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Benjamin and the Politics of De-auraticisation

Film and its Effect on Perception

In certain mass-marketed film, the compression of sound and image works towards an immediate and fractured type of experience which actively opposes contemplative experience. The screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere describes this confrontation with the limits of contemplative experience

Take the example of film editing. Music videos have increased to such an extent that it simply can’t go any faster. You wouldn’t be able to see the images. I give this example to show how a cycle is created in which a media format gives birth to its own language, which in turn forces the format to evolve, and so on, in ever more hasty and hurried circles. In today’s Hollywood ‘action’ films, no shot lasts more than three seconds. It has become a kind of rule. A man goes home, opens the door, hangs up his coat and goes upstairs. Nothing happens, he isn’t under any threat, and yet the sequence is cut into eighteen shots. As if the technology is dictating the action, as if the action were in the camera itself, rather than in what it depicts (40).

The rupture of the image from the "here and now" (WOA 103) allows images to be doctored into a narrative which violates the Erfahrung experience. Benjamin considers the film maker as a surgeon, who operates on experience to radically alter it. The film maker as surgeon amends reality, rendering the organic eye both passive and insufficient. Image and sound are removed from the material conditions which define their manufacture, and are spliced together sequentially to form an order of meaning. Perspective is radically transformed whereby the mind cannot process as readily the imposition of images which film produces. The rapid transition of images within a film produce a vertiginous effect upon the mind, which lends itself to the Erlebnis effect of an artwork where the image creates a punctured experience as opposed to a process of Erfahrung where the mind is involved in the process of creating meaning. Benjamin argues that "the function of film is to train human beings in the apperceptions and reactions to deal with a vast apparatus whose role in their life is expanding almost daily" (108). An experience of modernity where daily life is understood as a series of fragmented thoughts, the moving image doctors this incoherence into a master narrative based not on meaning but flux. I refer back to Carriere’s description of the action film, and add that this type of film produces flux as an ordinary and normative experience; where the moving image becomes a way in which the masses are trained to navigate the disorientating experience of modernity. This is part of the negative assumption which film adopts, as it pre-supposes fragmentation as habitual without offering the possibility that the transfer to an Erlebnis type of experience is harmful to a politics based around reflection and contestation.

The techniques of cinematography, and the way in which they are used in the commercial film industry, negate the potential of the human eye to interpret images form a perspective independent of technology. The close-up, the jump-shot, slow motion and montage are techniques whereby seeing is privileged in a variety of ways, giving the feeling that the human eye is still in command of the image, but where in actuality it is transmitted to make a prearranged order of visual information. Marcuse talks of a "language, which constantly imposes images, militates against the development and expression of concepts. It is immediacy and directness, it impedes conceptual thinking; thus, it impedes thinking" (86) which seems an apt definition of the effect which the art form of film has upon the mind. The techniques of film impose totalitarianism upon thought, where the rapid imposition of images disrupts conceptual thought of the Erfahrung experience. With the politicization of art in the destruction of the aura, mechanically reproducible art becomes not only a political imposition through its content, rather a political imposition through its re-organization of experience.

Reproduction and the Eradication of Difference in the Artwork

With technological reproduction, expression moves towards a homogenized art of "sameness" (105). It creates a synthesis between the modes of production and the function of the artwork, undermining the revolutionary potential of art to exist outside the sphere of commodity relations and to challenge the operations of commodification. De-auraticised art with its assimilation into consumer culture promises newness and transcendence in purchase just as the commodity does, except that both produce a feeling of dissatisfaction and need for a replacement. De-auraticisation removes the uniqueness of an original artwork by fusing it into a patchwork with the artworks around it, when it enters the marketplace in which it was sold. This applies to the megaliths of commercial culture such as Amazon and ITunes, in which the consumer enters through the door of the virtual supermarket to find that everything shines equally brightly, but that after a few minutes browsing one comes out feeling none the wiser and with a headache. The most absurd form of this is the art poster sale, whether online or in a shop. One is confronted with film stars, joke boards, pop bands, landscapes, portraiture all to dangle on the walls of your home to express yourself; to tell visitors what you are about. This streamlining of art into a pick and mix selection of Rembrandt and Britney, Van Gogh and Andy Warhol makes their reception underlined by cost rather than content. The culture market informs the reception of the artwork to the extent that sameness masquerades as difference, where the formal experimentation of each piece is only as important as the pieces alongside it.

