Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility”

1936

Marx’s analysis of capitalist production was prognostic: that it would exploit the proletariat in new and intense ways, and that it would create the conditions for its own undoing. We must theorize art as it is under the conditions of production today. The dilemma seems to be between aestheticizing politics (fascism) or politicizing art (communism), and clearly Benjamin favors the latter.

Works have art have always been reproducible, but now they are more technically and accurately so. From the woodcut to engraving, lithography to photography, this process has rapidly improved. Photography finally “freed the hand” from the task of reproduction. In Benjamin’s idea of history, “Just as the illustrated newspaper virtually lay hidden within lithography, so the sound film was latent in photography” 102. Benjamin therefore undertakes the study of art as reproduction and the art of film as the two greatest influences today on art in its traditional form.

“In even the most perfect reproduction, one thing is lacking: the here and now of the work of art – its unique existence in a particular place” 103. Authenticity thus eludes the whole sphere of reproduction – it concerns the object as the very same one throughout time, including its wear, its history, its owners, etc. 103. But whereas the reproduction made by hand can be called a forgery, 1) a photo can be reproduced to trick the naked eye. It can even focus in slow motion or zoom on objects “natural optics” would miss in the first place 103. 2) “Reproduction can place the copy of the original in situations which the original itself cannot attain” 103. The work of art can meet the viewer halfway – music on a gramophone, a cathedral in a studio.

What is threatened here, for Benjamin, is the aura: the authenticity, the historical weight, the physical duration, the testimony of the object as it is here and now 103. (I have to say, this has always seemed like a bourgeois value to me!) “The technology of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the sphere of tradition” – its aura “withers” 104. The most powerful “shattering of tradition” is film. Film is both positive and has a “destructive, cathartic side: the liquidation of the value of tradition in the cultural heritage” 104. (Abel Gance is cited – historical figures “await their celluloid resurrection,” he claimed.)

“The way in which human perception is organized – the medium in which it occurs – is conditioned not only by nature but by history… And if changes in the medium of present-day perception can be understood as a decay of the aura, it is possible to demonstrate the social detriments of that decay” 104.

“What, then, is the aura? A strange tissue of space and time: the unique apparition of a distance, however near it may be” 105. [this is the opposite of trace, which is the appearance of nearness, no matter how far]

Mountains have an aura on a summer’s day, but the aura’s decay now depends on 2 factors: 1) The masses desiring to ‘get closer’ to things and 2) the masses desiring to supersede the uniqueness of a thing “by assimilating it as a reproduction” 105.

“Every day the urge grows stronger to get hold of an object at close range in an image, or, better, in a facsimile, a reproduction. And the reproduction, as offered by illustrated magazines and newsreels, differs unmistakably from the image… The stripping of the veil from the object, the destruction of the aura, is the signature of a perception whose ‘sense for sameness in the world’ has so increased that, by means of reproduction, it extracts sameness even from what is unique” 105 [internet memes]

Benjamin provides the increasing use of statistics as an example of this, and demonstrates that the alignment of “reality” and “the masses” signals a change in perception.

The earliest artworks with aura had cult value, and “the artwork’s auratic mode of existence is never entirely severed from its ritual function” 105.  (This model of binaries opposes uniqueness to reproducibility, aura to mechanical reproduction, ritual to political, and cultural value to exhibition value.) Photography is the “approach of that crisis which a century later has become unmistakable,” which coincided with the rise of socialism 105. This crisis has given rise to “a negative theology, in the form of an idea of ‘pure’ art, which rejects not only any social function but any definition in terms of a representational content” 106. For Benjamin, however, this crisis need not entail a loss.

“For the first time in world history, technological reproducibility emancipates the work of art from its parasitic subservience to ritual… the work reproduced becomes the reproduction of a work designed for reproducibility… As soon as the criterion of authenticity ceases to be applied to artistic production, the whole social function of art is revolutionized. Instead of being founded on ritual, it is based on a different practice: politics” 106. [I might think here about faceting as camp and this together.]

The first technology versus second technology divide is of cult/exhibition, human sacrifice/remote control, serious/play, and master culture/interplay of human and nature. Cult objects are hidden – paintings on walls or large sculptures, versus canvas paintings or busts made for exhibition 106. Cult made use of human beings, whreas exhibition “reduces their use to the minimum” 107. The scope of reproduction has quantitatively shifted towards the pole of exhibition: the work of art is a construct with qualitatively different functions 107.

Film is the perfect medium to study the center of the second technology: the means by which “human beings first began to distance themselves from nature… in play” 107. [think camp!] “The first technology really sought to master nature, whereas the second aims rather at an interplay between nature and humanity” 107.

