Walter Benjamin

European modernism began in the last years of the 19th and the early years of the 20th century among a group of artists and bohemian types uneasy about what had happened to European civilisation since the arrival of the Industrial Revolution with its twin drivers, technology and capitalism. Modernism “flower(ed) in the space between a still usable classical past, a still indeterminate technical present and a still unpredictable political future. Or to put it another way, it arose at the intersection between a semi-aristocratic ruling order, a semi-industrialised capitalist economy and semi-emergent, or insurgent, labour movement”.[1]

The unease or dis-ease of the modernists came from this feeling of being at the crossroads. When they looked in one direction, the modernists saw all the excitement of the modern world, the speed, the variety, the constant technological change, and the first consumer goods. Looking the other way, they faced the emergence of mass industrial society, what Max Weber called “the iron cage”, ever more centralised, administered and de-humanised, cut off from nature and the deeper roots of human life, a civilisation which reduced the individual to a cipher, a fragment, a hollow “mass man” [2].

The question for the modernists therefore became- which of these visions best represented the future? No such doubts troubled their 19th century predecessors who believed in Progress and in History as the handmaiden of Progress. As a key ingredient in bourgeois ideology, Progress seemed to be a self-fulfilling prophecy, confirmed alike by the scientific advances in industry and technology and intellectual advances such as Darwin’s theory of evolution. But what could Progress mean when it had led first to a de-humanised, industrialised world and then to the horrors of Ypres and the Somme?

The Great War tipped the scales towards pessimism even as it changed the balance within modernism itself between its two main strands: one a strand of formal artistic experimentation; the other strand consisting of attempts to re-think social and human relations from the ground up. When the very foundations of European bourgeois society were undermined by 1914-18, the emphasis shifted to the second strand. Modernism ceased to be the preserve of artists and went out into the world, as it were, where it got its hands dirty encountering Fascism and Bolshevism. All across Europe, there were plans for new ways of life, new forms of society, often characterised by attempts to develop a politics out of aesthetics or even new religions-everything from Rudolf Steiner’s scheme for a Threefold Social Commonwealth in defeated Germany to the Surrealists in France to DH Lawrence’s musings about communities founded on a revived pagan religion to outright Marxist revolutionary socialism.

This is the background to the life and work of the radical critic and homme de lettres Walter Benjamin, whose relatively short life (1892-1940) placed him in the eye of some of the 20th century’s greatest storms. He was born at roughly the same time as Modernism; he was a young man when the First World War broke out (though he didn’t fight in it); and he killed himself in 1940 on the Franco-Spanish border fleeing from the Nazi invasion of France. Throughout his life, as a son of the affluent German-Jewish bourgeoisie, Benjamin belonged to that class whose fate became central to Europe’s future.

In short, Benjamin was ideally placed to analyse what had gone wrong with modernity- as he himself recognised, while complaining constantly about the extreme discomfort of being Walter Benjamin. In a famous letter to his friend, the Jewish scholar Gerhard Scholem, Benjamin described himself as “like one who keeps afloat on a shipwreck by climbing to the top of a mast that is already crumbling. But from there he has a chance to give a signal leading to his rescue.”

That’s one of two famous images associated with Benjamin, for whom rescue came too late in the form of posthumous publication and world-fame (he was all but unknown in his own lifetime). The second image comes from a Paul Klee painting called Angelus Novus. Benjamin saw the painting as a portrait of the “angel of history” whose “face is turned towards the past” while history seen as one long catastrophe, piles up its wreckage at his feet. The angel would like to repair the wreckage and heal its victims but “a storm is blowing from Paradise…This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned while the pile of debris around him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.”

That’s a diametrically opposite view of progress from the 19th century version. Typically, Benjamin expresses it in theological or messianic terms. Benjamin wrote that way as naturally or more naturally than he did in the terms of conventional scholarship. Prophetic language reflected his own personality; and Benjamin’s first and foremost resource and research subject was himself. While that gave his work its power and originality, it also cost him dearly. Despite his obvious gifts, no university or regular academic institution would employ him and he struggled all his life to make an income.

The Angel of History is the shipwrecked mariner who has lashed himself to the mast in the teeth of the storm, but who no longer tries to signal any would-be rescuers. He’s given up all such manouevres as futile gestures since the storm that wrecked his ship is not just any old storm but the storm of History itself, whose source is God- or rather, our exile from God. The Angel of History is a God-image and therefore, like all such images, a self-image. If someone has self-images like a shipwrecked sailor and an anguished angel, the question we should ask is not why did he end by killing himself, but how did he survive as long as he did? And not merely survive but keep writing enough to fill five volumes of collected works?

Benjamin himself described his work as “ruins”, which is somehow apt- the century that expended so much effort reducing European culture (not to mention Europe itself) to ruins produced a man who tried to rethink and rebuild it from the ground up, and the best he could manage was ruins. The fact Benjamin never got any farther than ruins had as much (or more) to do with the objective scale of the destruction around him than with any subjective failings on his part. Benjamin’s legacy consists largely of fragments, notes, aphorisms, occasional reviews, a handful of completed essays and various unfinished grand projets, including his would-be chef d’oeuvre The Arcades Project (Passagen-Werk), on which he worked for 13 years on and off. People still argue over just how finished or unfinished The Arcades Project is, especially since Benjamin composed it in his later manner, assembling notes, citations, quotations and his own reflections in thematic groups rather than incorporating them into a continuous text under the direction of the author. In any event, enough exists to show that the Project was Benjamin’s attempt to diagnose what had gone wrong with the modern world by studying the century that gave birth to that world, i.e. the 19th.

In The Project, Benjamin views the19th century through the prism of Paris, its “capital city”, and Paris through the prism of the “passages” or luxury shopping arcades, among the first examples of building in iron and therefore an early nexus between science/industry, art/architecture, and capitalism/consumption. This sort of intellectual Chinese box effect is typical of Benjamin, who was as much an artist as he was an intellectual or, to be more precise, that rare specimen, an intellectual who thought like an artist. A lot of what seems confusing or contradictory in his work makes sense if we keep that in mind. For example, there’s Benjamin’s cavalier way with rival dogmas, which he deploys rather as a poet juggles metaphors, combining instead of choosing between them. Or there’s the intuitive way he thinks, in images rather than in arguments. Where a scholar assembles his facts and then draws his conclusions, Benajmin assembles facts into montages where they resonate with each other to uncover a truth already present in the facts themselves- what Henry James called “the figure in the carpet”, the secret meaning of a work of art, but for Benjamin also the secret meaning of a social artefact or an entire historical epoch. Benjamin’s first maitre was Goethe and he remained faithful to the Goethean method of seeing the abstract in the concrete, the general in the particular, the big picture in the individual detail.

It’s important to realise Benjamin wasn’t alone among the early Modernists. His famous eclecticism, the way he blended Marxism, theological messianism, Surrealism, Freud and Goethean pantheism in his analytical toolkit, was his own but it also belonged to a time when everybody had a “brothel in the head” (Mario Mertz) meaning people embraced a range of alternative or radical trains of thought from vegetarian sun-worshipping to anti-imperialism, without as yet seeing the necessity of choosing between them. You could set Benjamin beside, say, WH Auden, whose own intellectual odyssey took him from Freud to Marx to Christianity, for similar reasons ie both men were seeking answers to what they perceived to be a crisis in Western European society.

The two rival dogmas most associated with, and considered by, Benjamin are Marxism and theological messianism, influenced by the Jewish mystical tradition and the Kabbala. In a neat example of life imitating thought, Benjamin’s two best friends and supporters- he didn’t have many of either- each represented one of these two tendencies. They were Theodor Adorno, the Marxist philosopher and cultural critic and Gerhard Scholem, an authority on the Kabbala. Benjamin went back and forth between them for years, flirting with Scholem about moving to Palestine, or arguing with Adorno about Benjamin’s unorthodox use of Marxist terms. Benjamin’s third close friend, Bertholt Brecht, represented Art. Happily for this conceit, if not for the individuals involved, both Scholem and Adorno disliked Brecht and disapproved of his influence over Benjamin.

