“The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility” (reprinted in my Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 2nd Edition) represents my first exposure to the work of Walter Benjamin. Since I first read it over the summer, in preparation for Dr. Rasula’s course on Metropolitan Modernity, I have read many more of his short essays as well as a large chunk of The Arcades Project. It was therefore exciting to revisit this essay in the context of teaching it to a group of students, many of whom may have been experiencing Benjamin for the first time.
It became clear to me as I reread the essay (my fourth reading, I think) just how it has become such a pivotal piece of writing in so many fields. Each reading, after time has passed and outside study undertaken, brings a whole new set of ideas to the fore, possibilities for understanding which had not exposed themselves until the current moment. In this sense, Benjamin achieves stylistically and rhetorically what he sets out to achieve historically, a series of discrete “dialectal images” which constitute “the relation of what-has-been to the now” (Arcades Project 462).
Benjamin begins the essay with an appeal to Marx’s theory of political economy, stating that when Marx set out his ideas regarding base and superstructure, Capitalism was still in its infancy. Benjamin asserts that only now (in 1936, almost seventy years after the publication of the first volume of Capital) can we begin to analyze the effects of the base on the formations of the superstructure. Benjamin acknowledges that Marx was acting as a prognosticator, and that his own work must also “meet certain prognostic requirements” (1052). This is one of those places where I feel like Benjamin is talking to us. In The Arcades Project, Benjamin explains that “history leads the past to bring the present into a critical state” (471). His interest in Paris in the nineteenth century (to which he dedicated a large amount of time and effort in compiling The Arcades Project) sprang from his understanding of a certain confluence between that time and his own, like a window into the past that might bring the present into clearer focus. This same window, I suspect, we sense when we approach much of Benjamin’s work, and especially the “Artwork” essay. He looks back 70 years to Marx; we look back 70 years to him. And so much of what he is exploring in the “Artwork” essay has become, in true prognostic style, central to the modes of our everyday existence.