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Durham University

Department of English Studies

Event Archive

This is an archive of past events within the Department of English Studies. Please see our current events for forthcoming activities.

Some of our public events are recorded and are available as podcasts via our Research English At Durham blog.

Walter Benjamin's Paris, Capital of Jewish Aesthetic Modernity

18th May 2017, 17:30 to 19:00, Lindisfarne Centre, St Aidan's, Professor Jonathan Freedman (University of Michigan, Ann Arbor)

A free talk looking at how the philosopher and theorist Walter Benjamin was influenced by French culture.

About the Speaker

Prof. Jonathan Freedman is Marvin Felheim Collegiate Professor of English, American, and Jewish Studies at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. His monographs include Professions of Taste: Henry James, British Aestheticism, and Commodity Culture, The Temple of Culture: Assimilation and Anti-Semitism in Literary Anglo-America, and Klezmer America: Jewishness, Ethnicity, Modernity. He has also coedited with Richard Millington Hitchcock’s America as well as anthologies of criticism on Henry James and Oscar Wilde. He has held fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Humanities Center.

Abstract

A trio of contexts conventionally define Walter Benjamin’s influential writings: German literature and philosophy, mystical Jewish thought, and Marxism. But there is a fourth that is oddly marginalized in the criticism: France. Benjamin spent much of the last ten years of his life in Paris, and theorized modernity with reference to Proust, Baudelaire, and its shopping arcades, among other texts and circumstances. (He imbibed hashish, for example, in Marseilles.) What happens if we take French culture in general—Paris in particular—as seriously as the other three? And what happens to Benjamin’s other intellectual engagements if we do so?

Consider Benjamin’s Jewishness. Franco-Jewish relations were quite different than those on offer in Benjamin’s native Germany. Uniquely in Europe, French Jews were accorded full citizenship from Napoleonic times on. But they faced a particularly grotesque array of hateful sentiments, climaxing in the Dreyfus affair but simmering throughout the century. From Fourier forward, French social thought identified Jews as the source of the ravages of capitalism, a tendency carried to hyperbolic extremes by Fourier’s followers, including, via Alphonse Toussenel, Benjamin’s beloved Baudelaire. I want to pursue these affinities, and specifically the unexpected consonance of Benjamin's thought with that of anti-Semite Édouard Drumont, who added virulent racism to anticapitalism. To place Benjamin in this context is to make his political engagements that much more complex—and the theorization of modernity which has followed from his work that much more volatile.

This event is co-sponsored by the Department of English Studies, the Centre for the Study of Jewish Culture, Society and Politics, and Modern Languages and Cultures.

Contact zoe.roth@durham.ac.uk for more information about this event.


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