Master of Arts
Theory and Criticism
This thesis project explores the correspondence between Walter Benjamin’s conception of modern urban experience and postsocialist representations of urban space in Ukrainian literature. By examining how urban experience influences the mobilization of formal strategies in literature and critical theory, this project articulates the normative assumptions about the interpenetration of social practice and political economy latent in Benjamin’s own writing and the scholarship of his works about the modern city. The project compares the theory and practice of shock, fragmentation, and allegory in Benjamin’s cultural criticism with Oksana Zabuzhko’s “Prypiat,” Yuri Andrukhovych’s Moscoviad, and Serhiy Zhadan’s Depeche Mode. The project performs a comparative literary analysis while incorporating scholarship on urban experience from the fields of art history, human geography, and sociocultural anthropology. This project challenges the assumption that the postsocialist fragmentation of collectivity and critique of modern historical metanarratives are incompatible with Benjamin’s concept of utopian desire. Rather, an analysis of Benjamin’s work and postsocialist literature illustrates how their embeddedness within particular socioeconomic and historical contexts affects their respective representations of the connection between subjective and universal historical experiences.
Summary for Lay Audience
How does the experience of daily life in the city influence our ideas of community and history? A cultural critic attentive to the significance of urban experience for philosophies of history and society, Walter Benjamin (1892-1940) suggested that modern societies, often unknowingly, strive after the realization of social utopias, a form of collective desire that nevertheless faces psychological and economic obstacles. Although his descriptions of these social utopias come from his understanding of urban experience in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, scholars sometimes use Benjamin’s descriptions of these utopias to judge cultures today and to discount experiences that fail to conform to our preconceptions.
To counter this tendency, my project compares Benjamin’s descriptions of urban experience with those found in Ukrainian literature after the fall of the Soviet Union. The Ukrainian authors central to this study are Oksana Zabuzhko (1960-), Yuri Andrukhovych (1960-), and Serhiy Zhadan (1974-). Through a careful reading of these authors, and with the aid of research from a variety of fields on daily life in postsocialist society, this project shows that there are significant differences between the psychological and economic pressures that these authors describe and those that Benjamin describes in his own writing. Since Benjamin uses such pressures on the city dweller to establish his ideas about life in the modern city, this difference suggests that his ideas of community, history, and utopia are not universal, are not necessarily true for all cultures and time periods. Instead, this limitation forces us to qualify Benjamin’s claims about urban experience. Only by thus adapting his philosophy to the conditions of life in postsocialist society will Benjamin help us understand the unique conceptions of community, history, and utopia in Ukrainian society and culture. In my comparison of Benjamin’s writing and Ukrainian literature, I focus on representations of shock (how we receive events that challenge our preconceptions), fragmentation (the lost sense of collective identity), and allegory (how our ideals interact with everyday reality) to argue that we can use aspects of Benjamin’s philosophy to understand life in different societies and cultures without projecting his expectations onto cityscapes today.
Harasymiw, Alexander M., "Hallucinating the Ukrainian Cityscape: A Reevaluation of Walter Benjamin’s Urban Experience for a Postsocialist Context" (2019). Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository. 6323.