Today, not for the first time (or the last time, probably), I misunderstood Walter Benjamin’s meaning.
On our Core course we’ve just moved into an area entitled ‘Authors and Author-ity,’ for which the first reading texts are Walter Benjamin’s The Author as Producer1 and Roland Barthes’ The Death of the Author2.
In The Author as Producer, Benjamin begins by outlining the ‘correct tendency’ of works, for them to be useful for revolutionary activity, quoting Brecht: “not to supply the apparatus of production without, to the greatest extent possible, changing it in accordance with socialism” (Benjamin, 1977, p. 214).
He isolates the ‘literary tendency’, and the ‘quality’ of it as being essential to politically correct work:
. . . the tendency of a literary work can only be politically correct if it is also literarily correct. That is to say the politically correct tendency includes a literary tendency. And I would add straight away: this literary tendency, which is implicitly or explicitly contained in every correct political tendency, alone constitutes the quality of the work. (Benjamin, 1977, p. 213–4)
He is here countering what seems to be a rather blinkered opinion on his audience’s part. To introduce the above quote, Benjamin speaks rhetorically for his audience “You can declare: a work that shows the correct political tendency need show no other quality. You can also declare: a work that exhibits the correct tendency must of necessity have every other quality.” (Benjamin, 1977, p. 213).
My misunderstanding stemmed from the phrase “of necessity” in the last quote which I understood to mean “by default”, so completely changing the meaning of this section. Although if I’d thought it through with reference to what is said later, I should have realised my mistake.
So, in the main quote above, Benjamin explains the stress on the quality of a work is necessary for its effectiveness as revolutionary material. This takes the form of using the methods of bourgeois society to transform it from within into something other:
What matters therefore is the exemplary character of production, which is able first to induce other producers to produce, and second to put an improved apparatus at their disposal. And this apparatus is better the more consumers it is able to turn into producers, that is, readers of spectators into collaborators. (Benjamin, 1977, p. 216)
- Benjamin, W. (1934). The Author as Producer. In Frascina, F. and Harrison, C. eds. Modern Art and Modernism: A Critical Anthology. London, 1982. pp. 213–216.
- Barthes, R. (1977). The Death of the Author. In Image Music Text. London: Fontana Press. pp. 142–148.