Retro Readings: Technology in Crisis

audience members sitting in a movie theater

Technology in Crisis/HNRS 301H1-002
Wednesdays, 10:45 a.m.-12:00 p.m., Fall 2024, GEAR 129

Note:  No application required. This is a one-credit course.  Only register for one hour of credit.

This seminar will guide students through an extensive analysis of one of the most influential essays of the 20th century, “The Work of Art in the Age of Technological Reproducibility” (1936) by the German Jewish theorist-philosopher-public intellectual Walter Benjamin (1892-1940). As movies grew into the primary mode of mainstream entertainment in the 1930s, many of Benjamin’s contemporaries asked the question ‘Can film be art?’ – to which Benjamin responded by asking ‘How has film changed the very nature of art?’ Composed during Benjamin’s exile in France after having fled Nazi Germany, the ‘work of art’ essay illuminates the deep connections between fascist propaganda films, Hollywood, and the global crisis that culminated in WWII and the Holocaust.

By seriously considering the material circumstances of film production and distribution, Benjamin’s ‘work of art’ essay demonstrates that the technological specificity of any medium is integral to defining its aesthetic qualities. Since its publication, Bejamin’s essay has been called forth whenever society has had to reconsider the boundaries of art in the face of technological advancement, from the golden age of television, to the digital turn, to our contemporary moment at the dawn of A.I.

Through close readings and discussions, honors students will explore the relevance of Benjamin’s essay to present day concerns about art, politics, and technology, while establishing the place of the work within Benjamin’s oeuvre. To that end, the seminar will explore several of Benjamin’s additional texts on technology—including One Way Street and Arcades Project—all written in the politically and culturally tumultuous first half of the 20th century. By the end of the semester, students will be able to demonstrate the relevance of Benjamin’s media theory for the pressing themes in digital culture today, just as they will develop an understanding of why Benjamin spent the final years of his tragically short life composing an essay about the aesthetics of the cinema.


About Curtis Maughn:

 Curtis Maughn,  Director of the World Languages and Digital Humanities Studio, World Languages, Literatures, & Cultures, Fulbright College or Arts and Sciences. Maughn earned my Ph.D. in German Studies from Vanderbilt University. His research embodies the meaningful coalescence of German Studies and emerging digital technologies, as exemplified by a dissertation on Walter Benjamin’s concept of flânerie in the context of open world gameplay and game design practices. Maughn's most recent scholarly efforts explore the potential of videogames in the process of a ludic Vergangenheitsbewältigung (coming to terms with the past); a project that has produced an initial publication titled “Toward a Camera Ludica—Agency and Photography in Videogame Ecologies,” forthcoming in Moving Frames: Photographs in German Cinema (Berghan Books, 2022). Maugh is also interested in the remediation of German literature in digital media, which has led to a forthcoming book chapter co-authored with Carrie Collenberg-González (Portland State University) titled “Screen Memories: Siegfried and the Fall of the Republic in Babylon Berlin” which appeared in Babylon Berlin (Bloomsbury, 2023).