Issue No. 15 November 2007 —
Walter Benjamin and the Virtual: Politics, Art, and Mediation in the Age of Global Culture
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. An exegetical reading of the “Artwork” essay, along with “A Small History of Photography,” reveals 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 into a politics of ritual.
The “amazing growth” of technology, when Benjamin wrote the essay, introduced unprecedented changes in the physical environment, which was then poised to inflict profound transformations in the perceptual and the cognitive faculties of human beings. Standing on the threshold of technological revolution, we find ourselves confronting history on the verge of changing so dramatically that everything around it, including the presence of the collective human sensorium, must respond to it in a state of shock. The scientific and technological innovations, especially in the field of mechanical reproduction, have brought about a crisis in the traditional perception of art, which until now was attributed to the presence of the aura in its temporality of the here and now. The art of mechanical reproduction aims at the destruction of the aura, because the aura no longer corresponds to the paradigmatic shifts in the spatio-temporal register of human perception, which, as a result, has become “estranged” from reality.
In the initial phase of the “Artwork” essay Benjamin prepares the ground for the oncoming of film. For film is not only a medium of mechanical reproduction, but it is also a technique of mechanical reproduction. At the outset Benjamin makes a clear cut distinction between the art of manual and mechanical reproduction. He writes:
The presence of the original is the prerequisite to the concept of authenticity.... The whole sphere of authenticity is outside technical – and, of course, not only technical – reproducibility. Confronted with its manual reproduction, which was usually branded as a forgery, the original preserved all its authority; not so vis à vis technical reproducibility. The reason is twofold. First, process reproduction is more independent of the original than manual reproduction. For example, in photography, process reproduction can bring out those aspects of the original that are unattainable to the naked eye yet accessible to the lens, which is adjustable and chooses its angle at will. And photographic reproduction, with the aid of certain processes, such as enlargement or slow motion, can capture images which escape natural vision. Secondly, technical reproduction can put the copy of the original into situations, which would be out of reach for the original itself. Above all, it enables the original to meet the beholder halfway, be it in the form of a photograph or a phonograph record. The cathedral leaves its locale to be received in the studio of a lover of art; the choral production, performed in an auditorium or in the open air sounds in the drawing room. (Work of Art 220-1)
Photographic reproduction is not limited to a perspective, the perspective of authenticity, or, for that matter, to a perspective of originality either, since, as Benjamin tells us, “it chooses its angle at will.” The selection of camera angles and lenses, and its technical manipulations through enlargement and slow motion, does not correspond to the natural vision of the naked eye. The process of technical reproducibility introduces a crisis in perception – after standardization of natural habits by the media – that corresponds to the “changes with humanity’s entire mode of existence” with a realization that nothing is natural about our lives, our memories, our past (Terdiman 19).
When a film camera captures a movement in slow or fast motion, it provides us with a vision which does not correspond to a standard perceptual nature but to an altered and historically more dynamic perception of nature that has already been technically interfered with. Instead of pointing inwards to human nature the technological perception directs itself to the other nature. As Benjamin puts it, “for it is another nature that speaks to the camera than to the eye: other in the sense that a space informed by human consciousness gives way to a space informed by the unconscious” (“A Small History” 243). And thus he formulates his enigmatic theory of photography as “optical unconscious.”
In a direct reference to Freudian psychoanalysis, Benjamin observes a methodological similarity between the technical process of photographic enlargement and the Freudian dream theory. He reads it as a mimetic correspondence between the psychoanalytic practice of discovering meanings in the smallest and most secret places which remain hidden from the conscious mind, and the optical manipulations of spaces that reveal images that are beyond the grasp of normal human perception or sight. Much like the Freudian theory, the medium of film has managed to bring about, both optically and (with the advent of sound) acoustically, a “deepening of apperception” (Work of Art 235). Since every image in the film can easily be isolated from the other, the analysis of “filmed behavior” becomes much easier than, for instance, a stage performance, which would be almost impossible to detach from the entire production. As isolatable unit the filmic image lends itself more readily to analysis than other artistic behavior, however, that does not mean that its artistic function is completely overwhelmed or jeopardized by its scientific function. If “neatly brought out,” the scientific study of a man’s stride as he “steps out” in slow motion is as supernaturally beautiful, as it extends the durée to an infinite length, as any artistic event. “Slow motion not only presents familiar qualities of movement but reveals in them entirely unknown ones” (Work of Art 236). Through its mechanisms of pans and cranes and tilts and tracks, its acceleration and retardation of motions, enlargements and reductions, the camera penetrates into unconscious space, which it substitutes for the conscious space. Benjamin concludes his discussion on the film and Freudian theory by insisting that “the camera introduces us to unconscious optics as does psychoanalysis to unconscious impulses” (Work of Art 237).
