Walter Benjamin

This week, I’ve had the privilege of deeply engaging with the works of Walter Benjamin with some of the brightest media scholars in the country. The question is simple: can Walter Benjamin be revived as a figure that runs through all humanistic considerations of media? And if so, what does a Benjaminian consideration of media look like.

First, a few comments regarding two ways Benjamin may define language:
Benjamin’s early work focuses on the Neo-Kantian study of language and color. Where Kant’s Doctrine of Elements suggested that space and time are non-derivatives (that is, transcendental givens), the Neo-Kantians go on to suggest that space and time are things used to create the measure of science, and therefore are not simply givens, as each science creates its own sense of space and/or time. Benjamin, mobilizing the Kantian typtic, suggests that the givens are truly color and language. Focusing on Language, Benjamin is working on a similar project as Wittgenstein, by which words mean just what I mean by them and therefore really have no meaning. In this, both are considered with the conditions that make meaning possible. The paradox that meaning is somehow both objective (out there) and derived from a subjective position creates a paradox, which is solved with the terms of authentic meaning (anything susceptible to designation) and inauthentic meaning (when it borrows its meaning from a stipulation). For Benjamin, this problem is embedded in the difference between reception and judgement characterized by the fall of man. Whereas Adamic man was receptive to meaning, but not effected by it, he was able to hear the voice that all things spoke as they were made able by the grace of God. However, following the fall (thanks to that crazy woman E.v.e), man was no longer able to hear the paradisiacal language, and thus could not receive but only judge (in the Kantian sense): the fall represents a removal from knowledge to that of judgement (for this reason, Benjamin believes that consciousness comes not from knowledge, but from language). Whereas things were originally immediate as in not mediated except for by themselves- the world becomes mediated. Whereas meaning was inherent in the voices of the things ‘as such’, immediate, they now require a creation of meaning. But meaning in the theolo-epistimic sense is a sin: God created the world in perfection, and through judging meaning, one creates something which the creation does not need. THUS, the way we define media is something that mediates the mediation itself; it is the thing which carries the message that need not be but simultaneously must be in order for any trace of being-ness to exist. Language, in other words, signs our ability to sign and nothing more, and media is the systems which recognize our reliability of signing to stay connected to the world. There is a virtuality to the meaning of things, it is there but not truly. Language is the media par excellence (besides pure perception of color, blah), in that it only mediates and nothing is immediate from it. Therefore, finally, thank God, we can define a media as anything in which the medium and the means for moving the medium are mutually exclusive, and in which the means require the destruction of the medium in order to be mediated. In other words, communication requires language, whereby the communication destroys the language such that it does not appear as language as such, but as immediate (although virutally so, given the fall) communication.

There is a lot there, and a lot that is missing, such as Benjamin’s influences: Heidegger, Hegel, Kant, Rickardt, Wolflin, Bergson, Wittgenstein, Spinoza, etc. If you re-read the list, however, you quickly notice that it’s a bunch of dead white guys. Further, there exists an over glorification of Adamic responsibility, as that which must enunciate the names of which things speak themselves vis a vis paradisiacal speech, and that which must name Eve. (There is a contradiction here, though. Adam enunciates the names of those things that speak their own names. However, he must name Eve, which does not speak her name to the world, but must be named in order to distinguish from her own kind, which is not necessary if the thing speaks its name. If that is true, then Eve by not speaking her own name does not have a language through which to speak herself into existence- she is slave to Adam [but defies him and his language by eating the apple?]. Silly Eve, first the apple, and now you ruined language). Yes, plenty of privileged, white, androcentric christianity to go around.

But this is not even touching on his later materials! On Language as Such, the essay from which I am drawing, was one of his earliest works. What of his political works? Well, first we have the foundational problem of defining media through Benjamin first, then we can decode its social function… that will come later in the week.

So far, though, I feel like there are problematics with mobilizing him to either define media, or to theorize its function in the social milieu. The problem, for me, lies in the ethnocentric, heteronormative, and androcentric, if not misogynist, modernism and theology that forms the basis of Benjamin’s thought. In all of our conversations so far of both Benjamin’s intellectual and social origins, as well as his source material, we have focused purely on the voices of white, privileged males- some of whom we might go so far as to call Nazis *coughHEIDEGGERcough*. So, the hypotethetical question that I’m going to pose is this: Is there space within Benjaminian critique for the voices of queer, feminist, colonial, indigenous, and critical race theorists; or, as I believe Bourdieu would contend, are we bound by the ideological chains of Benjamin’s modernism such that the Benjaminian critics’ position will always be that of a heterosexual, white, privileged male? I think the success of a Benjamin revival, one which does not re-create past structures of discrimination, hinges on the solution to that question.

Then we’ll have to figure out what we’re going to do with the theology and jewish mysticism…

Leave a Reply