Scott Thompson on Wed, 27 Aug 1997 00:56:16 +0200 (MET DST)

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<nettime> Walter Benjamin Congress: Day 1

A Participant's Notes on The International Walter Benjamin Association
First Congress: Amsterdam, July 24-26, 1997 [Installment I, Thursday]


"In every era the attempt must be made anew to wrest tradition away from a
conformism that is about to overpower it. The Messiah comes not only as the
redeemer, he comes as the subduer of Antichrist. Only that historian will
have the gift  of fanning the spark of hope in the past who is firmly
convinced that even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins.
And this enemy has not ceased to be victorious."  ---Walter Benjamin,
"Theses on the Philosophy of History" (1940)

At the conclusion of his essay, "The Integrity of the Intellectual: In
Memory of Walter Benjamin," Leo Lowenthal, sociologist of literature and
editor of the Zeitschrift fuer Sozialforschung , posed a challenge:

Now that the edition of Benjamin's collected works is completed, the
publishing house and the group responsible for it can collectively regard
themselves as the writers of Benjamin's history. It will remain a concern
to all of us, especially those younger than we, to define his gift to us
from the enemy...

In an attempt to wrest the tradition Benjamin fought for from the enemy,
the publishers and their tenured ministeriales, the Walter Benjamin
Research Syndicate sent a delegate to the International Walter Benjamin
Congress 1997: "Perception and Experience in Modernity/ Wahrnehmung und
Erfahrung in der Moderne," which was held in Amsterdam, July 24th through
July 26th, at the Felix Meritis Foundation of the University of Amsterdam.
The Congress itself was well-attended, as was indicated by the number of
people standing in the aisles during the plenary papers. Between the
plenary sessions parallel workshops were held throughout the Felix Meritis
Foundation on Keizersgracht and the Bungehuis on Spuistraat.  Plenary
Speakers included George Steiner, Samuel Weber, Gary Smith, Sigrid Weigel,
Irving Wohlfahrt, Martin Jay, Mona Jean & Kim Yvon Benjamin (WB's
granddaughters), Michael Benjamin (WB's nephew), Burkhardt Lindner, Werner
Hamacher, and Susan Buck-Morss. Over one hundred people gave short
presentations (15 minutes) in the parallel workshop sessions.

----------------------WB Congress: Day 1 --------------------------------

Helga Geyer-Ryan of the University of Amsterdam's Institute of Comparative
Literature, and one of the editors of the Benjamin Bulletin,  welcomed the
participants.  The late Wil van Gerwen, who had first planned the Congress
before his premature death, was commemorated along with Jean Selz, who died
at the age of 92 on 26 June 1997.  R.H.T. Bleijerveld, Chancellor of the
University of Amsterdam, officially opened the Congress by praising the
open-mindedness of Amsterdam and the Dutch in rather self-serving and
monotonous rhetoric.

It should be stated here at the outset that this Congress was kept quite
secluded from the public. One saw and heard no mention of it anywhere in
the city.  In a letter written a few days after the event, Dutch critic and
activist Geert Lovink reported: "I asked around. Not one person noticed
that a Benjamin conference had taken place. Was it closed and secret?" It
was only open to those who had paid for the conference, and there were
monitors posted at the doors to the Concertzaal to inspect name-tags.  No
matter how intellectual an event purports to be, once those name-tags come
out the attendant visions of secret handshakes and hierarchies in the
adytums of academe quickly follow. The first Congress of the International
Walter Benjamin Association was no exception.  By the end of the Congress,
however,  extra-academic positions had been voiced repeatedly, and the
positive reception granted to such positions by students, Phd candidates,
and new Phds signaled a shift in current Benjamin scholarship that will be
felt in the coming years.  The writer who penned "What is Epic Theatre?"
would not have wanted his work and the discussion of his work hermetically
sealed off from the rank and file.