The main question about Benjamin has long been whether or not he managed to make his Marxism and his Messianism into a single system, or even have them coexist in any coherent way in his work? Marxism and messianism share the sort of resemblance that go with being opposites (the classless society equates to the coming of the messianic Kingdom, for instance), but they’re still opposites. Benjamin’s attempts to hold them together can be seen either as an exercise in ideological ingenuity or as the instinctive operations of an artist, who spends his or her time putting together the pairs of opposites into which the categories of human perception divide the universe. In this sort of procedure, the material versus the immaterial (or spiritual) are usually the original pair. It takes only one more move, a taste for seeing the spirit working in society and history- through human nature rather than through nature per se- to produce a prophet or a conspiracy theorist, and Benjamin’s personality had elements of both. He was also obsessed with time, or more accurately with the point at which time and space intersect, which is frozen time -and therefore eternity-and therefore utopia.


Benjamin’s obsession with Time is understandable in someone whose own time and place treated him so roughly. He was born in Berlin in 1892 into a wealthy Jewish family. His father was an art dealer and antiquarian. But Walter seems never to have felt at home anywhere.

He was out of place in his parents’ house, to which he kept returning to live until he was 38 years old for financial reasons (he would probably have gone on doing so if his parents hadn’t died). While his father was alive, father and son quarrelled endlessly over money and Benjamin’s refusal, or inability, to take a job.

He was out of place in his society, both as a Jew in a period of rising anti-Semitism and as someone who lacked any recognised profession or social role.

He was out of place in his period, as a man whose tastes and general outlook made him more suited to the 19th century than the 20th.

Perhaps most important of all, Benjamin was out of place in his country, at first culturally and then later, with the rise of Nazism, when he became a physical exile. Although his early ambition was to be “the foremost critic of German literature”, Benjamin actually took very little interest in contemporary German culture, writing that “I feel quite isolated in my efforts and interests among those of my generation.”. His most important intellectual and aesthetic sympathies were French, in particular Baudelaire and Proust.

Benjamin was a great analyst of the cultural contradictions and crisis in bourgeois (or capitalist) society because he himself embodied those contradictions. The figure in the carpet, the secret meaning, in Benjamin’s work turns out to be Walter Benjamin himself, who, as Hannah Arendt proved in her introduction to an early English-language collection of his work, can best be described in negative or contradictory terms. “He studied philosophy but he wasn’t a philosopher; he wrote reviews and criticism but he wasn’t a literary critic” and so on. In Benjamin’s case, author and subject faced each other like mirrors, only contrary to the usual arrangement, the subject saw itself reflected in the author rather than the author seeing himself reflected in the subject.


In one mirror, we have Benjamin’s face, looking like a plumper milder Trotsky. In the other, the face of his subject, which is the Gorgon’s. Benjamin was an important writer, because he was big enough to look the 20th century in the eye, even if it ended up killing him. By Benjamin’s day, the cracks and underlying contradictions in the 19th century’s triumphant ideology of peace and progress were there for all to see - science raped nature instead of completing it; the end of religious obscurantism, the so-called “death of God”, left men anxious instead of free-thinking; technology made the masses into wage-slaves instead of emancipating their labour; colonial empires that were supposed to be civilising and paternal were actually ruthless and racist; modern techniques of social organisation enabled an ever more centralised and intrusive state; the long peace of the 19th century ended in the train wreck of the Great War and the “man sandwiches” of the Western Front; and so on and on. These were the contradictions that, according to Marxism and the socialist revolutionaries, were supposed to lead to world revolution, but the first to pick them up were the artists with their sensitive antennae.

Hence Modernism. Hence too a loose movement from 1900 onwards among young people that mixed vegetarianism; “back to nature”; various forms of esoteric spirituality, such as Theosophy and Anthroposophy; drugs; artistic experiments; communal living; anarchist politics; and sexual liberation in a sort of first run or preview of the 1960s youth revolution. Those pre-Great War radical bohemias, (and their later, more desperate incarnation in the Weimar cabarets), seem unlikely milieux for Benjamin, an archetypal private scholar who was only at home in a library or an auction room. But Benjamin had his bohemian side. He had affairs, notably with Asja Lacis, a Latvian actress who was his first Marxist mentor, his Red Queen. He took drugs- hashish, mescaline and opium in a series of rather academic experiments that he wrote about. One of his many unfinished projects was to write the definitive book on dope in the mode of Baudelaire’s On Wine and Hashish.

Drug-taking, of course, was a hallmark of the 1960s. If the Sixties were the second revolt against modernity, the early 1900s were when the impact of modernity first registered with its full impact and freshness. By now, we’re used to the world that science, technology and capitalism have made; we forget what a tremendous historical novelty it represents. History had remained pretty much the same for millenia, then suddenly everything changed, everything was different, which in turn meant everything had to be understood differently. The old tools were useless, the old intellectual tools as much as the old physical tools that had been replaced by the new machines.

Walter Benjamin interpreted this change. The most important realisation he ever had, the one that started off his long search for a new set of analytical tools in Freud, Marx, the theories of the Surrealists and the like, was his realisation that the change had occurred and that it was fundamental, unprecedented. The modern world was radically discontinuous with the past. Something had happened around the middle of the 19th century, when industrialism and capitalism came together and their symbiosis really began to take off that had broken the links to all previous history, and there was no going back. Until he realised this, Benjamin was just another young scholar specialising in German literature. After he realised it, he gave up his studies in Goethe and the German Baroque and turned to the great literary clinicians of the modern world, to Kafka, Karl Kraus, Baudelaire and Proust.

Especially to Baudelaire and Proust. Long before his famous move from messianism to Marxism, Benjamin switched from German to French models. Both these moves were syncretic and cumulative, since Benajmin never discarded anything: he added, like the passionate collector he was (he was still bidding for rare books at auction when he couldn’t afford to buy food). Benjamin’s version of intellectual consistency was to keep moving just as his version of intellectual inquiry was expansion. When your quarry is consciousness itself, and what’s happened to consciousness under modern conditions, your best hope of trapping it is to expand your own consciousness- hence his drug experiments, his early fascination with dreams, his later accretion of disparate dogmas, and even his passion for revolution, which from a certain point of view is consciousness exploded rather than expanded (the point was made in the 1960s slogan, ‘The Blown Mind’). Nor is it any accident that Benjamin was originally as a critic- an analyst- but ended, in The Arcades Project, adopting a style of synoptic presentation or montage even as he worked his way from art and literature through revolutionary praxis to writing his own, novel kind of history.

After a youthful attempt to examine the cultural-political origins of modernity in 17th century German baroque drama, he moved on to Proust. According to Proust, at the moment we have an experience- any experience- consciousness intervenes in the form of Habit and its handmaiden Memory to travesty and reduce it to a familiar, manageable facsimile. It does this for reasons of self-preservation. “If there were no such thing as Habit, Life would appear delicious to all those whom Death would threaten at every moment, that is to say, to all Mankind” . The Death clause makes Life a document none of us are willing to sign because the will to live is inextricably and fatally also the will not to suffer- and thus negates itself. Instead, we retreat inside the fortress of our consciousness, for which experience means the invasion, and putative extinction, of our organism by the outer world, and which therefore intervenes to replace each real experience with its reassuring facsimile in Habit.

When we try to remember our lives in the normal way, using what Proust calls voluntary memory, all we remember is the copy of a copy. And this thinness, this lack of authenticity or real experience, so that our lives are literally hollow mechanisms, the product of the mechanical churning of the Habit-Memory cycle, drives us mad. In order to feel we’ve lived at all before we die, people will try to possess others in relationships, as Proust’s narrator does with Albertine, or they’ll attempt to wring authentic sensations out of their own bodies, with sex or drugs. They’ll try anything. But none of it will work. In the end, there is only one way out, one chink in the prison wall, which is what Proust calls involuntary memory. The first and most famous example comes in A La Recherche when Marcel eats a madeleine and the taste brings back his childhood, not as he remembers it, but as it actually was, in its full sensuous immediacy.

The key, the trigger for involuntary memory is always trivial in Proust- a smell, a taste, a sound- because only the trivial escapes our conscious notice at the moment of original experience, slips past under the noses of Habit’s security guards and lodges itself in our unconscious where it remains until it meets itself once again-perhaps years later, perhaps never- in the outer world. The stuff at the edges of the frame or the corner of the eye holds the secret. Voluntary memory creates the fiction that we can live forever as continuous personalities, stable “I”s, rather than being ever-changing kaleidoscopes of feelings, thoughts and impressions at the mercy of time but it does so by preventing us from living at all. Involuntary memory, on the other hand, re-creates the whole of our real world from a single seed, and does so immediately and without notice, but we have no control over its workings. Thus we are doubly at the mercy, of Chance as well as of Time.

