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24560426 7830 Benjamins Passagen Werk Redeeming

24560426 7830 Benjamins Passagen Werk Redeeming

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Benjamin's Passagen-Werk: Redeeming Mass Culture for the RevolutionAuthor(s): Susan Buck-MorssSource:
New German Critique,
No. 29, The Origins of Mass Culture: The Case of ImperialGermany (1871-1918) (Spring - Summer, 1983), pp. 211-240Published by: New German CritiqueStable URL:
Accessed: 23/10/2008 21:08
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Benjamin'sPassagen-Werk:RedeemingMassCulturertheRevolution,
bySusanBuck-Morss
I.Mass CultureasDream-WorldI shall focusmycommentsontherecentlypublished Passagen-Werk,Benjamin'smajorbut unfinishedstudyof Parisin the 19thcentury,whichwas concernedwiththeoriginsof massculture,and whichoccupiedhim from 1927untilhis suicide in 1940.In line withthespecificinterestsof thisconference,I will considerhisargumentthattherecentlyout-of-dateobjectsofmass culturepossessedpolitical,iadeed,revolutionarypowerfor hisgeneration,and this will take usbyasomewhat circuitousroutetoImperialBerlin,the sceneofBen-jamin'sown childhood.Anyargumentbasedon thePassagen-Werkisnecessarilytentative,duetoitsextremelyambiguousstatus as a text. Itsgoalwastoreconstructhistorywithapoliticalfocusonthe"present,"butbetween1927 and 1940 thepoliticalnatureof thepresentchangedcon-siderably,and thus sodoes the toneof the reconstruction.Moreover,although surely Benjamin'smajorliteraryeffort,thePassagen-Werkisnotonlyunfinished;itisnota"work"at all.Itconsistsof reserachnoteswithsomecommentary,carefullynumbered and collectedinfolders(Konvoluts)towhichBenjamingaveidentifyingkeywords ("Arcades,""Fashion,""AncientParis,""Boredom,"Haussmannization,"etc.)aswellas letters which hearrangedA-Z;a-z.Itmightbest be describedas1.MythankstoPhilippeInvernel,BarbaraKleiner,BurkhardtLinder,Michael
L6wy,WinfriedMenninghaus,andBerndtWitte,fromwhosecontributions to thecolloquium,"WalterBenjaminetParis"(Paris,June1983),I learnedmuchthatwasstimulatingfortherevisionofthispaper.
2.WalterBenjamin,DasPassagen-Werk,vol.,ed.byRolkTiedemannFrankfurt-
am-Main:SuhrkampVerlag,1982),GesammelteSchriften,ol.V;hereafterPW.CitationsarenotedbelowwiththeiridentifyingKonvolutlettercode.
211
 
212Benjamin'sassagenwerk
alexiconprovidingconcreteimages,intheformofquotationsfromsourceson19th-centuryParis,whichilluminate theoriginsof modern-ity.Fromthem,asfrombuildingblocks,BenjaminconstructedhistwoessaysonBaudelaire(1938and1939),and wouldhave constructed
thePassagen-Werk-injustwhatfashion,however,eventhe most
qualifiedcommentator,TheodorAdorno,could notdecipher, giventhefragmentedconditionofthesurvivingmaterial.3Butparticularlyofthetopicof massculture,inlightofthe wide disseminationof the 1936essay,"TheWork ofArtintheAgeof MechanicalReproduction,"4whichinthiscountryat leastistaken as the canonicalstatementbyBen-jamionthesubject,thePassagen-Werk,owhich the artworkessaywascloselytiedinitsconception,5provideseveninitspartialilluminationsanimportantcorrective tooverly-simplisticor one-sidedassumptionsasto whatBenjamin'smass-culturetheorywas all about.It shouldperhapsbe notedfirst ofall thatdespiteitsreceptionassuch,"mass culture"(atermBenjamindidn'tuse)is notthecentralthemeofthe artworkessay.Theessayisconcernedprimarilywith artintheageofindustrialism,whenithas becomepossibletoreproducetechnologicallynotonlythework ofart,butalsothesubjectmatter(reality)which art hasstriventraditionallytorepresent.Benjamindealtwiththetheoretical, indeed,philosophical questionofwhathappensto thesocial andcognitivefunction of art onceitsauthorityas anoriginal(thesourceofits"aura")has beenunderminedbymassreproductionandonceitseffortsatthemimeticreplicationofreality(whichhadgivenitsforms,howeverillusory,a claim totruth)havebeendecisivelysurpassedbytechnologicalmeans,specificallyphotographyand film.Benjamin'sanswerisclear:Theresultistheliquidationof artinitstraditional,bourgeoisform. Art'spowerasillu-sionmovesover intoindustry(paintingintoadvertising,architectureintotechnicalengineering,handcrafts orsculptureinto theindustrialarts)creatingwhat we havecometocall massculture,andistakeninto
3.Thebulkof the text wasin Adorno's handsby1948,duringwhich summerhe"workedthroughit mostexhaustively"andconcludedthat the mass ofquotationsofwhichit consistswaslackingin a theoretical orconceptualordering adequatefortheirinterpretation,a taskwhich,"ifitwerepossibleatall,only Benjamincouldhaveaccomplished."(PW, 1072).4. In WalterBenjamin,Illuminations,rans.HarryZohnand ed.HannahArendt(NewYork:SchockenBooks,1969).Thetide,"Das KunstwerkimZeitalterseinertechnischenReproduzierbarkeit,"is moreaccurately(iflessgracefully)translated,"Thework ofArtintheAgeof itsTechnologicalReproduceability."5.Benjaminwrote thattheartworkessay"fixes thecontemporarysituationfromwhich certainpremisesandquestionsareto be decisiveforthe[Passagen-Werk's]ack-wardglanceintothe 19thcentury"(PW,1152.See alsoIbid.,1150-51).

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