Disastrous Communication: Walter Benjamin's 'The Railway Disaster at the Firth of Tay'

Dominic Smith (Lead / Corresponding author)

    Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter (peer-reviewed)peer-review

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    - February 1932, Berlin/ March 1932, Frankfurt: Walter Benjamin presents a live broadcast of a twenty-minute radio piece, ‘The Railway Disaster at the Firth of Tay’ (Die Eisenbahnkatastrophe vom Firth of Tay).

    - May 2017, Dundee: A group of twenty 8–13 year olds meet for a two-hour comics and visual communication workshop. A quick survey shows that they know all about a famous railway disaster that befell the bridge linking Dundee and Fife across the Firth of Tay in 1879, but not about an obscure 1932 radio piece by Walter Benjamin, the translated text of which will form the stimulus for their workshop.

    This essay charts a series of miscommunications and transformations occurring to Benjamin’s ‘Railway Disaster’ piece between and beyond these dates. Picturing Benjamin sitting alone in his radio booth in 1932, it is tempting to view ‘Railway Disaster’ as a communication that was disastrous: as symptomatic of a career going astray, or as a part of a constellation of Benjamin’s other radio works that allegorise the disastrous rise of European fascism. Placed in the context of an afterschool club without foreknowledge of Benjamin, however, another perspective on ‘Railway Disaster’ emerges: as a focus on a disaster that becomes a site for transmedial and intergenerational communication/miscommunication.

    Part one of this essay fills in some of the blanks surrounding the history of this piece to give these transformations context. Part two then describes how it figures as part of a ‘Localising Philosophy’ educational project I have been working towards in Dundee. The ultimate aim of the essay, developed in part three, is to position this work on ‘Railway Disaster’ as continuous with an approach to philosophising with and through technologies pursued in my 2018 book Exceptional Technologies.
    Original languageEnglish
    Title of host publicationMiscommunication
    Subtitle of host publicationErrors, Mistakes, Media
    EditorsTimothy Barker, Maria Korolkova
    Number of pages15
    ISBN (Electronic)9781501363832, 9781501363849
    ISBN (Print)9781501363856
    Publication statusPublished - 14 Jan 2021

    Publication series

    NameThinking Media


    • Philosophy of Technology
    • Science and Technology Studies
    • Philosophy of education
    • Walter Benjamin
    • Tay Railway Bridge

    ASJC Scopus subject areas

    • Philosophy


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