Benjamin & His Milieu: Syllabus and Readings

This PhD seminar meets every Tuesday from 2:00 to 4:50 in 506 Silver Center.


This course will take the work of Walter Benjamin as a starting point to build a comprehensive picture of the project of theorizing technology in the first half of the twentieth century, with an eye to better understanding the present day. Along with reading Benjamin himself (with a particular focus on under-studied works) we will reconstruct a whole pre-, post-, and interwar world of thought in relation to machines, media, science and industry, drawing on areas as diverse as glass architecture, probability, inflation, radio, entropy, and biomechanics, and figures like von Uexkull, Luxemburg, Gastev, Hennings, Kraus, Weil, Scheerbart, and Else von Richthofen.

Class structure & assignments

I’ll open each class with some remarks on the reading and its context, both then and now, which will lead into discussion to which everyone is expected to contribute. Readings will be short relative to the usual doctoral seminar, and as a consequence you are expected to read everything closely with meticulous attention. Within the first week, every student will choose a topic pertinent to the class (suggestions will be provided) which you will clear with me; this will be the subject of your independent research over the course of the semester, a source for contributions to discussion, and the focus of your final paper. The goal of the class assignment structure, including intermediate outline stages, is the production of a journal-quality research paper of between 8,000-12,000 words in length. Your final grade will be 80% paper, 20% class participation.

All readings for the class are either available in the Belknap Harvard edition of the Selected Writings or the Arcades Project, or will be made available as PDFs. Email all assignments to me directly at


September 2. Introductions. Discussion of syllabus and framework of topics. Some initial remarks on Benjamin and our contemporary situation.

September 9. Biomechanics. Email me your choice of special research topic for the semester. Reading — 1: On Semblance. 2-1: Graphology, Old and New; Notes (II). 2-2: Doctrine of the Similar; The Lamp; On the Mimetic Faculty.

September 16. Total mobilization. Reading — 2-1: Theories of German Fascism. 2-2: Experience as Poverty. 3: The Storyteller.

September 23. Hyperinflation. Reading — 1: One-Way Street. 2-2: Left-Wing Melancholy. 4: A Chronicle of Germany’s Unemployed.

September 30. The destructive character. Email me your draft research bibliography. Reading — 2-2: Karl Kraus; The Destructive Character.

October 7. Glass architecture and iron construction. Reading — Lichtenberg: A Cross Section. 3: A Different Utopian Will. 4: On Scheerbart. AP: Convolute F (“Iron Construction”).

(October 14. Fall recess; no classes.)

October 21. The kinaesthetic. Reading — 4: On Some Motifs in Baudelaire. Franz Kafka: On the Tenth Anniversary of His Death.

October 28. Montage. Reading — 2: Little History of Photography. 4: The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technical Reproducibility (Third Version). AP: Convolute Y (“Photography”).

November 4. Denkbilder. Reading — 2-2: Ibizan Sequence; Berlin Chronicle; Thought Figures.

November 11. Empiricism. Email me the one-to-two page outline of your final paper. Reading — Moscow Diary. Theory of Distraction. AP: Convolute I (“The Interior, The Trace”).

November 18. Radio. Reading — 2-2: Reflections on Radio. On the Minute; Two Types of Popularity; Fundamental Reflections on a Radio Play.

November 25. Urbanism. Reading — AP: Paris, Capital of the Nineteenth Century (Exposé of 1939).

December 2. Shoppers and beggars. Reading — 4: Central Park.

December 9. Temporality. Reading — 3: Eduard Fuchs: Collector and Historian. 4: On the Concept of History; Paralipomena to “On the Concept of History”.

December 12 (Friday). Your complete final paper is due today by midnight. No late submissions will be accepted.