It becomes increasingly apparent that there can be no doubt how seriously Benjamin considers the question of the origin and the task of photography in its relation to both technology and physiology. In an emphatic way he differentiates the function of a cameraman from that of a painter: “The painter maintains in his work a natural distance from reality, the cameraman penetrates deeply into its web” (Work of Art 233). The task of the cameraman is likened to a surgeon’s performance on the operating table, that is, to penetrate the surface of reality like a surgeon’s knife (Work of Art 233). The fruitful analogy, the image of the surgeon and the cameraman succeeds in uniting the artistic and the scientific functions of art in the mechanical reproduction, but the image is not without a sense of loss, a loss of incomparable beauty, of aura, which emanated or escaped, for the last time from the melancholic countenance, from the sad faces of early photographs. The stillness of the face withdraws from the image and, in turn, it is replaced by the body, a fragmented body that only appears through fragmented motion. The technical necessity of delayed exposure of early photography demanded that the subject remained still, a procedure which caused, in Benjamin’s words, “the subject to focus his life in the moment rather than hurrying past it; during the considerable period of exposure, the subject as it were grew into the picture” (“A Small History” 245). On the other hand, further developments in the technology of photographic reproduction, such as snap-shots, reveal a purpose that corresponds to the need of the changed environment, where a split second in the exposure determines, especially in sports, the winner from the loser. Such decisions become part of a new standard of perception of a world where the function of photography serves to indicate the dislocation of temporality.
Film and photography mark the crisis in the perception of temporality; by isolating the moment from the organic flow of time the crisis is also registered by the human sensorium, which reacts to these new and challenging sensations, in a continual state of shock. Time is no longer measured as an integrated unit of experience of lived time, of Erlebnis. Its transition to Erfahren suggests a journey beyond time, in moments that are spatial in dimension, because here time comes to a standstill. The function of photography is to capture what is most fleeting and the most accidental. The flux of movement that has been captured by a snap-shot reveals, in a split second of the exposure, a completely changed environment, which, incidentally, will also demand a completely different standard of perception.  This would translate in Benjamin’s thought as “liberation” of sight from its bondage to the inward contemplative gaze that belongs to the traditional spectator of a painting. Instead of the death-like stillness which, incidentally, was the most appropriate and congruent subject for photography at the time, when a whole generation was about to disappear along with the “cultic practice” of portrait photography, the historically changing constellations of new scientific and artistic criteria brought in those expectations of a radically new mode of perception in conjunction with a new mode of depiction. It is hard to say, though, whether the artistic achievement of the early photographs, which preserved the melancholic beauty of the fleeting aura, is more fascinating than the scientific precision with which the camera records such corporeal behavior as the twitching of a muscle. Therefore, in photography, according to Benjamin, “it is difficult to say which is more fascinating, its artistic value or its value for science” (Work of Art 236). At last, in the revolutionary medium of film he will find these two antithetical modes hitherto separated as being reconciled and united with each other.
Benjamin traces the history of photography in the 1840s to a moment in the development of photography which becomes decisive for the separation between the painter, mostly the miniaturists, who were involved in commercial portraits, and the technician. As a victim of a new trade most of these painters later took up commercial portrait photography for a living. And one of the reasons why those early photographs retain their aura is because these artists were also consummate craftsmen, and their achievements are quite evident in those photographs. There was an aura about these pictures, “an atmospheric medium that lent fullness and security to their gaze even as it penetrated that medium” (Benjamin, “A Small History” 247).
