This essay was actually a lecture delivered at the Institute for the Study of Fascism in Paris. It is essentially a manifesto on the role of the (literary) writer in the Revolution (Communist/Socialist/anti-Fascist/anti-Bourgeoisie).
He opens with the question of the role of the poet in Plato’s ideal Republic (banished) and wonders what the role of the poet/writer will be in the new socialist order. He suggests that if the author is to avoid the platonic author’s fate, he has to see himself as a producer – not in the film-industry sense, but in the way that a farmer or industrial worker produces a product. The product the author needs to produce is not necessarily a simple text, but should be a text that recognizes and reflects the “correct” political direction and spurs others to do the same. As in all media of art, the method used in writing must by needs also reflect the goal the text (author) is trying to accomplish. Benjamin discusses many media – he touches on the use of photography to present the world as it is, politically articulate photomontages produced by John Heartfield (Helmut Herzfeld), and the Epic Theater developed by Brecht, among others.
A problem is the tendency of photography and literature to commodify poverty – to glorify and make beautiful the ugly and abject in the world as we know it. This is most commonly the work of Neue Sachlichkeit. Even this has its use, though. Literature is basically produced for the bourgeoisie by intellectuals that are a product of bourgeois education. Being in the privileged position of being able to reach the bourgeois public, they have a duty to stand up for the proletariat and fight for the revolution from within the bourgeoisie. This will make the revolution itself faster and less bloody.
His reading of Brecht’s mode is very interesting – he says that the beauty of the Epic Theater is that it exposes “situations” rather than developing and relying on plots. Brecht uncovers situations that are otherwise unseen by the observer by interrupting the action – especially often by inserting a song into the scene. This rupture also opens up the possibility of generating laughter, which, Benjamin suggests, is the fastest way to inspire thought.
The question here is how to repurpose the means of literary production while recognizing that the author is a product of bourgeoisie.
In considering photography, Benjamin insists that photography itself must be accompanied by the caption that makes the photo’s revolutionary motive clear. (This reminds me of something that Vaget once said about Wagner: (I paraphrase)”Music itself can’t be racist or anti-Semitic or political. Music is a pure artform until it is invested with meaning from an external source.” I think this is what Benjamin is driving at. Literary production cannot be rejected in the context of the revolution. Instead it needs to be recognized as the text that accompanies the images of the revolution.
Interesting meta-moment: Benjamin quotes himself without attributing the quote. He just quotes “a left-wing author.”