Due to many requests and the subsequent publication of the English Call for Papers, the deadline for submission of abstracts is extended to 28.1.2013.
Goethe Universität Frankfurt am Main & Universität Mannheim
In partnership with the International Walter Benjamin Society
International Conference on Walter Benjamin
„On the Concept of History / Writing History“
December 12-15, 2013
"Every age must strive anew to wrest tradition away from the conformism that is working to overpower it." This imperative from Benjamin's "On the Concept of History" by now itself belongs to a traditionthat is threatened. For, in the spectrum of his work, it is precisely his thinking about history that appears too indebted to metaphysical, soteriological, or revolutionary expectations to be capable of lending impulses that could be taken up today. And to what end? Benjamin's diverse writings certainly offer other, and wholly sufficient starting points. But do we make it too easy on ourselves if we ignore the thought on history? "On the Concept of History" is the last text in a series of radical essays in which Benjamin conceives an alternative conception of history. Already in the early writings, Benjamin was concerned to explode notions of history as a homogenous and empty temporal continuum – and to think that which has occurred as unconcluded and the future as inaccessible. The historical cannot be sought in the notion of a course of development, but must rather be conceived within the category of the Ursprung – not origin but primal leap – that annihilates this notion. Benjamin's historical pathos feeds off of these ideas and leads not only to the call for the actualization of the present moment but also to what he described in a letter to Gretel Adorno as the "concept of the 'Now of Recognizability' that I treat very esoterically." That which has been is accessible to no present moment as a possession.
In its radical nature, Walter Benjamin's theory of history assumes a singular position among the historiographies of the twentieth century. To classify it as fragmentary or essayistic underestimates its inherent coherence, its argumentative consequentiality, and its particular synthetic power. These derive from the manner in which discourses from the philosophy of history, theology, and politics are bundled in changing conceptual constellations and thereby transformed. Despite the breadth of the reception history of Benjamin’s work, his thoughts on history have failed to have a discernible impact on the dominant historiographical practices in the humanities. A reassessment of Benjamin's ambition to think history differently is thus all the more pressing, particularly if its potentialities are to be perceived and the hazardous natures of its engagements are to be considered. This conference hopes to push Benjamin's critical positions into the center of the theoretical and political discourses of his time. To do so it will be necessary to reflect upon the historical remove that separates us from Benjamin's context and to interrogate his texts for the challenges they pose to a historical understanding beyond the current chatter of "posthistoire." In doing so, the congress hopes to take seriously his assessment that the organization of human perception by media counts as one of the most important of all historical changes.
If Benjamin is to emerge as a theorist of historical knowledge, it isalso necessary to recognize him as a practitioner of the writing of history. It is not only the major works such as Origin of German Trauerspiel, "The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility," Deutsche Menschen, or The Arcades Project that propose specific ways of writing history; the many "smaller" works such as reviews, the radio texts, or the travel diaries reflect experiences apparently at history's margins and sketch astonishing historical constructions. These "little texts" await a more precise analysis, both in terms of their sources, their form, and their language.
Prof. Dr. Burkhardt Lindner Prof. Dr. Justus Fetscher
Professor für Geschichte und Universität Mannheim
Ästhetik der Medien sowie Seminar für Deutsche Philologie
Neuere deutsche Literatur (i.R.) Lehrstuhl für Neuere Germanistik I
Nadine Werner, M.A.
Institut für Theater-, Film-
Arbeitsstelle Walter Benjamin
Section 1: Benjamin’s Theses on the Philosophy of History as the model for a materialist historiography | Christine Blättler (Kiel), Irving Wohlfarth (Paris)
This introductory section extends the originally announced theme (“Critique of progress and historicism’”) into a more comprehensive problematic: how is Benjamin’s theory of history to be, firstly, understood and, secondly, implemented?
No philology without actuality, no actuality without philology: these are, according to Benjamin, the two scales of historical justice. According to the “Copernican turn” he proposed to introduce into the writing of history, the past revolves around the present. What are the “few massive weights” that define our present?
How did he himself implement this theory in the Trauerspiel book, the Arcades Project, the Baudelaire studies, etc.? Is it valid only for his own work or does it represent a general model of materialist historiography? If the latter is the case, why has it found so few echoes among professional historians? Is this in part because it champions not merely “history from below” but “the struggling, oppressed class in its most exposed situation”? And also because “the crisis into which the subject of history has entered” is today a very different one?