But the aura of the photograph is not purely a matter of artistic presentation, of a creative use of light and shadow in hurriedly converted studio from painting to photography. For Benjamin aura designates a particular historical moment in the art of mechanical reproduction, because it signifies a moment when the photographic subject is directly congruent with the medium of reproduction. It is a period of congruence between the subject and the object which, Benjamin argues, will become immediately “incongruent in the period of decline.” Thus, the “penumbral tone” of late nineteenth century photographs not only reflects a fashionable trend at the time but also marks the precipitous decline of the bourgeoisie whom it captured at the moment of its twilight. The rigidity of the posture in a highly simulated pose only betrayed, in Benjamin’s opinion, “the impotence of that generation in the face of technical progress” (“A Small History” 248).
In contrast to this rigor mortis of late nineteenth century photography that simulated its own death, by creating a twilight like atmosphere for its background, the photographs of David Octavius Hill, on the other hand, taken in the Edinburgh Greyfriars cemetery, preserves the aura of his subjects who were, according to Benjamin, very much “at home there” (“A Small History” 245). The natural setting of early photographs revealed a similarity, indeed a congruity, between the instrument and its subject. The outdoors was essential for these early low-light sensitive plates and, therefore, it is hardly a coincidence that Hill’s subjects are so much at home in the cemetery. The subject of the camera in the early photographs as in Hill seem gradually to grow into the picture because of the considerable exposure time, lose their lives outside the picture, and that certainly is the most “deadly” and “inhuman” quality of those early photographs. But the distance between life and death seems to be fixed in the nature of photography. All photography indicates a moment which exists only outside the continuum of time, as a flicker of an instant it can only be reflected as a spatial phenomenon.
Benjamin’s essay on photography ends on a somber but beautiful note by being more concerned with the future of its authenticity and legibility, with a certain illiteracy of not knowing how to interpret the language of photography. But like the Atget photographs that reminded Benjamin of scenes of crime, photography deserts its own place and settles into the inscriptional, the captional.  In short, Benjamin is eager to demonstrate the redemptive power of photography as something that “should be free to stake a claim for ephemeral things, those that have a right ‘to a place in the archives of memory,’” and here his theory bears a marked resemblance to Kracauer’s overall theory of photography and film, who will pen the following in the “Preface” to his book, Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality:
My book … rests upon the assumption that film is essentially an extension of photography and therefore shares with this medium a marked affinity for the visible world around us. Films come into their own when they record and reveal physical reality…. And since any medium is partial to the things it is uniquely equipped to render, the cinema is conceivably animated by a desire to picture transient material life, life at its most ephemeral. (ix, emphasis mine)
The idea of redemption therefore lies in the hope to hold on “to the small skip or crack in the continuous catastrophe” (Benjamin, cited in Habermas 38). The auratic, the mythical, and the distant vision of the world are already so remote from us that we stare at them as they stare back at us vacantly. For all purposes the magic is lost. Looking into these eyes only proves the point that there is hardly anything to look for in them. With modernity, each one of us, in the cities, is weary of eye contact. 
The development of photography and also of the cinema must be understood as a break in the continuum of history as progress. Benjamin notes in a draft of his Baudelaire essay that “the fact that ‘everything just goes on’ is the catastrophe” (cited in Habermas 38). Progress for Benjamin, as Habermas suggests, means the eternal return of catastrophe. But what, then, has catastrophe to do with images? The images of catastrophe in the continuum of history are like, and here Benjamin provides us with an analogy – his favorite device for making dialectical arguments – the images in a kaleidoscope in the hand of a child which takes the form of deus ex machina. As Benjamin writes:
The course of history as represented in the concept of catastrophe has no more claim on the attention of the thinking mind than the kaleidoscope in the hand of a child which, with each turn, collapses everything ordered into new order. The justness of this image is well-founded. The concept of the rulers has always been the mirror by means of whose image an ‘order’ was established. This kaleidoscope must be smashed. (“Central Park” 34)
The kaleidoscopic image establishes, with each twist and turn of the hand, a new order, a new regime of the image, which for Benjamin, forms an “unbearable” course of history as progress, as eternal return of catastrophe.
