Little Children Ask A Lot…

Thanks to all those who participated in the conference, which raised – I think – more questions about a “Benjaminian pedagogy” than it answered, but which began the productive work of addressing these themes within his work and more generally of recognizing the significance of the early writings (what I have suggested is the “first production cycle“) as both important in their own right and in relation to his later political philosophy.

In the end, we weren’t able to record the talks but we are planning to publish as many as possible as a book or journal collection and I will post more details on this site once we have them. Below is a transcript of my introductory remarks and some photos from the conference.


It is incumbent on me to explain why we have chosen to talk about the figure of Walter Benjamin through the thematic lenses of Pedagogy and the Politics of Youth, and to give some brief contextual framework to these ideas in Benjamin’s thought.

Judging by the number of recent publications on education, not only by those working within Education Studies but also by philosophers and political theorists elsewhere, I believe it is possible to claim a resurgence of interest in the philosophy and the politics of education today. It was Gerald Graff who first spoke, in the early 1990s, of a specific “Pedagogical Turn” in Theory, predicting a deepening of and movement beyond the “Cultural Turn” of the Twentieth Century. But the broader context of this more recent turn is that of the neoliberal transformation of Higher Education, beginning with the Bologna Accord in Europe, the Browne Report in England and Wales, and unprecedented tuition fee hikes in North America and Canada. All of this takes place against the backdrop of more general privatization of primary, secondary, as well as further educational institutions. As Rupert Murdoch has declared, schools are the “the last holdout from the digital revolution” and a cursory glance at the shifting structures of businesses such as News Corporation reveals the extent to which this emerging “Education Industry” is regarded as ripe for capital investment. It is, however, also important to recognize that the precondition for this was the previous massification of education, in terms of both its student demographic and, as a complement to this, a growing institutional extension into new disciplines and practices. I think it is the tension between these two moments – first, massification; then, privatization – that has produced what is now declared to be (quoting Martha Nussbaum) a “world-wide crisis in education” and in particular a “crisis of humanities”.

The most notorious polemics of the Frankfurt School from the 1930s  and 40s were responding in their own way to a comparable “crisis” at the more general level of Culture, as it confronted the emergence of an ostensibly “mass culture” under the conditions of its increasing commodification. It is therefore possible to trace the movement of an ideological drift from Religion as the dominant state apparatus in the pre-capitalist period, through the attempted construction of (national) State Culture in the late 19th and 20th centuries, to the beginnings of the dissolution of that cultural project in contemporary educational institutions at the beginning of the 21st century, alongside the growing ideological fetishization of “Education, Education, Education”.  A pedagogical turn might therefore by read as doubly symptomatic: first, of a turn from Culture as a once dominant ideological force under industrial capitalism in the twentieth century nation-State; second, of the emerging ideological crisis of Education itself in increasingly transnational and multicultural societies of the twenty-first century “knowledge economy”.

Framing the situation in these terms indicates just some of the complexity of our current historical situation. It is one in which, I think, there still exists – if only briefly – a real possibility of meaningful political and pedagogical struggle in and around issues of the theory and practice of education within and outside of academic institutions. This is, no doubt, a continuation and intensification of those critical engagements of the twentieth century which took place primarily in the domain of culture, art, and aesthetics. But if the spirit of critical theory is to live up to its legacy today, I would argue that its actuality resides in taking up this struggle, at this historical conjuncture, within the context of critical theories of mass education and pedagogy.


It is here, I believe, that Benjamin’s work may help us. But assessing the legacy of his own early engagement with issues of educational reform and the student-led Youth Movement in pre-First World War Germany could only begin after the publication of his the complete Gesammelte Schriften in the 1970s, and in English with the translations collected in Volume 1 of the Selected Writings only published in 1996, and in the Early Writings translated in the last two years. For these reasons alone, I think – certainly in the Anglophone reception of his work – we are immersed in a period of productive scholarly re-engagement with Benjamin’s writings on education. But in addition, in light of the historical moment raised above, I think it is also possible to speak, in Benjaminian terms, of a retrospective illumination or recognizability of what I regard as the fundamentally pedagogical essence of Benjamin’s corpus.

