Call for Papers: IWBS Conference 2017 at the University of Oxford, 25th-27th September 2017

Convenors: Carolin Duttlinger and Ben Morgan

“Walter Benjamin and Method: Re-thinking the Legacy of the Frankfurt School”

CFP Deadline 31st March

The interdisciplinary project of the Frankfurt School set out by Max Horkheimer in 1931 remains a powerful model for new work that combines insights from across traditional divisions between the humanities, the social and the natural sciences. In Horkheimer’s account, the rigorous pooling of concepts and methods from philosophy, cultural criticism, psychology, anthropology, biology, economics and sociology should be guided by normative questions about human flourishing (Horkheimer 1993). The Frankfurt School approach unites interdisciplinarity with an attention to ethics often missing in contemporary work on the borders between the humanities and the natural sciences. Looking back almost ninety years later, the power of the Frankfurt School’s approach is partially masked by the way in which, in addition to prefiguring the concerns of the twenty-first century, their arguments are shaped by the intellectual habits of the early 20th century, in particular a debt to Hegel’s concept of totality, and his brand of dialectical argument. The conference will address this problem by returning to the most idiosyncratic of the thinkers associated with the Frankfurt School, Walter Benjamin. Benjamin’s work is especially fruitful for re-situating the work of the Frankfurt School, first, because he does not share the debt to Hegel that filters and obscures the insights of other members of the group such as Adorno, Horkheimer and Marcuse, and secondly and more importantly, because he shared, and indeed shaped, many of the most fruitful aspects of the Frankfurt School’s manner of thinking: the engagement with everyday context, the transcending of normative ideas of high and low culture; the reflection on the effects of technology on experience; the analytic attention given to human embodiment and forms of what later developmental psychologists call primary intersubjectivity; the productive redeployment of theological figures of thought; and a pluralistic engagement with a wide range of psychological theory from Freud and Jung to Vygotsky. The idea of the conference is to generate a critical discussion of Benjamin’s actual and potential contribution to methodologies across the disciplines he worked in. The focus on Benjamin’s method will enable a new perspective on the interdisciplinary project Horkheimer first set out in 1931.

The conference, at the University of Oxford, 25th-27th September 2017, will be organized in six thematic strands with two convenors each. Panels in each strand will consist of three 20-minute papers.

Proposals (250 words) for 20-minute papers in either English or German should be submitted as Word documents to: 

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by 31st March 2017. The proposals should be anonymous, but please include your affiliation and a brief bio in the accompanying email, saying which strand(s) you wish to be considered for.


1.     Benjamin and the Study of Images and Imaging - Andrew Webber (Cambridge)/ Caroline Sauter (Berlin)

2.     Benjamin and the Study of the Human - Ben Morgan (Oxford) /Mike Jennings (Princeton)

3.     Benjamin and Reading - Hindy Najman (Oxford)/ Daniel Weidner (Berlin)

4.     Benjamin and Political Method -  Yoav Rinon (Jerusalem) /Julia Ng (Goldsmith’s)

5.     Benjamin between Theology and Philosophy -  Andrew Benjamin (Monash/Kingston)/ Ilit Ferber (Tel Aviv)

6.    Benjamin’s Writings: Methodology, Archive, Edition – Carolin Duttlinger  (Oxford)/ Erdmut Wizisla (Berlin)


1.    Benjamin and the Study of Images and Imaging

This strand will consider both the methods that Benjamin proposes for working with images of different kinds and the function of images and imaging as elements of critical method in his work. We will be particularly interested in text-image relations, and the transactions between the orders of textual and visual culture that are implied in the emblematic construct of the Denkbild – the thought or thinking image. Moreover, Benjamin’s deployment of literary images will be taken into account as a method of thinking philosophy `poetically’ (H. Arendt). In these terms, we will give close attention to dialectics as a methodological category, as invested in the much-vaunted but often still elusive Benjaminian figure of the dialectical image. We welcome proposals that draw on the implications of images across the full range of cultural fields and (inter)disciplinary interests explored in Benjamin’s works. Possible topics might include, but are in no way limited to: Benjamin’s concrete description of visual images; his engagement with both art history and contemporary visual technologies (photography, film); his theoretical considerations about the function of images, also in their reach beyond the visual; questions relating to and analyses of specific thought-images (Denkbilder) throughout his oeuvre; images and imaging between high and popular culture; and the cross-over between such discursive fields as aesthetics, politics, economics and theology on the level of the image

2.    Benjamin and the Study of the Human

Benjamin’s work often reflects on the limits of humanity, by contrasting the human and the animal, the human and the divine, and the collective and the individual, or by looking at the development—or demise—of  forms of human subjectivity. This strand will examine the conceptual tools Benjamin offers for thinking about, and indeed re-thinking, what it means to be human. His ideas of mimesis, of gesture, of innervation; his discussion of different forms of language and of childhood play; and his reflections on technologically mediated forms of experience all contribute to an understanding of Benjamin’s materialist anthropology. Papers can address, amongst other issues: changes in Benjamin’s conception of the human, the relation of his views to those of his sources, his contemporaries, or his successors. How does Benjamin’s theorization of mimesis differ from that of Adorno? How does his discussion of language acquisition and gesture compare to developments in recent cognitive science? What are the methodological moves particular to Benjamin’s approach when compared to other similar treatments by the Frankfurt School, by philosophers of language, by post-structuralists? What constraints emerge in Benjamin’s methods when compared with more recent empirical investigation of visceral forms of human interaction, language acquisition, or the interface with technology?

