The political stakes in the modern split between high and low art were never more clearly articulated than in the debate between Walter Benjamin and Theodor W. Adorno on popular culture. When Adorno described his defense οf autonomous art and Benjamin's apology for mass entertainment as torn halves οf one freedom, he located their dispute within a speculative tradition that invests aesthetic experience with emancipatory potential. The origins οf this discourse can be traced to Romanticism and its reflection on the role οf subjectivity in politics and art. Benjamin's dialogue with Adorno marked an important turning point in this narrative by unmasking its twin protagonists--the autonomous individual and its collective other--as phantasms, figments οf the Romantic imagination. By analyzing the Romantic phantasms that haunted Benjamin's dialogue with Adorno, the present essay suggests how critical subjectivity might be reconsidered in an age in which the virtual reality οf cyberspace has become second nature for many individuals.
The debate on popular culture is primarily documented in two essays--one each by Benjamin on film and Adorno on jazz--published in successive issues οf the Zeitschrift fur Sozialforschung in 1936. (Wiggershaus 191-218) Both friends were living in exile--Benjamin in Paris and Adorno in Oxford--and the letters they exchanged provide additional clues to the positions they were elaborating. If the personal hardships f emigration influenced the tenor f their dispute, then contemporary events almost certainly contributed to its sense f urgency. Everywhere the new mass media seemed subject to manipulation: by totalitarian regimes in Italy, Germany, and the USSR, and monopolizing market forces in the USA. In the 1930s, questions f popular culture became political problems f the first order.
Adorno's primary contribution to the debate, an essay titled "Uber Jazz," has a relatively uncomplicated textual history. Benjamin's contribution, "Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit," is another story. At Benjamin's request, the essay was published in the Zeitschrift fur Sozialforschung in French translation. This translation was based on a second, revised version f the essay. After the French translation was published, Benjamin completed a second and more radical revision f the German text, in the express hope that Bertolt Brecht would have it published in Moscow. As it turned out, none f the German versions appeared in print until Adorno and his wife Gretel included the third version f the essay in their two-volume edition f Benjamin's selected works, in 1955. This is the version that served as the basis for Harry Zohn's translation, "The Work f Art in the Age f Mechanical Reproduction," the only one available in English at this date. It is also the version that continues to serve as the basis for most academic discussion f the essay, despite the fact that both earlier versions have been made available in recent decades. (Arendt 217-51)
The result f all this is that there exists no one authoritative text f Benjamin's essay, but rather three distinct documents f a work in progress. The differences that distinguish the three texts provide as much insight into Benjamin's debate with Adorno as any one variant read in isolation. For this reason, all three versions will be considered in the discussion that follows.
Adorno first identified the Romantic phantasms haunting his dialogue with Benjamin in a letter from 18 March 1936, written to critique an unpublished manuscript f Benjamin's essay. In an attempt to mediate between their divergent views, Adorno observed that autonomous art and popular film both bear the scars f capitalist exploitation, as well as elements f change. He did not, however, suggest that high art be privileged over low. Instead, he insisted that neither be sacrificed to the other, since this would mean losing the critical potential f both. Only if high and low art are