How, then, to read or ‘save” this theory today? Conversely, how does it read our present (and, for example, the fact, that capitalist ideology has itself dropped the belief in progress that was one of the Theses’ main targets)? From its perspective, has latter-day historiography (and much Benjamin scholarship) succumbed to a new historicism?
“Without some kind of testing (Prüfung) against the idea of a classless society”, writes Benjamin, history can only be falsified. True historical insight, he goes on, is the entry into a “hitherto locked chamber of the past” – one which “coincides with political action”. Could this mean that in an era such as ours historical insight is inaccessible!? Or, conversely, that the alternative posited by Benjamin between historical materialism and historicism is no longer viable? And, more generally, that, as Jürgen Habermas claims, his thinking isn’t “cooperative” (anschlußsfähig)? Doesn’t Benjamin scholarship have to ask itself such questions?
Instead of a call for papers, we have organized a blog in which these questions are to be ventilated by all interested participants over the coming year. The initial basis for discussion will be Benjamin’s Theses along with the accompanying paralipomena (in GS, 1,3). But it will be one of our collective tasks to compile a bibliography of historical works relevant to our purposes.
Our hope is that the section will thereby have been sufficiently well prepared for it to become a plenary Sprechsaal for free discussion and orientation of the ensuing sessions of the congress.
You can join the blog by writing for instructions. See the end of the CfP.
Section 2: Benjamin’s Sources | Heinz Brüggemann (Hannover), Erdmut Wizisla (Berlin)
In Benjamin’s writings on history and reflections upon the concept of history, reference texts are cited and related to one another as something other than the „sources“ they would be in a study in the history of concepts or ideas (on Benjamin’s distance from the concept of „source“ see GS I, 1160f.). Benjamin’s reflections can be understood in an eminent sense as „critiques“ that intend to intervene and bring about political action (see the catalog of „critiques“ in WuN 19, 129/130); they are at the same time the theoretical and methodological foundation of a new and different science of history. Benjamin’s way of writing operates with procedures which construct constellations as an image; it uses a montage of citations that are ripped from their material. Its content does not primarily consist of historical events. His presentation considers instead the fantastic pre-forms of the new in dream consciousness (cf. WuN 19, 122), those threatening or auspicious images, unconscious of, yet living in the past (cf. Br V, 296), as they have found expression in texts, fashions, advertisements, buildings, artworks, etc.
The issue with which this section grapples, then, is that of the ways in which this double determination conditions the status and function of the relevant texts, images, etc., making them media of reflection, in which, with which and (often) against which Benjamin thinks. In order to do justice to this issue, we propose discussing Benjamin’s materials on reflection within a series of contexts derived from their theme, problem, or critical approach. Let us briefly sketch this procedure on the basis of the text On the Concept of History: the present and backwards-looking prophecy / the restructuring of the space of experience and the horizon of expectation (F. Schlegel, Jochmann, Lotze, Kraus, Klee); culture and history as (false) continuum / discontinuity as the basis for an authentic tradition (Fuchs essay, neo-classicism of thegreat revolution, Marx's Eighteenth Brumaire, the new calendar, July Revolution, Zimmermann: Great German Peasants’ War); critique of cultural history / cultural assets (Brecht, Hegel, or Bible-motto); critique of progress as historical norm / labor and nature(Dietzgen, Marx, Turgot, Fourier); critique of empathy with the past (Fustel de Coulanges, Nietzsche, literary examples: Stifter, Flaubert); time, state ofexception and the „real“ state of exception (Carl Schmitt); action theory / liberation in the name of the defeated (Nietzsche motto; Blanqui, “Spartacus”, Marx); making-present [Vergegenwärtigung] (as example: Fourier). We also welcome contributions that pursue the aforementioned problematic in arguments relating to the theory of history within smaller texts such as the review of Werner Hegemann ("A Jacobin of today" WuN 13.1 280ff.) or in Benjamin’s notations on Jugendstil.
Section 3: Image | Justus Fetscher (Mannheim), Daniel Weidner (Berlin)
„History breaks down into images, not into stories“. For Benjamin, the image is a central category of the writing and description of history. It is a form in which not only the discontinuity and the relationality of the asynchronous, but temporalization itself can be thought: It is a „time differential,“ „time is stuck in it“. The image is thus central for Benjamin’s attempt to conceive history politically, i.e. out of its actuality or its particular now of recognizability. At the same time the image is a decisive mode of visualization and representation by means of which Benjamin adapts dialectical thinking and both takes up and transforms the conceptions of his early texts on the philosophy of language. The dimensions of the image include epistemology, media, as well as the theory of perception and memory; these dimensions extend beyond the problematic of history and historiography. Under Benjamin’s gaze – that of the graphologist, the physiognomist of the world of things, the theoretician of optical media and of the optical unconscious – that which is to be grasped pictorially is opened to insights into potentials that make it recognizable as the turf of "Geschichte" (story as well as history). Just as for the collector, the archeologist, the re-constructor of his own world of childhood, so too for Benjamin the theorist of history the moment at which something falls to him in the image seems to be formative for the meaning it takes on now. Through the narrativity and situatedness of the encounter with the image, the image becomes a space of thinking and acting that can be as much grasped in the moment assubjected to tentative testing.