“The function of film is to train human beings in the apperceptions and reactions needed to deal with a vast apparatus whose role in their lives is expanding almost daily… technology will release them from their enslavement to the powers of the apparatus only when humanity’s whole constitution has adapted itself to the new productive forces which the second technology has set free” 108.

“In photography, exhibition value begins to drive back cult value on all fronts. But cult value does not give way without resistance…. In the fleeting expression of a human face, the aura beckons from early photographs for the last time” 108. [think Barthes, Camera Lucida]

But exhibition value wins out – it is superior, as photographs from which the human being withdraws will show. Captions direct our viewership in an ongoing evidence of history on trial, and in film, the sequence of images powerfully directs us as well 108.

The Greeks could not very well reproduce their art, so it had to produce eternal values 109.  “Film is the first art form whose artistic character is entirely determined by its reproducibility” 109 [not the novel?]. Unlike the singular artistic object, the film is amassed and asembled from a large number of image sequences edited and manipulated (a Chaplin film that is 3,000 meters but took 125,000 meters of film to make).

“Film is therefore the artwork most capable of improvement… linked to its radical renunciation of eternal value… the pinnacle of all the [Greek] arts was the form least capable of improvement – namely sculpture… all of a piece… the decline of sculpture is inevitable” 109. [again, literature?]

Early film and photography theories waste energy focusing on whether these media are art (Abel Gance called film ‘hieroglyphic’) 110. The focus should not be on whether they are, but how they are actually transforming art (the example of film that is marvelous or supernatural, rather than realist, is offered) 110. To photograph a painting or an actor acting is not art. Art is produced “only by means of montage,” says Benjamin 110. How does this occur, if the stuff of this art is not art? [faceting]. For Benjamin, it is in the repetitive takes, of which one is selected “as the record” 111.

“Film makes test performances capable of being exhibited, by turning that ability itself into a test. The film actor performs not in front of an audience but in fornt of an apparatus… Interest in this performance is widespread. For the majority of citydwellers, throughout the workday in offices and factories, have to relinquish their humanity in the face of an apparatus. In the evening these masses fill the cinemas, to witness the film actor taking revenge on their behalf not only by asserting his humanity (or what appears to them as such) against the apparatus, but by placing that apparatus in the service of his triumph” 111.

It would be interesting to compare this form of identification with Oudart’s suture or Mulvey’s gaze. The actor is a character to the audience, but he is himself to the camera. “For the first time – and this is the effect of film – the human being is placed in a position where he must operate with his whole living person, while forgoing its aura. For the aura is bound to his presence in the here and now. There is no facsimile of the aura” 112.  Unlike in the theater, where this can be sensed, “the camera is substituted for the audience” 112. The film actor must not overact, unlike the stage actor. “His performance is by no means a unified whole, but is assembled from many individual performances” 112. “Art has escaped the realm of ‘beautiful semblance,'” since the film actor can be startled by a gun and the sound edited out, or several shots of a jump out the window grafted to make the perfect scene 113. [pure artifice?]

“The representation of human beings by means of an apparatus has made possible a highly productive use of the human being’s self-alienation… the film actor’s estrangement in the face of the apparatus… is basically of the same kind as the estrangement felt before one’s appearance in a mirror.. But now the mirror image has become detachable from the person mirrored, and is transportable… To a site in front of the masses… It is they who will control him” 113.

[Is faceting looking at a broken mirror, trying to cathect onto something so fragmented it has no sense or unity – but this is like us, too? We are fragmented?]

For Benjamin, capitalist (Hollywood) film supplants the commodity as the cult of the star (sex and surfaces), whereas fascist (Third Reich) film supplants class struggles with a fantasy of the cult of the audience:

“There can be no political advantage derived from this control until film has liberated itself from the fetters of capitalist exploitation. Film capital uses the revolutionary opportunities implied by this control for counterrevolutionary purposes. Not only does the cult of the movie star which it fosters preserve that magic of the personality which has long been no more than the putrid magic of its own commodity character, but its counterpart, the cult of the audience, reinforces the corruption by which fascism is seeking to supplant the class consciousness of the masses” 113.

[Eisenstein’s ‘dialectical collisions’ in his montages are a form of politicizing art against the unity of fascism. Nevertheless, Benjamin’s proposition here is more one of play – moving through pop culture rather than against it in the interplay of human and nature. For Benjamin, it is not so much about a worry over whether film can have aura as a distinction between cult value (embedded) and exhibition value (Chaplin)].

