Walter Benjamin and Method

Walter Benjamin and Method: Reading Africa’s Arcades

Andrew W. Mellon Chair of Critical Architecture and Urbanism and Wits City Institute Director Noëleen Murray delivered a paper to the 4th biennial conference of the International Walter Benjamin Society.

27 September 2017 /  Worcester College, University of Oxford, UK

Reading Africa’s Arcades, a paper co-authored by Wits City Institute Director Noëleen Murray and Postdoctoral Fellow Jill Weintroub, was presented to the International Walter Benjamin Society’s 4th biennial conference.

Reading Africa’s Arcades, a paper co-authored by Noëleen Murray and Jill Weintroub, presents an elaboration of the scholarly foundations, rationales, archives, and afterlives of the Secret Affinities initiative. It was delivered by Murray to the prestigious 4th biennial conference of the International Walter Benjamin Society, convened by the Department of Modern Languages at the University of Oxford, UK. The co-authored paper was one of the significant outcomes of the 2017 Secret Affinities, a workshop in critical reading and an interrogation of the city in Africa via Walter Benjamin’s Das Passagen-Werk, and provided an opportunity to share the project and its afterlives with an international audience comprised of scholars specialising in the work of the celebrated cultural critic Walter Benjamin, whose acclaimed The Arcades Project provided the inspiration and theoretical underpinnings of the Secret Affinities workshop.

The workshop, held in Johannesburg in March 2017, brought together Africanist scholars to think about this famously unfinished array of reflections, notes, and citations in relation to the city of Johannesburg and cities more broadly. Could Benjamin’s attentiveness to the everyday, his blurring of boundaries between art and science, and his recognition of the import of architectures, urban spaces, and technological changes on society, facilitate our attempts to construct an archive of the city inspired by Benjamin’s unorthodox and undisciplined methods akin to the ‘rag-picker’s’ gathering of the ‘detritus’ of history?

In the paper, Murray and Weintroub elaborate on the Wits City Institute’s Johannesburg-based project of archive-making. As Benjamin turned his attention to Paris of the nineteenth century to begin gathering lingering traces that would contribute to his ‘other’ history, so we in Johannesburg examine the architectures, public histories, heritage projects, creative writings and artworks inspired by the city to begin to construct an alternative view of the present. As with Benjamin’s positioning in Paris, his ‘capital of the Nineteenth Century’, our vantage point in Johannesburg, city of an African (but also hybrid) modernity, arguably the ‘African capital of the twenty-first century’, was germane to our intellectual endeavours.

Methodologically inspired by Benjamin’s endeavour to construct ‘a world of secret affinities’ in which his assemblages on a host of topics begin to infect and inform each other in unpredictable ways, we view Johannesburg of the early twenty-first century as a place in which a series of quakes or fractures have permanently ended colonial ways (of social relations, economic activity, politics, survival) and ushered in new ones … ruptures that play out in the way the state (and institutions such as our universities) encounter citizens and inhabitants of cities (immigrants, refugees, the poor).

The Arcades Project, Walter Benjamin’s unfinished reflection on modernity and history, provided a point of departure for a set of deliberations spanning the disciplinary spectrum, from fine arts and literature, architecture and spatial planning, to history, sociology, and heritage studies, for a group of scholars gathered at the one-day meeting. The aim of the workshop was to ask participants to, in some way, follow Benjamin’s method in Arcades, drawing on its open-ended form and/or encyclopedic content in relation to their particular and individual scholarly projects, with the hope of constructing ‘a world of secret affinities’, or offering a series of convolutes towards the making of new knowledge.

The Secret Affinities workshop was made possible through an award made annually by the African Critical Inquiry Programme, a project of the Ivan Karp and Corinne Kratz Foundation based at the Laney Graduate School, Emory University, Atlanta, US.