Topics to be discussed in the section:
- Benjamin’s way of dealing with images – real images as well as written and thought ones; also the implementation of the category in his own writerly practice, especially when it comes to writing history;
- the development of Benjamin’s thinking about and by means of the image, and the category of the image such thinking implies, especially the process in which the semantics of the image and the pictorial increasingly become the site of the translation of the epistemological, medial etc. dimensions described above;
- relationships to other forms of imagery and forms of thinking about and by means of the image, e.g. in Wölfflin, Kassner, Warburg, in Surrealism;
- the media-historical index of this thinking, i.e. its implicit and explicit relation to contemporary image practices and media techniques (baroque, modern, and avantgardistic redefinition of the interference of the pictorial and the scriptoral, graphic art, drawing and color, photography, panorama, film, architecture's "image-space dimension" etc.);
- the significance of Benjamin’s thinking about and through the image in the face of the ‚iconic turn’ in media and cultural studies, especially its position between different disciplines.
Section 4: The Construction of Epochs | Jeanne Marie Gagnebin (São Paulo/Paris), Isabel Kranz (Erfurt)
An epoch is generally defined as a span of time which begins with a key event that itself is defined as an epoché, that is, as suspension [Aussetzung]. A constitutive interruption therefore defines those time periods with which the humanities typically work; at thesame time, these initiating moments are themselves part of that which they are supposed to constitute. This doubling, that suits the definition of the epoch as both a time period and an eventful interruption – and which divides time into a “before” and “after” – promises to be a fruitful way to approach Walter Benjamin’s thinking about history. For while Benjamin uses the concept of the "epoch" synonymously with the designation "era," he opposes the fixation on great moments characteristic of a history of events (whether they be battles, coronations or assassinations) against the idea of the epoché that is focused on the present. If this creates retroactive caesuras in history, this may also be a moment of construction: a production process located in the present that Benjamin wants to differentiate from an empathetic reconstruction typical of historicism.
This section is dedicated to Benjamin’s attempts to articulate a “theory of history… in which the concept of development is entirely supplanted by the concept of the origin [Ursprung]” (SW 2, 502). Possible topics include: epochs and time periods, historical materialism, the historicity of things, theories of theevent in and after Benjamin, primal history/Antiquity/the Baroque/the Modern, utopia, the relationship of history to myth, dialectical versus archaic images. In order to have a common textual foundation for the discussion, the following texts are suggested: the Convolutes C, N, and S of the Arcades Project, the first exposé “Paris, Capital of the Nineteenth Century” as well as the corresponding discussions in the correspondence with Adorno and Scholem, the essays about Johann Jakob Bachofen, Franz Kafka, and Marcel Proust as well as “Excavation and Memory.”
Section 5: Art / Literature | Michael Jennings (Princeton), Vivian Liska (Antwerp)
"What is at stake is not to portray literary works in the context of their age," Benjamin writes in "Literary History and the Study of Literature," "but to represent the age that perceives them – our age – in the age during which they arose." From his first serious engagement with literature in the Hölderlin essay (1914) to his last ruminations on Baudelaire (1939), Benjamin's understanding of literature is relentlessly historical. Not merely in the sense that history suffuses and determines the work of literature, but in the sense that critical engagement with literature might reveal the essential structures of its time – and thus of ours. The work thereby becomes not merely an epistemological medium, but a means of intervention: an “Organon of history.”) This section welcomes submissions that deal with any aspect of Benjamin’s literary historiography.
Potential topics include: the pre- and post-history of the work of art; literary history as political history; translation and criticism as part of a work’s historical “afterlife;” the “poetized” as historical index; the fragment or the literary typology as historical form; innervation and / as historical mediation; corporeal and linguistic mimesis in their relation to history; “name,” “primal history,” and literature; allegory as “responsible” historical form; historical potentials in the (literary) archive versus the finished work; Benjamin’s debates about literature and literary texts with his contemporaries (Adorno, Scholem, Brecht et al); the afterlife of Benjamin’s own work in contemporary literature.
