Jean-Paul RIOPELLE, L'hommage à Rosa Luxemburg, 1992 (détail)[ * ]

Aesthetics as a Theory of Perception?

Walter Benjamin's attempt to overcome aesthetics * 

Eberhard Ortland[ # ]
Freie Universität Berlin

Æ - Volume 3: Fall/Automne 1998


L'article étudie l'esthétique comme science de la perception dans la tentative de Walter Benjamin de surmonter l'esthétique. L'oeuvre entière de ce dernier ne montre guère de passages qui traitent de l'esthétique d'une manière autre que critique, sauf l'illustre phrase à la fin de l'essai « L'oeuvre d'art à l'ère de sa reproductibilité technique » qui déclare que « le film s'avère l'objet le plus important actuellement de cette science de la perception que les Grecs avaient nommé esthétique ». Cette étude examine la critique Benjaminienne de l'esthétique (I) et cette « science de la perception » qu'il cherche à établir en lieu et place de la doctrine qu'il critique (II).


Much has been said about Walter Benjamin's aesthetics, but rarely has the question been asked whether Benjamin wrote any aesthetics at all. Of course, it is an indisputable fact that Benjamin was preoccupied with art and especially with literature in most of his writings. No doubt his contributions to the theory of literature and of the visual arts play an important role in the philosophy of art which is usually known as aesthetics. And with his book on The Origin of German Tragic Drama he applied -- albeit without success -- for a lectureship in the academic discipline of aesthetics.

However, there are -- as far as I know -- only three or four sentences in all Benjamin's works which explicitly speak of aesthetics as the subject he is positively interested in 1  ,while the vast majority of his remarks on aesthetics are critical or even scornful. This overt rejection, however, need not be a decisive argument concerning the question whether it is right to call Benjamin an aesthetician. For almost no major figures in aesthetics would wholeheartedly subscribe to the discipline and its tradition. The history of aesthetics is the history of the attempts to overcome aesthetics, from Kant's revision of Baumgarten on, with Schiller, Hegel, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger, or Paul de Man, among so many others : an antithetical tradition of revisionists. So it is not surprising to see Benjamin struggling with aesthetics, yet it is still not impossible that undertaking such a struggle is the way aesthetics is carried out. We would have to ask then what this means for our own idea of aesthetics. Before we discuss questions of this calibre we should take a closer look at Benjamin's critique of aesthetics and at the suggestions he makes for a « theory of perception » which he recommends in the end as the only way to establish an aesthetics adequate to the conditions of modernity.

I. Benjamin's critique of aesthetics

If we try to determine the focus of Benjamin's critique of aesthetics we find that it is rather complex. Benjamin raises not only one objection against aesthetics but several, and most of them are very fundamental. This suggests that he never seems to be really satisfied with his efforts to criticise aesthetics -- maybe a symptom of the persistence of the aesthetic.

His critique concerns aesthetic conduct and an aesthetic consciousness which must be seen in the historical context of the « Kunstreligion » cultivated among the educated classes in Germany around the turn of the century. Benjamin goes on to directly oppose the aesthetic, and more specifically works of art, insofar as they are aesthetic objects. He denies aesthetic autonomy and rejects aesthetics as an academic discipline.


Benjamin's critical attitude towards the aesthetic dates back to the days of his youth. As a high-school student at the age of eighteen, he published a short story in the style of a devotional parable about three young friends who vow to search for the one and only true religion. One of them goes to the city and becomes absorbed in the treasures of the artistic, religious and cultural traditions; the second devotes himself to the beauties of nature in the forests and lakes, while the third becomes a diligent manual worker, a smith who never really finds time to think about religion. After thirty years the three men come together again. The point of the story is that the smith on his way to the appointed meeting early one morning experiences a perfect visio dei with celestial light, crystal domes and all the splendour of the heavens. Of course, the others who have chosen the fundamental types of aesthetic conduct, connoisseur ship concerning the arts and appreciation of the beauty of nature, have not succeeded in finding true religion 2  .

Benjamin's story contains a rather conventional reproach: From a religious point of view, aesthetic conduct is vain. To live in a manner pleasing in the eyes of God requires more practical devotion to serious tasks in real life 3  . Benjamin deepens this religious motive in his critique of aesthetics. To him, the worship of beauty is a kind of paganism, it strives for a « daemonic community » between the realm of the mortal and the immortal where human genius and craft are elevated to occupy the sphere of the spiritual itself 4  . He goes on to condemn beauty altogether   « From the religious point of view the essentially beautiful is evil » 5  . The problem with beauty is its indissoluble union with appearance, or sham. Benjamin discusses this most thoroughly in his essay on Goethe's Elective Affinities, written in 1921/22 6  , but it recurs in his discussion of aura in the great essays of the late 1930s 7  .


A second strand of Benjamin's theologically motivated critique of aesthetics refers directly to the Jewish ban against images. Benjamin develops a highly original interpretation of this ban :

« Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image » -- this is not only a warning against idolatry. With incomparable emphasis the prohibition of the representation of the human body obviates any suggestion that the sphere in which the moral essence of man is perceptible can be reproduced 8  .

Benjamin is not simply an iconoclast who smashes images wherever he gets hold of them, though this role undoubtedly had a considerable attraction for him 9  . But he does express scepticism towards the visual arts which relates closely to the Mosaic ban against images. Consequently, in the paragone of the arts, the status of music (and of imaginative literature) is enhanced. Benjamin shares this tendency with leading figures in modern aesthetics, from Schopenhauer and Nietzsche to Adorno, but in his case the preference of music to the visual arts 10  is somewhat astonishing, since his musical skills seem to have been rather poor. In fact, he is much more seriously concerned with the visual arts 11  , especially with problems of the theory of painting 12  and with a very fundamental concept of image, or rather figuration 13  .

