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László Moholy-Nagy.

Lichtspiel: Schwarz Weiß Grau


(Lightplay: Black White Grey),
1932. Frame enlargement.

6 doi:10.1162/GREY_a_00188
Walter Benjamin’s Media Theory:
The Medium and the Apparat
ANTONIO SOMAINI

What is a medium? And how can the history of the term—the ways in which it has
been used and theorized—help us answer this question? This essay tackles both
of these issues by focusing on Walter Benjamin’s writings, specifically by carefully
studying the meanings he assigned to the German terms Medium (medium) and
Apparat (apparatus). Such a study provides significant insights into the nature of
media as well as into Walter Benjamin’s “media theory”—a topic that, even though
widely and effectively studied, has not been analyzed from the perspective of
Medium and Apparat, the terminological foci of his understanding of human expe-
rience in its interaction with technology.1
One of the cornerstones of Benjamin’s media theory is the idea that human
experience is always configured and organized by different forms of material,
technical, and discursive mediation that change through history. Benjamin was
convinced that sensory experience—the forms and rhythms of perception, the
extension and the coordinates of the visible, the audible, the tactile, and so on—
had a history, and that this history was determined by the different ways in which
a historically evolving set of technical Apparate was acting on the human “senso-
rium,” configuring and organizing what he calls, in the essay “The Work of Art in
the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility” (five versions, 1935–1936), “the Medium
of perception” (Medium der Wahrnehmung).2 If the term Apparat (which becomes
Apparate in the plural and Apparatur if taken as a collective singular) indicates in
Benjamin the various technical artifacts that contribute to the organization of the
field in which sensory experience takes place, then the term Medium (a term I shall
always write with the German spelling—that is, with a capital “M” and in italics—
whenever I am referring specifically to its meanings in Benjamin’s writings and
in German literature) indicates precisely such a field: the spatially extended envi-
ronment, the milieu, the atmosphere, the Umwelt in which perception occurs.
According to this perspective, Benjamin’s media theory is not concerned pri-
marily with a study of “media” conceived as forms of representation having some
kind of media specificity, nor with “media” conceived as technical instruments or

Grey Room 62, Winter 2016, pp. 6–41. © 2016 Grey Room, Inc. and Massachusetts Institute of Technology 7
means of (mass) communication; it is, instead, the study of the artistic, epistemic,
and political implications of the changes in the “Medium of perception” produced
by a steadily evolving domain of material and technical Apparate that give place
to ever-new “configurations of nature.”3 Such a media theory is therefore intrinsi-
cally connected to an “aesthetics” that studies the historical transformations of a
sensory experience that is always somehow technically mediated. Cinema was for
Benjamin “the most important subject matter, at present,” for such an “aesthetics,”
since it showed in the clearest way how, during the first decades of the twentieth
century, the “Medium of perception” had been entirely reorganized by a new gener-
ation of technical Apparate—so much so that the very idea of an “apparatus-free,”
“immediate reality” had become “the Blue Flower in the land of technology.”4
Benjamin’s concept of the “Medium of perception” can be better understood if
we contextualize it within the long, post-Aristotelian tradition of the so-called
media diaphana : the material, intermediary, diaphanous substances (air, vapor,
smoke, clouds, water, glass . . .) that, with their different consistencies and their
different degrees of transparency and opacity, structure the visual environment in
which our experience takes place. Within this tradition—traces of which can be
found throughout the 1920s and 1930s, as well as in the second half of the twentieth
century, all the way to the present day—the study of “media” is conceived as the
study of the different material and technical articulations of the environment,
the milieu, the atmosphere, the Umwelt in which perception takes place. In Benjamin
this approach is centered on the two concepts of Medium and Apparat.

1. The Historicity of the “Medium of Perception”


The idea that perception has a history and that such a history is determined by the
way in which a steadily evolving set of technical Apparate keeps on reorganizing
the “Medium of perception” is at the center of Benjamin’s essay “The Work of
Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility.” In a passage that appears
in all the versions of the text except for the first (the erste Fassung, which is not
available in English translation), Benjamin presents the thesis of the historicity of
perception, mentioning as sources of this idea the writings of two of the main
protagonists of the Viennese school of art history, Alois Riegl and Franz Wickhoff.
Just as the entire mode of existence of human collectives changes over long
historical periods, so too does their mode of perception. The way in which
human perception is organized—the Medium in which it occurs—is condi-
tioned not only by nature but by history. The era of the migration of peoples,
an era which saw the rise of the late-Roman art industry and the Vienna

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Genesis, developed not only an art different from that of antiquity but also a
different perception. The scholars of the Viennese school Riegl and Wickhoff,
resisting the weight of the classical tradition beneath which this art had been
buried, were the first to think of using such art to draw conclusions about
the organization of perception at the time the art was produced. However
far-reaching their insight, it was limited by the fact that these scholars were
content to highlight the formal signature which characterized perception in
late-Roman times. They did not attempt to show the social upheavals mani-
fested in these changes in perception—and perhaps could not have hoped to
do so at that time. Today, the conditions for an analogous insight are more
favorable. And if changes in the medium of present-day perception can be
understood as a decay of the aura, it is possible to demonstrate the social
determinants of that decay.5
As a former student of Heinrich Wölfflin and an attentive reader of Riegl and
Wickhoff, Benjamin had been profoundly impressed by the way in which these art
historians believed that the history of artistic styles was connected with a history
of perceptual modes that distinguished between different possible relations
between the body and the world; for example, between a form of visual perception
happening at a distance from the objects observed, and another form of visual per-
ception happening instead in a condition of closeness to such objects. This distinc-
tion appears already in Adolf von Hildebrandt’s The Problem of Form in Painting
and Sculpture (1893), in which the author distinguishes between a “distant image”
(Fernbild) and a “close image” (Nähebild), the second being produced by a kind of
viewing that resembles a tactile experience of the object perceived. Such a distinc-
tion is then at the basis of both Riegl’s polarity between “haptic” (haptisch) and
“optical” (optisch) artistic styles (the haptic style of Egyptian art versus the optical,
“impressionistic” style of late Roman art), connected to different kinds of viewing
and different Weltanschauungen, in his Late Roman Art Industry (1901), and
Wölfflin’s distinction between “linear-tactile” and “pictorial” artistic styles (the
Renaissance versus the Baroque) in his Principles of Art History (1915), two texts
Benjamin knew well.6 According to this approach to art history, Immanuel Kant’s
notions of space and time as the ahistorical, a priori, transcendental forms structur-
ing the subject’s perception of reality had to be reformulated by considering the per-
ception of space and time as historically determined and by considering the history
of artistic styles as the primary reference point for the study of the history of vision.7
Even though he shared their guiding idea that perception had a history,
Benjamin believed that Riegl, Wickhoff, and Wölfflin had failed in not taking into

Somaini | Walter Benjamin’s Media Theory: The Medium and the Apparat 9
consideration the “social upheavals” and the “social determinations” of such
historical changes. The study of the historicity of perception had to be framed in
a materialist perspective, and an example of such an approach could be found
directly in Karl Marx, who, in a section of the Economic and Philosophical
Manuscripts of 1844 titled “Private Property and Communism,” had commented
on how private property had produced an impoverishment of the senses and an
exclusive focus on “the sense of having,” while “communism,” “the transcendence
of private property,” could be seen as “a complete emancipation of all human
senses.” According to this view, the passage from private property to communism
could therefore be interpreted as a change in the forms of perception and as a
confirmation—as Marx writes in a passage partially quoted in the fragments of
Benjamin’s Arcades Project—that “the forming [Bildung] of the five senses is a
labour of the entire history of the world down to the present.”8
In the “Letter on Georges Salles’s Le Regard ” (1940), Benjamin presents “the
history of human perception” as “not only one of our most subtle temptations, but
also one of our most arduous attempts.”9 The same idea can be found, two years
earlier, in the review of Dolf Sternberger’s Panorama, or Views of the Nineteenth
Century (1938), in which Benjamin writes, “the question of whether people’s visual
impressions are determined only by natural constants, or additionally by historical
variables, is at the very leading edge of research. To move an inch closer to an
answer is a hard-won advance.”10 “Light,” Benjamin adds, “impinges on human
experience only in a manner permitted by the historical constellation.”11 Accordingly,
the first task of a media theory based on the ways technical Apparate configure
the “Medium of perception” must be to study the historically evolving conditions
of visibility.
The artwork essay in its different versions, together with the fragments of the
Arcades Project and the various texts concerning French nineteenth-century
culture written by Benjamin from 1938 to 1940 in connection with a book project
on Baudelaire, can be considered as a unified effort to complete this task.12 In them,
Benjamin deals with the historicity of perception from a double perspective: on
the one hand, by analyzing the changes in perception caused by a series of techni-
cal Apparate (photography, cinema, daily newspapers, street advertising, the tele-
phone, and radio) that had become widespread during the first three decades of
the twentieth century; on the other hand, by searching for the first signs of these
changes in the technical and material culture of the nineteenth century, choosing
Paris as the main site of a vast media-archaeological excavation.13
In the fragments of the Arcades Project, interior furniture and decorations; private

10 Grey Room 62
and public lighting systems; architectural constructions in glass and steel; urban
structures such as boulevards, arcades, and barricades; spaces of commodity dis-
play such as shop windows, department stores, and world exhibitions; and even
the thick crowd circulating through the streets of cities such as Berlin, London, and
Paris—a crowd Benjamin considers an “agitated veil” acting as a filter for the per-
ception of the urban space by the modern individual—are considered as technical
and material articulations capable of producing a new “organization of perception,”
a new configuration of the “Medium of perception.”14
Benjamin’s “aesthetic” media theory is therefore based on the observation that
the human “apparatus of perception” had been progressively more exposed to the
action of a new generation of technical Apparate that had completely reorganized
the “Medium of perception.” The use of the term Apparat to indicate both the
sensory and the technical apparatuses involved in the different forms of techni-
cally mediated experience—a use that also can be found in Sigmund Freud, who,
in “A Note upon the ‘Mystic Writing Pad’” (1925), discusses the relations between
our “perceptual apparatus” (Wahrnehmungsapparat) and “all the forms of auxiliary
apparatuses [Hilfsapparate] we have invented for the improvement or intensifica-
tion of our sensory functions,” such as “spectacles, photographic cameras, ear-
trumpets,” and the “mystic writing pad”—seems to indicate a certain predisposition,
by the human sensory organs, to the encounter with technology.15 Subjected to an
endless series of “performances,” “tests,” and “tasks” that resembled the ones
executed by athletes in sports competitions and by industry workers in a context
heavily influenced by Taylorism, the modern individual had to undergo a partic-
ular form of “training,” whose aims are described by Benjamin with terms related
to physiology, psychology, and psychotechnics: “innervation” and “incorporation”
of the technical Apparate onto the individual and the collective body, “adaptation”
of the sensory organs to the new rhythms of perception and attention, “exercise”
and “schooling” of a “sense perception altered by technology,” in order “to estab-
lish an equilibrium between human beings and the apparatus” within the “Medium
of perception.”16
But how did Benjamin come to use this expression? His specific use of the term
Medium must be analyzed within the context of the entire body of his writings.

