Walter Benjamin. The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility, and Other Writings on Media. Edited by Michael William Jennings; Brigid Doherty; Thomas Y. Levin; Edmund Jephcott. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2008. vi + 426 pp. $18.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-674-02445-8.
Reviewed by Kai-Uwe Werbeck (Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill)
Published on H-German (March, 2009)
Commissioned by Eve M. Duffy (University of North Carolina Chapel Hill)
Fiery Pools Reflecting Neon Signs in the Asphalt: Walter Benjamin and Utopian Potential in the Media
As its title illustrates, this collection of writings by Frankfurt School member and cultural critic Walter Benjamin focuses on his understanding of media and employs his seminal essay "Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit" (1989) as a springboard into a wide variety of writings. The editors, Michael W. Jennings, Brigid Doherty, and Thomas Y. Levin, structure their collection into six chapters and each chapter offers a brief introduction on the respective material. The first chapter, "The Production, Reproduction, and Reception of the Work of Art," contains the
eponymous artwork essay and covers the broadest range of media in the
volume. It intends to familiarize the reader with important concepts of Benjamin's critical thinking and includes such diverse essays as "The Author as Producer" (1974), and "To the Planetarium" (1928). The synopsis of and quasi-introduction to Benjamin's unfinished epic work The Arcades Project, "Paris, the Capital of the Nineteenth Century" (1985), is also presented in the stage-setting first chapter. The second chapter deals with theories on "Script, Image, and Script-Image" and offers a selection of writings on Benjamin's understanding of language, writing, and other semiotic systems, such as advertisements. The third chapter, "Painting and Graphics," starts the genealogy of the media-image, whose theoretical framework is set up in the first and second chapter in terms of utopian possibilities inherent in reproduced works of art. The third chapter is the first to pick a concrete form of media and the compiled writings include the well-known essays "On Painting, or Sign and Mark" (1974) and "Dream Kitsch" (1927), which both illuminate critical terms in Benjamin's work. Chapter 4 combines writings on photography and follows the trajectory of media chronologically. The center of this chapter is the "Little History of Photography" (1931) that is often selected as a complementary reading to the artwork essay as it sets up Benjamin's notion of an auratic deficiency in reproduced artworks. Chapter 5 is on film and completes the chronological list of media with the moving image, since the last chapter of the volume is on "The Publishing Industry and Radio." The inclusion of radio breaks the line of visual media forms and the final chapter contains writings which have a stronger focus on the publishing mechanisms that surround media in general and newspapers and magazines in particular. The compiled essays, including "A Critique of the Publishing Industry" (1930), move away from the medium per se and center on the various ways of dissemination and how Benjamin understood the publishing industries behind certain forms of media.
Because Benjamin's writings stand as monuments of critical thinking, the goal of this review cannot be to evaluate or summarize Benjamin's writing, but is rather to examine whether the essays are selected and put together in a sensible fashion. This automatically raises the most important question of this review, namely the question of the target readership. Despite Benjamin's infatuation with modern media since the 1920s and the media-centered premise of many of Benjamin's writings, anyone who enters the keywords "Benjamin" and "media" into a mainstream search engine is offered only the volume under review here. Apparently, the connection between one of the most important modern German philosophers and one of his main fields of interest seems to be self-explanatory to a point of underrepresentation. The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility, and Other Writings on Media therefore fills a gap in that it collects a concise body of media-related works by Benjamin and offers it to a readership of scholars interested in media studies who might not have read Benjamin's complete and quite extensive œuvre. The brief introductions to each chapter imply that the collection is intended for an audience that might not or only partially be familiar with Benjamin's work. The introductions fulfill their task of summarizing Benjamin's thinking on media very well, although of course, due to their brevity, they can only touch on other major concepts such as Benjamin's notion of history. Other vital concepts, such as "Aura" and Benjamin's grasp on the term Kunstwollen, are introduced and discussed in a way sufficient to promote an understanding of the compiled texts. The editors and authors of the introductions are aware of the fact that it is impossible to cover all aspects of Benjamin's theoretical world, and focus only on the most important concepts that are necessary to enable the reader to follow the texts later on.