Benjamin's critique of aesthetic semblance leads him to a critical theory of the image. This theory deals with questions which have been central to aesthetics where the structure of works in the visual arts was concerned. However, for Benjamin, it is no longer supposed to be an aesthetic theory since the question of what distinguishes a given object as an aesthetic object is of no interest here 14  . It is essentially a theory of the social usage of images, exploring the different ways of dealing with pictorial representations, not only in fine art but also in illustrated children's books, photography, film and advertising. The most decisive step in this theory is to turn from the picture as an isolated object to the intersections and relations between image and onlooker. Hans Robert Jauss has seen a precursor of his own  aesthetics of reception  in this approach 15  . Nevertheless, if we consider the basic anti-aesthetic strain of Benjamin's strategy, it seems more important to see his approach to a general theory of the image in conjunction with semiotics, as it evolves at almost the same time in the writings of Charles W. Morris 16  .

Along the lines of the Mosaic warning against idolatry, Benjamin develops the crucial distinction between « cult value » and « exhibition value » in his essay on « The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction ». This distinction between two fundamentally opposed functions which works of art (not necessarily restricted to pictures) can assume is basically a distinction between two attitudes toward representations in the most general sense. What is to be abolished is  --according to the Mosaic ban -- the cultic function of images, whereas their instrumental function as a means of communication in an emancipated society should pose no problem.

Benjamin comes close to an iconoclastic position insofar as he argues (like Brecht 17  ) that the « the ideology of the aesthetic » 18  , as it evolved in Europe in the 19th century and culminated in the doctrine of l'art pour l'art, is actually the modern type of idolatric cult, and that the notion of the « work of art », to which most of us still adhere, has no meaning whatsoever except to designate the object of this bourgeois ritual. The doctrine of aesthetic autonomy, which for Schiller and his followers is the pledge of freedom for the individual in modern societies, is for Benjamin an ideology that foils would-be critical theorists like Herbert Marcuse in their attempts to develop an effectively emancipatory concept of freedom, an epistemic obstacle as well as a political one, if not the root of fascist terror 19  .


Maybe more interesting than the somewhat crude dismissal of the visual arts is a kind of formal iconoclasm in Benjamin's criticism. He claims that artworks deserve to be « deconstructed » or rather « demolished » 20  and that « criticism means the mortification of the works » 21  . Besides the Mosaic prohibition of images there is another ancient influence active in this concept of criticism, from another notorious iconoclast: the Platonic ta; fainovmena swvzein, the « salvation (or redemption) of phenomena » 22  . The truth-content of appearances can only be redeemed or ' preserved ', says Benjamin (quoting Plato), if they are completely dissolved into their elements -- and the same holds true for artworks 23  . The formal unity of the work of art must be opened up and its elements virtually dispersed in the critical process if they are to communicate anything of interest instead of compelling their onlookers to an admiring attitude in some sinister ritual beyond their own control.

The common argument for Benjamin's repulsion of images and for his reluctance towards beauty is that the sphere of the spiritual, or of the moral essence of man, must not be confused with anything from the natural sphere or from the realm of artefacts 24  . This becomes relevant for his critique of aesthetics since he assumes that aesthetic conduct is in fact guilty of such a confusion. He identifies an extreme example of this in the 19th century doctrine of aesthetic autonomy : l'art pour l'art, the « mystery of the philistine », as he put it in 1912 25  , or simply idolatry, « a theology of art », as he writes in the « work of art » essay in 1935 26  .


In response to this identification of aesthetic conduct with the worship of idols, one might object that the aesthetic stance actually consists in taking a distanced attitude towards the works of art, by looking at them merely as works of art and nothing else, and by insisting on the difference between the order of artworks and the moral or spiritual spheres. Hegel, for instance, claimed that the historico-philosophical reconstruction of the process of realisation of the spirit in the stages of art history which he called 'aesthetics' begins only with the end of the cultic function of images 27  .

The pivot of the argument is Kantian though, namely, the distinction between empirical preferability, be it utility or physical agreeability, absolute moral commandment and purely aesthetic appreciation. -- Would Benjamin's suspicions that aesthetic conduct is a kind of idolatry or neo-pagan worship of beauty be appeased if only he could convince himself that the aesthetes respect the aesthetic difference set up by Kant ? I suspect, they would not. The distinction between the spiritual or moral sphere and the mythical or natural realm of living bodies and mere semblance which Benjamin urges us (and in particular the writers he criticises) to acknowledge is not a somewhat overstated, religiously emphasised recasting of the Kantian distinction, as some of his more attentive readers have assumed 28  . In fact, the attitude of disinterestedness and contemplative distance which Kantian aesthetics recommends as the proper way of dealing with beautiful objects turns out to be the main target of Benjamin's critique. Only with regard to this polemical relationship can the concept of a theory of perception, which Benjamin proposes in his most famous essay, and the assumptions about the specific structure of modern perception, which he fosters in the late 1930s, be understood.