To justify this claim, I think it may be useful to delineate two significant periods in Benjamin’s life and work in relation to this educational context: that associated with the Youth Movement from around 1910-1917 and that in which Benjamin was perhaps closest to Bolshevism around 1927-1934.

The first period, between 1910 and 1917, is that in which Benjamin – in his late teens and early twenties – is actively engaged in the programme of educational reform associated with sections of the German Youth Movement assembled around the student journal Der Anfang (“The Beginning”) and around the “Free Students’ Associations” of the Universities. In the chronologizing of Benjamin’s work, these years might be said to frame a third, overlapping “production cycle” to be added to those of the ‘Germanistic’ (in the late 1910s and 1920s) and ‘Parisian’ (of the late 1920s and 1930s). The idea under which this epoch of Benjamin’s life is to be constructed is that of Youth; its antagonist is the German education system, regarded as the primary locus of the philistine, bourgeois impoverishment of culture and the ideals of youth. It is an epoch marked above all by the personal and intellectual influence of the educational reformer Gustav Wyneken and his vision of an independent “Youth Culture,” which Wyneken promoted first at the progressive boarding school in Haubinda (which Benjamin briefly attended), then at the Free School Community in Wickersdorf, and also in collaboration with the Free Students’ Associations of the Universities (in which Benjamin played a significant role).


Judged in terms of immediate public influence, this epoch perhaps constitutes the most successful period of Benjamin’s career. His article, ‘School Reform: A Cultural Movement’, appeared in a 1912 pamphlet, ten thousand copies of which were distributed to universities throughout Germany. By 1913 Benjamin held a leading role in the Anfang movement and in 1914 was elected president of the Free Students’ association at the University of Berlin. At this point, Anfang had 1,000 subscribers and the movement as a whole 3,000 members. It was radical enough and popular enough that Wyneken was denounced by the Bavarian minister of culture, the journal banned in Bavaria and the “Sprechsaal” (or student “Meeting Rooms”) closed. Similar accusations were made before the Prussian and Baden parliaments.

The outbreak of war, however, splintered an already fracturing movement. Several members of Benjamin’s circle committed suicide, including Benjamin’s close friends Fritz Heinle and Rika Seligson. After this, Benjamin ceased his involvement in the movement and turned away from most of his comrades, including Wyneken, whose public support of the German war effort he denounced as a betrayal of Youth. It is important to recognize, however, that Benjamin’s break from the Movement itself does not simultaneously constitute a rejection of this early philosophy, but contributes to the submerging of his political position into what he himself calls a ‘harder, purer, more invisible radicalism’. The existential significance of this traumatic break thus constitutes the historical layer of an underground or cryptic politics of his later writings.


The second important period is that around 1927 -1934, beginning with Benjamin’s two month stay in Soviet Moscow, when – politically and aesthetically – he became increasingly involved in the circle around the Marxist intellectual Bertolt Brecht, originally via the mediation of the Bolshevik theatre director and educationalist Asja Lacis, who – it is not often enough said – was an important intellectual influence in her own right. In one of the “street scenes” from his Moscow Diary, written during his visit to Lacis in Moscow, Benjamin describes the crowds of war orphans in the proletarian neighbourhoods. For them, he writes, traditional pedagogical methods are useless: the only way for the educator to teach and understand these children is to make contact with the whole collective life of the street. When he describes such State-run children’s centres, it is the radical pedagogy of the theatre schools first established by Lacis that provides the model, as it would for “Communist Pedagogy” he described a few years later.

From 1927 onwards, Benjamin became increasingly fascinated with developing a materialist history of childhood, toys, play, and education; a stance through which he develops his own anthropological materialist understanding of the mimetic faculty and from which he is deeply critical of existing bourgeois theories of child psychology and pedagogy. These interests finds intellectual expression in his collaborations with Brecht in 1930 on a planned journal to be entitled Crisis and Critique, which was to focus on the changing role of intellectuals in a period of social, political and economic crises. In one formulation, Brecht writes that the project was conceived as focusing on three areas: the creation of “capitalist pedagogics”, “proletarian pedagogics”, and “classless pedagogics”.

