Benjamin Glossary


Aesthetics must produce a truth content that will liberate revolutionary energies. In order to do this it creates illuminations — revelations by which we grasp the existence of something hitherto unseen which is liberating for the given historical moment. This is the knowledge potential of aesthetics.



Angelus Novus is a watercolour by Paul Klee which Benjamin bought in 1920 and adopted as an emblem of his work. The Thomist strand of mediaeval scholasticism holds that each species of angel consists of a single individual. In Talmudic tradition a new angel is a being created to sing a new song. So must be art and literature, as unique creations, and so must be the angel of history.



With a name known writings of Benjamin passages about the Paris arcades and their architecture of cast iron as a metaphor for modernity and the city. The Arcades Project was to have been Benjamin’s book on Paris, a vast and never completed collection of quotes and commentaries concerning the material and symbolic dimensions of the passages, those long glass-roofed galleries of shops on the right bank of the Seine. These bazaars of cast iron and glass are the great allegorical element in its historical analysis of capitalist society and its cultural expressions.



Most of Benjamin’s work revolves around the concept of art, which he approaches from a perspective that is both materialist and messianic: art connects us with the past and is a liberating force. In his historical analysis, art undergoes a radical change when mechanical reproduction come to occupy a strategic place among artistic processes. The year 1900 is a moment of structural transformation of aesthetic perception and the role of the image.



This concept is treated at length in ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, though it first appears in the ‘Brief History of Photography’. The traditional work of art has an aura that derives from its unique existence and endows it with symbolic authority. With the aura there is a phenomenon of distance, that of the past and tradition. By extension, the aura is all that is fascinating in the artwork. With the possibility of technical reproduction, the aura decays and disappears. What we have here is the conflict between repetition and the unique event.



Benjamin read out his text ‘The Author as Producer’ in April 1934, at the Institute for the Study of Fascism, which Germans driven into exile by Nazism had founded in Paris. In the essay Benjamin speaks on behalf of the most radical revolutionary vanguard and invokes the transformative capacity of creating art, presenting the author as the new rebel of history.  



Benjamin was one of the great interpreters of the French poet Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867) and provided a new key to his work, centred on its social dimension. Benjamin put forward an allegorical reading of Baudelaire and adopted him as his guide in The Arcades Project and in his criticism. He read him as the poet of the destruction of modern life and the social abstraction of the capitalist economy, and borrowed his derivation of the concept of the flâneur.



No one before Benjamin had thought of culture as being so deeply immersed in its material urban environment. One of his great intuitions was to grasp the scope of the changes in urban culture. The Benjaminian city is the distinctively modern experience and an emblem of the transience of modern times that requires a new way of being. The paradigm of this new city is Paris.


Critical Theory

Benjamin took this concept far beyond its formulation by his friends Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, leading philosophers of the Frankfurt School. Critical thought must be understood in such a way that politics is seen as its continuation by other means. Benjamin’s sociology of culture emphasizes the concept of social experience; as a theorist of culture, his interest centred on the changes in the structures of social interaction brought about by the process of capitalist modernization.



Benjamin’s interpretation of the post-Hegelian Marxist use of the term as a form of historical understanding is highly distinctive. His dialectical reading of the past relates formerly neglected elements — arcades, streets, exhibitions, barricades… — as a course in tension that must be integrated if we are to understand the spirit of the time. Significantly, Benjamin’s approach incorporates symbols and elements of the social imaginary that have no place in Marxist historical materialism.



Benjamin established a correlation between the effects of the First World War and the transformation of the concept of experience. 1914 marks a turning point in our idea of space and time and thus of experience. The war silenced those who returned from the battlefield, leaving them bereft of experience. The twentieth century has stripped us of our ability to tell stories and with it the trace of the experience, imposing a new and definitive poverty that dispenses with the past: a new form of barbarism. These are the new forces of the modern malaise, which experience can provide with no content.