------------------------George Steiner---------------------------------

George Steiner's lecture "To Speak of Walter Benjamin" was one of the high
points of the Congress.  Kiernan Ryan's introduction of Steiner, however,
credited the latter with having first introduced Walter Benjamin to the
English-speaking world in the 1958 essay "Marxism and the Literary Critic."
One will search through the bibliographies of Benjamin secondary literature
in vain for any mention of this article;  an indication of its real impact
in the field.  Moreover, the credit is misplaced. Already in the spring of
1948, Benjamin's essay "Notes on Epic Theatre" had been translated into
English by Edward Landberg for the Western Review.  Landberg's translation
will be cited below within the context of Samuel Weber's paper on Benjamin
and Epic Theatre.

Following some opening remarks about the interdisciplinary nature of
Benjamin studies and the multitude of topics covered in the parallel
workshops, Steiner narrated an anecdote about meeting Scholem in Geneva and
dining with him in a restaurant which Benjamin had frequented.  The
mythical University of Muri was evoked, and on the basis of his
conversation with Scholem, Steiner postulated twelve prerequisites for the
study of Walter Benjamin.

1.  The Emancipation of the German-Jewish bourgeoisie.  The ambiguous
position of Heinrich Heine. The cult of Goethe amongst assimilated Jews in
Germany. The particularly idealized picture of France through their
reception of Voltaire.

2.  The German Youth Movement prior to WWI: Gustav Wynken, the Wandervogel,
the concept of the Fuehrer and discipleship, Benjamin and the Freie
Deutsche Jugend.  The importance of Stefan George.

3.  German Pacifism: a virtue whose history in Germany does not fill many
volumes. Benjamin's break with Wyneken and the Freie Deutsche Jugend over
the issue of war. Scholem was quite proud of what Steiner emphatically
called "draft dodging". Both men had gone to Switzerland. The rather
amazing lacunae in their correspondence regarding any mention of the war.

4.  Development of the German Language in Mystical Literature from Martin
Luther through Boehme and the Pietists to Hoelderlin. Hoelderlin's
'dramatic hermeticism'. The influence of Norbert von Hellingrath on
Benjamin's study of Hoelderlin.

5.  The Inaccessibility of an Academic Career: the irony of the WB Congress
in this light. Despite his being excluded, WB had hungered for academic
recognition.  The irony of WB's first obituary in English, quoted from
Brodersen's biography. In the NY Jewish weekly, Aufbau (Oct. 11, 1940),
"The suicide of Prof. Walter Benjamin, a well-known psychologist" was

6. The Mentality of the Collector: WB as bibliophile, his collection of
children's books and books by the deranged.  Passagen-Werk  as a
collector's prized quotations.

7. Graphology: WB was expert graphologist. Steiner's own lack of expertise
in this discipline. (The influence of L.Klages).

8.  Massive experiments with 'narcotics': Scholem told Steiner that the
extant writings on hashish, etc. and the recorded protocols of his
experiments were the tip of the iceberg, and that many recorded notes had
been lost.  Steiner emphasized this point in such a way as to admonish
those who had been studiously overlooking this fact. Yet, the discomfort
of his position led him to avail himself of a disclaimer. Not wanting to be
seen as an advocate, he allowed himself an easy exit by emphasizing the
sociological distance between WB and our own time.

9. WB's rejection of Leninism: the meeting with Asja Lacis and Brecht; WB
own peculiar brand of messianic marxism --metamarxism.

10.Translation: the importance to WB of Hoelderlin's translations of
Sophocles Antigone and Pindar; Proust; Rudolf Borchardt.  Steiner refers to
his own After Babel.

11.Eros and Sexuality: WB's love and fear of women.

12. Theological background: All of WB could be expressed in the kabbalistic
phrase of 'Tikkun Olam'.  WB a parodist theologian.  Justice in
Remembrance. To bring justice to the victims of history, that history not
be written by the victors and despots.  The Kafka letters between WB and
Scholem.  WB's articulate genius for sadness.  WB 's own dishevelled state
makes him a symbol of the limitless immensity of waste of the Shoah, a
world made ash and irreparable.  A number of Steiner's remarks here were
almost verbatim from his documentary on Franz Kafka; e.g. the concept of
the 'Ungeziefer' (vermin) from The Metamorphosis, which was then turned
against the Jews.  Dr. Steiner was not necessarily  pleased to have this
similarity called to his attention.

------------------------------------------Cont'd on Day 2.

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