Walter Benjamins’ The Work of Art in the Age of Technological Reproducibility

Robert Harrison (RH)

Karen Feldman (KF)

1 RH @ 2:47/   Here’s what Hannah Arendt had to say about her friend Walter Benjamin,

We are dealing here with something that may not be unique but is certainly extremely rare. The gift of thinking poetically. This thinking fed by the present works with the thought fragments it can wrest from the past and gather about itself. It is guided by the conviction that although the living is subject to the ruin of time,  the process of decay is at the same time a process of crystallization. In the depth of the sea into which sinks and is dissolved what once was alive, somethings suffer a sea change and survive in new crystallized forms and shapes that remain immune to the elements as though they waited only for the pearl diver who one day will come down to them and bring them up into the world of the living as thought fragments as something rich and strange and perhaps as everlasting ur-phenomen.”

There is enough in that quote to keep us going for a whole show. Maybe even a two part show. Who knows? When Karen Feldman is with us things tend to get interesting enough to spill over into a second hour. We’ll see if that happens today but first let me welcome her to the program. Karen thanks for coming down from Berkeley today it’s good to have you back on Entitled Opinions.

2 KF @  4:15/  Thanks for inviting me back

3 RH/  So today we’re going to be talking about an essayist who may not be well known to everyone who’s out there tuning in so maybe we can start with telling our audience something about Walter Benjamin?

4 KF @ 4:30/  Sure, so Benjamin was born in 1892 to an assimilated Jewish family in Berlin. In the 1920’s – 30’s he became friends with Gerschom Scholem who was important for his thoughts about Jewish mysticism. He became interested in Marx and was friends with Bertolt Brecht. He became affiliated with the Frankfurt Institute of Social Research, a group of Marxists mainly Jewish thinkers including Max Horkheimer and Theodore Adorno, Eric Fromm and Herbert Marcuse among others. In 1933 he left Germany for Paris. He fled Germany and was in France but ended up in an internment camp for German citizens in 1939. Soon after that he tried to flee France and he attempted to cross the Spanish border but at that time he did not have an exit visa which was required. When his group was turned back he took his own life at the border. So, Benjamin is as you say an essayist, someone who wrote about poetry and art  and theater and hashish and messianism and Paris, Berlin, and Moscow. He is somebody who has a huge range of work on a variety of topics.

5 RH @ 5:48/  And you teach him regularly I gather. What is it about Benjamin that 80 years later even 90 years later makes him still such an exciting thinker and charismatic thinker for people today?

6 KF @ 6:03/  Well in part it’s because Benjamin brings together so many different themes and ways of looking at things in sometimes controversial ways. He is, as I said, interested in Marxism, in Jewish mysticism, in art, in literature. He was very influenced by French Surrealism and interested in quotations and montage. And again in that circle of very interesting characters in the 1920’s and 30’s of Germany and France. And in the shadow of course of the disaster to come. There is just a lot to be read in Benjamin in many different directions.

7 RH @ 6:41/  And do you agree with Hannah Arendt that he is essentially a poetical thinker?

8 KF/  Well I’m not sure about that. I think that what Hannah Arendt must mean there, knowing what we know about Arendt as a Heideggerian, that poetic has to do with a kind generativity and brings things together and bringing them to disclosure, to light for the very first time. In that way perhaps we might agree with that, but I think there would be arguments against that as well. Benjamin had systematic arguments although he didn’t always make them systematically. But he has arguments that are very important, for instance, about the artwork and it’s change with the changes in forms of production. So I think that sometimes Arendt’s characterizations tend to portray Benjamin as a bit of a dilletante and a flaneur himself. I think that there are in fact some very systematic claims that  Benjamin offers that perhaps would be undersold if we stuck to the idea of a poetic thinker.

9 RH @ 7:44/  Yeah, I’m not sure I would consider that label a condescension towards him. Anyway we could take that up a bit later. You mentioned that he does present arguments and that he’s not just poetic in that regard and you mentioned the artwork essay and we want to devote a good part of our show today to the famous essay that he wrote called “The Work of Art in the age of Mechanical Reproduction” and …

10 KF @ 8:10/  Yes, yeah, let me correct one thing about that. There’s a, the newer translations of that essay translate it as: “in the age of technological reproducibility.”  This is really significant because it’s about technology in part, this essay, and it is about what happens when reproducibility affects the nature of the artwork itself. When the fact that reproducibility comes to be part and parcel of what art is that effects the very nature of how we see art, the effects that art can have on us, the political potentials of art, and the history of art ultimately. 11:02

11 RH @ 8:51/  Okay, so before we get into the substance of his arguments or his claims about the way technology determines the history of art, is there something you want to say about the essay in general or can I start now taking issue with something you said or is it too early to get down into the trenches with you?

