Walter Benjamin and the Media
I’m lucky: book reviewers are only really expected to write about the content of the books they review. They almost never have to write about what it was actually like to read a book. That is, they don’t have to talk about how they read a book, how it felt to see printed letters on a mass-produced page, or how they thought their understanding may have differed had they, say, read the words on a computer, or as scrolling credits at the end of a movie, or scrawled in pen on some bathroom stall (a very erudite bathroom stall). It’s simply beside the point. Because we already know what it means to read a book. Or at least we think we do.
But perhaps it is precisely because this knowledge seems so self-evident that it is difficult to articulate how reading—or any process by which we communicate meaningful content—really affects us independently of its “meaningful content."
Unlike many thinkers that preceded—and indeed succeeded—him, Walter Benjamin was concerned with precisely this problem. Throughout his book Walter Benjamin and the Media, Jaeho Kang repeatedly underscores how Benjamin’s thinking differed from other theorists who understood forms of media as purely—or at least primarily—instrumental, as vehicles for promulgating specific ideologies, rather than as vehicles whose forms lent them to the development of specific ideologies. In providing a panoramic view of Benjamin’s thinking, Kang traces both Benjamin’s work in media studies as well as his work in the media (Benjamin produced numerous radio programs in the late 20s and early 30s), discussing not only his theoretical writings, but also situating him amongst his intellectual and political contemporaries.
Kang takes care to preserve Benjamin’s multifaceted and elusive character, in the first chapter listing occupations (Benjamin as student activist, journalist, media practitioner, and critic), as well as intellectual influences (Gershom Scholem, Theodor W. Adorno, Siegfried Kracauer, and Bertolt Brecht), painting a sort of cubist portrait of Benjamin. Having never held a university post, yet heavily involved with radio and criticism, as a friend of both lovers and loathers of mass culture, caught between Capital and Kabbalah, Benjamin was a definitive outsider.
However, aside from the biographical introduction—which is of interest to any reader of Benjamin—it’s somewhat unclear for whom this book is actually written. On the one hand, it reads a bit like an introductory textbook, replete with chapter summaries, lists of important questions, main arguments and open-ended let’s-all-just-think-about-how-this-relates-to-contemporary-society type conclusions. The book covers an impressively broad range of material and contains some passing references to the usual suspects on a lit theory syllabus. However, at other times it seems to be written for someone with a much more solid understanding of Benjamin’s writings and terminology (which was infamously elusive). While Kang sometimes takes pains to define or illustrate theoretical concepts (such as “aura” in his chapter on Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility”), at other times he is frustratingly vague, foregoing frank explanations in favor of bulky block quotations (as with the “dialectical image” in his chapter on Benjamin’s unfinished Arcades Project).
Benjamin is not an easy author to understand. Both the joy and the pain of reading his works lie in deciphering his strange and disorienting web of thoughts, perceptions, and open-ended theses. As someone who is interested in Benjamin but by no means an expert, a basic reason for my picking up a secondary source would be to gain a foothold in this web, starting with a few solid definitions.
Another reason might be to see Benjamin’s thought developed further, or transplanted into a contemporary context. After all, as the book reminds us in its very first sentence: Benjamin committed suicide in 1940 while trying to escape from the Nazis. That leaves three-quarters of a century of media development and media theory—as well as a post-fascist, post-communist Europe—to ponder.
Kang certainly recognizes this and throughout the book tries to emphasize the relevance of Benjamin’s thinking in our contemporary media context. However, his emphasis amounts to just that: emphasis. Apart from a few cursory references to technologies like Facebook and Twitter and some rather unobtrusive questions about what we all think of Benjamin today, there isn’t much in the way of contemporary analysis. This isn’t necessarily a fault of the book—not everything needs to make explicit its relevance to our own day-to-day. However, anyone looking for insight into the contemporary mediascape through the lens of Benjamin’s writings will find this book exceedingly threadbare.
It also seems that between the admirably broad amount of material and his comparisons to Benjamin’s contemporaries, discussing later media theorists is biting off a bit too much. While Kang successfully carries on a counterpoint with ideological criticism of the Frankfurt School (mostly Adorno’s), the comparisons between Benjamin and contemporary theorists are (self-admittedly) brief, mostly reside in the concluding chapter and are basically a dismissal of several overly-reductive and ‘instrumentalist’ theorists (i.e., McLuhan, Baudrillard, Debord, Habermas)—a dismissal that, itself, feels a bit reductive at times.
I hesitate to mention this next point, as it seems I may simply have an allergy to postmodern theory. However, the book’s rhetorical maneuvers sometimes smack of certain postmodern assumptions (e.g., the Enlightenment straw man features quite prominently as a way of efficiently legitimating Benjamin’s epistemology and pedagogy). I usually make it through pomo theory without more than a few doleful glances at my life-sized bust of Kant (it’s bronze), but here I do wish that Kang had met more closely the nuance and dialecticism of Benjamin’s own writing, which he certainly seems to admire.
While I have focused (perhaps overly) on the negative aspects of the book, it does have some notable strong points. Besides the careful way in which Kang collages together a portrait of Benjamin—both intellectually and occupationally—the fourth chapter, “Art and Politics,” contains a thorough analysis of Benjamin’s seminal essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility.” Through comparisons to other modernist thinkers who influenced Benjamin—most prominently, Siegfried Kracauer—Kang successfully explains the subtleties of Benjamin’s “distracted critics” of film. Though the book’s broad scope often comes at the cost of examining Benjamin’s ideas more closely or in a new or contemporary light, by devoting an entire chapter to this essay, Kang is able to illustrate Benjamin’s unique ambivalence towards mass media—his simultaneous excitement (e.g., with regard to the cameraman’s surgical ability to reveal what lies right before our eyes—the “optical unconscious”), and anxiety (mass media’s latent potential for fascism). And perhaps to today’s critical reader this ambivalence may not require much explanation.
Lincoln-Vogel is an animator based in Oakland, California. He graduated from Reed College in Portland, Oregon, where he majored in Russian and studio art and wrote a thesis about surrealism in Russian animation.