Walter Benjamin, Popular Critic

Lecia Rosenthal, ed. Radio Benjamin (London, NY: Verso, 2014), 394 pages,  $29.95

Esther Leslie, trans. Walter Benjamin’s Archive: Images, Texts, Signs (London, NY: Verso, 2015), 311 pages, $19.95

At a moment when Walter Benjamin’s work is once again being claimed on behalf of analytic and poststructuralist philosophical traditions, the radical publisher Verso has released two unusual collections containing previously unavailable materials. Benjamin was an ecumenical Marxist, cultural critic, and virtuosic collector without a home in which to store his extensive archives. He died in 1940 seeking asylum from fascist persecution. Friends and allies throughout Europe safeguarded his works for later publication, a continuing project to which Radio Benjamin and Walter Benjamin’s Archive make important additions. That these books will be of interest to Benjamin specialists goes without saying, but the perennial question of the political value of his work remains open. Benjamin’s enigmatic writing sustains wildly contrasting interpretations. However, these new collections outline an epistemological politics—popular, pedagogical, autodidactic, and archival—that unambiguously reinforces Benjamin’s importance for historical materialism.

Revisiting Benjamin’s writings has frequently occasioned a neutralization of either his Marxist politics or his political theology. In addition, it has often obscured the highly collaborative nature of his writing process, typically in an effort to disregard the editorial roles of those whose critiques have resisted liberal appropriation. These crucial elements remain repressed in the editing of these new volumes but nevertheless return with great force throughout their pages. Their sensitive exploration of some of Benjamin’s lesser known writings has made available new resources of great clarity and interest, and his methods of collecting represent a popular, do-it-yourself, customizable epistemology of particular interest to users of social media and to radical scholars and activists. Epistemology, the theorization of knowing, constitutes a crucial dimension of political practice.

Walter Benjamin’s Archive will appeal most immediately to scholars of media and art history because it foregrounds the visual arrangement of Benjamin’s annotations. First published in German as an art book in conjunction with an exhibit of the Walter Benjamin Archives at the Academy of Arts in Berlin, the book presents examples of Benjamin’s notes and collections in the manner of artwork in a gallery, using highest quality printing, artfully arranged and framed by ample white space. In addition to such items as travel postcards, urban photography, and word puzzles, the examples presented here include meticulously arranged and documented notes and diagrams demonstrating Benjamin’s idiosyncratic, autodidactic strategies for managing the notorious complexity of his longer and frequently collaborative works. The Introduction and various prefaces evoke the style, purpose, and brevity of museum exhibit placards. Accordingly, some readers will allow the archive contents to speak for themselves before reading the editors’ curatorial remarks.

The book’s most important contribution lies in offering a relatively direct experience of the materiality of Benjamin’s critical cultural practices, which exemplify an epistemological politics that in its reflexivity and uniqueness defies rationalization by state, institution, and capital. Here, the constellation concept that grounded Benjamin’s dialectics is presented in material form through the spatial grouping of contrasting particulars, enabling a more visceral experience of “the encircling dance of represented Ideas.”1

Radio Benjamin also offers new materials in English for those interested in Benjamin’s politics of knowing, particularly as it pertains to education and to media and communications technology.2 The few theoretical writings included are, for the most part, already available in recent well-received translations.3 However, two very short pieces, “The Situation in Broadcasting” and “Listening Models,” available here in English for the first time, demonstrate Benjamin’s prescient understanding of the roles that syndicated broadcasting and the consolidation of radio networks would soon play in German political propaganda, as well as of how Brecht’s proletarian didactic theater techniques could be used to build resistance through critical programming. The listening models typify this approach by presenting a social difficulty commonly encountered by workers and then demonstrating a revised version of it in which the workers are able to express their own class interests.

The translations of the Berlin Youth Hour scripts are by far the book’s most significant contribution in this vein. Their unswerving lucidity is no minor accomplishment given Benjamin’s expertise in a wide range of subjects and his extensive usage of vernacular and dialect. In the well-known essay on cinema, “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility,” Benjamin proposes that developing lay expertise through critical consumption of mass culture empowers political resistance.4 The Youth Hour broadcasts clarify and exemplify this theory for the age of broadcasting. Benjamin instructs the youth of Berlin on how to explore and critique the spaces, materials, and practices found in various parts of their city, from a proudly proletarian standpoint. In Benjamin’s hands, Berlin itself becomes a historical riddle or puzzle one may learn to solve.

