Benjamin, Walter

Benjamin, Walter
(1892–1940)
   Benjamin has been described as “possibly the most important cultural theorist within the Marxist tradition.” Closely associated with Bertolt Brecht and the Frankfurt School he produced a range of works on culture, aesthetics, drama and literature that has had an enduring influence. Born in Berlin, Germany, Benjamin studied philosophy at Freiberg University and language at Munich, before writing his doctoral thesis on the Origin of German Tragic Drama. Partly as a result of the rejection of his thesis by Frankfurt University, Benjamin turned away from academic life and earned a living as a journalist and art critic. He also wrote a number of pieces for the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research journal. Benjamin traveled extensively, particularly after leaving Berlin when the Nazis came to power, and lived for a time in Paris, ending his days in Port Bou, Spain. Significant in his travels was a trip to Moscow in 1926–27 that stimulated an already existing interest in Soviet cultural life and prompted a number of articles on the topic. Benjamin’s most important writings include his Origin of German Tragic Drama (1925), The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1936), Charles Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism (1938), Illuminations (1968), and Theses on the Philosophy of History (1940). The main idea expressed in these works is that ideas and culture have no autonomous existence or history, but are rooted in and conditioned by the prevailing technology and class background. He also explored themes of liberation, the centrality of human action and history in understanding art and culture, and Karl Marx’s notion of fetishism of the commodity. Other themes of religious mysticism, utopianism and pessimism, particularly in his last work, Theses on the Philosophy of History, suggest a departure from Marxist doctrines, and leave an ambiguous, inconsistent, but nevertheless profound legacy.

Historical dictionary of Marxism. . 2014.

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