Academic journal article JCT (Online)

APPLIED BENJAMIN: Educational Thought, Research and Pedagogy

Academic journal article JCT (Online)

APPLIED BENJAMIN: Educational Thought, Research and Pedagogy

Article excerpt

OUR INTEREST IN THIS ESSAY IS HOW WALTER BENJAMIN MIGHT BE OF USE in efforts to shift the imaginary of educational thought, research, and pedagogy in the contemporary moment, what might be called "applied Benjamin" (Menninghaus, 1999, p. 200). Within post-structural work in education, Benjamin has been situated as a precursor, where he has much to say about a variety of topics: language production and translation; interpretation, allegory, and storytelling; image, representations, and the "aura;" memory, remembrance, and narrative; urban modernization and commodification; historical knowledge (truth) and discontinuity; praxis and progress (historical); and "dialectical" images.

After a brief introduction to Benjamin, the essay will survey the ways he has been, and might still and yet be, put to use in education. We will then unpack the central themes of such application in terms of how his work can be used to articulate a different sort of thought, research, and pedagogy in education.

Introduction: Benjamin as a Precursor to Postmodernism

Walter Benjamin (1892-1940) was born into a Jewish, upper-middle-class family in Berlin, which at the time was a major economic and cultural hub of Europe. Berlin, and later Paris, would become the landscapes of much of Benjamin's work, especially those that addressed the cityscape and urbanism. Such spatial considerations are present throughout Benjamin's work, whether in his discussions of the flâneur, capitalist modernization of the cityscape, or the spatially-grounded memoirs, diaries, and other autobiographical essays. In his adult life he would become a peripatetic, struggling, literary and social critic of the early-twentieth century. Never having substantial or stable income, he managed to sojourn rather extensively around Europe. But by 1940, he had been exiled from his native country; his brother was killed in a Nazi concentration camp and the Gestapo had raided his Paris apartment, confiscating his library and many manuscripts. After he and a group of refugees had failed to cross the Franco-Spanish border-from where, it was arranged, that he would then go to Lisbon and board a ship for America-he supposedly committed suicide.

During his life, he had relationships with Gershom Scholem, Hugo Ball, Emmy Hennings, Ernst Bloch, Bertolt Brecht, and other intellectuals of his time, and he would be partly subsumed by the Frankfurt School through his associations with Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer. Before his death, he had written vast quantities of aesthetic, literary, social, historical, and philosophical theory, much of it unpublished in his lifetime. Although only a few pieces of his oeuvre address education explicitly, pedagogical concerns are implicit in much of Benjamin's work, particularly his theorization of historical materialism, or what Buck-Morss (1999) called a "materialist pedagogy." While there are no doubt some modernist qualities in Benjamin, his work has been heralded as being prescient of postmodernism, and in the last few decades Benjamin has increased in popularity. His criticism has been translated into various languages and appears in numerous academic fields including literature, history, and cultural, art and media studies.

Given the magnitude of his writings, there are numerous considerations relevant to educators, some of which will be addressed below. Many of his ideas situate him as prefiguring the postmodern. Depending on whom one is reading, postmodernism may refer to a historical moment, a theoretical framework, an epistemology, a sensibility, or a certain set of concerns. As a pioneer figure in cultural studies, Benjamin was prescient in many ways, four of which have particular resonances for education.1

Perhaps primary is his critical embrace of the emergence and development of new technologies, particularly what might be termed "a new kind of engagement and a new democracy of the popular" (Peim, 2001b, p. 11). He did not fear the changes wrought by developments in his time of film, radio, photographic techniques, and other means of mechanical reproduction as applied to a range of cultural products, from art to advertisements. …

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