In These Trying Times: A Conversation on Walter Benjamin and History

Goethe-Institut Chicago
150 Michigan Avenue, 3rd Floor
Chicago, IL 60601

The last known work by Walter Benjamin, and among his most consequential, “Theses on the Philosophy of History” almost didn’t survive. Benjamin, attempting to flee Nazi-occupied France, entrusted a handful of pages to his friend, Hannah Arendt, shortly before his death in 1940. The 18 brief but dense paragraphs comprising the theses represent the most refined arguments for Benjamin’s methodology regarding history, time, and progress—and, simultaneously, some of his most cutting political commentary and convictions. The concept of history they articulate challenges the progressive notion of history unfolding in the “homogenous, empty time” that undergirds both capitalist modernity and “vulgar Marxism”—vulgar for its desire “to perceive only the progression of the exploitation of nature, not the regression of society.”

Rather, thinking with and through Paul Klee’s famous painting Angelus Novus, Benjamin sees history not as a “chain of events,” but as “one single catastrophe, which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage.” His critique of historical progress, shared and developed by his Frankfurt School peers, resonates still for anyone conceptualizing and practicing politics in a present marked by ecological, economic, social, and political crisis. What motivates Benjamin’s radical re-imagining of history? What were the social and political developments in his lifetime that shaped his arguments? And to what extent can his arguments help us to shape responses to developments in our own present?

Please join us Friday, April 5th, at Goethe-Institut Chicago, for an exploration of Benjamin’s landmark essay and its impacts on and consequences for contemporary politics, philosophy, and historiography. The event will begin with opening remarks by BISR faculty Audrey Nicolaïdes and guests Annie Bourneuf and Peter Fenves, after which the audience and speakers will break into reading groups to grapple with the text directly. A panel discussion will conclude the event, with a wine reception to follow. 

The event, which is free and open to the public, is taking place in conjunction with our upcoming April course The Weimar Republic: Politics, Culture, and Catastrophe, which will take place both online and, in a separate section, in-person at Goethe-Institut Chicago. For audiences outside the Chicago area, the event will livestream to BISR’s Facebook page. Please RSVP below.

Event Schedule

Friday, 6:00pm CT
April 05, 2024


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