The Tribune - Spectrum


, June 9, 2002

Unmasking hegemonic structures
Shelley Walia

Walter Benjamin: Overpowering Conformism
by Esther Leslie. Pluto, London. Pages.298 £14.99
One-Way Street
by Walter Benjamin. Verso, London. Pages 392 £12

A student of philology at Frieburg University; then at University of Berne where he keenly researched in the area of philosophy, Benjamin submitted his doctoral thesis on German Baroque drama entitled The Origin of German Tragic Drama at the University of Frankfurt in 1925. Benjamin’s plans for obtaining the Habilitation that would enable him to go into academics failed as the thesis with its dual concerns with philosophy and literature did not fall under the rubric of the university. The dissertation with its main aim at condemning 19th century philosophy for its totalising pretensions was to become the single most important document to the Frankfurt School. Benjamin had always stood against the ambitions of philosophy to knit a scientific and ‘false reconciliation between heterogeneous systems of knowledge’. Ideologically, he opposed the First World War, and therefore evaded military service. An anti-establishment activist, attracted more by Communism than Zionism, he spent his university days fighting against materialistic, prudish and self-satisfied obsessions of the bourgeoisie, and for educational reforms.

Adorno had admired his thesis and high regard of his work made Benjamin an admired associate of the Frankfurt School. Ernst Bloch was his friend. And more than anything else, the Marxist influence on him through his love affair with Asja Lacis, a Latvian Communist theatre director who would introduce him to Bertolt Brecht, was far reaching. Instead of Palestine he went to Moscow where he lived for some time with her making her a constant presence in the backdrop of his ‘Moscow Diary’. His One way Street is dedicated to her: ‘This street is named Asja Lacis after her who like an engineer cut it through the author’. This analogy is in keeping with his leftist ideology of fighting to revolutionise the very condition of humanity.


Many like Brecht had already escaped to the US where the Frankfurt School had set up its institute which would return to Germany only after the fall of Nazism. To flee Nazi tyranny Walter Benjamin attempted to get away, like his other friends to New York City. A briefcase containing his valued manuscript that became finally the famous ‘Arcades Project’ in one hand, he crossed the Pyrenees on his way to non-aligned Spain. But he could not make it. The papers being incomplete, he was turned back at the checkpoint. On his way back to France an overdose of morphine ended his life.

Esther Leslie in his concise and well-organized book shows Benjamin’s concern with the explorations of the paradoxical, ambiguous and uncertain open-ended nature of reality—a rejection of the notion of the integrated personality in favor of the emphasis on the destructured, dehumanized subject. As is obvious here, Benjamin had held such views long before the coming of postmodernism. The book is an in-depth study of modernism and its broader perspectives involving the whole of culture and the relationship that exists between it and the economic and political order. But Leslie cannot really do away with the post-structuralist prejudice that has characterised so much of Benjamin’s writings, much that he strives to. In ‘On the Concept of History’, Benjamin remains inherently postmodernist in his privileging of ‘peripheral voices’. Deep down Leslie recognises that Benjamin had brought together the philosophical, the political and the aesthetic which were integral to his exploration of the link between history and modernity, between memory as truth and linearity as false; this had led him to view ‘human subjectivity as a construction of fragments of often discontinous moments’ and the reconstruction of the past as nothing but the inevitable ideologizing of the past. The ‘real’, therefore is never more than the ‘meaning’. His disbelief in the conventional narratives had, therefore, given rise to the aphoristic, intertextual and fragmentary nature of most of his writings. On the other hand, ‘the arcitecture of articulation’ in the words of Roland Barthes, is so vital to the foundationalist who tries to draw ‘truth’ from concrete details, forgetting that all narrative structures are in fact born within the realm of myths, epics, or in other words, fiction.

Benjamin and his colleagues moved away from Marxism, in situating the sources of control in the area of culture and ideology and not exclusively in the economic structure of society. In its attempt to liberate people from false impressions and restrictions of their own making, they endeavored to expose misrepresented forms of consciousness, or ways of thinking that inculcated conformism.

The ideas of Adorno, Marcuse, Walter Benjamin, Franz Neumann, and Otto Kirchheimer (members of the Frankfurt School) are an investigation into the sources of compliance to authority and what makes certain people predisposed to dictatorial half truths. They maintain how the economic misuse of people under capitalism is made possible by Western society’s ‘instinctual and psychic subjugation of the individual’. Benjamin increasingly turned his attention to music, entertainment, shopping arcades, department stores and what Adorno called the culture industry as forms of repression intended to appease and restructure any excessive social tendencies. The school also acted as an impetus behind the radical movements of the sixties when the Marxist belief in the proletarian revolution was replaced by the hope that minority subcultures like the lesgays, blacks, women and students would final usher in social renovation.