Panel 1: Construction
(Carolin Duttlinger, Oxford; Daniel Weidner, Halle)
In the mid-1920s, the avant garde catalyized for Benjamin a more active interest in contemporary culture. Dada, Surrealism, Constructivism, and New Objectivity, as well as the technical media, all marked a break with existing aesthetic traditions, thereby challenging the underlying “construction of life.” In Benjamin’s writings, this break is captured through notions such “positive barbarism,” “the poverty of experience,” and the destruction of the “aura.” Benjamin does not simply reject traditional notions of art and the artwork, but contrasts and displaces them with alternative processes: montage, construction, defamiliarization, distraction, and caesura. Adopting a transnational and intermedial perspective, he aims to dissolve the boundary between high and popular culture and invest art with a political dimension. For this panel, we are inviting papers that explore Benjamin’s engagement with avant-garde and popular culture. How can Benjamin help us understand the history of modernism and its ongoing legacy, and how can his writings also frame discussions about contemporary art and culture?
Panel 2: Utopia and Messiansim
(Ilit Ferber, Tel-Aviv; Gabriele Guerra, Rome)
Benjamin’s idea of “Hope” is far from being standard or even intuitive. In this panel we will explore this idea by taking a closer look at the way in which Benjamin interconnects hope with his other central terms: Utopia and Messianism. Benjamin was already preoccupied with both terms in his early writings (e.g. the mention of Ernst Bloch’s Geist der Utopie in the Theological-Political Fragment) and they remained central to his work until the end of his life (e.g. his interest in messianic time in the Jewish tradition in thesis XVIII of The Concept of History). In this panel we will bring these terms together in order to form a conceptual constellation that belongs to theology, the history of religion, philosophy, and the political, along with reference to the cultural context of Benjamin’s time. We will also emphasize Benjamin’s unique understanding of temporality and the ways in which it is expressed in his discussion of utopic and messianic time, discuss the relationship between hope, justice, and redemption, and try to re-think his understanding of violence and its possible link to hope. We invite Benjamin scholars from all disciplines—including religious studies, philosophy, literature, political science, and Jewish studies—to participate in the panel, where we hope to have a vibrant and interdisciplinary discussion.
Panel 3: Interventionist Thinking
(Jörg Kreienbrock, Evanston; Nassima Sahraoui, Hamburg)
In reaction to the political and economic crises of the late Weimar Republic, Walter Benjamin becomes more and more driven by a concept of critique understood as a form of “interventionist thinking.” According to Benjamin, interventionist thinking is by definition dialectical: it requires an “ethos of the materialist” (Haltung des Materialisten) that critically engages with the given political situation, renegotiating the distinction between theory and praxis, reflection and action. Interventionist thinking conceives criticism both as an epistemological reflection of a crisis and as a “social behavior” in a crisis, inventing new political practices and thus potentially bringing about a transformation—if not revolution—of the concrete political, philosophical, and economic environment of late capitalism. This panel will investigate how the idea of an “interventionist thinking” resonates in the political philosophy of Benjamin. What forms of critical knowledge production are paradigmatic for Benjamin’s idea of intervention? What is the politics of crisis in a crisis of politics? And finally, what modes of interventionist thinking envisioned by Benjamin might still be valid in the global crisis we are facing today?
Panel 4: Rescuing Critique
(Pola Groß, Berlin; Falko Schmieder, Berlin)
The method of “rescuing critique” is central to Benjamin’s thought. But what exactly are the critical impulses which are associated with the notion of rescue in his work? How does Benjamin use this concept to set himself apart from other critical positions? And how can the current role and position of rescuing critique be described? Benjamin’s own model is obviously based on a particular conception of time and history, which involves salvaging the repressed or overlooked moments of the past as well as those instances which harbor a promise of future happiness. This, in turn, is linked to a both epistemological and practical project of bringing back into memory those aspects of the material world which have been either marginalized by dominant ideologies or are difficult to capture in conceptual terms. Benjamin’s work as a literary critic and theoretician can also be understood in these terms: by reinterpreting texts, traditions, and phenomena which have grown incomprehensible or peripheral, he seeks to rescue them from oblivion, one-sided evaluation, or political appropriation. Finally, and going beyond Benjamin, this panel asks whether, and how, rescuing critique must continue to venture into new terrains. We are looking forward to your proposals.
Panel 5: Architecture, Environment, Natural-history
(Maria Teresa Costa, Berlin; Toni Hildebrandt, Bern)
Benjamin’s philosophy of history, of kairological time and of readable space enables us to rethink the concept of hope in conjunction with his idea of redemption. Many of his writings engage with the threshold between the 19th and 20th centuries and with related changes to the human condition and the perception of spaces. This situation causes Benjamin to deal with issues such as the environment (Umwelt), the relationship with other forms of life, with artifacts and their related media history, as well as with landscape, urban, and architectural changes. Many of his thoughts on space and time culminate in the idea of natural history (Naturgeschichte).This panel aims to deepen these aspects from an interdisciplinary perspective, inviting scholars from fields such as philosophy, art and architectural history, film and media history, queer, postcolonial studies, and the environmental humanities, as well as artists, to come into a dialogue with Benjamin’s writings on spatialities and temporalities of a visual epistemology, and to work together on their “now of legibility”.
Panel 6: Re-Reading
(Ursula Marx, Berlin; Martin Mettin, Berlin)
For Benjamin, the reading and analysis of texts holds the potential for an ever-possible renewal. As author, translator, editor, and reviewer, his criticism is closely connected to the hope for the “afterlife” of literary works. In this process, literature must not become a mere “object” of historical enquiry, but should rather emerge as an “organon of history.” As a critical reader, Benjamin looks at his object, the text, as the historical materialist looks at the past. This panel is devoted to a critical reading of Benjamin’s reception, asking both how Benjamin treats his literary sources and how he is in turn received by others. Concerning current scholarship, which research interests are most prominent and why? How does the German-language reception differ from the international one? Does the new critical edition Werke und Nachlaß change the interpretation of Benjamin’s work in comparison to the Gesammelte Schriften? If so, what (additional) insights does it offer? Concerning Benjamin himself, we are interested in the following questions: What interests guided Benjamin’s own reading? What methods of literary appropriation did he pursue? Which authors and themes did he take up, what did he ignore? What is the status of interpretive reading and critical hermeneutics in Benjamin’s thought? What is their relationship to the present?