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Walter Benjamin

Walter Benjamin: Overpowering Conformism

Esther Leslie
Copyright Date: 2000
Published by: Pluto Press
Pages: 320
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    Walter Benjamin
    Book Description:

    Esther Leslie’s path-breaking study of Walter Benjamin is unlike any other book presently available in English on Benjamin, in seeking to make a case for a more politicised reading of Benjamin’s oeuvre. In looking at the entirety of Benjamin’s work - rather than the four or five essays available in English which tend to form the Benjamin ‘canon’ - Leslie offers powerful new insights into a key twentieth-century political thinker, correcting the post-structuralist bias that has characterised so much Benjamin scholarship, and repositioning Benjamin’s work in its historical and political context. In her examination of Benjamin’s commentary on the politics and aesthetics of technology - from Benjamin’s work on nineteenth-century industrial culture to his analyses of the Nazi deployment of the bomber - Esther Leslie recontextualises Benjamin’s writings in a lucid and cogently argued new study.

    eISBN: 978-1-84964-524-9
    Subjects: Political Science
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Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter (pp. iii-iv)
  2. Table of Contents (pp. v-v)
  3. Acknowledgements (pp. vi-vi)
  4. Preface: An Accumulation of Technological Themes (pp. vii-xiv)
  5. CHAPTER 1 Explosion of a Landscape (pp. 1-41)

    Highly technologized, imperialist war reverberates in Benjamin’s writings.² A number of his essays and reviews refer to the largescale destruction delivered by war. These writings clatter in the unnerving silence of a ceasefire, soon to be interrupted by even more catastrophic bloodfests. Benjamin warns that the 1914–18 war cast just the shadow of a brutality soon to be superbly outbid. The armies of the future will deploy technologies of far greater destructiveness;³ troops will be immeasurably more sadistic and bloodthirsty;⁴ war will be total, and inescapable – it will be fought by new technological means. Chemical warfare turns soldiers and...

  6. CHAPTER 2 Benjamin’s Objectives (pp. 42-62)

    Technology and techniques restructure the human sensory apparatus: this is Benjamin’s conclusion. Technologies organize perception in particular. Benjamin examines technologies of reproduction emergent in the modern, industrial epoch. A note from the early stages of thePassagenwerkmentions how the optical devices prevalent in an epoch might reconfigure the world:

    Careful examination of the relationship of the optics of the myrioramas to the time of the modern, the newest. They must surely be registered as the base coordinates of this world.²

    Quotations and commentaries compiled in the initial stages of thePassagenwerkare especially concerned with tracing the effects of...

  7. CHAPTER 3 Berlin Chthonic, Photos and Trains and Films and Cars (pp. 63-88)

    In his doctoral dissertation on Romanticism and art criticism, Benjamin indicated the early Romantics’ use of optical prismatic metaphors in theirNaturphilosophie.² Similarly types of opticality suffuse his philosophy of history. There are references to turn of the century optical gadgetry, and photography and film and all sorts of technologies of vision. Mimetically Benjamin commandeers technical forms for his thought-structures. He writes of his theory’s montage principles of construction, and, in meditating on contemporary history, he ponders the affiliation of snapshots and moments. In the theoretical centre of thePassagenwerk, ‘Konvolut N: erkenntnistheoretisches, Theorie des Fortschritts’, Benjamin appropriates an allusion...

  8. CHAPTER 4 Dream Whirled: Technik and Mirroring (pp. 89-122)

    Benjamin often uses the language of science and of technology. Perhaps he hopes to claim an authority derived from scientific method. Developmental tendencies in history and society dissolve aesthetics into a science and into techniques and technologies. The question of science and the claim to scientificity of Marxist method has long been contested. Benjamin’s willingness to assert the form and language of science contrasts with Korsch’s attitude towards science as a superstructural expression of class ideology.¹ It also diverges from Lukács’ more dismissive approach to the scientistic conceptions of classical Marxist orthodoxy inGeschichte und Klassenbewußtsein(1923) andChvostismus und...

  9. CHAPTER 5 Murmurs from Darkest Europe (pp. 123-129)

    Exiled in Paris in 1934, Benjamin drafted ‘Der Autor als Produzent’ and continued to collect snippets for thePassagenwerk. That February there was turbulence on the streets. The political Right was especially clamorous in these riotous demonstrations. Battles on the Place de la Concorde on 6 February left 15 dead and well over 1,000 wounded.¹ The French parliament warned that a fascist putsch loomed. Benjamin watched events from his central Paris hotel room at the centre of the commotion. The rowdy events on the streets and the increasing authority of the fascists and royalists forced a unity on the French...

  10. CHAPTER 6 The Work of Art in the Age of Unbearable Capitulation (pp. 130-167)

    Initial notes for the essay ‘Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit’ were written in the autumn of 1935. The first version was completed at the close of 1935.¹ The second version was a partial and extended rewrite, completed in February 1936,² and contains material and various theoretical formulations excluded from the final version. The second version is the one on which Adorno based his critique in a letter dated 18 March 1936.³ Pierre Klossowski translated the second version of the ‘Artwork essay’ in the spring of 1936, but he made of it a shorter French version called ‘L’Oeuvre d’art...

  11. CHAPTER 7 Time for an Unnatural Death (pp. 168-207)

    ‘Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit’ (1935–39) is not just a piece of art criticism. It sets out an analysis ofTechnikin general and its marking of social maturity. If society accommodatesTechniksufficiently, thenTechnikand humanity coexist in ‘harmonious playing’, andTechnikwill not revolt destructively in imperialist war. Imperialist war cashes in its claims on ‘human material’, because society has withdrawn its ‘natural material’.³ Benjamin’s last writings persist with this theme. The last entries in thePassagenwerk(1937–40), ‘Über einige Motive bei Baudelaire’ (1939) and ‘Über den Begriff der Geschichte’ (1939– 40), digress...

  12. Benjamin’s Finale: Excavating and Remembering (pp. 208-235)

    There is so often a photograph of Walter Benjamin accompanying editions of his writings or writings about him. Few authors are so excessively imaged in this way. It is usually a photograph taken by Germaine Krull in 1938.¹ Occasionally the pictures used are by Gisèle Freund, whose theoretical writings about photography deeply impressed Benjamin and contributed to his sociology of the image. Sometimes a sombre and frumpy image of Benjamin taken in 1939 is used.² Another image by Freund, snapped in 1937, has also illustrated book jackets.³ Freund provided some incidental images of Benjamin. She used him as an extra...

  13. Notes (pp. 236-275)
  14. Bibliography (pp. 276-291)
  15. Index (pp. 292-298)