Response to Benjamin
Even though I'm now a graduate student at a prestigious university, I (still) feel unqualified to critique a Marxist. So I'll let slide the stuff I disagree with (film is fascist? dadaism is a "waste product?") and focus instead on ideas and inspiration I was left with after reading the article.
1. "Just as lithography virtually implied the illustrated newspaper, so did photography foreshadow the sound film." Otherwise phrased: Technology dictates how people communicate. A McLuhanesque idea for sure! (Don't worry, I can use the word "McLuhanesque." I'm a graduate student at a prestigious university.) I like Benjamin's formulation of this idea, and I wonder what it is that the Internet "virtually implies." The blog, for one. Participatory media, for another (thereby completing, incidentally, the dissolution of Benjamin's "distinction between author and public").
I think if Benjamin were writing today, he might say that movable type, lithography, film and electricity together implied the Internet itself. From his perspective, the Internet might seem like nothing more than a vehicle for the mechanical replication of media—the ultimate fulfilment of Valery's prophecy ("visual or auditory images, which will appear and disappear at a simple movement of the hand").
Of course, I don't think he could have foreseen the participatory element of the Internet. In footnote 7, Benjamin writes that "the production of a film is so expensive that an individual who ... might afford to buy a painting no longer can afford to buy a film." This is clearly no longer true. Many Americans, at least, already own a device that can make a movie (digital cameras, cell phones, iChat cameras), or can procure such a device on the cheap (the $20 rent-a-digicams at CVS, for example). The economic barrier to making a film is low and getting lower, and the Internet makes it easy to distribute such films. The barrier to making or buying a painting, on the other hand, remains essentially the same as it's always been. Because of this, I think that film might turn out to be more of a revolutionary technology than Benjamin seemed willing to admit.
2. The "Aura." I think it's clear that certain works of art, replicable though they may be, maintain an aura, and may still engender "cultish" feelings. My girlfriend's cult is Miro's Red Sun. Whenever I'm in San Francisco I have to visit No. 14, 1960. Benjamin says that the cult value of art and the exhibition value of art are polar opposites, but for these two paintings, it's the circumstances of the exhibition that give them their aura. I own a poster of No. 14, but it's nothing like seeing it in person. That isn't just because of the scale, either (the painting is about ten yards square). It's the uniqueness of the museum experience itself, combined with my own history of the place and the painting.
Benjamin says that reproducibility precludes aura, which might explain the trend in contemporary art to make location-specific installations, or intentionally ephemeral works that are expressly not designed for reproducibility. On the other hand, purely digital works are, at a very fundamental level (bytes and bits), designed to be reproduced, even if it's in the form of a download. So I'm wondering if such works can have an "aura." Can they be unique? Can they have ritual value? What form would that take?
3. This may seem like nitpicking, but I think it's important. Egyptian hieroglyphics are not pictographic. Pictographic elements in hieroglyphics must be expressly marked as such; otherwise, it's a consonant-centric, phonetic writing system, very much along the lines of Hebrew or Arabic. It's surprising to me that even intelligent scholars like McLuhan and Benjamin (through a quote from Abel Gance) persist in thinking that hieroglyphics are some kind of concrete pictoral storytelling system, like comic strips without speech bubbles. All of these guys are writing over a hundred years after the Rosetta Stone, so there is really no excuse.
(McLuhan even thinks that Chinese writing is pictographic, which is even less excusable.)