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Durham University

School of Modern Languages & Cultures

Events in Modern Languages & Cultures

Transnationalism Research Group & Centre for Jewish Culture, Society and Politics Lecture: Professor Jonathan Freedman [Michigan] 'Walter Benjamin's Paris, Capital of Jewish Aesthetic Modernity'

18th May 2017, 17:00, Lindisfarne Centre, St Aidans College, Durham University

Prof. Jonathan Freedman (Michigan), “Walter Benjamin’s Paris, Capital of Jewish Aesthetic Modernity.” Co-sponsored by MLAC’s Transnationalism Research Group and the Centre for Jewish Culture, Society, and Politics. May 18, 17.00, Lindisfarne Centre, St. Aidan’s College. Followed by a drinks reception.

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.

Co-sponsored by the Transnationalism Research Group, the Centre for Jewish Culture, Society, and Politics, and the English Department.

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