Already in his dissertation on « The Concept of Criticism in the German Romantic Movement » (1919) Benjamin rejects the Kantian notion of the purely aesthetic judgement of taste as « subjectively reflecting behaviour » 29  . The motive for this opposition (which has striking parallels in Heidegger 30  and Gadamer 31  ) lies in a certain appropriation of the Romantic, in a special sense « objectively idealistic », concept of reflection which is understood as the achieved « form of representation of the work » itself. Along with the Romantics, Benjamin insists on the claim that works of art contain some truth of their own and that the only appropriate way of dealing with them would be to enforce that truth 32  . For Benjamin and the Romantics, a work of art is a cognitive medium; there is something to be known, something to be learned from it about historical reality -- hence the task of understanding it as well as the history of its reception 33  . The expression of private feelings of pleasure or disapproval has nothing to do with the essential core attributed to the eminent work of art in the Romantic tradition 34  . Already in his highly esoteric essay ' On Language in General and on the Language of Man ' (1916) 35  Benjamin makes a principal distinction between the « names » of things and the « abstract elements of language » which originate in the judgement on good or bad (that is to say, in the Fall of Man). His aversion to the judgement of taste must be considered in conjunction with this principal rejection of abstractly affirmative or negative judgements in general which, following Kierkegaard, he calls « chattering » (Geschwaetz) 36  . Benjamin's critique of taste 37  and of what is usually called ' aesthetic experience ' is founded in his refusal of subjectivism and in his idea of « the demise of the subject » as the « salvation of mankind » 38  .


Important though it might be to trace the guiding motives of Benjamin's critique of aesthetics back to his philosophical beginnings, we must nevertheless not construct a false harmony across the ruptures in his intellectual development. There can be no doubt that Benjamin assumed a critical stance toward « aesthetics » throughout his career 39  , and most of the time he advocates a special type of theory, or ' philosophy of art ' instead. But neither his critique nor his preferred alternative is consistent. Whereas in his early writings prior to the Trauerspiel-book Benjamin strives to develop a « philosophical doctrine of ideas of art » 40  which was supposed to bring out the ' truth content ' (or « significant content » 41  ) of a single work through contemplative immersion in the very work itself, the « materialist theory of art » which is meant to replace idealistic aesthetics in the theoretical outlines of the 1930s 42  lays emphasis on « the collective determination of the individual work » 43  and is fiercely critical of the contemplative attitude.

Benjamin's ambivalent attitude towards Hegel is of interest here. From early on, he rejects the type of general construction of history which Hegel advocated 44  . Benjamin criticises the unifying narrations of art history, where one genre or style takes the place of another, which are currently offered as ' aesthetics ' throughout the 19th century, claiming that they are completely inadequate to the individual achievement and historical content of any work of art 45  . This objection might appear somewhat surprising for an author so critical towards the purported unity of the perfectly self-sufficient work of art, yet on closer examination it proves to be less an aestheticist defence of the incommensurable greatness of a single work of art than the consequence of a critical interest in historical actuality which guides Benjamin throughout.

In his « work of art »-essay Benjamin triumphantly quotes from the famous paragraph on the « end of art » in Hegel's Aesthetics, but only as a historical document for his own claim about the decline of aura in the 19th century 46  . Nevertheless, one could argue that the historical orientation of Benjamin's own theoretical assertions about the development of the arts and of the modes of perception as well as his preoccupation with the ' content ' of works of art owes much more to the Hegelian model than Benjamin was ever prepared to admit. This intricate relationship certainly needs further investigation.


Benjamin's critique of aesthetics comprises a critique of the theory of beauty, a critique of the philosophy of art and a critique of the theory of aesthetic experience, to name the dominant strands of aesthetic theory up to the present day. -- Before we take a look at Benjamin's attempt to overcome aesthetics by replacing it with a theory of perception, let us summarise the main critical points :

  1. a critique of the vanity of aesthetically impressive appearances,

  2. a critique of aesthetic immediacy as deceptive confusion,

  3. a very fundamental critique of beauty as morally, even metaphysically evil,

  4. a principal dismissal of pictorial representation, resulting in

  5. a critical theory of the image, and

  6. a reservation towards the visual arts,

  7. a constant aversion towards l'art pour l'art,

  8. a strict objection to aesthetic autonomy,

  9. a rejection of the pretended unity of works of art,

  10. a critique of the emptiness of judgements of taste, mounting in

  11. a critique of the subjectivity of aesthetic experience,

  12. a rejection of Hegelian-type accounts of art history in general.

There are more than these twelve objections towards aesthetics in Benjamin's works -- for example his reproach of aestheticism 47   -- but we have to simplify. This multi-layered array of critical objections is of interest not only for an investigation into the intellectual physiognomy of Walter Benjamin. It might be helpful at the same time to deepen our insight into the complex constellation of convictions which aesthetics itself consists in.

II. Aesthetics as a theory of perception

It is important to see the whole range of Benjamin's critique and his analysis of the various elements at stake in aesthetics in order to understand the alternative which he finally strives to establish. His basic strategy is to dismantle the complex of aesthetics. He then tries to transfer the more or less detached elements he obtains into more adequate functions. For Benjamin, the most important of the disciplines which he extracts from the former context of aesthetics is probably literary criticism 48  . This corresponds very closely to a practical discipline which Benjamin calls « politics of art » (which is in no way to be reduced to leftist propaganda art or propaganda for artworks produced by party members). The crucial distinction between this political approach to artefacts and the « aesthetisation of politics » which he attacks as the pattern of fascist politics has not always been observed 49  . Another very important fission product I have already mentioned is the critical theory of the image, or pragmatics of visual communication. Benjamin also develops methodological guidelines for the history of art 50  . Very intricate is the relationship between Benjamin's theory of experience and what is usually discussed under the label of « aesthetic experience » 51  . All of this requires thorough discussion which would go beyond the scope of this paper, but we must keep this context in mind in order to understand the extent to which Benjamin attempts to overcome aesthetics by transforming the discipline into a theory of perception.