The smashing of the kaleidoscopic image signals the destruction of the tradition in which the authenticity of the image is valued for its uniqueness which is manifested in its aura. The destruction of aura is the task of mechanical reproduction. Rather than producing a unique pattern as in a kaleidoscopic image, where no two patterns are ever alike, “the technique of reproduction,” Benjamin says, “detaches the reproduced object from the domain of tradition,” and thus interferes with the concept of authenticity. “The authenticity of a thing,” according to Benjamin, “is the essence of all that is transmissible from its beginning, ranging from its substantive duration to its testimony to the history which it has experienced. Since the historical testimony rests on the authenticity, the former, too, is jeopardized by reproduction when substantive duration ceases to matter. And what is really jeopardized when the historical testimony is affected is the authority of the object” (Work of Art 221).
The displacement of the art work from its traditional historical context through technical means leads to the demise of aura. The technique of mechanical reproduction also succeeds in substituting a plurality of copies in the place of a single, unique presence that the aura of the work of art implies. Benjamin points out that the technique of reproduction accounts simultaneously for two distinct processes. This leads, in Benjamin’s own words “to a tremendous shattering of the tradition” (Work of Art 221). First, it eliminates the aura which is mediated by temporal distance as a unique existence. Secondly, by detaching the reproduced object from its traditional background and by making it meet the beholder or listener “halfway,” by interfering with its spatial element, mechanical reproduction also “reactivates the object reproduced” (Work of Art 221). “Both processes,” Benjamin informs us, “are intimately connected with the contemporary mass movements. Their most powerful agent is the film. Its social significance, particularly in its positive form, is inconceivable without its destructive, cathartic aspect, that is, the liquidation of the traditional value of the cultural heritage” (Work of Art 221).
To Benjamin, technology offers itself as a promise of a new language. The promise of language is always already ahead of itself, delayed, deferred. For promises are always made in advance and if language is a promise then it also signifies a promise of a promise. Adorno criticized Benjamin for displaying a “wide-eyed” curiosity for the wonders of technology, yet Benjamin’s affirmation of technology, far from displaying naive curiosity, is based on its redemptive potential and cannot be solely judged as a mark of fetishization. Technology’s redemptive function is evoked in order to release, as Habermas puts it, “its semantic potential,” by disclosing to us the secondary nature, the virtual nature, of “the thing,” which is not historically produced.
Nonetheless, it would be a mistake to read Benjamin’s essay as a wholehearted endorsement of technology that ignores its menacing quality. He is particularly sensitive to the implications of technology as an instrument of social and psychological repression. A passage from Charles Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet reads:
Technical measures had to come to the aid of the administrative control process. In the early days of the process of identification, whose present standard derives from the Bertillon method, the identity of a person was established through his signature. The invention of photography was a turning point in the history of this process. It is no less significant for criminology than the invention of the printing press is for literature. Photography made it possible for the first time to preserve a permanent and unmistakable trace of a human being. The detective story came into being when this most decisive of all conquests of a person’s incognito had been accomplished. Since then the end of efforts to capture a man in his speech and actions has not been in sight. (46)
Benjamin acknowledges the element of repression in the technological process. Technik as technology is a representation of a piece of machinery, but as technique it also refers to the methods and organizations that exploit that machinery.  In Charles Baudelaire, he specifically addresses the question of the administrative control to which photography has been subjected by the forces of social power.
Similarly, in the “Artwork” essay, Benjamin clearly suggests technology’s own “depravity” and the haunting spell of disaster it has inflicted on voiceless nature. “Deeply imbued with its own depravity, technology gave shape to apocalyptic face of nature and reduced nature to silence – even though this technology had the power to give nature its voice” (Benjamin, “Theories of German Fascism” 126). These words written in 1930 are closer to the Frankfurt School critique of technology than his draft on technology in the “Artwork” essay, where cinema is hailed as the breakthrough of this wonderful technological medium and its interpenetration to the human sensorium. A technology whose purpose was to give nature its voice efficiently silences it by wreaking unheard of violence on it, has appeared once again, in the “Artwork” essay, intact, in its capacity to redeem nature from its second nature, from its own illusion, as something that is still present, at least on the level of discourse, as an extension, a prosthetic, that frees our sight from the bondage of appearance.
