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Remembering Walter Benjamin, or The Death of The Last Intellectual

Remembering Walter Benjamin means remembering the story of Walter Benjamin’s death. Many things besides, such as his landmark study of Parisian malls and life, and his studious notion of retail shoppers as discerning flâneurs, continue to affect and inspire our thinking. Of this, there is no doubt. But, in contemporary scholarship regarding the meaning, works, and significance of this famous twentieth fin de siècle critic and cultural historian, mourning and bereavement of the man’s tragic and mysterious fate at the age of forty-eight, prevail. As this blended sense of loss and significance must do in all great stories.

Paintings of the long-dead, photographs in an old shoebox, Facebook memorializations. These are the sorts of topics that fascinated and would fascinate Walter Benjamin. Subjects wherein we the living remember and revive the dead, through our stories captured in particular forms. For Walter Benjamin’s work was about nothing if it was not about the relation between our memories and the material world. We exhale memory into media as naturally and easily as we do carbon dioxide, expelling and propelling it out into the social worlds surrounding us to create multitudes of ideas and things which live on. Our culture of bygone days, even moreso our culture of social media moments, seems endlessly reflect and facilitates these ancient fears of loss, these eternal battles against time and forgetting. These are the technologies that Walter Benjamin would be fascinated with apprehending and predicting, as he was with all the technologies of his time.

Walter Benjamin was doubtless one of the world’s earliest technology theorists, fascinated with photography and its history. These are technologies of imagery which Walter Benjamin told us change the representation of reality. In his most famous work, “The Work of Arts in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”, he wrote that “the mode of human perception changes with humanity’s entire mode of existence.” Here, Benjamin is laying out the basis for a theory of technoculture, one whose details remain still largely to be developed. Such a theory would presume to tell us how our own phenomenological and cultural sense of the nature of human existence is filtered through the way our perceptions are altered by our technologies. How we see the world is transformed by how our various devices allow us to see the world. Such as, for instance, how the world of big data analysis and visualization is currently transforming our culture and our sense of ourselves. The emphasis on product introduction and consumption, on mechanization and reproduction, as well as on theories of the visual makes his work relevant to scholars throughout business schools, as a lesson not only in consumer culture understanding, but most certainly applied brand management and theoretical thought.

Death has a finality that theory, with all its tentatives and temporality, cannot hope to match. Death puts things like scholarship, criticism and academic practice into perspective. In 1928, his friend Seigried Kracauer wrote that the kind of thinking Benjamin embodied “has fallen into oblivion” (Kracauer 1995 [1928], 264). But Walter Benjamin’s very essence was remembering the dead. He did it when he was alive. Obsessively and repeatedly. And others, many others, an entire cottage industry that cuts across art history, sociology, Jewish studies, women’s studies, visual studies, anthropology, and architecture, as well as marketing and consumer research, have dedicated themselves to preserving his ideas today, and through his ideas, his life, his concerns, and his image.

Why Should We Bother To Remember Walter Benjamin?

Perhaps Walter Benjamin sought to keep memory and meaning and tradition alive because they are the key cultural energies that animate us as living embodied souls. Memory makes us human. Memory of the dead helps us live whole lives, connected in time to the past and to each other. Memory fuels the fires that burn at the roots of not only our humanity, because that word has had its meaning leeched out of it by being reproduced, over and over again, until it has became staid, stiff, and no longer cool, but our humanness. The state or remembering what it means to be a human, by comparing and finding, emotionally and intellectually, the experience of the generalized other with the experience of the self, our self, our selves embroiled day to day in the pages of our own stories. This requires shared context. It requires shared meaning. But by reproducing and mass producing something, over and over again, it becomes decontextualized. It thus loses it original set of meaings, which Benjamin perhaps meant by his term “aura” (perhaps, because the concept was never particularly clear in his writing, with its pellucid nature perhaps adding to its, and his, appeal). Aura is a strange weaving together of space, time, art, and artist.

This leeching of meaning from our creations is just as Benjamin predicted in his work on reproduction. In a mechanical age, the reproduction of brands and images is also concerned with the reproduction of cultural meaning. Yet rarely is this connection connected, as it very much should be, to the loss of meaning that brands constantly suffer exactly because their original meaning has been stripped from them when they change contexts.

