Yale Hosts Conference on Philosopher Walter Benjamin

Yale University’s Whitney Humanities Center – WHC – will hold a conference on the work of philosopher and cultural theorist Walter Benjamin on Friday, Sept. 26, and Saturday, Sept. 27. The program, titled “Angelus Novus: Perspectives on Walter Benjamin,” is co-sponsored by the WHC, the Goethe Institute and the Yale Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures. All sessions are free and the public is welcome. The conference will take place at 53 Wall St.

Walter Benjamin is considered “one of the most important philosophers, literary critics and theorists of culture and the media in this century,” according to Winfried Menninghaus, visiting professor of Germanic languages and literatures. Professor Menninghaus is the conference organizer.

The conference at Yale will begin at 3 p.m. on Sept. 26 with opening remarks by Professor Menninghaus, followed by a panel moderated by Brigitte Peucker, professor and chair of Germanic Languages and Literatures and professor of film studies at Yale. Panelists will be Horst Bredekamp, Humboldt University, Berlin, who will speak on “Political Iconography of Time: Hobbes, Carl Schmitt and Walter Benjamin”; Gary Smith, Einstein Forum, Potsdam on “Scholem and Benjamin on Justice”; and Fredric Jameson, Duke, on “The Theoretical Hesitation: Benjamin and his Sociological Predecessor.”

A reception will follow at 5:45 p.m. in Room 208.

The program resumes on Sept. 27 at 10 a.m. with a panel moderated by Peter Brooks, the Tripp Professor of Humanities and acting director of the WHC. Panelists will be Rosalind Krauss, Columbia, on “Redeeming the Medium” and Miriam Hansen, University of Chicago, on “Benjamin and Cinema: Not a One-Way Street.”

The concluding session will begin at 2 p.m. with a panel moderated by Tyrus Miller, assistant professor of comparative literature and English. Panelists will be Shoshana Felman, Yale, on “Benjamin’s Silence” and Stanley Cavell, Harvard, on “Benjamin Signalling: Electing Affinities.”

Closing remarks will be made by Geoffrey Hartman, the Sterling Professor Emeritus of English and Comparative Literature.

Born in Berlin in 1892, Benjamin was educated at the universities of Munich, Freiburg and Bern, earning his Ph.D. in 1919 with a dissertation on art criticism in Romanticism which presents an authoritative approach to art’s self-reflexivity as well as to irony as a central feature of art. He and Gershom Scholem, historian and scholar of Jewish mysticism, were close friends. Benjamin moved to France in the 1930s to escape Nazi persecution. In 1940, while fleeing the Nazi occupation forces in France, Benjamin committed suicide just after crossing the border into Spain.

Benjamin’s work communicates his belief that philosophy, literature, film, and architecture are closely interrelated. He wrote important essays on Goethe, Baudelaire, Proust, Kafka, and other authors. With the publication of his book “The Origin of the German Baroque Drama Mourning Play,” he reintroduced allegory as a key concept of literary criticism, influencing generations of critics that followed. In the first phase of his work, Benjamin focused on questions of language, myth, and truth. He originated major theories of film, photography, and architecture in the later phase of his career, when his attention turned primarily to dealing with the “physiognomy of the city, reading the big city like a forest of signs,” according to Professor Menninghaus.

Much of Benjamin’s work has not been available to English-speaking readers until now. The first volume of the Harvard University Press edition of Benjamin’s writings, published recently, provides access to such major works as the dissertation on “The Concept of Criticism in German Romanticism” and the essay on “Goethe’s ‘Elective Affinities.’”

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Gila Reinstein: gila.reinstein@yale.edu, 203-432-1325