Theory course Walter Benjamin: The Origin of German Tragic Drama


Tuesdays, 6:30-9:30pm

Goethe-Institut New York

30 Irving Place
New York, NY 10003

Best known for his philosophical fragments, art criticism, and unfinished works, Walter Benjamin published only one major academic monograph in his lifetime, The Origin of German Tragic Drama. In the process of drawing a sharp distinction between tragedy and Trauerspiel (German mourning plays), the text interrogates the very possibilities of knowledge, truth, universal history, criticism, and methodology. Submitted to secure an academic position at the University of Frankfurt in 1925, the book was poorly received, due both to its relative obscurity and its disregard for traditional academic boundaries. Yet within a decade, Theodor Adorno would be teaching the work in his inaugural course at the very same university, while cultural critics like Siegfried Kracauer recognized Benjamin’s major innovations in philosophy and criticism. Moreover, the concepts and methods introduced in The Origin of German Tragic Drama helped shape Benjamin’s more popular, later works and proved integral to the development of “Frankfurt School” cultural criticism.

This course offers students an opportunity to engage in a close reading of Benjamin’s short but dense text, which argues that tragedy and Trauerspiel are fundamentally distinct from one another. For Benjamin, tragedy is bounded in myth and characterized by a determined narrative and “overdetermined” heroic action; in contrast, Trauerspiel reflects the culture and politics of the here and now. Benjamin urges readers to be wary of distilling a form of universal ethics from reading tragedy, and offers Trauerspiel as a counter-narrative form with disruptive political potential.

Students will read The Origin of German Tragic Drama alongside short selections from The Arcades Project and excerpts from some of the primary sources, such as Hamlet, with which Benjamin engages.

Instructor: Samantha Hill

Samantha Hill received her doctorate in Political Science from the University of Massachusetts Amherst in 2014. She is currently a Postdoctoral Teaching Fellow at the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and The Humanities at Bard College. Her research and teaching interests include critical theory, the Frankfurt School, aesthetic theory, poetic thinking, and German literature.