Furthermore, these lapidary radio scripts are useful for all readers of Benjamin because they use everyday imagery and language to illustrate many of Benjamin’s challenging theoretical concepts. As one example of many, his invocation in “Berlin Guttersnipe” of intarsia (decorative inlay of metal, stone, or contrasting wood in carpentry) illustrates his conceptualization of the fragment or shard, a crucial aspect of modern subjective alienation and also his usage of constellation and force-field (Kraftfeld) as metaphors for dialectical knowing. Incorporating these short, charming, accessible, and characteristically brilliant pieces into the pedagogy of critical theory would ease many a student’s path, enabling one to read Benjamin critically on one’s own terms, like the lay expert Benjamin envisions in his “Work of Art” essay.

In the Youth Hour radio scripts, Benjamin’s material and aesthetic politics are clearly grounded in a critical celebration of popular culture—localized, urban industrial folk culture as distinct from mass culture. The rhetorical scene invoked in the Youth Hour broadcasts is one of worker addressing worker, rather than a centralized voice of administration from above. Young proletarian listeners, who began working at an early age in those days, are encouraged to be clever, observant, and actively engaged in civic matters. They hear proletarian Berlin vernacular and dialect spoken artfully, always expressing a worker’s point of view, taking pride in detailed knowledge and memory of, for instance, development of the urban built environment (as in “Demonic Berlin”) and the specifications of large factory production (as in “Borsig” and “A Visit to the Brass Works”).

Often, the writing is quite subversive of capitalism as well as towards conventional social hierarchies, as when Benjamin jokes candidly about the pleasures of childhood transgressions:

So it’s left to me to calmly say what I really think: the more someone understands something and the more he knows of a particular kind of beauty—whether it’s flowers, books, clothing, or toys—the more he can rejoice in everything that he knows and sees, and the less he’s fixated on possessing it, buying it himself, or receiving it as a gift. Those of you who listened to the end, athough you shouldn’t have, must now explain this to your parents. (43)

Similarly, in this passage from “Berlin Puppet Theater,” Benjamin playfully upends social order:

But their superiority has already provoked much hate and persecution. First from the church and the authorities, because puppets can so easily mock everything without being malicious. They take the greatest of men and mimic them, as if to say: ‘What man can do, so can any puppet.’ In old Austria, for example, they ridiculed the tyrants. But then at times they made for dangerous competition for the proper theater, as in Paris, where the actors didn’t rest until they had chased the puppets from the city center to the farthest reaches of the metropolis. (20)

The essays focusing on cultural differences, especially those in which Benjamin himself took no part, while insightful for their time, now seem rather tone-deaf and are better avoided (his comments on Jews are far more sensitive and thoughtful than his remarks on, for example, “Gypsies” or on witchcraft). On these subjects Benjamin extended his purview beyond his own considerable capabilities, probably for the sake of satisfying the broadcast audience’s taste for novelty. However, many of these radio essays could be read aloud with listeners of all ages to wonderful effect. Offering nothing short of a child’s political economy from a historical materialist point of view, one that values experience as a way of knowing and always remains attentive to the perennial question why?, these radio scripts are highly recommended as children’s and young adult literature, probably best explored in the company of an adult who has read them beforehand. They would provide a much-needed historical materialist dimension to children’s and youth libraries containing such radical and progressive titles on social justice, gender, and climate change as A Is for Activist and Sex Is a Funny Word.5

Certainly, critical consumption can be a weak or unreliable form of resistance. However, Benjamin shows that there is much in popular culture that, especially with a bit of guidance, provides empowering mental training for social struggles of all kinds. Walter Benjamin’s politics of knowing points toward a left that avoids confusing solidarity with authoritarianism and conformity but rather promotes material equality and creative expression, catalyzing new ideas of resistance while reinforcing existing ones.

Reviewed by Carolyn Elerding
Ohio State University
elerding.1@osu.edu

Notes

1. Quoted in Peter Osborne and Charles Matthew, “Walter Benjamin,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2015 Edition), Edward N. Zaita (ed.),
http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2015/entries/benjamin/

2. For a comprehensive overview of Benjamin’s work in media theory, see McKenzie Wark, “Benjamedia,” http://www.versobooks.com/blogs/2224-mckenzie-wark-benjamedia

3. Michael W. Jennings, Brigid Doherty, and Thomas Y. Levin (eds.), The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility and Other Writings on Media. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2008. 19-56. Jennings has recently published a new biography with Howard Eiland entitled Walter Benjamin: A Critical Life. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014.

4. Several versions exist of Benjamin’s “Work of Art” essay. I refer to the second version, lesser known but more strongly endorsed by its author, translated by Edmund Jephcott and Harry Zohn in Work of Art.

5. Innosanto Nagara, A Is for Activist. New York: Triangle Square/Seven Stories Press, 2013. Cory Silverberg and Fiona Smyth, Sex Is a Funny Word. New York: Triangle Square, 2015.

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