Saturday, October 12, 2013

Working on Benjamin in the Age of Internet Distraction

Walter Benjamin image by Cornelie Statius Muller 
As students in my COMM 161 (Communication and Culture) class wrestle with Walter Benjamin's (1936) The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, I anticipate some complex conversations in our forthcoming meetings. The essay is brief, but dense. To aid my students' reading (and refresh my own), I've developed this paragraph-by-paragraph summary that details three potentially revolutionary values deployed by twentieth century media forms:

(1) broad distribution over limited access

(2) collective sensibility over individual reflection

(3) direct experience over detached contemplation

I've also summarized Benjamin's concluding reminder that modern media may be used to perpetuate class oppression by encouraging an aesthetic of violence over a politic of struggle.

Somewhat ironically I must emphasize that scanning this "reproduction" cannot replace direct, thoughtful reading of the original text. Even so, I hope that these tentative jots provide a roadmap to help you follow Benjamin's broader chain of reasoning.

  • [NOTE: Page numbers refer to the PDF that I've shared with my students. I've also included the first words of each paragraph to provide further orientation.]

Broad distribution over limited access

p. 1 ("When Marx undertook…"): Karl Marx studied how increasing exploitation of workers would eventually lead to a breakdown of capitalism.

p. 2 ("The transformation of the superstructure…"): While it's important to imagine a post-capitalist world, we should also learn about the ways in which art is used today to support the contemporary consumer society.

pp. 2-3 ("In principle a work of art…"): Mechanical reproduction of artwork has profound social implications.

p. 3 ("Even the most perfect reproduction…"): Mechanical reproduction can never contain the essence of the original.

pp. 3-4 ("The presence of the original…"): Mechanical reproduction allows us to bypass limitations of perception and distance.

p. 4 ("The situations into which…"): Mechanical reproduction reduces our concern for authenticity.

p. 4 ("One might subsume the eliminated…"): A medium like cinema may be viewed negatively and positively. Negatively, cinema detaches us from material reality. Positively, cinema enables mass participation in (potentially revolutionary) public life.

p. 5 ("During long periods of history…"): Material and social circumstances affect human perception; changes in perception in turn produce social transformation.

p. 5 ("The concept of aura…"): Aura refers to the unique quality of a thing, its essence, that can be perceived but not entirely consumed. In modern society, most people prefer the power of the mechanical reproduction, despite its tendency to devalue the original.


"Buy her singles and see all her films/Paste her pictures on my windowsill/But that's not quite the same - It isn't, is it?"
"To pry an object from its shell, to destroy its aura, is the mark of a perception whose 'sense of the universal equality of things' has increased to such a degree that it extracts it even from a unique object by means of reproduction. Thus is manifested in the field of perception what in the theoretical sphere is noticeable in the increasing importance of statistics. The adjustment of reality to the masses and of the masses to reality is a process of unlimited scope, as much for thinking as for perception." - Walter Benjamin
p. 6 ("The uniqueness of a work…"): Historically, aura has been associated with social ritual and order - qualities often used to oppress the mass of working people. In modern society, art became detached from regulatory functions (even from categories themselves).

p. 6 ("An analysis of art…"): Once art becomes detached from ritual, it may become a device for change.

pp. 6-7 ("Works of art are received…"): Art may be valued for its limited accessibility, its "cult value." Conversely it may be valued for the ease by which it can be shown, its "exhibition value."

p. 7 ("With the different methods…"): Modern culture prizes exhibition value over cult value.

Collective sensibility over individual reflection

pp. 7-8: ("In photography…"): Aside from some portraits, most photography (and other media, such as cinema) employ various forms of instruction (eg., captions, sequencing) to ensure exhibition on a broad scale.

Victorian death photo (Huffington Post)
pp. 8-9: ("The nineteenth-century dispute…"): Some folks celebrate the power of photography and cinema to convey revolutionary ideas "with incomparable persuasiveness."

p. 9 ("The artistic performance…"): Dispensing with cult value, photography and cinema dismantle and demystify the process of production, enabling anyone to become an artist, a director, and/or a critic.

pp. 9-10 ("For the film…"): Photography and cinema further reduce aura by detaching actors from audiences.
"For the first time - and this is the effect of the film - man has to operate with his whole living person, yet forgoing its aura." - Walter Benjamin
p. 10 ("It is not surprising…"): The dismantling of production into technical details reduces the value of the "beautiful semblance" (the sense of "being there").

p. 11 ("The feeling of strangeness…"): Modern production causes alienation between the actor and her/his labor (and audience), particularly when that actor becomes a cult item whose mystery is both protected from and consumed by the public. As long as studios use mass production methods to sell actors as cult items, cinema will serve no revolutionary purpose.

p. 11 ("It is inherent…"): Cinema allows all people to imagine themselves as potential heroes.