2. The Meanings of Medium in Benjamin’s Writings


Benjamin’s use of the term Medium is particularly frequent in his writings of the
second half of the 1910s and tends to become more sporadic, although still greatly
significant, in later texts. In the philosophical dialogue on color and fantasy titled

Somaini | Walter Benjamin’s Media Theory: The Medium and the Apparat 11
“The Rainbow: A Conversation about Imagination” (1915), the essays “On Language
as Such and on the Language of Man” (1916) and “Painting, or Signs and Marks”
(1917), the long study “The Concept of Criticism in German Romanticism” (1919),
and a 1920 fragment dedicated to the theme of the changes in the historical recep-
tion of works of art, the term Medium is used in a variety of ways that help us under-
stand the nature of the “Medium of perception” mentioned in the artwork essay.
In the early text “The Rainbow: A Conversation about Imagination” and in a
series of fragments on color from the same period, both “color” and “imagination”
(Phantasie) are presented as Medium.17 Color is treated here as a diffused, fluid,
unstable, volatile entity: “a home among clouds” (ein Wolkenheimat), as Benjamin
writes in the later texts “A Glimpse into the World of Children’s Books” (1926) and
“The Soaked Magic Wand” (1934).18 Color is “quality alone,” a “pure quality of
no substance” that reveals itself in the “colored glow,” the “colored brilliance” of
“soap bubbles, parlor games, the watery color of the magic lantern, watercolor
paintings, decals.”19 The transparent colors of the rainbow are described as “the
purest manifestation of the color that spiritualizes and animates nature through-
out,” while the true experience of color, which happens in a state of “intoxication”
(Rausch) like that of a dream, is presented as a “pure reception in self-forgetting”
before whatever shades “appear.”20
In “The Rainbow: A Conversation about Imagination,” the experience of being
in the Medium of color is described as a state in which one abandons oneself to a
suspended world in which subject and object, seer and seen are not sharply dif-
ferentiated: “Colors see themselves; in them is the pure seeing, and they are its
object and organ at the same time.” In describing the experience of color in these
terms, Margarethe, one of two voices in the conversation, refers to “the sphere of
innocence of children and artists,” a sphere which is that of “imagination . . . the
Medium in which they conceive and create.” She adds, “only children dwell
entirely in innocence, and in blushing they themselves relapse into the existence
of color.”21
In later writings on the role of color in children’s literature, Benjamin further
develops this idea of color as an atmospheric Medium through which the child
enters and inhabits the world that is represented in the pictures. In the essay
“A Glimpse into the World of Children’s Books,” the image of the cloud that we find
in “The Soaked Magic Wand” reappears when Benjamin describes the relationship
between the child and “an open, color-bedecked world where everything shifts at
every step.”22

12 Grey Room 62
Things do not come out to meet the picturing child from the pages of the
book. Instead, in looking, the child enters into them as a cloud that becomes
suffused with the riotous colors of the world of pictures. Sitting before his
painted book, he makes the Taoist vision of perfection come true: he over-
comes the illusory barrier of the book’s surface and passes through colored
textures [zwischen farbigen Geweben] and brightly painted partitions to enter
a stage in which the fairy tale lives.23
Again in the philosophical dialogue “The Rainbow,” Benjamin presents the idea
that the eye belongs to the realm of color because it is itself colored: “our eye is
colored, color is generated from seeing and it colors pure seeing,” Margarethe says,
adding a quotation from a poem by Benjamin’s friend Christoph Friedrich Heinle:
“If I were made of fabric, I would color myself.”24 Benjamin presents here the
Medium of color as a misty, “haloed,” metamorphic world in which the subject
loses its separateness and dissolves itself (“I myself was a quality of the world and
floated over it. It was filled with me as though with color”).25 The Medium of color
is here understood as a “Medium of all changes” (Medium aller Veränderungen),
a “realm of transformation,” a diaphanous world in which forms dissolve and
reappear, perpetually blurring every fixed contour and producing “endless
nuances” in a continuous process of “formation” and “deformation,” Gestaltung
and Entstaltung, offering themselves as materials to be worked upon by “imagina-
tion,” itself a Medium in which artistic creation takes place.26
Several explicit and implicit connections can be established here. For example,
with Charles Baudelaire’s essay “De la couleur,” part of the Salon de 1846, in
which color is described as a metamorphic realm of “perpetual vibration.”27 Or
with Wassily Kandinsky’s color theory, according to which color is one of the artistic
“means” (Mittel ) (together with “form” and “sound”) through which the artist is
capable of producing “vibrations of the soul,” as we read in Concerning the Spiritual
in Art (1912) and in the text “On Stage Composition” published in the Blaue Reiter
Almanach (Blue Rider Almanac, 1912).28 The stage composition “Der gelbe Klang”
that follows immediately in the Blaue Reiter Almanach presents a series of chro-
matic transformations in which color is treated as plastic matter manifesting itself
in different hues, forms, and densities. The idea that in color the subject and the
object lose their opposition is present also in Paul Klee, who writes in a diary entry
of April 16, 1914, “The color has me . . . color and I are one.”29 The idea appears
even earlier in Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Farbenlehre (1810–1812), quoted
explicitly by Benjamin in “A Glimpse into the World of Children’s Books” in a pas-
sage that underlines the fluid, metamorphic nature of colors, which are “without

Somaini | Walter Benjamin’s Media Theory: The Medium and the Apparat 13
limits, just as fire and water.”30 In Goethe’s color theory, “physical colors” (which are
different from “physiological” and “chemical” colors) are presented as phenomena
that appear in a “material,” “colorless,” and “opaque medium”—the term used by
Goethe is Mittel, which appears to be here an equivalent of Medium—producing
an endless series of manifestations that need to be studied phenomenologically
rather than mathematically.31 Colors, Goethe writes, are “actions and passions
of the light” (Taten und Leiden des Lichts).32 Colors are “half lights” and “half
shadows” that constantly transform and appear in a Mittel that is an intermediary
region between the polar opposites of light and darkness, or “light and nonlight”
(Licht und Nichtlicht), and that are perceived by the eye thanks to the eye’s own
luminous nature.33
Two years later, in the essay “Painting, or Signs and Marks”—written in
response to his friend Gershom Scholem’s remarks on cubism as a style capable,
with its mathematical, linear “decomposition of space,” of producing a properly
“Jewish image”—Benjamin returns to these ideas, drawing a clear distinction
between the sphere of the Zeichen (the “sign” produced by “the graphic line,” the
line of drawing that is traced over a “surface” and a “ground”) and that of the
“Mal ” (the colored “mark” that “emerges” and “appears principally on living
beings,” as in the case of “Christ’s stigmata, blushes, perhaps leprosy and birth-
marks”).34 Benjamin attributes the status of Medium only to the realm of Mal, often
connected with guilt (blushing) or innocence (the stigmata). Mal is here treated as
Medium for several reasons: as a “mark” made of color, following the idea of color
as a Medium presented in “The Rainbow,” and as a superficial phenomenon through
whose mediation some kind of otherness or transcendence appears—either that of
interiority over the surface of the body (the guilt that emerges as a blush), or that
of the divine over the human (the stigmata of Christ’s wounds onto the bodies of
saints). Considered as a pure world of color, without distinction between figure
and ground, painting (Malerei) is also a Medium: “The Medium of painting is that
of the mark in the narrower sense; for painting is a Medium, a mark [Mal], since it
has neither background nor graphic line.”35
Painting, for Benjamin, is not a “medium” in a Greenbergian sense; that is, in
the sense of a representational form produced by specific technical means endowed
with specific expressive possibilities. Rather, painting is here a Medium in the
sense of the spatial realm: the environment, the milieu in which colors appear
surrounding one another. As Benjamin writes, a color is never “superimposed on
another, but at most appears in the Medium of another color.”36
In the last section of “Painting, or Signs and Marks,” Benjamin opposes “the

14 Grey Room 62
Medium of the mark” to “a higher power” that “transcends the mark,” the power
of the “linguistic word,” of “naming,” which is made possible by “composition.”
“Composition” is therefore what allows a “picture” to be “named.”37
These claims regarding the role of the “word” and of “naming” in respect to
painting bring us to the third major usage of Medium elaborated by Benjamin in
his writings of the second half of the 1910s: the usage we find in the essay “On
Language as Such and on the Language of Man.” Here Benjamin, taking a theolog-
ical perspective closely connected with the creation story in Genesis, refuses to
consider language as a mere “means” (Mittel ) intended for the “communication”
(Mitteilung), through conventional “signs” (Zeichen), of meanings that exist inde-
pendent of it.38 Instead, language is presented as a Medium in which all things
come to exist at the moment in which they are named: the horizon from which
things that are imbued with a fundamental tendency to express themselves spring
forth through an act of naming that is also a form of creation. At first, according to
the theological perspective adopted by Benjamin in this essay, “the absolute rela-
tion of name to knowledge exists only in God; only there is name, because it is
inwardly identical with the creative word, the pure Medium of knowledge.”39 At
the moment he created man, however, “God set language, which had served him
as Medium of creation, free. God rested when he had left his creative power to
itself in man.”40 Man therefore becomes “the namer,” since through him “pure lan-
guage speaks.”41 The “mediation” (das Mediale) provided by a language conceived
in this way—a mediation consisting in the creation of things through naming—is
radically different from the “mediation” (Mittelbarkeit) performed by a language
conceived as a conventional instrument for communication.
We find another crucial example of the meanings assigned by Benjamin to the
concept of Medium in his early writings in the long essay “The Concept of
Criticism in German Romanticism.” Here Benjamin analyzes the philosophical and
gnoseological foundations of the Romantic concept of “criticism” in the writings
of Friedrich Schlegel (especially the “Athenaeum” Fragments) and Novalis, and
shows how the idea of the criticism of art in German Romanticism is not centered
on the act of judgment, on the evaluation of works of art. Criticism is rather a form
of thinking that reveals the true nature of thinking itself; it is an act that has a fun-
damental epistemological dimension. If all thinking is, for the Romantics, “reflec-
tion”—a “thinking that reflects on itself in self-consciousness” and that, by doing
so, establishes an endless series of connections within thought itself, an “infinity
of connectedness” (Unendlichkeit des Zusammenhanges) thanks to which “every-
thing [within thought] is to hang together in an infinitely manifold way”—criticism

Somaini | Walter Benjamin’s Media Theory: The Medium and the Apparat 15
is a form of thinking that takes the work of art as its “living center of reflection”
and that develops relations and connections with other works of art that are other
“living centers of reflection.”42
The intricate web of relations and connections that criticism establishes among
artworks is presented by Benjamin as taking place within the “Medium of reflec-
tion”: “The work of art is a living center of reflection. In the Medium of reflection,
in art, new centers of reflection are continually formed.”43 The term Medium is
here used to define a vast domain of “interconnectedness” in which all works of
art are interconnected. A similar idea can be found in Novalis, who conceived
of every art form as a “member of an infinitorium” of forms characterized by an
“omniplastic structure” (allbildsame Gestalt), and in Schlegel, who in one of the
“Athenaeum” Fragments (1798) quoted and commented on by Benjamin (fragment
116), presents “Romantic poetry” as a “universal poetry” that should “mix and fuse
poetry and prose, inspiration and criticism, the poetry of art and the poetry of
nature”: “a mirror of the whole circumambient world, an image of the age,” hover-
ing “at the midpoint between the portrayed and the portrayer . . . on the wings of
poetic reflection,” raising “that reflection again and again to a higher power,” mul-
tiplying it “in an endless succession of mirrors.”44
In the essay “The Concept of Criticism in German Romanticism,” therefore, the
“Medium of reflection” indicates a vast realm of “mediation” (Vermittlung), which
is one of the defining traits of thought itself: “considered methodologically or epis-
temologically . . . the Medium of reflection is the Medium of thinking.”45 Criticism
is the domain within which this thinking process of “mediation” may be performed,
observed, and understood in its endless unfolding.46 Every art form is connected
to all other art forms, every “living center of reflection” is connected to all other
“living centers of reflection,” and the criticism of art is the exemplary moment in
which this double interconnectedness is fully carried out.
An unpublished fragment written in 1920 adds a further piece to our mosaic
and leads us back to the idea of the Medium as a spatially extended, diaphanous,
intermediary realm that we find in the philosophical dialogue “The Rainbow” and
in the other fragments on color and imagination. With a clear anticipation of the
concept of Medium as “aura” (Aura ) that we find in the later “Little History of
Photography” (1931), the Medium is presented in the 1920 fragment as the diaphanous
halo, the haze, the atmosphere surrounding a work of art; an atmosphere whose
degrees of density and transparency change with the passing of time:
The Medium through which works of art continue to influence later ages is
always different from the one in which they affect their own age. Moreover,

