Walter Benjamin

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There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.

Walter Bendix Schönflies Benjamin (July 15, 1892September 27, 1940) was a German Jewish literary critic and philosopher. He was at times associated with the Frankfurt School of critical theory, and was also greatly inspired by the Marxism of Bertolt Brecht and the Jewish mysticism of Gershom Scholem.

Quotes[edit]

I would like to metamorphose into a mouse-mountain.
Things are only mannequins and even the great world-historical events are only costumes beneath which they exchange glances with nothingness.
This strange form—it may be called fleeting or eternal—is in neither case the stuff that life is made of.
Nothing is so hateful to the philistine as the "dreams of his youth." ... For what appeared to him in his dreams was the voice of the spirit, calling him once, as it does everyone. It is of this that youth always reminds him, eternally and ominously. That is why he is antagonistic toward youth.
Capitalism is presumably the first case of a blaming, rather than a repenting cult. ... An enormous feeling of guilt not itself knowing how to repent, grasps at the cult, not in order to repent for this guilt, but to make it universal, to hammer it into consciousness and finally and above all to include God himself in this guilt.
  • Nothing is so hateful to the philistine as the "dreams of his youth." ... For what appeared to him in his dreams was the voice of the spirit, calling him once, as it does everyone. It is of this that youth always reminds him, eternally and ominously. That is why he is antagonistic toward youth.
    • "Experience" (1913) as translated by L. Spencer and S. Jost, in Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, Vol. 1 (1996), pp. 4-5
  • Because he never raises his eyes to the great and the meaningful, the philistine has taken experience as his gospel. It has become for him a message about life's commonness. But he has never grasped that there exists something other than experience, that there are values—inexperienceable—which we serve.
    • "Experience" (1913) as translated by L. Spencer and S. Jost, in Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, Vol. 1 (1996), p. 4
  • Jede Äußerung menschlichen Geisteslebens kann als eine Art der Sprache aufgefaßt werden, und diese Auffassung erschließt nach Art einer wahrhaften Methode überall neue Fragestellungen.
    • Every expression of human mental life can be understood as a kind of language, and this understanding, in the manner of a true method, everywhere raises new questions.
      • "On Language as Such and on the Language of Man" (1916), translated by E. Jephcott, in Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, Vol. 1 (1996), p. 62
  • Zur Verknechtung der Sprache im Geschwätz tritt die Verknechtung der Dinge in der Narretei fast als deren unausbleibliche Folge.
    • The enslavement of language in prattle is joined by the enslavement of things in folly almost as its inevitable consequence.
      • "On Language as Such and on the Language of Man" (1916), translated by E. Jephcott, in Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, Vol. 1 (1996), p. 72
  • Things are only mannequins and even the great world-historical events are only costumes beneath which they exchange glances with nothingness.
    • Protocols to the Experiments on Hashish, Opium and Mescaline (1927-1934)
  • Of all the ways of acquiring books, writing them oneself is regarded as the most praiseworthy method. … Writers are really people who write books not because they are poor, but because they are dissatisfied with the books which they could buy but do not like.
    • Unpacking my Library: A Talk About Book Collecting (1931)
  • The destructive character knows only one watchword: make room. And only one activity: clearing away. His need for fresh air and open space is stronger than any hatred.
    • The Destructive Character (20 November 1931)
  • Reminiscences, even extensive ones, do not always amount to an autobiography. … For even if months and years appear here, it is in the form they have in the moment of recollection. This strange form—it may be called fleeting or eternal—is in neither case the stuff that life is made of.
    • A Berlin Chronicle (1932–, unfinished), in Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings – vol. 2, pt. 2: 1931-1934, ed. Michael William Jennings, Harvard University Press, 2005, p. 612
  • [M]echanical reproduction emancipates the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual. To an ever greater degree the work of art reproduced becomes the work of art designed for reproducibility. From a photographic negative, for example, one can make any number of prints; to ask for the “authentic” print makes no sense. But the instant the criterion of authenticity ceases to be applicable to artistic production, the total function of art is reversed. Instead of being based on ritual, it begins to be based on another practice – politics.
  • There is no muse of philosophy, nor is there one of translation.
    • "The Task of the Translator," translated by Harry Zohn
  • The art of storytelling is reaching its end because the epic side of truth, wisdom, is dying out.
    • "The Storyteller"

The Life of Students (1915)[edit]

