David Beer reviews Walter Benjamin’s Archive (edited by Ursula Marx, Gudran Schwarz, Michael Schwarz, Erdmut Wizisla and translated by Esther Leslie) in Berfrois:
Walter Benjamin’s Archive, which has just been published in paperback to mark the 75thanniversary of his untimely death, has left me thinking that Benjamin might just have been a blogger in the making. The way that he organised and archived his work suggests that he would have embraced the classification, archiving and tagging facilities typical of blogging – he seemed to have a certain enthusiasm for metadata on his own works. We can then add to this his eagerness to share his work and his interest in capturing the everyday fragments and ephemera of modernity. And then we also have his non-linear approach to thought and expression.
I arrived at this conclusion whilst delving into this book’s revelations about the backstage processes that fed into Benjamin’s outputs. The unfinished book The Arcades Project has always given a flavour of these working practices, with its accumulating constellations of ephemera and ideas, but the guided and curated tour of the archives provided by this book show us his craft much greater detail. Seeing inside his working practices shows us the type of processes that he went through – from the type of paper, the size of the writing, the use of notepads, the collating of images, the classificatory overviews, the realisation of connections and patterns. These are all put on display in this book. We see, for instance, as his life became increasingly peripatetic, how Benjamin used whatever paper he could lay his hands on. We have Benjamin writing on hotel paper and prescription pads alongside more professional bound and durable notepads. The very paper became tellingly valuable. Benjamin’s scraps were far from scrappy though, they were full of thoughts on the world, serious thoughts from anything on the built environment to Kafka. We see how he used up every tiny bit of his precious notebooks with ordered yet kaleidoscopic ideas, that he liked to re-arrange and to cross-cut his thoughts, to find new connections and enable the pieces to fall into new and perhaps neglected, or otherwise invisible patterns.
As the editors of the collection have put it, “knowledge that is organized into slips and scraps knows no hierarchy”. Removing such a hierarchy opens up new possibilities for thought to escape convention.