At the center of the collection is the essay "The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproduction" in its second version (out of four), the one that Benjamin wanted published. Since this collection is aimed at new readers of Benjamin, it makes sense to include this version as it is closest to Benjamin's own vision and not as heavily influenced by Theodor W. Adorno's critique. The essay sets up the notion (of loss) of the aura in technologically reproduced works of art and the utopian potential and dangers that are inherent in such works, most notably film. The latent utopian potential in modern media is the recurring theme of the texts collected here. The selection ranges from the indispensable milestones of Benjamin's criticism to other typically Benjaminian genres such as fragments, anecdotes, or reviews. The selected texts are taken from canonical Benjamin publications, mostly from the Selected Writings, with a few of the translations modified by the editors. Critical concepts and phrases are also included in the German original to allow readers of German to catch the ambivalence in many of Benjamin's playful word choices. His original notes are included at the end of every essay and are supplemented with extensive notes from the editors which briefly explain references and key words left uncommented by Benjamin himself. These notes help the reader to maneuver within the high degree of intertextuality in Benjamin's intricate writings. Some of the shorter texts, however, are still a little difficult to decode in terms of their position within the greater context. These texts illustrate Benjamin's style of writing, his combining of form and content, yet this formal technique is not explained well in the introductions to the respective sections. At times, an unaware reader might have difficulty understanding why exactly this or that shorter piece has been included in a given section of the essay collection. Still, the division into six chapters is helpful in order to find texts that deal with a certain medium. This is when the publication becomes a useful source for advanced Benjamin scholars as well. In this respect, it might have been better structurally to split the last chapter into two parts and include the chapter on the publishing industry after the first chapter and to close the book with a chapter exclusively on radio and its technological specifics.
Leaving this aside, The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility, and Other Writings on Media is a concise and well-composed collection that offers quick access to Benjamin's works on media in one handy volume. The editors do not attempt to go beyond the scope of their initial premise to track Benjamin's revolutionary observations on the media. The poignant introductions to the main concepts of a critical theorist who has often been called esoteric are apt to spark interest in readers usually not familiar with the writings of the Frankfurt School. A structured list of suggestions of supplemental secondary readings might have been helpful to scholars new to Benjamin's work. The volume, however, at times offers recommendations for further readings on a given key phrase or topic in the editors' notes.
All in all, the collection marks a superb entry point into a complex body of works that can be applied to a wide variety of academic fields. Especially those who already own the Selected Writings series may want to thoroughly consider the benefit of purchasing this book, since the introductions hold no substantial re-readings of Benjamin's works and most of the essays are readily available in other sources. However, the well-researched notes by the editors and the new or modified translations speak in favor of this collection and justify the purchase of the book even for advanced Benjamin and media/communication studies scholars.
.The version of the artwork essay included in the collection under review here was composed from late December 1935 to the beginning of February 1936 but remained unpublished in this form until 1989. In the context of this review, all publishing dates of works that were not published during Benjamin's lifetime are taken from the Gesammelte Schriften series. Walter Benjamin, Gesammelte Schriften, 7 vols., ed. Rolf Tiedemann et al. (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1972-1989).
. A short intellectual biography of Walter Benjamin is provided in the editors' introduction.
. Adorno especially critiqued Benjamin's assumption that cinema holds utopian potential. Adorno's own concept of the Culture Industry, as a cornerstone of Frankfurt School thought, excludes such possibilities.
. Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings, 4 vols., ed. Michael W. Jennings et al. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996-2003).The modified translations (some of the shorter texts appear for the first time in English) are apparent in the book's title. Other publications translate the title of Benjamin's artwork essay as "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," among other variations. See for example: Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin, Remediation: Understanding New Media (Cambridge: The Michigan Institute of Technology Press, 2000), 73.
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Kai-Uwe Werbeck. Review of Benjamin, Walter, The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility, and Other Writings on Media.
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