Among the many writers and intellectuals whose posthumous fame far outshines that of when they were alive–Kafka, say, or Emily Dickinson or even Machiavelli–Walter Benjamin is the object of a particular kind of obsession. In Germany, even his address book from his years of exile has been deemed worthy of publication in a facsimile edition. And in the English-speaking world, within the past decade Harvard University Press has released the complete four-volume edition of Benjamin’s Selected Writings; his massive, essentially unfinished and previously unpublished magnum opus, The Arcades Project; and a series of separately issued mass-market paperback editions of his posthumously published memoir (Berlin Childhood Around 1900), his ruminations on the hashish experiments he conducted in the late 1920s and early ’30s (On Hashish) and his various writings on Charles Baudelaire (The Writer of Modern Life). All of these books are today in wide circulation and enjoy the kind of visibility and sales otherwise common to trade publications. Such notoriety would have been unfathomable in Benjamin’s lifetime, especially during his final years, when what little prominence he attained in the second half of the Weimar Republic was on the wane. In a way, every posthumous edition of Benjamin’s work, be it a collection of writings (finished or unfinished) or a facsimile edition of personal ephemera, is an address book, a volume that his admirers can consult in their quest for reliable coordinates about a writer who led a restless intellectual and personal life that came to a mysterious end.
The most recent addition to this ever expanding Benjamin list is The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility, a collection of some forty-five pieces–most of them unpublished while he was alive, many of them little more than fragments–on art, film, photography and other media. The volume takes its name from the much heralded title essay of the collection, a highly demanding exercise in cultural criticism that offers at once a sustained analysis of aesthetics, politics and society in the age of late capitalism and a subtle elaboration of the ever changing modes of sensory experience. The essay was composed during a particularly difficult period of Benjamin’s Parisian exile, in the autumn of 1935, and was later subjected to a series of stringent revisions: in a detailed letter sent from London, Theodor Adorno expressed his reservations concerning a putative strain of romanticism in the piece and a regrettable lack of dialectical rigor. It finally appeared, in abbreviated form and in French translation, in 1936 in Max Horkheimer’s Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung. The version selected for the new Harvard edition includes seven manuscript pages that were lopped off in the first published edition; it is what Benjamin considered the Urtext, or “master version,” and best represents what he had hoped to see in print.