Note that the transcript begins at the start of Michael Shirrefs’ interview.

Michael Shirrefs: Lecia Rosenthal in Los Angeles and Justin Clemens in Melbourne, thank you both so much for joining me today.

Justin Clemens: Thank you.

Lecia Rosenthal: Thanks for having me.

Michael: Now, Walter Benjamin was an incredibly mercurial figure who gets quoted, cited, invoked in so many different realms of inquiry. But, Justin, who was he?

Justin: Well, he was born in Berlin in 1892 on the 15th of July to a very wealthy assimilated German-Jewish family. His father, Emil, had various interests including, I think, an ice rink that also doubled as a nightclub. His mother Pauline was … Benjamin himself remembers her as the dame of the household had a younger brother, Georg, who became a doctor, a very important left-wing doctor in Berlin, and a much younger sister, Dora. And Benjamin grew up in a very privileged Berlin atmosphere, you can read about his own Berlin childhood, a manuscript unpublished during his life. Anyway, he grows up, becomes quite an important Berlin intellectual, gets his PhD, fails his habilitation, which is what you need to teach at German universities. Becomes a kind of odds and ends journalist, roving around Europe, from Russia to Spain, and writing a series of incredible things. But, of course, the great tragedy of Benjamin’s life, being Jewish, has to flee Germany, I think forever in 1933, and then, after the invasion of France by the Nazis, flees Paris with his sister Dora. She ends up I think escaping into Switzerland. He himself tries to go through Spain and is stopped at the border, and then, very tragically and notoriously, commits suicide by taking an overdose, 26 of September 1940.

Michael: Lecia, we talk about Walter Benjamin as an intellectual. He ended up, for quite some time, at what we call the Frankfurt School of Philosophy. but was a bit of an oddball there. What made him so strange within that environment? What was it that made him not quite fit?

Lecia: That’s an excellent question, and you’re not the first to ask it. And the best way I like to answer it, is to think the way in which his not fitting, the way he exceeded boundaries and made us more self-conscious about the way that we define the boundaries of disciplinary belonging— what discipline do you belong to? Was he part of literary studies? Was he part of Marxist studies? Was he part of Jewish studies? Why didn’t he fit into any of these? And there are a few ways to think about that, kind of, not belonging. One of them would be that he was really not able to commit to any particular party line. The well-known schism, within his work, has to do with his affiliation with, on the one hand, Jewish theological and Zionist conversations, and his lifetime friendship with Gershom Scholem. And, on the other hand, his Marxist commitments, which would make him more readily assimilated within the Frankfurt School. And because he never resolved those two interests—he, kind of, not just vacillated between them, but wasn’t really even sure how to separate them, sometimes—it made it easier for each of those groups to not really see him as one of their own. But he also really just had such eclectic interests. You know, he was known for contributing to fields, ranging from translation studies, to architecture, to film and photography, history. And also, his style was not quite within the standards of the academic ilk, and the fragmented style, the citational style, the borrowing style. So, it made it easier for some of the more established formations, including the university, to reject him.

Michael: It seems that that sort of intellectual roaming, meant that he also seemed to be looking for a very wide and quite a diverse audience for his ideas. I mean, he clearly felt constrained by the academy, which meant that he published in so many different places and, as you’ve written about, broadcast. Do the two things tie together, that sort of intellectual restlessness and that looking for a big audience?

Lecia: I don’t know. I don’t really know if he thought that much about his audience. He seems to have been motivated by the work alone. And once he was not able to become a professor, he had to publish, and tried to make his living in the more popular journalistic fashion. His childhood friend, Ernst Schoen, was the head of the Frankfurt Radio Station. So, he used that connection to help establish himself as a radio journalist. And radio, as a new medium at the time, was perhaps more open to the contributions of whoever showed up. He, in addition, had this very peculiar situation where there was slotted time for children’s programming. And I think that one of the most peculiar things for me, and most interesting things about Benjamin’s radio work, is that he happened upon this, and had an interest in children’s literature. He had a huge collection of children’s books, he and his wife Dora. He wrote and performed other pieces for radio that were not for children, but the majority of his work on radio was under the category of children’s programming. So, those all came together to contribute to the reasons that the radio works came into being, I think. But you asked the additional question of what his thoughts were about popular dissemination of his work, or more widespread, or more eclectic beyond the academic dissemination of his work. And that … I can only answer by saying that he did have this very, kind of almost contrarian interest in the idea of popularity, as against the idea of expertise and against the scholastics. Not that he had a naive embrace of the idea of a popular authority or knowledge, but he certainly enjoyed, I think, the idea of, sort of thumbing his nose at the officially recognised sites of authority, including the academy. 

