The Afterlife of Walter Benjamin
Walter Benjamin has become an iconic figure. His popularity as a model for intellectual engagement extends nowadays from Japan to Brazil, and beyond. A testimony for the impact his thought has had may be suggested by the plan to follow the existing 14-volume critical edition of Benjamin’s writings (Gesammelte Schriften) —itself the source for multivolume editions of Benjamin’s work in Korean, Catalan, and Italian not to mention English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese,--with a second, an even more critical edition of the Werke und Nachlass counting no less than 26 volumes. Numerous collections of Benjamin’s writings on media, on German or French literature, on Philosophy, and so on, have been added to the best-selling lists, while the growing volume of Benjamin-interpretation has been multiplying on the non-fiction shelf. Among those, a stream of dissertations and monographs, countless collected volumes, proceedings, and—most recently--, the new comprehensive Biography by Howard Eiland and Michael Jennings. So far, experts had several companions to consult with, for example the two volume glossary of key concepts edited by Michael Opitz and Erdmut Wizisla or a Benjamin-Handbuch edited by Burkhardt Lindner, which offers an exhaustive synopsis and background for every text Benjamin has ever written, not to mention the Jahrbuch, counting already three volumes and dedicated on its entirety to close readings of Benjamin’s texts. True, there are certainly signs of exhaustion: It seems as if nothing innovative could be said anymore, and that, indeed, quite a few Benjaminian Phrases have been overused to the degree of turning to clichés (think of the Angel of History). However, it is not the first time that the ‘end’ of Benjamin has been predicted – a statement that was always followed by a new wave of interest and publications, extending Benjamin’s thought to surprising new fields and different communities of readers, or—to use Benjamin’s own language,-- a new actuality.
What does this popularity mean? In a way, it isn’t too difficult to explain: The originality of Benjamin’s ideas, his symptomatic position in-between several discourses, groups, or networks, the interdisciplinary nature of his thought, even the density of his style, all prompt the re-reading his texts. Seen from another angle, it is easy to bemoan the Benjamin-hype and its quick slogan-production while continuing to claim that ‘Benjamin himself’ was a subversive or an arcane figure working with and against his readership. Yet, if there is a lesson to be learned from Benjamin it is that cultural objects, works of art, and bodies of thought are never just the embodiment of a single genius and that “there are no times of decay”. Rather, Benjamin testified, we have to understand his work and his popularity in historical terms: “What is at stake is not to portray literary works in the context of their age, but to represent the age that perceives them – our age – in the age during with they arose.” (Literaturgeschichte und Literaturwissenschaft) 1
What is, then, the historical context of Benjamin’s popularity? What could we learn about ourselves and what do we learn about Benjamin if the focus is indeed on his popularity? This is a double edged question, since Benjamin’s idea of history is not simply to turn the tables on the present; rather, his radical albeit simple idea is that a historical insight into the past also enables an insight into the present and vice versa. From that perspective, a historical approach is all the more significant, for we are actively involved in the afterlife of the work.
Benjamin was obviously well aware of the question of popularity. Before he began thinking of the “tradition of the oppressed”, he thought about tradition at large, or the literary tradition of “fame.” In The Task of the Translator (1923), Benjamin considered the discourse of fame as it was explored by the George circle, and reflected about the history of poetry. Already here, he stressed that the reception of a work belongs to its “afterlife,” as a fusion of continuity and change; in his eyes, artworks are essentially historical entities that are not only situated at a certain moment in time but rather encapsulate history by and of themselves. Later, during the 1930s, Benjamin would refer to sociological concepts when arguing that a history of culture must not only refer to cultural products, but also to the processes of transmission, the ways by which an object of art has become part of a certain canon. When Benjamin writes about the delayed reception of important authors, --he mentions the early nineteenth century essayist Carl Gustav Jochmann as a case,-- or about saving the memory of what has been forgotten in his Deutsche Menschen (1936), he seems to speak of himself. Even if these two versions – the metaphysical discourse of fame and the sociological understanding of reception – are not easy to reconcile, they demonstrate Benjamin’s deep interest in ‘Afterness’, or the ghostly presence of that which is over but recurs repeatedly (eternally?). As Gerhard Richter and James McFarland have shown, this interest in the afterlife should be contextualized in the lineage leading from Nietzsche to Freud, and further, to Derrida.
Could these ideas be applied to Benjamin’s own popularity and afterlife? Even if Benjamin was not as neglected during his own lifetime, as he likes to complain in his letters, his work was heading for a posthumous oblivion. It is hard to underestimate the fact that his work is essentially a survivor, i.e., a body of work that already belonged to the past, when it won a sudden fame. The Germanist Detlev Schöttker has pointed out that Benjamin’s oeuvre is in fact a posthumous construction, made of fragments from diverse sources. Indeed, as Erdmut Wizisla and the researchers at the Berlin Benjamin-Archive demonstrated, Benjamin himself acted like an archivist; after being exiled, he systematically sent texts to friends he had hoped would help saving his texts. He was correct in his calculations, and indeed, after his death his treasurers turned to be also his posthumous editors; Gershom Scholem and Theodor W. Adorno, and later Rolf Tiedemann, all contributed to this effort. Needless to mention, this first generation of collectors and editors educated another generation; nowadays, the editorial community itself counts many names.
