Issue No. 15 November 2007 —
Walter Benjamin and the Virtual: Politics, Art, and Mediation in the Age of Global Culture
In contemporary media studies Walter Benjamin's “media aesthetics” is often considered as being based on a materialistic notion of media that has lost its currency. However, a closer study shows that it is only against the background of Benjamin's early writings that the currency of his “media aesthetics” can be properly estimated today. In this article, I'll study the intertwining of the “metaphysical” and the “historical” registers of Benjamin's “media aesthetics” focusing on photography. Hereby, I'll argue for the relevance of the Benjamin's approach for theorising the photographic medium at the threshold of the “post-photographic era.” The notion of “optical unconscious” serves here as a starting point. Benjamin coined the notion to designate the new realm of experience made accessible by photography. “It is another nature that speaks to the camera than to the eye.” This “second nature” speaking to the camera detaches the visible form the capacities of the eye. This can be termed virtualisation of vision. Equipped with the camera, the eye sees virtually more than it can actually read. Subsequently, the eye is facing the task of learning how to read the “second nature” – how to actualize virtualities of the visible. By displacing the vision, photography undermines any notion of natural visibility, i.e. natural “readability” of the visual appearances. This displacement opens up possibilities for grasping the “difference of magic and technics” as throughout the “historical variable.” Benjamin writes of August Sanders Antlitz der Zeit (1929) in terms of a “training atlas” (Übungsatlas). He also mentions Karl Blossfeldt’s Urformen der Kunst (1928) and Eugène Atget's Lichtbilder (1930) in the same vein. Benjamin obviously suggests that in these “training atlases” a new readability of photography can be discerned, and that these photography books can be used to train “visual literacy.” The mode and the goal, or programme, of this training, however, is anything but obvious. In order to interpret Benjamin on this point, recourse to his “Work of Art” essay (especially to the second version of it) is needed. Here, Benjamin develops a dialectics of nature and technics. In his analysis, the photographic media make up a decisive scene of demarcation between “first” and “second” technics. What is at stake in this process of negotiating, is the reconfiguration of the “medium of perception” on the one hand and the “politicisation of art” on the other hand. Hereby, as I will argue, the task of media theoretician turns out to be comparable to the “task of the translator.”
Trauma has become central to debates about history and memory in an era in which digital information has apparently freed itself of any past located in place or material objects. Has trauma become the model for deep memory in a culture of pure simulation? While Benjamin developed his widely influential cultural analysis in the 1920s and 30s, new media today support a virtual culture that claims to have moved beyond these earlier technological revolutions. This paper, however, argues that Benjamin’s reading of Freud with Bergson enables us to think trauma with the virtual in ways that remain provocative today. By arguing that Bergson’s philosophy of time unintentionally described what cinema would become, Deleuze potentially collapses all human experiences into technologically-mediated forms. In Benjamin the virtual describes a transformative potential that includes, but is never completely assimilated into, mediated experience. Mediated images, carrying the traces of traumatic events in the past, become the site of a critical intervention in history.
In “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Benjamin deploys the analogy of the magician and surgeon to illustrate the different ways in which the painter (magician) and cameraman (surgeon) technologically mediate, and hence alter, our perception of reality. For Benjamin, the use of camera equipment by the cameraman refigures reality by technologically penetrating and re-presenting it as “multiple fragments” (227). This penetration is, according to Benjamin, unlike that of the painter, whose “distance from reality” (227) enables a more total representation of reality than the fragmented one presented in film. Benjamin’s use of the figure of the surgeon to illustrate how the technological mediation of reality constitutes a new condition of modernity is a radical, but surprisingly under-examined, evaluation of the mediated status of the body within contemporary medical science. By choosing the surgical penetration of the body as representative of an increasingly fragmented and technologically mediated reality, Benjamin inadvertently highlights the role of medical technologies and surgical practices in conceptions of the body. The result of this mediation is the fragmentation of the body through the medicalised focus upon specific body parts and organs, at the expense of the whole. At the same time, the increasing technological penetration of the body in medicine, which in Benjamin’s terms leads to a distortion of and disembodiment from reality (and hence the body), anticipates the current use of virtual and remote technologies in cybersurgical practices, where both imaging and surgical technologies penetrate the body.
