Montgomery on Kang, 'Walter Benjamin and the Media: The Spectacle of Modernity'

Jaeho Kang
Garth Montgomery

Jaeho Kang. Walter Benjamin and the Media: The Spectacle of Modernity. Theory and Media Series. Malden: Polity Press, 2014. 196 pp. $24.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-7456-4521-6; $69.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-7456-4520-9.

Reviewed by Garth Montgomery (Radford University)
Published on Jhistory (June, 2016)
Commissioned by Robert A. Rabe

In his ambitious Walter Benjamin and the Media, Jaeho Kang sets out to achieve several different tasks and succeeds, to varying degrees, at all of them. To begin with, Kang offers a portrait of Benjamin, a Marxist-leaning theorist on the periphery of the German academic and cultural elite in the years between the First and Second World Wars. Kang examines Benjamin’s secondary education at an alternative school; the abandonment of his quest to receive a doctorate for a completed dissertation; and his subsequent association with Berlin leftist intellectuals Theodor Adorno, Siegfried Kracauer, and Berthold Brecht. Some of the most illuminating insights into Benjamin’s media theory rest on a detailed discussion of his career as a newspaper columnist and radio producer. This provides the background for Kang’s close reading of more than twenty years’ worth of Benjamin’s writings, including his best-known works, The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility (1936) and his unfinished Arcades Project (published posthumously in 2002).

But Kang aims to produce something beyond an intellectual biography of Benjamin. Kang makes a strong case that some of the most prominent media theory of the late twentieth century, including that of Marshal McLuhan and Jean Baudrillard, is both indebted to and falls short of Benjamin’s thinking about how changes in media technology (from storytelling to the novel, the newspaper, the radio, photography, and motion pictures) were related to changes in the places and spaces where media were consumed, and to changes in the perceptions and senses of readers, listeners, and viewers. Kang proceeds to argue that Benjamin’s theoretical insights are uniquely relevant, and applicable, to the interactive, digital media environment of the early twenty-first century.

Kang’s firm grasp of his subject is evident in his detailed discussion of how Benjamin’s career as literary critic, journalist, and radio producer informed his ideas about the ways in which newspaper readers, radio listeners, and film viewers experienced mass media. For Benjamin, each of these experiences was composed of a media technology deployed in a distinctive built environment, and affecting human physiology in distinctive ways.

According to Benjamin, printing had a destructive impact on what he conceived of as primal, immediate experiences of language, mimesis, and memory afforded by oral storytelling. Kang devotes an entire chapter to a discussion of an intriguing fragment from Benjamin’s Arcades Project that deals with changes in the consumption of print media, in the form of first the novel and then the newspaper. Nineteenth-century Paris was, for Benjamin, the place where newspaper subscriptions transposed the public experience of newspaper readership at the café or on the sidewalk into a private experience inside the home. At the same time, Benjamin discerned in changes in newspaper format and “interactive” features—new columns for readers’ questions, opinions, protests—the outline of a new type of readership experience. This discussion is, for Kang, a paradigmatic example of Benjamin’s conception of the experience of media consumption as a reflexive relationship between media technology, media format, and a human subject.

Kang proceeds to explore the relationship between Benjamin’s work as a radio producer and his insights into radio’s affinity with storytelling. His descriptions of the format of programs that Benjamin produced for German public radio stations in the late 1920s and early 1930s support the author’s explanation of how, for Benjamin, those programs implemented a “media pedagogy” (distinguished by a conversational format, and consumed within the home) that aimed to “awaken and retrieve [the listeners’] alienated and fragmented sensoria” (p. 98).

Kang largely succeeds in illuminating Benjamin’s thinking about the situation of photography and motion pictures in relation to the setting and experience of their reception. Kang notes that for Benjamin the medium of photography provided the material condition for the spectacle of commodity culture in its most ubiquitous form—advertising—which aestheticized social reality, in accordance with the principle (in Benjamin’s words) “look at everything, touch nothing” (p. 182).

But the movie camera operated on the human senses quite differently, in this case arresting the flood of perceptions and capturing physical movement by means of slow motion and enlargement in a way that stirred what Benjamin referred to as “the optical unconscious” (p. 118). And it was another technical property of film—editing—that inspired Benjamin to conclude that, in Kang’s words, “film is not a visual medium, but a tactile one ... engendering the bodily collective through a distractive reception process” (p. 198). “Distraction indicates less a paying attention elsewhere than a wider engagement of the multiple senses with mass media” (p. 127). Film editing, by cutting rapidly and constantly shifting location and perspective, blocked the possibility of contemplation, which print and radio—at least in the form of Benjamin’s “media pedagogy”—afforded the individual reader or listener. At this point, for the sake of clarity, it helps to refer directly to Benjamin, who equated the collective experience of film with the collective experience of architecture. While the built environment can be contemplated in visual terms, it necessarily provides a “distracted” experience that is tactile, habitual, and collective for those who use it and inhabit it.