12 KF @9:11/  (Laughs) Well I can briefly say a few things about the essay for those who don’t know it. What Benjamin is doing in the essay, what he says he’s doing is investigating how the artwork is changing as the conditions of production of art change. Therefore what would the effects be for social and political possibilities given how technology is changing and producing therefore artwork differently. This is the general question of the essay. He begins by looking at what he considers cultic artwork, pre-historic artwork, ancient art. He then investigates the development of artwork through, you know, production methods including engravings and lithographs, then photography and ultimately film. He spends a lot of time in the essay talking about film and the potentiality that film represents for social and political changes. So there is an arc of the essay that might be important to understand.

12 RH @10:14/  Well, there’s various ways to approach Benjamin and this essay. We could do like many of our colleagues do and take a historical approach and put Benjamin in his context and talk about his relationship to, uh, Adorno, Marxism and various other things. We could also take a kind of interpretive approach and look at what he does with his concepts in the essay. Or we could submit his claims to an actual analysis, almost empirical, and see wether they actually hold up and bear out the claims he advances. I’m not sure which approach that we want to adopt in our conversation, but why don’t we begin with a reconstruction of one of the most salient and certainly popular concepts in the beginning of the essay which  is that of the aura of the artwork which he claims technological reproducibility of the modern era has a corrosive effect on the traditional aura of the artwork. Do you have a clear sense of what he means by the artwork’s aura?

13 KF @ 11:26/  Well, in fact there is some debate about that and people argue about what he meant and about the concept in general. He begins the essay with a very short history of how artwork can be replicated and has always been replicated. He says well replicas were always possible in the history of art. There was always copying and imitation. The point is that with new production techniques, woodcut, printing, lithograph, ultimately photography and film there is a different kind of art. There is no more original. When you talk about a film, except for certain film fetishes, there is no original film. Anybody can go see the same film in different times and places. Benjamin talks about the aura of the artwork as it’s presence in time and space, it’s unique existence. He talks about it in terms of the way the work witnesses a particular history.  So the aura, and related concepts of the authenticity and the authority of the artwork have to do with how the artwork has a certain special unique quality as being just one. There is one Mona Lisa and people want to be in it’s presence and experience it first hand. So aura has to do with this desire to be with the original. He relates this notion of aura to cultic practices. He says that aura really began as a cultic practice around early artworks that people treated them with a certain reverence because they were unique and singular.

14 RH @ 13:03/  Well, if you don’t mind I would like to say that, that claim just doesn’t stand up to any kind of empirical historiographical pressure because if you’re going to define the aura as the uniqueness of the artwork in it’s presence in space and time and claim that the reproducibility, even though he will always say that yes there was a certain degree of  reproduction of artworks in the past but the big thing that the modern age has given us is this accelerated reproducibility, when you look at the history of art what you find is that there is very little singularity in artworks.  If you look at the … I can give you any number of examples; the icons of Byzantium, one Madonna looks very much like another. And for the most part these icons were veiled. It’s true they had a cultic role in religious practice, but uh if you look at the statues, you go to the museums in Rome, you see all these Roman statues the vast vast majority of them are copies of Greek statues. Even Greek statues were often times more often, much more often than not copies of other originals that don’t even exist. So … I find that reproducibility or reproduction is very much part of the history of art from the beginning. Maybe there is a certain singularity in cave paintings so forth. So, question, is it … how much of Benjamin’s argument in this essay relies on his claim that the aura of the traditional artwork relies on it’s singularity and it’s non-reproducibility in space and time …do you think? 12:05

15 KF @14:55/  So, I think that there, that first of all you’re not alone in your criticisms of Benjamin on aura. Brecht himself called Benjamin’s idea of aura an abominable mysticism. There are some German scholars Aleda and Jan Hassman say well if the artwork has aura than what about the original Shredded Wheat? They say this is the original Shredded Wheat cereal of art. You know the notion of this originality and singularity is something that comes under some criticism along the way. Now how significant is that for his argument as a whole? A lot of people spend a lot of time talking about aura and art historians and others are very interested in this concept. Um, I think what might be ultimately more significant in Benjamin, although I could also defend aura to some degree, but what might be more significant is what it means when making art objects one at a time, as a way of making, falls away. So wether or not it’s one copy, one icon at a time being made verses batches of things, things that can be produced en masse.

This I would say has more to do with Benjamin’s concern in this essay. What does it mean when techniques of production mean that the very nature of art is changing. In fact in the epigraph to the essay by Valery, by the version of the essay that we’re talking about, the third version or depending on how you count it …um there are several versions there is the statement that techniques of, the techne of the beautiful is changing and with that the very nature of art is changing. So I suppose if you want to remain with your skepticism about the concept of aura you could look at this more in terms of what it means when artwork is not produced one object at a time, but produced in such a way that there is no more original at all. Where there is no single thing being copied or reproduced, but rather there is only reproduction as with photography as ultimately with film. And beginning with other processes like engraving and so forth.

16 RH @ 17:09/  Great, okay, so he then draws certain conclusions from reproducibility and his conclusions are largely political in nature. Namely that this new regime of technological reproducibility has some kind of liberation effect that’s related to the Marxist agenda of revolution. I mean one can do a technological history of the artwork and come to, you know, it seems almost self evident that with the evolving technologies artwork changes with the evolving technologies. But we don’t always come to the same conclusion. The historians who have written very extensively on the relation between art and technology.

