Walter Benjamin’s Lipstick Traces

by Peter Maravelis

WBBeginning on Wednesday, November 5, 2014 City Lights, in conjunction with numerous partner organizations, will be presenting a week-long symposium and tribute to the life and work of the late German philosopher and cultural critic Walter Benjamin. For a full listing of all the events and biographies of the participants visit hauntedreflections.net. For a reading list on the many great publications of Benjamin’s writings, go here or visit City Lights Bookstore.

Lindsay Waters is the Executive Editor for the Humanities at the Harvard University Press and one of the people responsible for bringing many of Walter Benjamin’s works to the English-speaking public. He spoke to City Lights on the eve of the Haunted Reflections: Walter Benjamin in San Francisco symposium.

City Lights: Thanks for joining us. You have been instrumental in bringing Walter Benjamin’s work to US audiences over the course of the last few years. Could you speak to us about the project? How did it come about? How did you come to discover Benjamin?

Lindsay Waters: It started in bookstores in Chicago and Minneapolis. I was raised in Chicago and went to the U of Chicago for my PhD. Chicago is famous for broad shoulders and muscles but has been very theoretically active ever since John Dewey got the place going in the 1890s. Chicago was big in philosophy and literary theory in the 40s and after. I met [critic] Paul de Man on a visit he made to Chicago. He is the person who mentioned Benjamin to me.

Hannah Arendt taught at Chicago. I was in a class on Shakespeare’s sonnets with her one year. She did the intro for the Harcourt edition of [Benjamin’s] Illuminations. I bought it in Minneapolis, but there was then still no Benjamin vogue.

lindsaywatersDe Man’s big essay on allegory [“The Rhetoric of Temporiality”] mentions Walter Benjamin in the footnotes, but he does not reveal that WB caused him to revise all he was thinking. I had to figure things out. Like a puzzle with all the joys of discovery. All this I talk about in my 100-page essay “Paul de Man: Life and Works”.

CL: Howard Eiland and Michael Jennings have been collaborators on many of the Benjamin works. Most recently they produced a comprehensive biography of Benjamin Walter Benjamin: A Critical Life What was it like working with them? What was the decision-making process like for the three of you over the course of these many projects?

LW: Working with them has been a dream. Just as the discovery of Benjamin by me was the result of my own flaneur-like digression-after-digression hunt through the wilderness of the Joseph Regenstein Library at the University of Chicago, so too was my encounter with Howard and Mike and my very indirect route to commissioning them to get involved in my Benjamin project––both journeys were filled with serendipity. The decision process was more like what Freud calls “dream work” than any important professional decision “should” be.

CL: We’ve had some colleagues ask us “Why Walter Benjamin? Why Now?” The thought of an entire symposium revisiting his work seemed a little odd to some of our friends. Not to us, of course. I would like to hear your answer to “Why Walter Benjamin? Why Now?”

LW: Why now? Why ever? He was never supposed to be discovered. He was meant to be buried in the dark, backward abysm of time. But we needed a great literary hero, have needed one ever since people started believing that loving poetry was shameful in the 70s.  I saw it happen–the turn against literature. Benjamin is our Moses who opened the Red Sea of anti-theory and anti-poetry thinking that has dominated our world for decades. We needed him. If we did not retrieve him from what Greil Marcus calls the “dustbin of history”, we would have invented him. But he was there in the ashes, in the “lipstick traces” (to recall Greil again).

WB_Postcard_frontCL:  What are some of your favorite Benjamin texts?

LW: Lots of The Arcades Project. There is the beautiful little essay on experience from 1913 in which he gives a manifesto statement of the youth movement. “The adults say we can have experience but only if we give up hope. We must reject them.”

CL: Well put. We look forward to seeing you at all of those great events!

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Lindsay will be taking part in three of the 10 “sessions” on all things Benjamin at various locations around SF Nov. 5-9: at City Lights on the 5th, at the Mechanics’ Institute Library on the 6th, and at the San Francisco Art Institute on the 8th.

For all the details on Haunted Reflections: Walter Benjamin in San Francisco, go to hauntedreflections.net and check out the events page at citylights.com

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