African Critical Inquiry Programme Workshop

Secret Affinities: Walter Benjamin and Critical Readings of the City

The Wits City Institute collaborated with the Wits School of Arts to host the 2017 ACIP Workshop Secret Affinities, A workshop in critical reading and an interrogation of the city in Africa via Walter Benjamin’s Das Passagen-Werk.

The African Critical Inquiry Programme (ACIP) Workshop award for 2017 was Secret Affinities, a workshop in critical reading and an interrogation of the city in Africa via Walter Benjamin’s Das Passagen-Werk, held in Johannesburg at Satyagraha House from the 22 to 23 March 2017. Jill Weintroub reflects on the Workshop, which she developed in collaboration with the award holders and co-conveners Andrew W. Mellon Chair of Critical Architecture and Urbanism and Wits City Institute Director Noëleen Murray, and Wits School of Arts Head of School Brett Pyper. ACIP workshops are held annually with support from the Ivan Karp and Corinne Kratz Fund based at the Laney Graduate School at Emory University, Atlanta.

Words: Jill Weintroub

The Norman Eaton-designed African-inspired Polley’s Arcade complex in Pretoria, the Kochi Biennale on India’s Arabian coast, an Ethiopian coffee ceremony, an 1882 Paris Salon painting by the impressionist Édouard Manet, the worldly photography of Ernest Cole, and a project centred on photographing people who continue to live in Johannesburg’s inner city apartheid-era hostels, were among a range of topics addressed by scholars, architects, planners, artists, and heritage practitioners during Secret Affinities: A workshop in critical reading and an interrogation of the city in Africa via Walter Benjamin’s Das Passagen-Werk.

Participants sought to apply cultural critic Walter Benjamin’s unorthodox and flexible methods, akin to the ‘rag-picker’s’ gathering of the ‘detritus’ of history, to contemporary thinking about the city of Johannesburg, with contributions refracted through many and diverse disciplines and theoretical approaches. Taking Benjamin’s The Arcades Project(1999) as inspiration, presentations interrogated processes such as heritage planning and spatial legacies, memory and the past narrated spatially, photographically, and through urban design, and elaborated on architectures of contradiction, anaesthesia, suburban levelling and control, historical silencings, and spatial memory held within the hidden arcades of Johannesburg and Pretoria. In addition, papers explored intimate social spaces made fleetingly visible through film or painting and addressed the potential for new historiographies to arise through sound studies or acoustemologies of the city. Providing fuel for thought was the bunna bet Ethiopian coffee ceremony that was performed as part of a presentation on the concept of spatial design as social narration and catalyst for change.

The aim of the workshop was to think anew about the contingencies of space – in Johannesburg as a prelude to thinking beyond the urban particular. Critical to the intellectual intentions of the Secret Affinities workshop was its location at Satyagraha House, now a boutique hotel, but long ago a dwelling named ‘The Kraal’, inhabited briefly by Mohandas Gandhi and his close associate and soulmate, the Munich-trained architect, stonemason, and carpenter, Hermann Kallenbach.

For a decade at the start of the twentieth century in Johannesburg – while following a shared spiritual and political journey and emerging practices of communal living, ascetism, and bodily self-restraint, Gandhi and Kallenbach were at the centre of a circle of transcendental thinkers influenced by the Russian writer Leo Tolstoy. At the same time, they were pivotal figures in the seminal satyagraha campaign of non-violent resistance against discriminatory legislation aimed at Indian people living in the then Transvaal Republic, actions that would have disruptive outcomes for decades in the future. This period of close spiritual and political collaboration between Gandhi and Kallenbach played out first at ‘The Kraal’, and later at Tolstoy Farm, a communal space set up to support and accommodate the families of satyagrahis imprisoned during the protests. While Gandhi’s contribution to Indian nationalism and world politics has been widely celebrated and sometimes contested, Kallenbach’s considerable legacy remains in the shadows; his influence on the built fabric of Johannesburg and the development of residential neighbourhoods in the vicinity of Linksfield Ridge, remains profound, as does the critical part he played in supporting (financially and spiritually) Gandhi’s emerging politics.

The enigmas of historical imagination and spatial memory were central to the conception and planning of Secret Affinities. Working from a site of layered and lost histories and using Benjamin’s famously unfinished refection on modernity and history as a lens, the workshop aimed to unlock and facilitate cross-disciplinary discussions focused on urbanism and architecture, spatial planning, heritage, and public history practices associated with cities, the city of Johannesburg, and the African present. From the vantage point of Johannesburg, city of an African (but also hybrid) modernity, arguably the ‘African capital of the twenty-first century’, and resonant with Benjamin’s positioning in Paris, his ‘capital of the nineteenth century’, participants were invited to construct ‘a world of secret affinities’ in which (after Benjamin), assemblages or collections of notes, reflections, and citations on a host of topics, organised into convolutes or bundles, could begin to infect and inform each other in unpredictable ways, thereby enabling new knowledges to be born.

Elaborating on architectures of contradiction, anaesthesia, failure, and historical silencings, papers explored intimate social spaces made hauntingly visible through film or painting, and addressed the potential for new historiographies to arise through sound studies and acoustemologies of the city. Providing fuel for thought was the the bunna bet Ethiopian coffee ceremony that was performed as part of a presentation on the concept of spatial design as social narration and a catalyst for change. Other topics addressed during the one-day meeting included a fine art photography project focused on afterlives in Johannesburg’s still-standing inner-city apartheid hostels, the 2016 Oscar winning movie Moonlight, and the Norman Eaton-designed African-inspired Polley’s Arcade shopping complex in Pretoria. Of immediate relevance to the spatial and psychic realities of present-day Johannesburg were two presentations that dealt with a seminal moment in Johannesburg’s apartheid history – the June 16 Uprising, which has engendered politically charged narratives in the present, and is commemorated through a newly established heritage project in Soweto featuring specially commissioned contemporary art displayed in a series of outdoor installations linked by a heritage trail.

