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Thinking about Things: Walter Benjamin as Historian

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The subject of this course is the German critic and philosopher Walter Benjamin (1892–1940). Its key text is The Arcades Project (Passagen-Werk), the massive, unfinished torso of a work that would have been a history of 19th-century Paris from the perspective of its materiality: from the cast iron of its arcades to its department stores to its sewers to its collectors. Only Benjamin’s notes have survived. Part of the challenge of the course is to work through them and figure out how he intended “things” to be used to tell a story. Although Benjamin is read and cited by everyone these days, his achievement as a historian is rarely considered, yet here is an extraordinarily sophisticated approach to objects as evidence. Students also read Benjamin’s works on collecting and travel as they relate to his theory and practice of history. His relationship to Aby Warburg and the scholars of the Kulturwissenschaftliche Bibliothek Warburg, including Erwin Panofsky and Ernst Cassirer, is also considered. 3 credits.