There are two ways to read A La Recherche roughly coinciding with the pessimistic or optimistic nature of the reader and his taste or otherwise for History, Time’s publicity machine. Most of Proust’s critics have belonged to the first camp, notably Samuel Beckett who read Proust as an analyst of the eternal human condition, endorsing “the wisdom of all the sages” and demonstrating the futility of desire. In his own work, Beckett went on to strip away the Romantic 19th century trappings from Proust’s Habit/Time mechanism and to discard the Proustian “solution” to the human dilemma (involuntary memory) as too rare and special a case. The result was to reveal the essential status of Proust’s narrator, the self, as an isolated, de-centred subject caught in an implacable trap, a solitary voice screaming- and muttering, mumbling and whistling- in the dark.

Walter Benjamin, who until the very end of his life had the determined professional optimism common to revolutionaries and the religious alike, read Proust differently. To Benjamin, Proust’s great work was fuelled above all by an overwhelming desire for happiness and that work’s existence is its own triumph, trumping all the obstacles and difficulties Proust describes in its hundreds of pages. Moreover-and this is the crucial point- for Benajmin those obstacles and difficulties are not eternal or inevitable but historically conditioned. The Proustian narrator isn’t the eternal self. He’s a typical, if super-sensitive, member of the 19th century bourgeoisie. Benjamin points us back to Baudelaire, as Proust himself did. Baudelaire and Proust are twin pillars of early French modernism: they’re the artists who can tell us, if anyone can, what happens to the individual under modern conditions.

According to Benjamin, the Proustian Habit/Time mechanism comes into play at a particular point in history for particular historical reasons. This point is the onset of the modern world; and the reason is to deal with shock of that origin. Proust’s false consciousness is literally shocked into operation by the impact of mass industrialised society with its machines and its speed and its great cities, where you step out of your front door and you’re in the middle of people, getting jostled physically by other people’s bodies and assaulted psychically by the collision of so many sensibilities and desires and purposes. The whole experience of the crowd, which is the peculiarly modern form that Experience with a capital E takes, is too much for our consciousness to cope with. It’s traumatic in the Freudian sense, so a whole lot of modern experience gets repressed; it goes straight into the unconscious, where it works to produce neurosis to which our only access is via the trivia of verbal slips, jokes and dreams, the Freudian equivalent of Proust’s taste and smells and sounds. Psychoanalysis becomes to neurosis what involuntary memory is to Habit and voluntary memory- while neurosis in its collective, historical form becomes the Marxist concept of alienation.

What Proust actually wrote, without knowing it, was a Das Kapital of the superstructure. In Benjamin’s historical writings, society has its own unconscious and capitalism qua modernity is the epoch par excellence that created history unconsciously. So the first task of the revolutionary has to be to wake himself up from the collective dream state, through a sort of sociohistorical psychoanalysis and with the materialist historian acting as the analyst. Baudelaire and Proust together were more important than Marx to Benjamin. He took his stand with them and he never wavered. In a sense, all his later work can be seen as an attempt, or a series of attempts, to collectivize and historicize Proust until he gets to The Arcades Project. And The Arcades Project itself is A La Recherche Du Temps Perdu rewritten for a society- bourgeois society-and a century-the 19th century-instead of for an individual. Proust did the inside job and Benjamin does the outside job, while Marx and Freud were working away in the basement, undermining the foundations. Benjamin even has a sentence in The Arcades Project somewhere that makes the connection explicit: “The arcades were the hallmark of the world Proust depicts.”


From Proust, Benjamin moved on to the Surrealists, taking in his own experiments with drugs and dreams along the way. What he was looking for was a more reliable route to the Real, to the level of true experience, than Proust’s involuntary memory which was exactly that- involuntary, and therefore totally random, you just had to hope it happened.

The Surrealists’ interest in dream states and in intoxicated states seemed to offer a way of sliding under the Kantian ego, of catching the consciousness- Gorgon napping. But if Proustian involuntary memory was too random, Surrealism was too irrational. The Surrealists were interested in mythology, which is what you get when you start relating to the unconscious or recording your dreams without making any attempt to analyse them or decipher them, just accepting the images they throw up. A lot of Surrealist imagery is mythological. But mythology for Benjamin is backward-looking. Mythology had kept men dependent and fearful of the universe even more than the religions that replaced mythology, so we don’t want to go back there.

In fact, the situation was worse than that because if you tried to tap into the mythological realm nowadays, which undoubtedly contains great energies and the sort of inspirations you need to counteract what Benjamin sees as the deadness- in mythological terms the soul-deadness- of the modern world, you were likely to get bad results. Later on, when Fascism with its theatrical rituals and mythical trappings, starts its rise, Benjamin makes this explicit. It was the basis of his objection to Jung and Jung’s notion of the “collective unconscious”. A prescient objection given Jung’s subsequent flirtation with the Nazis.

The Surrealists were interested in sleep and dreams. They were also interested in drug states and states of intoxication. Mythology, primitive people and primitive art, drugs, the unconscious were all major modernist themes. Benjamin distinguished his own thought from all this by using the word “awakening”. To Americans, an “awakening” means a religious revival among Fundamentalists. Benjamin wanted a consciousness-revival, which he associated with revolution. The key passage concerning awakening comes in his essay on Surrealism where he writes: “These experiences”- Benjamin means real experiences, true experience in the Proustian, anti-Kantian sense- “are by no means limited to dreams, hours of hashish eating or opium smoking. It is a crucial error to believe that of “Surrealist experiences” we know only the religious ecstasies or the ecstasies of drugs…but the true creative overcoming of religious illumination certainly does not lie in narcotics.”

Proustian involuntary memory has been called a mystical experience. So now we’ve got a sense in which true experience = mystical experience. And a state in which we had access to such true experience all the time would be Paradise. It would be the Garden of Eden from which the Christian religion says man is exiled due to original sin. The point here is that something bars us, blocks us from having true experience, making it such a rare event that it seems to be mystical.

The Church said the problem is Original Sin. Proust, who was not at all religious, nevertheless agreed our internal exile was a permanent condition from which involuntary memory provided only very rare and unrepeatable exceptions. Freud says repression is inevitable. There’s a steady process of modern thinkers bringing the problem down to earth, making it more material, then more biological, until, with Marx and Benjamin, it will become social and historical. And the moment the problem becomes historical, it becomes at least possible to change it. The task is not to interpret the world but to change it, to paraphrase the Communist Manifesto.

In the meantime, according to Benjamin-and he was speaking for everyone of radical, progressive tendencies, for that rational, anticlerical strain in Europe that began with the Enlightenment- religion is yesterday’s news. Religion may have provided the context for mystical experiences or “religious ecstasies” to use Benjamin’s phrase, but it did so at the cost of endless obscurantism and support for ancien regimes. It was a thoroughly feudal and backward thing and good riddance to it.

“Religious illumination” therefore is something we want to overcome, but at the same time we don’t want to lose its content, its essence. Rather, we want to re-interpret it in material terms. We want to get rid of the “religious” and keep the “illumination”,which is how the world looks when you wake up and first open your eyes. The light floods in: it looks illuminated. It’s also how the world looks in the light of true experience, the way Wordsworth sees it at Tintern Abbey before the “shades of the prison house begin to close” about the growing boy. It used to be that we were innocent to begin with before being socialised by discrete institutions like the school, the family, the prison and so on, but now it’s as if we were always in school, always in the family, always in prison. We’re all grown ups now because modern technology and industry and capitalist relations, which mean power relations, have penetrated every area of life. A generation after Max Weber and Benjamin, Foucault described this situation with his concept of “biopower”. “Life itself…has become an object of power.” Foucault wrote or, making the same point from the opposite, more sinister angle, “the police (now) include everything”.

That’s the terrifying vision Benjamin is fighting against and, depending on your point of view, either it’s come to pass but we’re distracted in various ways from noticing it; or it hasn’t happened and the modern world, at least the West, is the haven of freedom, democracy and individual opportunity its rulers constantly advertise it to be.

Back to Benjamin’s essay on Surrealism. The next sentence reads as follows: “It”, meaning the creative overcoming of religious illumination, its replacement, “resides in a profane illumination, a materialistic, anthropological inspiration to which hashish, opium or whatever can give a preliminary lesson.” “Profane illumination” is Benjamin’s phrase and it becomes very important in his work along with other coinages of his like “the now of recognisability”, “the dialectical image” and “dialectics at a standstill”. There’s also “phantasmorgia”, which obviously wasn’t original to Benjamin but was a word he used in a particular way. We can think of Benjamin’s vocabulary as a kind of package whose aim is to pin down and describe the same subject from different angles. The subject is us, the European (now transatlantic) bourgeois, freed from the shackles of religion but still cut off from the world and from the fullness of experience by the operations of capitalism and its ideological arms in culture and philosophy..