3.    Benjamin and Reading

Benjamin is a strong reader. Reading, citation, excerpt are important elements of his intellectual practice and he programmatically develops his thought alongside other texts or phenomena he ‚reads‘. Can we discern forms or readings that are characteristic for him, do they make up a specific method, and, if so, how would this be related to other (contemporary or traditional) reading practices? Moreover, in reverse, how do we read Benjamin? What methods, interpretative concepts, and theories have been used in Benjamin studies, where can we go beyond the common author centered approaches, which new methods are the most promising? And most important, what does the strong, some say: canonical role means, that Benjamin has in theory discourses? If Benjamin was well aware oft he productive role that readers play for the meaning of historical texts, we have to bring this insight home and apply it to ourselves. What are we actually doing when we read Benjamin in the ways we do it? The panel invites papers that focus either on practices and concepts of reading that Benjamin uses or on question of method in the interpretation of Benjamin.

4.    Benjamin and Political Method

This strand seeks to explore three interconnected themes: 1) Benjamin's writings on political and ethical issues; 2) Benjamin's contribution to the history of political philosophy; and 3) the reception of Benjamin as a political thinker. Papers are solicited which may address one or more of these topics, for instance: — Benjamin's theories of violence, justice, revolution, action, economic exploitation, political metaphysics, art, language and politics; — Benjamin's responses to and transformations of the field of political philosophy, e.g. Kant's Towards Perpetual Peace and the Metaphysics of Morals, Marx's theories of commodity fetishism and money — The reception of Benjamin's writings as part of the history and contemporaneity of political thought, e.g. Benjamin's exchanges with contemporaries such as Scholem, Adorno and Schmitt; subsequent debates with Taubes, Agamben, Derrida, Butler.

5.    Benjamin between Theology and Philosophy

Walter Benjamin’s thought has been imbued, from its very beginning, with an array of theological terms structures and influences. These can be found already in his “Program of the Coming Philosophy” (1917-1918) and the idea of Lehre, “Theological-Political Fragment” (1921) and Benjamin’s preoccupation with the complexity of the relationship between the theological and political, “Capitalism as Religion” (1921) and the separation between religion and theology, and finally, “On the Concept of History” (1940) and the startling image of the theology-hunchback guiding the hand of historical-materialism. The aim of this panel will be to trace the presence of theology and religion in Benjamin’s oeuvre and to investigate their strong, over reaching implications on our understanding of his method and thought.  Questions to be addressed might take the following form: What would a Benjaminian inflected political theology be? What form would Benjamin’s critique of religion take? How is the continuity of references to ‘God’, or to the ‘Divine’ to be understood? How does Benjamin view the dialectical relationship between the political and theological? What force does a formulation such as ‘a weak messianic power’ actually have? These questions are intended to do no more than indicate possible directions, and do not exhaust the possibilities opened up by the project of taking up Benjamin’s relation to theology, which we hope to discuss in the panel.

6.    Benjamin’s Writings: Methodology, Archive, Edition

What today we call Benjamin’s ‘work’ is, to a considerable extent, an archival reconstruction. Benjamin deemed the ‘finite collection’ of his own ‘infinitely dispersed production’ to be nearly impossible and referred to his failed book projects as sites of ‘rubble and catastrophe’. His editors have assembled his publications in books, journals and newspapers, as well as his radio broadcasts; in addition, they have transcribed his unpublished manuscripts. The posthumous editions of Benjamin’s writings, particularly the Gesammelte Schriften (Collected Writings, 1972–1989), are thus a way of salvaging his texts, for they have made Benjamin’s reception possible in the first place. And yet they are also edifices which conceal the fluidity and interconnectedness of Benjamin’s method of writing and thinking. The new Kritische Gesamtausgabe (Critical Complete Edition, 2008ff.) sets out to make these processes more transparent. This strand seeks to explore three interconnected questions: (1) Benjamin’s own working method and its various contexts; (2) the structure and purpose of the archives set up by Benjamin himself, by his friends, and by academic institutions; (3) the challenges of editing Benjamin. While these aspects can be explored individually, we particularly welcome papers that address the links between them. Possible approaches and questions might include:

—   ­case studies of the production and transmission of particular texts;

—   papers which explore particular aspects of Benjamins writing method and critical methodology ;

—   the role of the archive and other forms of intellectual categorization in Benjamin’s works;

—   the challenges of editing Benjamin’s texts;

— the impact of editions on Benjamin’s reception.

The emphasis of papers should be on specific texts or issues and their practical implications.

Ben Morgan
Associate Professor
Dean, and Fellow and Tutor in German
Worcester College
Oxford OX1 2HB

Oxford Comparative Criticism and Translation

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