"Das Leben der Studenten," first published in Der neue Merkur, as translated by R. Livingstone, in Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings – vol. 1: 1913-1926, ed. Michael William Jennings, Harvard University Press, 1996, pp. 37-47
  • Das Auszeichnende im Studentleben ist in der Tat der Gegenwille, sich einem Prinzip zu unterwerfen, mit der Idee sich zu durchdringen. Der Name der Wissenschaft dient vorzüglich, eine tiefeingesessene, verbürgerte Indifferenz zu verbergen.
    • What distinguishes student life is ... the will to submit to a principle, to identify completely with an idea. The concept of "science" or scholarly discipline serves primarily to conceal a deep-rooted bourgeois indifference.
  • Der Beruf folgt so wenig aus der Wissenschaft, dass sie ihn sogar ausschließen kann. Denn die Wissenschaft duldet ihrem Wesen nach keine Lösung von sich.
    • Scholarship, far from leading inexorably to a profession, may in fact preclude it. For it does not permit you to abandon it.
  • The true sign of decadence is not the collusion of the university and the state (something that is by no means incompatible with honest barbarity), but the theory and guarantee of academic freedom, when in reality people assume with brutal simplicity that the aim of study is to steer its disciples to a socially conceived individuality.

The Concept of Criticism in German Romanticism (1919)[edit]

"Der Begriff der Kunstkritik in der deutschen Romantik" as translated by David Lachterman, Howard Eiland and Ian Balfour, in Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings – vol. 1: 1913-1926, ed. Michael William Jennings, Harvard University Press, 1996, pp. 116-200

  • Für die Romantiker und für die spekulative Philosophie bedeutete der Terminus kritisch: objektiv produktiv, schöpferisch aus Besonnenheit. Kritisch sein hieß die Erhebung des Denkens über alle Bindungen so weit treiben, daß gleichsam zauberisch aus der Einsicht in das Falsche der Bindungen die Erkenntnis der Wahrheit sich schwang.
    • For the Romantics and for speculative philosophy, ... to be critical meant to elevate thinking so far beyond all restrictive conditions that the knowledge of truth sprang forth magically, as it were, from insight into the falsehood of these restrictions.

The Task of the Translator (1920)[edit]

Art ... posits man's physical and spiritual existence, but in none of its works is it concerned with his attentiveness. No poem is intended for the reader, no picture for the beholder, no symphony for the audience.

"Die Aufgabe des Übersetzers," as translated by Rodney Livingstone, in Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings – vol. 1: 1913-1926, ed. Michael William Jennings, Harvard University Press, 1996, pp. 253-263

  • Nirgends erweist sich einem Kunstwerk oder einer Kunstform gegenüber die Rücksicht auf den Aufnehmenden für deren Erkenntnis fruchtbar. Nicht genug, dass jede Beziehung auf ein bestimmtes Publikum oder dessen Repräsentanten vom Wege abführt, ist sogar der Begriff eines "idealen" Aufnehmenden in allen kunsttheoretischen Erörterungen vom Übel, weil diese lediglich gehalten sind, Dasein und Wesen des Menschen überhaupt vorauszusetzen. So setzt auch die Kunst selbst dessen leibliches und geistiges Wesen voraus—seine Aufmerksamkeit aber in keinem ihrer Werke. Denn kein Gedicht gilt dem Leser, kein Bild dem Beschauer, keine Symphonie der Hörerschaft.
    • In the appreciation of a work of art or an art form, consideration of the receiver never proves fruitful. Not only is any reference to a particular public or its representatives misleading, but even the concept of an "ideal" receiver is detrimental in the theoretical consideration of art, since all it posits is the existence and nature of man as such. Art, in the same way, posits man's physical and spiritual existence, but in none of its works is it concerned with his attentiveness. No poem is intended for the reader, no picture for the beholder, no symphony for the audience.
  • Besteht das Original nicht um dessentwillen, wie ließe sich dann die Übersetzung aus dieser Beziehung verstehen?
    • If the original does not exist for the reader's sake, how could the translation be understood on the basis of this premise?
  • So dürfte von einem unvergeßlichen Leben oder Augenblick gesprochen werden, auch wenn alle Menschen sie vergessen hätten. Wenn nämlich deren Wesen es forderte, nicht vergessen zu werden, so würde jenes Prädikat nichts Falsches, sondern nur eine Forderung, der Menschen nicht entsprechen, und zugleich auch wohl den Verweis auf einen Bereich enthalten, in dem ihr entsprochen wäre: auf ein Gedenken Gottes.
    • One might, for example, speak of an unforgettable life or moment even if all men had forgotten it. If the nature of such a life or moment required that it be unforgotten, that predicate would imply not a falsehood but merely a claim unfulfilled by men, and probably also a reference to a realm in which it is fulfilled: God's remembrance.
  • Alle zweckmäßigen Lebenserscheinungen wie ihre Zweckmäßigkeit überhaupt sind letzten Endes zweckmäßig nicht für das Leben, sondern für den Ausdruck seines Wesens, für die Darstellung seiner Bedeutung.
    • All purposeful manifestations of life, including their very purposiveness, in the final analysis have their end not in life but in the expression of its nature, in the representation of its significance.