The dual influence of Lacis and Brecht provides not merely an aesthetic influence but a specifically pedagogical context for Benjamin’s distinctive engagement with Bolshevism and historical materialism. This involves not merely a materialist critique of existing pedagogical theory but, simultaneously, a fundamentally pedagogical rethinking of Marxist concepts of history and revolution. Benjamin foregrounds the importance of educational tasks for revolutionary politics. But the belief that the bourgeois “knowledge”, “science”, and “culture” through which the proletariat had once been dominated could be appropriated untransformed by the proletariat was declared naive: detached as it was from practice, and conceiving its audience as a public rather than a class, it was useless for revolutionary struggle.

These critical engagements therefore reconnect, within a changed political framework, with Benjamin’s earliest critique of bourgeois education. Yet his earlier metaphysics of Youth could not be left untransformed by this change. In the early drafts of his ‘Berlin Chronicle’ from 1932, the Anfang movement is remembered as ‘a final, heroic attempt to change the attitudes of people without changing their circumstances’. ‘[M]uch time was to pass,’ Benjamin adds, ‘before the realization matured that no one can improve his school or his parental home without first smashing the state that needs bad ones’.


Let me conclude by suggesting that the belated availability of Benjamin’s earliest writings, coupled with a tendency to dismiss these as mere juvenilia, has contributed to a peculiar depoliticization of Benjamin’s early thought, which connects to the later work via the claim that this late work contains a cryptic or concealed politics. For example, T. J. Clarke claims that the two dominant ideas declared as ‘articles of my politics’ by Benjamin in the unfinished Arcades Project, are ultimately ‘cryptic’, because, for Clark, it is ‘as if such a politics were being actively aired and developed elsewhere’. If these articles constitute the cryptic manifestations of a politics, however, this is not because such a politics remains undisclosed. Benjamin’s politics is aired and developed in his early metaphysics of Youth; later, it is collectivized within a metaphysical framework of revolutionary struggle.

Allow me to demonstrate this by tracing the movement of one thought-figure across Benjamin’s work. In notes from the early 1920s that develop ideas from his dissertation on Early German Romanticism, Benjamin compares the “pedagogic authority” of certain historians with the Late Romantic theory of Observation: “For the Late Romantics, observation was a sun beneath whose rays the object of love opens up. But if the rays were withheld, the object of love remained in the dark and wilted…. the power that is ascribed here to observation is basically identical to the gaze of the father in education.” Without explicitly recalling Gustav Wyneken’s notion of “erotic education” – by this point a subterranean current within his thought – Benjamin identifies this paternal gaze with a form of “nonviolent control” that is contrasted with the authoritarian violence of corporal punishment.

If we turn to the startling conclusions of One-Way Street, written a few years later, Benjamin returns to this theme in the more materialist context of the historical significance of technology: “The mastery of nature (so the imperialists teach) is the purpose of all technology. But who would trust a cane wielder who proclaimed the mastery of children by adults to be the purpose of education? Is not education, above all, the indispensable ordering of the relationship between generations and therefore mastery (if we are to use this term) of that relationship and not of children? And likewise technology is the mastery of not nature but of the relation between nature and man.” Here the “nonviolent control” earlier identified with the pedagogic gaze – an experience which mediates between subject and object, theory and practice, without dominating either – is assumed by a humanized technology and contrasted with both the domination of Youth by the “cane wielding” teacher and of Nature by the “bomb wielding” imperialist,

Finally, in the second version of ‘The Work of Art’ essay from the mid-1930s, exactly the same contrast between the “cane wielding” Master and the “nonviolent” educationalist is invoked to draw a distinction between concepts of “first” and “second” technology hinted at in the conclusion of One-Way Street. Currently existing first technology is said to aim at a mastery over nature, through the maximal possible utilization of humans, whereas a utopian second technology experimentally and playfully aims not at domination but a nonviolent and experimental interplay between nature and humanity.

Technological is thus assigned the fundamentally pedagogical function of the progressive educator in these later writings; the pedagogical experience increasingly collectivized and historicized in the context of a revolutionary struggle over the ownership and aims of technology. It is this figure of the collective body of humanity flexing its new technological organs that supplies Benjamin with his concept of revolutions as “innvervations of the collective”: one of the two “articles of his politics” in the Arcades Project that T. J. Clark – without recourse to Benjamin’s earliest “politics of Youth” – could only declare as “cryptic”).

