Wandering Star: The Image of the Constellation in Benjamin, Giedion and McLuhan

Just got word that this proposal was accepted for the “14th Jerusalem Conference in Canadian Studies” at the Hebrew University. It focuses on three great writers, and three very unique texts:

Walter Benjamin’s notion of the “constellation” marks a particularly rich conjunction of the material, dialectical and religious impulses in his work. First appearing in his habilitation study for the University of Frankfurt, the term refers to a “caesura” in the flow of thought and thus of the dynamics of historical consciousness and recollection, resulting in an “image of dialectics at a standstill.” Benjamin developed this notion further while working on his “Arcades Project” at the Bibliothèque national in Paris in the 1930’s, and while in contact with fellow Jewish historian, Siegfried Giedion. Found among his effects after his failed attempt to escape the Nazis, Benjamin’s famous study –and his notion of the constellation– are available to us only in fragments. Giedion on the other hand, was able to complete his Parisian research in America as Mechanization takes command: a contribution to anonymous history (1948). The constellation reappears in this massive work, particularly in Giedion’s brief methodological introduction. The task of the historian for Giedion is to “establish constellations” through a kind of atemporal lucidity –work that is “ever tied to the fragment [with] the known facts…scattered… like stars across the firmament.” Finally, similar characterizations are conspicuous in yet another programmatic opening; in this case, for a text which incorporates a related cosmic category into its very title: “Thus the galaxy or constellation of events upon which the present study concentrates is itself a mosaic of perpetually interacting forms that have undergone kaleidoscopic transformation— particularly in our own time.” This is from McLuhan’s Gutenberg Galaxy: the making of typographic man, published nearly 30 years after McLuhan’s first of many encounters with Giedion and his work.

In this presentation, Dr. Norm Friesen will trace the transmission of the constellation from the old world to the new, and across three landmark studies in material history. Dr. Friesen will highlight the significance of the image of the constellation in each, showing how it has changed and evolved from its initial conception in Germany to its final reappearance in Canada. The presentation will conclude with a discussion of the continuing richness and potential of this concept in our own changing and precarious times.

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