Capitalism as Religion (1921)[edit]

"Kapitalismus als Religion" in Gesammelte Schriften (1991), Bd. VI, S. 100 – 102
  • Im Kapitalismus ist eine Religion zu erblicken, d.h. der Kapitalismus dient essentiell der Befriedigung derselben Sorgen, Qualen, Unruhen, auf die ehemals die so genannten Religionen Antwort gaben.
    • A religion may be discerned in capitalism—that is to say, capitalism serves essentially to allay the same anxieties, torments, and disturbances to which the so-called religions offered answers.
      • Translated by Rodney Livingstone in Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, Volume 1 (Harvard: 1996)
  • Der Kapitalismus ist vermutlich der erste Fall eines nicht entsühnenden, sondern verschuldenden Kultus. ... Ein ungeheures Schuldbewußtsein das sich nicht zu entsühnen weiß, greift zum Kultus, um in ihm diese Schuld nicht zu sühnen, sondern universal zu machen, dem Bewußtsein sie einzuhämmern und endlich und vor allem den Gott selbst in diese Schuld einzubegreifen.
    • Capitalism is presumably the first case of a blaming, rather than a repenting cult. ... An enormous feeling of guilt not itself knowing how to repent, grasps at the cult, not in order to repent for this guilt, but to make it universal, to hammer it into consciousness and finally and above all to include God himself in this guilt.
      • Translated by Chad Kautzer in The Frankfurt School on Religion: Key Writings by the Major Thinkers (2005), p. 259

Main features of my first impression of hashish (1927)[edit]

Hauptzüge der ersten Haschisch-Impression, December 18, 1927, 3:30 AM

  • Mir schien: Ausgesprochene Unlust, mich über Dinge des praktischen Lebens, Zukunft, Daten, Politik zu unterhalten. Man ist an die intellektuelle Sphäre gebannt wie manchmal Besessene auf die sexuelle, ist von ihr angesaugt.
    • For me, it was like this: pronounced antipathy to conversing about matters of practical life, the future, dates, politics. You are fixated on the intellectual sphere as a man possessed may be fixated on the sexual: under its spell, sucked into it.
      • "Main features of my first impression of hashish" (18 December 1927), On Hashish (2006), p. 21
  • Man geht immer die gleichen Wege des Denkens wie vorher. Nur scheinen sie mit Rosen bestreut.
    • You follow the same paths of thought as before. Only, they appear strewn with roses.
      • "Main features of my first impression of hashish" (18 December 1927), On Hashish (2006), p. 22

Theses on the Philosophy of History (1940)[edit]

