hairdressing salon for men)

There is no opposition here between entertainment as an end in itself and the education of apperception,

or indeed between intoxication and education: Some everyday object

I loved this intoxication which I knew how to put into effect

The way I saw it,

an object became transfigured: it did not so much manifest an idea as constitute that very idea

Thus it extended deeply into the world's mass

in a half-submerged world of things (Dingwelt),

is a defining feature of The Arcades Project

Just as the film prop becomes an actor while the film actor becomes a prop,

and just as objects in films (like objects in fairy tales) take on a life of their own,

so the physical spaces and furnishings and milieux of Benjamin's arcades evince a ghostly animation,

like creatures of a lost world

They wear a face

Benjamin does not explicitly call attention to the positive value of distraction in The Arcades Project,

as he does in the 'Work of Art' essay,

but he repeatedly demonstrates it through his cultural physiognomies,

his widely diffused researches into the historical 'rags' and 'refuse' of the nineteenth century (Nla,8)

he conjures an 'intoxicated experience' of city life that,

in its often startling concreteness,

counteracts the propensity for 'abstraction from the social existence of human beings',

the propensity attributed to the commodity in the Expose of 1935

No doubt we have come up against the famous Benjaminian ambivalence at this point — in particular,

the ambivalence towards commodity fetishism and 'the crowd'

But the simultaneity of positive and negative valorizations of

Reception in Distraction

distraction and intoxication is also,

a function of the 'ambiguity of the arcades' (R2a,3)

In Benjamin's presentation,

they are both laboratory and atmosphere

I mentioned a little earlier the leading role played in the The Arcades Projectby the figures o£flaneur,

In the case of each of these nineteenth-century types,

Benjamin applies a peculiarly double-edged formula: the flaneur is characterized,

a recollection not dulled but heightened by intoxication

the gambler by an intoxicated presence of mind,

a divinatory reading of his chances that is entirely obedient to bodily reflex

and the collector by an entranced absorption in his chosen object that allows him to see through it to a profile of the historical epoch from which it derives,

that makes of his object in its showcase a 'magic encyclopedia' of that epoch (H2,7

Benjamin's usage of the term Zerstreuung is double-edged in another sense

There is an ontological distraction as well as an epistemological one

Meditating the task of the collector,

Benjamin writes: 'Perhaps the most deeply hidden motive of the person who collects can be described this way: he takes up the struggle against dispersion [Zerstreuung

Right from the start,

the great collector is struck by the confusion,

by the scatter [Zerstreutheit\ in which the things of the world are found' (H4a,l)

To the things in their primordially strewn state the collector brings his distraught concern,

historically informed as it is

It is much the same with the flaneur,

through the labyrinth of streets and neighbourhoods,

gathering news of 'what has been' through the medium of building styles or place-names,

as he gives himself up to the flow of the game,

in order to come to a decision at the last possible moment

All three are at home,

They are touched and inspired by it

They spend themselves and expand themselves in being dispersed to the current of objects

And their reception in distraction,

like that of the movie audience,

is not merely visual but tactile,

it involves their whole sensorium,

as illuminated by memory (for the experience in 'intoxicated experience' is long experience [Erfahrung[]

Their struggle against dispersion succeeds only by dint of studious abandonment to it,

and this is the source of their presence of mind as something bodily

The ontological scatter that is accessible to an intensively scattered perception bespeaks a crisis of the object,

What I referred to above as the technologization and commodification of things (involving,

the unmooring of metaphysical substance) can be seen as a manifestation of this crisis

From an aesthetic point of view,

the challenge of discovering a form commensurate with the entropic or centrifugal tendency of modern experience,

with what in fact resists integration and closure

An articulation of dispersion,

a meaning in shock: is this not a possible purchase on

Walter Benjamin and Art

what is meant by 'literary montage' in The Arcades Project (Nla,8)

with its persistent documentary intention and its improvisatory arrangement of materials (an arrangement dictated mainly,

by the course of Benjamin's studies),

would seem to combine the most concrete sort of content with the most indeterminate sort of form