Marx analysed the economic base and worked his way up to consciousness without quite getting there. Benjamin travelled in the opposite direction. He starts out as an analyst of modern consciousness, and it’s only when he’s dug and excavated in those mines for a while that he meets Marx, as it were, tunnelling up the other way. And Benjamin’s encounter with Surrealism is the test case that determines the direction he will tunnel in. Surrealism represented the extension of Romanticism into the modern city; it was Romanticism armed with some fancy modern technologies of consciousness-drugs, dreams etc.. It was also Romanticism turned inside out. Instead of worshipping the work of art, Surrealism was anti-Art with a capital A; and instead of the heroic Romantic artist imposing his will on the world, Surrealism’s ideal was almost passive, about lowering the threshold of your conscious mind to make it more receptive to the imagination.

All this has political implications to do with reviving the imaginative capacities of human beings, about “every man an artist”, about reconstituting Western culture which means building a “counter-culture” and working towards social revolution. Surrealism itself had a political side,which became more pronounced between the wars. The artist is no longer the isolated creator of some pure pristine work of art, like a Romantic artist, he (or she) can be recognised as an artist because of a certain, disciplined Surrealist lifestyle and because he puts his talents at the service of social change. Surrealism was anti-metaphysical, having desire, or the pleasure principle, as its fulcrum, which made it a material creed, or at least an agnostic one. Surrealists were utopians but not mystics and certainly no fans of the Church- as anyone who has seen a Bunuel film can testify.

The result is a picture of Surrealism as half way between the old, 19th century notions of art and heroic artists on the one hand and revolutionary Marxism on the other. It’s no accident the Surrealists spent years wooing the Communist Party, who predictably weren’t having any and told them to choose between poetry or politics. Whereas the whole point of Surrealism was that it’s poetry and politics.

When Benjamin rejected Surrrealism, he didn’t reject everything about it.[3] He was rejecting something he had learned from, but now he wanted to go farther than Surrealism could take him. With its emphasis on love and desire, Surrealism belonged with modernity’s turn away from metaphysics towards the material world, but Benjamin felt it wasn’t tough enough or material enough. His rejection of Surrealism was a rejection of his own thought up to that point with its theological and metaphysical elements, from which he turned to the body- and thus to the material- and thus to historical materialism as developed by Marx..

As for “profane ilumination”, it was the fulcrum on which this turn pivoted. “Profane illumination” at one and the same time refers back to Proust’s involuntary memory and forwards to Benjamin’s own concept of the “dialectical image”. Benjamin’s formulations typically have this double movement: in one direction, they refer to the way the world appears, in all its everyday degradation, and in the other, to the way this very appearance contains within it the reality of a transfigured world, because “the Kingdom of God is spread out across the world only men don’t see it.” If that’s the case, then it’s all in the way you look at it. Consciousness is the key. Somehow, under certain circumstances, consciousness is able to penetrate the phenomena and recover or bring out the messianic element they conceal or contain.

Benjmain didn’t only want to be more material or more Marxist than the Surrealists, he also wanted to be more overtly spiritual, even theological, than they ever were. Benjamin’s natural element is messianic in theological-especially Judeo-Christian theological- terms, and utopian in secular terms, because when you see the world correctly, when you have true experience, then you reunite consciousness and the external world, concept and object, man and nature in a Paradisal condition which is both the beginning- in the Garden of Eden - and the end of history. There’s a double movement going on in the external world that Benjamin’s formulations try to capture. That’s why he had to make up his own technical vocabulary: to describe the complex double movement that is history “seen from the standpoint of redemption”, as his friend Theodor Adorno said it must be in the 20th century.

Having considered and rejected mysticism, drug-taking and Surrealist-style experiments with the unconscious as ways to achieve that standpoint, Benjamin offers his own candidate which is-amazingly enough- the study of History. Perhaps it’s not so amazing. Once the individual, subjective question about consciousness-the who am I? question- takes a turn through the body and the material world, it becomes a collective and historical question. To put it another way, as soon as you move away from metaphysics, you find yourself in history because there’s no place else to go. Consciousness isolates, but bodies, the material world, connect, so the scene of the action shifts from the individual to society. If you want to live a more authentic life, to have true experience, you’re not going to be able to do it on your own. The only redemption is a shared redemption. The conditions you’re going to have to change to achieve it are no longer the ones inside your head but the conditions out there, in society, and the tools you need for the job aren’t psychoanalysis or meditation or dreams or drugs- but History.


That’s roughly the arc of Benjamin’s intellectual odyssey, but Benjamin was not just or only an intellectual. He was intellectual to his fingertips but he wanted to be something more than that: he wanted to be a revolutionary. There’s a gap between Benjamin completing his critique of Surrealism and taking up his historical studies, becoming an historian who works in libraries and archives and who indeed did go out every day to work in the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris, where he immersed himself so thoroughly his friends worried he would never emerge and his great work would never be written. That gap was filled by Benjamin’s attempts to involve himself in revolutionary politics, attempts which ended in failure.

Benjamin’s direct political involvement runs from the mid 1920s to the mid-1930s. In the 1920s, he turned consciously to Marxism. In the winter of 1926-7, he visited Russia, a visit organised by his Communist lover, Asja Lacis. Their personal relationship foundered but so, significantly, did Benjamin’s political relationship with “actually existing socialism”. At least, he never joined the Communist Party, although he remained an enthusiastic revolutionary. In 1933, he fled Germany in response to the rise of Nazism. He spent a summer on Ibiza, then took up permanent exile in Paris where he spent the next few years trying “vainly…. to participate in the various antifascist political endeavours of both the left-wing intelligentsia and the German intellectual emigrant community.”[4]

There’s a persuasive case that Benjamin’s turn to History, his burying himself physically in the Bibliotheque Nationale and metaphorically in his monumental Arcades Project only came about because he failed as a would-be revolutionary. In effect, History was second best, for all Benjamin’s dogged insistence on its political relevance. So what happened to him in the 1920s and early 1930s? In a sense, the same thing that happened to the modernist movement as a whole, which found itself squeezed and eventually fragmented as the political battle lines hardened in the real world between Soviet Communism and Fascism.

Benjamin was not only one of the great interpreters and critics of modernist art. He was also one of Modernism’s creators and developers. Modernism had always been involved with the idea of social dissent and of a new social and political settlement. Modern art’s characteristic quality of “creative destruction”, emphasising the need to destroy the old in order to create the new, had an obvious revolutionary aspect. More consciously and rigorously than many others, Benjamin took that strain in modernism and developed it towards a fully articulated politics. In O.K. Werckmeister’s phrase, he attempted to devise [5]a “political dialectic spun out of modern art.”

The Surrealists were the vector through which Benjamin consummated his engagement with modern art and revolutionary politics. The Surrealists held out the promise of combining art, politics, altered conscious, erotic liberation and creative activity in a single package eventually labelled “revolution”. This was the ultimate promise of modernism (just as it was, in a more diffuse form, the promise of the disparate movements that made up “the Sixties” (1960s)). Benjamin pursued it, both theoretically and personally, liberating himself from his background as a young German academic, liberating himself from his early marriage, freeing himself into a wider world of art and rebellion (and drugs), constructing the sort of personal history that became very familiar in the 1960s but in the 1920s and 1930s was confined to a much smaller and more radical avant-garde. Benjamin himself understood his personal development as the Making of a Revolutionary. As he wrote in his 1933 essay on the Social Position of the French Writer, “the petty bourgeois who has resolved to act on his libertarian and erotic aspirations ceases to offer an idyllic sight……the more undauntedly and deliberately he brings these aspirations to bear, the more assuredly he hits upon politics- on a path that is the longest and only one he can go. At that moment he ceases to be the petty bourgeois he has been.”[6]

And becomes instead? Presumably an honorary proletarian and therefore a fit comrade in the revolutionary struggle. Politically, such a development involves a move from individualist anarchic rebellion to becoming a disciplined foot-soldier of the revolution, the same development the Surrealists enacted in specifically French terms, moving from the Blanquist, anarchist style of French revolutionary tradition towards communism. Both Benjamin and the real communists felt the Surrealists didn’t go far enough, that they were not sufficiently serious. The trouble was, the communists had no time for Walter Benjamin either, and for the same reasons.

