“Shock” is perhaps the
central concept of modernist aesthetics and Walter Benjamin its best known
theorist. It has been well documented
that Benjamin’s long-lasting friendship with Bertolt Brecht and the latter’s
dramatic theory had a profound influence on his thinking about this notion. Brecht's techniques of interruption and juxtaposition in the practice of epic theater were in close relationship with Benjamin’s use of montage as a
mechanism to “liberate” meaning. Despite Theodor Adorno’s and Gershom Scholem’s
attempt to situate Benjamin’s thought in a different aesthetic tradition,
Brecht’s understanding of Verfremdung (estrangement)
and Benjamin’s idea of “shock” are often deemed identical. In this paper I compare both concepts, looking
at their points of coincidence and tension. I also relate their development to one of the most telling friendships in the history of twentieth-century philosophy.
Baudelaire, Benjamin, Brecht,
Erfahrung/Erlebnis (experience), ostranenie (making strange), Verfremdung (estrangement), shock
“Madam, may I help you?” “Please,” she said. “Their name is manderola,” the gentleman replied. The woman had been trying to buy some almonds
but could not guess their name in Italian. Having made her purchase, she walked toward
the piazza. He followed her and asked: “May I accompany you and carry your package? Allow me to introduce myself: Doctor Walter Benjamin.” It was the summer of 1924, in Capri. This first encounter of Benjamin with Asya
Lacis, the Latvian leader of Soviet experimental children’s theater, was the
beginning of more than one friendship. Benjamin fell in love with her. This drove him to the Soviet Union where he became acquainted with the Russian avant-garde. It was also Lacis who introduced Benjamin to
Bertolt Brecht in 1929.
The relationship between
Benjamin and Brecht was one
of those intellectual friendships that inspire the imagination. There was a great deal of poetry and fine
sentiment in the way they treated each other. They were bound by the common fate of having
to escape from Nazi Germany. From his exile
in Skovsbostrand, Denmark, the playwright invited Benjamin to join him. The critic refused, as he refused to go to
Jerusalem, with Gershom Scholem, and to New York, with Theodor W. Adorno and
the other members of the Institute for Social Research. However, he paid long visits to his friend and
kept corresponding with him. Benjamin
described his stays in the green oasis where Brecht lived as “tantamount to
monastic confinement.” There was never extended conversation between
the two men. They played chess in
silence and worked on their own writing for long hours. When they engaged in discussion, they talked
about the classics, Nazism,and their own literary production.
It is difficult discuss the
intellectual projects of Brecht and Benjamin, and the mutual influences between
these thinkers, without taking into account this panorama of friendship and
exile. Yet the relationship between
these men, as thinkers, is much more complex than their friendship. It is clear that the playwright became one of
the most important influences on Benjamin’s thinking about modernist art. Indeed, Benjamin gave an unreserved
endorsement to Brecht’s epic theater. Nevertheless,
he remained distant from Brechtean aesthetic utilitarianism. The points of coincidence and tension between
the two thinkers are revealed as we analyze their use of certain key concepts
in modernist aesthetics. In this essay I will attempt to uncover some
of these tensions (while avoiding to rigidify them or superficially resolve
their ambiguity), by looking at how Benjamin’s idea of “shock” compares with
the Brechtean notion of Verfremdung (estrangement).
2. Exile and friendship
letter to Scholem dated June 29, 1929, Benjamin described Brecht as a
“noteworthy acquaintance ... about whom and about which there is much to be
said.” Some weeks later he wrote:
will be interested to hear that very friendly relations have recently developed
between Brecht and myself, based less on what he has done, of which I only know
the Threepenny Opera and the ballads, than on his present plans, in which one
cannot but be interested.
“present plans” refer to Brecht’s experimentation with Lehrstücke, “teaching plays,”
which he presented in a series of publications called Versuche (Essays). According
to Rainer Nägele, “Benjamin took a passionate interest in these essays, finding
in them an affinity with a side of his work that he could
share neither with Scholem nor Adorno.”
Soon after they met, Brecht
and Benjamin became intensive collaborators. Benjamin recalls holding long conversations
with the playwright about the crisis of cultural critique and the need to
restore its basic function: “to teach
interventionist thinking.” The conviction of both thinkers that criticism
ought to be understood as a continuation of politics led them to plan a
periodical in 1930 that, had it existed, would have been called Krisis und Kritik (Crisis and Critique). Due to
financial difficulties and disagreements between the editors, the project was never
realized. Yet, the surviving notes of
the conversations of the two thinkers in planning the journal reveal
differences in their thinking that would last until Benjamin’s death. For Brecht, the critical function of thinking
was associated with dialectical materialism only. Benjamin, in contrast, spoke of movements in
earlier times “primarily religious, which, like Marx, instigated a radical
destruction of society’s icons.”