In its first and second German versions as well as in the French version published in the exiled Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung in 1936 52  , the essay on The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction concludes with the claim that « in our days film proves to be the most important object of that theory 53  of perception which the Greeks once called aesthetics » 54   -- But what relevance do the ancient Greeks have for Benjamin ? In ancient Greece there was no such thing as an aesthetic epistéme or téchne, although it is certainly true that aisthetikós originally means nothing but « perceptible » or « sensual ». There was no idea of « aesthetic difference » or « aesthetic autonomy » in Greek writers dealing with sensual perception in their tracts peri aisthéseos kai aisthetôn 55  . In order to understand the revisionist stance which Benjamin assumes, we must remember that he declares « our » modern point of view as completely opposed to that of the Greeks 56  . « Greek » in this context is stands for classicist ideas; in a certain sense Goethe is « Greek » for Benjamin 57  . This way of opposing the modern and the ancient is not uncommon in modernist theories since the seventeenth century, but it is important to see that Benjamin, with his claim of a polar opposition of antiquity and modernity, at the same time reaffirms -- or perhaps invents -- against current opinions the basic setting of what aesthetics « originally » was supposed to be about. We know he had strong reasons to reject the discipline of aesthetics in the Hegelian and neo-Kantian tradition, but instead of going on to oppose the aesthetic stance outright for moral, religious, political or epistemological reasons, as Kierkegaard or Heidegger have done, Benjamin now attempts to redefine the field, or to occupy a certain core which remains open after the various strategies of critical dismantling already mentioned.

The fundamental interest of aesthetics, as we learn from the essay on reproduction, lies in the study of « modes of perception » 58  which serve as preconditions of objectivity in our contact with the world. In Kantian epistemology, there are only two « forms of intuition » 59  which originally structure everything that occurs to our senses, namely space and time. All remaining order and regularity which constitutes the world we live in derives from our conceptual faculty, or, in Kantian terms, « intellect ». In a certain sense, one could say that the modes of perception (once elucidated by the type of theory Benjamin proposes as the only adequate way of doing aesthetics) are more concrete « forms of intuition », patterns of attention which organise our faculties of perception. Benjamin also speaks in the same context of the « medium » in which perception occurs. The « dispositions of perception » which he was investigating in the 1920s are yet another version of his continuous and serious attempt to get to grips with these quasi transcendental, historical forms 60  . Such an epistemological recasting of aesthetics would constitute in a very interesting way a return to the original plan of Baumgarten who in mid-eighteenth century wanted to establish an epistemological theory of sensual perception on the basis of pre-Kantian rationalist metaphysics 61  .

Unlike the dogmatic metaphysicist Baumgarten, Benjamin is interested in historical differences. The basic teaching of his theory of perception is that the patterns structuring our attention undergo historical changes. This conviction is based upon the work of researchers like Alois Riegl, Franz Wickhoff 62  , or Konrad Fiedler. In their comparative studies of artworks, which they conceived as documents of how the world looked differently to people of different ages, these art historians have found traces of a historical evolution and abrupt changes in the scope of perceptive capacities. Riegl is the source for the basic distinction which Benjamin applies in order to contrast the particular structure of modern perception to its traditional background, namely the pair of concepts that distinguishes an « optically » dominated perceptive disposition from a more « tactile » one 63  . Benjamin argues that the distinctively modern mode of perception is dominated by tactility rather than visuality. The much discussed « decline of aura », or aesthetic distance, is explained as a symptom of this shift from visual contemplation to tactile sensation. Film is highlighted as the most important object of the historical theory of perception which Benjamin heeds, because according to his analysis it is in film that the tactile mode of perception, characteristic throughout modern experience, becomes effective in visual perception as well 64  . There are certain expectations which Benjamin combines with his interpretation of the changes in the perceptive apparatus that arise with the invention of film. The immediacy of tactile involvement is supposed to foster advantages in tactical capacity on behalf of revolutionary forces whereas the paralysis of traditional intellectual oppositional politics is presented more or less as the result of their clinging to the visual paradigm with its contemplative distance. There might be a certain amount of wishful thinking in this. We cannot discuss now how convincing Benjamin's theory really is in this respect 65  . The question we have to focus on for our present purpose, is what it means for aesthetics to have its basic concepts redefined in such a way, as Benjamin proposes. What consequences would it have for aesthetics as we currently know it, if conjectures and conclusions of the type Benjamin develops in his essay can rightly claim to be called aesthetics ? And how successful has Benjamin really been with his attempt to overcome traditional aesthetics ? These questions are as difficult to answer as they are irrefutable.


The first step towards a responsible treatment of this subject would require us to give a more precise account of the object of the intended theory, to say what Benjamin actually means when he speaks of « perception ». I can only give a very preliminary outline here 66  .

  1. It should be carefully noted that the crucial case for the kind of change to which Benjamin draws our attention concerns such a volatile phenomenon which he calls « aura ». The receptivity for auratic appearances is hardly the same as the ability to see in the most crude sense of the word. But what is it, then 67   ?

  2. A second point is that the categorical apparatus summoned up by Benjamin turns out to be rather poor, with the basic distinction of « closeness » and « distance » and the association of the primary sensual modalities of touch and vision to this spatial distinction. There is much more to our capacities of sensual perception, and it is important to distinguish between what seems to matter for Benjamin's recasting of « aesthetics » and what is of no interest to him. Benjamin is interested in comparative studies of different modes of perception only insofar as they can shed light on actual possibilities. He is in no way concerned with a historical anthropology of ways of perceiving in general nor with an evolutionary perspective of an ever finer development of our sensual capacities 68  .

