Walter Benjamin

Paul Klee's Angelus Novus {1920}

What follows is an excerpt from Frankfurt School theorist Walter Benjamin’s “On the Concept of History” {1940}::

My wing is ready to fly

I would rather turn back
For had I stayed mortal time
I would have had little luck.
– Gerhard Scholem, “Angelic Greetings”

There is a painting by Klee called Angelus Novus. An angel is depicted there who looks as though he were about to distance himself from something which he is staring at. His eyes are opened wide, his mouth stands open and his wings are outstretched. The Angel of History must look just so. His face is turned towards the past. Where we see the appearance of a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe, which unceasingly piles rubble on top of rubble and hurls it before his feet. He would like to pause for a moment so fair [verweilen: a reference to Goethe’s Faust], to awaken the dead and to piece together what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise, it has caught itself up in his wings and is so strong that the Angel can no longer close them. The storm drives him irresistibly into the future, to which his back is turned, while the rubble-heap before him grows sky-high. That which we call progress, is this storm.

When I was in graduate school at UC-Irvine, I was in a doctoral seminar where we pondered these words. What did Benjamin really mean with his Angel of History? I struggled with it then and scholars have pondered Benjamin’s essays for decades.

I’ve been thinking of The Angel of History a lot these days, in terms of globalization, the financial meltdown, and the Big Recession. When Benjamin wrote this essay, he was thinking of the revolutions in France in of 1789, 1830 and 1848 and the Paris Commune of 1870. These “revolutions” are separated in time, but are part of a constellation. This is what the Angel sees when looking back at the rubble and the destruction of revolutions, but nothing can be done, as progress propels a trajectory. Benjamin’s view of the world was non-linear and dealt in gestalts.

In a global sense, I wonder if we are witnessing a shift. Progress and history are moving along a trajectory punctuated by discontinuities that affect the entire globe. These discontinuities aren’t isolated, but part of a constellation of ideas, concepts, events, actions, etc., such as::

    1. The fall of the Soviet empire
    2. The formation of the EU
    3. The rise of global financial flows
    4. The ubiquity of media
    5. The rise of fundamentalist Islam
    6. The rise of technologies and resultant efficiencies from IT and the web
    7. The rise of China
    8. The problem of intellectual property rights & their enforcement
    9. The rise of emerging technologies like biotechnology based on the genome
    10. The Big Recession of 2008-present*

    What can be said of a constellation of the above? Are they isolated or interrelated? More importantly, how do these inform where we’re heading?

    *Is this a discontinuity or a merely a part of ordinary business cycles?

    Twitterversion:: Thoughts about Walter Benjamin’s Angel of History, as it pertains to the global economic meltdown. #ThickCulture @Prof_K

    Song:: Young Galaxy-“Long Live the Fallen World”

    Innovation map from
    Innovation map from

    Crossposted on Rhizomicomm

    I’m currently working on an ethnographic paper examining innovation in a global context.  The above map is a depiction of innovation clusters throughout the world, on the dimensions of patent growth and firm diversity.  As it turns out, the area I’m looking at is off the chart with very high growth and few firms.  The area is also one where western notions of property rights are out the window.  The main question we are addressing is how should firms innovate globally when their intellectual property {IP} rights are tenuous or uncertain?  The economic argument for granting exclusive property rights is to ensure an entrepreneurial entity has the incentives to commercialize an idea.  So, an innovator is allowed a monopolist position for a period of time, allowing for a path to cash and attracting investors, in order to ensure there is grist for the innovative mill.  In our research, exclusive property rights may exist, but aren’t enforced.  This begs the question, why is there growth?  Why would anyone invest in such a chaotic environment?  There must be some value in doing so.  Finally, I think it would be interesting to re-examine the above map with cultural dimensions, not in terms of sweeping generalizations, but nuanced, regional differences like the ones AnnaLee Saxenian found between Silicon Valley and Route 128 in Massachusetts.

    ff_free1_fMacleans had two articles on the buzz generated by Chris Anderson’s {Wired editor and proponent of the long tail} new book, Free: The Future at a Radical Price, which Russell has referred to. The first article talked Anderson’s ideas of “freeconomics,” where costs of storage and distribution are approaching zero and consumer behavior can go viral when the price is free.  It goes on to describe how critics were lambasting Anderson for his notions, including Malcolm Gladwell’s savaging of the book in the New Yorker. The other article invokes Frankfurt School critical theorist Walter Benjamin to highlight a trend where what is valued is what cannot be readily reproduced and digitized…the return of aura of the experience.