If nature cannot speak out of its traumatic silence, then sight will reveal a process of seeing in which the actual Technik of nature unfolds. But technology is not only “imbued with its depravity,” it has redemptive potential as well. The “Artwork” essay is an appeal to that face of technology which is supposed to lend sight to apperception. If it cannot give voice to what it has actually silenced, then at least we expect to see, through it, that which the voice could have only given us in a traditional manner, through Erzählen, by storytelling. Technology has lost the power of storytelling, because it has shattered the community of listener by reproducing the storyteller and not the listener, but in cinema, it forms a community of people united by a common sight to a medium of distraction. If nature’s voice cannot be heard or reproduced by technology, then, at least, its secret and fascinating movements can be observed, through every manipulative means, by restoring to us a sight that only technology can provide. Seeing itself is no longer a domain of human perception; the technological sight is far more interesting and advanced. By 1936 Benjamin would drop the part of “human schema” from his plans on technology.
Benjamin’s effort to distinguish the organization of the sense perception of the human faculty from its natural and biological determination to a materialistically and historically determined value has immense critical significance. Especially the arguments he made in the third theses of the “Artwork” essay about the changes in perception to be determined as a socio-historical phenomenon. He writes, “during long periods of history, the mode of human sense perception changes with humanity’s entire mode of existence. The manner in which human sense perception is organized, the medium in which it is accomplished, is determined not only by nature but by historical circumstances as well” (Work of Art 222).
In the “Epilogue,” Benjamin once again reverts to what in his opinion is the most devastating effect of technology which one experiences in the form of war. The fascists are waging a war against those who want to change the property-relation by means of technological revolution. For Fascism employs the means of war by giving the masses an expression, which does not change property relations; instead it introduces aesthetics into politics. The glorification of war has an aesthetic component that leads to “the production of ritual value” in violation of the technological apparatus, which has been precisely organized as the displacement of art from its dependence on both ritual and cult value (Work of Art 241). Technology as a destructive agent, of which the Film is the most powerful medium, has a positive function, i.e., “the liquidation of the traditional value of the cultural heritage” (Work of Art 221).
Instead of locating the use value of the artwork in the process of labor, Benjamin, in rather an uncharacteristically Marxist move, places it in the service of the ritual aspect. The exhibition value, which sustains both types of the auratic and the non-auratic artworks, of the art object has its original function already anticipated in its ritual value. Both in ritual as well as in exhibition value the accentuation of value is on the receptive side of it and not on its productive side. Benjamin’s criticism shows a high degree of latent affinity with the production and reception of the “product” rather than with the nature of “work” itself. Precisely an issue that prompted Adorno’s “devastating” criticism of Benjamin’s analyses of the mechanical reproduction of art with claims that Benjamin has abandoned the dialectical mediation of the immanent technique of the art work in favor of some Brechtian motifs that find in advanced technology a promise for immediate change in the status quo. 
Although it cannot be disputed that Benjamin’s conception of the revolutionary nature of technology of mass reproducibility has its origin in the Brechtian critique of the art, yet, there is a crucial difference between Benjamin and Brecht in terms of the latter’s theory of distanciation (Entfremdung). Despite the fact that in the “Artwork” essay Benjamin wholeheartedly endorses the Brechtian principle of distanciation as a model for the actors on the screen, at the same time, he wants to scrutinize the objects of his reflection from a very close perspective. This is also evident in his critique of aura, which he maintains keeps an “unapproachable” distance from its viewer. For the audience is exhorted to maintain a critical distance from the actor on the stage, so that it can maintain its self-consciousness as a viewing subject, while the natural or traditional distance of the traditional representation of theater from its audience is also being deprecated. That is the double irony of distance; that on one hand the distance must be refuted in order to bring the object to a close contact with its revolutionary potential which can only be released at the moment of dialectical configuration between what it is and what it has become in the light of its own condition of possibility, and, on the other hand, the distance between the audience and the spectacle must not forego its basic disunity. The two distances are not complementary, but they arise in the act of interpretation whose function is the overall destruction of all that is represented by traditional values. Where there is no distance between the actor and the audience, the cathartic spell is broken by the element of criticism, a kind of distracted mediation of historical insights into the problematic nature of the discourse of theater that has so far given the audience a false resolution to the contradictory nature of art. But destroying the distance between the artwork and the audience presupposes an act of unveiling of the distance that preexisted but is no longer so.
