26 June 2008

The Uses of Walter Benjaimn

"[Walter Benjamin] ... ranks high as one of the most perfectly
citable authors of all, because you can cite him reverently
without having to figure out what he said. With Benjamin a
citation is the academic equivalent of the purely ritual move,
like a ballplayer's sign of the cross." ~ Lindsay Waters

Waters, poohbah of humanities operations at Harvard University Press, made this comment a couple of years ago. He is politely stating the truth that Benjamin - like Thomas Kuhn, Clifford Geertz, Richard Rorty, and a few other boundary-crossing notables - is much cited while scarcely read. The discrepancy varies among social sciences and humanities with various authors. But humanities types, especially those writing on visual arts, tend to rely on the WB talisman to a truly exasperating extent. The mere mention of his name seemingly is enough to afford the author weight and authority. In my case, it is the signal that the time has come to start skimming.

For his part, Walters has diminished the possibility that invokers can offer the excuse that WB's works are scattered and difficult to track down and so forth. He has just published this new, cheap collection of WB's writings on arts and media.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

So. Is this to say that *you* have read 'WB' in a serious manner? It seems to me that this back handed post publicizing what I have found to be a useful and convenient collection of Benjamin's... stuff, is not much different from the kinds of ritual citations you seem to discount.

If you do have a position on Benjamin, particularly with respect to the visual arts, I for one would be enlightened to read it.

For my part, I have just read the title (Reproducibility) essay in this collection and found its whole seems to be less than the sum of its parts. Even if there may be a few nuggets (excluding the famed 'aura' argument which seems to me... incomplete.) I'm now in the midst of the 'Short History...' which is why I purchased the book and it's to my eye not half bad. It's interesting to see him trying to grapple with 'value' or 'quality', particularly in portraiture. His, shall we say, oblique approach -- the capturing of some sort of internal truth or spirit or personality or 'moment' within the image -- seems to have resonance in a lot of subsequent writing on photography. And is, I think, a little more concise and useful than the similar sallies you find in 'Camera Lucida.' But then it's also shorter. I don't think it's a good idea, however, to try to explain this in terms of commercialization, death of a craft, transition of technology; it tends to discount the part played by the viewer in favour of the means of production.

As I write this, I'm wondering if things mightn't have gone better for Benjamin and his legacy if he had been gifted with a place to settle? If in fact he would have allowed himself such a thing. So much of what he writes seems to be a critique of fascism from a not-very-convincing pseudo-Marxist stance. From the point of view of a person on the run. I'm not sure he *really* wanted to be spending his time doing that. Who would? But of course, many, many people who should have known better did far less at the time.

At any rate, I've gotten that off my chest. Thanks for the opportunity.


27 June, 2008 09:31  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...


I have read some of WB's essays. I teach "The Work of Art ..." in my undergraduate course on Art & Politics. I would not say that I have read and grappled with Benjamin, although I find the 'Work of Art ...' essay underwhelming. (I do not think the analysis of authenticity, aura, authority etc. is terribly compelling.)

But I didn't claim that I had read lots of WB in my post. Indeed, that is why I bought the book - which, like you, I think will be a useful compilation. I will also say that (to the best of my recollection) you will not find a single place in anything I've written where I invoke WB.

My gripe is that as (a journal editor and) a reader of academic and nonacademic writing on photography in particular and art/politics more generally, I find ritualized invocation of authors (WB seems especially prominent) substitutes for thought and insight. Indeed, I think such invocation actually tends to obstruct thought and insight.

In any case, the post is meant to prompt discussions to that broader matter (in addition to being an advert for the book).

27 June, 2008 09:48  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

P.S.: I will add that I have on several occasions tried to ask presenters at conference panels to explain what they thought WB (whom they invoked in a paper) might mean by some concept or other. The answers are pretty uniformly dismal. (I will add that this is not true just of folks who invoke WB.)

27 June, 2008 09:57  

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