DSC02304Benjamin’s relationship to academic institutions was always that of a critical outsider: deeply cynical about the assumptions that undergird their pedagogical power, deeply suspicious of their complicity with the ruling classes. It is amusing to recall, however, that continuously through his adult life Benjamin held one of the highest possible academic positions. In 1918 he was instilled by his friend Gerhard Scholem as “rector mirabilis” of the entirely fictional and viciously satirical “University of Muri”. Inscribed over the entrance to the University, Benjamin reported, was the motto “Lirum larum Löffelstiel, kleine Kinder fragen viel”. The first half expresses in childlike form a nonsense rhyme that accompanied a game, the second part adjusted by Benjamin. If we wanted to preserve the rhyme, we might translate this as:  “Lirum larum pepper-pot / Little children ask a lot”. As Benjamin’s biographers has written, referring to the proto-revolutionary figures of children in One-Way Street, ‘all the motifs of future salvation are already present in childhood’.

Youth: The First “Production Cycle”

Howard Eiland, editor and translator of much of Walter Benjamin’s Selected Writings and more recently his Early Writings, will be speaking this weekend (31st May – 1st June 2013) at the conference on ‘Walter Benjamin, Pedagogy and the Politics of Youth’ that I have organized at the University of Westminster in London. Below is my review of his collection of Benjamin’s Early Writings: 1910-1917 (HUP, 2011), which includes his helpful introduction. This review was first published in Radical Philosophy 174 (Jul/Aug 2012) and sections were developed for a talk entitled ‘Les enfants du siècle: Marx, Benjamin, and Pedagogical Materialism’ given at the Fifth International Critical Theory Conference of Rome in May 2012. The best general introductions to the Anfang movement in English are Philip Lee Utley’s ‘Schism, Romanticism and Organization: Anfang, January-August 1914‘ and ‘Radical Youth: Generational Conflict in the Anfang Movement, 1912-January 1914‘.


Early Writings

This translated collection of forty-five of Benjamin’s early writings begins with his first published work, a poem that appeared pseudonymously just before his eighteenth birthday, and follows the tempestuous period of his immersion in and break from the Youth Movement, before drawing to a close with the poetic commentaries of a 25-year-old on the verge of marriage, fatherhood and a short but productive academic spell. There is grist for the mill of the cynic here. About a fifth of these translations have already appeared in Selected Writings, Volume 1: 1913–1926, whose chronological span overlaps that of the Early Writings, 1910–1917 by five years. Most of the significant works from this period of Benjamin’s studies in Berlin, Freiburg and Munich are therefore already available to the anglophone reader. Although the important exclusion from the Selected Writings of Benjamin’s 1915 dialogue on ‘The Rainbow’ – discovered by Giorgio Agamben in 1977 – and its associated fragment has been rectified here, these have been previously translated in the appendix to Peter Fenves’s recent The Messianic Reduction (reviewed by Andrew McGettigan in RP 168). This arouses the suspicion that further delving into the early archive might perhaps only serve the interests of Harvard University Press’s profits, the aura of biographical completeness, or the strategic ‘de-Marxification’ of Benjamin’s thought.

Why else, then, the strange overlap given the differentiation of the Early Writings from the Selected Writings? An explanation for this editorial decision might be found in Benjamin’s own claim, in correspondence from the beginning of 1918, that the ‘six years … since I left school have constituted an epoch, lived through at a monstrous tempo’, which had ended with the commencement of his doctoral studies on Kant at the University of Bern. Admittedly such a span is most properly designated by the years 1912–1917, but it is significant that the work collected in the Early Writings might thus be said to frame a third, overlapping epoch to be added to the self-proclaimed and themselves overlapping ‘Germanistic’ and ‘Parisian’ production cycles (defined in relation to the Origin of German Trauerspiel and the uncompleted Arcades Project). Such a claim challenges Howard Caygill’s designation, in The Colour of Experience, of this first epoch as internal to the ‘Germanistic’ phase. Notably, however, Caygill affords no Selected Writings 1place in his own categorization of the genres that constitute the latter two production cycles (short reviews, academic treatises, major critical essays) for the works from this epoch. For the texts collected here are mainly expressionist poetic pieces published under the Latin pseudonym Ardor in the journal of the student group Anfang and short polemical addresses on education reform (whose form is derived from the speeches given in the student ‘talking-houses’), which appeared in pamphlets associated with the student movement and, after Benjamin’s break from Anfang, in literary journals such as Der Neuer Merkur and Die Argonauten.