The “Artwork” essay might also be viewed as an attempt to rescue (Rettung) technology from its own destructive and depraved instincts. The instrumental nature of violence, which technology lends to the mythic understanding of history, still worships the most outmoded concepts of technological usage. No doubt, Benjamin is involved in a desperate struggle to redeem technology from its fascistic subjugation to ritualized norms.
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? The concept of usefulness becomes the mediating factor between the aestheticization of politics and politicization of aesthetics. Benjamin has always endeavored 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 unrecognized potentials, in its uselessness. Despite a positive affirmation of the technological process in mass reproduction, conceived primarily upon the assumptions that the moment of criticism and the act of becoming a critic is historically the same moment, Benjamin remains close to his redemptive mode of historical analysis, for he clearly demonstrates that his empathy for the useless and discarded elements in human history extends to his considerations of technology as well. A careful reading of the “Artwork” essay shows that Benjamin wants to employ only those elements of the artistic processes which, in his mind, would not be of any use to fascism (Work of Art 218). Their usefulness to communism and also their efficacy as a force of political opposition to fascism are determined by their uselessness. The proletariat has no use for bourgeois culture. 
Finally, the history of the cinema itself could have been redeemed if one had really understood the implications of its mimetic relation to the audience. Benjamin’s radical reading of the “Artwork” essay, in the light of its unrealized and failed potential, directs us to think in terms of a mimetic relation between the spectator and the medium, the former “in a state of distraction” and the latter as a principle of shock mediated through technology, which could have averted the civilized masses from becoming mesmerized participants of the gigantic Nazi artifice.  Even in its technicality, mimesis remains a mode of reproducibility. Mimesis breaks; it ruptures the rapture of the captivated spectator. If only it had interrupted the rhythm – the rhythm of participation – of the masses in the aestheticized politics of the Nazis. This is the political urgency (of which I spoke earlier), to which Benjamin’s “Artwork” essay “responds by politicizing art” (Work of Art 242).
I shall conclude on a tragic note that does not belie the significance of the utopian language of critical theory, but merely wishes that history could have been different, if the mimetic principle as distraction, as forgetfulness, which is the nature of cinematic technology, as a mode of shock, were only reproduced in the subjectivity of the masses in order to disengage it from the fatalistic identification with the image of the (Nazi) world outside the theater. If, and how else can one speak of a lost opportunity, people could have only managed to reproduce (to mimic) the process of cinematic technique by adhering to its principle of montage and shock, then, there might have been a slight chance to avoid the fate awaiting them as active participants in Nazi politics.
Amresh Sinha is an Assistant Professor in Media Culture Department at the College of Staten Island (CUNY). He also teaches film and media theory at New York University, The School of Visual Arts, and Brooklyn College (CUNY). He is currently co-editing an anthology on Millennial Cinema: Reflections on Memory in Global Films. His articles have appeared in Scope: An Online Journal of Film Studies; Colloquy: Text, Theory, Critique; Film-Philosophy; Subtitles: On the Foreignness of Film; Lost in the Archives; German Culture and Society: The Essential Glossary; Review of Education/Pedagogy/Cultural Studies; In Practice: Adorno, Critical Theory and Cultural Studies, Connecticut Review, etc.
- See Joel Snyder for an excellent reading on the standard of perception in “Benjamin on Reproducibility and Aura: A Reading of ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technical Reproducibility.’” Benjamin: Philosophy, Aesthetics, History,. Ed. Gary Smith. Chicago:
The University of Chicago Press, 1989.158-174.
