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Labyrinth Gathering Keeps Benjamin in “Sharp Focus”

Ellen Gilbert

Princeton University professors Brigid Doherty, Michael Jennings, and Thomas Levin, co-editors of the newly released The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility and Other Writings on Media by the late German philosopher Walter Benjamin, appeared at Labyrinth books last Friday to talk about the book, its author, and their collaboration.

During the 1920s and 1930s, Benjamin (1892-1940) examined a broad range of modern media, including newspapers, the radio, cameras, and the telephone, as well as architectural forms such as the train station and underground sewer systems. Most notable, perhaps, was his consideration of “the arcade,” which included illustrated books, photography, painting, film, and which resulted in the posthumously published work, The Arcades Project. Benjamin formulated a wide-ranging theory of media, that is summed up in his essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility,” the centerpiece of the new book.

Mr. Levin said that the essay provided the “logic that pervades the volume.” Unlike previous anthologies of Benjamin’s work, which typically presented his essays in chronological order, this one represents, Mr. Levin observed, a “conceptual grouping” providing the context for what is considered one of Benjamin’s most important essays. The volume also includes six essays never before available in English: three on radio, two on painting, and an examination of experimental techniques of exhibition and display. In addition, a portion of the “Origin of German Trauerspiel” which examines problems of allegory, script, and the fragmentation of language, appears in a new translation.

One of the most amusing stories in the book was read by Mr. Jennings. An autobiographical piece, it describes Benjamin’s first experience in radio broadcasting. Given a specific length of time into which he had to fit his reading, He practiced it earlier, only to discover, when he looked at the clock in the studio halfway through his on-air time, that he had very little time left. Mercilessly skipping over passages he finished, only to realize that he had mistaken the second hand for the minute hand of the clock, and actually had four minutes left to fill. Experiencing “the oldest shudder known to man” (silence), he was filled with “indescribable fear” as he stretched out a final passage to fill what otherwise would have been dead air. Later, he anxiously asks an unwitting friend how it all sounded. The friend remarked on some blank lapses, blaming them on his radio’s receivers.

Relationships

Brigid Doherty is associate professor of German and Art & Archaeology at Princeton. Her work on Benjamin has appeared in the journals “Germanic Review” and “MLN” (Modern Language Notes), and in the volume Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project. She is the author of publications that focus on relationships among the visual arts, literature, and aesthetic theory in German modernism and contemporary art. Michael Jennings is professor and chair in Princeton’s German Department, and general editor of the standard English-language edition of Benjamin’s works. He is also the author of Dialectical Images: Walter Benjamin’s Theory of Literary Criticism and The Author as Producer: A Life of Walter Benjamin. Thomas Levin, is associate professor in the German Department at Princeton. In curatorial and scholarly work, he has focused on media and cultural theory, aesthetic theory, the Frankfurt School, and the aesthetic politics of surveillance.

Describing Walter Benjamin at Friday’s talk, Mr. Jennings observed that “he gives you a mode for thinking about technological innovation and knowledge.” The new book is meant to be a “teaching volume for undergraduates and general readers,” said Mr. Levin, noting that the “text elicits an incredible excitement and willingness to engage.” During his life Benjamin was acknowledged as a leading critical thinker. He is believed to have committed suicide when police intercepted him trying to escape from the Nazis. at the Franco-Spanish border.

At their talk, the three editors acknowledged the pleasures of collaborating with colleagues in the same department, where it was easy to casually ask each other questions or commiserate about translation problems. There are, Mr. Levin said,considerable differences between their translations and previous treatments, and he reporting that they often found themselves making between “20 and 50” changes per page in their manuscript. Describing their translation technique as “creative approximation,” he said that they tried to respect Benjamin’s terminology, which sometimes made the English “odd,” but appropriate. “Translation gets denigrated in the academic world,” he commented, “but it’s some of the most productive work you can do.” Ms. Doherty noted that she came away from the project with a “better understanding of Benjamin.”

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