Michael: In her book, The Dialectics of Seeing, Susan Buck-Morss wrote: ‘Leaving the world of academia, meant that Benjamin would subject his intellectual production to the conditions of the marketplace.’ So, there was clearly this idea that the academy was stifling?

Justin: Look, I think that’s definitely true in many respects. But he never repudiates those connections absolutely. He’s rejected, he’s forced to withdraw The Origin of German Tragic Drama, which is the thesis he later published, by the University, because they won’t pass it. But, of course, the people he remains in contact with are also very university people sometimes. But, the other thing to talk about in all of this discussion of populism is, let’s not forget, the Soviet Union is regnant, right? 1819 Revolution, many of Benjamin’s friends are Marxists. They’re not just card-carrying, as we say now, Western Marxists in university rooms, they’re out there, literally on the streets, trying to do, for instance, People’s Theatre, or to find a new form for the people. And this is exactly what Benjamin writes about, when he writes about Eisenstein, and montage. Or even the Surrealists and their experiments wandering the streets of Paris at night. And, of course, his friend, Bertolt Brecht, the great progenitor of Epic Theatre and alienation effect, it’s a very complicated situation. Yes, he needs money. Yes, he needs to do journalism. But he’s not repudiating the allegedly high, or the institutional kudos, but also the real capacities and abilities that people like Adorno have, and Horkheimer and so on. But neither is he repudiating the possibilities of a transformation from the streets as well, and this is his very oddball leftism, I suppose.

Michael: So, it’s not simply mercenary, it is ideological?

Justin: Absolutely.

Lecia: Yeah. And it’s also … I think that’s a very important point that it’s not anti-intellectual. He doesn’t define it over against the university, or over against the high-culture forms. He doesn’t embrace the lower, the popular, over against those, by repudiating them. Absolutely not. Because, we can’t forget that he, to the end, was always interested in the highbrow forms as well. He was absolutely … it’s a very good point … he was absolutely not interested in taking this interest he had, in vernacular forms, as a rejection.

Michael: So, he was really finding a new arena for the ideas. And, you’ve written that Theodore Adorno, who was his close friend, ‘used the term “radioactive” to describe the explosive appeal of Walter Benjamin’s writings’. So, this suggests that he was reaching a wide audience, that it actually did connect to the language and the zeitgeist at the time?

Lecia: I don’t know, I’ve wondered about that. I mean, was he really a popular intellectual? Was there truly such a thing? Was he a public intellectual? In a way, within the academy, his appeal has been so great. So, he is one of these figures that everybody has some interest in. Some people are not so devoted, but he has many fans. We see, from even beyond the academy, his life and work being taken up. Certainly, the radio and the journal publications, his journalism, were the sites of the widest dissemination of his work.

Justin: Octavio Paz, the great Mexican poet, in one of his books on Marcel Duchamp, the French artist with whom Paz was obsessed, makes a distinction between popular and a mass artist. And he says Marcel Duchamp, he’s not popular, but what he makes affects everybody, and therefore he should be taken as reorganising, actually, the ways in which we approach everything, even if no one knows his name. And, I think, it’s kind of a great distinction, whether or not it’s justifiable is another thing. But, I think, you can say it with someone like Benjamin who, as Hannah Arendt says, very famously, he has the saddest kind of fame, the posthumous fame. You know, no one … by 1933 he’s almost forgotten. Only a few friends and intellectuals in Paris know him. But, nonetheless, something happens that, as Lecia was saying, an enthusiasm that seems to go beyond the writing and the occasionality of some of those pieces themselves.

