Michael Jennings: Thick Description

Michael Jennings

In one the earliest appraisals of Benjamin’s work, Adorno noted that Benjamin never thought “freely” or in an “amateur fashion,” but always through direct engagement with a cultural object. Yet it precisely a “free” and “amateur” thought that has characterized previous critical engagement with Benjamin’s Origin of German Tragic Drama. His readers have tended to think that they could say something meaningful about the study through immanent critique: by drawing links between various sentences and concepts and then paraphrasing. The result is very often a tacit presentation of Benjamin as a genius who somehow transcended his era: exactly the kind of evaluation that Benjamin himself worked to debunk.

In constructing a global reading of Benjamin’s text, Jane Newman’s Benjamin’s Library engages instead, and for the very first time, with the actual materials about which Benjamin wrote–the dramas of the Second Silesian School–and with the reception history that is so crucial to any understanding of these gnarled, recalcitrant texts. Like much of the best Benjamin criticism, Newman’s book actively restores Benjamin to his era. And in doing so, paradoxically, it makes him a more important and fascinating writer.

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