Revisiting Walter Benjamin
The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction is thought of as one of the more crucial texts for anyone that has anything to do with anything visual… or the business of culture in general for that matter. I have read it a number of times though it never ceases to offer useful insight within a revised or updated context and reading. With this in mind I will attempt a brief dialogical revision/update of the text as I see it now.
Benjamin begins with a brief history of reproduction in the arts… cast bronzes, stamped coins, wood cuts, lithography… but asserts that photography surmounts all forms as a medium in its ability to reproduce anything else, or as he puts it…
“photography freed the hand of the most important artistic functions which henceforth devolved only upon the eye looking into a lens. Since the eye perceives more swiftly than the hand can draw, the process of pictorial reproduction was accelerated so enormously that it could keep pace with speech.”
Benjamin sees photography as a marvel of modern technology and nearly infallible as a medium of documentation… a kind of visual ideal that reproduces what the eye can see and even what it can not. Certainly true in relative terms at the time and still there are Daguerreotypes from the 1800′s that rival the best CCD’s today… but let’s make a comparison that might illustrate just how much weight photography and film might have carried with Benjamin during the 1930′s. In 2008 a team of researchers at The National Institute of Information and Communications Technology in Kyoto, Japan published a paper on their findings using fMRI to read images from the human brain in realtime. In essence they were able to train a detection algorithm to reconstruct digitally what a subject was looking at. Though the images were crude and black and white (so was early photography and film) the implications are ground breaking. If Benjamin’s photography allowed the eye to work more swiftly than the hand… perhaps such work as this might one day allow the mind to work more swiftly than the eye …so to speak. Imagine what it might mean to compose an image or a film simply through the act of internal visualization… (legal implications aside)… how the role of the artist might change through the use of such a technology as well as how more physical mediums might take on greater or lesser significance.
Benjamin makes a case for the dispersion of authenticity through reproduction and talks at length on the historical and traditional functions of the art object rooted in ritual that he posits its “aura” is based in… and it being liquidated through the process of reproduction.
Benjamin’s notion of the “aura” is often troublesome as it sometimes seems to be loosely situated in a place of authentic exclusivity or historical singularity by the nature of the various mediums as interpreted at the time, but consider a notion of reproduction in general terms today… the age of the MP3, or bit torrent… There is no original, but perhaps only an arbitrarily defined ‘newness’, so then by Benjamin’s terms no “aura” that could be liquidated. The original master of an audio track in a recording studio (which might be in someone’s home) more often than not exists on a hardrive rather than anything of unique physical significance… or exclusive webisodic video productions. Though perhaps appropriately the “aura” often resembles a kind of sentimentality for a former time an place as Benjamin interprets Able Gance’s depiction of the mythic versions of Shakespeare, Rembrandt, and Beethoven awaiting resurrection at the gates of film… concluding that Gance unintentionally gave an invitation to a far reaching liquidation… True, for those of us that remember… LP’s, cassette tapes, CD’s, their objectness and physicality is certainly missed in some ways, but today children are born that will never know any such formats first hand.
This may seem entirely obvious but it’s important to understand the paradigm shift… One technology outmoding another is nothing new, at first on qualitative terms = photo emulsion can reproduce what no painter ever could… leading then toward reproduction and distribution… everyone can see the Mona Lisa without even going to the Louvre… and then to the dominant function: convenience. You don’t have to even leave your house… and though the jpeg reproduction isn’t the real thing… Recent survey’s of college students have shown that they prefer the low bit rate Mp3′s versions of their favorite music to the CD quality versions of the same songs because they have become so accustomed to the tinny digital distortion common to low bit rate MP3 audio typical of services like iTunes… they’ve learned to like the subpar because convenience is god… and god built the internet.
For the sake of argument we might push the notion of liquidating “auras” to the extreme and consider the ultimate liquidation: That of the self… of identity… and while I would love to talk at length about how this might at the present be expedited through identification with celebrity and idol culture or personal renditions of popular culture uploaded to YouTube.. or even the homogenizing social numbness encountered by those that surpass the 1000 friend barrier on Facebook…
-let’s move past to the more theoretical and by that I mean the Kurzweilian notion of the personal upload. Were it possible to upload one’s consciousness and agency to a digital medium as proposed by Kurzweil… in effect closing the loop on Benjamin’s “cult of remembrance of loved ones” where he describes early photographic portraiture: “For the last time the aura emanates from the early photographs in the fleeting expression of a human face.” …it would then be, at least in theory, possible to make any number of copies of that persona or agent that at least at the moment of being copied would be indistinguishable from the next… perhaps only to become entirely different versions of an originating self by means of different interactions (presumably within some kind of digital existence or mediated form there of). What becomes of the “aura” then?? We’ll just have to wait and see, but it does lead to the next point…
…The notion of the multiplicity of agency within a psychoanalytically inspired critical framework… actually we don’t really need Freud and neither did Benjamin, but it was the cool thing to do during Benjamin’s time. The “Optical Unconscious” that Benjamin touches on is legitimately interesting… the notion that techniques like slow motion allow us to see things never before seen, imagined, or scientifically understood is great and extends to our present with things like the LHC (the most expensive camera ever built), but Benjamin then devolves into assisted Freudian analysis through the use of film… a tool for cognitive analysis by all means, but leave the projection and penis envy out… hey we all make mistakes.
Freud might remain entertaining as a kooky theoretician, but he is definitively wrong… and he’s dead… Benjamin may be dead but unlike Freud he is still worth talking about so long as we can stretch his fundamentals into the present context… The one thing that Freud does still offer us (so long as we dont get carried away with them) are fruitful metaphors for literary criticism and like the theoretical Kurzweilian uploaded self that might disperse through copies of itself …then becoming new versions through unique and independent action and interaction within a given environment or state… Freudian style analysis has often found itself useful in describing how texts, images, etc might be thought of as independent psychical entities (or having a kind of agency) that in a sense interact with us the viewers/consumers/readers… each becoming unique again regardless of its plurality or means of reproduction. It’s often a difficult notion to entertain, but in a sense the MP3 that you have on your iPod though identical bit for bit to the one on the ipod belonging to the person next to you… could be thought of as being altered by your insertion of your experience into it while you listen to it… through your own memory or present surroundings, in effect creating a kind of virtual psychical dialog or transmitted ownership of it… So in a sense you could replace Benjamin’s “aura” with Barthe’s “punctum”… and forget Freud all together.
I think in conclusion Benjamin was seduced by the “Marvelous Machines” of the time, but aren’t we all? He might take his viewpoint to the extreme at times, though it’s often a good habit when considering the social impact of new technologies… on the other end of the spectrum you had the pro mechanized war Futurist wackos like Marinetti who Benjamin quotes alongside his description of the Nazi regime. Something Benjamin knew about first hand; as a Jew, Benjamin had to flee Nazi occupied France on foot and died shortly there after.