Michael: One of the things about his writing, in particular through his books, is that it is extraordinarily aphoristic. You know, he writes in small fragments that are, individually, quite accessible, although, en masse, they’re intimidating. So, in one of his most famous works, The Arcades Project, Das Passagen-Werk, it’s this collection of small observations that add up to a very large picture. I mean, that’s something we recognise today in social media, these sort of small, bite-sized little nuggets of wisdom, almost like little haikus. Is that something that made him indigestible at the time, but thoroughly recognisable today?

Justin: It’s a very interesting question. You know, I think there’s some truth in what you say. And he, himself, liked the metaphor of a constellation. And, I always think about, well, what’s a constellation? It’s something you see in the stars. Is it there in the stars? No. Do those stars have any real relation to each other, except from the point of the observer? No, they don’t. Are you just projecting some sort of very contingent or arbitrary image onto this material? Well, on the one hand, yes you are. On the other hand, if you want to navigate, you can navigate by your own images. So, you can really move across the ground by staring at this constellation. And, I suspect that’s part of what Benjamin wanted to do, was not just the bitsiness that aggregates into this vast, and an overwhelming masterwork. But, actually, to release from the, kind of, the apposition, and the laying out of these aphorisms, and quotations, and various other modalities that he does, is to release something for precisely a constellation by which we can navigate the world with. So, it’s not necessarily for its own sake.

Michael: Lecia, we’ve sort of referred to Walter Benjamin’s writings that became radio programs, and they were highly-scripted essays. What sort of subjects did he cover? Give people an example of the range of his ideas?

Lecia: There were about 90 broadcasts that he made. About 50 of the transcripts remain. Of those, a little more than half were talks for children. The talks for children cover about three kinds of topics. One is topics related to Berlin. He gave a talk about the Berlin dialect, about various forms of popular markets in Berlin. The second category is stories about fraud and tricksters and swindlers. And the third category, from the pieces for children again, is stories about catastrophe. And then there are some radio plays for children. Also, radio talks that weren’t just for children, and those cover a range of topics. One of them was about children’s literature, his thoughts about that. Then he, for example, had a radio play about Lichtenberg, who was a writer of aphorisms, and Benjamin sets this radio play on the moon. It’s very strange and wonderful. So, that’s a general kind of summary of the range, which is really quite vast, and really remarkable, and they’re really fun.

Michael: And part of the reason that they weren’t really acknowledged, or taken seriously, was that radio was ephemeral, there were no recordings of his broadcasts. But there is now a collection of them rerecorded in German Do you wish they could be translated into English? Would you like to hear these done as performance pieces? 

Lecia: Yes. They have been … there are some that have been done. But I think they could really stand even more attention. Yes, I think so. I mean, part of what’s challenging, perhaps, is that, beyond the fact that Benjamin did them, there remains the question, what would their interest be to anyone today? So, I think they, kind of, require some attention in that regard. Some of the references are obscure and so, in their performed quality, might be a bit challenging. But they still come through, in their topicality and their appeal. Because the figures they focus on, the themes they focus on, are still of interest. For example, history of the Bastille. Or the piece, the Witch Trials, which focuses on the problem of the persecution of witches, and which really allows Benjamin to take a moment to critique the use of torture, for forced confessions. So, you can see the kind of similar political issues that we know Benjamin to have written on elsewhere. They appear in a, kind of, much more accessible form and a form that is definitely more easy to assimilate.

Justin: Sorry. Isn’t there also another side to that, though, in the sense that, yes there’re some things that are topical and come through exactly as you say. and I totally agree with you. But, on the other hand, there’s something about Benjamin which is about the recuperation of the musty, the forgotten, the irrelevant, the pointless, the meaningless, and so on. Because otherwise, unless you have that kind of dialectical recuperation, I suppose, like the past stands the risk of being lost altogether, as he points out. And I think there’s something about the very atopicality and the unknown-ness of some of those names, that’s also, I guess, part of the Benjaminian project, if that’s the word for it.

Lecia: Yes. I think that’s very … the mustiness, that’s such a great word, because he’s interested in them precisely because they’re slightly oblique. Even if they’re considered popular, they’re on the verge of disappearance. Or they’re of interest because they resist appropriation and assimilation, for various reasons. And, again for radio, one of the things that interested him so much was how to gather these vanishing, vernacular forms, these fragile, popular forms, if they were visual forms. So, he asked this great question—is it not crazy to try to describe a painting on the radio? I’m not sure he was able to really use the medium to its full extent, because it was such early days for radio. I don’t know how much of the technology, really, he could use except for his own voice. But he was really interested, I think, in trying to, on the one hand, take advantage of the medium in its specificity, and, on the other hand, not reify the idea of that specificity. So, he was not really rejecting the visual. He was thinking about, more like in his other works, how can we have a variety of media present, within this form, at the same time.