Andy Warhol image from Off the Grid [blog]
pp. 11-12 ("For centuries a small number of writers…"): In a broader sense, the formerly durable division between producer and consumer of art has broken down.

p. 12 ("All this can easily be applied to the film…"): While Hollywood's fetishization of the cult hero perpetuates class divisions (eg. the one/few vs. the many), Marxist-inspired film can reflect the collective realities of the working class.

p. 12 ("The shooting of a film…"): Cinema production has changed what counts as reality; we now expect some sort of artificiality in everything we see.
"The equipment-­free aspect of reality here has become the height of artifice; the sight of immediate reality has become an orchid in the land of technology." - Walter Benjamin
Direct experience over detached contemplation

pp. 12-13: "Even more revealing…"): The power of cinema production may be illustrated by the act of a surgeon using a scalpel to cut into a body. The relationship between surgeon and patient is "detached" to a certain degree, but it is nonetheless penetrative.

Franz Ferdinand (2009) Take Me Out
p. 13: ("Magician and surgeon…"): Modern cinema, though its fragmentation and re-articulation of reality, allows for experience that feels "even better than the real thing."

p. 13 ("Mechanical reproduction of art…"): The collective nature of cinema, along with its penetrative capacity and the expert orientation it inspires among audience members, enables a critical sensibility that challenges the power of cult value.

pp. 13-14 ("Painting simply is in no position…"): Mechanical reproduction threatens social hierarchy. Indeed even the most banal pop culture ("a grotesque film") may have more revolutionary potential than supposedly radical artwork (eg., "surrealism"), because the the latter is viewed collectively while the former is viewed in relative isolation.

p. 14 ("The characteristics of the film…"): The ability for cinema to control what is seen and heard - reflecting the merger of artistic and scientific perspectives - encourages audience members to develop keener senses of perception.

pp. 14-15 ("By close-ups of the things around us…"): In a manner similar to psychoanalysis, the camera allows us to peer more precisely into things that previously could not be perceived, revealing heretofore invisible prisons.
"Our taverns and our metropolitan streets, our offices and furnished rooms, our railroad stations and our factories appeared to have us locked up hopelessly. Then came the film and burst this prison-­world asunder by the dynamite of the tenth of a second, so that now, in the midst of its far-­flung ruins and debris, we calmly and adventurously go traveling." - Walter Benjamin
p. 15 ("One of the foremost tasks of art…"): Preliminary forms of creativity that are initially dismissed as barbaric (eg., Dadaism) are necessary stages in more progressive artwork.

pp. 15-16 ("Even fundamentally new…"): Dadaists [proponents of an early twentieth century European art form that mocked dominant conventions] were especially keen to attack the concept of aura by replacing contemplation with distraction.

Marcel Duchamp (1917) "Fountain" - photograph by Andrew F. Wood
p. 16 ("From an alluring…"): Dadaists previewed later cinematic experiences of active immersion rather than passive reflection.
"The spectator’s process of association in view of these images is indeed interrupted by their constant, sudden change. This constitutes the shock effect of the film, which, like all shocks, should be cushioned by heightened presence of mind." - Walter Benjamin
pp. 16-17 ("The mass is a matrix…"): Those who mock cinema as "mere" spectacle invoke an ancient denigration of class.

p. 17 ("The question remains…"): Distraction can actually be a powerful way to raise mass consciousness.
"Architecture has always represented the prototype of a work of art the reception of which is consummated by a collectivity in a state of distraction." - Walter Benjamin
p. 17 ("Buildings have been man’s companions"): Architecture illustrates the ways in which tactile experience can teach more effectively than abstract learning.

pp. 17-18 ("The distracted person…"): Cinema can teach by lulling audience members into a useful sort of mindlessness, freeing them to learn about their collective potential in a visceral way.

Warning: An aesthetic of violence over a politic of struggle

p. 18 ("The growing proletarianization"): Fascism represents a counterpoint to Marxism. Fascism uses art to ennoble the cult of the individual, which enables further oppression of the masses.

pp. 18-19 ("All efforts to render politics aesthetic…"): Fascists use art to justify an aesthetic of war as "beautiful" (eg., Italian Futurism), obscuring how wars are used to displace international workers' solidarity with nationalist fictions.

p. 19 ("Fiat ars – pereat mundus" ["Let art be created. Let the world perish" - Futurist slogan]): While Marxists transform entertainment into politics, fascists transform violence into beauty.
Starship Troopers/Fascism collage by Andrew F. Wood
Would you like to know more?
The question remains, however, whether these two objectives are as different from one another as their partisans might imagine.

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