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Writing through Culture and Art

ENGL 165.301
R 3:30-6:30pm

The greatest unfinished book of the twentieth century was philosopher Walter Benjamin’s The Arcades Project which, when finally published decades after it began, was nearly 900 pages of notes, annotations, and anecdotes about Paris, which Benjamin called, the “capital of the nineteenth century.” The book was a sort of anti-history, focused less on the typical recordings that define a period--wars, politics, and economics--than it was on daily life: theater, cabarets, brothels, shopping, advertising, food, and entertainment, slathered with a dose of twentieth-century concerns like surrealism, modernism, and psychoanalysis. The result was an urban “history” unlike any other ever written, more of a dreamscape that doubled as literature.

In order to write it, Benjamin spent fifteen years in libraries, copying out passages from books in longhand that he found interesting, then organizing them by subject. Before he could finish the book, Benjamin killed himself, fleeing the Nazis. And, after the war, when it was finally published exactly as Benjamin had left it, scholars pondered whether this collection of notes was intended as a new kind of radical literature or whether it merely a study for a more conventional work of philosophy. We’ll never know.

For this year-long class, given in collaboration with the Philadelphia Museum of Art, we’ll attempt to rewrite The Arcades Project for colonial Philadelphia, America’s capital of the eighteenth century. Using Benjamin’s identical methodology, we’ll immerse ourselves in the city’s vast archives, libraries, and museums, seeking out and copying down those ephemeral bits of culture and daily life that we find interesting. Then, as a group, we’ll stitch them together into a massive collage, writing an epic, 900-page prose poem of the city of Philadelphia unlike any other that’s ever been written.

Part American history, part archeology, part anthropology, part art history, and part literature, this class will touch on collaborative ways of constructing alternative narratives. Using information management of as  our guiding poetic device, this class will engage with the intensive archiving and research practices that resonate with the way we parse  information in the digital age. Not only will we have the vast historical resources of Philadelphia at our fingertips, but we’ll also have full access to the collections, treasures, and curatorial staff of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The class will culminate in a lavish publication of our work.

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