Throughout the 1930s,
Benjamin published a series of writings and commentaries on Brecht. The first one of these begins:
is a difficult phenomenon. He refuses to
make “free” use of his great literary gifts. And there is not one of the gibes against his
style of literary activity – plagiarist, trouble-maker, saboteur – that he
would not claim as a compliment to his un-literary, anonymous, and yet
noticeable activity as educator, thinker, organizer, politician, and theatrical
producer. In any case he is
unquestionably the only writer writing in Germany today who asks himself where
he ought to apply his talent, who applies it only where he is convinced of the
need to do so, and who abstains on every other occasion.
Benjamin’s reflections on
Brecht were always written in this tone of adulation and empathy. He admired Brecht’s determination, clarity of
mind, and firm commitment to revolt against bourgeois conformism. Brecht, however, never stopped being a
“difficult phenomenon” since, on the one hand, Benjamin did not think in
Brechtean instrumentalist terms, and on the other, Brecht often harshly
criticized Benjamin’s messianic ideas. Moreover,
the intellectual sympathy between the playwright and the critic aroused much
anxiety among Benjamin’s other friends. Adorno, Scholem, and Gretel Karplus (Adorno’s
fiancée and later wife) all feared Brecht’s influence on the critic. Adorno called Brecht a “vulgar Marxist” and
Scholem described Benjamin’s approach to Marxism as a form of self-deception.
Benjamin responded to these recriminations,
first, by emphasizing his affinities with Brecht and, second, by describing his
own use of Marxism not as an ideology of fixed ideas but as “a way of taking
position in relation to the changing situation.” He avoided being seen as a dogmatic
representative of dialectical materialism. Rather, he projected himself as “a researcher
to whom the posture (Haltung) of the
materialist seems to be more fruitful, scientifically and humanly,” than any
other episteme. Defending this posture was, however, rather
difficult for Benjamin. In 1938, he
described himself as “a man at home between the jaws of a crocodile, which he
holds apart with iron struts.”
One of the clearest examples
of the tensions and ambiguities that characterized the relationship between the
critic and the dramatist is a letter that Benjamin wrote to Karplus in response
to her own concerns regarding his closeness to Brecht. The letter reads:
the economy of my existence, a few relations, that can be counted, play indeed
a role that allow (sic) me to assert a
pole that is opposite my original being...these relations have always provoked
a more or less violent protest in those closest to me.... I can do little more than ask my friends to
trust me ...those ties, whose dangers are obvious, will reveal their
fruitfulness .... It is not at all
unclear to you that my life as well as my thought moves (sic) in extreme positions.
Soon after Brecht moved to
Skovsbostrand in 1933, he invited Benjamin to join him there. Benjamin presumably declined the invitation
due to his fear of the aggressive winter, the isolation that living in a
Danish-speaking context would entail, and the idea of becoming financially
dependent on his friend. Yet he moved a great
part of his library (which he had initially left in Berlin) to Brecht’s house
and visited the playwright in 1934, 1936, and 1938. During these encounters the two men listened
to the news from Vienna on the radio, commented on their writings, and talked
about Virgil, Dante, and Goethe. Some of
Benjamin’s notes allow us to reconstruct the atmosphere of these exchanges. It was often Brecht who spoke and Benjamin who
listened. Brecht defended his positions
with determination; Benjamin tried to leave open the possibility for a more
careful consideration of the arguments at stake. “The destructive aspect of Brecht’s character,”
wrote Benjamin, “puts everything in danger almost before it has been achieved.”
general, the playwright and the critic lived differently. One was the man of the stage in search for
concrete truths; the
other was a “distracted individual” who “had placed a secretive wall around his
person.” Rather than setting them apart, however, these
differences aroused a certain fascination for the other. As Eugene Lunn indicates, Benjamin found
in Brecht a “most useful antidote to his own esoteric hermeticism.” Jürgen Habermas suggests that, for Benjamin,
Brecht was a “kind of reality principle.”Yet,
in spite the great influence that Brecht wielded over Benjamin,
both men maintained their intellectual independence.