Written in 1940; first published in German (1950), in English (1955) · Unless otherwise noted, most quotes in this section use the translation by Harry Zohn, published in Illuminations (1973) edited by Hannah Arendt · Dennis Redmond translation online (2001)
Our coming was expected on earth. Like every generation that preceded us, we have been endowed with a weak Messianic power, a power to which the past has a claim. That claim cannot be settled cheaply.
This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet...
Thinking involves not only the flow of thoughts, but their arrest as well.
  • Our image of happiness is indissolubly bound up with the image of the past.
    • II
  • There is a secret agreement between past generations and the present one. Our coming was expected on earth. Like every generation that preceded us, we have been endowed with a weak Messianic power, a power to which the past has a claim. That claim cannot be settled cheaply.
    • II
  • Nothing that has ever happened should be regarded as lost for history. To be sure, only a redeemed mankind receives the fullness of its past — which is to say, only a redeemed mankind has its past become citable in all its moments. Each moment it has lived becomes a citation à l'ordre du jour — and that day is Judgement Day.
    • III
  • The true picture of the past flits by. The past can be seized only as an image which flashes up at the instant when it can be recognized and is never seen again.
    • V
  • The good tidings which the historian of the past brings with throbbing heart may be lost in a void the very moment he opens his mouth.
    • V
  • To articulate the past historically does not mean to recognize it ‘the way it really was’ (Ranke). It means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger. Historical materialism wishes to retain that image of the past which unexpectedly appears to man singled out by history at a moment of danger. The danger affects both the content of the tradition and its receivers. The same threat hangs over both: that of becoming a tool of the ruling classes. In every era the attempt must be made anew to wrest tradition away from a conformism that is about to overpower it. The Messiah comes not only as the redeemer, he comes as the subduer of Antichrist. Only that historian will have the gift of fanning the spark of hope in the past who is firmly convinced that even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins. And this enemy has not ceased to be victorious.
    • Variant translation:
    • To articulate what is past does not mean to recognize “how it really was.” It means to take control of a memory, as it flashes in a moment of danger. For historical materialism it is a question of holding fast to a picture of the past, just as if it had unexpectedly thrust itself, in a moment of danger, on the historical subject. The danger threatens the stock of tradition as much as its recipients. For both it is one and the same: handing itself over as the tool of the ruling classes. In every epoch, the attempt must be made to deliver tradition anew from the conformism which is on the point of overwhelming it. For the Messiah arrives not merely as the Redeemer; he also arrives as the vanquisher of the Anti-christ. The only writer of history with the gift of setting alight the sparks of hope in the past, is the one who is convinced of this: that not even the dead will be safe from the enemy, if he is victorious. And this enemy has not ceased to be victorious.
      • As translated by Dennis Redmond (2001)
  • Es ist niemals ein Dokument der Kultur, ohne zugleich ein solches der Barbarei zu sein.
    • There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.
    • VII
  • The nature of this melancholy becomes clearer, once one asks the question, with whom does the historical writer of historicism actually empathize. The answer is irrefutably with the victor. Those who currently rule are however the heirs of all those who have ever been victorious. Empathy with the victors thus comes to benefit the current rulers every time.
    • VII
  • The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the "state of emergency" in which we live is not the exception but the rule.
    • VIII
  • A Klee painting named ‘Angelus Novus’ shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.
    • IX
  • The historical materialist leaves it to others to be drained by the whore called "Once upon a time" in historicism's bordello.
    • XVI
  • Thinking involves not only the flow of thoughts, but their arrest as well.
    • XVII
  • The nourishing fruit of the historically understood contains time as a precious but tasteless seed.
    • XVII
  • The present, which, as a model of Messianic time, comprises the entire history of mankind in an enormous abridgment, coincides with the stature which the history of mankind has in the universe.
    • XVIII
  • We know that the Jews were prohibited from investigating the future. The Torah and the prayers instruct them in remembrance, however. This stripped the future of its magic, to which all those succumb who turn to the soothsayers for enlightenment. This did not imply, however, that for the Jews the future turned into homogeneous empty time. For every second of time was the strait gate through which the Messiah might enter.
    • Note B

Arcades Project (1927-1940)[edit]

Only a thoughtless observer can deny that correspondences come into play between the world of modern technology and the archaic symbol-world of mythology.
Ed. Roy Tiedemann, trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin (Harvard University: Harvard UP, 1999)
  • Only a thoughtless observer can deny that correspondences come into play between the world of modern technology and the archaic symbol-world of mythology.
  • History breaks down in images not into stories.
  • In the fields with which we are concerned knowledge exists only in lightning flashes. The text is the thunder rolling long afterwards.

Quotes about Benjamin[edit]

  • Postmodernism, like Walter Benjamin's 'mechanical reproduction', seeks to dismantle the intimidating aura of high-modernist culture with a more demotic, user-friendly art, suspecting all hierarchies of value as privileged and elitist. There is no better or worse, just different.
  • [Benjamin] must surely be among the 20th century's most overrated writers. Paris, Berlin, Moscow, Karl Kraus—Benjamin could render the juiciest of subjects arid.
    • Joseph Epstein (2011). "A Very Public Intellectual", The Wall Street Journal, April 2, 2011
  • [A]n enormous Anglo-American industry of post-structuralist and postmodernist interpretation has grown up around the translations we have, distorting Benjamin’s real concerns. Apart from specialists familiar with the German background to his work, English-speaking readers are probably no closer to understanding Benjamin’s writings than they were when Hannah Arendt first introduced him in America over twenty-five years ago.
    • Mark Lilla, "The Riddle of Walter Benjamin", The New York Review of Books, May 25, 1995

External links[edit]

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