That these texts delineate a distinct epoch in the life of their author is unquestionable; judged in terms of immediate public influence (terms Benjamin himself would not endorse), it perhaps constitutes the most successful period of Benjamin’s career. Nor, unless we wish to contradict the very idea of youth that Benjamin advances here, can we dismiss these works as mere juvenilia (hence the inappropriateness of originally excluding them from the Selected Writings only to reincorporate them differentiated as ‘early’ writings). The ultimate test of such a claim, however, lies in what emerges from this reconfiguration of Benjamin’s oeuvre and to what extent this facilitates the interests of the ‘de-Marxification’ to which Benjamin’s work has so often been editorially subjected.


The idea under which this epoch of Benjamin’s life is to be assembled is that of Youth. It is an epoch marked above all by the personal and intellectual influence of the educational reformer Gustav Wyneken. Benjamin’s philosophical interests first bloom under Wyneken’s gaze whilst schooling at Haubinda in 1905. When he publicly denounces his mentor a decade later, he does so in order to wrest from Wyneken’s grasp the living legacy of his idea. It is one founded philosophically on Wyneken’s blend of an Idealism of Spirit with a Nietzschean metaphysics of Life, and socially on the ‘Youth Culture’ Wyneken promoted first at Haubinda and then at the Free School Community in Wickersdorf. This concept of ‘Youth Culture’ is in part inspired by the philosophy of history contained in the second of Nietzsche’s Untimely Meditations, a series of essays that emerged from the unpublished lectures on ‘The Future of Our Educational Institutions’ that Nietzsche gave in 1872, having taken up his professorial position at Basle. Here, Nietzsche attacks the ‘historical culture’ that has sprung from Hegel as one which paralyses the natural philosophical impulse of the young, ‘from which alone, as a fruitful soil, a deep and noble culture can grow forth’. Against this, in ‘The Use and Abuse of History for Life’, Nietzsche declares his ‘trust in youth that has brought me on the right road in forcing from me a protest against historical education, and a demand that man must learn to live, above all, and only use history in the service of the life that he has learned to live’. Benjamin was also profoundly influenced by Wyneken’s insistence that youth must actively create its own culture, one that positively fills in the hollowed-out time between childhood and adulthood, in order to transform spiritually the bourgeois institutions of society that it inherits. In numerous addresses to youth collected in this volume, this idea is deployed to critique existing pedagogical practices. ‘School Reform: A Cultural Movement’ appeared in a 1912 pamphlet produced by one of Wyneken’s ‘School Reform Units’ that Benjamin helped organize at Freiburg University, 10,000 copies of which were distributed to universities throughout Germany. By 1913 Benjamin held a leading role in the Anfang movement, producing its journal and organizing public speakers, a responsibility which brought him into personal contact with intellectual figures such as Buber and Klages. At its height, in 1914, the journal had 1,000 subscribers and the movement 3,000 members (for a more detailed discussion, see P.L. Utley’s ‘Radical Youth: Generational Conflict in the Anfang Movement’).

Benjamin’s report on the First Free German Youth Congress held at Mount Meissner in October 1913, which collected together the different elements of the nascent German Youth Movement, encapsulates what happened next:

A speaker concluded: ‘…with a salute to freedom and German nationality!’ A voice: ‘And to youth!’ The speaker hastily corrected himself: ‘And to youth!’

There was worse. When the prizes for sport were being awarded, the name Isaacsohn was announced. Laughter rang out from a minority.