3. Visions of shock
Brecht is often considered
the most radical theorist and practitioner of twentieth-century theater. “He was a rebel.” He rebelled against a “theater of illusion” or
what he called “Aristotelian drama,” a theater that conjures up before the
audience an illusion of real events, drawing each member of the public into the
action “by causing him to identify himself with the hero to the point of
complete self-oblivion.” When one looks at this public, wrote Brecht,
“one discovers more or less motionless bodies – they seem to be contracting
their muscles in a strong physical effort, or else to have relaxed them after
violent strain ...; they have their eyes open but they do not look.” A theater of illusion serves to purge the
emotions of the audience, but leaves it “uninstructed and unimproved.” It converts the art of theater into an
article of consumption and destroys its potential of becoming a laboratory of
social change. “The audience should not
be made to feel emotions; they should be made to think. But identification with the characters of the
play makes thinking almost impossible.”
An insistence that the
audience develop an entirely different, nonconformist attitude is at the core
of Brechtean theory. The dramatist’s understanding
of art was overtly political. He saw
“apolitical” art as merely the label of the artistic expressions that favored
the interests of the ruling classes. Drawing
heavily from Cubism and the Russian avant-garde,
he sought to use art as a demythologizing tool that could negate the
commonplace and taken-for-granted and reveal social as well as ideological
contradictions. His purpose, however,
was not “to produce the joys of satirical exposure” but to “develop a modus operandi for radical social change.”
“The modern theater is the
epic theater,” wrote Brecht in 1930, placing his dramatic theory at the core of
modernist aesthetics. The term ‘epic’ remained attached to Brecht, despite his
own later attempts to refer to his work as "dialectical” or “scientific.” The label is not misleading; it embraces the
efforts of Brechtean drama to expose the underling historicity of a specific
social situation and inculcate in the audience a detached, distancing attitude
toward the events portrayed. But the
promises of epic theater go beyond a depiction of the world as it really is. The audience is to be profoundly transformed
through the experience of such performances. Indeed, epic theater must plant the seeds of
social transformation. In the mid-1930s,
Brecht described this dramatic practice as follows:
stage began to be instructive....Oil, inflation, war, social struggles, the family,
religion, wheat, the meat market, all became subjects for theatrical
representation....As the "background” came to the front of the stage so
people’s activity was subject to criticism ....[t]he theater became an affair
for philosophers, but only for such philosophers as wished (sic) not just to explain
the world but also to change it.
quotation suggests, Brecht attempted to dispel the naturalist illusion of art
as reflection. While naturalistic
theater represses awareness to make the illusion of its authenticity more
vivid, epic theater aims at creating awareness by exposing its own artifice. The consciousness of being performed on stage
allows epic theater to experiment with the different possibilities of reality
and, ultimately, portray both individuals and social reality as capable of
being “reassembled.” Yet, these processes
cannot occur away from the audience. “The
epic play,” wrote Brecht, “is a construction that must be viewed rationally and
in which things must be recognized; therefore, the way it is presented must go
half-way to meet such viewing.” Hence, the narrative content ought to be
presented in a dialectical, non-illusionist, and non-linear manner. This was achieved through the use of the Verfremdungseffekte.
In Brecht’s plays actors spoke as if they were
reciting someone else’s words; they went in and out of character on stage;
scenes formed a discontinuous montage, and were, at times, frozen into a tableau vivant. These mechanisms were directed at stripping
events of their self-evident, familiar qualities, making them strange, and allowed the audience to
observe their underlying causes. The
process involved a moment of shock or astonishment, through which the audience
realized its own previous state of unawareness.
According to Ernst Bloch,
Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekte is
directed against the state of alienation that results from the reification of
social relations in advanced capitalist societies. As individuals become alien to the environment
and to other beings, as their lives and work are reduced to the state of a
commodity, they loose their capacity to hear and see. Therefore, in order for social change to
occur, said Bloch, these people had to be awakened. The experience of regaining perception is
shocking, “but its effect within a purposeful context will not be uninviting.”
evokes surprise ... and lets the beholder contemplate experience separated, as
in a frame, or heightened, as on a pedestal .... This leads increasingly away from the usual
and makes the beholder pause and take notice .... Thus a faint aura of estrangement already
inheres in the kind of spoken inflection that will suddenly make the hearer
In Bloch’s view,
the destruction of stage illusion is not an end in itself. By inhibiting the process of identification
between the spectator and the character, familiar objects and situations appear
in a new light and therefore create a new understanding of human relations. A “distancing mirror” allows the public to
perceive the contradictions within “the familiar.”