    How does this relate to global IP concerns?

    Let’s assume that we’re in an economic reality where intellectual “work” can often be readily digitized and reproduced infinitely.  We’re talking creative content, educational resources, biotechnology/genetic information, etc., so it would seem that the producers of music, film, news journalism, the university lecture, and the sequenced genome all have a dog in this fight.  Producers of valuable things want to profit from their efforts.  Their investors demand it.  Here comes Chris Anderson saying that the new economic model is to offer things for free.

    Enter Malcolm Gladwell and other naysayers.  Gladwell asserts that Anderson is wrong on several counts.  The YouTube business model has failed to make money for Google, hence the “free” business model is untenable.  The logic of “free” is flawed, as capital-intensive infrastructures, costly complementary goods and services, and downstream costs often mean that goods simply cannot be free.  One can nitpick the flaws in Gladwell’s arguments.  He cites that the costs of clinical trials is what drives up pharmaceutical prices, which is true today, but the objective with biotech. is to use genomics to better target the use of molecules for specific therapies geared towards specific diseases and specific people, based on genetic profiling.  To use an “Obamaism,” the idea is to bend the innovation curve.

    When IP faces rampant piracy or when property rights are not or cannot be enforced, globally, the potential of infinite reproduction puts pricing pressures towards the free, whether the producer likes it or not.  This is what’s happening to the firms in our research.  The successful global firms we studied are the ones that are embracing cultural particulars and negotiating as best they can their claims to IP revenue streams.

    Interestingly, Chris Anderson has been accused of cribbing IP from sources like Wikipedia, acting like a veritable Web 2.0 Jack Sparrow.  The question I have is does this or should this diminish the value of his book by readers?  Is this a violation of some “authorly” ethics or is this just the new IP where everything is up for grabs and the key is deliver value.  Anderson even stated that one could get the information in Free by compiling blog posts and articles, but that the book adds value by synthesizing it.  He also practices what he preaches.  One can read Free for free, but just because it’s free, doesn’t mean it will be easy.  The free versions of the book text are limited by format or are DRM-protected.  Some consumers are complaining because of different expectations of what “free” means, but this approach is consistent to Anderson’s core ideas.  Being in Canada, I’ll have to jump through more hoops to read this for free, due to publishing restrictions, but I’ll figure it out and I’m actually looking forward to reading it.

    Is this commerce or is this anarchy?  The lessons being learned are similar to those in the second Macleans article.  The focus needs to be on the delivery of value, rather than the protection of rights.  Globalization is achieving what a thousand socialist mandates could not.  The erosion of property rights is forcing firms to figure out how to deliver value when an innovation is free.  Web 2.o has offered firms the ability to do what I have called “stagesetting” in several research projects and a case on Pixar.  Stagesetting is where a firm has a sequential approach to its ultimate strategic objectives.  We see firms trying to leverage network effects to create value for users through sites and technologies using social media.  Flickr has no value with hundreds of users, but has tremendous value with millions.  One can talk about MySpace, Twitter, and Facebook revenues in terms of advertising, but the holy grail is the data mining and finding what the exact value proposition is to generate revenues from business and institutional clients.  The “freemium” model of the basics for free, but added features are extra, is based upon stagesetting, where value is created.  What Anderson offers is a glimpse into a global economic reality and gives firms the incentives to rethink the nature of value…or they can try their luck in the courts, like the RIAA did with prosecutions of a Minnesota mom and college kids.

    Twitterversion:: Will IP matter in global contxt?ChrisAnderson=Web2.0 JackSparrow decentrng IP auth,making value-creation salient. @chr1sa @Prof_K

    Song:: O.P.P – Naughty By Nature lyrics

    “There is ONE medium.”

    Will that be the forthcoming declarative utterance to end all utterances?  If so, let me be one of the first few to coin it.