But perhaps it can be said that the montage of fragments (excerpts and reflections) which Benjamin has assembled in this text

especially of things perceived in an urban environment,

The centrifugal tendency would be an element of the work itself,

complementary to a constellatory tendency

For it is not by any means simple scatter that we find here

the historical objects of Benjamin's collection,

with their store of'secret affinities' (R2,3),

and tend to communicate with one another,

through a multitude of channels

They tell a story,

a story about the life and death of an architectural form,

about the entrance of the artist into the marketplace and into the cycles of class warfare,

about the technological and administrative transformation of the modern city,

about the dream life of an epoch as manifest in its cultural products,

most generally about the interpenetration of past and present in the field of the 'dialectical image'

This spatiotemporal interpenetration

awakens from the past it itself dreams

the anticipations and afterlives of cultural innovations),

as well as the key motif of superimpositions

It is worth noting,

how often Benjamin returns to instances of superimposition in his evocation of nineteenth-century interiors and street scenes,

illustrations and window displays

Such effects play a part in what he calls 'the masks of architecture' (Fla,l)


in gazing into the distances of his object,

summons up the various stages of its history (H2,7)

the hashish eater is witness to 'the colportage phenomenon of space',

a myriad of phantasmal figures and happenings from the past populating the room he inhabits (Mla,3)

the man who waits encounters an image of the expected woman superimposed on that of some unknown woman (M°,15)

at the opening of Proust's great novel,

quoted by Benjamin towards the end of Convolute K,

finds a whole series of remembered rooms in which he had formerly slept whirling madly through the darkness of the bedroom in which he awakens one night in a state of disorientation (K8a,2)

we meet with 'a past become space' (GS 5

as the etymon is embedded in a word

Reception in Distraction

Memory is spatialized,

in more or less perceptible imagestrata,

something as in cinematic superimposition,

One might also think of it as a collage effect,

through the translucencies of which the present is inscribed as the 'essence of what has been' (D°,6)

understood as a threshold in space and time,

there may be a coexistence and coming-toterms of distinct events,

including our reception of the passage in what Benjamin names 'the now of recognizability',

that critical moment of interpretation at which a particular historical object attains to legibility,

is actualized in a particular reading (N3,l)

the montage operates on both horizontal and vertical planes of language,

of image space,20 drawing the attention through various sequences as well as into the depths

We can thus see how a richly diversified diffusion factor

No doubt this makes for a peculiarly distracted reading experience,

even if we read the text straight through from beginning to end

We make our way through the maze of passages like a fl&neur at the mercy of his sensations: with a little practice,

we start to pick up echoes and to sense the approach of apparitions as we focus in on some detail,

which has suddenly come to life amid the shadows and the dust

Through the kaleidoscope of distractions,

image of a past in the present,

flashes into recognition: a facet reflecting that 'constellation of awakening' which Benjamin,

posits as the basic tendency of his 'unfinishable' project on the arcades (Nl,9

In the dialectic of awakening that governs the thought of this strange ongoing reclamation project,

we come awake only to the degree that we penetrate the dream

At issue here is 'that dream we name the past' (Kl,3)


The dialectical image is that form of the historical object that meets Goethe's demands on the object of analysis: it exhibits a true synthesis

It is the primal phenomenon [Urphdnomen] of history

(N9a,4) Goethe here perfected the portrait of the writer as 'genius'

For if the great writer is someone who transforms his inner life into a matter of public interest from the very outset and simultaneously makes the questions of the day into matters of immediate concern for his own personal thought and experience,

then it is in Goethe's youthful works that we find this type of the great writer in unmatched completeness


This chapter is constructed around an exposition of three antinomies,

two set out in the writings of Walter Benjamin,

and one to be developed in this introduction to account for the curious dissonance between the writings of Benjamin and the responses they evoke in Jacques Derrida's writings

and for exploring the relation between Benjamin's writings and Kant's aesthetics

This third antinomy provides a preliminary orientation for those who are perhaps more familiar with Derrida's responses to Benjamin than with the writings of Benjamin himself

