Walter Benjamin

We do not imagine Benjamin on the beach. But the great intellectual of city life defied every school and stereotype.

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Two Sentences

THERE ARE MANY ways to read legal opinions, and not all of them are investigations of law. For many years I have been reading Supreme Court opinions not in the lawyerly way, because I lack the competence and the interest. The lawyerly standpoint misses too much about life, and even about law. It can become an obstacle to a full understanding of social developments: in the study of the Internet, for example, significant concerns about copyright and privacy have overwhelmed more significant concerns about the psychological, cultural, moral, and even spiritual effects of our plague of screens.

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With Hugo, Martin Scorsese reclaims some of Hollywood’s old power as the great unifier, uncomplicated and sophisticated at the same time. This hymn to the unfettered imagination—Scorsese’s first work in 3D—is terrific popular entertainment, a magnificent children’s adventure story, with heroes and villains so delicately drawn that even the melodramatic moments have a comic wit.

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The PICTURE: Outsmarted

If Walter Benjamin were alive today, would he be writing a little essay about “Counter Space: Design and the Modern Kitchen,” the exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art? It is easy to imagine Benjamin crafting a few intricate, elegant pages, combining a collector’s ardent admiration, an intellectual’s theoretical flights, and a novelist’s sensitivity to the pop-chic ambience at MoMA.

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The Animator

Charles Dickens Michael Slater Yale University Press, 696 pp., $35 I. For a long time, everyone has known that Paris was the capital of the nineteenth century, the city where the modern was invented: the society of the spectacular. But everyone was wrong. The capital of the nineteenth century was London. Think about it. Walter Benjamin’s symbol of the Parisian modern was the arcade. The arcade! In London-according to the social campaigner Henry Mayhew, there were 300,000 dustbins, 300,000 cesspools, and three million chimneys.

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It would be hard to overstate the importance of the Frankfurt School in recent American thought. Philosophers, psychologists, and sociologists like Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin, Herbert Marcuse, Erich Fromm, and Max Horkheimer—to name just the best-known members of the group—helped to develop a subtle and powerful way of thinking about the problems of modern society.

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  “For two thousand years,” wrote Harold Rosenberg, “the main energies of Jewish communities have gone into the mass production of intellectuals.” For Rosenberg, the art critic who belonged to the receding constellation of writers known as the New York Intellectuals, such a claim was something between a boast and a self-justification. The New York Intellectuals were mainly second-generation Americans, whose self-sacrificing immigrant parents won them the opportunities America offered to newcomers, including Jews.

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Mein Buch

Hitler's Private Library: The Books That Shaped His Life By Timothy W. Ryback ( Knopf, 304 pp., $24.95) Few buildings on Capitol Hill are grander than the Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress, with its great stairway, pillared façade, and magnificent domed reading room. And few rooms in that building seem more ordinary, even banal, than the rare book storage area where 1,200 books from the collection of Adolf Hitler stand tightly packed on steel shelves.

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The Deadly Jester

In Defense of Lost Causesby Slavoj Žižek(Verso, 504 pp., $34.95)Violenceby Slavoj Žižek(Picador, 272 pp., $14)I.Last year the Slovenian philosopher SlavojŽižek published a piece in The New York Times deploring America's use of torture to extract a confession from Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the Al Qaeda leader who is thought to have masterminded the attacks of September 11. The arguments that Žižek employed could have been endorsed without hesitation by any liberal-minded reader. Yes, he acknowledged, Mohammed's crimes were "clear and horrifying"; but by torturing him the United States was turning back the clock on centuries of legal and moral progress, reverting to the barbarism of the Middle Ages. We owe it to ourselves, Žižek argued, not to throw away "our civilization's greatest achievement, the growth of our spontaneous moral sensitivity." For anyone who is familiar with Žižek's many books, what was striking about the piece was how un-Žižekian it was. Yes, there were the telltale marks—quotations from Hegel and Agamben kept company with a reference to the television show 24, creating the kind of high-low frisson for which Žižek is celebrated. But for the benefit of the Times readers, Žižek was writing, rather surprisingly, as if the United States was basically a decent country that had strayed into sin.He was being dishonest. What Žižek really believes about America and torture can be seen in his new book, Violence, when he discusses the notorious torture photos from Abu Ghraib: "Abu Ghraib was not simply a case of American arrogance towards a Third World people; in being submitted to humiliating tortures, the Iraqi prisoners were effectively initiated into American culture." Torture, far from being a betrayal of American values actually offers "a direct insight into American values, into the very core of the obscene enjoyment that sustains the U.S. way of life." This, to Žižek's many admirers, is more like it.

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The Man Without Categories

The Assistant By Robert Walser Translated by Susan Bernofsky (New Directions, 301 pp., $16.95) I. By now the snapshot of the dead Robert Walser has become one of German literature's most often reprinted and commented-upon photographs, its unstaged, accidental existence only reinforcing the image's iconic charge: the last moments of an almost-forgotten great author in an age of mechanical reproduction. Not surprisingly, descriptions of the photograph all bear a striking resemblance to one another.

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