The Lightning Flash of Knowledge and the Time of Image: Walter Benjamin’s image based epistemology and its preconditions in visual arts and media history

Thursday, February 28, 2013
5:30 PM - 7:00 PM
Levinthal Hall

“In the fields with which we are concerned, knowledge [Erkenntnis] comes only in lightning flashes. The text is the long roll of thunder that follows,” This sentence from his Arcades-project belongs to the most fluently cited passages of Benjamin’s work. However, in contrast to many reading the lecture argues that this has not to be understood as a metaphor. Instead lightening flash and image function as words mutually replacing each other in order to describe a mode of sudden, simultaneous recognition / knowledge that is at the centre of his image-based epistemology.

This lecture argues that this epistemology is informed by (1) an intense study of paintings and other pieces of visual arts and (2) the engagement with the development of media technology in modernity. Whereas the younger Benjamin studied the perceptive mode of visual art as a site of afterlife of an epiphanic mode of insight he later, in the context of his project on modernity, turned this mode of knowledge, due to the invention of electricity and technical media, into a modern epistemology. Through a kind of breaking in of technique into iconography many of its conventional figures were turned into epistemological constellations. In this way Benjamin developed a theory of knowledge and history based in simultaneity.

Co-sponsored by the Department of German Studies, Department of Comparative Literature,  Stanford Humanities Center, Division of Literatures, Cultures, and Languages, Department of English, Program in Modern Thought and Literature, and the Interdisciplinary Working Group in Critical Theory.