Benjamin, Walter

Walter Benjamin (1892–1940) was a German theorist and philosopher, as well as a literary critic and cultural historian, who was born into an affluent Jewish family. Benjamin suffered from severe depression and—perhaps fearful of capture and deportation back to Germany after leaving the country around the time of Adolph Hitler’s reign of Nazi Germany—committed suicide by way of a morphine overdose in a Spanish hotel. While Benjamin’s departure from Germany and some of his writings were influenced by his political beliefs formulated during a time of lack of individual privacy and security as a German Jew, the majority of his most recognized writings focused on aspects of culture and the media. This entry begins with a brief glimpse of Benjamin’s formative years, followed by examinations of his writings and theories that undertook a critical analysis of modernity, mass media, and cultural studies.

Formative Years

Early in his life, Benjamin advocated for education reform in Germany and unsuccessfully pursued a teaching position as a professor of philosophy in academia. Benjamin, who experienced an intense drive to travel, turned to a peripatetic existence while he wrote books, essays, and reviews by the hundreds. Some scholars have argued that Benjamin, little known in his time, had a strong influence in shaping the avant-garde realism and even in creating the concept of pop culture. In 1933, he left Germany, never to return. Benjamin spent his last years in exile, where he wrote most of The Arcades Project, his incomplete masterpiece on the rise of commodity capitalism in 19th-century France. While not all scholars accept Benjamin’s standpoint in The Arcades Project, many highlight the importance of the work, in which he collected excerpts from 19th-century sources on the phenomena of novelty, specifically the development of commercial arcades and department stores, and other consumerist elements of modern life. Among the emblematic concepts developed in this work is the flâneur as representative of modernity. The flâneur, a concept he builds on from the French poet and writer Charles Baudelaire, is a constantly walking Parisian spectator who leisurely strolls through the city and, basking in its novelties and pleasures, records his impressions in writing.

During his lifetime, Benjamin was acknowledged and admired by only a small circle of intellectuals. Today, however, Benjamin is a major intellectual figure whose work is often considered crucial to understanding modernity. His writings cover the humanities spectrum of philosophy, politics, literature, history, the media, art, photography, film, technology, and religion, among many other topics.

On the Possibilities of Mass Media

Benjamin also analyzed popular culture in the growing industries of music, film, and radio. These also had a democratizing effect. The rapid movement and rush of images typical of cinema could allow people to better understand the flow and instability of living in industrial urban societies.

Benjamin saw possibilities for social progress in new technology. He also worked with the renowned German artist and theorist Bertolt Brecht on radio scripts and films, and both sought ways to use the media as channels for social progress. This hope is reflected in Benjamin’s essay “The Artist as Producer” (1934), in which he posits that progressive artists should give new purpose to the whole apparatus of cultural production. Culture producers could, for example, turn theater and film into spaces for engaging in political consciousness and debate, rather than allow them to become solely a medium for entertainment and pleasure. The collaboration between Benjamin and Brecht produced radio plays meant to be used as instruments of social change. Some scholars have found that in an essay on radio theory, Brecht anticipated the Internet by foreseeing a medium that would allow an interactive forum of multiple, simultaneous forms of communication.

Benjamin and the Frankfurt School

Benjamin was loosely affiliated with the Frankfurt School. However, it was not an uncritical alliance. His work contested some of the theoretical standpoints of Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Leo Lowenthal, and other members of the Institute for Social Research, as the Frankfurt School was initially called. Although Benjamin had hopes for the progressive possibilities of mass communication technology, he also acknowledged that media such as film could be used for conservative, even oppressive purposes. He saw some positive effects in the loss of aura in mass-produced art reproductions, but posited that film could also create a kind of aura, of ideological mystification, through film techniques that fetishized actors and created a celebrity cult. In this manner, Benjamin joins radical cultural critics such as Adorno and Horkheimer, who encouraged the public to give a close, critical reading of media texts and cultural artifacts and consider carefully their social effects.

Benjamin was one of the first theorists to develop a methodological approach to media analysis and critical studies. This has been one of his most enduring contributions to academic disciplines and art criticism. He examined cultural history, including in his historical analysis of 19th-century Paris, The Arcades Project, which he left uncompleted on his death. However, all of his incomplete work contains a trove of material that is still being analyzed for study and debate.

The Frankfurt School focused on mass-produced culture in what it called the culture industry or industries. The culture industry theories described the production of mass-produced cultural artifacts and their homogenization and standardization. Mass culture in this view indoctrinates people into a capitalist ideology of consumption by producing always unsatisfied dreams, hopes, and desires and socializes people into specific cultural mores and values. Among the behaviors that the culture industry strives to replicate is an endless desire for consumer products. The culture industry turns audiences into consumers who would use and consume its products—in the form of both culture and commercial goods. The consuming audiences are persuaded to accept the ideological imperatives they receive and conform to the values and mores of a capitalist society. Nevertheless, Benjamin argues that while this downside to the culture industry exists, it also may produce critical consumers who are rationally capable of discerning among different types of cultural texts and artifacts.

Despite illuminating the liberating possibilities of culture industry technologies, Benjamin was also able to foresee a period in which mass culture and its technologies were capable of shaping and disseminating the ideology that led to a massively consuming society. His work, and the theories developed by the Frankfurt School and other Marxist intellectuals of the time, marked an important paradigm shift in critical and analytical thinking among intellectuals and academics. It forecasted the late capitalist era in which arose the controlled mass communication apparatus. By way of network radio and television, newsprint and popular magazines, Hollywood films, and other mass-produced cultural artifacts, the great corporate media apparatus furthered the consumerist ethos of contemporary society while obscuring the ways in which the political will and liberties of the citizenry were curtailed.

Trudy Mercadal

See also Adorno, Theodor W. ; Fascism ; Frankfurt School ; Gramsci, Antonio ; Nazism ; Social Control

Further Readings

Benjamin, Walter. The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility and Other Writings. Cambridge, England: Belknap Press, 2008.

Bronner, Stephen Eric.Critical Theory: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Eiland, Howard. Walter Benjamin: A Critical Life. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014.

Kellner, Douglas. Media Culture: Cultural Studies, Identity, and Politics Between the Modern and the Postmodern. London, England: Routledge, 1995.

Miller, Tyrus. Modernism and the Frankfurt School. Edinburgh, Scotland: Edinburgh University Press, 2014.

Scheuerman, William E.Frankfurt School Perspectives on Globalization, Democracy and the Law. London, England: Routledge, 2012.

Steiner, Uwe. Walter Benjamin: An Introduction to His Work and Thought. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2010.

Weitz, Eric D. Weimar Germany: Promise and Tragedy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2013.