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Benjamin, Brecht, Lukacs, Adorno: The Search for a Revolutionary Aesthetics

Core Module on the MA in Philosophy and Literature

Module Website in the Philosophy Dept: here



Dr Helmut Schmitz (Dept of German Studies)

The module will explore the mutually fruitful relationship between Walter Benjamin and Bertolt Brecht and their attempts to devise a self-consciously modernist materialist aesthetics which is not based on Kantian premises. Benjamin’s and Brecht’s critique of bourgeois aesthetics and their configuration of a non-subject-centred aesthetics is a response to a critical point in the history of modernity and an attempt to construct an emphatic experience of the modernist present.

In touch with virtually every philosophical, theoretical and aesthetic discourse of his time from Henri Bergson, Georg Simmel, Freud, Carl Schmitt and Heidegger to L’Art Pour L’Art, Art Nouveau, Surrealism, Futurism, New Objectivity and the Bauhaus, Benjamin’s thought is self-consciously heterogeneous and anti-systematic. Crossing the boundaries between philosophy, sociology, psychology, theology and literature, Benjamin’s concepts like aura, artwork, experience, history etc. are purposefully unstable and ambiguous, implying a critique of thinking in scientific and systematic philosophical categories. The Frankfurt School’s later critique of the totalitarian potential of Enlightenment science and philosophy as well as their critique of the concept of culture can be traced back to Benjamin. Bertolt Brecht is probably the most important theatrical theoretician and practitioner since Shakespeare and revolutionised both stage writing and acting, attempting to foster a self-consciously critical attitude towards social representations in his audience. Georg Lukàcs’ critique of Kantian philosophy in History and Class Consciousness (1926) influenced both Benbjamin and Adorno who himself became the most influential German thinker of the second half of the twentieth century.

A close study of some of Benjamin’s central essays and Brecht’s plays and theoretical writings will be followed by a discussion of Georg Lukàcs’ essay on Realism and Adorno’s essays on both Lukàcz’ and Brecht. The module will close with a look at Adorno’s notorious essay ‘Cultural Criticism and Society’ which ends with the much (mis)quoted claim that ‘writing poetry after the Holocaust is barbaric’.

Core Texts:

  • Benjamin: ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, ‘On Some Motifs in Baudelaire’, Theses on the Philosophy of History, in: Illuminations, Pimlico, London, 1999, 211-44, 152-96, 245-55; ‘What is the Epic Theatre?’ (First version), ‘The Author as Producer’, in: Understanding Brecht, Verso, London, 1998, 1-14, 85-104.
  • Brecht: St.Joan of the Stockyards, Arcade, NY, 1998; Mother Courage and her Children, Methuen, London, 1988; Brecht on Theatre, Methuen, London, 1978.
  • Lukács: ‘Realism in the Balance’ in: Aesthetics and Politics, Verso, London, 1980, 28-59.
  • Adorno: ‘Reconciliation under Duress’, ‘Commitment’, in Aesthetics and Politics, Verso, London, 1980, 151-75 and 176-95. ‘Cultural Criticism and Society’ in: Prisms, Spearman, London 1967, 19-34.