Benjamin's Figures: Dialogues on the Vocation of the Humanities

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Leiden University, Faculty of Humanities, Netherlands

Benjamin's Figures:
Dialogues on the Vocation of the Humanities

Ever since Theodor Adorno's famous pronouncement that there could be no more poetry after Auschwitz, the 'crisis in the humanities' has been a commonplace, and that for varying reasons. Today we find this notion reinforced, however, by the global financial crisis that is scourging the humanities faculties of universities worldwide. How can the humanities justify their existence in an academic environment facing ubiquitous cutbacks – an environment where, as Stanley Fish argues, productivity, efficiency and consumer satisfaction appear to be the only relevant criteria anyway?

Even if eloquent spokespersons such as Fish and Martha Nussbaum may be overstating the case it appears that the humanities, more than ever, need to reconsider their specific role for our times. For on the one hand the institutional call for more efficiency may be seen to conflict with the humanities' insistence on interdisciplinary research as a requirement for developing a critical perspective on the operations of culture as a whole. On the other hand the concept of interdisciplinarity itself must be constantly rethought in order to prevent 'the cultural turn' from being reduced to an empty cliché.

Leiden University, for its part, proposes to address this need for reflection on the vocation of the humanities by organizing an international conference devoted to the thought of philosopher of culture Walter Benjamin (1892-1940). In doing so, we hope to consolidate an interdisciplinary initiative started in 2010, when we marked the recent fusion between our former faculties of arts, philosophy and religious studies by a conference on the hermeneutics of Hans-Georg Gadamer.

A conspicuous feature of the writing of Benjamin is its lack of any formal pretence to system building. In fact the bulk of his oeuvre is made up of short essays and notes on a wide range of seemingly disparate cultural phenomena, in which philological commentary and criticism go hand in hand. The reason for this absence of closure and the frequent shifts in focus must not be sought in any incidental default. Instead, they reflect Benjamin's experience of his own age as requiring a direct, polemical style and approach antithetical to incorporation into a fixed order.

If fragmentariness imposes itself as a necessary formal characteristic of Benjamin's writing, his project is nevertheless held together by a single underlying ambition: to study cultural signs as the integral expression of the religious, metaphysical, political, and economic tendencies of a specific historical period. True to the semantic potential of Greek aisthesis, he promotes aesthetics to the status of an all-encompassing, interdisciplinary theory of experience. For the timeless idea, says Benjamin, is to be captured only in the process of its historical becoming – that is, at its origin, the vanishing point where it enters, and dissolves into, the material as the force determining its necessary form in history. The apprehension of this origin thus depends on a dual intuition where the singular reveals itself as part of a structure, a constellation that transcends the realm of the material while yet remaining faithful to each of its particulars: ideas stand to objects as constellations stand to stars (GS I.1, 214).

In his analyses of cultural phenomena and the constellations to which they can be assigned Benjamin shows himself unusually aware of the role of the philosopher/critic. Characteristically, this agent takes on different shapes according to varying contexts: the angel of history, the narrator, the flaneur, the child, the dwarf, the collector – to name just some central personas. Indeed Benjamin's use of multiple, at times carefully orchestrated voices in his texts radicalizes the notion of interdisciplinarity in ways which, we feel, provides a vital source of inspiration for the humanities in our times.

For our forthcoming conference we solicit papers reflecting on the socio-critical potential of the humanities through one or more of these Benjaminian figures. What critical light, for instance, could the flaneur of the Arcades project shed on the recent upheaval in cities all over the world as a result of the Occupy movement? How would the angel respond to our various 'end of history' theories? Is the collector's universe doomed to disappear with the advent of the worldwide web?

The conference is scheduled to take place at Leiden University, Netherlands, from 28 through 30 August 2013. Confirmed keynote speakers are Jochen Hörisch (Universität Mannheim) and Uwe Steiner (Rice University). As on the previous occasion, papers may be presented either in English or German. A selection of papers will be published in a volume edited by the conference organizers. Proposals are due before December 31, 2012. Please send an abstract (300-500 words) as a Word attachment to Madeleine Kasten. Acceptance decisions will be communicated by February 1, 2013. Informal suggestions and inquiries are, as always, welcome.

Dr. Jef Jacobs, Associate Professor of German Language and Literature,
Dr. Madeleine Kasten, Assistant Professor of Film and Literary Studies,
Dr. Herman Paul, Assistant Professor of Historical Theory,
Dr. Rico Sneller, Assistant Professor of Ethics and History of Philosophy,
Dr. Gerard Visser, Associate Professor of Philosophy of Culture,