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Walter Benjamin was a German literary critic and philosopher whose work draws on historical materialism and Jewish mysticism.
“The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction” is perhaps Benjamin’s most famous essay, and has become a central text for art history and cultural studies. Benjamin argues that our ability to reproduce art inaugurates a new age in which authenticity is made increasingly meaningless. Film in particular irrevocably transforms people’s experiences of art, rendering contemplation and judgment impossible in the face of a stream of moving images. The consequences of the aestheticization of politics, Benjamin fears, are fascism and war.
The second aspect of Benjamin’s work relevant for sociologists is the figure of the flaneur. Described in his essay “Paris, capital of the nineteenth century,” the flaneur represents a particularly modern sensibility: a detached observer of urban life who is connected to yet not synonymous with the bourgeoisie.
While Benjamin only completed one book-length work in his life (The Origin of German Tragic Drama), he spent 13 years collecting information for an exhaustive study of the Parisian arcades. The arcades, for Benjamin, embodied both the infrastructure and the ruins of capitalism. This unfinished masterwork, Das Passagenarbeit, is perhaps the best example of Benjamin s methodology.
In 1933 Benjamin became affiliated with the Institute for Social Research. When the Institute moved from Paris to New York, Benjamin made an attempt to emigrate to the USA via Spain. Upon trying to cross the Franco-Spanish border on September 25, 1940, a local official refused his group entry and threatened to turn them over to the authorities. Rather than face the Gestapo, Benjamin took his own life that night. The next day, the rest of his party was permitted to cross the border. Benjamin is buried in Port Bou, Spain.
- Benjamin, W. (1968) Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, ed. H. Arendt, trans. H. Zohn. Schocken Books, New York.
- Benjamin, W. (2002) The Arcades Project, ed. H. Eiland, trans. K. McLaughlin & R. Tiedemann. Belknap Press, Cambridge, MA.
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