Consider as an example of this fundamental principle the story of the world’s foremost soda pop brand. For only two years before he died, starting in 1886 in a small shop in Atlanta, Georgia, Dr. Pemberton sold the delicious and psychoactive pharmaceutical brew that became Coca Cola. That particular substance in that particular context was filled to the brim with the full store of meaning of that became that particular brand. That is no longer true. Coca Cola is a brand that has been milked and stretched, diluted and polluted ever since that time, according Benjamin’s theory of reproduction, which applies equally well to the mass marketing of brands. And yet, to stay with the example for one final point, we can see how Coke is recharged by remembering, as the history and spectacle of remembering that is the World of Coca Cola Museum, a “brand museum”, testifies (Hollenbeck, Peters, and Zinkhan 2008). Consider this point:

“Situating the Coca-Cola brand within history establishes local associations to its Southern heritage and to the broader American culture. In this way, the brand is localized because the brand museum surrounds consumers with objects, artifacts, and pictures that represent the South, Atlanta, and America. For instance, John discovered that “many of the street names in downtown Atlanta came from the founders of Coke.” Brand meaning was extended as John realized the extent to which the brand plays a role in Atlanta’s history.” (Hollenbeck, Peters, and Zinkhan 2008, 344-345)

All brands endure a similarly diminishing fate as soon as they leave their true homes, abandoning their origins for the big wide world of mass production and possible success. Unless they are regularly (re-)charged with the cultural energies from other great stories, such as inspirational narratives from Sports, Politics, The Media and the Corporate Market Economy, they lose their own original charge and gradually—or drastically—dwindle in their particular potencies. Ultimately, each of our stories will be judged once they have been told.

Sensing Walter Benjamin’s Aura

To some of his interpreters and memorializers, to think in this way is to actualize his spirit, manifest it, bring it from the page out, like religious people are supposed to do for Saints with Biblical readings. This is His Aura: the living presence of the Artist within the art. Or the Creator, godlike, within the Creation—a mystical thought indeed.

In reading Benjamin, we can hear the voice of the mind of the man working. A brilliant mind. We continue to hear that voice afterwards. Remembering. Bringing back. Interpreting. Romanticizing. Changing the past into the present. Changing the future into the present. In those moments and for this time, as interpreters, we exhume Walter Benjamin from the dead. Not as a Zombie, but a Re-Animator. An Archetypal Intelligence that manifests Walter Benjamin’s voice and concerns. Beyond his thought and life, reading Benjamin re-animates the story of his persecution, self-sacrifice, his sad desolation and death. A demise which possibly led to the escape of many others. Through it, he comes back to us, rescuing us from our own dire fates. For we can readily see how his huge body of very citable work might apply to the questions of consumer researchers and consumption sociologists. But even more inspirational to us, his work calls out to our humanity, from that tragic day on the 26th of September 1940, on the Spanish border town of Portbrou.

Remembering Walter Benjamin, as I do in this short essay, as the editors do by indexing him in this book, as you do now, by reading these words “is to be in memory of a writer for whom the requirements of memory were passing and ineluctable—it is to be in memory of the fragile value of memory itself” (Marcus and Nead 1993, p. vi). An expansive critique of ideology and on the perils of technology, Benjamin’s work is accompanied by equally brilliant visual representations of him in photographs of the day, for he loved the photographic portrait, the selfie of its day, the rediscovered portrait of the forgotten dead, and the séance of otherness that can follow the introspective contemplation of such nameless, storyless entities. He was fascinated with every type of camera or visualization machine of that day, and they captured this rumination. Evident in his photographs, wild hair, in the darkness, chin in hand, cigarette in fingers, it is hard not to mention, even in a short piece about Benjamin, the photographs of him and how much they have been reproduced.

Benjamin was indeed concerned with many things, but perhaps chiefly among them were “the historical and political consequences of technology; the relations between reproduction and mimesis, images and history, remembering and forgetting, allegory and mourning, visual and linguistic representation, and film and photography” (Cadava 1998, xix). Perhaps his most important work historically will turn out to be his theories on photography, which are already widely known among visual theorists. My sense is that we will learn much more about those who interpreted Benjamin, interpreted him through the lens of his own death, as if in life he could not have had this meaning, than we will diagnose about mere images. Who he was lives through the page. It gains a type of new immortality, or a temporary one, jumping from the page into yet another person’s mind. But it is not immortality that most of those who write about and analyze Benjamin are concerned with.

They are concerned instead, deeply and profoundly, with death.

