Tag Archives: philosophy

Walter Benjamin’s Berlin Walking Tour

I recently took a trip to Berlin. The city has a difficult past and was home to many influential philosophers. While many lived and wrote in Berlin, fewer were born and raised there. Walter Benjamin, though, was one of the few. He grew up in Berlin.

I brought Benjamin’s autobiographical essay “A Berlin Chronicle” on the trip. I read the essay each night and circled references to particular streets and parks, as well as phrases, commentaries, and concepts which Benjamin expresses about or close to those locations.

Inspired by the Stanford University mapping project for this essay, I made a walking tour out of it. (I’m not the first to think of doing something like this.)

If you’d like to do this walking tour, follow the directions below. The idea is to amble around the city, find each street or place, and do the activity with friends or strangers. (The numbers correspond to places in the text and not necessarily the order in which you should complete the activities.)

Walter Benjamin’s Berlin Walking Tour

6)  At Chauseestrasse, open your imagination to a boundless horizon.

11) Thinking of the people closes to you emotionally, go to Kupfergraben and contract your life into a single, profound symbol.

10) Stand somewhere on Kochstrasse and list five mysteries of your father’s work or job.

8) On Magdeburgerstrasse, find 1-2 examples of how your imagination adorns the edges of your memory with capricious frills.

9) At the Lutzkow Quay come up with an aphorism, an image with a caption, or a first attempt at philosophical reflection on “nobility.”

5) Go to Schillstrasse and talk about a time when you emanated forlornness.

4) Pause life at the Lichtenstein Gate.

7) Find a decisive bench in the Tiergarten. Debate a political question.

3) Either write a poem for Fritz Henle at his street Klopstockstrasse, or, in his honor, turn an insignificant phrase into a magic formula that heals a wound.

1) Go to Carmerstrasse, where Benjamin was born. Remember the place you were born, particularly the colors.




During my time as a situated philosopher for Harrison Atelier‘s production Veal, I created this Prezi tracking the philosophical ‘history’ of the human/animal distinction. It’s an unfinished experiment in philosophical form (as opposed to writing philosophy as an essay or book, for example). Click in an out of the circles to view passages of texts throughout four “epochs” of philosophical activity surrounding humans and animals.



I use a flip phone. My parents recently got smartphones. Droids. Then they got new smartphones. It’s part of the family plan. My mother gave me her old smartphone. She said “here, switch over to this one. I’ll pay for the data plan.”

Data plan.

At first I said no. Then I said yes. Then I looked at my girlfriend. I said no again. I said yes. I said no. My mother rolled her eyes. We were going to Rosh Hashanah services. We wore suits and ties. She said, “We’ll go to the Verizon store after services.”

I stood with the smartphone in my hand. “Okay,” I thought. “This is going to happen eventually and I can’t help it–all my friends have them–and I can use it for various things. Tweeting. I’ll use it to tweet. I have four Twitter accounts. I can pay more attention to them. And getting lost. I won’t get lost. I’ll know where I am. And a calendar. I screw up appointments a lot. This will help me that.”

Then I asked myself, “this is late capitalism, right?”

Then I answered, “Yes. It is.”

I stopped. I decided to do something that cellphones and smartphones have made extremely popular among my peers: I decided to decide later.

I asked a philosopher friend if I should get the smartphone. He said no. Smartphones make you less smart. The capacity for memory, the interest in living questions, the constant (mis)direction of attention away from the present moment–just don’t. You don’t want to mess with that. You’re better without it.

I already have an iPad. I stare at it for hours. Every day. Mostly reading PDFs I download for school. Hobbes, Plato, Foucault, etc. This week it’s Adam Smith.

I see people walking down the street on their smartphones. I see them eating dinner, the smartphone sitting in front of them next to their food. I see them playing games on their smartphones on the train. Reading the newspaper. Checking email. Facebook. The New York Times. The best tweeters I know couldn’t do what they do without a smartphone. Richard Nash. Andy Carvin. Also Maud Newton made this connection: ancient humans used to carry smartphone-sized tablets with poetry and scripture carved into them. In Cuneiform.


I can see them walking around in cloaks and sandals with their faces hunched over their smartrocks after written language became vogue. The people that thought too much probably got nervous and talked with their friends about what they should do. Should we trust writing? Should we trust these scratches that everyone in the market is staring at? What will happen to our memory? What will happen to the truth of voice, of sound, of memory? Plato wrote a whole Socratic dialogue about it called Phaedrus.

Then he will not seriously incline to “write” his thoughts “in water” with pen and ink, sowing words which can neither speak for themselves nor teach the truth adequately to others?

Should I trust this smartphone that can neither speak for itself nor teach the truth adequately to others?

Marshall McLuhan says media technologies are ablated mental states. It’s like a slice of my mind fell onto the table one day after breakfast and kept doing whatever it was doing when it was in my brain. It turned into writing, a telegraph, a telephone, a television, a computer. When I stare at the computer and write it’s like when people used to sit and think about Homer’s poetry. Now I can hold whatever was happening there in my hand. I can push its buttons.

Obsessing with technology is just self-obsessing. It’s narcissistic. But it’s just like any mental state. I have the option to be well-disposed towards it. If I get angry when I’m walking because I hate when people pull their dogs while they’re trying to pee, and I obsess over that anger, it’ll consume me. It’ll ruin my day. It’ll make me be a jerk to the dog-owner, who might need a gentle reminder, sure, but not my sass. Other people don’t deserve shitty treatment because I can’t deal with myself in a non-shitty way. Same with smartphones.

We’ve been dealing with this problem for a long time. How do I treat myself well around other people? How do I not become obsessed? How do I reach a balanced happiness? How do I lead a good life? Etc.

Will a smartphone lead to a good life? I don’t know yet. The smartphone arrived  like anything else from the universe. A stubbed toe. My father’s laughter. A death in the family. A political debate. A fungus on my little finger. A love poem.  Do any of these lead to a good life?

They’re just life, I think. What makes a good life is a good me in life. Can I be a good me in life with a smartphone? I hope so.

Yesterday morning I woke up and my phone wasn’t on. I always leave it on to wake me up in the morning because I don’t trust myself to wake up at the right time without it. I tried to turn it on. It gave me a message:

“Please use genuine battery power or phone will shut down.”

Then it gave me a count-down. 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1. Then it turned off. It did the same thing when I tried it again. I spent the day without a phone. I panicked. I went to the Verizon store after I inadvertently stood a friend up for lunch.  They said it was water damage. That I’d have to get a new phone. They asked me, “Do you have a phone we can transfer your information to?”

I said, “Yes. I have a smartphone.”