We have moved from a culture of readers to writers – from the few speaking to the many to the many engaging. Whereas Eisenstein and Vertov allow people to “portray themselves,” whereas “the capitalist exploitation of film obstructs the human being’s legitimate claim to being reproduced… to distort and corrupt the original and justified interest of the masses in film,” Hollywood manufactures the cult of the star 114-15.

“Thus, the same is true of film capital in particular as of fascism in general: a compelling urge toward new social opportunities is being clandestinely exploited in the interests of a property-owning minority… the expropriation of film capital is an urgent demand for the proletariat” 115.

“Film offers a hitherto unimaginable spectacle. It presents a process in which it is impossible to assign to the spectator a single viewpoint which would exclude from his or her field of vision the equipment not directly involved in the action being filmed – the camera, the lighting units, the technical crew (unless the alignment of the spectator’s pupil coincided with that of the camera)” 115 [suture]

“In the film studio the apparatus has penetrated so deeply into reality that a pure view of that reality free of the foreign body of equipment, is the result of a special procedure – namely, the shooting by the specially adjusted photographic device and the assembly of that shot with others of the same kind. The equipment-free aspect of reality has here become the height of artifice” 115.

The comparison here is of the distant magician (painter) to the penetrative surgeon (film) [think Lolita and penetration of her organs!] 115. The masses today are entitled to an “equipment-free aspect of reality… on the basis of the most intensive interpenetration of reality with equipment” – a paradox 116. The fusion of pleasure and expert appraisal in the masses is a progressive reaction to Chaplin; they have a backward attitude, on the other hand, to Picasso. Normally, the conventional is uncritically enjoyed, while the truly new is shunned. Cinema is an exception. Cinema can present to a large collective audience having individual reactions that swell to collectivity 116.

“The most important social function of film is to establish equilibrium between human beings and the apparatus” 117. Film shows us the microscopic and the macroscopic: “With the close-up, space expands; with slow-motion, movement is extended” 117. Both add new information as well – unseeable details in the former, a gliding or floating quality in the latter. “It is through the camera that we first discover the optical unconscious, just as we discover the instinctual unconscious through psychoanalysis” 117. Montage in cinema would create “figures of collective dream” 118.

Laughter is a medicine against psychosis that films exploit – if technology engenders a psychotic character in the masses, it can also inoculate them against the maturation of these disorders through catharsis [think Deleuze & Guattari: schizophrenia] 118.”Dadaism attempted to produce with the means of painting (or literature) the effects which the public today seeks in film” 118. The point of the dadaists was to explore “the uselessness of those works as objects of contemplative immersion… through degradation of their material… linguistic refuse… train tickets… a ruthless annihilation of the aura… which they branded as a reproduction through the very means of its production” [pop art] 119. Film has made this shock effect tactile and physical, rather than moral.

Masses create a different participation in art. They are accused of looking at art with distraction, absorbing it into themselves, (<) rather than concentration, or being absorbed (>). (Think about the gender/sexual difference dynamic here.) Architecture is an example of an art that, by necessity, has never not been 120. We approach buildings by use/habit (tactilely) and perception/contemplation (optically). Both are necessary. Film’s shock effects will mobilize the masses via reception in distraction 120.

Fascism wants to organize the masses without changing the material conditions of their existence. “The logical outcome of fascism is an aestheticizing of political life” 121. [We can think of the films of the Third Reich rallies; would Benjamin compare them to Busby Berkeley’s Hollywood?]

“All efforts to aestheticize politics culminate in one point. That one point is war. War, and only war, makes it possible to set a goal for mass movements on the grandest scale while preserving traditional property relations.” 121.

“Imperialist war is an uprising on the part of technology, which demands repayment in ‘human material’ for the natural material society has denied it” 121.

“Humankind, which once, in Homer, was an object of contemplation for the Olympian gods, has now become one for itself. Its self-alienation has reached the point where it can experience its own annihilation as a supreme aesthetic pleasure. Such is the aestheticizing of politics, as practiced by fascism. Communism replies by politicizing art” 122.

Miriam Hansen picks up on this in analyzing Benjamin’s footnote as an aspirational form of play. Benjamin writes, “What is lost in the withering of semblance, or decay of the aura, in works of art is matched by a huge gain in room-for-play. This space for play is widest in film.” She highlights Mickey Mouse, the total disappearance of the human subject, as a kind of Chaplin: “a cheerful barbarian countering the violence unleashed by capitalist technology with games of innervation.” Though he lost faith in this by the time of “The Storyteller” and others, but “the degree to which such practices have become naturalized” should encourage us all to “wage an aesthetics of play, understood as a political ecology of the senses, on a par with the most advanced technologies.”

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