The production of shock in
Brecht ultimately results from the abolition of the division between
performance and audience. This process
fascinated Benjamin. In the first
version of “What is Epic Theater” (1930-31) he described it as follows:
point at issue in the theater today can be more accurately defined in relation
to the stage than to the play. It
concerns the filling-in of the orchestra pit. The abyss which separates the actors from the
audience like the dead from the living, the abyss whose silence heightens the
sublime in drama, whose resonance heightens the intoxication of opera, this
abyss which, of all the elements of the stage, most indelibly bears the traces
of its sacral origins, has lost its function. The stage is still elevated, but it no longer
rises from an immeasurable depth; it has become a public platform.
Through this spatial
description of epic theater, we can identify strong similarities between the
intellectual projects of Benjamin and Brecht and make the transition toward the
analysis of Benjamin’s understanding of “shock.” Benjamin’s notion of the
politicization of art is based upon the idea of the withering of the “aura,”
that sacred halo that placed a distance
between the work of art and the spectator, regardless of how close they were. In his 1936 essay, “The Work of Art in the Era
of Mechanical Reproduction,” Benjamin analyzed the effects, both political and
perceptual, of the use of new cultural technologies for the production and
reproduction of art.
The mechanical reproduction
of a work of art by new aesthetic practices, such as cinema and photography,
dispels the “auratic traces” left upon art from its successive functions as
part of religious worship and the Renaissance cult of beauty. The social bases of the demise of auratic art
are, on the one hand, “the desire of contemporary masses to bring things
‘closer’ spatially and humanly,” and on the other, “their bent toward
overcoming the uniqueness of every reality by accepting its reproduction.”
Benjamin, the reproducibility of photos, prints, and films in the era of high
capitalism destabilizes the sense of uniqueness, authenticity, and unapproachability
of art. In this process, art leaves the
realm of the religious to enter the world of politics:
instant the criterion of authenticity ceases to be applicable to artistic
production the total function of art is reversed. Instead of being based on
ritual, it begins to be based on another practice – politics.
privileged example of these new technologically mediated cultural forms is
film. Benjamin describes it as “the art
form that is in keeping with the increased threat to his life which modern man
has to face.” Not
only does it prepare the modern man for the shocks of urban life through the
constant bombardment of moving images, but it also allows a “deepening in
apperception” by breaking down and enlarging time, space, and movement.
Benjamin also showed great enthusiasm for the transformative political
potential of epic theater to the point of comparing it to film.
“The forms of epic theater,” he wrote,
“correspond to the new technical forms – cinema and radio.” With its emphasis on montage, interruption and,
most of all, in closing the distance between the audience and the characters,
epic theater was for him at the core of the artistic revolution of the
songs, the onstage captions, the gestic conventions of the actors set each
situation off against the others. This
constantly creates intervals which undermine the audience’s illusion; these
intervals are reserved for the audience’s critical judgments.
Aside from his intellectual
interest in the critical potential of modernist techniques of interruption,
Benjamin incorporated them in his own writing. Quotations appear in his texts as a means of
disrupting their continuity and linearity. He introduced analogies in rapid succession (e.g., “allegories are in the realm of
thoughts, what ruins are in the realm of things;”
“magician and surgeon compare to painter and cameraman”),
and often strikes the reader by juxtaposing ideas and presenting extremely
short arguments. His aphoristic writing
structures the text as a montage of citations without overt correspondence
among them. This allows the creation of
multiple associations between written fragments and leaves the text open for
innovative, “liberating” interpretations. In this sense, Benjamin’s writings embody his
view of history as an object of construction. Furthermore, as Richard Shiff suggests,
“Benjamin’s writing figures modernity in a language of analogy that acts upon
the reader in lieu of explaining.”
“The Paris of the Second
Empire in Baudelaire” is the finest example of Benjamin’s use of montage. The essay, completed in 1938, is structured as
a collage of discrete images of social experience that have been ripped out of
their “natural” context. They provide
elements from nineteenth century Paris and more recent history, allowing
Benjamin to construct a web of constellations that resembles Baudelaire’s own
writings. Reading the essay for the
first time produces a sense of dislocation and distress. The effect is deliberate. In a letter to Horkheimer written in 1938,
Benjamin said: “The better the work is
composed, the more it will be able to break free from a superficial
However, Benjamin’s interest
in fragments of experience and archaic objects is not that of the antiquarian. “He was convinced,” writes Michael W.