  3. Benjamin remains reluctant to comment on the question of taste. He certainly has good reasons to refrain from a normative doctrine of taste 69  . It is interesting to inquire, however, whether he would have accepted the research into the empirical distribution of taste-preferences in modern society, of the type Pierre Bourdieu has carried out 70  , as an elucidation of perceptual structures in the sense he had in mind, or whether he would have repudiated such an investigation as missing the central point.

  4. Benjamin's approach is rightly acknowledged as groundbreaking for media theory 71  . His insights into the structure and development of media in the modern age -- from the nineteenth century up to his time, from photography and the press via telephone and film up to radio and even television from the early 1930s -- are still important and often astonishing. Media theory becomes a central issue for Benjaminian « aesthetics », i.e. for his theory of the historically changing structures of perception, because these technical « extensions of man » 72  are the material implementations of the changing dispositions of our perceptual capacities. Any technological innovation can be said to provide artificial organs and thereby more or less radically open up new worlds, which under the more stable conditions of the comparatively slow process of technological innovation in pre-modern Europe was thought to be the privilege of the writers of imaginative literature. Whatever we encounter in these new worlds -- I hesitate to call them « artificial », since so much that is « natural » to us depends on some kind of preparation and achievement as well -- to enter into them is to participate in a dimension of reality that is essentially socialised. We cannot enter into them as simple creatures, but only as members of society, guided, equipped and skilled by others in a world that has somehow been provided by others. Even if we actively take part in the further development of the media, nobody can do so just on her own and for her own sake. Benjamin laid particular emphasis on the fact that mass media adhere not so much to the individual body but to a somewhat metaphorical, yet (in the actual structure of the media) impressively concrete « collective body » of society. This is by no means one of the then current totalitarian phantasies of subsuming individuals to some ideological collective unity. Benjamin treats a special kind of technology -- the « second technology » concerning the « second nature » of man -- as the « organs » of the collective 73  . His theory of the mass which organises itself through the media of mass communication and manifests itself in the audience of the cinema certainly sounds far from convincing today. But apart from faded political hopes it remains an indisputable insight that even the socially atomising practices of solipsistic media-use in our days are (however dubious) a social-historical achievement. By taking part in these practices of communication, we experience the actual state of the second nature of man.

Apart from the epistemological investigation into the technical-historical a priori of the perceptual constitution of possible objects of our empirical knowledge, Benjamin's concept of a redefined « aesthetics » thus contains the potential for an anthropological insight, as aesthetics always has been interesting for what it discloses about the possibilities of man in a given historical situation. While there is no doubt that this kind of theory is a philosophical one, we must leave it to the aestheticians to judge whether it is still aesthetics.


*  Paper presented at the xivth International Congress for Aesthetics, Ljubljana, September 1998

I am indebted to Peter Carrier for advice and corrections.

1.  In a Letter to his friend Ernst Schoen, Benjamin wrote around the beginning of the year 1918 -- when he was doing research for what later became his doctoral thesis on the romantic concept of art criticism -- that he was busy thinking about the « fundamental concepts of aesthetics » (see W. Benjamin, Briefe I, ed. by Gershom Scholem and Theodor W. Adorno, Frankfurt/M.2 1978, p. 173; translations are mine unless otherwise indicated). In a curriculum vitae written for his application for admission as a lecturer in aesthetics at the university of Frankfurt in 1925, Benjamin claims his main scholarly interests lay in aesthetics (Gesammelte Schriften, ed. by Rolf Tiedemann and Hermann Schweppenhaeuser, vol. VI, Frankfurt/M. 1986, p. 215). A fragment entitled « Programm der literarischen Kritik » from 1929/30, which is fiercely critical of all traditional aesthetic categories, ventures the possibility of introducing a « new, moved, dialectical aesthetics » (VI, p. 166). The fourth instance is the sentence that proclaims aesthetics as a « theory of perception » at the end of the first and second versions of the essay on « The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction », on which I am going to concentrate in the second part of this paper (for references see note 54).

2.  Cf. « Die drei Religionssucher » (1910), in: Gesammelte Schriften II.3, Frankfurt/M. 1977, pp. 892-4.

3.  The critique of the aesthetic way of life uttered in Kierkegaard's Either-Or by the court official « B » against the aesthete « A » is basically of this type; cf. Wilfried Greve, « Das erste Stadium der Existenz und seine Kritik. Zur Analyse des Aesthetischen in Kierkegaards ' Entweder/Oder II ' », in : Materialien zur Philosophie Soren Kierkegaards, ed. by M. Theunissen and W. Greve; Frankfurt/M. 1979, pp. 177-215. See also the first chapter of Adorno's Kierkegaard. Konstruktion des Aesthetischen (1933), Frankfurt/M. 1979, especially pp. 24-6; and Hiroshi Fujino, Kierkegaard's « Entweder/Oder »: ein Entweder aesthetisch/Oder existentiell, Wuerzburg 1994, esp. pp. 29-44 and 147 f. -- Benjamin was very impressed when he first read Kierkegaard in 1913 (cf. eg. Briefe 1, 47), and in the 1930's, discussing the « aesthetic passion » of Baudelaire, he returns to Either/Or (cf. Das Passagen-Werk, in : Gesammelte Schriften, vol. V.1, Frankfurt/ M. 1981, p. 422 and 430 among others). For the importance of Kierkegaard for early Benjamin see also the references quoted in note 36 below.