    There has been a lot of buzz on web versus print with Clay Shirky  (Shoutout to Temporaryversion) discussing the business implications of old models struggling to deal with new ones.  (Here’s an example by Shirky on why newspapers cannot adopt a iTunes-like model).  I see one of the key challenges as culture, in that (North)American culture is one of what I call “quick cuts and remix.”  You see this in talk of convergence culture and Jenkins’s book, which describes instances of the modalities and materialities (Pfeiffer) of media combining.  We see in our everyday lives the Internet is taking over TV viewing time and also offering up viewing of broadcast TV/radio shows.  We can read books online or on handheld devices like Kindle hooked to databases.  Advertising and product placement are becoming more and more ubiquitous, so that this will be not so far-fetched.  [ThickCulture is brought to you by Contexts.  Cutting-edge content provided free of charge by the American Sociological Association]

    We “scan” and read “at” things.  If we (or our attention spans) are pinched for time, we get information by reading the Yahoo headlines, not the article.  We are promiscuous in our media habits and don’t want to pay for things we don’t feel we should pay for.

    Enter Walter Benjamin & Roger Chartier.  Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction   (full text here) in my opinion is central to understanding what’s going on.  If we look at media content as “art,” a pattern emerges:

    “An analysis of art in the age of mechanical reproduction must do justice to these relationships, for they lead us to an all-important insight: for the first time in world history, mechanical reproduction emancipates the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual. To an ever greater degree the work of art reproduced becomes the work of art designed for reproducibility. From a photographic negative, for example, one can make any number of prints; to ask for the “authentic” print makes no sense. But the 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.”

    Two things.  I think that content isn’t emancipated from ritual, but rather that new rituals and culturally-driven patterns of praxis (i.e., drivers of meaning) are created, often in unpredictable ways.  Media content can now be taken and repurposed.  The mashup is a perfect example, along with user-driven meanings in Web 2.0.  The reference to politics as a basis is a nod to Benjamin’s Marxism.  I believe that media content and art now are squarely in the realm, not of politics, but of the political economy, specifically in terms of inter/actions in markets.  

    Roger Chartier in The Order of Books notes that in studying print capitalism, in order to understand it within a cultural context, we need to address (1) the text (content), (2) the book (media), and (3) reading practices.  There has been a lot of attention on the first two, but less solid understanding on the reading of media.  What Jenkins teaches us through his thick description of the current media milieu is that the lines between media are blurring.  We see it in the modes and materialities, but also in the economics.  I feel we are moving towards a singularity of media.  For example, some will say print and broadcast TV are both dead, as both will soon be killed by the web.  That’s the wrong way of thinking.  This assumes a linearity akin to upshifting a manual transmission.

    "Valentine: Lindsay's Adventures in Wonderland" (2007) --14
    "Valentine: Lindsay's Adventures in Wonderland" (2007) --14

    In terms of media praxis, success will often be about creating models of how media can be intertwined to create value.  Take any pop culture figure, such as Lindsay Lohan.  She’s in film, she’s a singer, a celebrity newsmaker and tabloid fodder, and the butt of the satirists’ joke (see left).  The Internet is moving towards collapsing all paths to Lindsay into a single LindsayÜberstraße, a vertitable autobahn of linked Web 2.0 content.

    I think it is telling that the Journalism School at CUNY, which is earning a reputation for being on the leading edge, is no longer requiring students to commit to a media track.  Additionally, with integrated market communications (IMC), there will be increasing market-based pressures to view media as one.  A future post will grapple with the Deleuzean idea of singularity and how it applies to media.  I think we need to address how people are “reading” all media in this Web 2.0 age.  Why?  We finally might get a handle on figuring out how the new technologies will specifically transform culture, economics, and society.

    Is print dead?  What about the demise of the Fourth estate, perhaps a linchpin of democracy?  Well, someone else said this, not me, but I’m more interested in good journalism than newspapers.  The problem is that newspapers and the  news media are often tied to economic imperatives, which is (in my opinion) a historical trajectory that is by no means set.  We need to think about content in the age of infinite replication, which makes Benjamin such an important figure.

    My friend Mimi Zeiger at Loudpaper blogged about the state of print.  I think it’s important to think about the implications of the functions of journalism and publishing and how these will be manifested, as media goes singular.  I personally feel a certain fondness for actual printed work.  It may have more to do with the specific æsthetics of the medium than anything and possibly the tactile experience.

    • Do you think it’s useful to think of media as singular?
    • What is the future of print?

    For those who feel they have something important to say, I’ll leave you with the following, a portrait of Miranda July.

    "Portrait of Miranda July" (2008) Ed Templeton