UC Irvine

Alexander Gelley


While the focus of the seminar will be on writings by Benjamin and his contemporaries, it will also pay attention to the impact of his work right up to the present. When Benjamin’s writings were first widely disseminated in the Seventies they paralleled and in some cases stimulated newer approaches to Western modernity then current, approaches that drew on a variety of disciplines-- literature, history, art history, philosophy, sociology, film studies, urban design. These went under many labels -- critical archeology (in the Foucauldian sense), “urban semiotics” (Michel de Certeau, Raymond Ledrut), cultural art history (T. J. Clark),  “the social life of things” (Arjun Appadurai), Critical Historicism (Fredric Jameson, Reinhart Koselleck). In the wake of multiculturalism and related tendencies, scholars and artists paid new attention to the earlier phase of the bourgeois era in the nineteenth century. Furthermore, this theoretical shift is allied to diverse forms of reaction to high modernism, reactions such as the post-modern and cultural studies, while at the same time drawing on neglected or repressed strands of modernist self-critique that date to the earlier twentieth century.  This context helps to explain why Walter Benjamin’s radical challenge to traditional historicism proved to be prescient.

Benjamin's situation as a German Jew whose career spanned the Weimar and Nazi periods must be taken into account in dealing both with the philosophical-historiographic dimension of his thought (the "messianic" strand) and his recurrent efforts to enter into the cultural discourse of his place and time. His hesitation to flee Europe, whether from Germany to Palestine in the late twenties or from France to the United States in the late thirties, even in the face of catastrophe, will be evaluated in the context of the status of Jewish intellectuals in Wilhelmenian and Weimar Germany.

Earlier approaches concentrated on Benjamin’s place in Weimar culture, the Frankfort School, and Jewish thought, but more recently there has been a marked interest in questions of technology and media, conceptions of history, and the genre of The Arcades Project and other writings. Also, in the wake of a new edition of his letters and closer study of his manuscripts (now conveniently collected in a new archive in Berlin) Benjamin’s practice as a writer has gained increased attention. The seminar will seek to focus on some of these more recent developments in Benjamin studies.