Jennings, “that the reconstruction of the nineteenth century in a manner that
could expose its underlying structure might have an explosive effect on the
contemporary understanding of the historical situation.” He believed that “his reliance upon the
constellation as a principle of essay construction might lead toward that
Thus, according to the critic, narrative
continuity doomed traditional history writing to a tacit complicity with the
ideology of the ruling class.
4. Shock and experience
Benjamin’s use of montage as
a mechanism to “liberate” meaning was influenced by Brechtean techniques of
interruption and juxtaposition. In both instances shock appears as the primary
experience of dislocation in modern life and as an aesthetic practice to free
art from the enslaving and exploitative dynamics of commodity capitalism. For Benjamin, as for Brecht, shock shatters
perception, exposing the discontinuity of history. Does it also lead to the attainment of
class-consciousness and, ultimately, to revolution (as Brecht would claim)? In other words, do Benjamin and Brecht share
the same understanding of the political effects of aesthetic shock? These questions have multiple implications. They compel us to reflect upon how Benjamin
described the aesthetic techniques of epic theatre and compared them to his own
work. They also demand that we
differentiate the Brechtean use of Verfremdung
from the concept of ostranenie
(“making strange”) in the work of the Russian avant-garde. Furthermore,
they entail a more extensive analysis of the role shock plays in Benjamin’s
In his writings on Brecht,
Benjamin acclaimed the use of shock in epic theater as a means of revolting
against all subjectivist artistic expressions and lay bare the illusory
character of linear accounts of history. “It can happen this way, but it can also
happen quite a different way – that is the fundamental attitude of one who
writes for epic theater.” Indeed, Brecht’s use of shock as a mechanism
to “make the familiar estrange” coincides with Benjamin’s project of “exploding
things” from their ordinary and habitual existence as commodified “enslaved and
Moreover, as Lunn explains, a central
feature of Benjamin’s method of “profane illumination” was “defamiliarizing
estrangement through viewing objects up close but from many angles.”
The literary critic,
however, does not share with the playwright the same understanding of the
social consequences of shock. One way to
explain this difference is to compare their relationship to the work of the
Russian writer and playwright Sergei Tretyakov. Both thinkers were profoundly influenced by
Tretyakov’s experiments with theatricality.
Benjamin, however, remained closer to Tretyakov than Brecht in his
understanding of the effects of shock on the recipient of the work of art. As Andreas Huyssen explains:
as Tretyakov, in his futurist poetic strategy, relied on shock to alter the
psyche of the recipient of art, Benjamin, too, saw shock as a key to changing
the mode of reception of art and to disrupting the dismal and catastrophic
continuity of everyday life. In this respect ... both differ from Brecht.
Indeed, Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekt and Tretyakov’s ostranenie are not identical. The latter is essentially a formalist device
of making things strange through the use of juxtaposition. The former involves “laying bare society’s
causal network.” Thus, while ostranenie is mainly focused toward disrupting the frozen patterns
of sensory perception, Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekt
is instrumentally bound to a rational explanation of the social processes to be
revealed. Peter Brooker described this difference by
saying that “Brecht’s conception and use of Verfremdung...entailed
a degree of political insight which thoroughly radicalized the formalist device
of ‘making strange’.”
Benjamin never mentioned
this discrepancy when he discussed Brecht’s work. Just as in their private conversations and
letters, his texts about him were flattering and accepting. Most of his intellectual production, however,
remained alien to the playwright’s militant logic. While Brecht was an overt Marxist and his
dramatic theory was intimately tied to a socialist transformation, Benjamin’s
commitment to dialectical materialism was much more irresolute. In fact, it was not the hope for a proletarian
revolution but a rejection of bourgeois society and, of course, fascism, that
attracted him to Marxist thought. And
although he was thorough in his study of Marx and his use of dialectic materialism
as a “posture,” he never, in Lunn’s words, “played at being a proletarian or
oriented his work directly toward the working class.” Moreover, he did not abandon his Jewish
intellectual heritage, tied to a utopian longing for the coming of a Messiah
“who would redeem the past while inaugurating a secular kingdom of happiness.” In short, he showed great ambivalence toward
the passing of tradition.
The differences between
Brecht and Benjamin with regard to the politicization of art are difficult to
discern in texts like “The Author as Producer” and “The Work of Art in the Era
of Mechanical Reproduction.” However,
when we read Benjamin’s essays on Baudelaire (“The Paris of the Second Empire
in Baudelaire” and “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire”), Benjamin’s nostalgia toward
the decay of aura is made evident and the very concept of shock acquires a new
inflection. Although in this second body
of writings, ambivalence remains a persistent feature.