17 KF @ 17:54/  So where Benjamin is not just an art historian talking about the history of the artwork is where he says with these changes in the nature of art itself owing to technological methods art takes on new functions. That in fact he suggests there was a cultic magical ritual function for art, but with the loss of aura art becomes appropriable by politics. Even the notion of just art for art sakes arrives he says in the 19th century is a certain moment of ideology.  But that in fact with the new forms of art there are possibilities for social change, revolution, and political change that were not possible before. So yes, in fact, this is a about how the change in the technological production of artwork produces changes to ..umm, class relationships for instance.

18 RH @ 18:50/  And do you agree with him on that do you buy in to this conclusion about his?

19 KF/  Let’s see, I think the way he gets to that point would be important to trace. What he ultimately says toward the end of the essay is that we’re developing new modes of perception in fact. So, uh, he says that with the technological methods of producing, let’s say film, we have new capacities to perceive things differently. For instance in film things can be slowed down. There can be close ups. Benjamin writes, “we can see better the necessities which rule our lives.”  He says it’s a little bit like psychoanalysis. We can see what makes us the way we are. And he says this is really an opportunity to, again, examine the hidden necessities that rule our lives by noticing those hidden details. So in a certain regard I would accept pieces of what he has to say as very significant contributions to … I don’t know if yo’d want to call it the sociology of art history, something like that. How the changes in our modes of perception make possible other possibilities. Now perhaps a little more controversial would be some of his comments later in the essay about how film produces a certain revolutionary potential among so called masses. And this is something that is more controversial.

20 RH @ 20:24/ Yeah, so he writes:

 “Reception in a state of distraction which is increasingly noticeable in all fields of art and is symptomatic of profound changes in apperception finds in the film it’s true means of exercise. The film with it’s shock effect meets this mode of reception halfway. The film makes the cult value recede into the background, not only by putting the public in the position of the critic but also by the fact that at the movies this position requires no attention. The public is an examiner but an absent minded one.”

Now that’s fine. He’s writing in the 30’s. But I think the subsequent history of film and especially of Hollywood wood have to cause us to be extremely skeptical about certain claims that he makes there. Above all the idea that the film makes the cult value recede into the background. Nothing is more of a cult in global human civilization these days than film stars and certain movies. And it’s taken on all the kind of ritualistic aspects that he says are supposed to have been disappeared through this new technology and it comes back with a vengeance. The new saints of our age are the movie stars and the rock stars. One wonders to what extent this premise of his, that reproducibility empowers the public or the masses the consumer of art to be the critic and to almost take the place of the author the traditional author or artworks, is absolute nonsense when you think of the absolute passive spectation that is involved in consumer art and the kitchy consumer art of Hollywood and other forms of television media and so forth.

21 KF @ 22:14/  Well you have to put this in a little bit of historical context because Benjamin is talking about Russian film of the time. Uh, like Potemkin. So certain Russian films, these would be produced in the Soviet Union. He is specifically not talking about Hollywood. He says in the West the capitalist exploitation means that the human being cannot really be presented as such. And he absolutely indicates that with the loss of the aura in film Hollywood responds by cultifying movie stars and making them into precisely the object of adoration and ritual respect that you indicate. So, it’s important to know that what he’s talking about here are Russian films in which workers are represented, actual workers are in the film doing their job. Uh that, so one of the points he says about film is that anyone could be in it. It represents the workers to themselves in their working function.

22 RH @ 23:15/  Sounds great, but I don’t know if you or I would ever want to go see those movies?

23 KF/  Oh, no! Some of these movies are great movies. Have you seen Potemkin? No, this is some … well you’re absolutely right this is not some Hollywood movie with some kind of dramatic plot with you know getting the girl and winning the lottery at the end. So if in fact these are very different kinds of movies and there is a lot of scholarship certainly on what Benjamin meant with film. He meant a certain kind of a film.

On the other hand he also says that film has the effect of making the masses more progressive in several ways. As you indicated he says it makes us more critical because we enjoy it, it fuses pleasure with appraisal. Because things are slowed down and everybody can go to the movies because it’s relatively inexpensive. Uh, people have, …the camera takes the critical point of view that allows you to see different things. He says that this fusion of pleasure and appraisal allows the audience to become critical. And he also talks about the experience of sitting in the movie theater. He suggests that the mass becomes a mass or congeals as a mass that people regulate each others reactions. They laugh with each other they therefore sort of notice each other indirectly as an audience. He suggests that somebody like Chaplin would allow for people to accept a progressive form of art namely film in a way that they wouldn’t in regard to let’s say Picasso painting. He says the same audience would scorn a Picasso but would love Chaplin. And so he claims that it makes the audience more progressive.

Now Adorno, his friend but also, sometimes a interlocutor with whom there were disagreements, Adorno said no, this is absolutely not true. The masses are just as bourgeois and sadistic as ever and certainly, you know, you can’t say that watching film is going to make any difference there. So, again, even in his own time and with his own interlocutors and friends there were some disputes about the claims he made for the possibilities of film.