Benjamin’s tragedy, if we can call it that, was to be rejected by the revolution he championed. He wasn’t the only person this happened to, by any means. One of the reasons for Benjamin’s posthumous fame is precisely because his life was so exemplary: he was in all the wrong places at all the wrong times that shaped the 20th century[7]. In the late 1920s and 1930s, when modernism was still struggling to evolve its “political dialectic”, and Benjamin struggled along with it, the Russian Revolution turned against modern art as Stalin’s great freeze tightened its grip. At the same time, Nazism was going from strength to strength and the whole political outlook in Europe darkened. Benjamin ended up being ground between these two monolithic systems. Long before the final disillusionment, the Communists rejected the avant garde in both its aesthetic and erotic manifestations in favour of so-called “socialist realism”, leaving someone like Benjamin with nowhere to go. He couldn’t compromise on the nexus between politics and radical art since that nexus was the very basis of his idea of revolution. His only choice was to retreat- into the library, and into history.


Benjamin was one of those people who are incapable of making things easy for themselves. His retreat was the opposite of retirement. On the contrary, his later work is a major, almost insanely ambitious piece of intellectual weight-lifting. He was trying to lift the whole weight of Western history, which he viewed as an unbroken record of oppression and catastrophe and man’s inhumanity to man, and turn it around to serve the cause of liberation and revolution- to read the historical record against itself. It’s no wonder his theoretical musculature sometimes buckles under the strain. To shore it up, he added the Marxist phrase “commodity fetishism” in place of “dreaming” via “profane illumination” at the centre of his thought. Then he joined on all sorts of other terms peculiar to himself. Concepts like “the dialectical image” or “dialectics at a standstill” never achieve precise definition, but then Benjamin wasn’t interested in developing them into an all-encompassing theory so much as using them as tools in the service of change.

The present is caught up in “the dream of history” ,which is a nightmare since “there is no document of civilization that is not at the same time a document of barbarism.” As we’ve seen, the first duty of a revolutionary is to awaken to his actual situation, but there’s a catch. He can’t get outside history in order to do that, he has to wake up inside history, using history itself as his leverage. He has to call history to the aid of the present day, which is nothing but a prolongation of the historical nightmare. This audacious dialectical reversal- Bejamin believed it amounted to a Copernican revolution in traditional ways of studying history, akin to Kant’s Copernican revolution in philosophy- is made possible by the contradiction, the tension at the heart of history itself, by the very fact that “no document of civilisation is not at the same time a document of barbarism”.

Theologians call this dynamic element in history original sin. Marxists call it class war. For both groups, history contains a secret that is no less than the end of history itself, whether in a messianic Second Coming or an utopian classless society. Benjamin’s later work is all about elaborating a set of techniques for writing history in a way that targets this contradiction at its heart and explodes it, thus freeing us from its grip- waking us from history’s nightmare. He calls these techniques “brush(ing) history against the grain”. And in The Arcades Project, all 800-odd unfinished pages of it, he gives us his example of what history written in this way could look like.

The first thing to note is that it doesn’t look much like History. Rather than the customary narrative, there are sheafs of separate paragraphs which contain notes, facts, quotations from other people’s work. Moreover, the subjects Benjamin concentrates on- the arcades, department stores, prostitution, gambling, the flaneur- are the trivia or trash of history rather than wars and treaties and high politics. In other words, they’re the equivalents in historical terms of the trivial sensations that slipped past consciousness and preserved true experience in Proust. Utopia for a society turns out to be the correlative of Reality for the individual.

For the individual, sensations associated with objects are the keys that unlock true experience. For the materialist historian, images associated with things are the keys that unlock history. Just as the madeleine in the teacup contains the whole world in a trivial sensation, so historical trash holds the fragments of an unrealised utopia. According to Marx, under capitalism the people, the masses epitomised by industrial workers and wage slaves, became things while things- the commodities the proletariat produce- took on the attributes of people. This is the fetish character of commodities or “commodity fetishism” that makes cars sexy and fitted kitchens into wish symbols. Benjamin took the idea of commodity fetishism and extended it to the whole culture where, according to him, it hangs like a glittering fog, creating phantasmorgias- Benjamin’s preferred term for fetishised commodities writ large.

For Marx, commodity fetishism was an objective consequence of capitalism, something that happened to the commodities themselves. Benjamin wants to make it subjective, something that goes on in consciousness, thus falling foul of the issue that bedevils all attempts to unite Marx and Freud. Left-wing intellectuals love commodity fetishism. It’s one of the few clues Marx gave to his thinking about the superstructure, the intellectual and cultural world, as opposed to the economic base: ever since commodity fetishism has been the breeding ground for numerous Marxist heresies. Under pressure from his friend Adorno, Benjamin eventually dropped most of his account of how the fetishised commodity got that way in the first place, while continuing to use the concept in his own way in his own system. In fact, the concept virtually becomes his system. Benjamin turned commodity fetishism from a concept into a process: as Adorno put it, Benjamin “appropriates the fetishism of commodities for itself: everything must metamorphose into a thing in order to break the spell of things.”

But why Paris? And why the arcades? Paris because, in Esther Leslie’s phrase, 19th century Paris was “the capital of dreams and the dream of capital”.[8] If the Britain of the Industrial Revolution was the workshop of the world, Paris was the Industrial Revolution’s shop window and its first metropolis, the city where industrial capitalism gave birth to a way of life, to modern mass culture as we know it. Paris is crucial for us because it’s our own history, it’s time and the place where our modern world started. But this process involved the material turning into the phantasmorgic at every stage because “capitalism was a natural phenomenon with which a new dream-filled sleep came over Europe.”. The sorts of things Benjamin had in mind as phantasmorgias were world exhibitions, luxury shopping arcades and the first department stores. He also included purely mental creations like the 19th century’s reigning ideology of progress, which Benjamin calls the “phantasmorgia of history” itself.

Things-commodities- take on the feelings, fantasies aspirations and, crucially, the wishes properly belonging to people, and the resulting fog or dream obscures the reality of the class struggle, of a society where a few own everything and exploit the many who produce their wealth. Wrapped in the dream of commodities, or as we would say nowadays of “consumer culture” along with its identical twin “celebrity culture”, the majority fail to see their interest lies in revolution. Yet without a revolution, history becomes an endless recycling of the same elements (like the perpetual dance of commodities under the influence of “fashion”), ever-new but ever the same and, under the pressure of technological change- also ever more dangerous since these elements include imperialism, war, economic depression, fascism etc.. The alternative to revolution is not stability, as the conservative right would argue, but catastrophe. What begins in the arcades ends on the Somme and then, worse still, in Dresden and Auschwitz.


Built mainly between 1800 and 1860, by property speculators, and concentrated in a small area of the right bank whose epicentre is the old Bibliotheque Nationale (where Benjamin researched his “Project”) the Paris arcades evolved from the old wooden “galleries” in the Palais-Royal. They were among the first industrial buildings, the first built of iron and glass. Benjamin considered them “the most important architecture of the 19th century”; and architecture in turn “the most important testimony to latent “mythology””[9], that is, to the state of 19th century culture whose hallmark was the commodity dream world.

Glass-roofed passages lined with shops or other commercial establishments on both sides, to Benjamin the arcades were not just the precursors but the very Ur-form of modern capitalist society. They were highly fashionable in their day. “The most famous was the Passage de Panoramas which flourished from 1823 to 1831. ‘On Sundays,’ observed Musset, one went en masse ‘to the Panoramas or to the boulevards.’”[10] Out of the arcades come later physical forms like the department store, the shopping mall, and the world’s fair as well as social trends and types like the prostitute, the gambler and the flaneur or the Hollywood movie star, the supermodel and the celebrity-about-town. Panoramas and dioramas give way to photography, music videos and computer games- in fact, to the whole spectrum of activities and sensibilities we call “popular culture”.

With their gas lighting and attractions like waxworks and panoramas (not to mention the prostitutes and casinos), the arcades put items from around the world on display in their magasins de nouveaute (fancy-good stores) and taught 19th Parisians how to be a modern crowd, strolling and window shopping in concentrated spaces, while giving way to the peculiar reverie we experience in front of windows stuffed full with luxury goods. The arcades were the modern city itself in miniature. “Dream houses of the collective”, Benjamin noted, “arcades, winter gardens, panoramas, factories, wax museums, casinos, railroad stations.”

