A Better Tomorrow

Benjamen Walker
May 18, 2014 · 3 min read

Russell Meyer is a big hip-hop fan. When he learned that the Wu-Tang Clan will be releasing just one copy of their new album Once Upon A Time In Shaolin, he got fired up.

This single copy will be a sold in a hand-crafted, one-of-a-kind nickel-and-silver box for around five million dollars. RZA, the de facto leader of Wu-Tang, claims owning it will be like owning the scepter of an Egyptian king.

Russell and his buddy Calvin (who’s also a Wu-Tang fan) decided to crowdfund the money to buy the album themselves, but their new Wu brothers and sisters had a question for them: who would get to keep the box?

I doubt Russell’s Kickstarter poses a threat to the billionaire Wu-Tang fans out there in the world, and in the end I’m sure RZA doesn’t care who buys it — he just wants the music’s true value to be recognized.

But I can’t imagine that music staying in that box for long.

Talking with Russell about his Wu-Tang Kickstarter inspired me to take a book off my shelf: Walter Benjamin’s essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproducibility.

Thomas Levin is a New York-based media theorist who’s translated many of Walter Benjamin’s key texts. When he has his students at Princeton read this essay he makes sure they understand that Benjamin wrote this piece during a period of massive media historical and political upheaval — one just like our own.

Walter Benjamin believed that in the age of mechanical reproducibility the work of art gained new powers. While these powers could potentially be used for good, there was no guarantee they would be.

The potential that Benjamin writes about is something we’re still arguing about, and what makes this essay so relevant today.

When it became clear that the siege wasn’t going to end anytime soon, Hitler ordered a box of the classics of high German literature to be brought down into the bunker. But somehow the box got switched with a carton of books from the 1939 Decadent Art show.

It was an entire box of books and magazines written by Jews and homosexuals. Hitler was furious, but there was nothing he could do. The Soviets were closing in and there was no one who could be spared to look for a missing box full of Goethe and Hölderlin.

And so, the Führer became acquainted with Walter Benjamin.

This episode is a part of The Long Shadow series. Check out the rest of the series, and learn more, at Radiotopia.

    Benjamen Walker

    Written by

    Radio, Podcasts, Comics, Documentaries. Current show: Theory of Everything (PRX —Radiotopia), Past work: WFMU, WNYC, BBC, NPR, The Guardian

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