Benjamin's writings pose formidable difficulties in both reading and exposition and I shall briefly indicate what I take to be the major obstacles preventing an adequate response to them,

making it tempting to accept Derrida's readings as expositions,

which Derrida himself would never claim them to be

The three critical difficulties posed by Benjamin's writings are their internal architecture

the complex relation to a notion of theology,

The Timing of Elective Affinity 15

on which Derrick's readings throw some light

and Benjamin's relation to Goethe

This last,

to be discussed in the second part of the chapter,

turns on Goethe's and Benjamin's preoccupation with a category of expressionlessness,

retrieved from the writings of Spinoza

Underpinning all of these there is Benjamin's relation to Kant's philosophy,

which I shall argue is a constant for Benjamin's writings

In the 1930s,

when he might appear to have moved furthest away from philosophy and most of all from philosophy as system,

the Kantian distinctions between concept and idea,

and between moral and epistemological issues are still in play in Benjamin's writings,

and the notion of antinomy is emphatically deployed,

in the context of a rethinking of the idea of progress

This then takes up and develops the notion of synthesis mentioned in the first of my two exergues,

concerning Goethe's contribution to a thinking of the dialectical image

The second exergue introduces Benjamin's estimation of the significance of Goethe,

as a marker for this notion of a strong aesthetics: one for which there is no gap between the specific configurations of human sensibility and the aesthetic processes of innovation and judgement

The second section of the chapter introduces an antinomy concerning art,

through a discussion of Benjamin's shifting relation to Goethe

The third antinomy,

is explored in the third section with the assistance of a differentiation between Kant and Benjamin on the scope of aesthetics

Since Kant is the inventor of the notion of antinomy in this sense,

it is especially suitable to lead up in this way to a discussion of Benjamin's borrowing from Kant's critical system

The chapter,

after this introduction concerning theology and an antinomy constituting the differences between Benjamin and Derrida's writings,

consists in two main parts: a discussion of Benjamin's reception of Goethe,

led by this opening citation from The Arcades Project',

and a discussion of the implied contrast between the strong aesthetics of my title and the notion of weak messianism,

advanced by Benjamin in the 'Historical Philosophical Theses' of 1940

The proposal is to read Benjamin's writings as aligned to Kant's aesthetics rather than to Derridean messianism

The part concerned with Benjamin's reception of Goethe focuses on a parallel between Goethe's enthusiasm for Spinoza and Benjamin's enthusiasm for Rosenzweig

It will set on one side the apparent opposition between Benjamin and Goethe,

introduced in the conclusion to the Origin of German Tragic Drama,

where Benjamin displaces Goethe's emphasis on a role for the symbol in art,

privileging instead the disseminations of allegory

When Goethe affirms and Benjamin denies priority to the symbol for the purposes of artistic analysis,

I suggest,

addressing themselves to a single neutral content


the citation concerning the dialectical image makes it clear that in the refinement of that notion,

it is to Goethe rather than to some theorist of allegory that Benjamin appeals

It would be a task for another occasion to show how what Goethe proposes under

Walter Benjamin and Art

the endorsement of the notion of the symbol,

and what Benjamin endorses through the notion of dialectical image can be thought together without sacrificing Benjamin's affirmation of allegory

Indeed it may be that the disputation of the role of symbol is directed not so much at the work to which Goethe puts it but rather to its re-affirmation in the reception of Goethe

