THE more one looks into the life and work of Walter Benjamin (1892-1940), the more it becomes clear that he was not the run-of-the-mill Marxist that many people make him out to be. Not only did he strike up an interesting correspondence with Carl Schmitt (1888-1985) in relation to the latter’s work on political theology, he even attended a meeting organised by underground resistance leader Otto Strasser (1897-1974).
Benjamin became so interested in the Revolutionary Conservatives of the interwar period that during his brief exile in the Balearic islands, immediately after the consolidation of Nazi power in 1933, he produced a fascinating essay called ‘Experience and Poverty’ in which he analysed the state of German culture.
Discussing the tragic generation which had been plunged into the trenches of the First World War between 1914 and 1918, Benjamin concluded that inter-generational communication had virtually collapsed and that the experience which is ordinarily passed down between one era and the next was no longer contributing to the country’s national heritage:
We have given up one portion of human heritage after another, and we have often left it at the pawnbroker’s for a hundredth of its true value, in exchange for the small change of the contemporary. The economic crisis is at the door, and behind it is the shadow of the approaching war.
Through postwar bankruptcy, widespread poverty and the concomitant rise of technology and communication, he claimed, people had been swamped by so much information that it had led to a culture that was entirely separated from authentic experience and thus “experience is simulated or obtained by underhand means.”
This, essentially, is exactly what the Conservative Revolutionaries had been saying for the past two decades, but Benjamin decided to give these observations his own unique twist. From poverty, he says, comes a new barbarism that acts as a counter-measure to this degenerative process and that only by wiping the slate clean would Germans begin to find a way out of the burgeoning morass. He cites a number of artists, for example, who managed to approach the arrival of the modern world with a
total absence of illusion about the age and at the same time [with] an unlimited commitment to it.
To continue the Lockean analogy of the tabula rasa, Benjamin explained that he was inspired by
the naked man of the contemporary world who lies screaming like a newborn babe in the dirty diapers of the present.
Here, naturally, is where he finally breaks ranks with the Conservative Revolutionaries altogether.
One thing which should be immediately apparent to readers of the twenty-first century, of course, are Benjamin’s remarks about information overload and the resultant loss of genuine experience. If Benjamin had lived to see the arrival of the internet age then what he perceived as the breakdown of traditional communication in his own time may well have paled into insignificance. Saying that, ‘Experience and Poverty’ was ahead of its time and remains highly radical. However, Benjamin’s insistence that we must embrace barbarism as a means to ensure our own survival is rather like creating some kind of Year Zero in which our crucial link to the past is forever relinquished. Herein lies another similarity to the events of the twenty-first century, a time when that very tabula rasa is being engineered by those who wish to distort race, sexuality and gender whilst toppling statues and razing museums and libraries to the ground.
Benjamin’s image of the “naked man” who has become so downtrodden that he now “lies screaming like a newborn babe” even bears a stark resemblance to the deracinated modern youth that has lost its connection with the important socio-cultural fabric of former times. Instead of the “naked man” who stands isolated in a tumultuous sea of atomised units we must replenish the natural order that will finally reconnect people with their primordial origins. In that sense, it is rather like taking Benjamin’s “newborn babe” and inserting him back into the womb. Only by rediscovering what it means to be human within the wider context of the natural world can we undergo the second symbolic “birth” that will ensure that we do not flounder on the rocky shores of history like a ship without a rudder.
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Walter Benjamin, therefore, was fully aware of Germany’s Conservative Revolutionary movement and, in particular, the ideas of Schmitt and Strasser. At the same time, he would have done well to acquaint himself with the work of Oswald Spengler (1880-1936), not least with regard to the latter’s damning analysis of technology.
Caught, as he was, with one foot in Germany’s romantic past and the other aboard the emerging cultural bandwagon of early twentieth-century film, Benjamin’s own thoughts on technology remain extremely naive and contradictory. During the course of his most well-known essay, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ (1935), in which he argued that artistic expression was becoming devalued by the process of mass replication, Benjamin rightly observed that technology leads to the impoverishment of authentic experience and yet went on to suggest that technology itself can become an effective medium for socio-economic liberation.
When he came to discuss the Marxist historian, Eduard Fuchs (1870-1940), for example, who was also a famous collector, Benjamin claimed that people had been dehumanised by a “bungled reception of technology” and that it had led to a systematic anaesthetisation of the human sensory faculties. This anaesthetisation, he continued, had a secondary impact in terms of desensitising the manner in which people ordinarily interpret the most brutal and inhumane conditions associated with capitalist production. Ironically, Benjamin insisted that the reproductive potential of modern cinema – centred around its careful use of assembled montage, rather than a reliance on the fixed photography of the past – could radically alter our sensory capacities and move them in a more revolutionary direction. This was something that Benjamin wholeheartedly embraced and his idea that artistic reproduction diminishes the value of something by removing it from its more genuine context, i.e. that in which it originally appeared, fundamentally changes the manner in which it is able to transmit cultural tradition:
The authenticity of a thing is the quintessence of all that is transmissible in it from its origin on, ranging from its physical duration to the historical testimony relating to it.
In other words, Benjamin adopted a decidedly anti-traditional approach in that technology was interpreted as a convenient medium to detach something from its origins:
For the first time in world history, technological reproducibility emancipates the work of art from its parasitic subservience to ritual. To an ever-increasing degree, the work reproduced becomes the reproduction of a work designed for reproducibility. But as soon as the criterion of authenticity ceases to be applied to artistic production, the whole social function of art is revolutionised. Instead of being founded on ritual, it is based on a different practice: politics.
It is clear that what Benjamin was proposing was the total destruction of all tradition as a means of clearing the way for a technological socialist revolution, but the potential for technology to enslave people en masse had already been harnessed by the very capitalism that Benjamin sought to overthrow. That which he described as a “bungled reception,” therefore, may have been a belated expression of personal frustration at the fact that Soviet Russia – and particularly the communist films of Sergei Eisenstein and others – had already been pipped to the post by the West. The results, of course, were exactly the same and Benjamin’s intention to eradicate cultural tradition in accordance with his leftist ideology was, instead, carried out under the auspices of Hollywood. Not in the name of socialism, of course, but certainly in the long-term pursuit of profit.
As Spengler demonstrated, by evolving into a religion that is far more dangerous than that of Marx and Engels, the impact of technology is such that man
is becoming the slave of the Machine, which is forcing him – forcing us all, whether we are aware of it or not – to follow its course.
It is here that Benjamin’s attempt to utilise technology on behalf of Marxism begins to resemble Faust’s efforts to forge a pact with the Devil