Task of Translating Transience into Permanence
Benjamin (1968) noted, “In every era the attempt must be made anew to wrest tradition away from a conformist that is about to overpower it” (p. 255). It is, therefore, the task of each generation in Chicago to translate its own allegories thereby ensuring Burnham’s Plan, which set its goal as “working out the means whereby the city may be made an efficient instrument for providing all its people with the best possible conditions of living,” may come to fruition (p. 1). It is for this reason within the ruins of Chicago’s older monuments themselves educators have one of their most effective pedagogical tools, a tool best utilized within a democratic educational space itself, for there the real impact of these monuments as ruins is most clearly visible. Only there do participants come face to face not just with the decaying monuments but also with those who most frequently inhabit this space. Only there, in the face of the ruins, may one encounter those who, like the young gentleman who escorted me past Taft’s Time, live their entire lives within this space because it is the only protection they have from the elements at night. Only there may one encounter other community members who pause long enough to respond to my questions, whether on-site or on-line, to talk about art, about history, and about the lessons we may learn from them. And only there may one encounter those who always teach us something about themselves, and at the same moment, teach us something about ourselves.
My style is often intentionally fragmented with oblique questions and implicit conclusions. A colleague of mine, quoting her partner who was a guest lecturer at Naropa Institute in Boulder, once noted that academic research is just “cherry picking” from the best trees we may find. For me, I have found Walter Benjamin’s “Tree of Knowledge” grows the best fruit, fermenting into a rich, profane Eucharist from which I deeply draw: dark, acidic modernism with a hint of nostalgic metaphysical yearning for redemption.
Theodor Adorno noted that philosophic (today, replace that term with theoretical, if you will) examinations should be conducted “until they arrive at figurations in which the answers are legible, while the questions themselves have vanished.” Criticism, Benjamin added, is a “continual pausing for breath,” (in Benjamin, 1928, p. 28), while dialectical criticism—that which resolves oppositions into a cohesive, collaborative consensus—is effective specifically because it preserves an object’s meaning, “indeed,” he added, “reveals it more fully” (ibid, p. 32). My original questions faded while the objects themselves, through “critical” inquiry, became the background upon which participatory dialects were painted. Benjamin observed, “the more scrupulously the theory of scientific knowledge investigates the various disciplines [through questions, investigation, data collection, analysis and conclusion], the more unmistakably their methodological inconsistency is revealed” (ibid, p. 33). It is not a conclusive “truth,” therefore, which matters most, but the process of inquiry: a conclusion is the antithesis of knowledge. But since I have included these specific words in my analysis, I have, in turn, drawn a conclusion, thereby perhaps precluding any further pursuit of knowledge. It is for this reason I encourage you to draw your own conclusions.
I have approached my project as a mosaicsist, creating a montage from smaller fragments, working toward an always unfinished “whole,” reflecting Benjamin’s theory that “content is revealed in…a destruction of the work [thereby achieving] its most brilliant degree of illumination” (ibid, p. 31). My work and its analysis are secondary to the dialectic discourse drawn upon the ruins my participants have discussed. In the Prologue of his analysis on the German “play of mourning,” Benjamin stressed the importance of acknowledging the “ursprung,” the source, fountain, the origin as well as the principal leap into a metaphysical sense of the plays he analyzed. In his preface to the only published book during Benjamin’s lifetime, his dissertation, George Steiner noted Benjamin abhorred the “scholarly critical styles” that reduce analysis to mere “irreducibly autonomous subjects,” the type of analysis marked by “a dissociation that is particularly damaging” to dialectical, “critical” discourse (ibid, p. 21). My narrative is intricately interwoven with analysis, imitative of Benjamin’s style, which Steiner noted to be “labyrinthine involutions” in which Benjamin uses academia’s “tricks of the trade,” including “magisterial footnotes, the allusive digression, the qualifying yet copious resort to examples and citations where a point is to be scored” (ibid p. 11, 13). And it is in these narratives, these allegories, these “labrynthine involutions” where educators may best find their most effective curriculum-building tools.
My final choice of “ruins” as they appear in my final analysis—34 of Chicago’s older monuments—is a reflection of Benjamin’s criticism of “neglected plays and emblem collections,” antiquated plays, that as Steiner noted, have fallen into obscurity (ibid, p. 22). Additionally, throughout my wanderings across Jackson and Lincoln Parks, I noted that Chicago’s Public Art reads like a figural compendium of Benjamin’s Traurspiel: there I encountered his Goethe, Schiller, Shakespeare, Lessing, Good King Wenceslaus steeped in blood, and even the devilish mirth of the puppet-play jester. And like Benjamin’s analysis, our educational inquiries “will detour” (ibid, p. 21). It is there, in those detours, where we as educators may encourage our participants to “pause for breath” (p. 28) to talk about art, history, biology, socioeconomic issues, culture and education.
By drawing upon Benjamin’s style, I don’t for a moment assume my academic cherry may be as delectable as his (and I hope it doesn’t meet with the same fate, since his thesis was rejected and he never received his academic laurels), but my academic wine, fermented from the fruit I have plucked from his tree, must, by default, be flavored by the style of his prose—intentionally wandering, intentionally fragmented, and intentionally transient. Never fixed, always fluid.
As educators, at times we must embrace our own ignorance, knowing our students bring as much if not more to the table, to the classroom, as we do. By earning my Master’s, have I become an expert in my field? "Oh, no," I scream to myself. "Never that!" For the moment as educators we believe ourselves to be experts is the moment we become obsolete monuments, separate from the democratic crowd sharing our educational spaces. As a result of my investigation, I envision implementing an “adopt a monument program” in which educators, either in Chicago or elsewhere, pull together across K-12 grades, implementing an inter-disciplinary curriculum initiative featuring art, historical and cultural appreciation components as well as “green” projects aimed at cleaning, preserving, beautifying and maintaining their classrooms without walls, a program guided, lead, and directed by community college art, biology and education students.
The results of my study, photos, sketches, film, paintings, all reflect the type of work I encourage other educators to employ in their classroom, arming their students with the same implements I carried—inexpensive flip cameras, canvases, digital cameras, pencils, markers, notebooks—whatever tools one uses to create their own art, as they explore their own “Neighborhood showcases of culture,” the democratic educational spaces surrounding the older works of art, whether they be the older heroic figures lining Chicago’s busiest intersections, war heroes located in cemeteries in the warm Southern sun, or the dusty monuments to brave pioneer women who chose to serve as “Madonna of the Plains.” By whatever means necessary, though, I encourage community members to engage in dialectical discourse within their own local neighborhoods.
To those with whom we have the pleasure of sharing this participatory, democratic educational space, we must turn to ask, "What does this work represent to you?" And we quietly, interestedly listen to the narrative they tell, the allegories they write upon the ruin of history always before us, whether it be a conversation about their grandmother whose touch always smelled of peppers or garlic, about their favorite student who taught them how to remember names, or about their dog that enjoys running laps around the exedra of the nearby older work of art, chasing a nearby skittering squirrels up a specific tree. They are all stories, all narratives, all novels or allegories emerging from the monumental ruins, connecting us not just one to another, but to community past, present and future.