Walter Benjamin

Walter Benjamin Picture

Walter Bendix Schönflies Benjamin was a literary critic and a writer. He was born in a wealthy Jewish family in Berlin on July 15, 1892. The basis of philosophy on which his essays and other writings stand is being increasingly acknowledged.

Benjamin’s inspirations and influences came from the critical theory of Theodor Adorno, the Marxism of Bertolt Brecht and the Jewish mysticism of Gerschom Scholem. The three schools of thought did not get mixed into an amalgam; rather Benjamin’s writings seem to flow dynamically from one intellectual tradition to another. He was also occasionally funded by the Frankfurt School on the orders of Theodor Adorno.

His prose style was exceptionally different from the rest. The origins of his sentences had no ordinary formations or clear line of reasoning. Each sentence gave an impression that it had to convey everything. His writings make him emerge as a modernist; an intellectual whose literary ideas merge with his philosophical thoughts. Logical philosophy alone cannot adequately fulfill the task of accounting for all kinds of experiences, specifically the task of self-representation.

Benjamin’s writings have often remained a cause of shock and awe among his contemporaries, especially due to his commentary on the history and translations of literature, and how it affects modern language. His particular interests included the history and modern language, the relation between art and the then rising technological science, as well as the effect of mass media culture.

On the history of an individual, he held the belief that each person has its own distinct history, and is not merely a setting in the big picture of life. He has his own struggles, his own standards and potentials, and thus his afterlife is dependent on his own strive against the normalization of modern society.

Benjamin was also deeply interested in poetry and literature of his times. He analyzed the works of Franz Kafka, Brecht and Hölderlin. He did not merely criticize them like other contemporary critics of his time, but tried to liberate these works from the specific contexts in which they will be regarded and thus limited to in the future. This he saw as his duty as a literary critic.

In his most influential and famous book, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Benjamin points to a shift in the traditional production of arts and how it is being used as technical source of reproduction such as in film-making and photography. According to Benjamin, the traditional artwork had a special ‘aura’ about it as it came into being through an entire historical process. The technical reproductions of the same art lack that aura and the historical dimension specific to it.

Benjamin argues that any viewer of art, when he observes art through a technical medium, turns into a disinterested judge, focusing only on the face-value of that art piece and disregarding any historical associations with it.

Walter Benjamin took his own life on September 26 ,1940 at the age of 48 as he failed to flee from the Nazis. He led a rather secretive life, and only after his death most of his works got published. Collections of Benjamin’s essays published posthumously include Illuminations, Reflections, The Origin of German Drama and The Arcades Project. His works impacted strongly the theories in arts, feminism, cultural studies, communications and media, philosophy and literature.

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