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Call for Papers: Walter Benjamin & the Nineteenth Century Today

December 12 - December 13

Walter Benjamin & the Nineteenth Century Today


International conference organized by
Institute of Modern Languages Research (School of Advanced Study, University of London)
in collaboration with
Textes / Littératures: Ecritures et Modèles (EA 4195, Université de Bordeaux Montaigne)
12 & 13 December 2019
Institute of Modern Languages Research, Senate House
Keynote speakers
Prof Michael W. Jennings (Princeton University)
Prof Marc Berdet (University of Brasilia) (tbc)


Walter  Benjamin  is  one  of  the  most  prominent  European  philosophers,  writers  and
commentators  of  the  interwar  period.  Today,  in  the  early  21st century,  his  work  is  more
influential than ever and available in translation across a wide range of languages – not only
his essays and articles, but also his literary texts, his correspondence, and countless notes and
drafts. Among the numerous fields he investigated, his understanding of the 19th
century and his conceptualization of the closely related concept of modernity are undoubtedly among his
most significant achievements, although he never completed his Magnum Opus, The Arcades
Project. Assuming with him and Michelet that “every epoch dreams the one to follow”, the
time has come, nearly eighty years after his death, to review the way scholars think about the
19th century today in light of his work – and this includes critical approaches that takes issue
with his ideas. The conference theme can thus be formulated in a more Benjaminian way: its
“subject  matter”  will be to  study  the echoes  today  of  how the 19th century dreamt  its own
future. Considering that criticism is always  a kind of historicization, the conference invites
papers on comparative studies of representations of the 19th century, both, those suggested by
Benjamin during the 1920s and 1930s and those of today suggested by researchers drawing on
his work. This questioning will focus on concepts as well as on topics, and if required on how
both are related. More precisely, how are notions such as kitsch, strolling or spleen relevant
today?  How  might  their  concrete  manifestations  in  forms  such  as  arcades,  exhibitions,
illuminations,  glass  architecture,  Jugenstil,  advertising  and  barricades,  enable  us  to  rethink
modernity  and  modernism?  What  topics  and  phenomena  could  be  the  equivalent  of  these categories
in  the  21st century:  climate  change  &  apocalypse,  intimacy  &  privacy,  social networks &
exhibitionism, vegetarianism, organic foods, zombies, corpses & bodies, healthy bodies,  tattoos,  and  so  on.
And  how  might  Benjamin’s  approach  to  analyzing  cultural representations  in  history,  and  the  heuristics
it  implies,  be  useful  in  conceptualizing  post-modernism?
Thinking about the 19th century, Benjamin focused on French figures like Baudelaire,
Daumier, Haussmann. But even if we do read Baudelaire through Benjamin, we will not be
reading  the  poet  in  the  same  way  that  Benjamin  read  him  in  the  1930s. What  are  current perceptions
of  Benjamin’s studies of  Baudelaire  and the nineteenth  century? And we  could ask the same question for Daumier
or Blanqui, among others. Also, how might a Benjaminian perspective be applied to major French writers like Flaubert
or Zola, who Benjamin read but did not really discuss, despite their being deeply involved in the social and
political fabric of the 19th century? Finally, which writers, caricaturists, architects or political activists might
be the  counterparts  of  Baudelaire/Daumier/Haussmann/Blanqui  in  non-French  traditions, beginning with the U.K.?
The famous formula “Paris, Capital of the 19 th century” implies that the 19th century, in Europe at least, is a
single whole – and this idea is latent in Benjamin’s writings. But the dissemination of his thought beyond Europe
questions such an idea, and we have to wonder if there  are  not  several  19th centuries  instead  of  a  single
one.  Papers  might  explore  this  idea either by identifying national specificities (e.g. French Anglophilia,
colonial influence over consumerism in the U.K., eroticism in Vienna at the turn of the century, and so on), or in a
same country, by exploring economic and cultural representations Benjamin did not address, such  as  medical
practices  (e.g.  psychiatric  care),  increase  in  government  bonds  and  stock speculation, boulevard theatre and
variety shows, figurative painting, survival of pop romantic aesthetics, and so on. A focus on what we might call the
rearguard of modernity might be particularly fruitful. To extend the previous idea, and because the conference will
take place in London, papers might consider Victorian London, and representations of the 19th century it embodies.
A comparative approach between the French 19th century as Benjamin understood it – or as
we  understand  it  today  by  appropriating  his  tools  and  concepts  –  and  the  Victorian  period should enable
us to get a better grasp of the period, and of its relevance for the present day. Furthermore, Walter Benjamin is not
the only thinker related to the Frankfurt School whose legacy enriches current research, and many scholars are
working on the 19th century and the concept of modernity by combining Benjamin’s proposals with, among others, Ernst
Bloch’s, Siegfried Kracauer’s or Theodor W. Adorno’s insights. How might their respective,
and not always converging, views lead to a new – if not better – understanding of the 19th century and related


Possible topics for papers include, but are not restricted to:
–  Benjamin’s 19 th
century today: concepts and topics
–  Rethinking modernity and modernism in light of Benjamin
–  19th century versus 19th centuries / Paris versus other European capitals
–  Benjamin’s thought & the Victorian era
–  Benjamin’s  counterparts  (Baudelaire/Daumier/Haussmann/Blanqui)  in  non-French traditions
–  Kitsch legacies: Graphic arts, Comics, Pop music…
–  Arcades, exhibitions, museums
–  Intimacy & privacy, social networks & exhibitionism
–  Benjamin and Post-modernism
–  Benjamin’s thought and apocalypse today
–  Benjamin and the legacy of the Frankfurt School


We welcome joint proposals for two-speaker papers; panel or round table proposals are also
Send abstracts (300 words) with title for 20 min papers and short bio (100 words) to
Jean-Michel.Gouvard@u-bordeaux-montaigne.fr  by  April 25
, 2019. Organizer: Prof Jean-
Michel Gouvard, TELEM, Université de Bordeaux Montaigne (France).
Walter Benjamin & The 19th Century Today


December 12
December 13


Institute of Modern Languages Research, Senate House
Senate House, University of London, Malet St, London, London WC1E 7HU United Kingdom
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