show me the benjamins!!!

I am not well read in Benjamin’s ouevre, but I’ve always been semi-impressed. Moments of brilliance, but I couldn’t quite wrap my head around the big contribution. Well, Walter Laquer makes the argument that Benjamin is an over-rated thing. From the Mosaic:

Yes, his ideas (as in his best-known essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”) were often original, and there were flashes of genius. But in what precisely did his genius consist? Had he produced a new philosophy of history, proposed a fundamentally new approach to our understanding of 19th-century European culture, his main area of concern, or revolutionized our thinking about modernity? The answers I received weren’t persuasive then, and the answers provided in the vast secondary literature of the last decades have done no better.


Wherein lay its originality? The figure of the flâneur had been “discovered” earlier in the novels of Honoré de Balzac and others, and the main themes of Baudelaire’s poems had been studied even by German academics, some of whom had offered analyses not dissimilar to Benjamin’s. Were the Parisian arcades, with or without Baudelaire, the right starting point for a new understanding of modernity? Even the most detailed Benjamin biography, by the distinguished French professor Jean Michel Palmier, reaches no satisfying conclusion on this point. (Palmier’s mammoth book, almost 1,400 pages long, remains, like Benjamin’s work, unfinished—which is a comment in itself.)

Defenders – show me the Benjamins!

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Written by fabiorojas

April 7, 2014 at 12:01 am

Posted in fabio, just theory

4 Responses

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  1. The first thing to notice is that the title contains the term “reproduction” which should be of interest to everyone. The term is modified by ‘mechanical’ which can also refer to Durkheim’s ‘mechanical solidarity’ which involved repressive law, or the immediate reaction of the social milieu to the individual in a punishing manner. The implication is that we are exploited when we reproduce as a parallel to the exploitation that occurs during production. The ‘Work of Art’ as an authentic and technical event is evaluated differently if it is a copy just as our lives are graded differently to the extent to which they are inauthentic, the inauthentic being the element that is punished in mechanical solidarity, e.g. plagiarism, copy-cat, mimic, etc.

    I am still on the title, if you catch my drift I’ll say more.


    Fredrick Welfare

    April 7, 2014 at 2:42 am

  2. In a recent number of Organization Studies, I use Benjamin and Agamben to ‘recreate’ parts of the memory of the Nazi holocaust, which I argue, based on Finkelstein is an ideological construction, and which has deteriorated into kitsch.

    Its very much a USE of Benjamin – I think this is the best way to get something out of his great work.
    If you cant access it, Ill happily send it to you,


    Changing the Memory of Suffering: An Organizational Aesthetics of the Dark Side
    Bent Meier Sørensen
    Copenhagen Business School, Denmark
    Bent Meier Sørensen, Department of Management, Politics and Philosophy, Copenhagen Business School, Porcelænshaven 18B, Frederiksberg, Copenhagen, Denmark DK-2000.

    This paper addresses processes of subjection and abjection as expressed in organizational and collective memory. It complements recent developments in organizational memory studies by demonstrating how the dark side of organization has been subjected to what Susan Sontag calls a ‘collective instruction’ process that normalizes how this dark side is understood, or marginalized. The paper argues that history today is often represented as kitsch and offers a method of aesthetic ‘juxtaposition’ of visual artefacts that together with a detailed reading enables researchers to critically challenge this organization of memory and reintegrate abjected material. The method is exemplified by juxtaposing the iconic World War II photo of a little Jewish boy leaving his home with his hands in the air during the Nazi clearances of the Warsaw Ghetto and Paul Klee’s iconic painting of an angel in terror, Angelus Novus, painted in 1920 just after World War I. The analysis demonstrates how history tends to be organized by a majoritarian system – in this case what has been termed ‘the Holocaust industry’ – through collective instruction in how to interpret events, and outlines alternative ways for exposing and resisting this process, resulting in the creation of counter-narratives. This analytical strategy confirms that organizational aesthetics resides at the heart of what is political.


    Bent Meier Sørensen

    April 7, 2014 at 12:06 pm

  3. This would appear to be yet another historian doing his best to denigrate the value of understanding culture. Witness the trolling about cultural studies. Worth noting that as we see the rise of the discipline of “material culture” we’re even seeing archaeologists turn away from the fictions promoted by historians like Laqueur and towards seeing that to understand history we have to understand culture too.
    (Historians like Laqueur always pretend to understand culture, but refuse to apply any rigour to that part of their work.)

    And therein is the value of Benjamin – his best known work, small and opaque, did revolutionise our understanding of modernity, or at least late modernity – the insights lead us towards the state of meaning at the end state of modernity – which is real, whether you like the term “post-modern” or not.

    And it’s true, he never was a proper academic, he didn’t expand on this work – publish and elucidate – partly because of circumstance and I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s partly because he had a flash of insight that he couldn’t quite replicate. But you know what, if all Claude Shannon produced was the paper on the Mathematical Theory of Communication, (to take something currently on my mind) it would still be a great work.

    Now is the “Benjamin industry” overdone? Probably – but so are most of the biographical industries in academia – and there are plenty in the history academy too.

    For the record I’m not a cultural studies person, I have numerous and long disagreements with them – but I do study culture – and it’s really there that Benjamin’s insights sit, so I’m not surprised that a traditional historian isn’t interested…



    April 7, 2014 at 8:40 pm

  4. Given that the last commenter appears as “Indy”, my inner troll is tempted to simply quote Sean Connery as Henry Jones, Sr. in the Last Crusade and say “Perhaps you goose-stepping morons should try reading books instead of burning them.”

    Joking aside, I think Indy is right to cite Benjamin’s contribution as being related to our understanding of (late) modernity, more specifically the sensations of modernity (and with the recent so-called “affective turn” in cultural/media studies, communication, and anthropology along with the aforementioned turn to the material in a variety of disciplines including the sociology of art, this seems to mark Benjamin, along with Kracauer, and pieces of Adorno’s writing as a something of a nearly century-old touchstone). Benjamin also had a tremendous influence on the development of Adorno’s “negative dialectics” and his later aesthetic theory (see Buck-Morss’s “The Origins of Negative Dialectics”). Whether one sees this as important is, I would assume, subject to discipline and personal (lack of) interest.

    Now, back to sociology, there’s been a growing trend to return to the object in the sociology of art (e.g. Griswold et al in Qualitative Sociology last year, her recent work on aesthetics, and a series of debates and articles in Cultural Sociology initiated by Georgina Born beginning in 2010). While some, such as the aforementioned Griswold article, seek to do this by way of ANT, Benjamin’s writing along with Adorno (so long as one ignores the snobbier aspects of his writing), might prove yet again relevant to empirical work within the study of Culture (i.e. the arts).

    What does this mean for the study of organizations? I am not sure, but the “aesthetic approach” to organizations did come to mind and I’m glad to see that Bent Sorenson mentioned it here.



    April 11, 2014 at 7:50 am

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