To Benjamin, the arcades were shot through with the ambiguity he thought the key to history. As Christopher Rollason puts it, they “(pointed) in two directions at once and (were) expressive of both oppression (by the ideology of consumption) and liberation (into a utopia of plenty).”[11] Benjamin endorsed the great Surrealist Louis Aragon’s description of them as “human aquariums” with their undersea light, fit for dreaming. Understanding the arcades, opening them up, excavating them was like freeing their imprisoned utopias, frozen in a Sleeping Beauty dream under the spell of consumption. The social world had become re-enchanted under capitalism as the ancient world had been by its gods; the new gods were the commodities and the new mythology the fantasies they gave rise to or which attached to them (deliberately in the case of advertising that manipulates fantasies- for example, using images of female orgasm to sell shampoo). Dreams are utopian and misleading in equal measure until and unless we interpret them in full consciousness. Until then, we are literally “walking around in a dream”. Benjamin’s self-appointed task was to help us wake up by interpreting the collective dream of our society, our epoch which began in the 19th century.

So far, so surrrealist. But the construction of The Arcades Project parallels Benjamin’s evolution as a thinker even as its method reflects its subject matter, the arcades themselves with their collections of goods and sensations. Benjamin’s first efforts, beginning in 1927, concentrated on research into arcades, streets, architecture, adverts, department stores, flaneurs, prostitutes, gamblers, and related topics. After 1934 and his study of Marx, he added a set of other, “harder” categories, many to do with politics and economics. They included social movements, conspiracies, the Paris Commune, Fourier, Saint-Simon, and Marx himself.

As for the book’s method, The Arcades Project is an assemblage of quotations and notes drawn from other writers. Most of its 800-plus pages, apart from a couple of precis or outlines Benjamin wrote to encourage his backers, are like cuttings files[12] (called Convolutes) grouped loosely under topic headings. The result resembles the montage construction of early ironwork buildings or the jumble of goods in the shop windows of the arcades. It’s a fragmentary text that the reader can read in many different ways, putting the fragments together as he or she wishes so that they strike fresh sparks, new illuminations, new images. “As the frequenter of the arcades perceives things object by object and shop by shop, so Benjamin’s reader assimilates the book’s contents piece by piece, fragment by fragment, to be inducted en route into new forms of historical and cultural awareness by the shocks and flashes of unexpected juxtapositions and connections.”[13]

Since Benjamin’s time, the fetishised commodity has given rise to images in a different sense, one that obscures rather than enlightens. “The image” has become a cliche, as in “We need to change Ferrari’s image”. Capitalism itself has learned how to manipulate these commodity fetishes to sell more commodities. There’s a self-referential, hall of mirrors aspect to our variety of late, post-industrial capitalism that was only just beginning in Benjamin’s day. If Marx is the prophet of revolution, Benjamin is the patron saint of media studies. He was the first to notice and to analyse the conditions that would lead to this triumph of the image- the rise of photography, the cinema, radio (because images are by no means all visual), sound recording,, the whole array of broadcasting and image-manipulating technologies Benjamin summarised as “the mechanical reproduction of the work of art”.

His main interest, though, was in a special type of image he called “the dialectical image”. Dialectical images are anti-metaphors in the sense Hannah Arendt meant when she wrote “metaphors are the means by which the oneness of the world is poetically brought about.”. A dialectical image is like a parody of a metaphor: whereas a metaphor puts two things together that belong together and reveals their hitherto hidden similarity, a dialectical image forces two things together that don’t belong together and reveals their fundamental disunity. A car is not a woman, a baby powder is not a happy family, and so on. Capitalism creates a false unity out of the world; but the very images it uses to do this, when read correctly, reveal their own falsity and give up the grain of truth they contain. History is not a smooth escalator delivering ever-greater human progress, as the 19th century capitalist bourgeoisie imagined it to be. Instead, history is the battlefield the First World War exposed it was, in a state of permanent dis-unity and struggle, that Marx designated as class war. The task of the materialist historian is to uncover the terms of that struggle for the present epoch, as well as unearthing those elements in history that point to its ultimate resolution, to the day when, as it were, metaphors become reality.

The fetishised commodity is like Proust’s madeleine. And the dialectical image is like the madeleine when Proust eats it and it becomes the vehicle for a flood of involuntary memories. Of course, not every madeleine fulfills this function, nor does it happen every time you eat one; and the same is true of dialectical images and the materialist historian who works with them. Hence Benjamin’s famous phrase the “Now of recognisability”. The “recognisability” part means the timing has to be right for the historian to recognise in an object or cultural expression from the past its significance for the present day. The “Now” part is not a reference to the present, to the here and now, but to the eternal Now, the messianic fragment which is hidden in the object-as-image and which, at the moment of recognisability –a moment Benjamin likened to a lightning flash- the historian is able to extract.

A better simile (also used by Benjamin) would be splitting the atom. The atom is the 19th century. The fetishised commodities qua dialectical images are the neutrons and electrons. The historian cracks them open in a chain reaction that culminates in splitting the whole atom and releasing the pent-up energies of history, which also embody the end of history aka utopia, “brighter than a thousand suns.” Described from another point of view, this is the historical, collective version of the redemption of lost time.

The fetishised commodity is the false way to make metaphor concrete, to incarnate it in the world. But its internal contradictions point the way to utopia aka the classless society, which is the true incarnation of metaphor. So does that make capitalism the rule of the Antichrist and the revolution the Second Coming? You can play this game yourselves, bouncing back and forth between Marxism and Messianism, which is exactly what takes place in the background to Benjamin’s later thought. He wasn’t willing to give up either pole. He wanted to stay close to the material world, which meant staying close to Marx, but at the same time he wanted to keep his spiritual side, which he came by via Jewish tradition but also from Goethe, whose philosophy has been described as “mystical pantheism.” Goethe doesn’t have a messianic edge, though he comes close to it in Faust, but he has, first, the idea that the spiritual isn’t a separate realm, the spiritual is right here in the phenomena; and, second, that the main problem the phenomena or the material world poses is the problem of origin. You solve the latter problem by tracking it in reverse, finding the greater in the smaller, the full-blown phenomenon in its essence, the forms and mutations of plants in a single, primal plant, the Ur-phenomenon. In The Arcades Project, the Paris arcades and other cultural expressions of 19th century life are the forms and mutations whose origin is the primal phenomenon (or prime suspect), Capitalism itself.

Even in these debased things, in these commodities become phantasmorgias, there is a higher life, a messianic element, which it’s the materialist historian’s job to divine and bring out, just as it was the job of the religious historian in the Middle Ages to read God’s plan in history. Indeed, History has taken over from Nature as the “book” that can be “read” to give true knowledge[14]. After the Industrial Revolution it was in History that the researcher would find both evidence of The Fall and the possibility of Redemption: in fact, all the great mythological themes were now present in the “new nature” of a technologically transformed world but under different names like “commodity production” and “the labour theory of value”.

And all of this is a very recent phenomenon, historically speaking. It was what made the 19th century such a crucial century, the turning point. As Benjamin described his approach in The Arcades Project “the 19th century is presented as the originary form of Ur-history…the form, that is, in which all of Ur-history groups itself in new images, indigenous to the past century.”

In the right circumstances, when put under pressure by the materialist historian, those images have the potential to become a series of profane illuminations, like a series of signposts pointing the way to utopia. In his brief essay in which he attempts to link messianism and materialism, entitled Theologico-Political Fragment, Benjamin suggests the pursuit of happiness as the underlying theme of human history, and that this profane pursuit both prefigures and somehow also “assists” the coming of the Kingdom. So history isn’t just a set of signposts that point the way: it’s also a series of deeds, especially revolutionary ones, that help the Kingdom come because “in happiness all that is earthly seeks its downfall”, the “earthly” being history as one long catastrophe, a catalogue of crime and suffering, and the “downfall” being the essential precondition of the quest for happiness.

Two key conclusions are that theological insights can now become “profane illuminations”; and that technology, the current form and product of History, for the first time offers the possibility of overcoming itself, which is Benjamin’s version of Marx’s point that the Revolution had only become possible now that capitalism had raised production to the point where men could lift themselves above nature.

