The Urban Pedagogy of Walter Benjamin. Lessons for the 21st Century

Dobson, Stephen. 2002. The Urban Pedagogy of Walter Benjamin. Lessons for the 21st Century. Working Paper. Goldsmiths, University of London, London. [Report]

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Abstract or Description

Part 1:
Walter Benjamin was a literary critic, essayist, translator, a collector of fine books and rare toys. His interests spanned Surrealism, Communism and theology. He grew up in Berlin at the turn of the 20th century, with Jewish parents. As an adult he visited and published travel accounts of Naples, Marseilles, Moscow and he came to know Paris intimately in the 1930s. He committed suicide in 1940, while attempting to escape from France as the Germans increased the tentacles of their occupation. Of his acquaintances, Brecht is probably the most famous, to scholars of the social sciences his at times fraught friendship with Adorno is often mentioned. He wrote essays on Kafka, Baudelaire, Brecht, Karl Kraus, technologies of mass reproduction, language, violence, photography, the storyteller and Surrealism. He wrote two academic dissertations, one on Goethe and one on allegory and its role in German tragedy. The latter was never accepted as his habilitationsschrift and resulted in his never qualifying as a university lecturer. He turned his attentions elsewhere: made a series of radio programs for children, retreated to libraries to research his never completed Arcades Project and wrote pieces for a number of journals.

With such a varied set of concerns it is not surprising that since his death he has attracted the attentions of several generations of professional scholars and political activists, including media specialists, linguists, committed revolutionaries, theologians and students of urbanism. Modernists, antimodernists and post-modernists have tried to claim him for their respective causes. This collection thus appears as one further attempt to appropriate his work for a distinct cause, the study of culture in an urban environment, where the weighting is towards pedagogy, But, not a pedagogy by any means limited to classroom studies, instead one spilling over, into the education and experience of urban life. To become in short a handbook, constructed after the principle of montage, for those wishing to explore urban environments, intoxicated and inspired by Benjamin.

How might educationalists and those interested in the study of cultural life read the work of Walter Benjamin? His essays, aphorisms and unfinished texts span numerous themes and can easily take on the appearance of a fragmented and esoteric set of concerns. The following entries have been crafted with the intention of developing insights drawn from these fragments and telescoping them into the present. Thus, generating a rupture or shock as the subsequent confrontation stops the time of the present, as we live it today, and an opportunity is created for the instigation of the educationally new and memorable. It is a mimetic project looking to found dialectical images not upon the return of the “educationally same”, but on the return of the “educationally new”. A critical commentary then, but only on the premise that Benjamin can, or should work for our particular historical juncture and interest in the role of urban pedagogy, the pedagogue and cultural studies.

The essays in the three parts of this series vary in complexity, some presuppose a certain familiarity with the work of Benjamin. The accompanying critical dictionary of fragments, with entries at the beginning of each part in the series, is most clearly an introductory text presenting several of Benjamin’s key concepts, as well as applying them to a selection of contemporary socio-educational issues. The intention in the three parts is to present a number of suggestions, rather than a definitive set of final statements, on an urban pedagogy and what might have been Benjamin’s contribution to such a pedagogy for the 21st century.

Part 2:
In Part I, the emphasis was on Benjamin’s understanding of language, on how his views of translation might have relevance to our contemporary desire to communicate across generations and cultures. Taking these interests in communication as given, Part II is devoted to the question of change. Specifically, to how Benjamin experienced and recognised change, and most importantly, how he prepared for its interruption. He suggested the term dialectical image as a tool to achieve this latter goal. To the question of who experiences this change one of the dictionary entries suggests that it is necessary to understand Benjamin’s concept of the self. Also that, in order to understand in what direction change is going, that it is necessary to understand Benjamin’s concept of home.

The essay in this Part takes up the question of violence. It is not viewed through dialectical images, which could have been a chosen strategy. Instead, the essay examines Benjamin’s personal and political understanding of violence. But, the essay does more than re-visit Benjamin, it considers how relevant his reflections, dearly paid for in an attempted suicide in the early 1930s, might be to the contemporary violence we experience in urban and other contexts and to the much voiced debate on postmodernism.

Part 3:
Part I of this series dealt with the topics of language and communication, Part II with the question of change, specifically its instigation and connection with dialectics and violence, this third and final Part builds upon these foundations to address most directly what the urban means in terms of the experience of moving through urban space.

Benjamin looked to the poet Baudelaire and figures such as the prostitute and the rag picker for inspiration. Benjamin is for many, most known for his reflections on the flâneur strolling through the arcades. In attention to the small details of different kinds of flâneur Benjamin anticipated the work of Goffman on demeanour and the management of identity. As to the experience of moving through urban space he explored how perception could be altered through different kinds of intoxication and alienation. These topics are never far below the surface of more recent commentators and flâneurs, such as the International Situationists devoted to psycho-geography, De Certeau as he walks and writes pedestrian narratives and Iain Sinclair in his noticeably bitter reflections on the ‘tattered’ urban fabric of London.

As with Part I and II, this Part includes a Dictionary of Critical Fragments to introduce the reader to relevant aspects of Benjamin’s work. The accompanying essays are the seeds of a new generation influenced by Benjamin, following in his footsteps and wishing to botanise the asphalt.

Item Type:

Report (Working Paper)

Additional Information:

First published in Great Britain 2002 by Goldsmiths College, University of London, New Cross, London SE14 6NW.

Copyright: Goldsmiths College, University of London and Stephen Dobson 2002.


urban space, critical dictionary of fragments, nature, intoxication

Departments, Centres and Research Units:

Sociology > Centre for Urban and Community Research (CUCR)



Item ID:


Date Deposited:

01 Aug 2023 15:41

Last Modified:

01 Aug 2023 15:41


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