Gustav Wyneken addressing the First Free German Youth Congress (High Meissner, 1913)

Gustav Wyneken addressing the First Free German Youth Congress (High Meissner, 1913)

In February 1914 Benjamin was elected president of the Free Students’ Association of Berlin University, a post he held until the outbreak of the First World War in August. But the chauvinistic, nationalistic and anti-Semitic forces that manifested themselves on ‘High Meissner’ – and against which Benjamin’s ideals of youth were pitted – tore the fragile movement apart. Anfang was wrongly identified as a mouthpiece for Wyneken (whose views were typically less left-wing and liberal than those of the journal’s contributors), and the educationalist was denounced by the Bavarian minister of culture for the right-wing Catholic ‘Centre Party’. Similar accusations were made in the Prussian and Baden parliaments. In Bavaria, Der Anfang was banned and the ‘talking-rooms’ closed. Wyneken was expelled from the Free German Youth and Anfang split into factions, intent either on turning to direct political agitation or, in the case of Benjamin’s more literary circle, withdrawing from the compromise of politics in order to secure a spiritual commitment to ‘unlimited honesty’.

The outbreak of war that summer sent a generation of young men to be slaughtered at the Front. Several members of Benjamin’s circle committed suicide, including Fritz Heinle and Rika Seligson. It is difficult to overestimate the significance of this experience for Benjamin. ‘Only for the sake of the hopeless ones have we been given hope’, Benjamin wrote in the conclusion to his essay on Goethe’s Elective Affinities, meaning: hope is never for ourselves, the living, but only for the dead. As Howard Eiland writes in his introduction to the Early Writings:

After this event, Benjamin effectively ceased his student activism – in a letter two months later, he writes of the need for a ‘harder, purer, more invisible radicalism’ – and he turned away from most of his comrades in the youth movement, including his former mentor, Gustav Wyneken, whom he denounced, in a letter of March 9, 1915, for his public support of the German war effort.


Did Benjamin simultaneously renounce his youthful philosophy? In ‘Dornröschen’ from 1911, in which Benjamin announced his commitment to the Youth Movement, ‘Youth … is the Sleeping Beauty who slumbers and has no inkling of the prince who approaches to set her free. And to bring about the awakening of youth, its participation in the struggle going on around it, is precisely the goal to which our journal aims to contribute.’ It is an image of awakening Benjamin returned to in each of his production cycles. In the secret preface to the Trauerspiel book, he recast himself as the cook whose violence inadvertently awakens the slumbering truth of the plays, so rescuing them from the approaching prince of academic scholarship (‘I would like to tell the story of Sleeping Beauty a second time … The cook woke her up when he gave the scullery boy a box on the ear which, resounding from the pent-up force of so many years, echoed through the palace’). Similarly, the Arcades Project was originally conceived as a ‘Dialectical Fairy-Tale’, a historical version of Sleeping Beauty, predicated on a theory of collective awakening. Indeed, the earliest methodology for the Arcades Project is expounded in relation to the dream-configurations of each epoch that constitute ‘a generation’s experience of youth’. The task of childhood here is to recognize the new configurations of nature and technology by bringing them into symbolic space. Benjamin is drawing on the pedagogical principles he had expounded nearly two decades earlier: ‘The school receives a generation … full of images, which it brings with it from the land of the future’; ‘the most urgent requirement of modern pedagogy is to create space for the emergent culture’. Here, then, the radical pedagogical impetus of Benjamin’s early metaphysics of Youth provides the philosophical framework for his rethinking of the relationship between historical materialism and revolutionary communism.

Benjamin’s later assertion that this dialectics of dream and awakening was no longer a viable model responded in turn to Adorno’s insistence that this was precisely because it remained immersed within and hence could not escape from the utopian dimension of the dream (a charge Benjamin himself had directed against Surrealism). Against this, Eiland’s introduction insists that ‘none of the “romantic” motifs … or the philosophical principles informing them, are absent from the later work’, that there are ‘virtually no false steps in the youth writings’, and so the ‘tendency among some critics to oppose Benjamin’s early “idealism” to his later “materialism” is misleading’. This claim needs to be interrogated. For it to hold true, an emphasis would have to be placed not on Adorno’s insistence that everything undialectical about the construction of the dialectical image in the early drafts of the Arcades revolves around the motto ‘Each epoch dreams the one to follow’, but his insistence that this problematically immanent version of the dialectical image requires a theological corrective of the kind given its fullest explication in Benjamin’s early Trauerspiel book.