4.  Cf. « Das Heidentum ? » (1916), in : Gesammelte Schriften VI, p. 90.

5.  « Das Luziferische ? » (1919?), in: Gesammelte Schriften VI, p. 196.

6.  In : Gesammelte Schriften, vol. I.1, pp. 123-201; especially pp. 194 sq.

7.  Cf. Gesammelte Schriften, vol. I.2, 638 sq.; VII.1, p. 368; VII.2, p. 667.

8.  Ursprung des deutschen Trauerspiels(1925), in: Gesammelte Schriften, vol. I.1, p. 284; quoted from the translation by John Osborne, The Origin of German Tragic Drama, London 1990, p. 105.

9.  Think, for instance, of his « destructive character », in : Gesammelte Schriften, vol. IV.1, Frankfurt/M. 1972, pp. 396-8.

10.  E.g. Gesammelte Schriften, I.1, 194.

11.  In July, 1914 he subsumes : « Perhaps the experience of the visual arts is the only thing in which I have advanced in these times » (Briefe, 1, 115).

12.  Cf. « Malerei und Graphik » and « Ueber die Malerei oder Zeichen und Mal », Gesammelte Schriften, II.2, 602 sqq., together with his « Aphorisms on fantasy and colour », Gesammelte Schriften, VI, 109, « Zur Malerei », VI, 113, and Briefe, 1, 154 sqq. and 167.

13.  Cf. the notion of « pictorial space » (« Bildraum ») in the Surrealism-essay (Gesammelte Schriften II.1, 309), on which Sigrid Weigel gives elucidating comments in her ' Passagen und Spuren des « Leib- und Bildraums » in Benjamins Schriften ' in: Leib und Bildraum. Lektueren nach Benjamin, ed. by Sigrid Weigel, Koeln/ Weimar 1992, 49-64. Of prime importance for Benjamin's concept of image is his notion of « dialectical image » (eg. Gesammelte Schriften, vol. V.1, 576-82, 592, 595 sq). On this cf. Rainer Rochlitz, « Walter Benjamin. Une dialectique de l'image », in: Critique 431 (april, 1983) and Michael W. Jennings, Dialectical Images. Walter Benjamin's Theory of Criticism, Ithaca 1987; on Benjamin's concept of « Bild » most comprehensively : Bettine Menke, Sprachfiguren. Name -- Allegorie -- Bild nach Benjamin, München 1991, ch. III.

14.  It seems a bit awkward that Norbert Bolz in his astute examination of « Walter Benjamins Aesthetikñ», in: Walter Benjamin. Memoria. 1892-1940, ed. by Uwe Steiner, Bern 1992, pp. 11-32, focuses on the question « what is a work of art ? ». For he shows very clearly that Benjamin in no way was interested in establishing criteria for the classification of any given object as an object of art (as for example Richard Wollheim, in his Art and its Objects, Cambridge 21980), but rather in criticizing the notion of « artwork » uncompromisingly (cf. Bolz, p. 12).

15.  « Spur und Aura. Bemerkungen zu Walter Benjamins ' Passagen-Werk ' », in : H. R. Jauss, Studien zum Epochenwandel der aesthetischen Moderne, Frankfurt/M. 21990, 189-215; see also his seminal Literaturgeschichte als Provokation, Frankfurt/M. 1970, pp. 144, 152.

16.  Foundations of the Theory of Signs, Chicago University Press, 1938; « Esthetics and the Theory of Signs », in: The Journal of Unified Science, 8 (1939).

17.  Cf. eg. « Sollten wir nicht die Aesthetik liquidieren ? » (1927), in: Bertolt Brecht, Ueber Theater, Berlin 1977, pp 68 sqq. See also Benjamin, Gesammelte Schriften, II.2, 530f.

18.  Cf. Terry Eagleton, The Ideology of the Aesthetic, Oxford 1990.

19.  This is at stake in the much discussed final section of « The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction », cf. Gesammelte Schriften, VII.1, 382 sqq.

20.  Cf. Der Begriff der Kunstkritik in der deutschen Romantik, in : Gesammelte Schriften, I.1, p. 87.

21.  The Origin of German Tragic Drama, p. 182; Gesammelte Schriften, vol. I.1, p. 357.

22.  Quoted in The Origin of German Tragic Drama, pp. 33 sqq.; Gesammelte Schriften, vol. I.1, pp. 214 sq.

23.  Cf. The Origin of German Tragic Drama, p. 182; Gesammelte Schriften, vol. I.1, p. 358.

24.  On Benjamin's critique of the beautiful and its relation to the ban against images see the brilliant essay by Winfried Menninghaus, « Das Ausdruckslose : Walter Benjamins Kritik des Schoenen durch das Erhabene », in: Walter Benjamin. Memoria. 1892-1940, ed. by Uwe Steiner, pp. 33-76.

25.  « Dialog ueber die Religiositaet der Gegenwart », in: Gesammelte Schriften, II.1, p. 17.

26.  Gesammelte Schriften, I.2, p. 441. -- It should be noted, however, that in his 1929 essay on Surrealism, Benjamin sees the doctrine of l'art pour l'art as an « obligatory misunderstanding » particularly on the side of its advocates and remarks that hardly ever it had to be taken literally whereas it usually served as a dissimulating label for something that could not yet present itself directly, cf. Gesammelte Schriften, II.1, 301.

27.  Cf. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Vorlesungen ueber die Aesthetik I, in : Werke, ed. by E. Moldenhauer and K.M. Michel, vol. 13, Frankfurt/M. 1986, pp. 141 sq.

