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Benjamin / Barthes

Overview

  • Credit value: 30 credits at Level 6

Module description

Walter Benjamin and Roland Barthes were two of the twentieth century’s most brilliantly distinctive and enduringly influential commentators on literature and culture. Benjamin’s enigmatic mind glowed through the first half of the century; Barthes’ quicksilver intelligence sparkled across the second. This course gives students a chance to read both writers in detail. Writings considered will date from the 1920s up to 1980; but rather than reading them in chronological order, we will consider them in thematic groupings that let us compare and contrast the two critics’ different approaches to similar writers and themes.

This is a course in literary criticism and cultural theory. While literature will be a constant reference point, our principal focus will not be on novels, poems or plays but on critical essays and theoretical meditations. Students should be prepared to engage with concepts and arguments about subjects like literature, photography, film, cities and love. Yet the works considered are also fine pieces of writing (and translation) in their own right, and can afford some of the same aesthetic pleasures we might seek in poetry or fiction.

Walter Benjamin (1892-1940) was uncelebrated in his lifetime, but posthumously became an icon for modern German letters, cultural theory, and the political Left. He wrote with idiosyncratic insight about literature, often championing new and challenging twentieth-century writers.  He also made distinctive, influential contributions to the fields of philosophy, theology, sociology, history, urbanism, film and media. His work in all these fields was informed by a growing political commitment to revolutionary Communism.

The restless pen of Roland Barthes (1915-1980) left its mark on literary criticism, structuralism and semiotics, cultural studies, photography, fashion, gender studies, biography and travel writing. While for much of his career he sought political rigour in the struggle against bourgeois ideology, his late work increasingly engaged in memoir, diaristic meditations and self-revelation.

Direct, biographical links between the two thinkers are few. Their paths never crossed, and Barthes does not cite Benjamin as a significant influence. But they form a suggestive pairing with which to consider modern literature and ideas. Both were modernists, who celebrated the avant-garde and left lasting interpretations of the modern European canon: Baudelaire, Mallarmé, Flaubert, Proust, Kafka, Brecht, Robbe-Grillet. Both developed innovative forms in their own writing: working with montage, fragment and quotation, they made criticism itself into a kind of avant-garde text. Both belonged to the political Left, and were profoundly interested in how literary form and cultural medium were subtly connected with ideology; both sought to describe what a politically progressive art would look like. Both were pioneers in the theory of photography; both produced not just rigorous theoretical tracts but personal writings of lyrical tenderness. All these aspects of their work will be available for comparative discussion on the course.

Benjamin wrote in German, Barthes in French. You won’t have to: this course is in English. All the texts studied will be in translation. Undoubtedly some critical options are lost this way, and anyone who knows either language might gain extra insight from comparing English and original versions. But the available English translations of both writers are richly lyrical and challenging texts in their own right, and will give us plenty to go on.

We will be reading:

Benjamin

  • Illuminations
  • One Way Street
  • Understanding Brecht

Barthes

  • Mythologies
  • Critical Essays
  • A Barthes Reader
  • Camera Lucida

Other

  • Bertolt Brecht, A Mother