Did Walter Benjamin’s powerful metaphor of the “constellation” wind up becoming the titular figure in Marshall McLuhan’s Gutenberg Galaxy? Benjamin and McLuhan actually have something in common besides a shared interest in recent material histories. This commonality is a personal relationship and great admiration for historian Sigfried Giedion, who coined the term “anonymous history,” who Benjamin met in Paris while working on his Arcades Project, and who McLuhan came to know early in his own career.
EXCERPT: “The purpose of this presentation is to trace the metaphor of the constellation in the materialist modernism of Benjamin and Giedion to the more conservative theoretical constructions of McLuhan, viewing it as a kind of “travelling concept,” as Mieke Bal has described: an elastic idea or metaphor, offering “a site of debate, awareness and tentative exchange.” As Martin Jay points out, this metaphor of the constellation also travelled from Benjamin via Theodore Adorno to America and back to Europe, to re-emerge in Adorno’s postwar writings while at he was the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research. As Jay explains, in the context of this exchange, the term constellation signified “a juxtaposed rather than integrated cluster of changing elements that resist reduction to a common denominator, essential core, or generative first principle” (1984, pp. 14-15). These characteristics also generally apply to the term “constellation” as I consider it here. In the instance of travel that is my principle focus, Giedion serves as an indispensable conduit between Benjamin and McLuhan.”
UPDATED: A draft paper based on this talk is available here.