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Benjamin Walter(1892-1940) German cultural theorist associated with the FRANKFURT SCHOOL OF CRITICAL THEORY. Benjamins materialist dialectics were rooted in both Jewish mysticism and historical materialism. History as progress had to be blown apart, and cultural commodities could be rescued or transformed into ‘dialectical images’ which illuminated the revolutionary possibilities of the present (see Illuminations , 1955, and One Way Street, 1974). His work is regarded as particularly important today for its contribution to neo-Marxist theories of AESTHETICS and ‘mass culture’. Part of his work constituted a theoretical analysis of the writing of the socialist playwright Berthold Brecht. Brecht's influence changed the direction of Benjamins thoughts from critical negation to revolutionary affirmation of a collective revolutionary subject (see Understanding Brecht, 1973). At odds with ADORNO, who was pessimistic about the critical potential of ‘mass art’, Benjamin remained hopeful that a progressive potential would be found. Whereas Adorno retained, and even extended, an attachment to the classical ‘modernist’ (and bourgeois) distinction between high culture and other mass cultural forms, Benjamin questioned this distinction. In doing so he embraced many orientations which later became characteristic of POSTMODERNISM.
Collins Dictionary of Sociology, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2000