This paper examines Benjamin’s understanding of technological mediation and fragmented reality in specific relation to the surgical mediation of the body and to conceptions of embodiment. Through a focus upon the historical development of surgery in the late eighteenth century and its current practices, the paper demonstrates Benjamin’s relevancy in understanding the mediation of the body, and processes of (dis)embodiment, through the lens of surgical technologies. At the same time, it critiques Benjamin’s assertion that the painter and surgeon offer different versions of reality by analysing the intimate relationship between art and surgery, as a set of perceptions and practices, in the (historical) mediation of the body, examining their similarities and differences.* The paper shows the importance of Benjamin’s work in understanding the surgical mediation and medical treatment of the body in (late)modernity and in the (dis)embodied practices of (cyber)surgery. In doing so, it seeks to re-embody the body by calling attention to the artistic and technological processes which underpin the practice of surgery, critiquing the authority of medical science in conceiving and managing the body as a fragmented, disembodied form.
* The current exhibition, How Do You Look? Visual Cognition in painting and surgery, at the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons of London, is an example of how artists and surgeons share similar ways of seeing, and explores the intersections between imaging and surgical technologies.
Since the mid-1990s, the Melbourne-based artist, Ricky Swallow, has created meticulously detailed, 1:1 scale models of outdated mass cultural forms, all of which have been constructed from the rudimentary materials that we might find in a kindergarten – cardboard, craft glue, plastic tubes and paint. Many of the objects that Swallow appropriates for his works evoke the ubiquity of late capitalism and the infiltration of the commodity image throughout all forms of cultural life; most recently he has taken particular care with outdated technologies and toys, such as the once cutting-edge Apple Mac logo, an upturned pair of Campers-brand sneakers, a lonely ibook, telescope, game boy, and a number of stonehenge-like ghetto-blasters, to name just a few examples. All of these forms are suggestive of a thoroughgoing warping of time: the laborious processes through which Swallow constructs his commodities in 1:1 scale precision off-sets the speed with which late capitalism renders its images obsolete, just as the small-time precision detailed within the hobby models come to recall the big-time equations and myths unearthed by an archaeologist’s fossil.
This paper analyses the multiple ways in which Swallow’s uncanny replications of obsolete technologies stage a tactical engagement with questions of time, the commodity and the virtual in postmodern culture. It suggests that Swallow’s forms undermine the capitulation of time to commodity culture and the subsumption of art to design that, in Hal Foster’s words, mark the “cynical duplicity” generally attached to ‘postmodern’ simulations and repetitions. The paper mobilises Walter Benjamin’s metaphor of the commodity fossil, and its associated critique of time and commodity relations as the central critical concept; I argue that Swallow’s handcrafting of outdated commodities, as if they are objects unearthed from an archaeological dig, extend Benjamin’s fossil metaphor into a critique of postmodern/virtual image culture. The paper contends that Swallow’s forms enact a critical distance from the postmodern, and the stagnant temporality of retroversion, in the way that they literalise Benjamin’s metaphor whilst rendering commodity logos into concrete forms. Swallow’s practise of literalisation is further read in light of Michael Taussig’s theory of the tactics of mimesis, which is understood as enabling a new reading of Benjamin’s analysis of time, representation and the commodity in the fossil form. This, in turn, opens up a reading of Swallow’s ‘handmade readymades’ as both ironic and sincere engagements with Benjamin’s dilemma of reification; Swallow’s forms are read as subversions of the stagnation of time in the commodity in the way that they literally draw us to our senses.
This paper explores the concept of aura as productive loss. My aim is to read Benjamin’s later essays on photography and art in the age of mechanical reproduction in the light of a reading of some of his earlier essays, especially “On the Program of the Coming Philosophy,” and “Painting, or Signs and Marks.” I argue that Benjamin’s theory of aura (outlined in the later essays) stems from his attempt in the earlier essays to uncover a field of lived experience defined by the mark as the material trace of a technological operation that no longer functions, but which nevertheless provides an oblique access to originariness, or the capacity of technology to make present that which has already passed. In the later essays on photography and art, Benjamin renames this experience “aura.” When read in this way, aura no longer designates an ontological division between an original experience of plenitude in a pre-reproductive culture, and an impoverished experience of the copy in reproductive culture. Rather, aura becomes that which is necessary for and produced in reproductive culture: its mark of originariness as (false) primary access to presence. Benjamin thus provides us with a way of reading culture in terms of the production of origins, as false or pseudo-presence. In particular I identify phantasmagoria as a contemporary site of virtual experience saturated by aura. I argue that a critique of the auratic quality of phantasmagoria is now necessary in order to uncover the stake that contemporary digital technologies have in recovering lost origin.
