Walter Benjamin’s Blog
by David Beer
Walter Benjamin’s Archive,
Edited by Ursula Marx, Gudran Schwarz, Michael Schwarz, Erdmut Wizisla. Translated by Esther Leslie,
Walter Benjamin’s Archive, which has just been published in paperback to mark the 75th anniversary of his untimely death, has left me thinking that Benjamin might just have been a blogger in the making. The way that he organised and archived his work suggests that he would have embraced the classification, archiving and tagging facilities typical of blogging – he seemed to have a certain enthusiasm for metadata on his own works. We can then add to this his eagerness to share his work and his interest in capturing the everyday fragments and ephemera of modernity. And then we also have his non-linear approach to thought and expression.
I arrived at this conclusion whilst delving into this book’s revelations about the backstage processes that fed into Benjamin’s outputs. The unfinished book The Arcades Project has always given a flavour of these working practices, with its accumulating constellations of ephemera and ideas, but the guided and curated tour of the archives provided by this book show us his craft much greater detail. Seeing inside his working practices shows us the type of processes that he went through – from the type of paper, the size of the writing, the use of notepads, the collating of images, the classificatory overviews, the realisation of connections and patterns. These are all put on display in this book. We see, for instance, as his life became increasingly peripatetic, how Benjamin used whatever paper he could lay his hands on. We have Benjamin writing on hotel paper and prescription pads alongside more professional bound and durable notepads. The very paper became tellingly valuable. Benjamin’s scraps were far from scrappy though, they were full of thoughts on the world, serious thoughts from anything on the built environment to Kafka. We see how he used up every tiny bit of his precious notebooks with ordered yet kaleidoscopic ideas, that he liked to re-arrange and to cross-cut his thoughts, to find new connections and enable the pieces to fall into new and perhaps neglected, or otherwise invisible patterns.
As the editors of the collection have put it, “knowledge that is organized into slips and scraps knows no hierarchy”. Removing such a hierarchy opens up new possibilities for thought to escape convention. Benjamin’s work and working practices display the type of poles of order and disorder that he himself wrote about when describing the life of the collector. His practices enabled him to maintain some sense of organization whilst also allowing the pieces to fall together in unpredictable ways, revealing new connections and thus subverting existing and established patterns of knowledge. We particularly see this non-linear way of working embodied in the diagrams and scattered notes that can be found in Chapter 9, which is headed ‘constellations’. This set of images shows Benjamin’s notes subverting the usual ordered lines of parallel writing and substituting them with displaced and apparently disordered words, phrases and sentences.
As this suggests, his sociological interest in collecting is reflected back onto his own work. We see how he meticulously assembled and catalogued his own writings. Producing tags that enabled him to cross reference materials. This also enabled him to disperse his writings amongst his friends for safe-keeping, which was of course motivated by the obvious risks that his life and his written ideas faced in Europe during the 1930s. He wanted his work to be retrievable, and for the whole to be understood despite the archive being broken up into component parts for distribution.
Beyond the insights into Benjamin’s craft and thinking offered by this book, there is also a more aesthetic dimension that is opened up here. By seeing Benjamin’s changing handwriting, his marginalia, the pictures he thought were interesting or useful, the dog eared and flaking notebooks, we get a more visual and sensory account of the materiality of his life. Indeed, in probably his most famous essay, Benjamin wrote of the concept of aura and of how mass reproduction depletes the special and unique auratic properties of the original. I’m sure that reading this book is not the same auratic experience as holding the actual residues of his life within the archive, but there is something of the aura preserved in these facsimiles. It is particularly striking that there is a handwritten note about the concept of aura to be found in Figure 2.7 in the book. His, note, tellingly, is on a sheet of paper imprinted with an advert for ‘Acqua S.Pellegrino’ replete with an image of a bottle. Here the idea of the aura of objects is elaborated in a way that exemplifies the point that Benjamin was himself exploring.
This book then is as much an aesthetic experience and visual illumination of Walter Benjamin’s craft as it is a detailed excavation of his ideas. In opening chapter 8, which focuses very specifically on technique and practice in idea formation, the editors include this quote from Benjamin’s piece One-Way Street: ‘Working on good prose has three steps: a musical phase when it is composed, an architectonic one when it is built, and a textile one when it is woven’. Here Benjamin reflects on the processes of realising ideas. From composing, to building, to weaving. This reveals Benjamin’s interest in craft – and even draws upon craft based metaphors to think through the processes he was engaging in, giving them the feeling of being hands-on and material. What we have in this book are a set of insights into this tripartite craft. In these images and translations we see Benjamin composing his thoughts, moving the bricks around into the most stable structure and, finally, we see him connecting the disparate parts together in the warp and weft of the final textile. It was his archival approach to his work and his acceptance of the need to maintain some flexibility of disorder within the careful categorical order of his writings that enabled this craft to emerge and succeed. This book shines a light upon Benjamin the composer, the architect/builder and the weaver. I expect that today his notepads would have kept their tactile importance for him, but I also wonder if he was a blogger waiting for media to catch up with him.
Archive images via
About the Author:
David Beer is Reader in Sociology at the University of York. His publications include Punk Sociology, Popular Culture and New Media: The Politics of Circulation and New Media: The Key Concepts (with Nicholas Gane). He has just finished a book called Metric Power which will hopefully be published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2016. You can find him on Twitter @davidgbeer.