28.  Cf. Rainer Naegele, « The Eyes of the Skull. Walter Benjamin's Aesthetics », in: Ronald Roblin (ed.), The Aesthetics of the Critical Theorists. Studies on Benjamin, Adorno, Marcuse, and Habermas, Lewiston, New York : Edwin Mellen, 1990, 206-243; Rodolphe Gasché, « Objective Diversions. On Some Kantian Themes in Benjamin's ' The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction ' », in : Walter Benjamin's Philosophy. Destruction and Experience, ed. by Andrew Benjamin and Peter Osborne, London 1994, 183-204.

29.  Gesammelte Schriften, vol. I.1, p. 88.

30.  See, for instance, Heidegger's Nietzsche, vol. I, Pfullingen 1961, pp. 92sqq.

31.  Cf. Truth and Method, pp. 39-57 and 81-95 of the original German ed., Tuebingen 1960. A comparison of Benjamin and Gadamer has been undertaken by Llewellin Negrin, « Two Critiques of the Autonomy of Aesthetic Consciousness », in : Philosophy and Social Criticism 13 (1987), pp. 343-366.

32.  Kaete Hamburger, Wahrheit und aesthetische Wahrheit, Stuttgart 1979, criticizes (pp. 104-110) the notion of (« aesthetic ») « truth » employed by Benjamin in his essay on Goethe's Elective Affinities, among others (Hegel, Heidegger, Gadamer, Adorno), as meaningless, but her reproach fails to see the point in the distinction that Benjamin makes (cf. GS I.1, 125sqq. and 173) and remains dogmatically attached to a different idea of how the concept of truth should be properly used. For a more thoroughgoing discussion cf. Rudolf Speth, Wahrheit und Aesthetik. Untersuchungen zum Fruehwerk Walter Benjamins, Wuerzburg 1990.

33.  Cf. Michael W. Jennings, « Walter Benjamin and the Theory of Art History », in: Walter Benjamin. Memoria. 1892-1940, ed. by Uwe Steiner, Bern 1992, 77-102; esp. p. 88.

34.  Cf. Gesammelte Schriften, I.1, 318.

35.  Gesammelte Schriften, II.1, 140-157.

36.  Gesammelte Schriften, II.1, 153 sq., cf. Gesammelte Schriften, I.1, 407.

37.  Cf. Gesammelte Schriften, I.1,72; VI, 171; I.3, 1167 sq.

38.  Cf. Th. W. Adorno, « A Portrait of Walter Benjamin », in : Prisms, transl. Samuel and Shierry Weber, London 1967, (p. 286 of the German original, Frankfurt/M. 21976).

39.  This striking continuity has not been noticed, however, even by well-informed readers such as Rainer Rochlitz, cf. Le désenchantement de l'art. La philosophie de Walter Benjamin, Paris 1992, who offers a three-period model with an early Benjamin adhering to the idea of aesthetic autonomy, a materialistic « intermezzo » from One-Way-Street to The Work of Art, and a late stage of restoration from The Narrator (1936) to the final Theses on the Philosophy of History (1940).

40.  Cf. Gesammelte Schriften, I.1, 225.

41.  Cf. e.g. Gesammelte Schriften, III, 367.

42.  Cf. Gesammelte Schriften, I.2, 435; 474; Briefe, vol. 2, pp. 690-700.

43.  M. Jennings,  Walter Benjamin and the Theory of Art History , l.c., p. 79.

44.  Benjamin's knowledge of Hegel's own writings was definitely limited. When he was preparing for his dissertation, in 1918, he wrote to Ernst Schoen : « Hegel seems to be dreadful » (Briefe 1, 166), and to Scholem, a bit earlier the same year : « What I have read of Hegel so far I found thoroughly repulsive» (Briefe 1, 171). At the end of writing the Trauerspiel-book, in 1925, he notes he still has not been able to check Hegel's Aesthetics completely (Briefe 1, 373). But the history of ideas which was dominant in German universities at the time when Benjamin was studying philosophy and letters was deeply influenced by Hegelian patterns so that Benjamin inevitably had to have a good look at the basic arguments of vulgar Hegelianism and historicist ideas.

45.  Cf. eg. the important letter to Florens Christian Rang of december, 9th, 1923 (Briefe 1, 322 sq.), Origin of German Tragic Drama, p. 43 (Gesammelte Schriften, I.1, 224 sq.), and « Literaturgeschichte und Literaturwissenschaft » (history of literature and criticism) (Gesammelte Schriften, III, 283-290).

46.  Cf. Gesammelte Schriften, VII.1, 368 FN 10.

47.  Cf. eg. Briefe 1, p. 67; Gesammelte Schriften I.1, 281.

48.  Cf. Bernd Witte, Walter Benjamin -Der Intellektuelle als Kritiker. Untersuchungen zu seinem Fruehwerk, Stuttgart 1976.

49.  Cf. eg. Birgit Recki, Aura und Autonomie. Zur Subjektivitaet der Kunst bei Walter Benjamin und Theodor W. Adorno, Würzburg 1988, p. 139 sq. -- More irritating than this current type of restorative reinterpretation is the fact that Richard Wolin, who clearly saw in his book on Walter Benjamin: An Aesthetic of Redemption (New York 1982) that Benjamin with the « work of art » -essay attempted « to illuminate the consequences of a process of ' de-aesthetization ' » (p. 187), in a more recent treatment of the Passagen-Werk, « Critical Theory and Aestheticism », in: The Aesthetics of the Critical Theorists, ed. by Ronald Roblin, Lewiston, NY: Mellen, 1990, pp. 188-205, ends up blaming Benjamin for a purported aestheticist stance and desperate theological denial to face reality.