This paper revisits Benjamin's “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” essay and traces the fate of the idea that contemporary media technologies have abolished the auratic component of “distance.”. Such technologies have long been understood as participating – for good or ill – in globalisation. But there is a tension in the Mechanical Reproduction essay since while it is often taken as celebrating the revolutionary possibilities of post-auratic mediation, it also anticipates the dialectical return – indeed, the “resurrection” – of the auratic within these same technologies. I will emphasise an obvious but overlooked fact of modern technology: it often fails. And I will argue that it is in technology’s failure that traces of aura, of cultic and religious elements reappear. It is a fact of the economy of digital technology that sound and visuals must be “compressed;” because of the constraints of bandwidth, data must be stripped to a bare minimum if it is to be stored or disseminated. Digital representations and mediations, therefore, are often of an extremely poor quality; they are distorted and obscure. What is more, when the most horrific of events are technologically mediated (i.e., CCTV footage of the last sighting of a missing child; the increasingly desperate efforts of air traffic control to reach a hijacked plane; digital photographs, taken on mobile phones, of the London underground bombings; video statements by masked suicide bombers) these terrifying testimonies are delivered by low fidelity, even failing technologies, and their representations are marked by the mute, asignifying patina of the functioning of the medium. So it is that communication technologies – the mobile and satellite phone, the video link – often do not work as intended (the channel breaks up, the message is distorted) and, as a result, one experiences the sudden reintroduction of distance, the veiling of the phenomenon and the horror of disconnection.
Strategically, this collapse of communication plays into the ideology of global news reportage as it dramatises the struggle to connect with dangerous parts of the world. And, ironically, the “authenticity” of modern technologically mediated testimony (another important Benjaminian theme) is proportional to its interference, to the poverty of its representation. Noise escapes the logic of mechanical reproduction and mediation since it is not reproducible as such, but arises in and through the act of reproduction and mediation. Noise reintroduces distance, uniqueness and eventality to the reproduced. Noise, distortion, interference and failure mark the return of a technology to its state of nature. And as Benjamin points out in “Language as Such and the Language of Man,” nature is mute, it has no language, and in its muteness, it laments. In the midst of communication, in suppressed and repressed noise, in its ghostly insubstantiality, is an asignifying lament.
Benjamin's essay on “The Work of Art in the age of Mechanical Reproduction” is a meditative exercise on the relationship of art and technology and its profound impact on the history of human perception In this paper I argue, as opposed to the widely held belief, that Benjamin's interest in the art of reproduction is not purely animated by the development of technology for its own sake, but is prompted by the given political urgency of the time in 1936 to prevent its regression or mediation into a politics of ritual. What can Benjamin teach us about the constellation of language, politics, destruction, and tradition? If fascism, by rendering the political sphere into the aesthetical realm, is using aesthetics for its own political end, then the political necessity of the time makes it imperative for the arts to be organized at a political level. The function of art is crucial both to the preservation and the destruction of society. One must also ask what the instrumental power of art and technology as expressed in the fascist appropriation of culture as a means of political propaganda can achieve? Between the aestheticisation of politics and politicisation of aesthetics, the concept that mediates is that of usefulness. Benjamin always endeavours to show his affinity for the discarded and useless productions of art, and it is not surprising that he finds them “useful,” especially at the time of extreme danger, when life itself cannot be salvaged unless a useful opposition is mounted against the increasing threat to life by fascist forces. The technological redemption does not lie in its usage, in its functional aspect, but in its discarded and unrecognised potentials, in its uselessness.
Walter Benjamin suggests that the past “only comes into legibility” in the present. Several of Benjamin’s more familiar terms, such as the flaneur, dialectical optics, the collector and the gambler, may likewise be applied to the practice of historical film criticism. In this paper Benjamin’s historiography is developed as a method of film criticism. The renewed access to film history made possible by new digital technologies has opened up new modes of film criticism that draw on the archive of film history.
