Benjamin’s “Work of Art” in the Age of Production


This post could also be called: Walter Benjamin in the Age of Me Noodling Around with Small Data.

On Monday I participated in a roundtable discussing Walter Benjamin’s essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility”/“The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Rereading this essay after not having looked at it in five years or so, I was struck by the degree to which Benjamin anticipated (or, better, laid the groundwork for) both the rhetoric and the analytic procedures of contemporary historicist literary criticism and cultural studies: coordinating large social-structural changes with changes in artistic genres and artistic values; attending to popular culture alongside high culture; and, especially, announcing the imperative to “politicize art.” This is not quite as banal as might seem—after all, Benjamin was not an academic, and this famous essay is not a work of literary criticism or of philology. Anyway it made me want to think more about the reception history of this essay.

I had wanted to bring to that roundtable a couple of quick factoids from that reception history using JSTOR’s archive of scholarly journals. I didn’t quite manage the nice handout I envisioned, but as I put together my remarks I gathered a little data, and so this post relates the explorations I made.

Using the JSTOR Data for Research interface, I downloaded metadata for all JSTOR items (articles, book reviews, etc.) that included one of the following strings (case-insensitive):

  • walter benjamin
  • work of art in the age of its technological reproducibility
  • work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction

With the help of scripts I’d developed before, I compared the frequency of items with these strings in them over time. (N.B. None of these search strings is a perfect indicator of the entity it appears to refer to. Benjamin is often called just “Benjamin,” but automatically disambiguating the Benjamin from all the Benjamins of the world is no simple task. And the two essay titles, because they are composed of many tokens, have, I’d assume, a higher probability of being distorted by OCR errors as well as a lower “natural” [Zipf’s law] probability of occurrence.)

Here are the totals:

walter benjamin
all items: 8200; articles: 5006
work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction
all items: 410; articles: 353
work of art in the age of its technological reproducibility
all items: 111; articles: 97

As it turns out, the alternate essay titles are co-mentioned in only a handful of items, so the total number of mentions of either English title is

Either English title of "The Work of Art..."
all items: 517; articles: 447

The sheer number of these mentions (and their steady increase over time, as we’ll see below) gives an indication that Benjamin’s essay is canonical for scholarship, a recurrent point of reference. To appreciate what this means qualitatively, you could notice that in the essay’s latest English version, at the head of a volume of selected writings on media, the first mention of Marx receives an explanatory note (Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility,” in The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility, and Other Writings on Media [Cambridge: Harvard, 2008], 43n. 2). But you could also track the essay’s continuing rise in mentions over time:

“Work of Art” mentions over time

(I have divided each yearly count by the total number of items in JSTOR for that year, which of course also increases with time, to give a sense of the essay’s increasing share of attention.)

It is also continuously important though not dominant in the reception of Benjamin’s œuvre, which we can see by comparing the frequency of items mentioning “Walter Benjamin” to those mentioning his essay:

Mentions of Benjamin and his works

Another way to do this comparison is to look at the ratio of these two frequencies with a smoothing line added:

Ratio of mentions

Though “The Work of Art” is important in Benjamin’s reception, The Arcades Project has caught up over time:

The Arcades Project and “The Work of Art”

Still, there is one “Work of Art” -mentioner for every 10 to 20 “Walter Benjamin”-mentioners in most years from 1970 onwards. That strikes me as a fairly substantial representation in Benjamin-reception for a single short essay known best as part of Illuminations.

For comparison, I chose more or less at random another critical chestnut of “theory” from roughly the same period, “The Intentional Fallacy.” Though items mentioning “intentional fallacy” are about ten times more frequent than items with “work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction,” this term does not show the upward trend of Benjamin’s works in JSTOR:

“intentional fallacy” over time

Thus this preliminary analysis indicates the scope of Benjamin’s influence in the journals archived by JSTOR, and the prominence of “The Work of Art” within it.

So far, so simple, yet there is a non-Benjaminian lesson to draw here, I think. The reception of Benjamin’s work tells a different story about culture in the “age of technical reproducibility” than the essay itself does. Benjamin’s essay posits a transformation in the nature of the artwork resulting from the conditions of technical reproducibility. For Benjamin, this transformation entails at least two things. First, the decay of aura, which, he claims, eliminates “all semblance of art’s autonomy” (28). Second, the opportunity for revolutionary intellectuals to “politicize art,” dialectically reversing fascism’s aestheticization of politics (42). I believe the appeal of these two moves in literary studies since the 1970s has had to do with their overestimation of the power of the individual critical-interpretive act. Benjamin performs a stunning leap from noting a broad (and dubious: as everyone knows, print reproducibility is not a nineteenth-century innovation) technological transformation to a claim about changing cultural values; this same leap allows him to claim political urgency for a discussion of aesthetics. And this gesture of politicizing art has become familiar, even ritualized, in literary and cultural criticism.

What has dropped out of the picture is precisely the long chain of mediating processes between the technologies of cultural reproduction and the many domains of values and judgments (aesthetic, cultural, political…). What kind of mediating processes? Processes like (in the case of texts) publishing and republishing, reviewing, canonization, re-reading, critical appreciation and appropriation. These are not processes of re-production except in a very broad sense. They are, rather, processes of cultural production (of meanings, of further texts, of status, even of…the “semblance of [relative] autonomy”). To follow Benjamin’s emphasis on reproducibility and its relation to the singular artwork is to obscure an equally consequential transformation: the last century’s massive increase in the number and diversity of cultural products. There are more and more photographs, songs, novels…and scholarly articles. (Film production does not increase as dramatically, however.) the world of scholarship does witnesses this increase:

JSTOR literature scholarship items

There are hundreds of scholarly responses to “The Work of Art…,” thousands of scholarly texts that mention Benjamin’s name in JSTOR-digitized print. This is not an account of the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction. It is “The Work of Art” in the age of technically facilitated cultural production on an unprecedented and ever-increasing scale.

Cross-posted on Arcade.