16 Grey Room 62
in those later times its impact on older works constantly changes, too.
Nevertheless, this Medium is always relatively fainter than what influenced
contemporaries at the time it was created. Kandinsky expresses this by say-
ing that the permanent value of works of art appears more vividly to later
generations, since they are less receptive toward their contemporary value.
Yet the concept of “permanent value” is perhaps not the best expression of
the relation. We ought instead to investigate which aspect of the work (quite
apart from the question of value) really seems more evident to later genera-
tions than to contemporaries.
For the creative person, the Medium surrounding his work is so dense that
he may find himself unable to penetrate it directly in terms of the response
that it requires from its public; he may be able to penetrate it only in an indi-
rect manner. The composer might perhaps see his music, the painter hear his
picture, or the poet feel the outline of his poem when he seeks to come as
close to it as possible.47
We now have identified five meanings of Medium in Benjamin’s early writings:
(1) Medium as the diffused, unstable, metamorphic, cloudlike world of color. (2)
Medium as the surface manifestation (the various types of Mal, from blushing to
the stigmata) of a transcendence, in a usage not far from the one we find in the con-
text of the occult of the second half of the nineteenth century, in which the term
medium designated those who were capable of entering into contact with the
realm of the dead and of spirits.48 (3) Medium as the ontological domain from
which things are called into existence through the act of naming. (4) Medium as
the “Medium of reflection,” the infinite “connections” elaborated by a thought that
proceeds through different forms of “mediation” (Vermittlung) and considers
works of art as “living centers of reflection.” (5) Finally, Medium as the diaphanous
halo that needs to be penetrated in order to access a work of art, a halo whose den-
sity and transparency change in time, determining the reception of the work of art
both by its contemporaries and in later periods.
These five variations on the idea of Medium in Benjamin’s writings of 1915–
1920 are at the root of the meanings he will give to this term in such later texts as
the “Little History of Photography” (1931), the chapters of “Berlin Childhood
around 1900” (1932–1934, revised 1938), the short text “Excavation and Memory”
(1932), the twin essays “On the Mimetic Faculty” and “Doctrine of the Similar”
(both 1933), several of the fragments in the Arcades Project, as well as a passage
from the preparatory materials for the theses “On the Concept of History” (1940).
The beginning of the “Little History of Photography” is directly connected with

Somaini | Walter Benjamin’s Media Theory: The Medium and the Apparat 17
the idea of the Medium as a historically changing diaphanous halo. Just as in a
1935 letter to Werner Kraft, where Benjamin describes the artwork essay as a
“Teleskop” through which one could try to penetrate the “blood fog” (Blutnebel)
hovering over the culture of the nineteenth century, in the opening lines of the
“Little History of Photography” Benjamin addresses the different densities of
the “fog” (Nebel) that conditions how the modern historian views the beginnings
of technical Apparate such as photography or printing: “The fog that surrounds
the beginnings of photography is not quite as thick as that which shrouds the early
days of printing.”49 The world of early photographs, Benjamin explains, was a
world of auratic images wrapped up in protecting, enveloping materials, and
recording a reality that seemed to be surrounded by a diaphanous, haloed atmos-
phere. Daguerreotypes were precious, “one of a kind” images that were kept in
“cases” in order to protect them.50 The “countenance” of the human beings repre-
sented in the early photographs “had a silence about it in which the gaze rested.”51
“[T]here was an aura about them, a Medium [es war ein Aura um sie, ein Medium]
that lent fullness and security to their gaze even as it penetrated that Medium.”52
In this important passage, Benjamin considers the terms “Aura ” and “Medium”
to be equivalent: they both indicate the specific density of the diaphanous halo,
the atmosphere that surrounds the material world of the nineteenth century as it
is represented through photography and that conditions the possibility of the modern
spectator to have access to it. According to Benjamin, such density had become
visible thanks to the specific technical properties—and limitations—of early
photographic techniques: in this case, the clear “technical determinedness of the
auratic appearance” that had in the long exposures demanded by the low sensi-
tivity of early photographic plates the technical cause of the absorbed attitude of
the represented subjects and the sfumato atmosphere (“the absolute continuum
from brightest light to darkest shadow”) that surrounded them.53 This atmosphere
would later be intentionally enhanced by pictorialist photographers, who “saw as
their task to simulate the aura using all the arts of retouching, and especially the
so-called gum print.”54
The photographs of Eugène Atget, “discovered” and publicized at the end of the
1920s by Man Ray and then published by Berenice Abbott, opened the path for a
radical break with the pseudoauratic atmosphere of pictorialist photography. Just
as “an actor who, disgusted with the profession, wiped off the mask and then set
about removing the makeup from reality too,” Atget is presented by Benjamin as
a photographer who begins to “disinfect the stifling atmosphere generated by
conventional portrait photography in the age of the decline. He cleanses this

18 Grey Room 62
atmosphere—indeed, he dispels it altogether: he initiates the emancipation of
object from aura, which is the most signal achievement of the latest school of pho-
tography.”55 Atget’s photographs, representing the empty, unadorned spaces of the
streets and the squares of Paris without the typical sfumato of pictorialist photog-
raphy, “suck the aura out of reality like water from a sinking ship.”56 In this way,
they contribute to “the peeling away of the object’s shell, the destruction of the
aura” that opens the path for a new political “education” of the gaze that will be
further pursued by the surrealists and by photographers such as August Sander in
his “training manual” (Übungsatlas) titled Face of Our Time.57
A year after the “Little History of Photography,” the term Medium appears in
“The Telephone,” one of the chapters of “Berlin Childhood around 1900.” In it,
Benjamin describes the changing status of the telephone as Apparat in bourgeois
homes—from its hidden position “in the dark hallways in the back of the house”
to its “regal entry into the cleaner and brighter rooms that now were inhabited by
a younger generation”—and uses the term Medium, with a clear reference to the
occultist tradition, in order to describe the impression that the voice received
through the telephone made on him.58 Benjamin’s passage recalls Thomas Edison’s
idea of developing a “spirit phone” capable of hearing and recording the voices of
the dead:
At that time, the telephone still hung—an outcast settled carelessly between
the dirty-linen hamper and the gasometer—in a corner of the back hallway,
where its ringing served to multiply the terrors of the Berlin household.
When, having mastered my senses with great effort, I arrived to quell the
uproar after prolonged fumbling through the gloomy corridor, I tore off the
two receivers, which were heavy as dumbbells, thrust my head between
them, and was inexorably delivered over to the voice that now sounded.
There was nothing to allay the violence with which it pierced me. Powerless,
I suffered, seeing that it obliterated my consciousness of time, my firm
resolve, my sense of duty. And just as the Medium obeys the voice that takes
possession of him from beyond the grave, I submitted to the first proposal
that came my way through the telephone.59
The short text “Excavation and Memory” (“Ausgraben und Erinnern”), closely
connected both to the two autobiographical projects of “Berlin Chronicle” (1932)
and “Berlin Childhood around 1900” and to the historical research Benjamin was
conducting in the Arcades Project, presents yet another interesting use of the term
Medium as a spatially extended domain, in this case a true geological, stratified

Somaini | Walter Benjamin’s Media Theory: The Medium and the Apparat 19
ground.60 Here “memory” (Gedächtnis) is presented as a Medium in the sense of a
geological site in which “that which is experienced . . . lies buried.” “Language,”
Benjamin writes, “has unmistakably made plain that memory is not an instrument
for exploring the past, but rather a Medium. It is the Medium of that which is expe-
rienced, just as the earth is the Medium in which ancient cities lie buried.”61
Historical research within this Medium has to be conducted according to the rules
of a proper archaeological excavation:
He who seeks to approach his own buried past must conduct himself like a
man digging. Above all, he must not be afraid to return again and again to the
same matter; to scatter it as one scatters earth, to turn it over as one turns over
soil. For the “matter itself” is no more than the strata which yield their long-
sought secrets only to the most meticulous investigation. That is to say, they
yield those images that, severed from all earlier associations, reside as treasures
in the sober rooms of our later insights—like torsos in a collector’s gallery.62
Strictly connected to the texts on the labyrinthine, stratified spaces of Pompeii,
Herculaneum, and Naples, this fragment presents a view of historical research that
is inspired by classical archaeology as an epistemological model, a model also
referred to, in the same years, by figures such as Freud and Sergei Eisenstein.63 The
passage presents a synthetic vision of the vast archaeological project that Benjamin
would later develop in the Arcades Project, in which the Medium to be excavated
is the city of Paris, with all its levels and stratifications, from the Eiffel Tower all
the way down to the Catacombs. The memory in which the past is stored—memory
as Gedächtnis, as repository of past experiences, different from memory as
Erinnerung, the act of remembering such experiences—is here considered by
Benjamin as a spatially extended Medium, ground, or milieu in which the histo-
rian finds “images” that are “severed from earlier associations”: fragments that,
like ancient “torsos,” need to be extracted from the ground, documenting as in a
“good archaeological report” the various strata that have been penetrated in order
to locate them.
The two essays “Doctrine of the Similar” and “On the Mimetic Faculty”—two
versions of the same text—recall both the understanding of language as Medium
in the essay “On Language as Such and on the Language of Man,” and that of the
work of art as a “living center of reflection” in the essay “The Concept of Criticism
in German Romanticism.”64 Benjamin deals here with what he calls the “mimetic
faculty”: “the gift for producing similarities . . . and also the gift of recognizing
them.”65 Such a “mimetic faculty,” which allows one to perceive “nonsensuous

20 Grey Room 62
similarities” between distant realms of reality, has, according to Benjamin, “a
history, in both the phylogenetic and the ontogenetic sense.”66 Still highly devel-
oped in “children” as well as in “the ancients or even . . . the primitive peoples”
(Benjamin mentions children’s play, which is “everywhere permeated by mimetic
modes of behavior,” as well as beliefs in microcosm-macrocosm correspondences,
astrology, haruspicy—the “reading” of entrails—clairvoyance, dance, script in the
form of runes and hieroglyphs), such faculty entered a state of “increasing fragility”
in “the perceptual world (Merkwelt) of modern human beings.”67 Its fragility could
simply be a transformation or a displacement: “The question is simply: Are we
dealing with a dying out [Absterben] of the mimetic faculty, or rather perhaps with
a transformation [Verwandlung] that has taken place within it?”68
The answer given by Benjamin is that, with the passage of time, “nonsensuous
similarities” have become less and less perceivable, thus requiring the develop-
ment of a new “mimetic faculty” based on new epistemological tools. The realm
in which such similarities have been first established and then stored (e.g., through
onomatopoeia ), and in which they can again manifest themselves, is language, and
therefore the “new” mimetic faculty has to operate within and through language.
Language is here presented as “an archive of nonsensuous similarities, of nonsen-
suous correspondences” in which similarities are stored and can be rediscov-
ered.69 The term Medium appears in this context as a way of further explaining this
idea of language as “archive”: “a Medium into which the earlier perceptual capac-
ity for recognizing the similar had, without residue, entered to such an extent that
language now represents the Medium in which objects encounter and come into
relation with one another.”70
Once more, the Medium is presented by Benjamin as an extended domain in
which relations can be established. It is in language as an “archive” and a Medium
that reading has to find the right “tempo,” the right “swiftness,” that allows
us to read what was never written: that is, to find the “mediating links”
(Vermittlungsglieder) in order to perceive nonsensuous similarities that “flash up
fleetingly out of the stream of things only in order to sink down once more . . .
a critical moment, which the reader must not forget at any cost lest he go away
empty-handed.”71 The perception of similarities, Benjamin explains, “flits past,
can possibly be won again, but cannot be held fast as can other perceptions,” since
“it offers itself to the eye as fleetingly and transitorily as a constellation of stars”—
an idea that recalls the sudden, ephemeral appearance of the constellations
produced by the “dialectical images” described in section N of the Arcades Project
and in the theses “On the Concept of History.”72

