Critical Speculations - Future Worlds, Perilous Histories, and Walter Benjamin Unbound

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University at Albany, SUNY
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Critical Speculations - Future Worlds, Perilous Histories, and Walter Benjamin Unbound

University at Albany (SUNY), September 28-29, 2012

The current divestment in the humanities signals that we have entered a time of critical speculation, an end time that ventures not only specialized modes of critical discourse, but challenges the humanist project itself. Theory as such now awaits auction as a relic of the European intellectual tradition. Yet, with the prospect of diminishing returns and sunk costs, it must wager its own capital. We might turn here to Walter Benjamin, already a kind of sacrificial figure, and cast our bets.

To take Benjamin’s writing as a point of departure may be relevant: First, because of his diversity of themes, his challenging of canons, and his refusal to conform to a single professional identity. And then, because of his exemplification of practices at the heart of the old liberal humanities – acts of reading, translating, decoding, deciphering of “that which has never been written.” Benjamin’s late writings, most prominently the Arcades Project, served to generate constellations of new sorts – snapshots at the point of vanishing or sketches of images that might come.

Benjamin’s early reception was diverse and “untimely”: he was read extensively in French and Spanish, even before his massive emergence in the German- and English-speaking worlds. He was read both with and against major modernist thinkers, and on occasion transformed into a commodity of a “Critical New Left” (worse things could happen to a thinker who approaches fashion without the usual intellectual disdain). His “amplitude” has managed to survive the recent challenges to critical discourse. Now, one hundred years after his first writings, where does it stand? This conference will investigate Benjamin’s critical presence as and through speculation, his endeavor to form new constellations, and his relentless conjuring of snippets of Geistesgegenwart (presence of mind).

This event is linked to the 2011 NEH Summer Seminar for College Teachers, “Walter Benjamin’s Later Writings: The Arcades Project, Commodity Culture, Historiography” (

Papers are invited on, albeit not limited to, the following topics:

• The Incalculable: Games, Chance and the Risk of Speculation
• Spectacle and Image-Thinking, Allegory and Thought Images
• Speculation and the Visible in Benjamin’s Late Writings: Coming to Legibility
• Peril, Experiment, and Writing as Performance
• Risks of Citation and Translation
• Dislocations of Speculative Philosophy (History in the Aftermath of Dialectic)
• Thresholds, History and Retrograde Temporality in Walter Benjamin
• Transgressing the Boundaries: Benjamin in the Americas

Please send 750-word proposals to Ilka Kressner (ikressner[at]

Proposals due: July 20, 2012
Notification of acceptance: August 1, 2012

Conveners: Ilka Kressner (University at Albany, SUNY), chair; Alexander Gelley (University of California, Irvine), Michael Levine (Rutgers University), Erin Obodiac (Cornell University), and Charles Shepherdson (University at Albany, SUNY).

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