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Abstracts

[This is the abstract for the paper I gave last Thursday at the Walter Benjamin and the Architecture of Modernity conference at UTS. In the end the paper turned out to be "about" something quite different (photographs, dead children) -- but this preserves the traces.]

Untidy child: Mapping Interest in Walter Benjamin’s Berlin Childhood.

Melissa Jane Hardie, University of Sydney

Untidy child—Each stone he finds, each flower he picks, and each butterfly he catches is already the start of a collection, and every single thing he owns makes up one great collection. Walter Benjamin


For Benjamin, the “untidy child” represents in larval form the figure of the collector, one for whom the objects of the world are potentially mesmeric and contagiously interesting. In Benjamin the collector is framed as denizen of both interior and exterior spaces. Untidy child roams nature; the collector dwells in the “asylum” of the interior as a natural habitat drawn inwards. For each the world is structured around the creation and sustenance of an interest in objects, objects which accumulate in, or as collections, and which function in, or as, interiors. Such proliferating interest in things manifests itself as “untidy,” yet subjective space and historical time are both potentially structured by the incitement of interest, by its catalogues, and by its aptness for recollection.

How is such “interest” constituted? Taking my bearings from the drafts of Benjamin’s Berlin Childhood and several other writings, I will explore its constitution through an analysis of interest as both an exemplifying and exceptional affect, as, for instance, it is used in the quotation which heads this abstract. For the untidy child interest is a matter of everyday life, but also a stimulus to exploratory, speculative activity. As Adam Phillips writes, “[i]t is both ordinary, in the best sense, and wishful, in the best sense, to take interest for granted” (The Beast in the Nursery) Benjamin always takes interest for granted, even or especially when it is exemplary. That species of curiosity Benjamin assigns to the infant remains the defining characteristic of his own scholarly accumulations in incomplete, untidy convolutes. How does the collection exemplify, simplify, or amplify the work associated with having an interest in things?