Michael: Which does suggest that, today, he would have grabbed at a visual medium. He would have grabbed at social media. He would have actually known how to use these things, because he needed to articulate these ideas and all their sort of dimensions. Which really does sort of put the idea … Is he a prototype for a multimedia journalist, something we recognise today, but it was incomprehensible back then?

Justin: Look it’s true, he was very attentive to, and has said things that are still absolutely pertinent regarding the development of a variety of media technologies, and how those technologies are linked to militarisation of, maybe let’s say, militarisation of everyday life, on the one hand. And on the other hand to a kind of … still to utopian kind of desires, that are not fully conscious nor reflected upon. And that it is clear that, whether for contingent or for deeply feted reasons, Benjamin does work in a large number of media, in which he’s talking about a large number of media, exactly as Lecia said before, attentive to the specificity of the media he’s working in, but trying to allow all the other media not to constellate within that single media. And in a kind of translatability—Lecia’s also mentioned the task of the translator, a very important theme in Benjamin’s work, and which has certain messianic aspects to it. So, to come back in a very long-winded way to agreeing with you, I think along those lines, I think we can say, he’s not just using each medium in the way that it’s … maybe he couldn’t go far enough with the radio, as Lecia says. But there is there is already an attempt, within one medium, to harbour the others and, thereby in such a way, constellate as to give us new organisations of stars by which to navigate around the world. So, to that extent yes, Michael.

Michael: Lecia, do you agree?

Lecia: Yeah, I think that he had a kind of unboundedness in his relationship to, what we now call I guess, the platform or the medium that he was using. Right? It was possible for him to manipulate the radio, in the same way that it was possible for him to publish his written work. I don’t think he made much of a distinction. Although, I will say that, in translating these pieces, I had a very clear sense that he wrote them for them to be read. I mean, what we have is the typescript so, whatever changes he may have made on air we don’t know, but the style is not the same as his other pieces, especially in the pieces for children here. But he was aware of the spoken, performative quality of radio. But back to your question about the multimedia. So, at a sort of obvious level, I would say yes, especially because of the citational quality, the interest in borrowing, the interest in what he called the dialectal image of presenting something, so that it could reveal something carried within it of its time, let’s say, these things all suggest themselves. But the question that I then have is, what do we mean when we say multimedia? Does it just mean that he can go from one to the other? Or does it mean that he has produced something like a new form, that we associate with some of the newer forms of our own time? And then, what we really mean by this idea of the multimedia with our own time?

Justin: Well, one thing he doesn’t do, because even though it’s being developed in the States in various universities, and not at all in the humanities, is what will later become known as the cybernetic fold, and which now dominates our lives. That of computing, of networked, global, real-time computing, which Benjamin seems to have no … while he reflects very, very directly upon all the history of media technologies, of the power of producing multiplicities, of coinage, of lyric poetry, of montage and film, of surrealist experiments and so forth, he doesn’t really have an intimation of the world that we’re in now, in some sense. But, one thing that we do need to point out, which is kind of post-Benjaminian, is that for the first time in history, one of Benjamin’s inheritors, Friedrich Kettler, a German media theorist, says, for the first time in history, we have a medium to end all other media, and that’s digitisation. Why? Because, for the first time, we have a universal alphabet. Everything that happens is translated directly into digits or binary code and then and then out again. And that transforms the relationships of sound, sense, perception, hearing. In the end its all, now, today, has been reframed by the great leveling of a digital code. And that transforms the relationships between media, as well as the uses that can be made out of them. Where that leaves us, I don’t know, but it is something that Benjamin, I’m pretty sure, he had no intimation of.

Michael: I mean, one thing if we’re looking for a logical connection, a lineage from Benjamin to a more present time, there’s another figure, half a world away, Uruguayan writer and journalist Eduardo Galeano was born the year that Walter Benjamin died, 1940.

