Study Guide

Walter Benjamin Introduction

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Walter Benjamin Introduction

Walter Benjamin (1892–1940) is kind of hard to avoid—no matter how hard you try. This guy is everywhere. Why? Because he wrote on just about everything. We'll let a professional book reviewer take the reins for a second and list some of Benjamin's fave things to write:

metaphysical treatises, literary-critical monographs, philosophical dialogues, media-theoretical essays, book reviews, travel pieces, drug memoirs, whimsical feuilletons, diaries and aphorisms, modernist miniatures, radio plays for children, reflections on law, technology, theology and the philosophy of history, analyses of authors, artists, schools and epochs (source)

But wait! There's more!

He also wrote about the pleasures of smoking hashish. Okay, now that's it.

Don't get us wrong: Benjamin did not practice random acts of criticism. As wide-ranging as his work was, he was always focused on a few main themes. Let's take a look:

  • He was a leftist critic of aesthetics. Translation: he hated Nazis, and he felt that art in the "age of mechanical reproduction" could be used for revolutionary purposes. Further translation: new photographic technology was going to help emancipate the people. That's what his uber-famous "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" (1936) is all about. Well, that and a zillion other things.
  • Benjamin was fascinated by history and didn't think it could be told as one linear, progressing narrative. To him, history was a collection of images and fragments, so that's how he wrote about it. (Speaking of which, Benjamin was all about writing in fragments—a sentence here, a sentence there. Get used to it.)
  • He was captivated by Jewish history and Judaic ideas of Messianic time. Benjamin firmly believed that the Messiah would come and rescue humanity from Fascism and other ugly oppressions. Note: his version of the Messiah was not a long-haired, beatific-looking dude in flowing white robes. According to Benjamin, the Messiah coming to seek vengeance for all of those who had been subjugated was the people themselves. Deep.
  • Benjamin loved him some Paris. The city, where he lived starting in 1933, was one of his biggest inspirations. He wrote a ton about malls (the 19th-century version), those iron-and-glass covered halls called "arcades." See: his ginormous and somehow unfinished book called The Arcades Project. He also wrote about French poets like Baudelaire, Parisian street life, and flâneurs, the 19th-century version of the mall crawler/people watcher.

Even with all that jazz, Benjamin didn't get props in his day. It's okay, though. He may have been a late bloomer, but now he's totally prom king.

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