“On Some Motifs in
Baudelaire” is often presented as the major critical statement of Benjamin’s
maturity. The text begins with a
distinction of Erfahrung (ongoing
experience or experience in the sense of learning from life over an extended
period) from Erlebnis (mere
experience or a single noteworthy experience). Benjamin made a critique of the irrationalist
“Erlebnis cult” of “vitalism” by
suggesting that “experience is a matter of tradition, in collective existence
as well as private life.” Nevertheless, Erfahrung “is less the product of facts
firmly anchored in memory than of a convergence in memory of accumulated and
frequently unconscious data (mémoire
For Benjamin, “Baudelaire
has placed the shock experience at the center of his artistic work.” The poet speaks of men “absorbing” collisions
and shocks as they move through the traffic of the big city and clash with the
amorphous crowd of passers-by. “At
dangerous intersections, nervous impulses flow through [them] in rapid
succession,” pedestrians have to stare in all directions “in order to keep
abreast of traffic signals.” The shock the passer-by experiences in the
crowd corresponds to the worker’s alienating experience with the machine (as Erlebnis). It reduces the passer-by to the state of an
automaton. He becomes alien to Erfahrung. Further, wrote Benjamin, “pedestrians act as if they had adapted
themselves to the machines and could express themselves only automatically. Their behavior is a reaction to shocks.” The worker and the pedestrian seem to have
completely liquidated their memories.
Benjamin proceeded to
describe how, in Fleurs du mal, the
withering of the aura is felt each time that Baudelaire refers to the act of
looking. “Looking at someone carries the implicit
expectation that our look will be returned” and, when this expectation is met,
“there is an experience of the aura to the fullest extent.” In Baudelaire, however, this expectation is
never fulfilled, for he describes eyes that are incapable of looking. Thus, “On Some Motifs” ends when the poet has been thrown into the crowd and tries to
escape from it “with the impotent rage of someone fighting the rain or the wind.”
This frantic image indicated for Benjamin “the price for which the sensation of
the modern may be had: the
disintegration of the aura in the experience of shock.”
As we read this essay, the
perception of Benjamin as the one who celebrates the decay of the aura is
shattered. The analogy between the
alienated worker and the passer-by questions the liberating capacity of the
shock experience. The constant
bombardment of perception in the era of mass communication does not appear to be
creating revolutionary subjects but beings that are incapable of looking. Erlebnis
increasingly replaces Erfahrung. Benjamin writes a lamentation on the decay of
auratic aesthetics and portrays the modern city as terrifying. In response to this text, which Adorno received
with great enthusiasm, he commented that the new usage of the notion of “aura”
meant the alienation of humanly constructed objects from their creators. Further, it described a process of reification
that occurs as objects lose their “human trace.”
As has been widely discussed
and memorialized, Benjamin committed suicide in the Spanish border town of Port
Bou on September 27, 1940, while trying to flee from Nazi persecution. He had not been allowed to cross the border
and feared that he would be handed over to the Gestapo the following day.
When Brecht received the sad news, he
wrote of his friend:
the end driven to an impassable frontier
we hear, passed over a passable one.
With the passing of this
border, the relationship between Benjamin and Brecht became less and less
distinct for scholars, and the critic began to be related more strongly to the
Frankfurt School than to the playwright. This was partly a result of the course that
followed the posthumous publication of Benjamin’s writings. His last completed work that we know of is the
“Theses on the Philosophy of History,” written only some months before his
death. According to Rolf Wiggershaus,
Adorno considered that “none of Benjamin’s works showed him closer to [the
Institute’s] intentions.” It was
originally planned to publish a mimeographed booklet containing the “Theses” with
contributions by Horkheimer, Adorno, and Brecht. The memorial volume arrived in 1942 but, as
Wiggershaus points out, “it was ... decided to do without Brecht after all.”
In contrast, Understanding Brecht, a compilation of Benjamin’s writings on
Brecht, was only published in 1966 and translated into English a decade after.
