A symposium on Walter Benjamin and methods in management and organization studies

Submit your abstract to [email protected]
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The call for papers is now open for this symposium. General bookings will open in early 2024.

Abstracts are invited from those who wish to join ARU's Centre for Research into the Organization of Work and Consumption (CROWC) for a two-day exploration of the potential of using Walter Benjamin's ideas to build on existing work in management and organization studies.

Walter Benjamin has a spectral presence in the study of organization. His influence on the Frankfurt school, and thereby Critical Management Studies (CMS), is well known but largely indirect. As such, his importance to the study of management and organization has been less recognised than that of his friend and colleague, Theodore Adorno.

Benjamin’s most famous essay – ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ – speaks readily to foundational narratives of Scientific Management, the Fordist assembly line and industrialisation found in management and organizational behaviour textbooks. However, his other work is perhaps less familiar to students of organization.

In this symposium we propose to focus on Benjamin’s method, building on pioneering work that has applied his ideas and approach to topics like critical repositioning (Bohm, 2006, Kenny 2013, De Cock et al. 2021), the ruin as method (De Cock and O’Doherty, 2017), and reading against the grain of conventional management narratives (Kociatkierwicz and Kostera, 2019).

The focus is not merely to further establish Benjamin in the organizational canon but to better understand why his approach has been marginalised, when compared to his contemporaries.

By addressing these margins we hope to draw lessons from Benjamin’s methodology to unsettle our discipline’s sense of itself, and its history, and thereby open new possibilities to think the future differently.

As Benjamin noted in The Arcades Project, his purpose in that work was:

' …to liberate the enormous energies of history that are slumbering in the “once upon a time” of classic historical narrative. The history that was bent on showing things “as they really and truly were” was the strongest narcotic of the nineteenth century.' (Benjamin, 1999: 863)

Against a history that ‘weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living’ (Marx, 1852/1996: 32), Benjamin’s approach can, perhaps, be understood as an antidote to the ‘capitalist realism’ that structures our imagination today, so thoroughly that it can seem as though 'it is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism' (Fisher, 2009: 2).

Or we could understand it in complement to ‘how one pictures the angel of history’ blown backwards towards an unseen future while the past appears as a pile of wreckage or debris ‘in front of his feet’ (Benjamin, 1970/1999: 249).

Against the angel of history, blown forward by the winds of what we call progress, Benjamin’s method might allow us to discover new (weak messianic) material or aesthetic conditions in the catastrophic landscape of the past and present – or might help us understand which forces are able to interrupt the trajectory of history and pull the emergency brake (Benjamin, 2006: 402).

Call for papers

Despite this potential in Benjamin’s work, the task of bringing the full potential of his elusive methodologies into organizational studies remains underdeveloped in comparison to the wider corpus of Benjamin criticism and therefore constitutes a site for further exploration.

Through this symposium, we will explore the potential of using Benjamin as a provocative and counter-hegemonic methodological thinker to build on the work already underway in management and organization studies.

For example, how can the montage approach, expressed most explicitly in The Arcades Project, be used to create relational meaning between concepts. And how does this differ from or what does it add to different organizational methodologies?

What can organizational scholars learn from Benjamin’s motif of the ragpicker, discerning meaning from the material ruins of organizational practice (De Cock and O’Doherty, 2017)? What does Benjamin’s reframing of progress, crisis and catastrophe add to the particular narratives around crisis currently facing us?

How do we interpret concepts such as ‘aura’, ‘weak messianic power’ or the modern subject as a ‘kaleidoscope equipped with consciousness’ (Benjamin, 2007: 175) within organization studies, and how might this differ from the approach of other inter-related disciplines?

These questions offer a starting point from which to explore (arcade-like) avenues of thought from which to build a constellation of topics relating to Benjamin and the study of management and organization.

We welcome any papers engaging with the work of Benjamin, particularly on questions of method and critique, but some indicative topics might include:

  • The idea of ‘constellations’ as a method of research and of writing.
  • The Benjaminian montage in dialogue with other methods (assemblage, bricolage, Burroughs’ cut-up, the rhizome).
  • Concepts from Benjamin that have been neglected in management and organization studies, for example weak messianic power.
  • The application of Benjamin’s approach to unconventional contemporary topics, and/or the creation of new/contemporary constellational themes, following Benjamin’s style.
  • Benjamin’s impact on the wider Frankfurt School (Adorno and Bloch most obviously, but perhaps also Habermas or Honneth?).
  • What can Benjamin’s methodologies produce? What does/should the output look like, and are such projects doomed to always be incomplete, like the Arcades Project?
  • How can we understand violence as a way to think the power of organization or institutionalisation?
  • How can we understand storytelling – and Benjamin’s fragments in The Storyteller – as a method?
  • What is the relationship between Benjamin’s methods (at any point in their development) and dialectics (including but not limited to Adorno’s negative dialectics)?
  • Can we understand Benjamin as a theorist of organized space, movement and architecture?
  • How can studies of management and organization learn from allegory or repetition in Benjamin?
  • What is the role of technology today, well after the advent of the age of mechanical reproduction, and what is left of art and ritual?

This should not, of course, be considered as a comprehensive or restrictive list and we would welcome all submissions that engage with Benjamin’s thought to rethink methodologies and futures for management and organization.

Short abstracts (up to 500 words) for proposed contributions should be sent to [email protected] before Friday 26 January 2024. Decisions on submitted proposals will be made before the end of January.

Cost

The cost of the symposium itself will be covered by CROWC, but delegates will be responsible for accommodation and travel.

A limited number of bursaries will be available to support PhD students or the unwaged. Please indicate in your submission if you wish to be considered for a bursary, with a short explanation of your circumstances and confirmation that no other funding sources are available.




References

Benjamin, W. (2007) ‘On Some Motifs in Baudelaire’ in Illuminations: Essays and Reflections (trans. Zohn, H.). New York: Schocken Books.

Benjamin, W. (2006) Selected Writings: Volume 4 (ed. Eiland, H. and Jennings, M. W.). London: Harvard University Press.

Benjamin, W. (2002) The Arcades Project (trans. Eiland, H. and McLaughlin, K.). London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University.

Benjamin, W. (1970/1999) Illuminations. London: Pimlico.

Benjamin, W. (1994) The Correspondence of Walter Benjamin, 1910-1940. London: University of Chicago Press (originally published 1978).

Böhm, S. (2006) Repositioning Organizational Studies: Impossibilities and Strategies. Hampshire: Palgrave MacMillan.

De Cock, C., Nyberg, D. and Wright, C. (2021) ‘Disrupting climate change futures: Conceptual Tools for Lost Histories’, Organization, 28(3), pp. 468-482.

De Cock, C. and O’Doherty, D. (2017) ‘Ruin and Organisational Studies’, Organisation Studies. 38(1), pp. 129-150.

Kenny, K. (2013) ‘Affective disruption: Walter Benjamin and the ‘history’ of Ireland’s industrial schools’, Management and Organisational History, 8(1), pp. 10-22. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1080/17449359.2013.749676

Kociatkiewicz, J. and Kostera, M. (2019) ‘Textual flâneurie: Writing management with Walter Benjamin’, Ephemera: Theory and Politics in Organisation, 19(1), pp. 163-178.

Marx, K. (1852/1996) ‘The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon’, in Later Political Writing (ed. T. Carver). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Submit your abstract to [email protected]