Benjamin derived his use of this term from Baudelaire. The strolling urban consumer, neurasthenic, a bit of a dandy, sums up the anonymity of the modern city and its economy, which have imposed new conditions of experience. Strolling the streets is almost a new way of philosophizing, and the tireless aimless drifter knows that the city has an underground history that only he can connect to. At the same time the flâneur is a militant radical in so far as his idleness is opposed to the model of capitalist productivity. Strolling around is a way of taking in the story of things.



Benjamin’s great essay on Goethe’s Elective Affinities is an example of criticism as Benjamin believed it ought to be practised. He dissociates himself from what he sees as a false totality in art, to which Goethe aspired; declaring a fragment of a symbol to possess more truth than any supposedly universal symbol, he rejects an entire cultural tradition of myth and symbol of which Goethe is the paradigm.



The image of the angel gazing on a pile of wreckage is the best summation of Benjamin’s conception of history, which he regarded not as a science but as a form of memory. Where science aseptically records, memory modifies. For Benjamin, the past persists like a scattered debris in the present and the new emerges as a fragment. Benjamin looks for the diverse and silenced prehistories of the present. He looks for traumas of memory (violent irruptions of the past in the present) in order to follow the trail of exploitation and barbarism and so redeem its possibilities.



Ibiza occupied an important place in Benjamin’s life: he first visited the island as a tourist in 1932 and returned as an exile the following year. As a flâneur on Ibiza he gathered remnants of the oral tradition and in his diary, alongside reflections on the landscape and the traditional architecture of the island, he began to formulate the concept of aura. His reflections on the use value of the traditional Ibizan house and new modern dwellings provided him with a metaphor of two opposing worlds. He also wrote ‘Experience and Poverty’ on Ibiza.



Benjamin’s illuminations, in contrast to those of religion, are secular. They reveal the poetic work of the image, the association of apparently disparate elements, the discovery of which results in a revelation and an impulse to transform historical time.



Benjamin is highly critical of the indiscriminate new commercial uses of the image, which reveal the conflict between the unique (auratic) event and serial reproduction. The image’s loss of aura is associated with an aesthetic impoverishment, a loss of cultural value and a severing of the connection with the past. The autonomy of the image is one of the fetishes of capitalism.



Benjamin wrote about his tour of Italy in the nineteen-twenties in Travel Diary (Italy), in which he chronicles his encounters with the Pinacoteca in Brera, Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper and the Arena in Verona. A book of impressions and memories of a formative journey.



In Jewish tradition, the word comes into being when God creates a thing, and language thus has a sacred element. Benjamin was opposed to modernity’s instrumental conception of language, which voids the word of its sacral dimension.



Benjamin was a great bibliophile, with a special interest in old children’s books. He spent months in the Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris. In his 1931 essay ‘Unpacking My Library (A Talk about Book Collecting)’ he tells us that packing and unpacking books has a symbolic value. The collector’s gesture becomes a philosophical gesture that reflects the dialectic between the chaos of memory and the order of the collection, and a metaphor for the relationship between present and past.



Benjamin declared that he was not a Marxist but a dialectical materialist. He came to Marx through his reading of Lukács, and his Marxism was always unorthodox. In Benjamin’s view, Lukács does not invalidate Judaism: on the contrary, it completes it with its new economic and social consciousness. In his ‘Paralipomena to “On the Concept of History”’ he wrote: ‘A genuinely messianic face must be restored to the concept of a classless society and, to be sure, in the interest of furthering the revolutionary politics of the proletariat itself.’ The last text Benjamin wrote, ‘On the Concept of History’, is a compendium of his particular conception of historical materialism.