The theory of dreaming must be brought back into conjunction with the concept of ruination developed there. But even in Benjamin’s earliest writings, the ‘romantic’ motifs Eiland speaks of were (and increasingly so from 1913 onwards) always distinguished from a ‘false’ or ‘school’ romanticism through the development of nihilistic ‘new’ and ‘sober’ romanticism. According to the false romanticism, ‘we were supposed to see something extraordinary in everything infinitely particular, instead of in the development of the human being, in the history of humanity. Thus, one produces an unpolitical youth, eternally limited to art, literature, and experiences of love.’ Art becomes a narcotic and spirit is reduced to a stimulant.

Opposed to this is ‘the romantic will to action’ which ‘would recognize spiritual connections, the history of labour, and which would transform this recognition into living experience so that, in the most unromantic and sober way, one might act in accordance with it’. For Benjamin, this sober romanticism places youth in the same position as the early Christian Quietists, ‘to whom the world likewise appeared to be so utterly overflowing with the sacred – which could arise in each and all – that it deprived them of the power to speak and act. … And yet its boundless scepticism (which is nothing other than boundless trust) compels it to love the struggle [in which] the figure of the sacred reveals itself.’ This underpins the messianic dimension of Benjamin’s romanticism that Adorno alludes to in his reference to the theological. Hence, when he promotes Rudolf Pannwitz’s quasi-religious definition of education as the ‘propagation of spiritual values’ this should not be misunderstood as an idealist individualism, but as related to the development of an ‘honest socialism’ which recognizes the natural richness and abundance of individuals as more than merely socially determined. One pedagogical consequence of this claim is the belief that ‘personality’ is not the goal of education, but its starting point. But it also informs Benjamin’s focus, in both his early and later writings, on winning over the intellectuals or literati to the revolutionary cause, as a ‘class’ which bears ‘the precipitous living contradiction to the social inertia of our time’ as the ‘deepest abasement to which the modern individual, punished with the loss of social possibilities, must submit’: ‘They want to be the honest ones, want to give shape to their artistic enthusiasm, their “love of the most distant” (to speak with Nietzsche), but society repudiates them.’

A possible danger of this notion of ethical solitude as a precondition of community in Benjamin’s early writings is that it threatens to segue into the vulgar kind of Levinasian communitarianism so popular recently. From the late 1920s onwards, the recontextualizing of this pedagogic function within a historical materialist perspective framed by communism comes to invest technology with a collective educative function, demanding a liberation of the technological means of production as a precondition for redemption. Eiland’s claim that there are ‘virtually no false steps in the youth writings’ therefore downplays the extent to which this resituating involves more than a shift in aesthetic attitude towards cinematic montage. (‘An exception’, Eiland writes, ‘is the attitude toward cinema in 1913. …The montage aesthetics emerges with One-Way Street, which was begun in 1923.’)



Given the radical implications of this materialist refunctioning of pedagogy, it remains to consider what Benjamin’s early critical pedagogy can teach us in the context of the present crisis in education. As Eiland notes, the conception of the university that emerges from this early liberalism is that of

an open-ended working ideal that is the true seat of authority and the basis of any genuine vocation for learning and teaching. … And it was the role of the students, in their propensity for both uncompromising idealism and radical doubt, to constitute an intellectual vanguard in the learning community: to keep alive a space for questioning, for recollection of the underlying crisis of modernity, and in this way to foster ‘the culture of conversation’, thereby preventing the degeneration of learning into a mere accumulation of information and making all study in a fundamental sense philosophical.

Yet Benjamin is also insistent that this metaphysical claim must be distinguished from any empirical reduction of moral education into ‘a peculiar sort of civic – instead of moral – education’. This ‘dessicated humanism’ refuses to look the Greek world from which its classical liberalism takes inspiration fully in the face: ‘that woman-despising and man-loving Greece of Pericles, aristocratic, with slavery, with the dark myths of Aeschylus’ that Nietzsche had revealed. And although Benjamin will later insist that the impoverishment of bourgeois education theory demands a confrontation with ‘the Marxist dialectical anthropology of the proletarian child’, the target of his scorn remained consistent across his work: bourgeois education functions to mediate between the psychological hypostatization of an absolute childhood or youth and the ethical one of an absolute citizenship, tricked out with the attributes of idealist philosophy.