24 RH @ 25:11/  Right, Well he, … listen, I’m a fan of Benjamin. I think I find him a very charismatic thinker. I like the poetic aspect of his use of figures more than concepts to convey deep ideas of history and so forth. But I’m a little mystified at the star power this essay has had in his corpus because I find it, … you know if a graduate student submitted this as a paper to me I would say you’ve got a lot of great ideas in here. Now you’ve got to work on this and you know you’ve got to back this up, you have to enlarge on that. In other words I … there’s a (laugh’s) … pockets of opacity to say the least.  When he claims and I’m reading:

The distinction between author and public is about to loose it’s basic character, the difference becomes merely functional it may vary from case to case because of the loss of the aura of the artwork.”

I tell myself that a religious worshipper in a Byzantine church in front of an icon, The Virgin, uh, using it for meditation, prayer, and you know, communion with his or her god is much more in the position of the author of the artwork or the distinction between the artist of that icon and the devotee who uses it as a form of religious spiritual practice is much less than the spectator of a movie who is bombarded aggressively and very tyrannically inside the cage of a movie theater  where just sitting there and having this flood of images you know pass over. So I’m wondering why Benjamin will make a counter intuitive claim like that and I feel like he must have reasons for making these kind of counter intuitive claims. I read through the essay again and again and I don’t find that he makes a strong enough case for the revolutionary potential of art in the new technological era.

25 KF @ 27:24/  Well!, it’s surprising to me that you bring that up this way that, uh, that what he says about the reader has a potential to become an author that this is questionable to you. Because Benjamin is in fact here most prescient of all. For instance the internet. Every reader can be an author. Everyone can have a blog. Youtube is full of people filming there own lives …

26 RH/  But those aren’t  artworks.

27 KF/  Those are not artworks. On the other hand, insofar as Benjamin is prognosticating about social changes …

28 RH/  That’s a different thing! Social changes I understand I go with them, you know I can understand what he’s talking about mass society and so forth. I just don’t understand the revolutionary potential of a certain kind of art that is predicated on technological reproducibility like photography and film which the history in the intervening 80 years has not born out, you know, the veracity of that claim.

29 KF @ 28:22/  So, okay here you are in fact going along with some of the other commentators on Benjamin including uh, uh, Richard Wolin, that this is not even about art. And it’s certainly not about anything aesthetic but about the intersection of a work and it’s onlooker and that art is not ultimately at stake here.

So, if we want to take that analysis for a moment as one possibility that would suggest that whether or not it’s true about art per se, it does, what Benjamin suggests is going to happen namely the spread of production possibilities. Seeing oneself becoming one of the producers of the artwork. This is, again, in terms of technological advances precisely what has happened and it might be in fact that this is where his prognostication that what is considered art will change. So, what about digital art? What about the internet? We might not consider that as art but if what he is saying about  the future of technological advances and what it means for public participation and self recognition in media let’s say then this is for that reason above all a very prescient article.

In fact in an earlier version of this essay he quotes Andre Breton that, he writes, he quotes Breton: “The artwork has value only in so far as it is alive to the reverberations of the future.”

Well, I do believe that Benjamin with his consideration fo the reader becoming author is absolutely alive to the reverberation of the future namely digital art and the internet.

30 RH @ 30:02/  I agree with you. I agree with you entirely. When I read the essay there are places in it which are extremely prescient of the internet. they have to do with social change however. I just am not convinced by his arguments about the artwork, at least certain aspects of that argument. Especially when it comes to the loss of the aura of the artwork. I cannot just empirically look around at … the art market for example or I cannot go into the Louvre, which is, it’s almost like a parody of the hyper auratic power of the artwork because 80% of those people are scrambling around all wanting to go see only one artwork in this (laughs) great museum, which is the Mona Lisa, as if being in the presence of  an artwork of which they have seen innumerable images reproduced, is a very special experience that they insist on having. Therefore that artwork still seems to exude an aura. There are paintings that when they go on the market, you know a Van Gogh original will sell for obscene amounts of money because it’s original because it’s unique and so forth. So, I mean, I don’t want to be this kind of low life empiricist …

31 KF/  (laughs)

32 RH/  … that’s not my style, but I still feel that, either I’m going to take him as being a prophet of … what? … of the liberational power of new technologies in the digital sphere where everyone can now express there opinion, but of course you have to an entitled opinion to be on this show …

33 KF/  (laughs)

34 RH/  … or, ah, I’m going to take him seriously as providing a theory of art in which case I find myself endlessly frustrated.

35 KF @ 32:00/  Well on the one hand he claims in fact that the changing function of art is exemplified by the shift from it’s cult value to an exhibition value. That might be what you are talking about.  The value of people going to see the artwork and revering it in a different way, not in a magical and religious context but perhaps in a consumer related one. So the artwork becomes something to be exhibited and moved around and shown around. This is the switch from cult value to exhibition value in what Benjamin has to say.