Section 6: Child | Jessica Nitsche (Düsseldorf), Nadine Werner (Frankfurt a. M.)
The section investigates the child as a point of intersection between remembering concentrated upon the individual and a writing of history geared towards the collective. What is the relation between reconstruction and construction, between individual and collective history?
What makes the child so interesting for Benjamin? Behavior and perception are not yet automated, but rather open and unsettled. The associative fields ofplay of language are without border, social norms are still open to question – these are only a few aspects that could suggest his interest in the child. The child is for him in no way cute, innocent, or malleable. The “barbarism of children” is for Benjamin oppositional, self-perpetuating and – in the sense of his trope of the “destructive character” – “destructive” in a liberating manner. In precisely this way the child is transformed from an oppressed subject to a revolutionary subject of history for Benjamin. Traditionally, the child is seldom considered in this context since it empathizes “unhesitatingly with the victor.” It is however precisely the overlooked and, due to particular power structures, oppressed histories to which he ascribes decisive importance. In the historical-philosophical theses he presents the historian as one who advocates for the “oppressed past.” The Berlin Childhood arises in the self-understanding of such a “historian,” one whose task is to actualize the past with a view to its meaning in the present. As a source of the hidden but ongoing effect of the past, childhood is the starting point for this actualization. On the basis of his analysis of the child and its particular perceptive abilities, Benjamin allows images of childhood to arise whose significance for the writing of history consists not in the repetition of the past; the association of such images with childhood signals instead that he puts these images “under the ‘magnifying glass,’” intensifies them, and makes of them a new starting point.
Along with the suggestions laid out here, the following keywords gain significance in view of the constellation of childhood and history; they may serve as the starting point for contributions: Collection, things and the world of things, play and plaything; primers, reading, writing; children’s book and the child’s perception; presence and absence of a trace of the past; dream and waking as generational experience; the city as subjective space of childhood and as collective space; Benjamin’s children’s book and the Program for a Proletarian Children’s Theatre.
Section 7: Politics | Chryssoula Kambas (Osnabrück), Uwe Steiner (Rice, Houston Texas)
At present, politics doesn’t rank among the most popular topics in Benjamin scholarship. Instead, research on this aspect of Benjamin’s work still seems to be indebted to the Student Movement that re-discovered Benjamin under the category of the political. The Student Movement’s contemporary political commitment had been shaped by the theoretical and political debates of the 1920s and 1930s. The same goes for their Benjamin reception. Of crucial importance for both was the politicization of the intelligentsia in the erabetween the two World Wars that resulted in the idea of the modern intellectual to whom political partisanship was an integral part of his public appearance.
Perceived within this historical and biographical framework, research on politics in Benjamin predominantly focused on the pragmatic aspects of politics such as partisanship and ideological commitment. Hitherto little attention has been given to politics as an object of theoretical contemplation, to the concept of the political that from early on was an essential feature of Benjamin’s thought.
Accordingly, the “conversion to political thinking” that Benjamin famously announces in a letter from 1924 allows for two readings. Predominantly, the formula has been interpreted as a programmatic turn away from the metaphysical early writings in favor of the ‘Marxist’ orientation of his later work. However, the ‘conversion’ or ‘turn’ announced in the letter could also mean the exact opposite, namely a turn back to the political motifs of his earlier thought, their metaphysical underpinning notwithstanding.
Correspondingly, the section takes politics in the broadest sense as a basis and invites both theoretical and historical approaches to the topic. In more detail, the section will focus on three main areas of discussion:
- The Concept of the Political: Benjamin’s Political Philosophy (epistemological premises - reception and discussion of the tradition of political philosophy - contemporary influences - technology – anthropology - violence and power – the subject of politics…
- “The Copernican Turn in Historical Perception”: Politics - History – Theology (the systematical aspect: ethics, law, and politics - the theological aspect: the divine, secularization, theprofane - nihilism and the goal of politics – ending, exception, interruption - historical materialism – political theology – historical apokatastasis and weak messianic power – progress and catastrophe …
- The “Magic Spark between Word and Deed”: Politics and Representation (the concept of a political style of writing – presence of the mind and immediacy [Geistesgegenwart und Unmittelbarkeit] - aestheticizising of politics vs. politicizing art - the changing function of art - art and technology – Denkbild and myth…
Proposals are expected to indicate their affiliation to one of the three areas. The areasshould be considered mandatory and limited with regards to their respectivefoci. The annotations, keywords, and explanations to follow, however, make no claim to be complete; they are open to interpretation and creative completion.
