Walter Benjamin and the Aesthetics of Power

By L. T. Koepnick | Go to book overview

INTRODUCTION TO PART I

Max Weber has suggested that we may best define and understand the modern state in terms of its monopoly over the legitimate use of force within a specific territory, whereby this force is either directed outward to protect given political institutions against foreign aggressors or inward to stabilize the prevalent order of social action.1 From the late eighteenth to the early twentieth century, numerous German intellectuals - from Schiller to Nietzsche, from Novalis to Wagner, from Burckhardt to Borchardt sought to draw on art in the hopes of overhauling or defending this monopoly.2 In the face of ever more accelerating processes of social differentiation, bureaucratization, and commodification, a multitude of artists, philosophers, and ideologues turned to aesthetic resources in order to counterbalance experiences of social fragmentation and redefine the contours of communal or national identity. They invoked poetic energies to warrant the legitimate use of power or envision alternative organizations of the body politic. Aesthetic experience was seen as a means to reduce social complexity and institutional abstraction, as a formula to overcome the loss of sacred, uncontested meaning, to heal putative pathologies of capitalist modernization, and to reinstate stable networks of social interaction.

Its broad and charismatic appeal notwithstanding, this call for an aesthetic state did not remain unchallenged, to be sure. Arguing from a plethora of ideological perspectives from within or without the realm of art, numerous nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century critics and artists in fact attempted to stabilize the borders between art and politics, whether they aspired to defend the political space from an intrusion of the aesthetic or to protect art from prostituting itself in the alleged gutters of power. In Faust II, Goethe contested the fusion of politics with art, only to embrace the autonomy of the aesthetic as the last remaining site of historical experience vis-a-vis what Goethe considered the increasingly senseless orders of

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Walter Benjamin and the Aesthetics of Power
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents v
  • Acknowledgments vii
  • Abbreviations ix
  • Introduction: Fascism, Mass Culture, and the Avant-Garde 1
  • One - Benjamin and the Fascist Spectacle 27
  • Introduction to Part I 29
  • I - Baroque Drama and the Quest for Autonomous Politics 35
  • 2: Carnival Industrial Culture and the Politics of Authenticity 53
  • 3: Aesthetic Dictatorship 83
  • 4: Medusian Politics 109
  • 5: Modern Visual (Culture and the Politics of Phantasmagoria 141
  • 6: Perseus's Paradox 164
  • Two - Rethinking the Spectacle 175
  • Introduction to Part 2 177
  • 7: Fascist Aesthetics Revisited 187
  • 8: Benjamin's Actuality 213
  • Notes 239
  • Index 269
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