Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

The First Pop Philosopher: How Walter Benjamin Found His Calling

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

The First Pop Philosopher: How Walter Benjamin Found His Calling

Article excerpt

Walter Benjamin: a Critical Life

Howard Eiland and Michael W Jennings

Harvard University Press, 768pp. 25 [pounds sterling]

Walter Benjamin's Archive: Images, Texts, Signs

Edited by Ursula Marx, Gudrun Schwarz, Michael Schwarz and Erdmut Wizisla.

Translated by Esther Leslie

Verso, 288pp. 12.99 [pounds sterling]

Illuminations

Walter Benjamin. Edited by Hannah Arendt

The Bodley Head, 272pp. 16.99 [pounds sterling]

Radio Benjamin

Walter Benjamin. Edited by Lecia Rosenthal. Translated by Jonathan Lutes, Lisa Harries Schumann and Diana Reese

Verso, 320pp. 20 [pounds sterling]

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Walter Benjamin is often described as a philosopher, but you won't find his works being taught or studied in the philosophy departments of many British or American universities--in English, modern languages, film studies and media studies, yes, but not in philosophy.

The American philosopher Stanley Cavell (who wrote a book about Hollywood comedies of the 1930s and 1940s, which is hardly the sort of thing you expect an analytic philosopher to do) was invited to a conference at Yale in 1999 to celebrate Harvard's publication of the first volume of Benjamin's Selected Writings. The letter of invitation had asked the prospective delegates to evaluate his contribution to their respective fields. "... an honest answer to the question of Benjamin's actual contribution to [my] field," Cavell declared, "is that it is roughly nil."

That this is so is in some respects surprising, because there are important points of affinity between Benjamin and one of the most revered figures in the analytic tradition: Ludwig Wittgenstein. They have many things in common, but where they connect most strikingly is in their shared suspicion of theory and their emphasis on the visual. "Benjamin was not much interested in theories," writes his friend Hannah Arendt in her valuable introduction to Illuminations, "or 'ideas' which did not immediately assume the most precise outward shape imaginable." Benjamin himself once wrote: "I needn't say anything. Merely show." It is a remark that could just as well have been written by Wittgenstein, who, in his first book, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, emphasised the importance of the distinction between what can be said and what has to be shown, and who, in his later Philosophical Investigations, stressed the "fundamental significance" of the "understanding that consists in 'seeing connections' ".

It would be overstating the case to say that Benjamin and Wittgenstein had similar writing styles but, linked to their shared preference for the visual over the theoretical, there is a certain similarity in their stylistic ideals, a shared aspiration to write poetically. "I think I summed up my attitude to philosophy," Wittgenstein once wrote, "when I said that one should write philosophy only as one writes a poem." This is exactly how Benjamin felt. When Wittgenstein writes in the preface to Philosophical Investigations that his thinking required him to "travel over a wide field of thought criss-cross in every direction" and that the philosophical remarks contained in the book "are, as it were, a number of sketches of landscapes which were made in the course of these long and involved journeyings", he might have been describing the style of Benjamin's 1928 book One-Way Street or his uncompleted masterpiece, the Arcades Project.

The similarities in the sensibilities of Benjamin and Wittgenstein are partly explained by their shared cultural inheritance. They were both, for one thing, great admirers of the 18th-century German scientist and aphorist Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, whose work Wittgenstein often gave to his Cambridge friends, as if to spread the word of his greatness to the English-speaking world. One of the most intriguing texts collected in Radio Benjamin is a radio play that Benjamin wrote about Lichtenberg that attests to the esteem in which he held him. …

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