Somaini | Walter Benjamin’s Media Theory: The Medium and the Apparat 21
The Arcades Project—the vast archaeological project aimed at excavating the
“primal history [Urgeschichte] of the 19th century”—is the context in which
Benjamin will put into practice this idea of language as “archive” and “Medium”
and of reading as the search for “critical moments.”73 Working through a “literary
montage” of fragments that can be understood as a modern reinterpretation of the
mimetic faculty, Benjamin develops an archaeology of the material culture of nine-
teenth-century Paris in order to find in it the first signs of the “transformations in
the Medium of perception” that he will further analyze in the artwork essay. In one
of the versions of the theses “On the Concept of History,” closely connected to the
fragments on the theory of historical knowledge gathered in the Konvolut N, we
find what is probably the last passage in Benjamin’s writings that mentions
the term Medium, a passage that summarizes Benjamin’s vision of history and
presents time itself as a Medium: “History is the object of a construction, whose
Medium [other versions of the same passage use Ort, “site”] is not homogeneous,
empty time, but time filled full by now-time [Jetztzeit].”74
By breaking the continuum of historical time, by searching for those “dialectical
images” in which the “then” and the “now” are suddenly brought together in a
constellation that appears in a “spark,” Benjamin was trying to find in the non-
homogeneous “Medium” of time the connections between the transformations in the
“Medium of perception” during the first decades of the twentieth century and their
antecedents in the nineteenth century. As Benjamin writes in one of the fragments
of the Arcades Project, “the degree of auratic saturation of human perception has
fluctuated widely in the course of history.”75 Since the aura is one of the densities
of the “Medium of perception,” as we know from the “Little History of Photography,”
I shall now analyze the writings in which Benjamin examines one of the sub-
stances capable of influencing such fluctuations in the degrees of “auratic satura-
tion”: hashish.

3. The Role of Hashish in Benjamin’s Media Theory


In the “Little History of Photography,” Benjamin presents aura as an equivalent of
the term Medium. Commenting on the “countenance” of the human beings repre-
sented in early photographs and on the “silence” that seemed to surround them,
Benjamin writes, “there was an aura about them, a Medium that lent fullness and
security to their gaze even as it penetrated that Medium.”76 Before presenting, in
the artwork essay, the concept of aura as a synthesis of all the traditional values
of the work of art that were being gradually “liquidated” in the age of its techno-
logical reproducibility, Benjamin uses the term Aura in order to indicate a diaphanous

22 Grey Room 62
halo that can be captured and recorded by the photographic camera.
This idea of the aura as an airy, atmospheric entity is directly connected with
the meanings of the terms ἂυρα and aura in Greek and Latin (where they indicate
a breeze, a fleeting waft of air).77 Benjamin’s use of aura must also be located
among other atmospheric interpretations of this concept advanced between the end
of the nineteenth century and the first decades of the twentieth: in the theories and
the photographs presented by Hippolyte Baraduc in his L’âme humaine, ses mou-
vements, ses lumières, et l’iconographie de l’invisible fluidique (1896), in which
the aura, a halo of “vibrations lumineuses” that remain invisible to the unaided
human eye, is captured by the photographic plate as an opaque “veil” that sur-
rounds the subjects portrayed (women in a state of “hysteria,” children, an abbot,
Baraduc himself) as “a luminous fabric, like a piece of knitting with stitches and
knots”; in Léon Daudet’s Mélancholia (1928), in which the “aura” is presented as
one of the consistencies of the “ambiance,” the intermediary, emotionally charged
atmosphere or sensorium surrounding every human being that, according to
Daudet, could be seen only through photography; and, finally, in the writings of
some of the authors belonging to the circle of the Münchener Kosmiker, such as
Ludwig Klages and Karl Wolfskehl, both of whom mention the notion of aura in
their writings.78 Klages, in his Der Geist als Widersacher der Seele (1922), presents
aura both as a “fluidal shudder” or “veil” surrounding the “primal” or “archaic
images” (Urbilder), and, in the chapter on the perception of farness and nearness
(two modes of perception that play a crucial role in Benjamin’s media theory), as
an equivalent of terms such as genius loci, nimbus, and atmosphere.79 Wolfskehl
mentions aura in a text titled “Lebensluft” (Air of life, 1929) and presents it as an
“atmosphere” surrounding every material being: “We may call it aura or use a less
‘occult’ term—every material being radiates it, has, as it were, its own specific
atmosphere. Whether animate or inanimate . . . , created by human hand or unin-
tentionally produced, everything thus pushes beyond itself, surrounds itself with
itself, with a weightless fluidal husk.”80
In Benjamin’s writings the notion of aura appears for the first time in his texts
on hashish, a body of work written in connection with a series of drug experiments
that took place from 1927 to 1934. These texts—in which one hears the echo of an
entire tradition of French literature on hashish, ranging from Théophile Gautier’s
“Le Club de Hachichins” (1846) to Baudelaire’s “Les paradis artificiels” (1860)—
are extremely important for our reading of Benjamin’s media theory, since in them
one can find the origins of the idea of aura as one of the densities and consistencies
of the “Medium of perception.”81 Benjamin considered the state of “intoxication”

Somaini | Walter Benjamin’s Media Theory: The Medium and the Apparat 23
(Rausch) produced by hashish to be a state that profoundly altered the spatiotem-
poral coordinates of sensory perception, greatly enhancing our capacity to per-
ceive aura. This is presented as an atmospheric halo that surrounds all things,
including one’s own body, as we read in the text titled “Main Features of My Second
Impression of Hashish” (1928), in which Benjamin describes the feeling he expe-
rienced when at some point his friend the philosopher Ernst Bloch, who was par-
ticipating in the same experiments, wanted to touch his knee gently: “I could feel
the contact long before it actually reached me. I felt it as a highly repugnant violation
of my aura.”82 Under the effects of hashish, that specific density of the “Medium of
perception” that is the aura surrounding the body becomes a sort of extensions
of the body itself—another possible way of interpreting Marshall McLuhan’s idea of
media as “extensions of man”—and the contact between one’s own aura and an
external object can be felt even before the actual surface of the skin is reached.
In the text “Hashish, Beginning of March 1930” we find a long passage in which
Benjamin recalls a number of conclusions he arrived at concerning the nature of
aura during one of the drug experiments, distancing himself from the way in
which such notions had been used by the “theosophists” and the “spiritualists”:
These statements concerned the nature of aura. Everything I said on the sub-
ject was directed polemically against the theosophists, whose inexperience
and ignorance I found highly repugnant. And I contrasted three aspects of
genuine aura—though by no means schematically—with the conventional
and banal ideas of the theosophists. First, genuine aura appears in all things,
not just in certain kinds of things, as people imagine. Second, the aura under-
goes changes, which can be quite fundamental, with every movement the
aura-wreathed object makes. Third, genuine aura can in no sense be thought
of as a spruced-up version of the magic rays beloved of spiritualists and
described and illustrated in vulgar works of mysticism. On the contrary, the
characteristic feature of genuine aura is ornament, an ornamental halo [eine
ornamentale Umzirkung], in which the object or being is enclosed as in
a case. Perhaps nothing gives such a clear idea of aura as Van Gogh’s late
paintings, in which one could say that the aura appears to have been painted
together with the various objects.83
In “Crock Notes,” written in 1933, this connection between aura and ornament
is developed further:
There is no more valid legitimation of crock than the consciousness of having
suddenly penetrated, with its help, that most hidden, generally most inac-

24 Grey Room 62
cessible world of surfaces which is constituted by the ornament. We know it
surrounds us almost everywhere. Nevertheless, our power of comprehension
fails before the ornament as it does before few other things. Ordinarily, we
scarcely see it at all. In crock, however, its presence occupies us intensely.84
The state of intoxication produced by hashish is therefore a state of heightened
sensibility in which one becomes suddenly aware of that “world of surfaces” that
is the ornament, as well as of other floating, surface-like entities. To begin with,
under the effects of hashish one sees “only nuances” and is surrounded by “an
absolutely blizzard-like production of images.”85 “Whereas in our normal state
free-floating images to which we pay no heed simply remain in the unconscious,
under the influence of hashish images present themselves to us seemingly without
requiring our attention.”86 Colors are then mentioned as intermediaries, connecting
entities that appear in another light under the effects of hashish: in “Crock Notes”
they are described as “intermediaries or go-betweens in the realm of matter,” since
“only through them could the most widely divergent of these realms be wholly
united with one another.”87 Finally, in the state of Rausch caused by hashish, one
becomes particularly aware of the presence of textile-like entities such as “curtains
and lace,” the first being presented by Benjamin as “interpreters of the language of
the wind.”88
In “Main Features of My Second Impression of Hashish,” this heightened sen-
sibility for textiles leads Benjamin to comment on how, under the effects of hashish,
one develops a feeling of being enclosed,
an aversion to the open air, the (so to speak) Uranian atmosphere, and . . .
the thought of an “outside” becomes almost a torture. It is no longer, as it was
the first time, a friendly, sociable lingering in a room, out of sheer pleasure
in the situation as it is; rather, it is like being wrapped up, enclosed in a dense
spider’s web in which the events of the world are scattered around, sus-
pended there like the bodies of dead insects sucked dry. You have no wish to
leave this cave.89
The sense of being “wrapped up” or “enclosed” that one experiences under the
effects of hashish recalls several references to the enveloping and veiling dimen-
sion of aura that one finds in Benjamin’s writings. On the one hand, we find the
enveloping dimension of the auratic interior of nineteenth-century bourgeois
apartments described in the Arcades Project, a space in which precious objects
were constantly encapsulated and protected by coverlets, cases, and containers,
and in which the interior itself had gradually become “not just the universe but

Somaini | Walter Benjamin’s Media Theory: The Medium and the Apparat 25
also the étui of the private individual.”90 On the other hand, we find the veiling that
Benjamin associates with the notion of “beautiful semblance” (schöner Schein), a
notion that is closely connected to that of aura, as we know from the “second ver-
sion” of the artwork essay. Here, the idea of beauty as “beautiful semblance” is pre-
sented as “rooted in the age of auratic perception that is now coming to an end”
and is defined through references to Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s Aesthetics
and Goethe’s Elective Affinities, a novel that Benjamin considered to be “entirely
imbued with beautiful semblance as an auratic reality.” In his essay “Goethe’s
Elective Affinities” (1919–1922), Benjamin had summarized Goethe’s view of art
with a definition that once more mentions the enveloping and veiling functions
that are associated with the aura: “the beautiful is neither the veil [Hülle, also
meaning husk] nor the veiled object but rather the object in its veil.”91
The idea that the aura is one of the possible densities of the “Medium of per-
ception” is therefore underlined by Benjamin through the use of terms such as
halo, veil, husk, cover, case, étui. These terms emphasize the enclosing and envelop-
ing dimension of aura, but also the fact that its presence can be reinforced or weak-
ened by a whole series of materials and technical Apparate. If “the degree of
auratic saturation of human perception has fluctuated widely in the course of
history,” such fluctuations are produced by the action of different materials and
different technical Apparate on the “Medium of perception.”92 Objects that encap-
sulate and enwrap—such as étuis, coverlets, cases, curtains, and veils—emphasize
the presence of aura, while the transparency of glass architecture, as Benjamin
writes in “Experience as Poverty” (1933), accelerates its decline: “Objects of glass
have no ‘aura.’”93
Hashish—presented by Benjamin as a “preparation,” a Präparat, a term close to
Apparat—plays a crucial role in this perspective.94 The state of intoxication it
induces, the heightened sensibility one acquires under its effects, alter the spatiotem-
poral coordinates of our sensory perception and make us aware of specific folds of
the Medium, such as curtains and laces, and of that specific atmospheric density
of the Medium that is the aura. If the Medium is the milieu in which sensory
perception “occurs and is organized” and if aura is “a strange tissue [or “weave,”
Gespinst] of space and time: the unique apparition of a distance, however near it
may be,” as Benjamin states, with slight variations, in the “Little History of
Photography” and in the different versions of the artwork essay, then the intoxica-
tion produced by hashish is a way of discovering new coordinates and new layers
of such a spatially extended Medium.95 Like Gautier and Baudelaire before him,
Benjamin insists on the fact that hashish leads us into an “intermediate realm”

26 Grey Room 62
(Zwischenreich) that profoundly changes our experience of time and space: under
its effects “you start to play with spaces in general,” objects are “loosened . . . and
lured . . . from their accustomed world . . . and inserted . . . quickly in a new one.”96
Perception is “more stratified and richer in spaces,” and one experiences that
strange feeling that Benjamin calls “the colportage phenomenon of space: we
simultaneously perceive all the events that might conceivably have taken place”
in a determinate space.97
All these psychophysiological effects are similar to what Benjamin describes in
the artwork essay in relation to technological effects as the “optical unconscious.”
And this confirms once more the legitimate presence of hashish among the enti-
ties capable of altering the “Medium of perception.” Just as the Apparate of
photography and cinema are capable of unveiling, through techniques such as
close-ups and slow motion, a “space informed by the unconscious,” the Präparat
of hashish alters our sensory experience and enhances our capacity of feeling the
different densities of the Medium.98 Hashish is therefore a crucial element of
Benjamin’s media theory, like photography and cinema.

