Walter Benjamin’s Philosophical Thought Presented by Two Experimental Films

Lit­er­ary the­o­rist and schol­ar Wal­ter Ben­jamin was part of a small but incred­i­bly sig­nif­i­cant cohort of Ger­man-Jew­ish intel­lec­tu­als who fled the Nazis in the thir­ties. The group includ­ed thinkers like Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Han­nah Arendt, Her­bert Mar­cuse, and Bertolt Brecht. Of all of the names above, only Ben­jamin suc­cumbed, com­mit­ting sui­cide by mor­phine over­dose in 1940 at a Cat­alon­ian hotel, when it became clear that the Span­ish, with whom he had sought refuge, were going to turn him back over to Ger­many.

Of all of the thinkers above, most of whom are fair­ly well-known by U.S. stu­dents of the lib­er­al arts, it can (and should) be argued that Ben­jamin was the most influ­en­tial, even if he rarely appears on a syl­labus, except­ing one well-known essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechan­i­cal Repro­ducibil­i­ty,” a sta­ple of film and media the­o­ry class­es. All of the thinkers list­ed above adored Ben­jamin, and all of them fig­u­ra­tive­ly sat at his feet. And while Benjamin—often by ref­er­ence to the afore­men­tioned essay—gets pegged as a Marx­ist thinker, he was also some­thing else; he was a mys­tic and a sage, the crit­i­cal equiv­a­lent, per­haps, of Kaf­ka.

The 1993 exper­i­men­tal film above—One Way Street: Frag­ments for Wal­ter Ben­jamin—is part doc­u­men­tary, part low-bud­get cable-access edit­ing exer­cise. The film pro­vides an intro­duc­tion to Benjamin’s life and thought through inter­views with schol­ars, re-enact­ments of Benjamin’s last days, and mon­tages cen­tered around his many apho­ris­tic expres­sions. One Way Street opens with an epi­gram from Benjamin’s pupil Brecht, from the latter’s poem “On the Sui­cide of the Refugee W.B.,” in which Brecht eulo­gizes his mentor’s prophet­ic strain: “the future lies in dark­ness and the forces of right / Are weak. All this was plain to you.” Indeed, it is this mys­ti­cal aspect of Ben­jamin that defies his strict cat­e­go­riza­tion as a dog­mat­ic Marx­ist mate­ri­al­ist. Through the con­sid­er­able influ­ence of his friend Ger­shom Scholem, Ben­jamin acquired a deep inter­est in Kab­bal­is­tic thought, includ­ing a mes­sian­ic streak that col­ored so much of his writ­ing.

In ref­er­ence to this Jew­ish mys­ti­cism, Anson Rabin­bach, edi­tor of New Ger­man Cri­tique sum­ma­rizes Benjamin’s thought above:

The world is… dis­persed in frag­ments, and in these frag­ments, the frag­ments of the world that God has now turned his back on, reside cer­tain pres­ences, which attest to the for­mer exis­tence of their divine char­ac­ter. You can­not active­ly go about to dis­cov­er these divine pres­ences, but they can be revealed.

Accord­ing to Rabin­bach, Benjamin’s method was, sim­i­lar to Freud’s, an attempt to “unlock” these “ema­na­tions” by “jux­ta­pos­ing things that don’t quite nec­es­sar­i­ly appear to be relat­ed to each oth­er… And this is the Kab­bal­is­tic sense, that you can­not go direct­ly at the task, because the dis­clo­sure of the ema­na­tion is blocked.” Benjamin’s frag­men­tary “method” pro­duced prodi­gious results—hundreds upon hun­dreds of pages of essays, and a frus­trat­ing­ly unfin­ished book pub­lished as The Arcades Project.

His thought is so diverse that one com­menter in the film above—Michael Jen­nings, author of Ben­jamin study Dialec­ti­cal Images—says that “the way that Ben­jamin is used most in this coun­try, is to dip in and take a quo­ta­tion out of con­text, in sup­port of any argu­ment one could think of, and I used to take umbrage at this, until I real­ized that this was pre­cise­ly Benjamin’s own prac­tice.” In this way, Ben­jamin occu­pies a sim­i­lar place in the human­i­ties as Russ­ian lit­er­ary the­o­rist Mikhail Bakhtin. Where he is famous, he is famous for cre­at­ing whole con­cep­tu­al fields one can invoke by utter­ing a sin­gle word or phrase.

One of the most potent words in the Ben­jamin lex­i­con is the French term flâneur. The flâneur is a “stroller, idler, walk­er,” a “well-dressed man, strolling leisure­ly through the Parisian arcades of the nine­teenth century—a shop­per with no inten­tion to buy, an intel­lec­tu­al par­a­site of the arcade” (as Ben­jamin web­site “The Arcades Project Project” defines it). The flâneur is an indi­vid­ual of priv­i­lege and a prog­en­i­tor of the male gaze: “Tra­di­tion­al­ly the traits that mark the flâneur are wealth, edu­ca­tion, and idle­ness. He strolls to pass the time that his wealth affords him, treat­ing the peo­ple who pass and the objects he sees as texts for his own plea­sure.” The flâneur is not sim­ply a pas­sive observ­er; he is instead a kind of lazy urban preda­tor, and also a dandy and pro­to-hip­ster. Per­haps the most sin­is­ter rep­re­sen­ta­tion of this char­ac­ter (in a dif­fer­ent urban con­text) is the creepy Svidri­gailov in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Pun­ish­ment.

In the 1998 film above, Flâneur III: Benjamin’s Shad­ow, Dan­ish direc­tor Tor­ben Skjodt Jensen and writer Urf Peter Hall­berg col­lab­o­rate on an impres­sion­is­tic black-and-white med­i­ta­tion on Paris, over­laid with Hallberg’s rumi­na­tions and quo­ta­tions from Ben­jamin. Benjamin’s fas­ci­na­tion with nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry Paris drove his mas­sive, unfin­ished Arcades Project, an exca­va­tion of the inner work­ings of moder­ni­ty. Where One Way Street is marked by a very dat­ed 90’s aes­thet­ic (which may look chic now that the decade’s back in fash­ion), the above film is both clas­si­cal and mod­ernist, a tes­ta­ment to the beau­ties and con­tra­dic­tions of Paris. I think in this respect, it is a more fit­ting trib­ute to the crit­i­cal and con­tra­dic­to­ry aes­thet­ic the­o­ry of Wal­ter Ben­jamin.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hear Theodor Adorno’s Avant-Garde Musi­cal Com­po­si­tions

Han­nah Arendt Dis­cuss­es Phi­los­o­phy, Pol­i­tics & Eich­mann in Rare 1964 TV Inter­view

Mar­tin Hei­deg­ger Talks About Lan­guage, Being, Marx & Reli­gion in Vin­tage 1960s Inter­views

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Wash­ing­ton, DC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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