Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1997


Walter Benjamin

Norbert Bolz and Willein Van Reijen
New Jersey: Humanities Press
ISBN 0 391 03942 3
pp. xiv + 106

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Benjamin can lay claim to being the most significant cultural theorist of the twentieth century and as a consequence a great deal of material (from the lightweight and superficial to the heavyweight and recondite) has been published about him. As such the book under review is especially useful - it gives a clear account of his work without feeling the need to be pedantically obscure, very long or distressingly chatty. One suspects that Benjamin would have appreciated (despairingly) the widespread ignorance of his work over many years being transformed into no less than an academic industry. We are told in this book that the secondary literature on Benjamin for the years 1984 to 1993 runs to over two thousand items.

Bolz and Reijen cover Benjamin's principal ideas, from his early works to his famously unfinished Arcades Project, in an accessible and reasonably comprehensive way. No one understood (or even noticed) quite like Benjamin that the objects and persons of everyday life, while representing the gross hold of a powerful mode of production, also exhibit (for all their firmness and ideological supplication) a fragile contingency and represent, too, a world full of transience and strange beliefs. Under the sway of capitalism and a sophisticated technology nationalism and mysticism could form an appallingly poisonous cocktail. The system of cultural criticism Benjamin developed has, at its height, four permanent features: i) the excitement of modernity, ii) the enchantment of the old, iii) a notion of salvation through the realization of futility, and, iv) the observation of universal themes in ordinary events.

Benjamin in advancing his analyses employs the term Kritik which occupies for him a borderline between social critique and aesthetic expression. It is a mode of cultural analysis that attempts to speak of something (a work of art, a chance meeting, a postcard) by producing an allegory or version of that 'something' to uncover its meaning. Benjamin understood the task of Kritik to be the search for the truth of a work by producing an essayistic exemplar of it. In the notes and essays that make up the Arcades Project - his analysis of nineteenth century Paris - we see this system working in a particularly sustained form.

Although a committed one, Benjamin was never the most orthodox Marxist. His Marxism was too mixed up with surrealism, theology and despair ever to be taken as unproblematic even by the generous margins of the Frankfurt School. His conception of the structure of memory and his belief in salvation through failure has more in common with fairy tale, myth and the insights of Proust and Kafka than notions of class analysis or 'progressive' historical interpretation. Adorno referred to these features of Benjamin's thought as 'anthropological materialism', by which we may take him to mean that Benjamin's Marxism allied to his penchant for naturalistic depiction of the collective social body was rather like driving with one foot on the accelerator and one foot on the brake. Adorno's characterization was correct, but it was just this result that his enigmatic, well-mannered and wonderful friend was after - not the reconciliation of extremes, but a dialectic visible and unreconciled.

Maybe Bolz and Reijen could have said a little more about Benjamin's identification with Kafka. Benjamin, like Kafka, was an enemy of what he saw as false reconciliation and of academicized cultural commentary. What draws Benjamin to Kafka is that he sees his works as a success in spite of fatalistic, philosophic obstacles; he sees in Kafka's stories that although they are the epitome of a loss of communication, nevertheless, without resort to the politicization of art, they hint at the possibility of a qualitatively different society. Such a view leads us to make more sense of Benjamin's stance as both Marxist and Kabbalist. If Bolz and Reijen do not much mention Kafka they cover most of the relevant matters relating to their subject cogently and with economy. Their book is to be recommended.

Michael Erben
University of Southampton

Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1997