This paper will draw on Benjamin’s Arcades Project in conjunction with the film studies concepts of “vernacular modernism” (Miriam Hansen) and film melodrama, in addition to theoretical frameworks provided by Giorgio Agamben, Jürgen Habermas. Benjamin’s diverse and unsystematic writings, in my view, provide important tools for writing film criticism that is “against the grain.” The sense of urgency and impending political crisis –and the utopian potential of image culture – that are embedded in his view of modernity are no less relevant to contemporary society, and his criticism is a reminder of the critical values that are embedded in popular culture and in image culture on a larger scale. Film examples in the paper include the narrative cinema of Naruse Mikio, the documentary film Heir to an Execution, and the experimental film Kristall.
In the “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproducibility,” Walter Benjamin predicted the decline in aura of the art object. This paper argues that in fact, cinema, as film, remained precious and original, hard to reproduce and distribute, retaining cult-value. Only now, with the introduction of digital and computer technologies, have Benjamin’s expectations of cinema come to fruition. Benjamin discusses two characteristics of art objects that change under conditions of reproducibility. The first is the reduction of the primacy of the original. According to Benjamin, previous to mechanical reproduction, the original was the prerequisite to the concept of authenticity. Reproducibility makes the copy independent of the original, thus reducing the primacy of the original. This paper will argue how, increasingly, the ease of digital storage, reproduction, manipulation, and distribution threatens the concept of an “original” and therefore the aura of cinematic objects as representational artworks. The second characteristic is the mobility of the copy. This mobility of the copy allows it to be experienced in different and unanticipated ways, modifying the way cinematic artworks “take place.” Digitization takes this mobility to new levels; thus in the digital age our exposure to moving images becomes increasingly ubiquitous. This paper will examine in greater detail how this ubiquity changes the experience of cinema. The paper examines the characteristics Benjamin prematurely attributed to the reproducible filmic art object and how the “tremendous shattering of tradition,” which he described is beginning as movies morph from ritual art objects to tele-cultural forms with new expectations and experiences.
In the “Mirror file” of The Arcades Project, Walter Benjamin describes a popular fascination with looking glasses, lenses and image stimulation. He talks about an ocular passion marking the late nineteenth century when mirrors were incorporated into strangely named machineries of image production: kaleidoscopes, phantasma-parastasia, phanoramas, stereograms, cycloramas, kigoramas, myrioramas etc. This paper explores and illustrates how Benjamin's analysis of the nineteenth century culture of consumption might contribute to an understanding of the new communal formations and self-reflexive subjectivities of the Internet in the twenty first century. Theoretically, this is done with a specific focus on the concept of the flâneur as discussed in The Arcades Project, and on some lines of reasoning that are central to his essay on “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” The empirical emphasis is on two examples of so called Web 2.0 technologies: The photo sharing service of flickr and the videoblogging functionality of YouTube. The paper firstly addresses how the notion of the flâneur needs to be updated and modified to work in an analysis of Web 2.0 technologies. Secondly, it brings the contemporary examples of online photo sharing and videoblogging into the discussion. Thirdly, it revisits some key passages of Benjamin’s writing and tries to apply them to these examples before returning to the overarching question concerning the continued usefulness of Benjamin’s theory.
This paper explores the immersive character of digital media art in relation to aesthetic theories of Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno. It asks what contribution Benjamin and Adorno have to offer media art criticism. In particular, it seeks to understand how their different approaches enable us to critique the “virtual” experience of an interactive digital installation. Benjamin is famous for his complex, non-deterministic relation to technological media. In “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1936), he offers what has become the twentieth-century’s most influential interpretation of both the threats and opportunities posed by the mechanical media of film and photography. Theorists of digital media have seized Benjamin’s ideas, such as the notion that the work of art comes to look more and more like the work of art meant for reproduction. In contrast to Benjamin’s ambiguous embrace of the spectator’s new critical agency brought about by mechanical media, Adorno held a more antagonistic relationship to technology, and a more redemptive role for art. Adorno understood art as a reservoir of critique – ascribing to art a capacity to challenge the instrumental rationality and repressive authority of capitalism.
In this paper I am interested in locating Benjamin’s and Adorno’s ideas in relation to the experience of immersion characteristic of digital media installations. While immersion has a long history in Western aesthetics (as traced by Oliver Grau), in the face of new media artworks that require the active involvement of the viewer – in which the work is constantly updating and transforming itself – we are left with the “interface” in place of the art object. For example, photo-based art in the digital era increasingly becomes a spatialised interface for embodied viewer interaction. Its “flexible data set” (Mark Hansen) may be contrasted to the traditional photographic image’s static inscription of a moment in time. The temporal experience of new media art also involves a process of spatialisation that challenges the tradition of aesthetic distance. As Oliver Grau points out in his book Virtual Art, “in certain seemingly living virtual environments a fragile, central element of art comes under threat: the recipient's act of distancing, which is essential for producing the “aesthetic image space” and enabling critical reflection.
