Benjamin, Walter (1892–1940)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DC089-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved June 15, 2024, from

4. Technology

The latter part of Benjamin’s work – from the late 1920s onwards – was concerned to delineate with more precision how art assumes a political identity. This was a matter of describing how art manifested itself in the public arena at all, and how it assimilated itself, deliberately or not, to the conflicts dominating that arena. This discussion has two aspects: the theory of technology and the theory of history.

Benjamin’s most important essay on art and technology is ‘Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit’ (The Work of Art in the Age of its Mechanical Reproducibility) (1935). He argues that there is a general tendency away from the ‘auratic’. Under more primitive social conditions, art primarily performs a ritual function, for example, a symbolization of the divinity. It has a high ‘cultic’ value. This, however, goes hand in hand with low public availability; cultic or auratic works of art retain or increase their power by being confined to inaccessible ritual spaces. In the modern era, despite a decline of express ritual, aura is mimicked by high culture, which favours works that can be restricted to an elite (in museums, concert halls and opera houses).

Because this ‘auratic’ approach evades the issues of contemporary history, however, it scarcely deserves the designation of culture. Proper art has – indeed, has always had – its vehicles for engaging people in general. These are, nowadays, the instruments of mass dissemination. They have two aspects. In the first place, modern art dispenses with the notion of the unique object, invested with auratic magic. Modern art may be reproduced without losing its identity – as one sees in the case of film and photography and in all electronically storable works. In the second place, art loses its finality; it becomes part of a process of revision, testing and provisional application. Brecht’s collaborative and plagiarizing treatment of art is one example; the collective contribution necessary for any movie is another. Because of its provisionality, art becomes subject to the interventions of many; and because of that, in turn, it becomes integrated into wider structures of social dynamics, such as politics.

Citing this article:
Roberts, Julian. Technology. Benjamin, Walter (1892–1940), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DC089-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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