50.  Cf. Wolfgang Kemp, « Fernbilder. Benjamin und die Kunstwissenschaft », in: Walter Benjamin im Kontext, ed. by B. Lindner, Koenigstein 21985, pp. 224-257; and the account of Michael Jennings quoted above (note 33).

51.  Cf. eg. John Dewey, Art as Experience (1934), New York 1958; Mikel Dufrenne, Phénoménologie de l'expérience esthétique (1953), Paris 31980; Ruediger Bubner, Aesthetische Erfahrung, Frankfurt/M. 1989.

52.  Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung 5 (1936), pp. 40-68; now in : Gesammelte Schriften, I.2, 709-739.

53.  The German text has « Lehre » which could possibly be rendered as « doctrine »; the French « science » (which is not exactly « science » in current English acceptance) most accurately renders the association of scientific authority and rationality that Benjamin strives for.

54.  Gesammelte Schriften, I.2, 736; I.2, 466; VII.1, 381. It is not in the third version published at first by Adorno in 1955 (see now the respective paragraph in Gesammelte Schriften, I.2, p. 505), and therefore not in the English translation by Harry Zohn which relies on that edition (cf. Illuminations, New York 1969).

55.  Cf. Aristotle, Parva Naturalia, 436a-449b; see also George Malcolm Stratton, Theophrastus and the Greek Psychology before Aristotle, Cambridge 1917.

56.  Cf. Gesammelte Schriften, I.2, 446; VII.1, 361; I.2, 719 -- This paragraph, too, is omitted in the third version and therefore not in the English translation.

57.  Cf. Gesammelte Schriften, VII.1, 368.

58.  Cf. Gesammelte Schriften, VII.1, 354; I.2, 439 sq.; 478 sq.; 712. See also « Strenge Kunstwissenschaft », Gesammelte Schriften, III, 363 sqq.

59.  Cf. eg. Critique of Pure Reason, B 47.

60.  Gesammelte Schriften, IV.2, 938; see also the fragments on perception, VI, 32 sqq.

61.  Benjamin never mentions Baumgarten, but along these lines scholars like Heinz Paetzold or Brigitte Scheer have rediscovered the ' founding father ' of aesthetics in recent years. Cf. Heinz Paetzold, Aesthetik des deutschen Idealismus, Wiesbaden 1983, and Paetzold's introduction to his edition of Baumgarten's Meditationes philosophicae de nonnullis ad poema pertinentibus, Hamburg 1983; Brigitte Scheer, Einfuehrung in die Aesthetik, Darmstadt 1997.

62.  Gesammelte Schriften, VII.1, 354; I.2, 439 sq.; 478 sq.; 712.

63.  Cf. Kemp, « Fernbilder. Benjamin und die Kunstwissenschaft », (see note 50), p. 256 sq.

64.  Cf. Gesammelte Schriften, I.2, 466.

65.  See Miriam Hansen, « Benjamin, Cinema and Experience. ' The Blue Flower in the Land of Technology ' », in: New German Critique 40 (1987), pp. 179-224; Norbert Bolz, « Die Schrift des Films », in : Diskursanalysen 1: Medien, ed. by F. Kittler, M. Schneider and S. Weber, Opladen 1987, 26-34; by the same author : « Walter Benjamins Aesthetik » (see note 14), and Rainer Rochlitz, Le désenchantement de l'art, (quoted above in note 39).

66.  A more detalied account will be developed in my thesis on Aesthetics as a Theory of Perception.

67.  Michael Hauskeller attempts to answer this question (with only occasional reference to Benjamin) in his book : Atmosphaeren erleben. Philosophische Untersuchungen zur Sinneswahrnehmung, Berlin 1995. The concept of « aura » has for a long time been discussed by Benjamin-scholars; the most illuminating treatment still is that of Marleen Stoessel : Aura -- Das vergessene Menschliche. Zu Sprache und Erfahrung bei Walter Benjamin, München/Wien 1983.

68.  Rudolf zur Lippe has gone in that direction with his book : Sinnenbewußtsein. Grundlegung einer anthropologischen Aesthetik, Reinbek 1987. Wolfgang Welsch once announced that a comprehensive history of sense perception was the aim of the work that he wanted to inaugurate with his study on Aristotle's theory of perception: Aisthesis. Grundzuege und Perspektiven der Aristotelischen Sinnenlehre, Stuttgart 1987.

69.  Cf. Kant's critique of Baumgarten's rationalist doctrine of taste, Critique of Pure Reason, B 35 sq.

70.  Cf. La distinction. Critique sociale du jugement, Paris 1979, and the earlier essays which deal with « habitus » as a mediation between structure and practice and a sociological theory of the perception of artworks (in German translation in: Zur Soziologie der symbolischen Formen, Frankfurt/M. 1970). -- Bourdieu also shares Benjamin's interest in a critical elucidation of the development of aesthetic ideology, see his essay on « The historical genesis of a pure esthetics », Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 46 (1987), 201-210.

71.  Cf. Norbert Bolz, Theorie der neuen Medien, Munich 1990; Heiko Reisch, Das Archiv und die Erfahrung. Walter Benjamins Essays im medientheoretischen Kontext, Wuerzburg 1992.

72.  Cf. Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media. The Extensions of Man (1964), Cambridge, Mass. 1994.

73.  Cf. Gesammelte Schriften, VII.1, 360 FN.

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