In an unusual turn of phrase in Aesthetic Theory, Adorno writes: “Aesthetic experience becomes living experience only by way of its object, in that instant in which artworks themselves become animate under its gaze. . . . Through contemplative immersion the immanent processual quality of the work is set free. . . . This immanent dynamic is, in a sense, a higher-order element of what artworks are” (175–6, emphasis added). Adorno’s notion of “contemplative immersion” appears paradoxical, suggesting both a distance and a nearness. In this paper I explore Adorno’s paradoxical phrase in light of Benjamin’s understanding of aura, distraction and the spectator’s critical agency. At a time when art criticism is widely held to be in crisis – even without reference to the changes of production, transmission and reception that media art bring – this paper examines the unrealised potential of Benjamin and Adorno to media art criticism.
Walter Benjamin’s account of story telling as an exchange of experience uses images of embodied interaction: between a “resident tiller of the soil” and a “trading seaman,” or between “resident master craftsman and . . . travelling journeymen working together in the same rooms” (85). These metaphors may make his approach seem traditional but, historically or in terms of agency, Benjamin’s conception of mediation (in “The Task of the Translator” and “The Storyteller”) is anything but static. According to him, a good translation risks the translator’s own language, to be “powerfully affected by the foreign tongue” (81), and there is a “central reciprocal relationship” of mutual supplementation and renewal between languages” (74-5). 
Virtual technologies in global contexts seem to intensify mediation’s Babelic side. They are also part of blended everyday realities that mould our sensorium, through virtual and embodied experiences, changing the ways in which the latter presents the world to our reflection. Thus, apart from its relationship to the real, actual and potential, the virtual as modality has an aesthetic dimension. This is, as perception, about “visibilities of . . . places and abilities of the body in those places, about the partition of private and public spaces, about the very configuration of the visible and the relation of the visible to what can be said about it.”  It opens up different aspects of embodied experience and creative imagination which, in rare cases, can become political.
Assuming that the transformations caused by electronic communication and media flows have already developed past their early stages, it is possible to look for historical connections linking them to earlier technological, spatial and temporal developments.  Before Benjamin’s time, the panopticon and panorama as architectural forms set up regimes of visibility that created new distinctions between being seen and seeing. The position of the Samoan fale at the Tropical Islands Resort in Germany may reveal different regimes of reality (virtual, real, blended) and the changing roles of aesthetics and imagination. It may focus questions about connections between the local and global; translatability in digital mediation; and spatio-temporal ruptures and interconnections.
This paper will examine changing modes of reality at Tropical Islands Resort, taking into account the history of its planning and implementation. Master craftsmen from Samoa, Singapore, Bali, the Amazon basin, Kenya, and Thailand assembled in the same space, inside a gigantic hangar in the East German countryside, to erect tangible, real buildings made from traditional materials. It seems this exotic architecture alongside exotic performances is supposed to house a virtual – between digital flows and place-bound experience – while the website mediates the resort’s physical environment in a global domain. In this complementary reorganization of the visible – what is the task of translators? Will they risk their own language, and do they strengthen or weaken the reciprocal relationships between languages or images? If aesthetic experience enables a different way of seeing, then what becomes visible here, and what can we say about it?
 Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations. Illuminations. Ed. H. Arendt. New York: Schocken, 1969.
 Rancière, Jacques. “Comment and Responses.” Theory & Event, 6.4 (2003): 1-28.
 See Fold, Søren. (1999). “An Aesthetic Criticism of the Media: The Configurations of Art, Media and Politics in Walter Benjamin's Materialistic Aesthetics.” Parallax 5.3(1999): 22-35.
Paradise Regained? takes up Benjamin's thought on violence and the role of globally transmitted artifacts in an age of mediation in conjunction with anthropologist Pierre Clastres’s analyses of South American Indian society’s political and power relations. It then speculates on the prospects for the arrival of an open, democratic, mediated community, revisiting and redefining ideas about the role and freedom of individuals and communities in conjunction with the State’s use of violence and coercion in making global society governable.