“Photography,” says Eduardo Cadava, “is a mode of bereavement. It speaks to us of mortification. Even though it still remains to be thought, the essential relation between death and language flashes up before us in the photographic image” (Cadava 1998, 11). What to make, then, of the selfie? Do we mourn through its transitory capture the loss of the moment, of our ever-diminishing youth? Or do we mourn something greater than ourselves, the loss of the past, perhaps? The loss of old ways and traditions left behind? Or the mourning hear around the world today, the world recreating itself with much use of rare metals and electricity, wavelengths of radiation and the extinctions of ancient species? The lost of trust, of truth, and integrity? What of SnapChat then? Of YouTube? Of cosplay at ComicCon? Where fame is deep but instant, over quickly, what then? Where fame is spread like expensive butter, broadly but only superficially and only for short amounts of delicious savory time before it melts, how does one achieve fame, or at least some remembrance, without dying as Walter Benjamin did, seemingly forgotten? Is this even possible?

History, Benjamin teaches us, is a form of photography; similarly, photography is a form of history. Is that form different for a printed digital images than one which remains etched just as physically onto your computer’s hard drive? Or what if it is stored on a remote “cloud? What of these physical traces? They are gone as quickly as a software update that no longer reads their format. They disappear instantly, the moment there is a pulse or flicker in the appropriate chambers. Your digital images and so-called life on Facebook? Walter Benjamin probably thinks that they are not more than real photographs, that they in fact are far less than real. And soon they will be forgotten.

Still Feasting

Studying contemporary consumer culture means we must sample omnivorously and as much as can be stomached, heartily. We must fill ourselves to the brim with the scholarly minds whose aura we wish to awaken. The multifarious feasting we will do of the media is exactly what obsessed and held fascinated Benjamin for the last seven years of his life when he undertook the Arcades Project, his Work of Passages. Collecting observations, newspaper articles, drawings, quotations of scholars, photographs, into an archive that is also a unique first personal analysis and interpretation, a remembering of the things of the past, interpreted in the present, to be interpreted in the future—of mind transcending time. Of memory defeating death.

All of this cultural exposure leads to one thing: fandom. Fandom, which Benjamin called the “collector’s impulse”, emphasizing its obsessive qualities, a compulsion and itch so strong it can be scratched for decades. Benjamin himself was a talented historical garbologist and tireless recycler of other’s texts. He loved to remember others. He “may well be preserved as one of the great icons of twentieth-century intellectual life; he may indeed be considered, as Susan Sontag once called him, the “Last Intellectual’” (Isenberg 2001, p. 124). He was very much a consumer culture theorist in the current ethnographic sense. His Passages work –the so-called Arcades Project—would be particularly at home in the retail field, among those who study outdoor markets, or brand fests, spectacular theme stores, rodeos, or flea markets.

During the plane ride upon which I wrote this chapter, I also watched The Hateful Eight. The movie was described to me by my son as “Classic Tarantino” which I took to mean full of homages to the past and period-genre specific looks and fonts and motifs and costumes. It was indeed a contemporary re-staging of a sporadically popular movie form, The Western, as Pulp Fiction was to classic crime stories, or Inglorious Basterds was to World War Two movies. Over my shoulder, I spied another movie that revived a faded past genre that I had remembered previously seeing. Jurassic World. The remake of a motion picture about a time when they revived an extinct geological era, another time, saved it from the past by draining the DNA from ancient mosquitoes encased in amber, dug out of caves, the forgotten remembered again, traces leading to more traces, to the past reawakening, and another sequel about serial revivals yet again. And, on yet another seat back screen played Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Mark Hamill as old Luke Skywalker and the entire old Lucasfilm franchise of my lost youth reawakened, its cold flesh warmed under the careful lamplight of Disney’s studio hands, its moribund flesh fully activated, now dancing on myriad seatback airlines screens for my bemused amusement.

The relation of the 2015 Star Wars reincarnation to the article which I wrote for the Journal of Marketing with the incomparable team of Stephen Brown and John Sherry should be apparent to any who know why I was asked to write this chapter. In that work, topically focused on “retro marketing”, we used Walter Benjamin’s ideas to examine Star Wars: A Phantom Menace. That motion picture had been released around the time we were writing. What we found were more celebrations of the past, and narratives, stories about the past, situated in particular places (which, in homage to Benjamin’s great, unfinished work, we termed “arcadia”), stories told by real people, with authentic auras, stories that were fueled by cultural tensions, by irresolvable antinomious paradoxes.