On the other hand your arguments against Benjamin are not very far off  from some of Adorno’s arguments. I think this is pretty significant. So Adorno had a lot of complaints about this essay which we can talk about. Mainly that Benjamin is equating the aura of the artwork with the autonomy of the artwork. If you say aura is dissolving and falling away then the autonomy of the artwork will also fall away and then it’s just another consumer product. So I think that’s what you’re getting at and Adorno says the difference here is key. The artwork has to have an autonomy. It has to in some way have a, there has to be a barrier between it and the sheer utility and consumerism of capitalist society. He claims that Benjamin doesn’t understand that the aura has a dialectical element. That in fact that distance is important and that he thinks that Benjamin is throwing the baby out with the bath water in describing and evoking the destruction of aura Benjamin is also throwing away of shattering the possibility for an autonomous art. And all we would then have left is consumer kitsch products and commodoties to be bought, sold, desired and fetishized. Now …

36 RH @33:50/  Well I would … I would be happy if Adorno wants to agree with me …

37 KH/  (laughs)

38 RH/  I don’t think I need him to come to my defense because I don’t use the terms that he uses. I don’t think it’s just about the autonomy of the art work, nor is it, you know, about the dialectical method that is absent in Benjamin’s treatment of the artwork. What for me is missing primarily is the philosophical concept of world or of worldhood.

In this sense: so in 1979, I give you an example, in 1979 or 80 there a diver in 10 meters of water off the Calabrian coast sees a hand, a bronze hand sticking out of the sand under a beach not that far from the coast and low and behold he discovers that there’s a statue that’s buried in the sand. Then come, the municipalities goes and digs up and it’s not only one statue but two statues, bronze statues, near de Achi and they are the most astonishing beautiful greek statues that were dated you know by the municipality there to the archaic Greek world. They were put on display and they were the wonders and are still these wonders. So, but, then there was some suspicion because among Americans because they would not let them radio carbon date them. So actually it was a bit of a crisis. What if these … what if it was a scam?  What if these statues were  placed there and were just made in a modern kind of laboratory according to the fantasy of what we think Greek art and statuary was all about.

What would change? What would be lost? Okay, here’s where the question of the originality of the artwork comes into being. And where what Benjamin calls “the phenomenon of a distance”, that’s how he defines the aura, not only of the artwork but of, of even natural phenomena, he calls it “the phenomena of a distance.”  Where we would feel cheated if these two bronze statues which were not proven to be forgeries, but where we would have felt cheated had they been revealed as forgeries is that they would no longer incarnate, present, in the sphere of visibility and beauty, they would no longer configure, they would no longer be a world configuration. They would no longer be a manifestation of the world that produced them believed about presence about gods about the human body and so forth. It would just, it would not have that world revealing power of the artwork that we expect it to have. We expect artworks to belong to there age and reveal something about there age or about the world that brought them into being, that’s where I think the aura of the artwork perdures because it’s a kind of authentic, I use it almost in quotes, an authentic certification of the world from which they arose. That’s where I take Heideggers you know the essay on The origin of the work of art to have a little bit more punch for me because he speaks about the artwork as site of encounter between earth and world, but world there is an historical world there’s historicity involved. Benjamin does speak about history and historicity of the artwork, but I don’t think he goes to the bottom of what makes for the aura of the artwork as being linked to worldhood and historical worldhood at that.

39 KF @ 37:26/  I think that your vocabulary and your reference to Heidegger indicate that, from what I would consider a Benjaminian point of view, that you have metaphysics here, you have a metaphysics of art as world disclosive in the Heideggerean vein, as a distance that actually belongs to the work as if it were embodied in the work. I think ultimately Benjamin is a materialist, perhaps an unorthodox form of a Marxist. Ultimately I don’t think he is concerned that art be a special kind of thing. I think the whole point is that the way we treat certain objects, the human practices around them are what define art in any particular time. A cultic relationship to an object defines it in ancient times. In the Renaissance he calls it the cult of beauty. Which has certain elements that resemble that ancient ancient cultic worship. That the practices toward certain works that were called art are then venerative and so forth. And in the modern era as things move on, the practices toward certain ranges of objects that people make will change.

So ultimately if you are looking in Benjamin for an essence of art, an essentialism I think precisely what he is concerned with throughout here I think in a classic Marxist way is in the, uh, character of art objects as human products according to human categories that vary according to historical periods and forms of production. So precisely your example shows what would be lost if the sculptures that were unearthed turned out not to be authentic well what would not be lost is the value of authenticity. Benjamin is concerned for what it means for new forms of art …

40 RH/  Well, why would it not be lost?

41 KF @ 39:19/  Well, the concept of authenticity wouldn’t be lost. People might regret that these sculptures didn’t have it.

42 RH/  Right.

43 KF/  But whether or not those particular sculptures are true to date or not, whether they are forgeries, frauds or whether they are in fact from the era that somebody claims they are from the value of authenticity doesn’t change. So Benjamin would   put that whole discussion within a framework of this left over ritual practice, the auratic character that is falling away with objects that are made now in different technological fashions. So …

44 RH @ 39:53/  Yeah, but my point in bringing up that example is that I don’t have to rely on Heidegger, I don’t have to be Heideggers minion and say I’m following the Master and you know worldhood.