For Benjamin, the concept of memory embraces an epistemological content, a philosophy of history and a political project. As an epistemological concept, it entails addressing the past not only as what was but as what failed to realize itself. This approach places us in a different position in relation to the present, as we contemplate both the forgotten past and those aspects of the present which are in danger of being excluded. A new knowledge transforms the philosophy of history: the history of the victors suffers from a significant omission, the truth of the vanquished. In Benjamin’s theory of history, forgetting is far greater and more structural than remembering, which is an exceptional adventure of oblivion. Benjamin invalidates the thesis progress and announces a new political project: the danger of forgetting persists. His essay ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’ emphasizes the liberating capacity of memory.



The embodiment of hell and at the same time the promise of revolution. Benjamin dismisses the fable of progress with which modernity has been presented, and notes that not even its great catastrophes, such as World War I, have served to remove the veil of faith in progress. Only revolution can put an end to the form of violence that is modernity.



Benjamin travelled to Moscow in the winter of 1926, not only to be with Asja Lacis, with whom he was in love, but also to reach a decision about whether to join the German Communist Party. He stayed there for two months, and his Moscow Diary, testimony to his time there, is the most intimate of his writings.



Narrative is shared memory. In ‘Experience and Poverty’ and ‘The Storyteller’ (1936) Benjamin warns us that the denial and destruction of the mechanisms that enable us to inherit the memory and experience of those who went before us lead to a new form of barbarism, that of silence or the impossibility of communication. The crisis of narration and thus of the ability to communicate personal experience is an essential characteristic of the twentieth century.



Emblem of the new physical and mental space of modernity. In Benjamin’s work, Paris is not so much a city as the spatial embodiment of capitalism and modern art, forms that impose new conditions of experience on the subject. Benjamin planned a book on Paris, to be called Paris: Capital of the Nineteenth Century, which he never finished. The preparatory materials make up the 1,000 pages of The Arcades Project.



Benjamin warned of the danger inherent in the political use of the new means of reproducing images such as film and photography. Photography, and the portrait photograph in particular, has been instrumentalized to satisfy bourgeois taste and the desire to belong to a particular social group. In his ‘Brief History of Photography’ Benjamin began to articulate the concept of aura and put forward a critique of the modern media of image reproduction.



The last passage of Walter Benjamin’s life. At the northern extreme of the Catalan coast, on the border with France, where he died attempting to escape the Nazis. Portbou, symbol of the border of all the borders, is where the sculptor Dani Karavan raised his memorial to Benjamin.



A form of writing much favoured by Benjamin, especially in The Arcades Project, in which he created a new genre: a mosaic of quotations with his comments on them, paraphrases, quotes decontextualized and skilfully combined with other quotes. Benjamin attribute an epistemological function to the art of the textual mosaic.



A messianic event, the only one capable of preventing disaster. The revolution is made not on behalf of the future but of the past. Nor is it the outcome of a linear historical evolution; rather, it is born of the pain of those humiliated and exploited by progress. It is the only violence capable of ending the violence of history.



The art of storytelling is disappearing, along with the ability to listen to the ancient wisdom that has been handed down through the generations from memory to memory in the form of stories and tales. With the advent of the mass media, the new form of understanding communication displaces the possibility of entering into contact and dialogue with the past and time. As Benjamin put it in ‘Experience and Poverty’: ‘Every morning brings us news from all over the world. Yet we are poor in remarkable stories.’



Benjamin embraced the legacy of Surrealism as a form of moral and social liberation, a truly revolutionary force with the power to transform the world. He regarded it as a genuine historical illumination. In his 1929 text ‘Surrealism. The Last Snapshot of the European Intelligentsia’ and in The Arcades Project he hailed the revolutionary potential of Surrealism’s oneiric axioms.


Tragic Drama

The Origin of German Tragic Drama (completed 1925, published 1928), the habilitation thesis that Benjamin submitted to qualify as a teacher, was rejected by Frankfurt University. More than a study of aesthetics, it is an exposition of his own philosophical method. Romanticism’s dismissal of allegory and its cultivation as a positive aesthetic resource in Baroque art are used here to vindicate the value of the allegory: the value of the concrete and the fragment that is capable of connecting with the whole.