Where to start with Walter Benjamin?
December 31, 2015 12:52 PM   Subscribe

Where should I start with Walter Benjamin (and Hannah Arendt and Foucault and bell hooks and...?) (Non-academic but well-read lay person perspective.)

I'm looking to deepen my thinking and want to start reading some of the important cultural critics and philosophers of the last century or so. My focus is on the humanist/left/progressive side. I'm not an academic and I don't have infinite time. I get irritated with density and opaqueness if it seems too extreme, however, I can definitely hold my own with complex and long writing.

I'm looking for starting places for some of the, I don't know, more thoughtful thinkers. Some of them produced a lot of writing, and I don't really know where to start. So I guess I'm looking for a Critical Thinkers 101 syllabus. A starting text for these writers and thinkers. If that question seems beyond your expertise, I am looking for your personal perspective along the lines of, "I read the book XYZ by Walter Benjamin and found it to be a good introduction to his thinking on 123".

Thank you!
posted by latkes to Education (8 answers total) 34 users marked this as a favorite
Peter Barry's Beginning Theory is a really good gloss of some important stuff—might help you figure out what you'd like to read more closely.
posted by listen, lady at 12:55 PM on December 31, 2015 [2 favorites]

1. Either Minima Moralia or Dialectic of Enlightenment for Adorno. MM has the advantage of being really aphoristic and introducing you to Adorno's style and general concerns. DoE gets you a more developed argument.

2. I found Samuel Delany's chapter (scroll down) on, like, postmodernism and stuff to be really helpful.

3. With Benjamin, I think it depends on what kind of a reader you are. I'm a terrible one with poor concentration, so I find it helpful just to flip around in the Arcades Project. Illuminations is what a lot of people recommend, though.

For me, I find it helpful to be able to situate writers, so I sometimes just click around in the Cambridge Journal of Intellectual History until something catches my eye. I found this essay about Foucault and neoliberalism to be particularly interesting.

Also, Semiotexte has a lot of books of interviews, and I find those helpful. Here is the Foucault page. They used to be published as cute little pocket editions but I think they're full size now.
posted by Frowner at 1:11 PM on December 31, 2015 [5 favorites]

The Human Condition is a good starting point for Arendt, followed by On Revolution. Because she uses terms like "work" and "action" in a somewhat idiosyncratic way, it's useful to get a grounding in that before moving to some of her other works.
posted by judith at 1:36 PM on December 31, 2015

The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction is short and quick.
posted by kevinbelt at 4:26 PM on December 31, 2015 [3 favorites]

I just took a class that was an overview of cultural theory and this was the textbook: Social Theory by Lemert. It has has bite-size readings from everyone.
posted by katieanne at 6:00 PM on December 31, 2015

The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction is short and quick.

Seconding this, I had at least 3 classes where "Art in the Age of..." was required reading. Its idea of "aura" intersects well with Barthes' Camera Lucida and his notions of studium and punctum.
posted by juv3nal at 1:24 AM on January 1, 2016

David Held's 1980 *Introduction to Critical Theory* has long been, and remains, my go-to source for teaching Frankfurt School ideas, and and reviewing them myself. A bit dense, but it places the philosophical ideas in both institutional and broader historical context. There is no point to reading Adorno or Benjamin or Horkheimer or Habermas if you do not know a good deal about the historical circumstances in which their ideas were forged.

I actually think diving right into Adorno doesn't work for most people, and to a lesser extent this is true of Benjamin (or any other 20th century critical theorist practically). The level of historical and philosophical and literary erudition required to get the references and frameworks and works being cited and obliquely argued with is daunting for an American-educated person who hasn't studied either philosophy or European history in some depth. Yeah, Benjamin is delightfully readable for the layperson (Adorno, not so much) in translation. But you'll miss most of it if you haven't read (or read a lot about) Hegel, Weber, and Marx, to begin with.
posted by spitbull at 5:51 AM on January 1, 2016 [2 favorites]

Talking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black by bell hooks is a good intro to intersectionality and related ideas. bell hooks is often very good for presenting Cultural Criticism in an accessible style for a general audience.

Like many, I find a thick academic writing style can be tiring to read, often compounded by the extra layer in translated works. If I'm doing general reading for personal interest in Philosophy, I'll often go through the overviews in Wikipedia Articles. There's a lot of interesting stuff to start with, imperfect as it might be. Yes, I know, this view is heresy to some.
posted by ovvl at 5:15 PM on January 2, 2016

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