Volume 7, No. 1 (December /January 1997)


IN THE EIGHTIES, MECHANICAL REPRODUCTIONS of Walter Benjamin's work were everywhere. The German thinker's provocative, if often cryptic, meditations of the relationship between art and technology, his reworkings of Marxist cultural theory, and his insights into German Romanticism served as catalysts for a seemingly endless number of articles and dissertations in film studies, comparative literature, and other fields. Yet two things stand out about Benjamin's influence in America: It was based on a relatively small number of texts, since very few of his writings had been translated into English, and it was often based on a superficial acquaintance with his work.

Now all that may change. This month Harvard University Press will publish its first volume of Benjamin's Selected Writings. The series, which will also include the first full English translation of Benjamin's enigmatic study of the Paris Arcades, is under the general-editorship of Princeton German professor Michael Jennings. Critics have often regarded Benjamin as either a doctrinaire Marxist or an abstruse mystic. With these volumes, such single-minded readings of the dense and complicated German critic should be less easy to sustain.

Why Benjamin now? Lindsay Waters, executive editor for the humanities at Harvard University Press, argues that it is precisely range and unpredictability of Benjamin's writings that make him relevant at a time when cultural theorists are rethinking their aims. "You have people trying to figure out the relationship between philosophy and literature, people in cultural studies trying to figure out what cultural studies is," he says. "Benjamin is someone who matters to this, because he offers us a chance to understand how modern artworks really work. If people think theory is something up in the clouds, they're going to be disappointed. But who wants it to be that?"

These days, almost no one, apparently. "I think there's a feeling that the hallmark figures of what has come to be known as theory need to be re-examined," says Eric Banks, senior editor of Artforum. "Ten years ago, people felt theory offered a lot of tools to rethink some basic problems. Now there's a real sense of a lack of direction, and this is a kind of back-to-basics movement within theory." The Harvard series, coupled with the New Press's forthcoming three-volume edition of writings by Foucault and Stanford's projected publication of the collected works of Theodor Adorno, can be seen as part of an attempt to revisit the foundations of cultural studies in order to determine where the field might go next.

In this respect, Volume One: 1913-1926 of Benjamin's Selected Writings, which appears this month, is an auspicious beginning, introducing American readers to a plethora of previously untranslated essays and fragments from Benjamin's twenties and early thirties. It shows us the critic as he first comes to grips with many of the problems that would preoccupy him throughout his career: messianism, the philosophy of history, the relationship between language and the world, and the aura that surrounds the work of art.

"Ten years ago, people felt theory offered a lot of tools to rethink some basic problems. Now there's a real sense of a lack of direction, and this is a kind of back-to-basics movement within theory."

Though he was famously skeptical of the idea of progress, it's impossible not to consider Benjamin's development over the thirteen years covered in chronological order by the first volume. The pieces written when he was a leader of a radical German youth group, for example, reveal a brash young man full of confidence and lofty ideals. Pitting German youth against middle-aged "philistines," he writes, "We, however, know… that truth exists, even if all previous thought has been an error. Or: that fidelity shall be maintained, even if no one has done so yet." Even during this early phase, no subject is beyond his scope. He tackles "language as such" and sets out to define the "program of the coming philosophy" -- this at the ripe old age of twenty-six.

The later pieces show a writer whose optimism has been tempered by the failure of the radical youth movement, the terrors of World War I, and his quarrels with the German academy. "One-Way Street," the last piece in the volume, is a melancholy collect of fragments on urban life, a Surrealist meditation on the detritus of the everyday. Its subject matter ranges from banknotes -- which Benjamin sees as capitalism at its most naively earnest, "ornamenting the façade of hell" -- to postmarks -- which he reads as an occult language of blessings and curses.

For many readers, this scrupulous attention to detail, this sense that everything can be made to speak, explains Benjamin's lasting force as a writer. His hermeneutic skill is nowhere more evident than in his essay on Goethe's Elective Affinities, the most important previously untranslated piece included here. He confronts the novel from several different perspectives, using it to illuminate the institution of marriage, the morality of love, and the project of artistic creation. At the same time, the essay offers a powerful -- and frankly mystical -- image of criticism itself. For Benjamin, the critic is an "alchemist," confronting the work as it continues to burn instead of merely shifting through the "heavy logs of what is past and the light ashes of what has been experienced." The moral responsibility of the critic, says Benjamin, is to tend the fire, to keep the work from dying.

Waters is enamored of the alchemical metaphor, since it exemplifies not only what Benjamin does at his best but Harvard's goal to expose the broadest possible audience to his work. "This guy's ideas aren't just for scholars," says Waters. "We're trying to make sure this stuff doesn't remain esoteric lore." Esoteric much of the work is, but its originality inspires. If cultural studies is headed back to basics, Benjamin's luminous musings are a rewarding place to start.

-- James Surowiecki