George Steiner (1993) called Walter Benjamin the remembrancer. And it is this notion of seeing consumer culture through the lens of remembrance and forgetting, being forgotten and then being remembered again, that informs our understanding of much of what goes on in consumer culture—the endless revival, recycling, and updating of genres, periods, stories, and styles. “Benjamin was fascinated by marketing, obsolete objects, abandoned possessions, superseded technologies, long-forgotten fads, and the remarkable fact that new ideas often come wrapped in old packaging” (Brown, Sherry and Kozinets 2003, p. 21). Benjamin himself, considered obsolete and forgotten, repackaged by us, yet again in 2003. And now, that article, revived here so that I can retell it, resell it, exploit it anew.

Benjamin imbues our understanding of this modernizing of the old, the deployment of old motifs about time. Benjamin tells us how to read these time and style related aspects of contemporary consumer culture, something we see very clearly in fashion, in electronic design, including the design of our computers, space ships and rockets, and certainly in music, motion pictures, television, and books. Style and fashion, for instance, jolt from one retro movement to the other, ever-introducing as newness a reinterpreting of the past. We notice fad, fashion, linkages to the past whenever we listen to Walter Benjamin. These linkages to fad, fashion, and technology make him highly relevant to consumer and market scholars throughout many disciplines.

As students of consumer culture, Benjamin’s work heeds us to be mindful about the ghosts of the past that haunt the products of today and tomorrow. Who will speak in praise of old brands? Consumer rituals that are gone? Old advertising slogans, characters, personifications, and campaigns that are forgotten? Who will learn about them? Who will revive them? Will you be the one to bear the brand’s history, to update its story, to make it current and present and now? Will you take it upon yourself to market it and lead it forward to the future? And what of long-forgotten theorists and theories in marketing and consumer research? Who remembers them? Who drags their rotting corpses up from underground library stacks, unscanned, untead, and perform upon them the dark acts of theoretical necromancy to give their rotting throats new voice?

What depths have we abandoned in this instant age of technological consumer capitalism? Perhaps naught remains of the past but an afterimage. Perhaps we might never again see what has vanished completely from consumer culture, never to return. Benjamin implores us from his unmarked grave, his cowardly hero’s death, not to forget about the past in consumer culture. Not just to notice it but to discuss it. To critique it. To find out about your own culture and your own self through these constant confrontations both with the dead of the past, and with your own own dark future’s imagining.

What of our things? Our first few cell phones? Where are they? Our early computers? In the attic, or the basement? What about our practices, the way we used to talk on the phone? The way we used to use tight abbreviations in telegraphy? What about the way I learned to write in the strange glyphic “Graffiti” language so that my Palm 3 PDA could recognize my handwriting with almost perfect precision? Those skills still exist in me, latent, even though I have a new Galax 8, and my Palm 3 is stored in a box in an attic somewhere. But I still know where, and now it calls to me.

These thoughts: these things I think about. These people. These practices. These times. They all are on passages. From being brought to life or revived. To being used. To being forgotten. To being remembered. To being forgotten and remembered again. Revived and reviled, cherished and buried. Like Walter Benjamin, we ourselves, what we care about, and our whole culture is constantly on the edge of being forgotten and then remembered again. Who are we, in this maelstrom of time? Shall we only be tossed about in it, or do we stop it to look, to try to understand it, to hear what there is to hear? Like seashells of past tides, we listen to the sound and it sounds so familiar. The instrumentation and the voice changes but, the aura of Walter Benjamin tells us, his image in our mind, his voice in our head, the past’s familiar swan song remains the same.

References

Brown, S., R.V. Kozinets and J.F. Sherry Jr. and (2003), “Teaching Old Brands New Tricks: Retro Branding and the Revival of Brand Meaning,” Journal of Marketing, 67 (7), 19–33.

Cadava, E (1998), Words of Light, Princeton, NJ: Princeton U.

Hollenbeck, C.R., C. Peters, and G.M. Zinkhan (2008), “Retail Spectacles and Brand Meaning: Insights from a Brand Museum Case Study,” Journal of Retailing, 84 (3), 334-353.

Isenberg, N (2001), The Work of Walter Benjamin in the Age of Information. New German Critique,
83 (Spring-Summer), 119-150.

Kracauer, S. (1995 [1928]), “On the Writings of Walter Benjamin,” The Mass Ornament, trans. and ed. T.Y. Levin, Cambridge: Harvard U.

Marcus, Laura and Lynda Nead (1993), “Editorial,” New Formations, 20 (Summer), vi.

Steiner, G. (1993), “The Remembrancer,” Times Literary Supplement, Oct. 8, 38.

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