Walter Benjamin and the Aesthetics of Power

Walter Benjamin and the Aesthetics of Power

Walter Benjamin and the Aesthetics of Power

Walter Benjamin and the Aesthetics of Power

Synopsis

Walter Benjamin and the Aesthetics of Power explores Walter Benjamin's seminal writings on the relationship between mass culture and fascism. The book offers a nuanced reading of Benjamin's widely influential critique of aesthetic politics, while it contributes to current debates about the cultural projects of Nazi Germany, the changing role of popular culture in the twentieth century, and the way in which Nazi aesthetics have persisted into the present. Lutz Koepnick first explores the development of the aestheticization thesis in Benjamin's work from the early 1920s to his death in 1940. Pushing Benjamin's fragmentary remarks to a logical conclusion, Koepnick sheds light on the ways in which the Nazis employed industrial mass culture to redress the political as a self-referential space of authenticity and self-assertion. Koepnick then examines to what extent Benjamin's analysis of fascism holds up to recent historical analyses of the National Socialist period and whether Benjamin's aestheticization thesis can help conceptualize cultural politics today. Although Koepnick insists on crucial differences between the stage-managing of political action in modern and postmodern societies, he argues throughout that it is in Benjamin's emphatic insistence on experience that we may find the relevance of his reflections today. Walter Benjamin and the Aesthetics of Power is both an important contribution to Benjamin studies and a revealing addition to our understanding of the Third Reich and of contemporary culture's uneasy relationship to Nazi culture.

Excerpt

It has become commonplace for scholars of modern German culture to say that National Socialism cannot be understood without considering the role of Nazi culture and aesthetics. According to this view, the stage-managing of political action and the coordination of all cultural expressions during the Nazi period served the decisively antimodern goal of dedifferentiation and false reconciliation. National Socialism infused aesthetics into the political sphere in order to turn life into a unified work of art. As a perverse continuation of certain avant-garde projects, Nazi aesthetics revoked peculiarly modern boundaries between modes of cognition, experience, and expression. It recast the political as a realm of the beautiful so as to compensate for the costs of modern disenchantment and to suture disenfranchised individuals into an all-encompassing spectacle of homogenization, an aesthetic simulation of community. Don DeLillo's 1985 novel White Noise neatly summarizes what has become standard fare among historians and theorists of National Socialism. The novel's protagonist, Jack Gladney, a professor of Hitler studies at a small midwestern college, regularly screens a self-edited documentary that features military parades, mass rallies, and other highly choreographed crowd scenes: “Close-up jostled shots of thousands of people outside a stadium after a Goebbels speech, people surging, massing, bursting through the traffic. Halls hung with swastika banners, with mortuary wreaths and death's-head insignia. Ranks of thousands of flagbearers arrayed before columns of frozen light, a hundred and thirty aircraft searchlights aimed straight up - a scene that resembled a geometric longing, the formal notation of some powerful mass desire."

Deeply engrossed in the power of the visual, the postmodern imagination remains haunted by the operatic extravaganzas of Nazi culture and aesthetics. Contemporary entertainment industries, in fact, utilize images such as those of Gladney - political spectacles, the Nazi cult of death, and the . . .

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