The Centre for Philosophy and Critical Thought, Goldsmiths University of London

Research Centre run jointly between the Departments of Sociology and English and Comparative Literature at Goldsmiths University, London

Report: Two CHASE-funded events celebrating the work of Walter Benjamin at Goldsmiths — 10-11 May, 2019

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Screenshot from ‘A Berlin Childhood around 1900—A Project in Progress.’ © ‘A Christmas Angel’ (2016), Aura Rosenberg

On May 10-11th 2019, PhD Candidates Sofia Cumming (University of East Anglia, 2017 Cohort) and Federica Murè (Goldsmiths, 2018 Cohort) put together a programme of events centred on the work of Walter Benjamin (1892–1940).

Berlin Childhood around 1900: A Film Project in Progress

On Friday May 10th, Sofia and Federica hosted the screening event ‘Berlin Childhood around 1900: A Film Project in Progress’ which featured the work of artist and photographer Aura Rosenberg and filmmaker and producer Frances Scholz. For the last decade, Rosenberg and Scholz have been working closely with Walter Benjamin’s granddaughter Chantal Benjamin and her daughter Lais Benjamin Campos to cinematically adapt Walter Benjamin’s memoir Berlin Childhood around 1900, a series of short textual vignettes which capture his experience as a middle-class Jewish child growing up in Berlin at the turn of the twentieth century. Benjamin famously composed these texts shortly before his definitive exile to France at the beginning of the 1930s, yet they wouldn’t be published until over a decade after his untimely death. The texts provide a rich and tactile portrait of Berlin, featuring many descriptive passages of its landmarks such as the Tiergarten and the Victory Column, yet they also evoke the intimate, domestic settings of a bourgeois home, filtered through the child’s critical gaze.

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Screenshot from ‘A Berlin Childhood around 1900—A Project in Progress.’ © ‘Carousel’ (2017), Aura Rosenberg

It is precisely this tactility and the child’s capacity to look closely at their immediate, material environment that is brilliantly captured by Rosenberg and Scholz in their films, which revisit many of the sites Walter Benjamin’s childhood in contemporary Berlin, resulting in an uncanny continuity of experience as they depict his great-granddaughter in the different phases of her own urban childhood. Largely unstaged and unscripted, filmed in a documentary-style which follows young Lais Benjamin Campos as she engages with her surroundings, the films reconsider many of the themes of the original texts yet also touch upon and draw parallels with current social and political issues such as the European refugee crisis.

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The screening of the short films was accompanied by Chantal Benjamin’s commentary as she gave the audience further information and context to filming locations and the texts that inspired them. This was followed by an informal Q&A with audience members, which Lais also took part in. The event marked the first time that this unique collaborative project had been shown in the UK, and showcased one of the many ways in which Walter Benjamin’s works have managed to infiltrate a variety of disciplines and art forms. The evening concluded with a drinks reception in the Weston Atrium of Professor Stuart Hall Building.

Benjamin’s Baudelaire – Constellations of Modernity

Saturday May 11th was dedicated to a workshop entitled ‘Benjamin’s Baudelaire – Constellations of Modernity’ which offered an entire day of intense critical engagement with Benjamin’s renowned reception of the French, 19th-century poet. Organised in affiliation with the Centre for Philosophy and Critical Thought’s 2018–19 research seminar series on Baudelaire and Philosophy as well as the corresponding conference to be held in June 2019, the workshop offered a valuable opportunity for early career researchers to discuss aspects of their work on Benjamin and/or Baudelaire with the intention to re-examine the conceptual and methodological implications of his relationship to ‘The Writer of Modern Life’.

Despite being centred on the claim that Baudelaire’s writings constitute an original and indispensable source for Benjamin’s socio-cultural analysis of 19th Century France, the workshop did not however, limit its scope to a purely didactic exercise which revived and celebrated the figure of Baudelaire as perceived through Benjamin’s oeuvre. Rather, it provided a platform for posing questions concerning the relevance of Benjamin’s engagement with this source in relation to present concerns. Whilst tracing the constellations of Modernity emerging from Benjamin’s Baudelaire, the workshop interrogated their encounter as the exemplification of a methodology which was questioned in its capacity to inform contemporary debates about the significance of poetic, and artistic creation generally, for socio-cultural interpretation.

After an initial call for papers in late December, twelve international applicants from a variety of academic backgrounds were selected to take part. Participants were then organised into four panels: ‘Hermeneutics of Allegory’, ‘Forms of Experience’, ‘Auratic Perceptions’ and ‘Urban Topographies’ and challenged to present their arguments in a 10-minute format, which allowed additional time for the ensuing discussion and questions and comments from other workshop members. Providing rich and complex points of departure for conversation, presentations collectively questioned acts of reading and (un)readability, thus unmasking Benjamin’s interpretative strategies and holding them up to a contemporary light. Participants were also asked to prepare materials for two close reading sessions: ‘Heroism at the Time of Decadence’ and ‘Femininity & Commodity Poetics: A (Re)questioning’. The sessions were structured with the intention of reading Baudelaire’s work independently from Benjamin’s writings on the poet and included poems from Les Fleurs du Mal, but also several of Baudelaire’s later poèmes en prose and journal entries.

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The workshop prompted participants to reflect on the multiple nuances of Benjamin’s reading of Baudelaire, which was further encouraged by the topics that arose throughout the close reading and panel sessions as well as their own questions emerging from their respective fields and research projects. Thus, the overall aim of the event, which was to re-evaluate the significance of Benjamin’s Baudelaire through the prism of contemporary ontology, was successfully achieved and resulted in a stimulating and thought-provoking experience for all.

List of workshop participants:

Judith Bordes (Bordeaux-Montaigne)
Benjamin Brewer (Emory)
Sofia Cumming (UEA)
Jack Edmunds-Coopey (Durham)
Dr Charles Gelman (NYU)
Dr Sha Li (Beijing-Normal)
Audrey Marcie (Sorbonne)
Cristina Matei (Goldsmiths/Kingston)
Federica Murè (Goldsmiths)
Dr Mathelinda Nabugodi (Newcastle)
Philipp Nolz (Toulouse)
Florence Platford (Goldsmiths)
Ka-Hin Tsang (Goldsmiths)

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Written by Sofia Cumming and Federica Murè, May 2019

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