The formal part of the workshop was preceded by a field trip to sites in Johannesburg that were linked through Kallenbach and Gandhi. The route took us from Satyagraha House along Louis Botha Avenue, part of the City of Joburg’s ‘Corridors of Freedom’ project, through the dense central suburbs of Yeoville, Berea, Hillbrow, and Troyville. Highlights were two sites of architectural heritage designed by Hermann Kallenbach and built, in 1912 and 1936 respectively: the Greek Orthodox Cathedral and the Temple Israel Synagogue, both in neighbourhoods that are radically different to the communities they were originally built to serve. In addition, we explored Gandhi Square, a revamped transport hub for the central city sited close to important Kallenbach/Gandhi sites from the early 1900s, including Gandhi’s law offices and a vegetarian restaurant where he and Kallenbach regularly met during their friendship and shared activism in the city until 1914.

Given the fraught context of its writing, it is no wonder that Benjamin’s concern with the notion of historical progress is threaded through the Arcades and reaches apotheosis in his ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’, completed just before his death in 1940. ‘The concept of progress must be grounded in the idea of catastrophe (473).’ In Arcades, Benjamin draws repeatedly on the nineteenth-century French activist and philosopher of the ultra-left, Louis Auguste Blanqui, and tracing ‘an image of progress’ that ‘turns out to be the phantasmagoria of history itself’, insisting that what we like to call progress is merely a return to what has gone before. At the same time, he reminds us: ‘There has never been an epoch that did not feel itself to be “modern” … and did not believe itself to be standing directly before an abyss. The desperately clear consciousness of being in the middle of a crisis is something chronic in humanity.’ There is no denying that Benjamin’s interest in describing the failure of modernity and denial of progress may be ascribed to his particular location and experience, ensconced (barricaded?) in the Bibliothèque nationale, having served months in an internment camp prior to fleeing Paris in 1940. That epoch, with the Fascist Right on the rise, and progressive forces of the left seemingly in retreat, seems resonant for the present.

To what extent does this invite comparison with cities such as Johannesburg, its predicament in the postapartheid present, and the demands for spatial justice confronting cities across Africa and further afield? Can the following comment not be regarded as a blueprint for transdisciplinary research aimed at meeting the challenges of a post-postcolonial age? ‘Every age unavoidably seems to itself a new age. The “modern,” however, is as varied in its meaning as the different aspects of one and the same kaleidoscope (545).’

Benjamin’s seminal writings are among the earliest critical texts of the twentieth century to forthrightly implicate modernity and the making of space, architectures, and the built environment, with new modalities of power and consumption in social and political life under capitalism. As Stuart Jeffries argues in his biography Grand Hotel Abyss: The Lives of the Frankfurt School (2016:107), no writer before Benjamin has been as sensitive to ‘how new spatial forms were significant for the culture of capitalism’. In his fascination with the arcades of Paris, Benjamin discerns a sharpening of previously absent divisions between interior and exterior, teasing out the changes in social practices wrought through new forms of construction and engineering. In the use of iron and glass in the arcades, he saw that people could mingle and socialise in new ways. Commenting on the painted panoramas decorating the spaces of the past being taken over by the glass roofed arcades of modernity, he described how the slow work of portrait painting was at a similar pace being edged out by photography, elaborating on these observations his reflections on the revolutionary possibilities offered by technological reproducibility.

The American essayist, cultural historian, and spatial activist Rebecca Solnit deals lyrically with Benjamin’s love affair with rambling the streets of Paris in her book Wanderlust, A History of Walking (2002:198), where she points to the enduring mystique of Paris, and its literary palimpsests: ‘There is a sort of symmetry between the exiled Catholic [James Joyce] who had written a novel studded and layered with obscure information about a Jew wandering the streets of Dublin and the exiled Berlin Jew strolling the Paris streets while writing lyrical histories about a Catholic – Charles Baudelaire – walking and writing the streets of Paris.’

So taken was Solnit by Benjamin’s predicament, that she retraced his desperate and futile steps to freedom over the Pyrenees in 1940, a now legendary journey from France to Spain that ‘turned Benjamin, a consummate wanderer of Paris streets, into an escapee and a hiker’. Solnit’s musings on Benjamin’s belated and doomed bid for freedom, his intellectual project, and eventual legacy, are contained in an article she wrote in the Los Angeles Times, in 2004: Hatred at one end, Rejection at the Other. She suggests that the form and content of Benjamin’s writings in Arcades mirror the paths of his wanderings through the city, and reflect the idea of the kaleidoscope. As ‘a historian, a theorist, a lyrical writer,’ he ‘created work as uncategorisable as it is influential,’ she writes. ‘He devoted himself to elucidating the meaning of Paris, labyrinths, cities, walks – exploring a series of ideas that spiral around, double back, open into each other, metamorphose and make endless connections, a map of the world drawn as much by poetic intuition as by rational analysis.’

Surely a blueprint for writing Johannesburg, and the African city, in the 21st century.

Benjamin citations in the piece are from W. Benjamin. 1999. The Arcades Project. Transl. H. Eiland and K. McLaughlin. Cambridge MA: The Belknap Press.

For detail of the reading groups, participants and paper abstracts, visit https://secretaffinitiesblog.wordpress.com/ .