4. Benjamin’s Media Theory and the Tradition of the Media Diaphana


The conclusion we must draw from this extensive philological analysis of Medium
in Benjamin is clear: the term indicates neither a technical instrument, nor a form
of representation, nor a means of communication, nor the vast domain that since
the early 1920s has been delimited by the English term mass media —radio, film,
television, newspapers, the press.99 Instead, the term Medium indicates in Benjamin
first a series of different realms (color, the pictorial mark, language, criticism, memory)
in which some kind of material, cognitive, or discursive mediation occurs, and then,
in the “Little History of Photography” and the artwork essay, the “Medium of percep-
tion”: the environment, the milieu, the atmosphere, the Umwelt in which perception
is configured and organized by a series of steadily evolving technical Apparate.
Benjamin’s understanding of Medium is similar to that of other authors writing
during the 1920s and 1930s and differs sharply from the meaning the English term
medium acquired, during the 1930s and 1940s, in the writings of authors theoriz-
ing the medium specificity of art forms such as painting and cinema. If Rudolf
Arnheim, in the English translation of his Film als Kunst, can develop his theory
of film as an artistic form on the basis of an analysis of the “basic elements of the
film medium” that are different from those of other “media” such as painting,
music, literature, and dance; and if Clement Greenberg, in his “Towards a Newer
Laocoön” (1940), can define “purity” in painting as “the willing acceptance of the

Somaini | Walter Benjamin’s Media Theory: The Medium and the Apparat 27
limitations of the medium,” it is because both authors use the English term
medium to indicate the physical properties of a material support and the repre-
sentational possibilities considered to be specific to that support and its related
techniques.100 German-language authors such as László Moholy-Nagy and Béla
Balázs, to the contrary, never used the German term Medium to indicate photogra-
phy or cinema. These are named in their writings through terms such as Apparat
(apparatus, device), Mittel (means), Technik (technique), or Maschine (machine),
while Medium has the same spatial, environmental, atmospheric meaning we find
in Benjamin.
In Balázs’s Der sichtbare Mensch (Visible Man, 1924), for example, cinema is
presented as an Apparat (the Kinoapparat), a Mittel, a Maschine, an “art,” even
a new “sense organ,” but never as a Medium. This term, instead, is used by Balázs
to refer to those “atmospheres,” those “affective tonalities” (the untranslatable
Stimmungen) or even that Aura that only cinema can record and reveal on
the screen:
Atmosphere is, to be sure, the soul of every art. It is the air and the aroma that
pervade every work of art and that lend distinctiveness to a medium
[Medium] and a world. This atmosphere is like the nebulous primal matter
that condenses into individual shapes. It is the substance common to the
most disparate works, the ultimate reality of every art. Once atmosphere is
present, specific defects in individual works cannot do fundamental damage.
The question of the “origins” of this special atmosphere is thus always the
question of the deep source of every art.101
We find a similar understanding of Medium and Apparat in the writings of
Moholy-Nagy. In Painting Photography Film (1925/1927), photography and film
are presented as Apparate able to configure variously that essential “means”
(Mittel ), light, in order to produce different forms of “light composition”
(Lichtgestaltung). The term medium appears in a prominent position in an article
published two years earlier, in English, in the journal Broom. The article is titled
“Light: A Medium of Plastic Expression.” In it, Moholy-Nagy uses the term
apparatus to discuss the “photographic apparatus”—the series of material and
technical elements (sensitive plate, lenses, mirror arrangements, etc.) that allow
for the production of photographic images, with or without camera—while the
term medium is used to indicate light as a “plastic medium” that can be molded,
configured, and recorded in different ways by the photographic apparatus. Even
though this text is published in English rather than German, the distinction

28 Grey Room 62
between apparatus and medium is clearly based on the distinction between
Apparat and Medium that we have found in Benjamin and Balázs. Light, a spa-
tially extended, atmospheric entity, is here presented as a “medium of expression,”
or “medium of composition,” that can be “filtered, reflected or refracted” through
different materials such as “water, oil, acids, crystal, metal, glass, tissue, etc.” that
act as other kinds of extended, spatial “media.”102 In the later book Von Material zu
Architektur (1929), conceived as a presentation of Moholy-Nagy’s teaching methods
at the Bauhaus, light is presented as a material that can connect the surface of
representation with the surrounding atmosphere:
the reflections and refractions bring the surroundings into the picture sur-
face, attaining the surface flexibility striven for ever since the first days of
impressionism. . . .
The surface becomes a part of the atmosphere [atmosfäre], of the atmos-
pheric background, in that it sucks up the light phenomena produced outside
itself—a vivid contrast to the classical conception of the picture: the illusion
of an open window.
This stage in a manner marks the close of impressionism; it represents the
mastery of the surface, not for plastic but for clearly spatial ends.103
The use of Medium by authors such as Balázs, Moholy-Nagy, and Benjamin is
similar to what we find in other German authors writing during the 1920s and
1930s about the nature of our sensory experience of space outside the field of pho-
tography, film, and art theory. For example, the biologist and zoologist Jakob
Johann von Uexküll, who in his Umwelt und Innenwelt der Tiere (1909/1921) uses
the term Medium to name the spatial configurations (material articulations, atmos-
pheric densities, fluid currents) of the Umwelt, the living environment in which
every animal perceives and acts; the philosopher and graphologist Ludwig Klages,
who in his Der Geist als Widersacher der Seele writes about “the Medium of
perceptual space”; and the neurologist, psychiatrist, and phenomenologist Erwin
Straus, who in his Vom Sinn der Sinne (1935) uses the term Medium to distinguish
the geometrically organized, “objective Medium” of “perception” from the loosely
structured, lived space of “sensation.”104 Finally, the Gestalt psychologist Fritz
Heider published an essay titled Ding und Medium (Thing and Medium, 1926) that
is essential to our discussion.105 Heider uses the term Medium in order to explain
how we identify causal relations in the world surrounding us by freely distin-
guishing between what we perceive as a loosely structured “ground”—the
Medium—and the more strictly structured configurations that we consider as

Somaini | Walter Benjamin’s Media Theory: The Medium and the Apparat 29
Dinge, “things.” In this constructivist approach to our perception of the world,
light and sound waves, water, glass, fog, and air are indicated by Heider as exam-
ples of the different mediating substances that constitute the general Medium, the
“sphere” in which our experience takes place.106 According to Heider—whose
basic approach anticipates aspects of Benjamin’s—the Medium is a dynamic,
plastic sensorium, within which “things” appear and disappear according to the
different viewpoints and intentions that structure our interaction with the mater-
ial world.
Examples such as these show how, in the German context—in a similar way to
what was happening in the English one, if we consider the meaning of medium in
the writings of authors such as T.S. Eliot, John Dewey, and William James, who in
The Meaning of Truth (1914) defines the “medium” as the “experienceable envi-
ronment . . . connecting knower with known”—the term Medium was still associ-
ated with a long, post-Aristotelian tradition that understood the Latin term
medium as indicating both the intermediary realm in which our sensory experi-
ence takes place, and the different in-between substances that, with their various
densities and various degrees of transparency, constitute such a realm.107
The history of this idea of medium begins with the notions of diaphanes and
metaxy in Aristotle’s treatise De Anima .108 According to Aristotle, vision cannot
happen in the void: in order for vision to be possible, an intermediary substance—
the diaphanes, which is colorless and not visible per se—must exist between the
human body and the objects perceived. Once the diaphanes passes from the state
of potency to that of act, it moves from darkness to light, and it can be activated
by color, transmitting then the action of color toward the human sensorium
(aistheterion).109 The diaphanes involved in the process of vision is just one of the
several manifestations of the metaxy, a term through which Aristotle names all
those necessary, intermediary entities that make sensory experience possible by
transmitting the forms of external objects to the sensory organs: diaphanous sub-
stances like air and water, for example, can be a metaxy for seeing, hearing, and
smelling; saliva and other liquids can be a metaxy for tasting, while the flesh of the
human body is a metaxy for touching.110 The Greek term metaxy will later be ren-
dered in Latin as medium by Michael Scotus, in his translation, around 1225, of
Averroes’s Commentarium magnum in Aristotelis De anima , a treatise in which
the medium becomes the condition of possibility not only of sensation but of
thought. This passage is crucial, for the realm in which experience in its entirety
takes place is now understood as a medium.111
In medieval and modern optics, the Aristotelian theory of diaphanes develops

30 Grey Room 62
into the theory of so-called media diaphana , the various diaphanous substances—
air, clouds, smoke, water, fluids, glass, crystals—that, with all their different states
and their different degrees of transparency and consistency, condition our sensory
perception. In the case of vision, media diaphana allow light rays to enter the eye
or project out of the eye according to the different theories of vision, but also influ-
ence their trajectory, giving place to the different phenomena of reflection and
refraction. A medium is therefore not a neutral, intermediary realm but a diversi-
fied and active spatial environment that configures in different ways our sensory
experience. This understanding of medium will be mobilized by Isaac Newton in
his Opticks (1704) to distinguish among different types of “aethereal” or “ambient
medium”—”transparent,” “pellucid,” “elastick,” “fluid,” “quiescent,” “vibrating,”
“uniform,” “refracting,” or “reflecting”—up to the point of identifying the “aethe-
real medium” as the “sensorium of God.”112
Throughout the nineteenth century, traces of the idea of media diaphana can be
found in authors writing in English, French, and German. To enumerate just a few
examples: in 1816 the English critic William Hazlitt writes of Turner’s paintings
that they are “representations not properly of the objects of nature, as of the
medium through which they are seen . . . they are pictures of the elements of air,
earth, and water.”113 In France, the term milieu and the expressions ambiance or
milieu ambiant, closely connected to medium and ambient medium, are used by
authors such as Hippolyte Taine, Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, Honoré de Balzac,
and Émile Zola in order to indicate different kinds of social, biological, or atmos-
pheric environment, while Henri Bergson uses milieu to describe the relation
between the body and its surroundings.114
In Germany, authors writing within the context of idealist philosophy and
Romanticism use the term Medium in a sense that is particularly important to
understanding the meaning assigned to it by Benjamin. While Hegel develops his
entire philosophical system around the idea that every historical or gnoseological
process unfolds dialectically through some kind of “mediation”—“sublation”
(Aufhebung) is a form of “mediation” (Vermittlung)—in the writings of authors
such as Friedrich Schiller, Johann Gottfried Herder, Novalis, Clemens Brentano,
Wilhelm von Humboldt, Christoph Martin Wieland, Johann Wilhelm Ritter,
Johann Gottlieb Fichte, Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling, Ludwig Feuerbach,
and Friedrich Schleiermacher, the term Medium appears in a series of expressions
and metaphors that refer back to the tradition of media diaphana and describe the
variability of the conditions in which perception takes place.115 The Medium is
here a substance analogous to clear air or fog, a smooth glass or a refracting prism,