Section 8: Case Studies | Antonia Birnbaum (Paris), Karl Ivan Solibakke (Syracuse, New York)
Rather than subjecting his ideas to conventional investigations and paradigms, Benjamin’s thinking originates from each and every object targeted. As a result, his methods of inquiry and, more specifically, the terms used in his writings are a reflection of the particular case being studied. Broughtinto clear focus, the objects are often derived from figures that pose an immediate value to Benjamin’s theories and support his materialistic interpretations of the historical moment: Baudelaire, Brecht, Kafka, Proust, Freud.
Consequently, Benjamin traces individual cases to the point at which dialectical images, constellations, correspondences, and enigmatic picturesemerge. On the one hand, Benjamin confirms his unique method when analyzingBaroque literature in the Origin of German Tragic Drama, in which he shows that the temporality of the profane is predicated on natural and historical forms of loss. On the other hand, the Arcades Project adopts analogous methods by synthesizing the dialectics of citationality and montage. Benjamin’s distinctive methodological approaches underscore the cogency of allegories as legible signs, critique as the discipline underlying the mortification of the work, profane illumination as it impacts surrealistic image spaces, or the notion of disfigured similitude as an epistemology of origin.
How does Benjamin present each historical case? What form is accorded to the examples he chooses, and how transmissible do they become? This sectionaims to analyze Benjamin’s studies of individual cases (including, among others, the essay on Karl Kraus, the book on Charles Baudelaire, or his inquiry into Eduard Fuchs). Alternatively, papers are encouraged that explore the constellation of each case, the transition from material applications to aesthetic and cultural theory, or the modus used to represent case studies in general.
Furthermore two panel discussions are scheduled as plenary events with additional participants.
The topic of the first discussion is:
Diagnosis: The Poverty of Experience?
The 1932 meditation “Experience and Poverty” (whose original title was “The Poverty of Experience” [Erfahrungarmut]) was published in 1933 in the Prague journal „Welt im Wort;“ it stands somewhat isolated among Benjamin’s reviews and feuilletons. It’s maxim reads: „A total absence of illusion about the age and at the same time an unlimited commitment to it” (SW 2, 733). The keywords are devaluation of the results of education; the poverty of human experience; a positive concept of barbarism; survivingculture; the laughter of the masses. Do they have a programmatic character? In today’s situation, in which the disciplines and the arts bubble up ubiquitously and in which humanity’s global memory no longer knows any limit, has the diagnosis of a radical poverty of experience maintained its challenge? How can it be connected to the “highest task” of a philosophy of history, that of “conceiving the present day as historically decisive” (GS III, 293)? In the Fuchs Essay Benjamin speaks of the destructive side of dialectics that cultural historiography is lacking, since it is amassing its treasures oppressively on humanity’s back – “but it does not provide the strength to shake off this burden so as to take control of it“ (SW 3, 268). What kind of violence does this force require? Which „holding fast“ is this hand dreaming of? In a reflection on questions of method Benjamin approvingly quotes Huizinga, saying that the average historian would answer more than a wise man would ask (GS VI, 442).
The second panel will address the topic:
Benjamin and the European Intelligentsia
Benjamin saw himself anchored in the German literary tradition; yet he understood himself as a reader, critic, translator, and theorist working within a broader horizon. His thinking was shaped by French literature and culture, the experiment of the Russian Revolution, his stays in Italy, and the experience of Jews in Europe. The role of the intellectual in European political crises continually preoccupied him and conditioned his thinking about history. His critique of Surrealism carries the subtitle: “The Last Snapshot of the European Intelligentsia.” In the Arcades Project, he sought to compose a primal history of European modernity in the nineteenth century that was conceived in a singular manner. But even in less central texts such as the review “Three Books” on Sklovskij, Benda and Polgar or “Kaiserpanorama” from One Way Street, his interest in the historical and political context of contemporary life remains obvious. Benjamin did not consider himself alone in this interest. The panel hopes to bring into focus the extent to which certain figures, in thecontext of the world war and the interwar period, were able to formulate anindependent mode of thought that was not only politically and historically informed, but European in its orientation. Is it still possible today to forge links to such thought? Or has it lost its historical locus?
A blog has been established for Section 1 at the following address:
[log in to unmask]
For Sections 2-8 we invite abstracts keyed to one of the section topics. Abstracts should be approximately 300 words in length and should be submitted by January 28, 2013 to the following address: [log in to unmask]
Decisionswill be announced in March, 2013.