Benjamin and Brecht shared
the intellectual project of disrupting frozen patterns of perception in order
to forge a new, more critical attitude toward social reality. Both thinkers saw shock as a means of shattering
the conformist, blinded man who lives in a state of alienation, and make him so
uncomfortably “strange” that his curiosity may be aroused. Furthermore, Benjamin celebrated the
playwright’s use of Verfremdungseffekt,
as a mechanism that liberates events from the “enslaving” narrative of
historical inevitability, and introduced techniques of montage and interruption
to his own writing. Brecht was therefore
crucial for the development of Benjamin’s aesthetic theory of shock, despite
the fact that this influence has not received sufficient attention. Nevertheless, Benjamin’s treatment of shock
goes well beyond Brecht’s optimism. While
Brecht embraced shock with absolute conviction, for Benjamin it entails great
dangers: the likely emergence of a mass
of “traumatized automatons;” the
vanishing of private space; the coming of an era where experience, devoid of
tradition, is incapable of finding meaning.
We should not be surprised
by the contradictory treatment of “shock” in Benjamin’s writings, nor should we
attempt to create a homogeneous whole out of his fragmented imagination. He acknowledged his tendency to oscillate
between extreme and apparently irreconcilable positions and, rather than
feeling concerned about it, he saw this wavering as a means of expanding his
own freedom. Indeed, Benjamin’s
ambivalence toward the modernist use of shock gives his thinking about this
concept a richness and complexity that is rarely acknowledged.
Mara Polgovsky Ezcurra
Mara Polgovsky holds a
Master’s degree in History from EHESS, Paris, and is a Ph.D. candidate in Latin
American Cultural Studies at the University of Cambridge. Her research interests include intellectual
history, aesthetics, and critical theory. She has been a visiting student at École
Normale Supérieure and Harvard University.
Published on December 17, 2012.
I would like to thank the anonymous
reviewer of Contemporary Aesthetics
for his/her thoughtful comments and suggestions. I would also like to thank Professor Peter E.
Gordon from Harvard University for his support in developing this research.
 This is how Asya Lacis recalls her
encounter with Benjamin in Revolutionär
im Beruf. Berichte über proletarisches
Theater, über Meyerhold, Brecht, Benjamin und Piscator, ed. Hildegard
Brenner (Munich: Rogner and Bernhard, 1971),
 Momme Brodersen, Walter Benjamin. A Biography (London: Verso, 1996), p. 217.
 I follow the distinction between Entfremdung (alienation) and Verfremdung (estrangement) proposed by Ernst Bloch
and translated by Anne Halley and Darko Suvin, in
“‘Entfremdung, Verfremdung’: Alienation,
Estrangement,” TDR, 15 (1970), 120-125.
 Gershom Scholem, Walter Benjamin. Die Gerschichte einer Freundschaft (Frankfurt,
1975), 20f, 34. Quoted in Bernd Witte, Walter Benjamin. An Intellectual Biography (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1991), p.122.
 “Body Politics: Benjamin’s Dialectical Materialism between
Brecht and the Frankfurt School,” in The
Cambridge Companion to Walter Benjamin, ed. David S. Ferris (Cambridge: University Press, 2004), p. 164.
 Bertolt Brecht, Gesammelte Werke in 20 Bänden (Frankfurt, 1967), vol. 18, 85f.
Quoted in Witte, Walter Benjamin, p.
 Brecht, Gesammelte Werke, p. 85f, quoted in
Witte, Walter Benjamin, p. 125.
 “From the “Brecht Commentary” in Understanding Brecht (London: Verso, 1983), p. 27.
 Nägele, “Body Politics,” p. 162.
 Susan Buck-Morss, The Origin of Negative Dialectics: Theodor W. Adorno, Walter Benjamin and the
Frankfurt Institute (New York: Macmillan, 1997), p. 155.
 Nägele, “Body Politics,” pp. 166-7.
 Brecht’s Arbeitsjournal only gives sparse accounts of their discussions.
 Benjamin, Understanding Brecht, p. 119.
 While visiting Brecht in 1934,
Benjamin wrote in his diary: “On a beam
which supports the ceiling of Brecht’s study are painted the words: ‘Truth is concrete.’ On a window-sill stands a small wooden donkey
which can nod its head. Brecht has hung
a little sign round its neck on which he has written: ‘Even I must understand it’” (Understanding Brecht, p. 108).
 Eugene Lunn, Marxism and Modernism. An Historical Study of Lukács, Brecht, Benjamin,
and Adorno (Berkeley: University of
California Press, 1982), p. 183.
 Lunn, Marxism and Modernism, pp. 250-1.
 Jürgen Habermas et al., “Consciousness-Raising
or Redemptive Criticism: The
Contemporaneity of Walter Benjamin,” New
German Critique, 17 (1979), 31.
