Walter Benjamin and the Re-Enchanted World

Sunday, July 17, 2022
First Aired: 
Sunday, July 12, 2020

What Is It

Walter Benjamin was a German Jewish critical theorist, essayist, and philosopher who died tragically during the Second World War. His thoughts about modernity, history, art, disenchantment, and re-enchantment are still discussed today. So who was Benjamin, and what is his intellectual legacy? Why did he believe that Enlightenment values, such as rationality and modernization, brought about disenchantment in the world? Did he think there was a way to find re-enchantment without abandoning these values? And what would he have had to say about social media and its power to distract? The hosts have an enchanting time with Margaret Cohen from Stanford University, author of Profane Illumination: Walter Benjamin and the Paris of Surrealist Revolution.



Josh Landy
Coming up on Philosophy Talk...

Ray Briggs
The modern world puts us to sleep. How can we wake ourselves up?

Josh Landy
Walter Benjamin: Re-enchanting the world.

Comments (4)

Devon's picture


Monday, July 13, 2020 -- 1:37 PM

Dave See write in during

Dave S. wrote in at the end of Sunday's broadcast with the following:

Greets, with hopes you & yours are, & remain healthy!
Couple questions:
--true that he used a manuscript to roll cigarettes?
--agreed, "aura"has been superseded by the 'net?

Reply from Josh:

For me it’s a yes and no: on the one hand I do think the internet has intensified the situation described by Benjamin, since (among other things) we can now gain access to high-quality digital reproductions of artworks. But on the other hand people are still traveling from all over the world to see the Mona Lisa (the crowds in the Louvre make it an absurd situation) and other paintings, as well as sculptures, buildings, etc. So the original object, in cases where there is one, still exerts at least some pull.

I haven’t heard that cigarette story about Benjamin, but I have heard it about Mikhail Bakhtin. (See Michael Holquist's Introduction to The Dialogic Imagination, pp. xv-xxxiii.) Fascinating story!

joanie's picture


Tuesday, July 21, 2020 -- 3:44 PM

The Walter Benjamin show was

The Walter Benjamin show was great; thanks! A problem/obstacle to understanding the role of art is that art has been overtaken by entertainment, as in, for example, TED Talks, which should be TAD Talks. People don't seem to want to go deep, be transformed--the effects of art--they want to be distracted--the effects of entertainment. I'm entertained by watching my cat.

Daniel's picture


Sunday, July 3, 2022 -- 4:06 PM

Are photography as well as

Are photography as well as moving two dimensional photographic images correctly described as a separate domain set aside exclusively for objects predicated essentially by their capacity to distract? And how is the genre founded on the use of distractibles describable as of works of art existing for their own sake, for which an imperative to preserve is not related to any practical value? It must be the high concentration of sensory input which produces the capacity to distract, and the skill in what's chosen and how it's put together in correspondence with the effect on the viewer which generates the imperative to preserve. This imperative disappears, however, where such two dimensional images are mass-produced and widely distributed. Instead these come to be imposed as part of a normal collective environment, where there's more effort to get it out of the way than to preserve it. Does Benjamin take up something similar outside of his 1931 essay on photography?

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Daniel's picture


Saturday, July 9, 2022 -- 1:15 PM

Remoteness applies to what

Remoteness applies to what isn't there, so that the way things normally are, typical ordinariness, is also the most remote domain from thought-contents, as comprised of what provokes no need for thought and "goes without saying", so to speak. Logic as traditionally understood can be described as an attempt to eliminate the remoteness of the domain of everydayness, with the result that it is brought close to one's explicit consideration and enters into the sphere of practical use.

But what occurs when what is remote is extraordinary, decisively distinct, and unconditionally individual? There come to be two processes of remoteness-removal:
1) accommodate one's body to proximity of the object as an individual;
2) bring a replica of the object to one's area of sensory intake.

Point (1) describes the relationship between the art-product and its consumer as understood in the pre-photographic period; whereas point (2) indicates the situation where photographic reproductions of what are called "artworks" can be widely distributed throughout given populations. Benjamin employs the term "aura" in a technical sense to refer to a thing's remoteness, or its distance, as a component part of its presence, so that the distribution of two dimensional photographic art-work replicas precludes the material conditions by which their auras can persist. And because Benjamin makes the claim (in "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction") that the form of sensory intake and that of assumed circumstances of existence are co-variant, that is, changing correlative to one another, this indicates that with the elimination of the aura of individual distinction in art-works comes the general inability to understand anything else as remote in its self-assertion, or as distant while present, and thus extraordinary.

Benjamin draws both negative and positive consequences from this state of affairs:
1) Modus tollens:
a) The authority attributed to the object is eliminated and replaced by that of the subject, who sits in judgement upon it according to how the subject is affected, rather than inadequately understanding a meaning of the original in correspondence to which judgement must be suspended.
2) Modus ponens:
a) Photographic reproduction allows contact-recognition with the original, where a plurality of copies resuscitates it in a multiplicity of surrogate subjects.

On this latter point Benjamin describes the camera as the liberator of the artwork from its social function in ritual, to such an extent that the works themselves come to be made specifically with their reproducibility in mind, while the basis of ritual in cult-organizations hangs on in the form of photographic portraiture and by extension the cult of personality in cinematic celebrity.

Most interesting though in Benjamin's analysis of aura-decay is his view that the evolution of photographic reproduction into moving pictures, or film, is characterized as a revolutionary possibility in what in the above post I called a "genre of distractibles", i.e. that being distracted itself becomes the object, resulting in what Benjamin calls "a heightened presence of mind" in order to not be distracted amidst what is maximally distracting, inducing the subjective habit of attention-decisiveness. How would this apply to later developments in distractibilities such as those associated with use of the internet brought up by Josh above? Does one find that, paradoxically, aura-elimination under conditions of maximized distraction results in aura-restoration by induced self-remoteness?

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