Walter Benjamin: Recent Writings
(New Documents, 2013)
“The profession of almost every man, even that of the artist, begins with hypocrisy,” Nietzsche writes, “with an imitation from without, with a copying of what is most effective.” When I first started graduate school in philosophy, in 1990, I arrived with a headful of Nietzsche and Russell and Quine and Davidson, only to find, to my embarrassment and confusion, that all of the cool kids were reading this fellow I’d never even heard of, Walter Benjamin. Naturally, I copied them.
I remember going to Half Price Books—a great old bookstore on Guadalupe about a mile north of the University of Texas campus at that time, where you’d leave your backpack in a bookshelf by the door and they’d get angry with you if you came in with an old book—and picking up my first copy of Illuminations. I read “Unpacking My Library” on the floor between the dusty stacks and thought to myself: “This is philosophy?” If he could get away with writing like that and still have philosophers studying it and talking about it late into the 20th century (philosophy rules in the 19th century were very different)—well, it made me believe that philosophy could be a lot more exciting than I had hoped. I read all of the Benjamin I could get my hands on, as well as many of the books by the great minds in his circle or writing under his influence or with his inspiration: Bataille, Adorno, Horkheimer, Deleuze, Lacan. They were all new names to me. At this time in my life—22 years old—I had been trained to think certain things and in certain ways; for example, that the great American philosopher Richard Rorty was a joke. And when Rorty left his philosophy department and moved into comp lit, I thought, that’s just where he belongs. But Walter Benjamin made me realize that it wasn’t Richard Rorty who had lost his way; it was me, when I believed that 20th-century philosophy was supposed to be at best not much fun to read, and at worst dull, arid, academic.
But here’s the funny part. I left graduate school shortly after that—I sort of stumbled into a group of investors who gave me and my brothers several million dollars to start a business—and didn’t return until almost 10 years later. I didn’t stop reading Benjamin, though. I read The Arcades Project when the translation came out in 2002, in the mornings before my store opened. I read the Selected Writings as they appeared. My German was still pretty good then and I even read some of his short pieces in the original, trying to tell myself, I suppose, that I was still an intellectual. I always planned to go back to graduate school and finish my Ph.D. And this is the punch line: when I came back to philosophy in 2000, I wanted to write a dissertation on Walter Benjamin and Thorstein Veblen (another fellow I’d discovered and studied during my days in business). Benjamin and Veblen! The other graduate students, if they knew the names, tried to be polite. Even my adviser, a very open-minded fellow and an advocate of expanding the boundaries of philosophy, had to tell it to me straight: “You’d never get a job, Clancy. These guys aren’t even considered philosophers anymore.” I complained to another friend that I’d spent years studying this guy who I’d never heard of when I’d first arrived at graduate school, and now suddenly no one else had heard of him either. He laughed. “You have to admit it’s pathetic. You copied all those guys reading Walter Benjamin to be cool, and by the time you had read him he wasn’t cool anymore.”
Ten years later, Walter Benjamin still isn’t studied in professional philosophy, although if you talked to some of the smartest philosophers working today—like Stephen Darwall, Sean Kelly, Richard Moran, Michelle Kosch, or Jonathan Lear—I suspect they’d tell you he ought to be. My own dear friend and mentor, the late Arthur C. Danto, was a great fan of his work, though Danto disagreed with much of what Benjamin wrote about art. But it’s people like Danto (who was a very traditional analytical philosopher, by training and by inclination), Kelly, and Kosch who make me hopeful that the narrow-mindedness of so much professional American philosophy of the late 20th century is on its way out.
Anyway, I’m still reading Benjamin: lately, his Recent Writings, a short collection of characteristically brilliant, lucid, and entertaining essays about art. Although Benjamin died by suicide in 1940 (when he learned he would be sent from Spain back to prison in Nazi-occupied France), he anticipated or invented nearly everything we presently believe about the status of the artwork. He is most famous for his often-misunderstood notion that the original of an artwork, as opposed to reproductions of it, has an “aura” that gives it its authenticity. This sounds like Benjamin was giving art a kind of mystical status, while in fact what he had in mind was precisely the opposite. In an interview with Daniel Miller published in Recent Writings, Benjamin explains:
I think that art is rather an invention of the Western society that began with the Enlightenment and was finally shaped in Romanticism when some aspects of society begin to worship certain God-like properties, such as uniqueness, originality, and creativity. Again, “art” represents a relatively recent invention of what we call Western culture. It is an expression of a belief in human creativity and originality, organized according to a myth called “art history,” which tells us a story based on the uniqueness of its characters, principally artists and works of art.
Benjamin was actively interested in the demystification of art, which is not to say that he was arguing against its importance. But what he wanted to show—and what so much of his discussion of the copying and reproduction of artwork is used to demonstrate—is that art can only be understood in its historical context, and that to de-historicize art is not only confused but also dangerous.