 A vivid example of this influence are
the following words that Benjamin wrote in his diary after talking to Brecht: “While he was speaking...I felt a power being
exercised over me which was equal in strength to the power of fascism – I mean
a power that sprang from the depth of history no less deep than the power of
the fascists. It was a very curious
feeling and new to me” (Benjamin, Understanding Brecht, p. 120). Although it is less clear how Benjamin
influenced Brecht’s thinking, we know that, despite their intellectual
differences, he had great respect for his work. After receiving the terrible news of
Benjamin’s death, he remarked that this was the first real loss that Hitler had
caused to German literature (Stanley Mitchell, “Introduction,” in Benjamin, Understanding
 Brecht was highly critical of
Benjamin’s writings on Kafka and Baudelaire. While staying with Brecht in 1934, Benjamin
wrote an essay on the tenth anniversary of Kafka’s death. He asked Brecht to read it and waited with
certain anxiety for his comments. But
weeks passed by and Brecht did not say a word in relation to it. Incapable of asking Brecht directly about his
reaction, Benjamin took the manuscript away as a form of protest. One night Brecht suddenly started talking
about the essay. He told Benjamin that
he had treated Kafka purely from the phenomenal point of view, detaching him
from his social context. “The images are
good,” said Brecht, “but the rest is pure mystification. It’s nonsense. You have to ignore it. Depth doesn’t get you anywhere at all.” (Benjamin,
Understanding Brecht, pp. 109-10).
 Martin Esslin, Brecht. The Man and His Work (New York: Doubleday and Company, 1960), p. 130.
 “Kleines Organon fuer das Theater,” in
Versuche (1948), 119. Quoted in
 Peter Brooker, “Key Words in Brecht’s
Theory and Practice of Theater,” in The
Cambridge Companion to Brecht, eds. Peter Thomson and Glendyr Sacks
(Cambridge: University Press, 2006), p. 212.
on Theater. The Development of an Aesthetic, ed. John Willett (New York: Hill and Wang, 1964), p. 71.
 Quoted by Benjamin in Understanding Brecht, p. 11.
et al., “Entfremdung, Verfremdung,” p. 123.
 Benjamin, Understanding Brecht, p. 1.
 Walter Benjamin, “The Work of
Art in the Era of Mechanical Reproduction,” in Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt (London: Pimlico, 1999), p. 217.
p. 243, note 19.
 Primarily in the texts specifically
devoted to Brecht.
 Benjamin, Understanding Brecht, p. 6.
 Walter Benjamin. Selected Writings,
1935-38, eds. Marcus Bullock and Michael W. Jennings (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2004), pp. 330-331.
 The Origin of German Tragic Drama (London: Verso, 2009), p. 178.
 Benjamin, “The Work of Art,” p. 227.
 For a discussion of how the shocking converges
with the beautiful in Benjamin, see Richard
Shiff, “Handling Shocks: On the
Representation of Experience in Walter Benjamin’s Analogies,” Oxford Art Journal, 15 (1992), 88-103.
 See Michael W. Jennings, Dialectical Images. Walter Benjamin’s Theory
of Literary Criticism (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1987), p. 24.
 He considered montage as the “major
constitutive principle of the artistic imagination in the age of technology” (Mitchell, “Introduction”),
 Benjamin, Understanding Brecht, p. 8.
 “Surrealism. The
Last Snapshot of the European Intelligentsia,” in Walter Benjamin. Selected Writings,
1927-34, p. 210.
 Lunn, Marxism and Modernism, p. 222.
Hidden Dialectic: Avantgarde-Technology-Mass
Culture,” in his book, After the Great
Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture,
Postmodernism (Indiana: University Press, 1986), p. 14.
 Brooker, “Key Words in Brecht’s Theory,”
 Huyssen, “The Hidden Dialectic,” p. 14.
 Brooker, “Key Words in Brecht’s Theory,”
 Lunn, Marxism and Modernism, p. 22.
 I am using the translation of Beatrice
Hanssen (“Language and Mimesis in Walter Benjamin’s Work” in The Cambridge Companion to Walter Benjamin,
pp. 70, note 2).
 Walter Benjamin, The Writer of Modern Life. Essays on Charles Baudelaire, ed. Michael W. Jennings (Cambridge Mass: Harvard University Press, 2006), p. 172.
 Lunn, Marxism and Modernism, p. 170.
 Mitchell, “Introduction,” p. xix.
 Quoted in Mitchell, "Introduction," p. xix.
 Rolf Wiggershaus, The
Frankfurt School: Its History, Theories,
and Political Significance (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press,
1994), p. 311.
 Lunn, Marxism and Modernism, p. 255.