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Title: Sensing-through architectural scenographies : tactility, language and natural history in the work of Walter Benjamin
Author: Messing Marcus, Anat
ISNI:       0000 0004 9353 9688
Awarding Body: University of Cambridge
Current Institution: University of Cambridge
Date of Award: 2019
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In its consideration of the work of the senses, notions of truth and language and political aesthetics in Walter Benjamin’s epistemology of images, this thesis takes as its touch-stone Benjamin’s somewhat overlooked meditations on the sensorial faculty of tactility (“das Taktische”). According to the first version of the “Work of Art” essay, along with the distinctive structures of perception of the new modes of reproduction, film and photography, architecture is the artistic domain which tactility most intimately inhabits, in which it is at home, “more originally”. The nexus between tactility, through figures of touch, and affect as the absence of intentionality informs the Benjaminian settings of “natural history”. These are scenographic sites permeated with “creaturely life” and perceived by way of melancholy and lament, as explicated in the early work The Origin of the German Baroque Trauerspiel. In this constellation, the sensual realm, mediated through the allegorical mode and the more non-intentional dimensions of signification, bears deepest affinity to the linguistic grounds of philosophical representation in Benjamin’s terms. The thesis develops this argument in a set of interlinked moves and theoretical directions, organised in three parts. Firstly, Benjamin’s conceptualisation of architecture “as more than origin” is subjected to encounter with Hegel’s account of architecture as symbolic art. In as much as tactility is indeed more originally “in der Architektur zuhause”, this formulation also provides an intimation of the “Unzuhause”, leading to Freud’s interrelated theories of the uncanny and the articulation of the death drive, beyond the pleasure principle. Secondly, a reconstruction of Theodor W. Adorno’s arguments set out in “The Idea of Natural History” exposes the juncture between Benjamin’s and Martin Heidegger’s approaches to the “secularisation of history” and the politico-theological dimension of historicity. The spectral character of spatiality in works by Kafka and Rilke, as mediated through the philosophical writings of these thinkers, proves significant for the scenographic thinking of this polemic on the essence of historical time. The third move explores auditory and tactile motifs at the border of language as they outline both Benjamin’s essay on translation and his autobiographical writing in Berliner Kindheit. The core premise underlying these different moves is that sensorial experience “in tactility” bears on what this thesis takes as a persistent architectonic figure reverberating through Benjamin’s work: the towering, ruinous logic of Babel.
Supervisor: Webber, Andrew Sponsor: Cambridge Trust
Qualification Name: Thesis (Ph.D.) Qualification Level: Doctoral
Keywords: Walter Benjamin ; architecture ; tactility ; image ; body ; perception