The worries that motivated Benjamin were both philosophical and political: that art had become infinitely reproducible challenged the importance of the uniqueness of the art object. That art had become both a central tool for propaganda—Nazism was popularized aesthetically—and was increasingly viewed as a consumer product (though even Benjamin did not anticipate the art-as-cult-of-luxury of today) had social and moral consequences.
In “Mondrian ’63 – ’96” Benjamin considers the problem of several pretty decent though not perfect copies of paintings by Mondrian that are dated after the painter’s death. Since the purpose was not forgery—the forger would have dated the paintings correctly—nor technical perfection—the paintings are good, but not great—and certainly not fame—the forger signs Mondrian’s name, not her own, and remains unknown—what could be the point? Benjamin gives few answers in the essay, and that matters, because he thinks that at the end of the day the importance of copying is that it compels us to question the importance of authenticity. Considering both the original Mondrian and its copy, and the further possibility of a copy of the copy, Benjamin concludes: “They rely neither on coordinates of time, nor on coordinates of identity, nor on coordinates of meaning. They simply hover, and the only comprehensible existence that we can accept with certainty are these questions themselves.” In fact, Benjamin argues, the copy seems to him more important than the original, because the original only has meaning for us within its particular artistic and historical context, while the copy elevates us out of that context into the complicated realm of questions about meaning. What is meaning, and why do we care about it? It is considerations like these that drove Arthur Danto to conclude, when confronted with Warhol’s Brillo boxes, that we have come to “the end of art.” When the copy of an object, quotidian or a masterpiece, itself becomes the object of aesthetic consideration, there are no more questions for us to ask.
Or, as Benjamin insists, the questions themselves become the focus of our attention. Benjamin wants to advance an ethical and not an aesthetic agenda: his point is that whether we are considering museums, paintings, or even the artists who produce them (“good old Mondrian,” as Benjamin calls him), our task is to recognize the narrative of which it is a part in order to be able to step out of that narrative and investigate it. Benjamin writes that,
a fake (deceptively) wants to be the original, a copy (overtly) tries only to imitate it. Thus the purpose of a fake is to conceal, whereas a copy proposes to reveal. A fake is essentially opportunistic—it does not question the system. … On the other hand, a copy is out in the open, obvious and blunt; once it is incorporated into the system, it starts questioning everything.
Asking questions when we don’t know if they’ll lead to answers—even when we doubt they’ll lead to answers—is the technique Socrates used to start the project of Western philosophy and the happily persistent idea that the unexamined life is not worth living; it was Nagarjuna’s way of liberating the mind from confusion and attaining the realization of emptiness; it was Pyrrho and Sextus Empiricus’s method for attacking the many wayward conclusions of dogmatic Stoics and other philosophers. Questions are always the beginning of knowledge; in the moral and political arena, they may also be an end in themselves. “I don’t want to sound over dramatic,” Benjamin tells Miller, “but finding or establishing meta-positions in relation to history is today perhaps one of the most important challenges facing humanity.” We get out of our narratives—we find meta-positions—by asking questions.
So what about me back in graduate school, faking it until I made it—and then finding out that in copying others all of my preparation had been an unmaking? I think when my friend pointed out to me how comical my position was, I was free of trying to be like the other graduate students, and could honestly pursue what interested me most. I wound up asking a lot of questions I wouldn’t have otherwise thought to ask, questions that were not provoked by my training in professional analytical philosophy. Some of these questions have taken me up to monasteries high in the Himalayas, others to mystical retreats deep in the forests of Southern Brazil.
But here’s the best part: as you have no doubt already realized, and have been scratching your head over, Benjamin died before Mondrian. So how do we find Benjamin explaining post-Mondrian copies?
At the close of this slender, clever little meta-volume, they reveal the secret in a note “About the Author”: “many years after his tragic death Walter Benjamin reappeared in public with the lecture “Mondrian ’63 – ’96.” Here we have a collection of copies of Benjamin, created by some nameless but very, very good imitator—who probably would disown his or her artistry, given that the paintings in the Mondrian lecture are described as imperfect, failing to “radiate artistic perfection.” My editor got the joke before I did; he said: “Explain this chronology? I smell a rat.” And then I started poring over the essays again, trying to discover what was original Benjamin, reprinted Benjamin, copied Benjamin, imitated Benjamin. Where did this new “Benjamin” agree with the Benjamin I know and love and where do they differ? So much of the book reads like straight solid Benjamin! I can’t figure out if the whole book is a copy or if half of it is reprinted interviews that actually took place—and I’m not supposed to. Foucault wrote a famous essay on Nietzsche that is composed almost entirely of unsourced, rephrased quotations from Nietzsche himself; Benjamin himself first suggested that the ideal academic essay would be composed of nothing but quotations, without any commentary from the author whatsoever. I’m left, like an ancient skeptic, at an aporia: no way through. The best response is to laugh at myself. Now there’s a good old-fashioned anti-dogmatic moral lesson.
Walter Benjamin duped me again.