Benjamin, Walter


Child with its mother in the panorama. The panorama is presenting the Battle of Sedan. The child finds it all very lovely: ‘Only, it’s too bad the sky is so dreary.’ –’That’s what the weather is like in war,’ answers the mother..

– Walter Benjamin, “D: Boredom, Eternal Return,” in The Arcades Project. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999. p 101.

… the phenomenon of collecting loses its meaning as it loses its personal owner. Even though public collections may be less objectionable socially and more useful academically than private collections, the objects get their due only in the latter. I do know that the time is running out for the type that I am discussing here and have been representing before you a bit ex officio. But, as Hegel put it, only when it is dark does the owl of Minerva begin its flight. Only in extinction is the collector comprehended.

– Walter Benjamin. “Unpacking My Library.” In Illuminations. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1968: 67.

Property and possessions belong to the tactical sphere. Collectors are people with a tactical instinct; their experience teaches them that when they capture a strange city, the smallest antique shop can be a fortress, the most remote stationery a key position. How many cities have revealed themselves to me in the marches I undertook in the pursuit of books!

– Walter Benjamin. “Unpacking My Library.” In Illuminations. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1968: 63.

The modern social imaginary is … both active and contemplative. It expands the repertory of collective action, and also that of objective analysis. But it also exists in a range of intermediate forms. In speaking … about the typically modern, horizontal forms of social imaginary, in which people grasp themselves and great numbers of others as existing and acting simultaneously I [mention] the economy, the public sphere, and the sovereign people, but also the space of fashion. This is an example of a fourth structure of simultaneity. It is unlike the public sphere and the sovereign people, because these are sites of common action. In this respect, it is like the economy, where a host of individual actions concatenate behind our backs. But it is different from this as well, because our actions relate in the space of fashion in a particular way. I wear my own kind of hat, but in doing so, I am displaying my style to all of you, and in this, I am responding to your self-display, even as you will respond to mine. The space of fashion is one in which we sustain together a language of signs and meanings, which is constantly changing but which at any moment is the background needed to give our gestures the sense they have. If my hat can express my particular kind of cocky yet understated self-display, this is because of how the common language of style has evolved among us up to this point. My gesture can change it, and then your responding stylistic move will takes its meaning from the new contour the language takes on.

The general structure I want to draw from this example of the space of fashion is that of a horizontal, simultaneous, mutual presence, which is not that of a common action, but rather of mutual display. It matters to each of us as we act that others are there, as witnesses of what we are doing and thus as codeterminers of the meaning of our action.

Spaces of this kind become more and more important in modern urban society, where large numbers of people rub shoulders, unknown to each other, without dealings with each other, and yet affecting each other, forming the inescapable context of each other’s lives. As against the everyday rush to work in the Metro, where others can sink to the status of obstacles in my way, city life has developed other ways of being-with, for instance, as we each take our Sunday walk in the park or as we mingle at the summer street festival or in the stadium before the playoff game. Here each individual or small group acts on their own, but with the awareness that their display says something to others, will be responded to by them, will help build a common mood or tone that will color everyone’s actions.

A host of urban monads hover on the boundary between solipsism and communication. My loud remarks and gestures are overtly addresed only to my immediate companions; my family group is sedately walking, engaged in our own Sunday outing; but all the time we are aware of this common space that we are building, in which the message that cross take meaning. This strange zone between loneliness and communication fascinated many of the early observers of this phenomenon as it arose in the nineteenth century. We can think of the paintings of Manet or of Baudelarie’s avid interest in the urban scene, in the roles of flâneur and dandy, uniting observation and display.

– Charles Taylor. Modern Social Imaginaries. Durham: Duke University Press, 2004: 167-68.

… modernity is always citing primal history…. Ambiguity is the appearance of dialectic in images, the law of dialectics at a standstill. This standstill is utopia and the dialectical image, therefore, dream image. Such an image is afforded by the commodity per se: as fetish. Such an image is presented by the arcades, which are house no less than street. Such an image is the prostitute — seller and sold in one.

Walter Benjamin, “Paris, the Capital of the Nineteenth Century” in The Writer of Modern Life: Essays on Charles Baudelaire (Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 2006), p. 41.

Let us compare the screen on which a film unfolds with the canvas of a painting. The painting invites the spectator to contemplation; before it the spectator can abandon himself to his associations. Before the movie frame he cannot do so. No sooner has his eye grasped a scene than it is aready changed. It cannot be arrested. . . .  The spectator’s process of association in view of these images is indeed interrupted by their constant sudden, change. This constitutes the shock effect of the film, which like all shocks, should be cushioned by heightened presence of mind.

– Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” [1936] in Illuminations: Walter Benjamin Essays and Reflections (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1968), p. 238.

By close-ups of the things around us, by focusing on hidden details of familiar objects, by exploring commonplace milieus under the ingenious guidance of the camera, the film, on the one hand, extends our comprehension of the necessities which rule our lives; on the other hand, it manages to assure us of an immense and unexpected field of action. Our taverns and our metropolitan streets, our offices and furnished rooms, our railroad stations and our factories appeared to have us locked up hopelessly. Then came the film and burst this prison-world asunder by the dynamite of the tenth of a second, so that now, in the midst of our far-flung ruins and debris, we calmly and adventurously go traveling. With the close-up, space expands; with slow motion, movement is extended. . . .  a different nature opens itself to the camera than opens to the naked eye—if only because an unconsciously penetrated space is substituted for a space consciously explored by man. . . .  the camera intervenes with the resources of its lowerings and liftings, its interruptions and isolations, its extensions and accelerations, its enlargements and reductions. The camera introduces us to unconscious optics . . .

– Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” [1936] in Illuminations: Walter Benjamin Essays and Reflections (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1968), p. 237.

If the natural utilization of productive forces is impeded by the property system, the increase in technical devices, in speed, and in the sources of energy will press for an unnatural utilization, and this is found in war. The destructiveness of war furnishes proof that society has not been mature enough to incorporate technology as its organ, that technology has not been sufficiently developed to cope with the elemental forces in society. . . . Instead of draining rivers, society directs a human stream into a bed of trenches. Instead of dropping seeds from airplanes, it drops incendiary bombs over cities; and through gas warfare the aura is abolished in a new way.

Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” [1936] in Illuminations: Walter Benjamin Essays and Reflections (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1968), p. 242.

If all the energy and passion … that are expended every year at Europe’s gambling tables … were stored up, an entire Roman people and Roman history could be created from them. But this is precisely the point. Because every man is born a Roman, bourgeois society seeks to de-Romanize him, and this is why there are games of chance, as well as parlor games, novels, Italian operas and fashionable newspapers.

– Ludwig Borne, c. 1830s, quoted in Walter Benjamin. “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire.” In Benjamin. The Writer in Modern Life: Essays on Charles Baudelaire. Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 2006, p.194.

Whereas Poe’s passers-by cast glances in all directions, seemingly without cause, today’s pedestrians are obliged to look about them so that they can be aware of traffic signals. Thus, technology has subjected the human sensorium to a complex kind of training. There came a day when a new and urgent need for stimuli was met by film. In a film, perception conditioned by shock was established as a formal principle. What determines the rhythm of production on a conveyor belt is the same thing that underlies the rhythm of reception in the film.

– Walter Benjamin. “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire.” In Benjamin. The Writer in Modern Life: Essays on Charles Baudelaire. Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 2006, p.191.

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