I’m saying that what we expect of an original artwork or an authentic one is that it discloses the phenomenon of a distance. I’m using Benjamin’s vocabulary, now that phenomenon of a distance in the artwork for me is the distance of historical time. It’s the distance of other worlds. Although there would be absolutely no difference between the aesthetic evaluation of the bronzes of the de Achi, what would change is that they are not revealing of the …not only the material forms of production, because we know what the material forms of production are, but they’re not disclosive of the world to which they putatively belong, so …

45 KF @40:50/  Well now your …  now your rescuing aura here,  wait a minute…

46 RH/  Yes I am

47 KF/  Because before you said I don’t by it, you said I don’t by it at all.

48 RH/  No, no, no. I buy it the concept of aura. But I just don’t go along with the conclusions Benjamin comes to about the loss of aura in the modern age. Not … First, I doubt that there’s been that much of a loss the way he describes it. Second, I don’t see how the loss of the aura is now opening us up to a kind of new liberation in the political sphere and that this is going to become a new kind of weapon against fascism the way he claims in this essay.

49 KF @ 41:26/  Well, you focused again on distance. And he makes a comparison at one point in the essay between the surgeon and the magician. If you recall he says the magician when he operates he keeps a certain distance and has a certain authority. The surgeon reduces the distance interferes in the object. And I think he is suggesting that what is happening in the new forms of art, which again I don’t think Benjamin is as focused on art as he is on forms of human production lets say, is that we are intervening in the things. We are in fact getting closer to them. This is one thing that Adorno also bemoaned. That the distance from the artwork is going to dissolve and Benjamin celebrates that. For Benjamin the dissolution of distance is precisely where people can take hold of a form of art like take the camera in their own hand and make something. Uh, the behavior toward artworks will change. He says the increase of participation with art will change the quality of participation. You referred to this with regard to distraction that different forms of attention will evolve that he ultimately believes are better suited to the revolutionary task ahead.

So, in this way I think you are focusing on the essence of art and on the aura which would be in a way to remain with the first three aphorisms of this essay. And to say, okay there is this quality and Benjamin evokes the notion of distance and authenticity. But once he starts to talk about the liquidation of a tradition and that the essay falls apart and starts to be incorrect.

50 RH/  What do you make of his claims about Dadaism, if I can get a little particular here. He makes a, he has an interesting discussion of the relation between Dadaism and film where what Dadaism put forward had a shock effect on the audience and mostly was met with revulsion but that, umm, film was doing the same thing in a way that seduced the audience rather than repulsed the audience. And he talks about Dadaism using, …um, here again I have issues with his claim, that Dadaism’s technique for example of putting buttons on the canvas or train tickets on it, these kind of found objects, he said this was a deliberate war   against the aura of the artwork.

51 KF @44:01/  Yes

52 RH/  Okay, but now if we are in front of it , of a really good Dadaist work of that sort it as a huge aura. In fact it’s aura is even greater than artworks that were trying to be auratic at the same time so in a certain way the aura of the artwork is something that is just very difficult to degrade it. If the artwork is authentic.

53 KF @44:25/  So again this strikes me as very metaphysical I think we could try this in a different fashion. What if aura is not inherent to the artwork? But has to do with the form of attention that it commands from people? This is where the Dada example is significant.

So, Benjamin claims – and this is moving toward the end of the essay that, in every case forms of art create demands that can be only satisfied later. So that it evokes certain possibilities of the technology and of peoples attention that only a later form of art is going to satisfy. He says Dada is a particular way to see this. It produces certain effects, that the public would later seek in film. Namely, he said,  Dada works to annihilate aura. Specifically what this means, as opposed to considering that the work has some kind of metaphysical aura in itself, what if we say as Benjamin does, Dada works to or lets say calls forth a form of attention that is not contemplative. Film is distractable. Your associative processes get switched around it’s always getting hijacked by a sudden change of scene on the screen. Dada has a similar quality in that the um, … relative superficiality of the material that it uses, the word salad as they called it. The waste products of language as they called it. That these don’t offer themselves to contemplation in the same way let’s say that the ancient icon would. The Dada’s write, Benjamin writes their material involves “studied degradation” And so for Benjamin the point is that Dada evokes a form of attention that is more fleeting more distractible. You look around at all the different things on the Kurt Schwitter’s collage and you notice, oh there’s the ticket stub and there’s something else and there’s some lettering and you get distracted and some of it is upside down and you can’t read it very well. And so that it’s not a form of attention that is associated with contemplation. And the point here is that the artwork does not absorb the spectator. Instead the distracted mass absorbs the work of art. So this is one reason that Benjamin sees a revolutionary potential, not in the dissolution of a metaphysical aura but in the change of practice in the way people attend to the work.

