To track the circumstances surrounding the production of Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit entails scrutiny of a bulky wad of data, including various versions, pages of notes and numerous letters exchanges between Benjamin, his friends, editors, typesetters, translators and various other employees of the exiled Institute for Social Research. It soon becomes apparent that at every stage of its production this essay provoked disputes over translation, terminology and content.
Initial notes for the essay were written in the autumn of 1935. The first version of the essay was completed at the close of 1935. Benjamin decided to rework what he had described in a letter, written in October1935, as an exemplary set of materialist axioms of art theory. The second version, completed in February 1936, was a partial rewrite of the first version, and it included extra material and a number of additional concepts. This version was assumed lost for decades until its discovery in the Horkheimer Archive some years ago, and it was not made available by the publishers until 1991. This second version was translated in the spring of 1936 into a shorter French version, commissioned by the Institute for Social Research's journal, and
titled L'oeuvre d'art a l'époque de sa reproduction mécanisée. In the course of preparing the essay for what was to prove a very difficult work of translation squabbles began. In the main these quarrels focused on suggested edits. Max Horkheimer, aware of the Institute's precarious position as exile grouping in New York, was keen to defuse the committed politics of the essay. He wrote: We must do everything within our power to preserve the journal as scientific organ from being drawn into political press discussions. This would represent a serious threat to our work in this and perhaps other areas. Debarbing the politics meant expunging references to Marx and Marxism, and obfuscating comments directed at communists. That something was at stake in the differences between the second German version and the French version might be discerned from an event that took place in December 1936. Horkheimer tells Benjamin that Jay Leyda wants a copy of the essay in German so that he may translate it into English for the library of the Museum of Modern Art. He instructs Benjamin not to oblige, in order to avoid the admission of differences between the German and French versions. Divulgence of discrepancies, he warns, could lead to discussions. Such warnings were frustrating to Benjamin. He had written the theses on art precisely in order to initiate discussion amongst the left, in Germany, France, the United States, the Soviet Union, wherever. As numerous letters testify, Benjamin expended a lot of energy trying to get the essay published. He mobilized those of his contacts who were involved with left wing journals, including Brecht who had some influence over Das Wort, run from Moscow. He presented the arguments publicly in radical forums, in an attempt to get it published in Johannes Becher's communist journal Internationale Literatur. He tried to persuade someone to undertake an English translation. The theses were designed as an intervention into a debate on art, politics, the avant garde and propaganda, and Benjamin thought his contribution extremely important. He was especially keen for it to be read by communist aestheticians: he singles out Sergei Tretyakov in particular. His efforts at finding a wider audience did not really pay off. Benjamin's remoteness from the official Communist Party line on aesthetics and politics was to blame. His theoretical ventures were not welcome. In a letter to Alfred Cohn, written in July 1936, Benjamin mentioned resistance to Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit on the part of émigré writers in Paris who were members of the Communist Party. When Benjamin had presented ideas from the essay in lecture form writers in the audience who were party members attempted to block debate, but then fell into silence. Benjamin attributes this behaviour to their instinct for self preservation. The writers, he claimed, felt their own well practised belletristic activity to be under attack. Indicating how meagre he believed debate was in the Communist Parties in the 1930s, Benjamin also insists that the comrades were simply not up to discussing his theses. Ignored by the Party Communists, Benjamin's essay found publication in his lifetime only in French in the Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung, in edited and reduced form. As such it enabled Benjamin to fulfil one of his aims; to generate discussion amongst the French avant garde and literati. He monitored sales of the journal issue and inquired amongst his contacts about responses from French intellectuals.
During the translation of the second version, Benjamin began a third version, characterized by him as a work in progress in 1938 and again in 1939. Several theses and concepts from the second version of the essay were omitted in the third version. This third version also incorporates numerous reformulations and some new material; notably references to Brecht's Der Dreigroschenprozeß, and some additional quotations from Paul Valéry, Alexandre Arnoux, Rudolph Arnheim and Georges Duhamel. Some of the essay's Brechtian elements are amplified, perhaps as an act of defiance against Adorno who had expressed in a letter to Benjamin his fear that Brecht's sun would refuse to sink into exotic waters. For some time this third version has enjoyed canonic status as the definitive version particularly in the Anglophone world where its English translation by Harry Zohn, has long been the only available version. This third version achieved widespread notoriety and inclusion in numerous art history, cultural theory and media studies readers. The English translation, completed in 1968, is known as The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, though Benjamin's title translates literally as The Artwork in the Age of its Technical Reproducibility. This title evokes the wider idea of technological or technical, rather than the limited notion of mechanical. As such it allows the essay to be situated more firmly in Benjamin's ongoing study of Technik, a word that signifies both technology and technique. The word reproducibility underscores Benjamin's concern not solely with the reproductive forms of photography and film, but also with the implications of reproduction for all forms of art, once those technologies have been developed that make mass reproduction a possibility.
For more on translation/reproduction, see introductory essay