Justin: In the same month.

Michael: Galeano was trying to do something in Latin America which was describe this vast region, in the same way that Benjamin was trying to describe the enormity of Europe, the enormity of European modernism, the descent of Europe into fascism, into war. They were constructing ways of being able to paint a very big picture. And the other thing is Galeano was not just a writer. He was a journalist. He was actually a sports journalist.

Justin: He’s a great soccer journalist and I think he remains a soccer journalist throughout his life. He, as you say, was born in Uruguay in September, early in September I think, 1940. And he leaves school as a teenager. He edits a magazine, it’s quite an interesting magazine. But then he knows Allende, he has to flee after the CIA-backed Chilean coup. He flees to Argentina. Then there’s a coup in Argentina. Then he has to flee again, and is, basically, hunted by death squads across South America. And as a left-wing journalist he wrote a book, in 1971 I think it comes out, the Open Veins of Latin America, very, very hardcore. I think Hugo Chavez might have given a copy to Obama, but don’t quote me. But to come back to what you are asking, Michael, the things we’ve all been talking about with the multifariousness of Benjamin’s writings, and also performances of different kinds, his radio work, his reflections on media, but also his production of these kind of odd texts, at once aphoristic and gargantuan, of which the paradigm is The Arcades Project. What you get in The Arcades Project, is the snapshot of Paris, capital of the 19th century, all of these things, happening at once there, need to be connected. And what does Galeano do, when he tries to write a history of Latin America? He, sort of, has a recourse, almost naturally, to this … like, how do you write the history of Latin America? Well, he’s a left-wing journalist, and he starts to write these incredible books. I think the masterpiece is the trilogy, Memory of Fire, which is done in a mosaic form, picking up …

Michael: Fragmentaria.

Justin: Fragmentaria, absolutely. And it really does communicate with Benjamin’s project. But now, as you, yourself, have remarked, at the level of the continent and colonialism, rather than just the city of Paris.

Michael: And also, he writes … Galeano writes with the sort of poetics that we associate with Latin American writing, I mean, some of his pieces almost like haikus. They’re extraordinary.

Justin: I really like … the fleas think they can get together and buy the dog, Michael.

Michael: So, Walter Benjamin died at the age of 48, on the French-Spanish border. He was fleeing the Nazis. Conventional histories say that he suicided in despair. That’s contested by some that say he was murdered. We won’t know that. But can either of you imagine what would have happened if he had survived. Would he have eventually found acceptance, in his lifetime, as the significant intellectual voice that we recognise today?

Lecia: It’s obviously such an impossible question to answer, what would have happened had things been different with him. And, I honestly don’t know what to make of how important Benjamin’s … the death scene, has become to the legend of the man and our understanding, our appreciation of his work. This incredible tragedy, that is tragic on so many levels, and truly pathetic, and awful, that he was almost out, and this bizarre moment of this contingency, right, the chance, the bad luck. Right? I mean, to speak of his relationship to Naziism as bad luck is an understatement. But this moment where he, just this one night, he couldn’t take it, and then the rest of his group got out the next day. Right. It really bothers us that he … this man who was so useful and so wonderful for so many of us, where he’s helped us do the kind of work we want to do on so many levels, that he left us too soon is just on believably horrible, let alone the part that the Nazis played in it, right? I mean, so, I think his work would would have received the acclaim anyway. But what would he have … what would it have been to … It’s wonderful to ask these questions … What would he have made, yes, if he had lived to have been a contemporary of the multimedia age? What would a person like Walter Benjamin have thought of Twitter? … is what is, in a way, what you’re encouraging us to ask. And I think you’re right ,that he didn’t really … that he couldn’t possibly have thought of the digital age, that just was not really comprehensible, or something that he could have anticipated. But to go back to where we began, he, sort of, started along the path of this problem of the digital age in his essays, both on translation and on the problem of the aura. What has happened to our understanding of originality, authenticity, and, on the other hand, untranslatability, incommensurability, in our own moment, is another way of putting that question.

Michael: Well, Lecia Rosenthal and Justin Clemens, thank you very much for joining me on The Philosopher’s Zone.

Justin: Thank you Michael.

Lecia: Thank you.


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