"History is an angel being blown backwards into the future"

There is, to speak once more of restaurants, a nearly infallible criterion for determining their rank. This is not, as one might readily assume, their price range. We find this unexpected criterion in the color of the sound that greets us when [broken off]

—Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project
First Sketckes [Bº, 1]
(translated by Eiland and McLaughlin)

As you might have noticed, I’m spending the month of August getting reacquainted with the German scholar and critic Walter Benjamin. Unlike most of my periodic enthusiasms of this sort, this one is not serendipitous or random.

Benjamin has not been completely MIA in musical studies, by any means—Brian Ferneyhough even wrote an opera about him, and he has his own Laurie Anderson song—but for the most part Benjamin is usually encountered as an auxiliary to Theodor Adorno. Benjamin knew and corresponded with Adorno, and was loosely affiliated with the Institute for Social Research run by Adorno and Max Horkheimer, but Benjamin and Adorno often seem to be running on parallel tracks. The biggest difference, to me, is temperamental—where Adorno is judgmental (I usually can’t get more than twenty or so pages into Adorno without being scolded for enjoying something I enjoy), Benjamin’s interest in why a situation is the way that is usually trumps, or at least tempers, his opinion as to whether it should be that way in the first place.

One reason I’ve been drawn back to Benjamin is because his view of culture is so expansive and fluid, which is something I always think musical discussions, particularly discussions of the place and purpose of music in people’s lives, need more of. But there’s also Benjamin’s exploration of how culture intersects with the market. In the two years I’ve been rambling on in this space, I would bet that the one subject I’ve expended more words on than any other (apart from, say, crazy news stories) is the relationship between music and the free market. The recurring subjects—the “death” of classical music, proposals to present classical music in a more pop-like manner, the debate between complexity and simplicity, with it’s corresponding questions as to the value of surface “accessibility”—more and more, my own take on all of those is that the persistence of such subjects has been largely the result of a view of the intersection of culture and the market too simplistic and one-way in its causality. In other words, I’ve realized, we don’t think enough like Walter Benjamin. (My own salvo in the recent Complexity Wars, was, I noticed after the fact, essentially a fond burlesque of Benjamin’s usual m.o.)

Benjamin’s greatest testament is the massive sheaf of materials known as The Arcades Project, started in 1927 and left unfinished at his death in 1940. It was an effort to encompass the entire cultural life of the 19th century through the lens of the city of Paris, from the ground up: advertisements, popular entertainment, everyday architecture, fashion, street life—all perceived through the eye of the flâneur, the strolling observer, the exemplar of people-watching, the new pastime made possible by the reshaping of the urban landscape. The existing form of The Arcades Project—clippings, quotations, fragmented observations—reinforce the image of Benjamin as a scholar of detritus, a historian whose primary materials were the throwaway artifacts of everyday life rather than the comings and goings of heads of state. (I fully expect academia to produce an analytical comparison of Benjamin to the title character of Wall•E within the year.) But the study reveals Benjamin’s complex and subtle perception of market forces within culture. We’re largely conditioned to regard the market as reactive and responsive, an indication of the wants and desires of individuals, aggregated across given segments of society. Benjamin, though, sees technology, market forces, and human needs (practical, emotional, and intellectual) as partners in an intricate dance, each influencing, and being influenced by, the others. Take the usual argument that a given piece of pop music has more cultural relevance than a piece of classical music because, well, more people have bought it: Benjamin would point out that the market drives the want for such music as much as it responds to it; the market is driven by technological advances; technological research, in turn, is channeled by perceived market benefit, which is shaped by the wants and needs that the market has previously conditioned. You can’t equate what people consume with what people “really want,” because you can’t separate what people really want from what’s made available for them to consume.

The main work of Benjamin’s to gain a foothold in the musical world—in fact, probably his most influential work, period—is “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” which exists in three versions written between 1935 and 1939. The title gives away its importance to musicians, even though the essay itself is largely concerned with film—after all, the single most important event in the last century of music history is the advent of recorded music. Benjamin early on saw the way the technology would effect how we perceive artistic activity—fundamentally altering concepts of the unique authority of a work of art, and the relationship of the individual audience member to the massed audience, and to the artwork itself—in ways that we still haven’t quite come to terms with. Any attempt to compare an assembled audience for live music with a similar audience for a movie, or a fragmented audience for television—Benjamin would have something to say about that. The way that music (mostly pop, but other traditions as well) increasingly cycles through references to older styles in a recurring search for a mantle of authenticity wouldn’t have surprised Benjamin at all.