- For photography as pictorial script, see Cadava, Eduardo. “Words of Light: Theses on the Photography of History.” Diacritics 22 (Fall/Winter 1992): 94.
- Reference to eyes, to human eyes particularly, have always had an allegorical significance for Benjamin. This is marked in his interpretation of Baudelaire's theory of correspondences. In Baudelaire's poetry, Benjamin discovers a profound expression in the realm of experience in which the auratic mode is transformed from its mythical substance into an allegorical stance. Especially in those aspects of Baudelaire's poetry, which are closest to his theory of correspondences, and which are expressed through the metaphor of eyes: eyes that no longer can see, eyes with “mirror-like blankness” in which remoteness is complete, eyes that no longer return our gaze, in short, the unauratic eyes. With the advent of photographic reproduction, these eyes are now being fitted with technical prosthetics, visual aids, in order to restore a technically oriented vision or spectacle, whose technological origin is beyond their natural perception.
- A careful interrogation of Benjamin’s philosophy yields a preference, an uncanny predisposition, for “technique,” whose virtue is always measured in higher regards to the “technical.” Technique is the setting off of a practice that is well captured by the essence of what technicality misses in the vista of the mode of production. One probable reason why technique assumes a higher form of existence for Benjamin is that in it he always finds a possibility for improvisation. It is only by improving the technique of, if you will, reproducibility or copying, that we will find better originals. The improvement of technology owes its existence to the improvement in the technique, in the means of production. To the so-called original product, a case of the bourgeois obsession with meaning, with the end product, one may oppose the principle of reproduction, because it emphasizes the very mediation of what is concealed in the application of technology.
- Adorno writes, “In your earlier writings, of which your present essay is a continuation, you differentiated the idea of the work of art as a structure from the symbol of theology and from the taboo of magic. I find it disquieting – and here I see a sublimated remnant of certain Brechtian motifs – that you now casually transfer the concept of magical aura to the ‘autonomous work of art’ and flatly assign to the latter a counter-revolutionary function.” (Adorno 128).
- How this uselessness will compare to Heidegger’s conception of the “usefulness of equipmentality” remains to be explored.
- Just prior to the “Epilogue” of the “Artwork” essay, Benjamin, following Kracauer’s analyses of the Mass Ornament, reflects upon the mimetic correspondence between the distracted mode of production and reception of the cinema. He writes, “Reception in a state of distraction, which is increasingly noticeable in all fields of art and is symptomatic of the profound changes in apperception, finds in the film its true means of exercise. The film with its shock effect meets this mode of reception halfway” (“Work of Art”, 240). See also Kracauer, Siegfried. The Mass Ornament: Weimer Essays. Trans. Thomas Y. Levin. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1995 and Eiland, Howard. “Reception in Distraction.” Boundary 2, vol.30, No. 1 (Spring 2003): 51-66.
Adorno, Theodore. “Letters to Walter Benjamin.” Aesthetics and Politics. Trans. Ronald Taylor. London: Verso, 1986.
Benjamin, Walter. “A Small History of Photography.” One-Way Street, and Other Writings. Trans. Edmund Jephcott and Kingsley Shorter. London: New Left, 1979. 243-257.
---. “Central Park.” New German Critique. No. 34 (Winter 1985).
---. Charles Baudelaire - A Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism. Trans. Harry Zohn. London: NLB, 1968.
---. “Theories of German Fascism: On the Collection of Essays War and Warrior, edited by Ernst Junger.” New German Critique, No. 17 (Spring 1979).
---. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Illuminations. Trans. Harry Zohn. New York: Schocken Books, 1969. 217-251.
Habermas, Jürgen. “Consciousness-Raising or Redemptive Criticism.” New German Critique. No. 17 (Spring 1979).
Kracauer, Siegfried. Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality. London: Oxford University Press, 1960.
Terdiman, Richard. “Deconstructing Memory: On Representing the Past and Theorizing Culture in France Since the Revolution.” Diacritics (Winter 1985).