54 RH @ 46:45/  He also emphasizes in that passage the deliberate attempt to shock the audience in Dada.

And he goes on to say that what film does is that it preserves the shock effect of Dada.  And, I’m reading here he says: “By means of it’s technical structure the film has taken the physical shock out of the wrappers in which Dadaism had, as it were, kept it inside  …the moral shock effect.”   Did I read that right? Hold on, let’s see, “By means of it’s technical structure the film has taken the physical shock out of the wrappers in which Dadaism had, as it were, kept it inside the moral shock effect.”

Now I bring this up because there is here some relationship between shock and aura. If you don’t mind I’m going to jump to the end of another essay he wrote on some motifs in Baudelaire where he quotes Baudelaire who says:

“Lost in this mean world jostled by the crowd I am like a weary man whose eye looking backwards into the depth of the years sees nothing but dissolution and bitterness and before him nothing but a tempest which contains nothing new neither instruction nor pain.

Benjamin comments:

Of all the experiences which made life what it was Baudelaire singled out his having been jostled by the crowd as the decisive unique experience. The luster of a crowd with motion and a soul of it’s own, the glitter that had bedazzled the flaneur had dimmed for him.”

Then he goes on saying:

that this is the nature of something lived through to which Baudelaire had given the weight of an experience. He indicated the price for which the sensation of the modern age may be had. The disintegration of the aura in the experience of shock. He paid dearly for consenting to this disintegration… “ 

Here he’s relating the loss of aura to the experience of shock and he’s identifying shock as the quintessential modern experience in the technological age of reproducibility. What does aura or it’s loss have to do with shock in your view?

55 KF @49:00/  Well I’m going to keep pulling you in the direction of understanding aura in terms of contemplative behavior on the part of the audience. So shock, being jostled around the crowd or in the case of Dada having strange things thrown together in a way that does not easily let you contemplate them, this shock provokes a different form of attention a different way of looking at an object. It takes you out of a contemplative you could say passive even subservient mode of behavior toward the artwork. So in that regard the shock is a kind of shaking out of a still submissive passive relationship to the object. And evokes a kind of jolting that would produce a more active behavior, a reactive behavior.

56 RH @49:56/  So it would have revolutionary potential is what you are suggesting?

57 KF @50:00/  It does for Benjamin in several ways. In a way it means we don’t just submit to the artwork in a contemplative fashion. However the ongoing aspect of shock, even the Baudelaire passage with the jostling and some of the other references to shock and what is sometimes called the dissolution of aura at other times called the change in form of attention, what they involve are distracted ways of perceiving things. You spoke about this i think earlier in the show that Benjamin evokes distraction as having a revolutionary possibility. Let me say a little more about that because I think that is key to understanding what is significant in this essay.

That when the artwork is no longer absorbing the spectator as a cultic object absorbs the spectators contemplative gaze and requires the spectator in a way to submit himself or herself to the object. When the work is out there and the viewer is no longer in that contemplative relationship to it, what other way is there to apprehend a work. What other way is there besides contemplation? One of the other ways that Benjamin finds significant is the form of attention that he calls distraction. And architecture is a prime example. And I know given your interest in architecture and houses I thought you’d pick up on this that the way we absorb a building as a work is in distraction. We live in the buildings we know them in and out we use them everyday they are architecturally, a beautiful house, a Frank Lloyd Wright, is a work of art  but that doesn’t …

58 RH 51:35/  They’re ready at hand.

59 KF/  Well, yes, if you want to use the Heideggerean term as I know you do.  But I would say, trying to stick with Benjamin, who with Brecht tried to found a reading group where they would destroy Heidegger together, um, ..early on. Sticking with Benjamin we absorb a building in a distracted way and he claims that this kind of reception, a reception in distraction, that is now the case in part produced by the shock and loss of aura namely the loss of contemplative habit, that this gets trained in film, we get distracted in film because we’re not really paying attention to ourselves or anything else, we get lost in it. And yet we are also examining it and he claims toward the end of the essay that there are tasks which face the human apparatus of perception at historical turning points.  You might like the Heideggerean ponderousness here …

60 RH/  Yes, yes I like it all, but I don’t need Heidegger in order to engage in a debate with you  about the claims that Benjamin is advancing here.

61 KF/  Well what he says that is those tasks which face the human apparatus of perception cannot be performed by optical, that is contemplative means, they need to be mastered in some other way and he says it’s about developing new habits …

62 RH/  Well, I understand, this is what bothers me about the essay is that he makes lofty arguments that for me seem like apologies for the worst kind of passive distracted spectatorship of what Guy DuBord called:  “la associate du spectac” and the horrible impoverishment of the dimension of experience in the consumerist stage, capitalist consumerist stage. He is tying himself into knots in order to exhalt something that we know in retrospect has been culturally a radical impoverishment  of the whole realm of experience. The funny thing is that he cites Baudelaire on the experience of shock which is supposed to contain in this latent revolutionary potential, but what does Baudelaire actually say? He says: “lost in this mean world jostled by the crowd I am like a weary man whose eyes looking backwards sees nothing but dissolution and bitternes” … so, far from empowering him to …um …uh, set himself into the new horizon of possibilities it actually demoralizes, disenchants, and disempowers the subject of shock. So, I don’t understand why he would invoke a quote like this where Baudelaire is actually surrendering himself to impotence as a result of the experience of shock and then go on to say that shock has this power to liberate us and to give us a new form of attention which he calls distraction. I just don’t get it.

