Walter Benjamin—as he became better acquainted with Marxism and began to self-identity as a convinced if somewhat idiosyncratic Communist—became one of the Western world’s preeminent philosophers of stuff. From toys to decorative design to clothes, materials, buildings, popular art and knick-knacks, Benjamin was persuaded that “detritus” was in fact the key to understanding history and the always pregnant, revolutionary possibilities of the present.
In this four-week course offered by the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research, students will take up Benjamin’s writings on collecting—from the image of the collector in the Arcades Project to Benjamin’s essay on Edward Fuchs to his famous essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” to many, many (many!) shorter pieces on everything from fashion and toys to popular culture and advertisements. How can we relate this detailed analysis of the world of things—what Theodor Adorno once famously lamented as the “crossroads between magic and positivism”—with the traditional Marxist focus on laying bare the relations of production (which are obscured by the seemingly freestanding nature of the objects of our everyday life)? Why did Benjamin think that it was in the minor and in the overlooked, as well as in the mass cultural and the artistic, that we should look for his “constellations” of historical possibility? In answering, we’ll not only analyze closely Benjamin’s texts, but also examine several objects in the American Folk Art Museum’s Self-Taught Genius Gallery in Long Island City, Queens, “testing” Benjamin’s many lenses on how to read the material world. In addition to the selections from Benjamin’s writings, students will read secondary texts from Susan Buck-Morss, Esther Leslie, Margaret Cohen, and Sianne Ngai, among others.
Ajay Singh Chaudhary
Executive director, Brooklyn Institute for Social Research
October 16–November 06, 2018
47-29 32nd Place
Long Island City, NY 11101
Map (click to enlarge):
Subway: 7 train to 33rd Street, walk 2 blocks
Bus: Q32, Q39, Q60
The class room and gallery are located on the second floor, accessible by stairs. If elevator access is required, please contact BISR in advance, and arrangements will be made (the elevator, accessed via the parking garage, normally closes at 6 pm).
Image credit: Moses Eaton Jr., Sample Box and Ten Panels, c. 1820–1830, painted pine and brass, 8 3/4 x 15 1/16 x 2 5/8 in., Collection of American Folk Art Museum, Anonymous Gift and Gift of the Richard Coyle Lilly Foundation, 1980.28.1A-K. Photo by Terry McGinnis.