Somaini | Walter Benjamin’s Media Theory: The Medium and the Apparat 31
a deforming lens or a colored filter, a shining crystal or a viscous fluid, a chemical
substance or an invisible (electro)magnetic field. The Medium may be either trans-
parent or opaque, bright or dark, colored or colorless, pure or impure, but its
nature is always somehow active: an instrument or a source of clarification or con-
fusion, illumination or disruption, truth or falsehood.
Just as with other important genealogical lines within the history of the concept
of medium—such as the tradition of the medius terminus of syllogism or the
occultist, mediumnistic tradition—the post-Aristotelian tradition of the media
diaphana continues in the second half of the twentieth century, intertwining and
overlapping in different ways with the theories that deal with media as technical
instruments performing different operations (recording, storing, transmitting, etc.),
or as means of (mass) communication. We find elements of this tradition in studies
that emphasize the material, spatial, environmental, geological, meteorological,
atmospheric, “aesthetic” dimensions of media: in Gilbert Simondon’s idea of a
technoaesthetic milieu associé and its later reinterpretation by Bernard Stiegler; in
Marshall McLuhan’s understanding of “media” as an “environment” with differ-
ent hot and cold temperatures, a vast realm in which human sensory organs are
extended through a technical sensorium; in Michel Foucault’s idea, explored in
L’archéologie du savoir (1969), that every field of knowledge is constituted by a set
of discourses and techniques that produce some form of quadrillage or “partition-
ing” of the “perceptual field”; in Régis Debray’s médiasphères and Jacques
Rancière’s partage du sensible; in Niklas Luhmann’s distinction between Medium
and Form, directly inspired by Fritz Heider; in Gernot Böhme’s investigations of
the aesthetics and the ontology of “atmospheres”; Peter Sloterdijk’s trilogy on the
different “spheres” of human existence; finally, in all the various contemporary
investigations of “media environments,” “elemental media,” “media physics,”
“media geology,” “media meteorology,” or “mediarology.”116 In the age of wireless
communications and “cloud storage,” and at a stage of media and technological
research in which the focus is on “fluid interfaces,” “mediated matter,” “respon-
sive environments,” and “tangible media”—to name just some of the current
research projects in development at the MIT Media Lab—Benjamin’s idea of
the “Medium of perception” and the entire genealogy of media diaphana may be the
object of a renewed interest.

32 Grey Room 62
Notes
1. Among the few, important exceptions are Tobias Wilke, “Tacti(ca)lity Reclaimed: Benjamin’s
Medium, the Avant-Garde, and the Politics of the Senses,” in Grey Room 39 (Spring 2010): 39–55;
and Markus Bauer, “Die Mitte der Mitteilung: Walter Benjamin Begriff des Mediums,” in Walter
Benjamins Medientheorie, ed. Christian Schulte (Konstanz: UVK, 2005), 39–47. Some brief remarks
on the meaning of the term Medium in Benjamin’s writings can also be found in Miriam Bratu
Hansen, Cinema and Experience: Siegfried Kracauer, Walter Benjamin, and Theodor W. Adorno
(Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2012), 108. On Benjamin’s media theory,
see the excellent anthology, Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological
Reproducibility and Other Writings on Media , ed. Michael W. Jennings, Brigid Doherty, and Thomas
Y. Levin (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2008); and “Walter Benjamin’s Media Tactics: Optics,
Perception, and the Work of Art,” ed. Michael W. Jennings and Tobias Wilke, special issue, Grey
Room 39 (Spring 2010). A close analysis of the meanings Benjamin assigned to the terms Medium
and Apparat served to organize an Italian anthology of Benjamin’s writings on media: Walter
Benjamin, Aura e choc: Saggi sulla teoria dei media , ed. Andrea Pinotti and Antonio Somaini (Turin:
Einaudi, 2010). On the role of media history in Benjamin’s theory of culture, see Sigrid Weigel,
“Detail, photographische und kinematographische Bilder: Zur Bedeutung der Mediengeschichte für
Benjamin’s Kulturtheorie,” in Walter Benjamin: Die Kreatur, das Heilige, die Bilder (Frankfurt: Fischer,
2008), 297–332.
2. In addressing this well-known and widely studied text, I shall refer both to the existing English
translations and to the new critical edition published by Suhrkamp in 2012, a volume edited by
Burkhardt Lindner that gathers all the textual materials related to this essay and introduces a previ-
ously unpublished, first version of the text. See Walter Benjamin, Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner
technischen Reproduzierbarkeit, ed. Burkhardt Lindner, with Simon Broll and Jessica Nitsche
(Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 2012), vol. 16 of Werke und Nachlaß: Kritische Gesamtausgabe. According to
this new critical edition, five versions of the artwork essay have been accounted: the erste Fassung
is the previously unpublished one; the zweite Fassung is the one known in English translation as the
“first version”; the dritte Fassung is the “second version”; the vierte Fassung is the 1936 French trans-
lation by Pierre Klossowski; the fünfte Fassung, finally, is the “third version.” Together with the var-
ious fragmentary texts that accompany them, the five versions of the essay have to be considered as
the textual body of one evolving and unfinished project titled The Work of Art in the Age of Its
Technological Reproducibility. English translations of three of the five versions of this text have been
published: the “first version” (zweite Fassung), trans. Michael W. Jennings, Grey Room 39 (Spring
2010), 11–37; the “second version” (dritte Fassung), trans. Edmund Jephcott and Harry Zohn, in
Selected Writings, vol. 3, 1935–1938 (hereinafter referred to as SW3), ed. Howard Eiland and Michael
W. Jennings (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2002), 101–33; and the “third version” (fünfte Fassung),
trans. Harry Zohn and Edmund Jephcott, in Selected Writings, vol. 4, 1938–1940 (hereinafter referred
to as SW4), ed. Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2003), 251–83.
3. The idea of technology (Technik) as producing different “configurations of nature” (Naturgestalten)
appears in a fragment of The Arcades Project directed against Ludwig Klages’s “reactionary”
antithesis between nature and technology. See Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, trans. Howard

Somaini | Walter Benjamin’s Media Theory: The Medium and the Apparat 33
Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999), fragment K 1a, 3,
page 390.
4. Benjamin, Work of Art (“second version”), 115, 120; and Benjamin, Work of Art (“third
version”), 263. In one of the manuscripts related to the “second version,” Benjamin writes, “cinema
is the first artistic means [Kunstmittel] that is capable of showing the interplay between human
beings and matter [Materie].” Benjamin, Das Kunstwerk, 153. We may refer, here, to Lorenz Engell’s
idea that media theories are always influenced by the specific medium they choose as a reference or
vantage point: in this perspective, the artwork essay can be considered as a media theory formulated
from the vantage point of cinema. See Lorenz Engell, “Affinität, Eintrübung, Plastizität: Drei Figuren
der Medialität aus der Sicht des Kinematographen,” in Was ist ein Medium? ed. Stefan Münker and
Alexander Roesler (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 2008), 185–210.
5. Benjamin, Work of Art (“second version”), 104; and Benjamin, Work of Art (“third version”),
255. See also Wilke, “Tacti(ca)lity Reclaimed,” 40.
6. On the influence of Riegl’s ideas on Benjamin—who nevertheless inverts the Rieglian scheme,
describing a passage from the optical to the haptic—see Wolfgang Kemp, “Fernbilder: Benjamin und
die Kunstwissenschaft,” in Walter Benjamin im Kontext, ed. Burckhardt Lindner (Frankfurt:
Suhrkamp, 1978), 224–56; Michael W. Jennings, “Walter Benjamin and the Theory of Art History,”
in Walter Benjamin 1892–1940, zum 100. Geburtstag, ed. Uwe Steiner (Bern: Lang, 1992), 77–102;
Wilke, “Tacti(ca)lity Reclaimed”; and Andrea Pinotti, “The Painter through the Fourth Wall of China:
Benjamin and the Threshold of the Image,” in Benjamin-Studien 3, ed. Daniel Weidner and Sigrid
Weigel (Munich: Fink, 2014), 133–52.
7. On the correlation between the history of artistic styles and the history of perceptual modes in
authors such as—among others—Gottfried Semper, Alois Riegl, Heinrich Wölfflin, and Wilhelm
Worringer, see Andrea Pinotti, Il corpo dello stile: Storia dell’arte come storia dell’estetica a partire
da Semper, Riegl, Wölfflin (Milan: Mimesis, 2001).
8. Karl Marx, “Private Property and Communism,” in Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of
1844 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1959), 45–46.
9. Walter Benjamin, “Une lettre de Walter Benjamin au sujet de Le Regard de Georges Salles”
[zweite Fassung], in Gesammelte Schriften, vol. 3, ed. Hella Tiedemann-Bartels (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp,
1972), 595.
10. Walter Benjamin, “Review of Sternberger’s Panorama ,” in SW4, 146.
11. Benjamin, “Review of Sternberger’s Panorama ,” 146.
12. Walter Benjamin, “The Paris of the Second Empire in Baudelaire” (1938), in SW4, 3–92; Walter
Benjamin, Central Park (1939), in SW4, 161–99; and Walter Benjamin, “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire”
(1939–1940), in SW4, 313–55. The texts related to Benjamin’s project of a book on Baudelaire have
been recently published in a volume coedited in French and Italian by Giorgio Agamben; for the
French edition, see Walter Benjamin, Baudelaire, ed. Giorgio Agamben, Barbara Chitussi, and
Clemens-Carl Härle (Paris: La Fabrique, 2013).
13. An analysis of Benjamin’s Arcades Project in terms of media archaeology can be found in Knut
Ebeling, Wilde Archäologien: Theorien materieller Kultur von Kant bis Kittler (Berlin: Kadmos, 2012).
14. On the “agitated veil,” see Benjamin, “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire,” 323. See also Walter