63 KF @54:20/  Well, Adorno doesn’t get it either. He says that if people need distraction, or rather, what he says is distraction won’t be needed when people aren’t exhausted and stupefied all the time. So he precisely agrees with you that distraction could not be anything like a liberatory form of attention but reflects peoples own suffering and ultimate bondage to capitalism. So Adorno was with you on that. Now, Benjamin, here I believe has very much as is apparent to the prologue of the version that we’re talking about here, has a consideration where he compares the aethetisazation of politics to the politics of art or he contrasts them and this is I think what he is, what perhaps helps focus your concern here.

He says fascism tries to create aesthetic events that would organize the masses and involve a lot of mass behavior and congeal masses would leave property relations intact. In other words masses express themselves in marches and parades. But that doesn’t change anything. Benjamin says this is a way of aesthetisizing political life that produces ritual values. This introduces aesthetics into politics. And in this, in this fascist expression of aesthetics in politics, he says that, politics becomes just a matter of the proletariat being expressed. Okay, and parades and marches in certain ways without actually changing anything about rights or property, the goal would become just a beautiful rally, an aesthetic of the masses and that wouldn’t question anything. It puts the value of art over that of life.

He says, well the culmination of this is going to be war and here he leans on Marinetti and the Futurists, because war really lets the mass express itself without changing property relations at home in anyway. So, there is a real concern here for what aesthetic expression on the mass level means for actual world conditions of war and peace and politics and social movements. So, um, it’s not as though Benjamin is throwing away by any means the possibility for positive social outcomes here. The point would be that contemplation is part of a tradition, a form of attention that belongs to a tradition, that is I think if Benjamin were going to use more of Adorno’s terms part of commodity culture and that another form of attention on the part of human beings would be required in order to break out of the relationships in which we are enslaved at this point.

64 RH @57:08/  Oh, I couldn’t agree more, that a different form of attention is required. I just don’t understand how he can amalgamate it with distraction and movie going. Nor do I believe that the importation of politics into aesthetics is solely a vice of the fascists.

I think it was very much apart of the Soviet Socialists realism agenda and so forth. So there’s plenty of that going on and I guess, you can tell me whether Adorno agrees with me or not, that in both cases it’s something to be resisted. Because what Adorno calls the autonomy of the work of art has to, it has to exert this autonomy over against it’s  co-optation by politics.

65 KF @ 57:55/  That is definitely Adorno’s concern. So, for Adorno, art  is what precisely follows it’s own formal laws. What resists any kind of social utility, any kind of consumability. Adorno has a lecture called: “Why is the new art so hard to understand?” He says it’s hard to understand because it’s trying to maintain a distance from all the values of society and all the uses of society that there could be. So, it’s going to be hard to understand because otherwise it’s too easily co-optable. So, in fact this is a concern that Adorno has that art needs to be a place holder for something that does not follow the laws of society, culture, capitalism. It needs to be autonomous. It’s not heteronomous to those laws. This is perhaps Adorno’s Kantian heritage really.  To see art as holding the place open for freedom in simply following a formal law and nothing else.  As I said I think that ultimately Benjamin is not concerned to hold art apart from other social products and practices. I think in fact he does not see that there is an essence to art of autonomy, in fact he ultimately criticizes the notion of the autonomous work of art as belonging to the 19th century doctrine of art for art’s sake. Which he sees as a reactionary move against the development of photography which he calls the first revolutionary form of production of art.

66 RH @59:27/  So do you think that Benjamin wins out over Adorno in this debate?

67 KF/  Well, that’s a really hard question. I think in certain ways Benjamin’s materialist analysis, despite your skepticism, have some prescient qualities with regard to internet digital art, reproducible art, art that no longer has an original. I think he’s in terms  of his material analysis of production processes I think that’s uh, that’s absolutely true.

I think that Adorno, however, in a way has the last word when it comes to an idea that art should have a space for holding open something that would not follow the laws of society and culture. So, I think it depends in a way on how deeply a material-realist you are or how deeply dialectical you are. I think Adorno wants to maintain a certain dialectics that Benjamin is not as concerned about. The proximity to art and to the techniques of production is not something that I think Benjamin is concerned about in the same dialectical way that Adorno is.

68 RH @1:00:39/  Well, I’m quite allergic to dialectics, but one of these days I think I’m going to have to make my peace with Adorno because there are many ways in which I actually do agree with him on some of these issues.

Karen!   …We’ve come to the end of our hour.  Thank you very much for coming down from Berkeley to speak with us about Walter Benjamin.

69 KF/  It’s nice to be here thanks.

70 RH/  We’ve been speaking with Karen Feldman Professor of German Studies at Berkeley. I’m Robert Harrison for Entitled Opinions. We’re going to take a break over the summer and be with you sometime over the next academic year. So stay tuned. Bye, bye.

 

 

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