Walter Benjamin (1892-1940)

Walter Benjamin is the most influential German theorist and critic of the 20th century. His works have had a profound influence on the humanities, particularly on art history, media studies and film studies. Along with Siegfried Kracauer and Theodor Adorno he did the preliminary work which gave rise to the discipline of cultural studies, as developed in Britain in the 1960s and 1970s by Stuart Hall and Raymond Williams. As a media theorist, he laid the groundwork for what is now called media studies, influencing later media theorists including Marshall McLuhan and Friedrich Kittler.

Walter Benjamin’s most influential essay is Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit; The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1936), which argues that modern art develops in response to the new means of technological reproduction: lithography, photography and film. It defines modern art in terms of the loss of aura. This means that art works lose their unique status and cultural prestige. Instead they become mass products. Benjamin argues that this loss of aura is liberating because it makes art more accessible and open to democratic criticism.

Walter Benjamin’s works include:

Begriff der Kunstkritik in der deutschen Romantik; The Concept of Art Criticism in German Romanticism (1920)

Zur Kritik der Gewalt; Critique of Violence (1921)

Die Aufgabe des Übersetzers; The Task of the Translator (1923)

Goethes Wahlverwandtschaften; Goethe’s Elective Affinities (1924-25)

Ursprung des deutschen Trauerspiels; The Origin of German Tragic Drama (1928)

Einbahnstraße; One-Way Street (1928)

Rundfunkgeschichten; Radio Broadcasts (1927-1933)

Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit; The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1936)

English translation available here:

Der Autor als Produzent; The Author as Producer (1936)

Der Erzähler. Betrachtungen zum Werk Nikolai Lesskows; The Storyteller. Reflections on the Work of Nikolai Leskov (1936)

Deutsche Menschen. Eine Folge von Briefen; German Men and Women. A Sequence of Letters (1936)

Das Paris des Second Empire bei Baudelaire; The Paris of the Second Empire in Baudelaire (1938)

Das Passagenwerk; The Arcades Project (produced 1927-1940; published 1982)

Berliner Kindheit um 1900; Berlin Childhood around 1900 (begun 1932, revised 1938; published 1950)

Geschichtsphilosophische Thesen; On the Concept of History (1940)

English translation available here:

English Translations

Walter Benjamin, Charles Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism, trans. by Harry Zohn (London: NLB, 1973)

Walter Benjamin, Illuminations, trans. by Harry Zohn (London: Fontana, 1992)

Walter Benjamin, Reflections, trans. by Edmund Jephcott (New York: Schocken, 1986)

Walter Benjamin, Understanding Brecht, trans. by Anna Bostock (London: Verso, 1998)

Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, trans. by Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin (Cambridge, MA and London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2002)

Walter Benjamin, Berlin Childhood around 1900, trans. by Howard Eiland (Cambridge, MA and London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2006)

Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings, 4 volumes (NB volume 2 is in 2 parts), ed. by Michael W. Jennings, trans. by Howard Eiland, Michael W. Jennings, Gary Smith (Cambridge, MA and London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2006)

Walter Benjamin, Radio Benjamin, ed. by Lecia Rosenthal, trans. by Jonathan Lutes, with Lisa Harries Schumann and Diana Reese (London and New York: Verso, 2014)

Further Reading

Eduardo Cadava, Words of Light: Theses on the Photography of History (Pinceton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997)

Terry Eagleton, Walter Benjamin: Towards a Radical Criticism (London and New York: Verso, 1981)

Terry Eagleton, ‘The Marxist Rabbi: Walter Benjamin’, in Eagleton, The Ideology of the Aesthetic (Oxford: Blackwell, 1990), pp. 316-40

Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings, Walter Benjamin: A Critical Life (Cambridge, MA and London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2014)

David S. Ferris, The Cambridge Companion to Walter Benjamin (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004)

Rolf J. Goebel (ed.), A Companion to the Works of Walter Benjamin (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2009)

Beatrice Hansen and Andrew Benjamin (eds.), Walter Benjamin and Romanticism (New York and London: Continuum, 2002)

Andreas Huyssen, Miniature Metropolis: Literature in an Age of Photography and Film (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015), Chapters 4 and 6 on Benjamin

Margarete Kohlenbach, Walter Benjamin: Self-Reference and Religiosity (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002)

Martina Lauster, ‘Walter Benjamin’s Myth of the Flâneur’, Modern Language Review 102:1 (2007), 139-56

Esther Leslie, Walter Benjamin: Overpowering Conformism (London and Sterling, VA: Pluto Press, 2000)

Esther Leslie, Walter Benjamin (London: Reaktion Books, 2007)

New Formations 20 (1993), Special Issue on Walter Benjamin

New German Critique 83 (2001), Special Issue on Walter Benjamin

Gary Smith (ed.), Benjamin: Philosophy, Aesthetics, History (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1989)

Erdmut Wizisla, Walter Benjamin and Bertolt Brecht: The Story of a Friendship, trans. by Christine Shuttleworth (London: Libris, 2009)

Further Reading in German

Carolin Duttlinger, Ben Morgan and Anthony Phelan (eds.), Walter Benjamins anthopologisches Denken, Rombach Litterae (Freiburg i. Br.: Rombach, 2012)

Burkhardt Lindner (ed.), Benjamin-Handbuch: Leben-Werk-Wirkung (Stuttgart: Metzler, 2006)

Wolfgang Matz, Eine Kugel im Leibe. Walter Benjamin und Rudolf Borchardt: Judentum und deutsche Poesie (Göttingen: Wallstein, 2011)

Detlev Schöttker and Erdmut Wizisla (eds.), Arendt und Benjamin: Texte, Briefe, Dokumente (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 2006)

Erdmut Wizisla, Benjamin und Brecht: Die Geschichte einer Freundschaft (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 2004)

Web Links

Benjamin biography at the European Graduate School

Walter Benjamin entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

The Walter Benjamin Research Syndicate