Lecture by UC Davis professor kicks off series about German philosopher Walter Benjamin April 16 at Syracuse University
Lecture by UC Davis professor kicks off series about German philosopher Walter Benjamin April 16 at Syracuse UniversityApril 07, 2009Rob Enslinrmenslin@syr.edu
The relationship between Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno-two leading lights of the Frankfurt School of social thought-is the subject of a special lecture at Syracuse University by Gerhard Richter, professor of German at the University of California, Davis.
Richter’s lecture-“Can Anything Be Rescued by Defending It?”-is Thursday, April 16, at 4 p.m. in Room 304 of the Tolley Building. This presentation is the first in a series of events at SU devoted to Benjamin, the great German philosopher and cultural critic who founded 20th-century media theory. Free and open to the public, the lecture is co-sponsored by SU’s Humanities Center and Renee Crown University Honors Program. For more information, call event organizer Karl Solibakke at (315) 443-5488.
Benjamin and Adorno were German Jews who met in 1923 at the Institute for Social Research, also known as the “Frankfurt School.” United by an intense interest in philosophy and literary criticism, they became intellectual allies by the end of the decade. Their correspondence caught fire when Hitler rose to power, causing Benjamin to flee to Paris and Adorno to England and then the United States. Over the course of many years and more than 120 letters, they discussed research, criticized each other’s manuscripts, and debated the latest scholarly manuscripts.
According to Solibakke, much of their correspondence revolved around the “Arcades Project,” on which Benjamin labored for 13 years before committing suicide in 1940. “The ‘Arcades Project’ was a penetrating inquiry into the emergence of bourgeois urban culture in Europe,” says Solibakke, the Love Distinguished Research Professor in German Language and Culture in The College of Arts and Sciences. “Focusing on the arcades, which were glass-covered shopping and bourgeois recreation areas, Benjamin looked for discernible moments in the continuum of European cultural history. Their decline and eventual disappearance, at a time when he began chronicling their significance, not only points to a historical index but also heralds the passing of 19th-century collective memory as the 20th century began to encroach on the cityscape.”
As members of the Institute for Social Research, Benjamin and Adorno were avowed Marxists. The impact, however, of living through World War I and seeing Hitler’s rise to power caused them to question Marx’s socialist ideology, as well as to critique and question society as a whole. This branch of philosophy, later known as “critical theory,” underscored their relationship and was the keystone of Benjamin’s writing. “Benjamin was one of the 20th-century’s most demanding intellectuals,” says Solibakke. “His relationship with Adorno was often adversarial but produced a wealth of ideas that informed modern philosophy and culture.”
Richter-an expert on German literature, culture and thought-has written or edited seven books, as well as published dozens of articles, essays and chapters. Last fall, he organized a three-day international conference at UC Davis titled “Benjamin’s Frontiers,” in conjunction with the International Walter Benjamin Society. Prior to UC Davis, the award-winning professor served on the faculty of the University of Wisconsin-Madison for nearly a decade. Richter is frequently invited to deliver lectures and seminars around the world and has served as a visiting scholar and fellow at various institutions throughout Germany.
The SU Humanities Center and The Renee Crown University Honors Program are university-wide initiatives administered by The College of Arts and Sciences. More information about them is available at http://thecollege.syr.edu.