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Benjamin, Walter

Matthew Jordan


Walter Benjamin was a German philosopher and social theorist who lived from 1892 to 1940. A prescient critic, he wandered at the margins of traditional academic disciplines, but his influence on communications research has continued to grow. Like the Frankfurt School scholars whose circles he moved in, Benjamin's career as a thinker began just as an ascendant mass culture threatened to radically alter traditional forms of media, culture and sociability (→ Critical Theory ). Yet his perspective was, in the words of his friend Theodor Adorno, all his own. His writings foreshadowed later scholarly work on → cinema → aesthetics → medium theory and → consumer culture , among many other areas. Born into a wealthy family of assimilated German Jews, he studied philosophy at the Universities of Freiburg, Munich, Berlin, and Berne, where he completed his doctorate in 1919. Moving away from the then-dominant neo-Kantian philosophy, he delved into Marxism, psychology, Jewish mysticism, linguistics, and popular art. His dissertation attempted to synthesize his various interests and he described wanting to open “a path to the work of art by destroying the doctrine of the territorial character of art” ( Benjamin 1999 ). For the rest of his life, he kept working through disciplinary boundaries to find new insight into → modernity . After his Habilitationsschrift (a postdoctoral dissertation ... log in or subscribe to read full text

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