Walter Benjamin's Oeuvre: The Work of Art in the Age of Digital Reproduction

Sketches of Walter Benjamin. Credit: Renée [CC BY-NC-SA 2.0] via Flickr

The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical ReproductionThe Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction by Walter Benjamin

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Walter Benjamin's work fascinates me, and his chapter "The Flâneur" in his unfinished tome, The Arcades Project, was the inspiration for my research philosophy (or how, as a political scientist, I can work while being disillusioned with contemporary politics). 

This collection consists of three essays translated by J.A. (Jim) Underwood: The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction; Franz Kafka: On the Tenth Anniversary of His Death; and Picturing Proust. I have not read Proust's work, so the third essay felt a little like name-dropping, and I was the uneducated who had no idea who Benjamin was talking about. I am somewhat familiar with Kafka's work, so the essay was enlightening and provided an interesting background on Kafka. 

The first essay, which gives its name to the collection, I found to fit the theme of much of my experience with social media, and I was comfortable with the content. That is not to say that I didn't learn anything, however, as Benjamin's ideas would easily be revived today as "The Work of Art in the Age of Digital Reproduction". 

My immediate thought was to Da Vinci's Mona Lisa, one of the most over-rated tourist attractions, according to Techly's Joe Frost. I tend to agree. I was surprised how small it is. 

But here Benjamin comes to the rescue: Mona Lisa has an "aura". With the invention of film, the aura disappears. The camera becomes the audience. Stardom replaces the aura - fans are in awe of the film star, rather than being in awe of the event. 

Social media does something similar. It is more about creating an aura around the holiday for others, rather than enjoying the viewing in the moment. While I don't pretend to know anything much about Walter Benjamin's work just yet, I am already a fan. 

But as the camera hides all of the apparatus of film-making beyond the lens, unlike the theatre which forces us to ignore the reality that surrounds the stage, so too is social media. But in terms of marginalia, I found myself most out of my depth with the knowledge of Benjamin's endless name-dropping. Had I a clue who most of these people were (contemporary art, film, and literary critics, I presume), I would have a better understanding of the essays. 

One thing that I have learnt, especially in attempting to understand an author's oeuvre, is that a sound knowledge of the author's times and contemporaries is essential. Reading Hemingway, I discovered Scott Fitzgerald, Ford Maddox Ford, Gertrude Stein, et al. Reading Calvino, I realise I have much to learn. 

Reading Plato, I am pleased that my reading of the Stoics, Heraclitus, Homer, Hesiod, and even Virgil have given me enough of this knowledge not to gloss over names as I might with non-English phrases, but to feel like I know something about what I am reading. Whether I am missing Mortimer Adler's point is another story, but I feel that if one wants to study another's oeuvre, one must study more than just the author's work. 

And that is what makes my latest ventures into Italo Calvino and Walter Benjamin so exciting. I am leaving my Anglophone shores far behind as I paddle off into the unknown. Where I land I do not know. 

But I do know I enjoy Walter Benjamin's work immensely. Whether I can bring myself to tackle The Arcades Project's 1,000-odd pages anytime soon remains to be seen.

And while I was hoping that my fascination with Benjamin made me somewhat original, I was saddened to learn that, once again, I am simply late to the trend!

View all my reviews