At the same time, “nothing historical can relate itself on its own account to anything Messianic, ” according to Benjamin. The Kingdom of God isn’t the aim or goal of history: it lies outside history altogether, bringing human history to an end, but then so does the Revolution. But don’t these two remain antithetical concepts, one mystical and one material? Benjamin attempts to get around any antithesis by using theology, in Susan Buck Morss’ phrase, as “philosophical experience” rather than with any religious intent (just as he had treated allegory as a philosophical rather than a literary mode in his studies of Baroque drama and of Baudelaire). He found a possible bridge between the two aspects of “theology” in Judaism, and specifically in the Jewish esoteric tradition of Kabbala. For Jews, redemption and the Messianic age have always been something that takes place in history, concretely, in the world, not an otherworldy, supernatural apotheosis. That’s a good fit for political radicalism in general and Marxism in particular. Now add Kabbala and you have almost a blueprint for Benjamin’s approach to The Arcades Project- “a mystical mode of cognition that revealed previously concealed truths within nature, which were meaningful only in the context of a Messianic age (in secular, Marxist terms, a socially just, classless society).”[15]

The materialist historian reveals the previously hidden utopian meanings within the products of the “second nature” of capitalist civilisation. By doing so, he juxtaposes the original, utopian potential of modernity with its catastrophic present. The real union of theology and Marxism, the messianic and the historical materialist can’t be expressed in theoretical terms or logical abstractions; it is The Arcades Project itself- the concrete dialectical images Benjamin creates. “Without theology (the axis of transcendence) Marxism falls into positivism; without Marxism (the axis of empirical history) theology falls into magic. Dialectical images indeed emerge at the “crossroads between magic and positivism” but at this nullpoint both “roads” are negated-and at the same time dialectically overcome.”[16]

Other critics have questioned how Benjamin can be a progressive, Marxist historian while rejecting the idea of historical progress.[17] But to Benjamin, progress began as an Enlightenment tool, a standard against which history could be measured and the old, religious view of a world criticised. Progress was an intellectual weapon wielded against the static pretensions of ancien absolutism and its clerical allies. But once the bourgeois triumphed, the idea of progress became subsumed into bourgeois mythology. Now it functioned as the spine of an historical narrative that moved seamlessly from epoch to epoch, leaving no room for revolution or social unrest, until it culminated in self-satisfied bourgeois society.

Progress had to go. In its place Benjamin conceived each epoch as containing utopian elements that it was the materialist historian’s job to interpret. Rather than history progressing towards the truth, the truth was ever-present throughout history, but it was concealed, overlaid with injustice and the exploitation of the majority by the minority. That meant the majority (in our time represented by the proletariat) were the sole and legitimate agents of revolutionary change. But it was only in the current era that technological progress- as opposed to the historical kind- had made it possible to realise utopia, with industrialised production creating enough surplus for all. Indeed, the contradiction between technological development and an outmoded, exploitative social system made the task of realising utopia through revolution not only possible but essential. Without it, the contradiction would only deepen and produce catastrophes, as it had already done with the First World War, the Great Depression and the rise of Fascism.

Benjamin thought he’d conserved the key features of materialist historiography once the bourgeois sham of “progress” was stripped out of it, namely an objective truth in history and the proletariat’s status as agents of that truth. His critics, including Marxist ones, disagreed and added it to their other objections, like his use of psychoanalytic and theological concepts. It’s been argued that Benjamin’s “utopian pessimism” cannot be squared with Marxist “revolutionary optimism”. Logically elaborated, Benjamin’s argument means that no human action, taking place as it must do within history, can achieve the desired result which lies outside of history, is opposed to it, and thus can only be realised by divine intervention. Worse still, all human political action can only reproduce the evil we call history in the first place: revolts against power set up new powers of their own; violent attempts to change history simply breed more violence. This was the conclusion reached, years after Benjamin’s death, by his erstwhile colleague in the Frankfurt School, Max Horkheimer.[18] According to Horkheimer, catastrophe, rather than being the alternative to utopia, is the only possibility of achieving it. Only catastrophe can dislodge the dominion of radical evil in human affairs and disrupt the kind of progress which is actually taking place, namely the anti-progress of humanity into an ever more administered, bureaucratised, and oppressive future, the future of Kafka, Orwell and their privatised equivalents.

We can’t say how Benjamin would have responded, but in his own time he insisted that the two elements- the negative utopian and the messianic- could coexist and the third term that lies between them, “revolutionary optimism”, could be saved. Typically, Benjamin expressed his final formulation as an image rather than an argument. In his Theses, Benjamin admits the secular project of realising utopia in history is opposed to the messianic dimension of redemption, like two arrows moving in different directions, but “just as a force following its route is able to promote another one directed for a contrary route, so also is the secular order of the profane able to promote the coming of the messianic kingdom.”

In part, Benjamin’s ambiguities were a function of his period. He didn’t live to see the full transformation of liberal 19th century capitalism into modern mass consumer democracies on the one hand or into national socialisms of the right or the left on the other, the transformations that led the Frankfurt School to evolve from Critical Theory to a critique of instrumental reason with Adorno and Hokheimer’s “Dialectic of Enlightenment” (completed in 1944 but not published until 1947). Benjamin, like the intellectual Houdini he was, may have escaped the Scylla and Charibdis of theology and Marxism, but he still sailed closed enough to the wind to appal his friend Theodor Adorno. The devil was in the details. In order to avoid using theological terms in their (inevitably) religious context while keeping theology as the “deep background” to his Project, Benjamin had to come up with an alternative way of describing modernity, using a vocabulary drawn from psychology, Proust and Surrealism.

Modernity became a collective dream from which we need to awaken, as Proust awakens to authentic, involuntary memory. But what Proust thought of as an existential, individual problem, Benjamin saw as a social phenomenon, caused by capitalism’s dislocation of historical time, since the French Revolution had introduced human rights and democracy into history while capitalism had introduced material production on a new scale. Together, these developments meant society should now be universal and equal, both materially and politically. Class-dominated or hierarchical societies were anachronisms. If people were prevented from realising this- in all senses of the word- it could only be because they were wrapped in a collective dream, a phantasmorgia or fog rising from the fetishised commodities. Max Weber, in his famous formulation, saw modern society an “iron cage” made out of rationalisation, bureaucratisation, reason and number-crunching. Digging deeper, Benjamin described modernity in precisely opposite terms. He saw modernity as totally irrational as the Surrealists had been the first to understand, a reprise of the ancient world with its superstitions, its gods and its mythology. Whereas under classical conditions, the gods arose from and represented Nature, in capitalism’s re-enchanted social world, the myths were re-activated as advertisements, as fashion, as the fetishised commodities in modern industrial civilisation’s second or new Nature,. Instead of nymphs and hamadryads gathered in some forest bower, there were the goods on display in shop windows in the Paris arcades.

Adorno, for one, was not convinced by any of this. In time, he came to feel that Marx’s own use of concepts like progress and production was seriously flawed and that, behind Marx, the tradition of the Enlightenment and of Western consciousness as a whole enshrined the domination of man over nature. Instrumental reason- reason used to create and preserve an identity and a selfhood- inevitably meant repressing and exploiting The Other, whether that Other was the natural world or our fellow men. Adorno’s own search led him to reject theology as a basis for Marxist critique and turn to art or culture as the transcendent function and balancing axis to Marxist positivism.

The split between the two friends has obscured the important place Benjamin himself gave to art in his thinking. Just as art is the answer to the riddle of individual biography in Proust, so art provides a key to the riddle of historical experience for Benjamin. Art turns out to be the archetype of the profane illumination. In art’s broad church, the spiritual and the material, the profane and the sacred, the religious and the secular, meet, or at least live comfortably side-by-side. Art prefigures both utopia and the Messianic Kingdom at one and the same moment- and this moment is essentially static, and therefore a facsimile of history’s end. “In every true work of art there is a place where, for one who removes there, it blows cool like the wind of the coming dawn.” With his conception of art as providing the ”true definition” of historical progress, progress which is not to do with time passing but with time frozen, time interrupted by snapshots that prefigure utopia, Benjamin’s work as a critic comes full circle, ending on a generous note. Profane illumination, “although not a category itself of (the Messianic) Kingdom, (is)..a decisive category of its quietest approach.” Then comes the line we’ve already looked at “ For in happiness all that is earthly seeks its downfall.”[19] Man’s quest for happiness helps bring about the coming of the Kingdom. The revolution is the handmaid of utopia, and the humble, material quest for happiness supplies the key to both of them. History has no motor, no inevitability. The motor of history has to be provided by politics, which seeks the “passing away” of old forms of human society just as nature itself is involved in a constant process of passing away. While art remains the pre-eminent example of profane illumination, in the profane or material order politics takes primacy over history and the helpless Angel of History can only be rescued by the very victims whose fate he bewails, by men.


As European Modernism steered into the gathering storms of the 20th century, Germany became its cockpit. The Germans lived Modernism in a different register from Picasso playing with bulls and women with roses in their teeth in Spain or the French who suffered badly in the Great War but who still had Paris full of cheap wine, tobacco and artists’ models. Modernism in Germany- like everything in the German-speaking lands after 1918- was inseparable from politics, from revolution, from violence, from the old world going down in blood[20].

