UC Irvine



National Endowment for the Humanities

Alexander Gelley

NEH Summer Seminar

Walter Benjamin’s Later Writings: The Arcades Project, Commodity Culture, Historiography

A Summer Seminar for College Teachers
Sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities
June 20 through July 22, 2011, at The University of California, Irinve

Seminar Director: Alexander Gelley, Professor, Department of Comparative Literature, University of California, Irvine

Benjamin's career extended from the end of the first World War to the beginning of the second. Although recognized as a feuilleton writer and critic during the Weimar era, it is only within the past two or three decades that Benjamin has emerged as one of the seminal thinkers of the past century. In contrast to figures like Freud, Heidegger, or Foucault who enjoyed widespread recognition and influence during their lifetime, Benjamin's stature as a theorist and writer emerged only decades after his death. He may be characterized, in Foucault’s words, as one of the “initiators of discursive practices,” thinkers who “produced not only their own work, but the possibility and the rules of formation of other texts.”  His impact in recent years amongst writers and scholars of varying orientations and disciplines is itself a noteworthy feature of contemporary intellectual history.

What is distinctive about Benjamin is that he reverts, throughout his career, to a limited number of issues in ontology, cultural history, and literary criticism. In the process, he uncovers significant interconnections among the disciplines, but without  any aspiration to a totalising meta-theory. Benjamin's thinking moved along widely divergent levels of conceptualization. His writings range from the most recondite researches and philosophical speculations to cultural journalism and children's stories. From his earliest period we find the coexistence of such divergent tendencies--pedagogic and social, on the one hand, philosophical, theological, and hermetic, on the other.

In responding to his close friend, Gershom Scholem, for something like a statement of belief, a "credo," Benjamin wrote, "You know that I have always written in accordance with my convictions, but have seldom, and never otherwise than in conversation, made the attempt to express the whole contradictory basis from which, in their specific manifestations, they derive." As one becomes familiar with the range of his writings one can't help finding unexpected linkages in his approach to diverse issues, linkages that intimate, though never insistently, an underlying unity.

In relating Benjamin's achievement to theoretical positions that are both contemporary and posterior to his own I want to take account of current theoretical discussions in a number of fields--literary criticism, aesthetics, historiography, media and cultural studies. This kind of "constellated" reading is designed to provide a broad horizon for assessing Benjamin's writings and also to make explicit links with current forms of critical thinking which he did much to prepare.


NB: Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this program do not necessarily reflect those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.