For Benjamin, reflections on the relationship between the physiology of film viewership and the technical properties of the film medium in 1930s Europe had immediate political implications. According to Kang, Nazi film propaganda represented, to Benjamin, “the spectacle of pseudo-self-representation [in which] the masses emerge as a subject of history within representation, but remain as passive objects in the political decision-making process” (p. 144). While fascist communication media achieved what Kang refers to as “the anaesthesia of the human sensorium,” Benjamin recognized the cinema audiences of the early 1930s as “a not yet fully formed ... revolutionary, collective subject,” ever more self-conscious in its access to the optical unconscious and its experience of “distracted” reception (pp. 147, 15).

Kang skillfully highlights a critical distinction, with regard to the analysis of political communication, between Benjamin’s view of how newspaper readers, radio listeners, and film viewers experienced those media and the ideas of US contemporaries Walter Lippman and Harold Lasswell about how mass media delivered the content that informed public opinion in a democratic society. Kang also rightly distinguishes Benjamin’s views from those of his close German contemporaries Max Horkheimer and Adorno. These Frankfurt school intellectuals adhered to Karl Marx’s analysis of economic “base” and sociocultural “super-structure,” and consequently evaluated the media environment with resignation, as the province of a hegemonic, capitalist “culture industry” that thwarted and subverted any expression of revolutionary consciousness. Kang quotes a 1935 letter from Adorno to Benjamin, challenging his “overvaluation and uncritical acceptance of machine technology” (p. 163).

Kang offers a very solid discussion of the impact, and the reflection, of Benjamin’s theory in the media theory of McLuhan and Baudrillard. McLuhan’s exploration of how, in the case of mid-twentieth-century television, “the medium is the message” reflects, for Kang, Benjamin’s thinking about the way in which transformations in media technology and format contribute to the transformation of the behavior and the consciousness of readers, listeners, and viewers. Kang recognizes, in Baudrillard’s late twentieth-century exploration of “simulacra” (where the media-saturated environment starts to blend into, and crowd out, experience in the “real” world), a connection to Benjamin’s discussion, in the Arcades Project, of the experience of late nineteenth-century Parisian architecture and media as a “phantasmagoria”—an environment “made material in space, objects, and practices” (p. 154). This discussion is compelling, both in terms of the description of phenomena, which, it can be reasonably claimed, Benjamin anticipated, and in terms of the way Benjamin’s pointing toward the glimmer of a new, revolutionary subject differed from the resignation about the inertia and passivity of readers, listeners, and viewers, which, Kang argues, characterizes the more deterministic perspectives of McLuhan and Baudrillard, not to mention those of Benjamin’s contemporaries Horkheimer and Adorno.

Each section of Kang’s monograph is punctuated by analogies drawn between Benjamin’s descriptions of the experience of media in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and the function and effects of the new media of the early twenty-first century. For Kang, “interactive” features in newspaper format of the late nineteenth century transcend the limitations of one-way communication in ways that are analogous to social-networking sites and the blogosphere; conversational radio programming is a precursor of what Kang refers to as “interactive streaming” (p. 98). But Kang’s own discussions of both the technological particularities of the 1930s mass media and Benjamin’s “political” characterization of the experience of film audiences as “collective” might be used to support the argument that the author and his subject are referring to media reception in vastly different physical, sociocultural, and political settings.

The analogies drawn by Kang between twentieth-century mass media and Facebook, “convergence culture,” and online gaming are provocative but ultimately cursory and sketchy. Both the author and his subject are speculating, with reference to different periods in media history, about “whether it is possible for emancipatory behavior to be formed by means of corporeal tactility” (p. 179). When it comes to discussion of the bodily, tactile, physiological, and habitual dimensions of the reception of digital media, the effects of ubiquitous handheld devices and touch screens—hardware not considered by Kang—seem to beg for consideration from precisely Benjamin’s perspective.

While some of Kang’s reflections on new media and their reception suggest the topic of another book, the heart of his text is an illuminating discussion of the relationship between Benjamin’s career as a newspaper columnist and radio producer and his theorizing about media and their reception. Kang’s exploration of the relationship between Benjamin’s media theorizing and the mid- and late twentieth-century theorizing of McLuhan and Baudrillard renders Walter Benjamin and the Media a substantial achievement that is well worth the read.

Printable Version:

Citation: Garth Montgomery. Review of Kang, Jaeho, Walter Benjamin and the Media: The Spectacle of Modernity. Jhistory, H-Net Reviews. June, 2016.

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