Benjamin’s association with the Frankfurt School has perhaps caused much of his work to seem dated to a mainstream audience, especially his use of a Marxist framework. Certainly Marx’s work was, in Benjamin’s time, the most thoroughgoing critique of capitalism there was; given Benjamin’s fascination with the workings and effects of the market—and the resulting commodification of artistic output—his adoption of a Marxist, or at least Marxian, outlook isn’t surprising. What’s most interesting about Benjamin, though, is the way he makes room in his philosophy for a persistently psychological, almost mystical bent. His writing keeps circling back to the “interior,” to the “dream world,” an individual psychological universe that, in his view, is pushed farther and farther underground by technologically market-driven societies. Benjamin had a lifelong fascination with the world of children’s play, which he saw as an expression of human nature as yet unmediated by societal forces; he collected and analyzed children’s books, and his theories on film were heavily influenced by Mickey Mouse cartoons (especially the early, anarchic Mickey, before the Disney studios adopted a more naturalistic and “responsible” style.) The Frankfurt School is often criticized for over-intellectualizing culture, but really, Benjamin’s intellectual effort was in the service of getting back to the primal, emotional effects of artistic activity, mapping the layers of emotional instruction that civilization piles on artistic perception in order that they might be stripped away. But Benjamin is less condemnatory of modern culture than one might expect—his main concern is understanding, making us as spectators fully aware not only of the societal apparatus that effects our perception of art, but also of our own inseparable location within that apparatus.

Ultimately, what Benjamin is most afraid of is not that culture will be debased through technological and market mediation, but that we’ll be unable to recognize such mediation when we see it. In 1930s Europe, Benjamin’s explorations were, to him, hardly idle speculation—he was diagnosing what he perceived to be the unraveling of civilization itself. The famous conclusion to “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”:

Mankind, which in Homer’s time was an object of contemplation for the Olympian gods, now is one for itself. Its self-alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order. This is the situation of politics which Fascism is rendering aesthetic. Communism responds by politicizing art.

The last sentence produces harsh overtones after the long, brutal decline of Soviet communism into corruption and persecution. But Benjamin saw communism as a bulwark against fascism, which was avowedly anti-communist in its outlook. Technology, Benjamin says, has made artistic power available to politicians, so art has to become a check against the political abuse of that power. It’s fun to speculate about what Benjamin might have thought about this development or that, but in my own mind, I’m certain he would have been utterly dismayed at the extent to which politics has been aestheticized, even in nominally democratic societies. American politics, certainly, is now organized around image and perception, around vastly simplistic narratives and constructed mythologies. Benjamin’s proposed politicized artistic response isn’t propagandistic or equally one-dimensional, but rather a reassertion of those habits of perception and understanding that cut political abuse off at its roots. It’s a prescription that doesn’t favor one genre over another, but does require a deep understanding of how any genre interacts with the technological and societal means, effects and mirrors of the market it operates in, where it’s reinforcing the mechanism, where it’s possibly subverting it.

Benjamin’s cultural outlook is both deeply skeptical—question everything—and deeply inclusive, trying always to encompass a breathtakingly wide and detailed census of the activities of society. As such, it’s a tonic against criticism-by-categorization and a surprisingly concrete alternative to easy generalizations about “the audience” or “the market” or even human society itself. There’s debate as to just how unfinished The Arcades Project really is: maybe Benjamin really did want it to be something like the catch-all collage it is, argument by juxtaposition and collection rather than just analysis. In a way, it’s training in thinking like Benjamin for one’s self, noticing the things he noticed, making the connections he would have made. Maybe the project hints at a different framework for philosophy, the end result not a boiled-down summation, but the explicit realization of the mechanics of thought itself. In a way, Benjamin mapped out the extraordinarily rich prerequisite for a very basic goal: knowing what you’re talking about.


  1. I think I have to move him to the top of my list. He’s one of those guys I’ve always had an interest in but haven’t gone out of my way to read. Thanks for the awesome post. A+

  2. What empiricus said. It’s the way I look at art, politics and the world around me anyway, but I’m glad somebody else got there first.

  3. What a timely post. I just opened a package from Amazon containing the collection of Benjamin’s essays, <>Illuminations<> selected and introduced by Hannah Arendt. Arendt’s 50-page introduction is worth the price of the book. In it she identifies Adorno not only as Benjamin’s friend, but as his ‘first and only disciple.’ This of course leads one to this < HREF="http://www.hup.harvard.edu/catalog/ADOCOM.html?show=reviews" REL="nofollow">THE COMPLETE CORRESPONDENCE, 1928-1940<> which you no doubt have seen. I think I’ll probably wait for the movie to come out for that one, but hopefully I can look forward to some insight from you or Moe before that.

Leave a Reply