34 Grey Room 62
Benjamin, “Paris, the Capital of the Nineteenth Century [Exposé of 1935],” in Benjamin, Arcades
Project, 10, in which the crowd is described as a “veil.” On the “organization of perception,” see
Benjamin, Work of Art (“second version”), 104; and Benjamin, Work of Art (“third version”), 255.
15. Sigmund Freud, “Notiz über den ‘Wunderblock’” (1925), in Gesammelte Werke, vol. 14, Werke
aus den Jahren 1925–1931 (Frankfurt: S. Fischer, 1948), 3; published in English translation as “A Note
upon the ‘Mystic Writing-Pad,’” International Journal of Psychoanalysis 21 (1940): 469. See also
Sigmund Freud, Jenseits des Lustprinzips (1920), published in English as Beyond the Pleasure
Principle, trans. James Strachey (New York: Norton, 1990). On the role of technical media in Freud’s
interpretation of memory in the “Note upon the ‘Mystic Writing Pad,’” see Thomas Elsaesser, “Freud
and the Technical Media: The Enduring Magic of the Wunderblock,” in Media Archaeology:
Approaches, Applications, and Implications, ed. Erkki Huhtamo and Jussi Parikka (Berkeley and Los
Angeles: University of California Press, 2011), 95–118.
16. Benjamin, Work of Art (“second version”), 117, 122; and Benjamin, Work of Art (“third
version”), 270. On “adaptation” and “innervation,” see Benjamin, Work of Art (“second version”), 124
n. 10; and the fragment “The Formula in Which the Dialectical Structure of Film Finds Expression,”
in SW3, 94, wherein Charlie Chaplin’s “way of moving,” his “Gestus,” is described as “a series of
minute innervations.” For an interpretation of these texts, see Hansen, Cinema and Experience,
132–62. On “incorporation” (Einverleibung), see the erste Fassung in Benjamin, Das Kunstwerk, 50.
17. Walter Benjamin, “The Rainbow: A Conversation about Imagination,” in Early Writings
1910–1917, ed. and trans. Howard Eiland (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011), 214–23.
The fragments on color and imagination are published in the section “Zur Ästhetik,” in Walter
Benjamin, Gesammelte Schriften, vol. 6, ed. Rolf Tiedemann and Hermann Schweppenhäuser
(Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1991), 109–29.
18. Walter Benjamin, “A Glimpse into the World of Children’s Books,” in The Work of Art in the
Age of Its Technological Reproducibility, and Other Writings on Media , 234; and Walter Benjamin,
“Der eingetunkte Zauberstab,” in Gesammelte Schriften, vol. 3, 417. On the role of clouds as
“Medium” in Benjamin’s writings, see Wolfgang Bock, “Dialektik des Nebels: Zu den Motiven der
Wolken und des Wetters bei Walter Benjamin,” in Archiv für Mediengeschichte—Wolken, ed. Lorenz
Engell, Bernhard Siegert, and Joseph Vogl (Weimar: Verlag der Bauhaus-Universität Weimar, 2005),
41–56.
19. Benjamin, “A Glimpse into the World of Children’s Books,” 234.
20. Benjamin, “The Rainbow,” 218–20.
21. Benjamin, “The Rainbow,” 218–19.
22. Benjamin, “A Glimpse into the World of Children’s Books,” 226.
23. Benjamin, “A Glimpse into the World of Children’s Books,” 226. On the motif of crossing the
surface of representation in Benjamin’s writings, see Andrea Pinotti, “The Painter through the Fourth
Wall of China.”
24. Benjamin, “The Rainbow,” 218–19.
25. Benjamin, “The Rainbow,” 215.
26. Walter Benjamin, “Die Farbe vom Kinde aus betrachtet,” in Gesammelte Schriften, vol. 6, 110;
and Walter Benjamin, “Phantasie,” in Gesammelte Schriften, vol. 6, 114.

Somaini | Walter Benjamin’s Media Theory: The Medium and the Apparat 35
27. Charles Baudelaire, Salon de 1846, in Œuvres complètes de Charles Baudelaire, vol. 2, Curiosités
esthétiques (Paris: Michel Lévy Frères, 1868), 88.
28. Wassily Kandinsky, Über das Geistige in der Kunst: Insbesondere in der Malerei (Bern: Benteli
2004), 108; and Wassily Kandinsky, “Über Bühnenkomposition,” in Der Blaue Reiter (Munich: Piper,
2004), 190–93.
29. Paul Klee, Tagebücher 1898–1918, quoted in Heinz Brüggemann, Walter Benjamin über Spiel,
Farbe und Phantasie (Würzburg, Germany: Königshausen und Neumann, 2007), 175.
30. The passage is quoted by Benjamin in “A Glimpse into the World of Children’s Books,” 234.
31. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Farbenlehre (Stuttgart: Verlag Freies Geistesleben, 2003), 104–7.
32. Goethe, 45.
33. Goethe, 45, 56, 58.
34. Walter Benjamin, “Painting, or Signs and Marks,” in Selected Writings, vol. 1, 1913–1926 (here-
inafter referred to as SW1), ed. Marcus Bullock and Michael W. Jennings (Cambridge, MA: Belknap
Press, 2004), 83–86; and Gershom Scholem, Tagebücher nebst Aufsätzen und Entwürfen bis 1923,
quoted in Brüggemann, 146. On Benjamin and cubism, see Annie Bourneuf, “‘Radically Uncolorful
Painting’: Walter Benjamin and the Problem of Cubism,” Grey Room 39 (Spring 2010): 74–93.
35. Benjamin, “Painting, or Signs and Marks,” 85.
36. Benjamin, “Painting, or Signs and Marks,” 85.
37. Benjamin, “Painting, or Signs and Marks,” 86.
38. Walter Benjamin, “On Language as Such and on the Language of Man,” in SW1, 69.
39. Benjamin, “On Language as Such,” 68.
40. Benjamin, “On Language as Such,” 68.
41. Benjamin, “On Language as Such,” 65.
42. Walter Benjamin, “The Concept of Criticism in German Romanticism,” in SW1, 120, 126, 155.
43. Benjamin, “Concept of Criticism,” 156.
44. Benjamin, “Concept of Criticism,” 165–67; and Friedrich Schlegel, “Athenaeum” Fragments,
in Classic and Romantic German Aesthetics, ed. J.M. Bernstein (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University
Press, 2003), 249.
45. Benjamin, “Concept of Criticism,” 144.
46. As Dieter Mersch observes, art and art criticism become here the privileged site of a reflection on
mediation as such. Dieter Mersch, Medientheorie zur Einführung (Hamburg: Junius, 2013), 23.
47. Walter Benjamin, “The Medium through Which Works of Art Continue to Influence Later
Ages,” in SW1, 235.
48. On the concept of medium in the context of the spiritist tradition, see Allan Kardec, Le livre
des médiums, ou Guide des médiums et des évocateurs (Paris: Didier, 1861).
49. Walter Benjamin to Werner Kraft, October 1935, quoted in Burkhardt Lindner, “Kommentar,”
in Walter Benjamin, Das Kunstwerk, 323; and Walter Benjamin, “Little History of Photography,” in
Selected Writings, vol. 2, pt. 2, 1931–1934 (hereinafter referred to as SW2.2), ed. Michael W. Jennings,
Gary Smith, and Howard Eiland (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2005), 507.
50. Benjamin, “Little History of Photography,” 508.
51. Benjamin, “Little History of Photography,” 512.

36 Grey Room 62
52. Benjamin, “Little History of Photography,” 515–17.
53. Benjamin, “Little History of Photography,” 517.
54. Benjamin, “Little History of Photography,” 517.
55. Benjamin, “Little History of Photography,” 518.
56. Benjamin, “Little History of Photography,” 518.
57. Benjamin, “Little History of Photography,” 520. The most extensive presentation of Sander’s
project Menschen des 20. Jahrhunderts can be found in August Sander, People of the Twentieth
Century, ed. Susanne Lange and Gabriele Conrath-Scholl (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2002). On
Benjamin’s interpretation of Sander’s project, part of which was published in 1929 in the volume
Antlitz der Zeit (Face of Our Time), see Antonio Somaini, “Übungsatlas: Die Atlas-Form und die
Schulung des Blickes,” in Medienkultur und Bildung: Ästhetische Erziehung im Zeitalter digitaler
Netzwerke, ed. Malte Hagener and Vinzenz Hediger (Frankfurt: Campus, 2015), 81–110.
58. Walter Benjamin, “Berlin Childhood around 1900” [final vers.], in SW3, 350.
59. Walter Benjamin, “Berlin Childhood around 1900” [final vers.], in SW3, 350.
60. The short essay “Excavation and Memory” was written by Benjamin in two versions: the
isolated, unpublished fragment “Excavation and Memory” (see SW2.2, 576), is published in the
Gesammelte Schriften, vol. 4, as part of a series of short texts entitled “Denkbilder”; the other is part
of “A Berlin Chronicle” (see SW2.2, 611).
61. Benjamin, “Excavation and Memory,” 576. In the version published in “A Berlin Chronicle,”
the term that appears here as “but rather a Medium” is not Medium but Schauplatz (“theater,”
“scene”). See Benjamin, “A Berlin Chronicle,” 611.
62. Benjamin, “Excavation and Memory,” 576.
63. The text on Naples can be found in SW1, 414–21. The text on Pompei and Herculaneum was
written in 1931 for a radio conference. See Walter Benjamin, “Untergang von Herculanum und
Pompeji,” in Gesammelte Schriften, vol. 7, pt. 1, ed. Rolf Tiedemann et al. (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp,
1991), 214–20. On archaeology as an epistemological model in Kant, Freud, Benjamin, Michel
Foucault, and Friedrich Kittler, see Ebeling, Wilde Archäologien. For an analysis of the archaeologi-
cal model in Eisenstein’s understanding of culture and consciousness, in relation to his film project
Que viva Mexico!, see Antonio Somaini, “Que viva Mexico! et le tournant archéologique dans l’œuvre
d’Eisenstein,” in S.M. Eisenstein (1930–1932)—Leçons mexicaines: Cinéma, anthropologie, archeology,
ed. Laurence Schifano and Antonio Somaini (Paris: Presses universitaires de Paris Ouest, forthcoming).
64. Walter Benjamin, “Doctrine of the Similar,” in SW2.2, 694–98; and Walter Benjamin, “On the
Mimetic Faculty,” in SW2.2, 720–22. See Blair Ogden, “Benjamin, Wittgenstein, and Philosophical
Anthropology: A Reevaluation of the Mimetic Faculty,” Grey Room 39 (Spring 2010): 57–73.
65. Benjamin, “On the Mimetic Faculty,” 720.
66. Benjamin, “On the Mimetic Faculty,” 720.
67. Benjamin, “On the Mimetic Faculty,” 720; and Benjamin, “Doctrine of the Similar,” 695.
68. Benjamin, “Doctrine of the Similar,” 695. In “On the Mimetic Faculty,” 720, instead of “dying
out” Benjamin writes “decay” (Verfall), which is the same term used to describe, in the artwork essay,
the “decay of the aura.” See Benjamin, Work of Art (“second version”), 104.
69. Benjamin, “On the Mimetic Faculty,” 722.

Somaini | Walter Benjamin’s Media Theory: The Medium and the Apparat 37
70. Benjamin, “Doctrine of the Similar,” 697.
71. Benjamin, “On the Mimetic Faculty,” 722; and Benjamin, “Doctrine of the Similar,” 698.
72. Benjamin, “Doctrine of the Similar,” 695–96.
73. Benjamin, Arcades Project, fragment N31, 2, page 463.
74. The passage appears in the version of the theses On the Concept of History known as the
Hannah-Arendt Manuskript. Walter Benjamin, Über den Begriff der Geschichte, ed. Gérard Raulet
(Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 2010), vol. 19 of Werke und Nachlaß: Kritische Gesamtausgabe, 25; emphasis
added. Other versions of the same passage contain the term Ort (site), instead of Medium. See
Benjamin, Über den Begriff der Geschichte, 40, 78, 102.
75. Benjamin, Arcades Project, fragment J 77a, 8, page 365.
76. Hansen comments on the equivalence between Aura and Medium in Cinema and Experience,
107.
77. See A. Deschard, Recherches sur aura: Variations sur le thème de l’air en mouvement chez les
Latins (Paris: Peeters, 2003).
78. Hippolyte Baraduc, L’âme humaine, ses mouvements, ses lumières, et l’iconographie de
l’invisible fluidique (Paris: Carré, 1896), caption to plate 35, quoted in Georges Didi-Huberman,
Invention of Hysteria: Charcot and the Photographic Iconography of the Salpêtrière, trans. Alisa
Hartz (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003), 94; and Léon Daudet, Mélancholia (Paris: Grasset, 1928).
On fluid photography, see Clément Chéroux, “La photographie des fluides: Un alphabet de rayons
invisibles,” in Le troisième œil: La photographie et l’occulte, ed. Clément Chéroux et al. (Paris:
Gallimard, 2004), 114–25. On Daudet’s book as a possible source for Benjamin’s reflections on
photography and aura, see Giorgio Agamben, Stanzas, trans. Ronald L. Martinez (Minneapolis:
University of Minnesota Press, 1993), 44–45. On the notions of ambiance and aura in Daudet, Marcel
Proust, and Benjamin, see Barbara Carnevali, “‘Aura’ e ‘ambiance’: Léon Daudet tra Proust e Benjamin,”
Rivista di estetica , no. 33 (2006): 117–41.
79. Ludwig Klages, Der Geist als Widersacher der Seele (Leipzig: J.A. Barth, 1922), 1,207, 1,103.
80. Karl Wolfskehl, Lebensluft (1929), quoted in Hansen, Cinema and Experience, 121. Hansen
compares Benjamin’s understanding of “aura” and that of the authors belonging to the circle of the
Münchener Kosmiker.
81. Charles Baudelaire, Les paradis artificiels, précédé de “La pipe d’opium,” “Le hachich” et
“Le Club des Hachichins” par Théophile Gautier (Paris: Gallimard, 1977). On literature and drugs in
the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, see Alberto Castoldi, Il testo drogato: Letteratura e
droga tra ottocento e novecento (Turin: Einaudi, 1994), 57–85.
82. Walter Benjamin, “Main Features of My Second Impression of Hashish,” in On Hashish, ed.
Howard Eiland (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2006), 27.
83. Walter Benjamin, “Hashish, Beginning of March 1930,” in On Hashish, 58; also in Walter
Benjamin, Selected Writings, vol. 2, pt. 1, 1927–1930, ed. Michael W. Jennings, Gary Smith, and
Howard Eiland (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2005), 327–28. On Benjamin’s views on theosophy
and occultism, see his 1932 review of Hans Liebstoeckl’s Die Geheimwissenschaften im Lichte unse-
rer Zeit: Walter Benjamin, “Light from Obscurantists,” in SW2.2, 653–55.
84. Walter Benjamin, “Crock Notes,” in On Hashish, 81.