In their conjuncture with our fundamentally pedagogical moment of recognizability, the writing in this collection therefore reconfigures the afterlife of Benjamin’s philosophy anew. Some of the clunkiness of the earlier English translations has been smoothed over, the scholarly apparatus in the footnotes substantially expanded, and – despite my specific reservations above – Eiland’s introduction is exemplary in the clarity of its historical and philosophical contextualization.

Walter Benjamin, Pedagogy and the Politics of Youth


Friday 31st May – Saturday 1st June 2013
University of Westminster, London
Fyvie Hall, 309 Regent Street, London W1B 2UW

Co-hosted by the Institute for Modern & Contemporary Culture (IMCC)
and the Centre for Research in Modern European Philosophy (CRMEP)

Provisional Schedule:

Friday 31st May: Fyvie Hall, University of Westminster, 309 Regent Street, London

13:15 – 14:00 Registration (Entrance Hall)
14:00 – 14:30 Welcome
Introductory Remarks
David Cunningham
Matthew Charles
IMCC, Westminster
IMCC, Westminster
14:30 – 15:30 The Life of Students is a Great Transformer Antonia Birnbaum
Chair: Andrew McGettigan
Paris 8
15:30 – 16:00 Break
16:00 – 17:00 Attunement and Interference:
Benjamin’s Hölderlin Reading
Howard Caygill
Chair: Peter Osborne
CRMEP, Kingston

Saturday 1st June: Fyvie Hall, University of Westminster, 309 Regent Street, London

09:45 – 10:30 Registration (Entrance Hall)
10:30 – 11:30 Quo Vadis? Knowing and being in the digital age Milan Jaros
Chair: Steven Cranfield
11:30 – 12:00 Break
12:00 – 13:00 Chockerlebnis and Education: Learning from Modern Experience Élise Derroitte
Chair: Howard Caygill
13:00 – 14:15 Lunch
14:15 – 15:15 Student as Producer: a pedagogy of the avant-garde; or, how do revolutionary teachers teach? Mike Neary
Chair: David Cunningham
15:15 – 15:30 Break
15:30 – 17:00 Education as Awakening
Howard Eiland
Peter Osborne
Chair: Matthew Charles
CRMEP, Kingston


Antonia Birnbaum (Paris 8)
Bonheur Justice Walter Benjamin; ‘Between sharing and antagonism: the invention of communism in the early Marx
Howard Caygill (CRMEP)
Walter Benjamin: the colour of experience; Also Sprach Zapata: Philosophy and resistance
Matthew Charles (Westminster)
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: ‘Walter Benjamin’, ‘Lines in class: the ongoing attack on mass education in England’
Élise Derroitte (Université catholique de Louvain)
La critique de la critique. : De la philosophie de l’histoire de Walter Benjamin; ‘“Die Schulereform, eine Kulturbewegung”, on Benjamin’s theory of learning
Howard Eiland (MIT)
Walter Benjamin: Early Writings; ‘The Pedagogy of Shadow: Heidegger and Plato
Milan Jaros (Newcastle)
Pedagogy for Knowledge Recognition and Acquisition: Knowing and Being at the Close of the Mechanical Age‘; ‘To thing or not to thing: Pedagogy of knowledge acquisition in the networked society‘.
Mike Neary (Lincoln)
Student as producer: how do revolutionary teachers teach?; Towards Teaching in Public: Reshaping the Modern University.
Peter Osborne (CRMEP)
Walter Benjamin’s Philosophy: Destruction and Experience; ‘Privatization as Anti-Politics: Interview with Peter Osborne


The conference is free, open to all and there is no need to pre-register. Attendance on each day will be allocated on a “first come, first served” basis: the registration desk will be open on Friday 31st May from 13:15 – 14:00 and on Saturday 1st June from 9:45 – 10:30 and will be located in the main entrance hall to the University of Westminster, 309 Regent Street, London W1b 2UW.

The conference proceedings will begin at 14:00 on Friday and at 10:30 on Saturday and will end at 17:00 on both days. All talks will be held in Fyvie Hall (off the main entrance hall to the University of Westminster building on Regent Street).

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For further information and to be added to the conference mailing list for updates, please contact:
Matthew Charles