As the correspondence between Adorno and Scholem reveals, the editorial work was quite laborious: At that time, even simple recognition of Benjamin’s thought and writing seemed improbable, given that so many names of his generation have sunk into oblivion and that the cultural climate in Germany of the 1950s was shaped by the resistance if not repression of the past. Consciously or unconsciously, the editors understood their work to compensate for the failure– or not trying hard enough – to save Benjamin. From this perspective, Benjamin’s ‘work’ is a product of survivors-guilt, not just psychologically, but also historically: One cannot understand its prominence nor its meaning in the present day, without taking into account the catastrophic history of National Socialism as well as the strange silence of the early Cold War years. The early readers of Benjamin were well aware of that particular after-effect, but the canonization of Benjamin as a “major thinker” obscured the historical index. The most problematic aspect of Benjamin’s popularity, it seems to me, is that it builds on a given canonical status while ignoring the improbability of the work’s own afterlife.
A strange irony accompanies the growth of Benjamin’s canonization: The strong light that radiates from Benjamin’s work seems to darken everything around it; a constant stress on the uniqueness of his work shades Benjamin’s investment in diverse Weimar discourses and how chance and opportunity determined his writing. Readers tend to view the texts as if they were published originally as an integral part of the Gesammelte Schriften– and of course they were not. Rather, Benjamin’s audience was often a local or a professional one. Take for example a recent new edition of Benjamin’s journalistic criticism in Werke und Nachlass (edited by Heinrich Kaulen), which reveals some of Benjamin’s most brilliant pieces, but that is clearly addressed to a specific context and a particular audience. The same can be said about the claim for originality, a claim that often suffers from an obvious lack of comparison with other authors. Think of the sad case of Sigfried Kracauer, a close friend of Benjamin, who--during the 1920s and 1930s,-- expressed similar views and developed a close enough intellectual system, but was marginalized, much due to Benjamin’s overarching shadow. Or, consider the case of Georg Simmel, undoubtedly one of the most important intellectuals of his time and a source of inspiration for Benjamin himself; he, too, is hardly read, despite his substantial contribution to new forms of philosophical Essayism and to the foundation of modern Sociology.
Undoubtedly, Benjamin’s solitary position was the work and interest of his editors,-- Adorno’s mostly, -- who chose to emphasize Benjamin above and beyond everyone else. For them, Benjamin stood as the one sole figure that could survive the ultimate catastrophe. Whether we agree with this estimation or not, should this be our interest in the present? How committed should we be to the legacy left by Benjamin’s editors or his own preconceived attempt to keep a living legacy? One sad result of this legacy is the creation of a self-referential game, where Benjamin’s texts are merely compared and read against each other, and when interpreters move back and forth between this or that idea of early or late Benjamin, but without widening the scope and context of the consideration.
A plea for a wider perspective does not mean a reduction to ‘contextualization,’ but rather a call to reflect about the positioning of Benjamin’s oeuvre. Perhaps, to consider one possible route, Benjamin’s writings, with their exiting complexity, could advance our understanding of these other forgotten thinkers and other Weimar discourses. Obvious queries, following such pleas, are: What happened in a particular Weimar discourse that made this form of authorship possible or necessary? What does it mean to write under the condition of modernity? How does the pluralization and fragmentation of discourses affect modern authorship? What happens to a literary language that is no longer enshrined in the artistic world? Where is philosophy in this post-Benjaminian world?
Only then, after considering the context, could we consider the other part of the question raised above: What is it about us that enables or even requires an author like Benjamin? The historical knowledge, the first part of the question, demands some distance; for it is not enough to ponder about Benjamin’s entrance to the canon, we also have to turn the question towards ourselves: Why do we need such "big-name intellectuals"? And what does Benjamin do for us? Is he a “founder of a discourse” in Foucauldian terms, or an ideal type for post-war “theoreticians”? Or: Is Benjamin just another indication of authority, a name one drops to impress her peers, or a source of authoritative in a particular theory war? To put it bluntly, how should we go on with Benjamin?
1Walter Benjamin, “Literary History and the Study of Literatre,” in Selected Writings vol. 2: 2: 1931-1934, edited by Michael W. Jennings, Howard Eiland, and Gary Smith (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2005), p. 464.
Daniel Weidner teaches cultural theory at the Humboldt University in Berlin. He is the Associate Director of the Center for literary and cultural studies (ZfL), and is a member of the Board of the International Walter Benjamin Society. Prof. Weidner has published widely about the history and theory of early twentieth century culture, specifically in relation to the discourse/s of secularization.