38 Grey Room 62
85. Walter Benjamin, “Saturday, September 29 [1928]; Marseilles,” in On Hashish, 54.
86. Benjamin, “Hashish, Beginning of March 1930,” 60.
87. Benjamin, “Crock Notes,” 83. In their writings on hashish, Gautier and Baudelaire insist as
well on the altered perception of colors: in their case, what is emphasized is a synesthetic percep-
tion that associates colors with sounds. See Théophile Gautier, “Le hachich,” in Baudelaire, Les para-
dis artificiels, 38–39; and Baudelaire, Les paradis artificiels, 392.
88. Benjamin, “Crock Notes,” 82.
89. Benjamin, “Main Features of My Second Impression of Hashish,” 24; emphasis added.
90. Benjamin, “Paris, the Capital of the Nineteenth Century [Exposé of 1935],” 9.
91. Benjamin, Work of Art (“second version”), 127 n. 22; emphasis in original.
92. Benjamin, Arcades Project, fragment J 77a, 8, page 365.
93. Walter Benjamin, “Experience and Poverty,” in SW2.2, 734.
94. Benjamin, “Hashish, Beginning of March 1930,” 57.
95. Benjamin, “Little History of Photography,” 518; Benjamin, Work of Art (“second version”),
104–5; and Benjamin, Work of Art (“third version”), 255.
96. Benjamin, “Main Features of My Second Impression of Hashish,” 23, 27. The fact that hashish
changes our perception of time and space is underlined both by Gautier and by Baudelaire.
97. Benjamin, Arcades Project, fragment P 1a, 2, page 518; and Benjamin, “Main Features of My
Second Impression of Hashish,” 27.
98. Benjamin, Work of Art (“second version”), 117; and Benjamin, Work of Art (“third version”),
266.
99. The first occurrence of the term mass media , according to the Oxford English Dictionary, can
be found in Noble T. Praigg, Advertising and Selling (London: William Heinemann, 1923). The use
of the term became widespread in sociologically oriented studies of communication only during the
second half of the 1940s. See Irmela Schneider and Peter Spangenberg, eds., Medienkultur der 50er
Jahre: Diskursgeschichte der Medien nach 1945 (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck und Ruprecht, 2002).
100. Rudolf Arnheim, Film as Art (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press,
1957), 9; and Clement Greenberg, “Towards a Newer Laocoön” (1940), in The Collected Essays and
Criticism, 4 vols., ed. John O’Brian (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), 1:23–41. A shorter
English translation of Arnheim’s text was published in 1933 with the title Film. Significantly, the
term Medium does not appear in the German original, where the phrase reads, “die elementare
Materialeigenschaften des Filmbildes.” See Rudolf Arnheim, Film als Kunst (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp,
2002), 24. Rosalind Krauss sums up the normative dimension of Greenberg’s theory of medium
specificity in A Voyage on the North Sea (London: Thames and Hudson, 1999), 26.
101. Béla Balázs, Der sichtbare Mensch, oder die Kultur des Films (1924; Frankfurt: Suhrkamp,
2001), 30. On the concept of “atmosphere” in Balázs’s Visible Man, see Antonio Somaini, “Il volto
delle cose: Physiognomie, Stimmung e Atmosphäre nella teoria del cinema di Béla Balázs,” Rivista di
estetica , no. 33 (2006): 143–62.
102. László Moholy-Nagy, “Light: A Medium of Plastic Expression,” Broom 4, no. 4 (March 1923):
283–84.
103. László Moholy-Nagy, Von Material zu Architektur (1929), ed. Hans M. Wingler (Berlin: Gebr.

Somaini | Walter Benjamin’s Media Theory: The Medium and the Apparat 39
Mann, 2001), 90; available in English translation as The New Vision (1938; Mineola, NY: Dover,
1975), 86.
104. Jakob Johann von Uexküll, Umwelt und Innenwelt der Tiere (1921), ed. Florian Mildenberger
and Bernd Herrmann (Berlin: Springer, 2014), 63, 187; Klages, Der Geist als Widersacher der Seele,
633, 1,025; and Erwin Straus, Vom Sinn der Sinne (1935; Berlin: Springer, 1956), 332–35. Von
Uexküll distinguishes between two aspects of the Umwelt, the “perceptual world” (Merkwelt) and
the “action world” (Wirkungswelt), and Benjamin’s use of the term Merkwelt in his “Doctrine of the
Similar” may be considered a reference to this distinction.
105. Fritz Heider, Ding und Medium (Berlin: Kadmos, 2005); available in English translation as
Thing and Medium, in On Perception, Event, Structure, and Psychological Environment: Selected
Papers (Madison, CT: International Universities Press, 1959).
106. Heider, Ding und Medium, 51.
107. For the use of Medium in the German domain, see Medientheorie 1888–1933: Texte und
Kommentare, ed. Albert Kümmel and Petra Löffler (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 2002). In their introduc-
tion (12), the editors confirm how the German concept of Medium was never used in the 1920s and
1930s to indicate what today we consider as “media,” so much so that for the period they analyze
(1888–1933) one can speak only of “Medientheorien avant la lettre” (16). Significantly, the definition
of Medium given by the dictionary Der große Brockhaus in 1932 does not mention media as com-
munication but only physical Medien such as “rays of light” and spiritist/occultist Medien per-
forming parapsychological activities. On the meaning of medium in T.S. Eliot and William James,
see David W. Trotter, “Eliot and the Idea of ‘Media,’” in The Edinburgh Companion to T.S. Eliot and
the Arts, ed. Francis Dickey and John Morgenstern (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, forth-
coming). (I thank David W. Trotter for the insightful suggestions on this subject.) The passage by
James on “medium” as “experienceable environment” appears in William James, “The Function of
Cognition,” in The Meaning of Truth: A Sequel to “Pragmatism” (New York: Longmans, Green, 1914),
41. On the meaning of medium in John Dewey, see “The Common Substance of the Arts,” in Art as
Experience (1934; New York: Perigee, 1980), 195–97, wherein the “media” are the sensory organs
(e.g., the eye) and the substances (e.g., colors) through which we “touch the world,” as if through
some kind of “tentacle.”
108. On the history of the concept of Medium up to the beginning of the twentieth century, see
Stefan Hoffmann, Geschichte des Medienbegriffs (Hamburg: Meiner, 2002); and Stefan Hoffmann,
“Medienbegriff,” in Handbuch Medienwissenschaft, ed. Jens Schröter (Stuttgart: Metzler, 2014),
13–20.
109. Aristotle, De anima , B7, 418b, 5–6, and 419a, 15.
110. Aristotle, 419a, 20–21. For an analysis of the different “figures of mediality” in Aristotle (indi-
cated by terms such as mesotēs, meson, and metaxy in the different fields of ethics, physics, biology,
logic, and the theory of knowledge), see Emmanuel Alloa, “Metaxu: Figures de la médialité chez
Aristote,” Revue de Métaphysique et de Morale, no. 62 (February 2009): 247–62.
111. I thank Emanuele Coccia for his insightful suggestions on this topic. On Averroes’s under-
standing of the medium, see Emanuele Coccia, La trasparenza delle immagini: Averroè e l’averro-
ismo (Milan: Bruno Mondadori, 2005). For a contemporary reinterpretation of this idea of medium,

40 Grey Room 62
see Emanuele Coccia, La vie sensible, trans. M. Rueff (Paris: Payot et Rivages, 2010); available
in English translation as The Sensible Life, trans. Stuart Scott (New York: Fordham University
Press, 2015).
112. On the history of the notions of medium, milieu, and ambiance, see L. Spitzer, “Milieu and
Ambiance: An Essay in Historical Semantics” (part 1), Philosophy and Phenomenological Research
3, no. 1 (September 1942): 1–42; and L. Spitzer, “Milieu and Ambiance: An Essay in Historical
Semantics” (part 2), Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 3, no. 2 (December 1942): 169–218.
113. William Hazlitt, “On Imitation,” in The Round Table (London: Dent, 1969), 76.
114. See Spitzer, “Milieu and Ambiance” (parts 1 and 2).
115. See Hoffmann, Geschichte des Medienbegriffs.
116. See Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964), ed. W. Terrence
Gordon (Berkeley, CA: Gingko Press, 2011); Marshall McLuhan and Quentin Fiore, The Medium Is
the Massage (1967), prod. Jerome Agel (Berkeley, CA: Gingko Press, 1996); Michel Foucault, L’archéologie
du savoir (Paris: Gallimard, 1969), 50; Regis Debray, Vie et mort de l’image: Une histoire du regard
en Occident (Paris: Gallimard, 1995); Jacques Rancière, Le partage du sensible: Esthétique et poli-
tique (Paris: La Fabrique, 2000); Jacques Rancière, Le malaise dans l’esthétique (Paris: Galilée, 2004);
Niklas Luhmann, Die Kunst der Gesellschaft (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1995), 165–214; Gernot Böhme,
Atmosphäre: Essays zur neuen Ästhetik (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 2013); Peter Sloterdijk, Spheres, vol.
1, Bubbles, trans. Wieland Hoban (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2001); and Peter Sloterdijk, Spheres,
vol. 2, Globes, trans. Wieland Hoban (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2014). Both Hoffmann and Mersch
refer to the tradition of the media diaphana as the tradition of an “aisthetischer Medienbegriff.” See
Hoffmann, Geschichte des Medienbegriffs; Hoffmann, “Medienbegriff”; and Mersch, Medientheorie
zur Einführung. On Gilbert Simondon’s idea of “milieu associé,” see his Du mode d’existence des
objets techniques (1958; Paris: Aubier, 1989), esp. 61–65 (“L’individuation technique”). A synthesis
of Bernard Stiegler’s reinterpretation of Simondon’s notion can be found in Ars Industrialis, s.v.
“milieu,” n. 6, http://arsindustrialis.org/milieu#sdfootnote6sym. On “media environments” and
“elemental media,” see John Durham Peters, The Marvelous Clouds: Toward a Philosophy of
Elemental Media (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015). On the role of “media environments”
defining different forms of moving image viewing, see Francesco Casetti, The Lumière Galaxy: Seven
Keywords for the Cinema to Come (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015). On “media
physics,” see Walter Saitter, Physik der Medien: Materialien, Apparaten, Präsentierungen (Weimar:
Verlag und Datenbank für Geisteswissenschaften, 2002). On “media geology,” see Jussi Parikka,
A Geology of Media (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015). Finally, on “media meteo-
rology” or “mediarology,” see the introduction to Critical Terms for Media Studies, ed. W.J.T. Mitchell
and Mark B.N. Hansen (Chicago: University of Chicago Press), vii–xxii.

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