If the German experience put it at the cutting edge of history, the experience of the assimilated (as they thought themselves) German Jews was even more extreme. It was in post-First World War Germany that nationalism and nation-building, that quintessential 19th century project, crossed to its darkest side and assimilation revealed its impossible contradictions. The paradoxical result, as Zygmunt Bauman has noted, was a “period of astonishing Jewish cultural creativity” when “ it so happened that the Jews of Europe—not necessarily by choice—were the first to experience the harrowing dilemmas, ineradicable ambivalence and indeed awesome aporias of modern life, and so enjoyed the dubious privilege of being the first, perhaps also the keenest, people to try out, experiment with and expose as deceitful the whole spectrum of individual remedies and collective therapies that they hoped would defuse and detoxify them....... out of that experience the contradictions and dialectics of modern life were moulded. European Jews, one is tempted to conclude, were cast in the drama of modern nation-building as the pioneers of modern thought.”[21]

Walter Benjamin was one of those pioneers. His Arcades Project was the culmination of a lifetime’s journey through the literature, culture and finally the history of his time, as well as the last in his series of writings about cities- essays on Marseilles, Naples, Berlin and, more conventionally, on Moscow preceded it. In The Project, his struggle to reconcile his Marxist and speculative sides, rather than appearing as a weakness, leads to a concentration on the concrete. Indeed, the concrete itself becomes a theoretical resolution, something Benjamin could have learned from any poet who takes some form of “Description is Revelation” as his motto.

Goethe was Benjamin’s first mentor, before he discovered the French, and in some ways Goethe remained his biggest influence. For all Benjamin’s speed and flexibility of mind, he never wavered in his basic approach which was anti-Enlightenment, pro-intuition rather than analysis, and based on Goethe. To Goethe, truth and reality were in the phenomena themselves, not in some separate spiritual or mental realm. They were a kind of essence and it was the observer’s task to penetrate to that essence, to separate the type or individual essence (the monad) from its multiple, unfolding forms, and to exhume its secret.

To Goethe, this process was intuitive and creative. According to some interpretations of Goethe’s writings, the observer’s consciousness helps create the essence in the act of recognising it- an insight Benjamin shadows in his own notion of the dialectical image. The Goethean method results not in analysis in our modern scientific sense, but in a synoptic presentation. Instead of producing a causal explanation for the way things are, it provides an interpretation of change and growth, which Goethe claimed was more true to the nature of the organic world. In a sense, Benjamin’s whole intellectual project amounted to transferring Goethe’s approach from one part of the organic world to another, from nature to human nature via linguistic philosophy (Benjamin wrote an important essay on language) and eventually to society and history, where it becomes a code for revolution.

As much as it’s a work of history or philosophy, then, The Arcades Project is also a work of art. Both unfinished and didactic, in the sense of being concerned with the possibilities of human liberation, it’s a sister work to Musil’s The Man Without Qualities, and thereby related to the main circuits of European artistic modernism. At the other end of this time- scale, from the standpoint of the present , The Arcades Project was the Ur-text that launched all critiques of popular culture, even if contemporary popular culture means the cult of celebrity rather than the cult of the flaneur and TV sitcoms and rock lyrics rather than world fairs and Paris arcades- though someone somewhere has surely written at least one materialist historiography of the shopping mall.

Benjamin was also among the first to write seriously about the new technologies- film, photography, radio and so on- that make our modern media-entertainment culture possible. He was enthusiastic about them. He believed the combination of technical innovation and mass media would produce a radically democratic culture rather than, as it turned out, the creative impulse being absorbed into industrial-style production by giant media corporations.

Today Benjamin is probably best-known as a cultural critic and studied most intently in literature and media studies courses. But he was a great deal more than that. His essay Theories of German Fascism was one of the earliest and most penetrating analyses of its subject. His intuition of a radical, historical break between modernity and all that came before it has never been fully absorbed. His struggles to uncover exactly how capitalism shaped this modern world are not just an enormously extended set of cultural footnotes to Marxism: as capitalism as an economic system encounters ever-increasing problems, it becomes all the more important to understand the world capital has made and to understand it in the way Walter Benjamin did, as containing within it the elements of a better, different world lest the 21st century, like the 19th century Benjamin wrote about and the 20th century he lived and died in, prove “incapable of responding to the new technological possibilities with a new social order” [22].

[1] Perry Anderson, ‘A Zone of Engagement’ (New York: Verso, 1992) p. 36.

[2] Artistic modernism’s response to the modern world was politically neutral, introducing themes that have been taken up by the right as well as by the left- for example, Fascism reflected modernism’s enthusiasm for technology and the pace and scale of modern industrial society, while modernism’s darker vision of bureaucracy, dehumanisation and centralised power takes a paranoid form among contemporary America’s extreme right and militia movements. Meanwhile, conservatism, with its Burkean emphasis on the local, the organic and the traditional, has had more trouble adapting to the modern world, being forced into a schizophrenic stance, supporting big business and industrial efficiency with one hand while with the other hand trying to hold on to the pre-capitalist past via increasingly shrill attempts to defend so-called “traditional moral values”. However, conservatism’s intellectual failures have been matched by its political success in Western democracies where it has often played upon people’s fears and hopes about the modern world more effectively than the left (and much aided by the backing of those societies’ power elites, mass media etc).

[3] In so far as Surrealism was a political movement but a utopian one, Benjamin’s rejection of the Surrealists parallels Marx’s argument with the utopian socialists.

[4] O.K. Werckmeister ‘Walter Benjamin’s Angel of History and the Transformation of Revolutionary Into Historian’ in Critical Inquiry vol 22 no 2 Winter 1996. p. 253.

[5] Ibid p. 266.

[6] Cited in ibid. p. 252.

[7] Other reasons have been suggested for his fame, such as postwar Germany’s need for heroes (even better, heroes who were also martyrs) with an unblemished record of opposition to Nazism from the very start. There were not many candidates. Of course, none of these reasons take away from Benjamin’s own brilliance as a writer and thinker.

[8] Esther Leslie, ‘Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project’

[9] Walter Benjamin, ‘The Arcades Project’ (Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press/Harvard U. Press, 1991). Do 7 p.834.

[10] quoted in Benjamin Arcades Project op cit. A3a1 p. 41

[11] Christopher Rollason, ‘ The Passageways of Paris’ p.5 in the Walter Benjamin Research Syndicate pages at

[12] Benjamin kept his notes on thousands of index cards he then organised (and re-organised) using a set of symbols of his own devising. The printed version of The Arcades Projects attempts to reproduce some of Benjamin’s system of markings.

[13] Rollason op cit p. 8.

[14] The German Pietist J.G. Hamann made the argument about Nature.

[15] Susan Buck-Morss, ‘The Dialectics of Seeing: Walter Benjamin and The Arcades Project’, MIT Press US/UK. 1989. p.231.The standard view is that Benjamin failed in his attempt to unite theology and historical materialism; Messianism and Marxism. Buck-Morss argues against this view in some detail. However, while defending Benjamin, she agrees that his final version of the synthesis- a “secular, sociopsychological theory of modernity as a dream world and a conception of culture ‘awakening’ from it synonymous with revolutionary class-consciousness”- blends Freud, Marx, Proust and Surrealism in more of a literary than a rigorously logical or philosophical way. (p 253 ff).

[16] Buck-Morss op cit. p. 249.

[17] For example, Lloyd Spencer in his ‘On Certain Difficulties With The Translation of On The Concept of History’. Via

[18] Horkheimer credited the evolution of his own ideas away from Marxism and towards a reinterpretation of Judaism to reading Schopenaeur, rather than to Benjamin directly, but the parallel is clear.

[19] From Theologico-Politico Fragment in ‘Reflections’ by Walter Benjamin. (New York: Schocken Books, 1986.) p. 312-313.

[20] I owe this paragraph to Stephanie Barron, curator at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

[21] Zygmunt Bauman, ‘Jews and Other Europeans, Old and New’ Malcolm Hay of Seaton Memorial Lecture December 2007. Published as an Institute of Jewish Policy Research (JPR) Policy debate June 2008 pdf download from

[22] Benjamin, ‘Paris, Capital of the 19th Century- expose 1939’ in ‘The Arcades Project’ (Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press/Harvard U. Press, 1999) p.26 All contents mike bygrave 2014