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  • Benjamin Heute: Großstadtdiskurs, Postkolonialität und Flanerie zwischen den Kulturen
  • Susannah Young-ah Gottlieb
Benjamin Heute: Großstadtdiskurs, Postkolonialität und Flanerie zwischen den Kulturen. By Rolf J. Goebel. Munich: Iudicium, 2001. 191 pp. €21.50.

Thirty-five years ago Hannah Arendt began her portrait of Walter Benjamin by reflecting on the unexpected fama that had formed around his name. More than three decades later, after myriad commentaries and conferences devoted to the content and manner of Benjamin's thought—to say nothing of the novels, stories, and films that have depicted his restless life and untimely death—it is a good time to pose the question to which the title of Rolf Goebel's recent study implicitly responds: what, today, are we to make of Walter Benjamin? As Goebel doubtless knows (the last paragraphs of his conclusion make this clear), it is impossible to answer such a broad question by concentrating on a few Benjaminian themes. Nevertheless, Goebel argues, certain motifs that Benjamin relentlessly pursued in his later writings are of particular importance today, especially those that congregate around the metropolitan flâneur. For the flâneur, as Goebel emphasizes, is a figure through whom the modernity of metropolitan life can be analyzed—not only the life of those living in cities that can be described as "capitals" of the modern era, but also the life of those living at the supposed "periphery" of the vast imperial and colonial enterprises that supplied both the material basis for, and the cultural ambience of, the capitals of nineteenth-century Europe. Goebel thus seeks to capture the specificity of Benjamin's contribution to contemporary critical discourse by setting his reflections on flânerie in the context of postmodern and especially postcolonial studies. By seeing what Benjamin, in a sense, could not or would not allow himself to see—flânerie beyond its European, Western, or, as Goebel repeatedly writes, "First World" horizons—Benjamin Heute wishes to make a contribution to our understanding of Benjamin's work and his reception among those who have developed major postcolonial theories; it also seeks to disclose still latent possibilities of his ever-engaging body of thought.

Beginning with a careful review of the manner in which Benjamin's work has been adopted, translated, and criticized by major postcolonial theorists, especially Homi Bhabha and Rey Chow, Goebel proceeds in two complementary directions: on the one hand, he draws on the insights of these theorists to analyze Benjamin's writings (particularly his inquiries into Paris as the "capital of the nineteenth century" and his reflections on the [End Page 97] figure of the foreigner in One-Way Street); on the other hand, he interprets the works of various writers, both contemporary and long-forgotten, whose work can be fruitfully analyzed from the perspective of Benjamin's reflections on the flâneur. The latter project is particularly noteworthy since it draws attention to writers who are largely unknown—not for the sake of antiquarianism nor, in the case of recent writers, in order to stay current, but rather to open up the Benjaminian canon, so to speak, and allow the perspectives of the Arcades Project and One-Way Street to engage with corresponding and complementary perspectives developed at different times and in different cultural settings. Among the writers Goebel considers are Pierre Loti, Lafcadio Hearn, Bernhard Kellermann, Julius Dittmar, Roland Barthes, Donald Richie, and Stephan Wackwitz. What draws these writers together, for Goebel, is that all recorded their impressions of Japan at one time or another. What Goebel says of Kellermann is echoed in his evaluations of each of the writers he discusses to varying degrees: "Dennoch schwankt Kellermanns Kulturhermeneutik stets zwischen der Suche nach authentischen Verständtnis des Anderen und der selbstkritischen Erkenntnis der unüberwindlichen Grenzen interkulturellen Verstehens [Nevertheless, Kellermann's cultural hermeneutics constantly vacillates between the search for authentic comprehension of the Other and the self-critical knowledge of the insurmountable limits of intercultural understanding]" (119). This vacillation belongs to the dialectic that Goebel seeks to capture in the figure of the flâneur who ventures beyond the European metropolis—a flâneur who, within the context of this study, could have no...


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