This suggests a process of emergence for Benjamin's distinctive mode of enquiry,

out of the academic writings of 1917-1926,

arriving at the affirmation of allegory,

but not abandoning the Kantian infrastructure of inquiry,

nor yet the commitment to theological categories

The works of Goethe and of Kant in and of themselves might be thought to present two halves of an antinomy to be resolved by Benjamin's writings,

but this will not be explored here

the study of Goethe's Elective Affinities

and the study The Origin of German Tragic Drama,

which was intended by Benjamin to provide his venia legendi,

his access to an academic career

I shall not be discussing the last of these in any detail

Walter Benjamin,

moved through a number of career options,

driven on from one to another by the economic and political crises of his day

This tempts his less perspicacious readers to split his work up into phases

He is at first a gentleman scholar,

until the Weimar inflation eroded his inheritance

he is then political journalist,

until National Socialism in Germany rendered his writings unpublishable

he is the exiled intellectual,

until the occupation of Paris by the Nazis

he is martyr to the cause of intellectual self-determination

His reworking of theology remains,

There is however an invariant in his writings which puts in question the customary supposition that his writings fall into these distinct phases: a literary theological phase,

aiming towards an academic career

aiming towards a political engagement

and a final theological melancholy phase,

tending towards self-immolation

This is the recasting of theology

The famous image,

from the 'Historical Philosophical Theses',

marks the return of theology in his writings,

after attempts to convince Adorno amongst others of his political critical soundness

For the deployment of theological categories remains suspect to the emphatically secularized interests of such analysis


only through these categories can his theoretical commitments be made sense of,

for these theological categories provide him with the wherewithal to disaggregate time into discrete constituent parts,

which forms the kernel of his thinking

The first of the historical theses invokes the chess-playing machine,

which wins the intellectual debate in the name of historical materialism by using theological categories

This is to be understood as combining,

the theological preoccupations of his youthful writings,

with his Marxist critiques of both bourgeois and fascist political orders,

The Timing of Elective Affinity 17


as coterminous one with the other

The first thesis famously runs: There was once,

an automaton constructed in such a way that it could respond to every move of a chess player with a countermove that would ensure the winning of the game

A puppet in Turkish attire and with a hookah in its mouth sat before a chessboard placed on a large table

A system of mirrors created the illusion that this table was transparent on all sides


One can imagine a philosophic counterpart to this apparatus

The puppet called 'historical materialism',

It can easily be a match for anyone if it enlists the services of theology,

is small and ugly and has to keep out of sight

(5^4:389) Benjamin deploys theological categories to disturb and delimit the liberal consensus concerning the nature of progress and of time

He deploys Marxist categories to demonstrate the inextricability of artworks from their historical and temporal indices

These two operations are inseparable from one another and constitute his strong aesthetics

For in each case there is a critique of an emptying out of time,

as simply the medium for realizing cumulative progress in human affairs,

and of the evacuation of historical specificity in the name of eternal aesthetic value

Here then there emerges a challenge concerning a secret complicity between the natural and the human sciences preventing an adequate thinking of time and temporality,

instead fetishizing it as linear succession and eternity respectively

Benjamin's deepening interest in the possibility of a Jewish theology is in part a response to Franz Rosenzweig's The Star of Redemption (1921) but is also in response to the writings of Hermann Cohen

from those of manifestation or revelation,

This provides Benjamin with a model for a thinking of time as discontinuous

Whereas for Christianity the revelation of Christ provides the believer with an understanding of the connections between divine creation,

the coming of messiah as redeemer,

and the grounding of redemptive hope in that revelation,

the theology developed by Rosenzweig is concerned with charting discontinuity,

between the differential times of fulfilment,

of revelation and of redemption,

understood as quite distinct one from the other

There is no entry of divinity into profane time and no possibility here for the construal of a rationalist theology

Thus the distinctions which are constitutive for Christian theology,

and mystical theology are not constitutive for the theological thinking invoked by Benjamin: for there never was a rationalist theology in the Jewish tradition,

except as providing a mythological

Walter Benjamin and An

underpinning for the iron fist of persecution

This is a theology of discontinuous temporalities and withheld unifications

While the contrast implied in my title between strong aesthetics and weak messianism assists identification of Benjamin's take on Kant,

the notion of weak messianism also invokes the Derrida reading of Benjamin

Derrida refers to Benjamin in his discussion of weak messianism in Spect