In Jameson’s “blank parody” (545) conception of pastiche, the parody is humourless because contradiction and contrast in art, style and idea become instead entombed in their inability to be anything more than that which is sellable. Benjamin traces this shift from the oppositional form of art, to its commodifed existence. For example, an original work takes upon the role of uniqueness and permanence, whereas its reproduction is transitory and repeatable (WOA 105). Art becomes a commodity which changes its potentiality as an oppositional force to being subsumed in the capitalist mode. With the form of the book, it is packaged and constructed as a commodity; as an object to function primarily for its value in transaction. The way in which the image of a book cover can be harnessed to sell its contents is symptomatic of the transferable nature of images in the de-auraticised mode that acts beyond an adherence to uniqueness. Pastiche, brought on through de-auraticisation, changes the artworks form, rendering its original text alien from the context in which it is sold and distributed.

The Docile Mediums

With the eradication of the here and now through technologically reproducible art, whilst making art more accessible, this accessibility intervenes in the social life of the public space. Where citizens congregate and communicate with each other, such as at the bus stop or in the high street, social interaction has to compete with the personal music device or portable game station. Entertainment not only becomes ordinary, but a necessary factor in the negotiation of public space. This has wide ranging consequences for political mobilization, when the spaces for dialogue between private citizens are interpenetrated by seemingly benign technologies, which provide an obstacle to space where political discussion is allowed to function.

The television provides an equally significant threat to the congregation of citizens and expressions of communal solidarity. The television generally requires a home bound audience, an audience who consume the moving image within their four walls. It both privileges the consumption of information on television in the hands of the property owning classes who can afford a set, and works in contrast to the notion of society as a collection of private citizens who come together with common interests. However the radical impact of television is that it liberates the viewer to the point of control over what is viewed; even more so in the past five years considering that people are often consuming their TV online – which allows the viewer to choose when and how programmes are viewed. The effect of switching between entertainment and warfare, between cookery and parliamentary debate renders the uniqueness of certain experiences to a habitual sameness. The function of this experiential ordering is to contain the radical fracturing of experience which is part of modernity, and thus reduce the capacity of the subject to order these thoughts. The de-conceptualization of thought appears acutely in the formal techniques of twenty-four hour news services. The seemingly subversive elements of news material are contained and managed through the captioning of images. The images are bewildering in their rapid manifestation, but their diverse implications are stratified through captioning which eradicates the performance of the mind in conceptualizing images. The management of information in television works against the liberating effects of conceptual thought.

Benjamin implies a distinction between the contemplative and distractionary approaches to art, and that it is the distractionary mode which is ushered in by de-auraticisation (WOA 119). This infers that boredom takes on an ideological function which is naturalized, thus art is the means to alleviate the subject from this state of boredom. The popular idea of escapism linked with the emergence of technologically reproduced art forms is part of the distractionary experience. It produces the work as a spectacle; one in which the means of production appear as habitual and objective experiences of life. Theodor Adorno explains this internalisation of work: “free time does not merely stand in opposition to labour. In a system where full employment has become the ideal, free time is nothing more than a shadowy continuation of labour” (194). Art therefore becomes a means to escape or distract oneself from this abject reality, a reality defined by the totality of the social conditions of labour. Once this position is taken in relation to an artwork, the association of art with escapism allows a more subtle ideological imposition to take place in the work. In the sit-com, the epitome of the escapist gesture (from labour), the art work takes on a function of imposing a series of normalizing characteristics on the masses. Friends seemingly embodies the absurdity of the distractionary method. The group of six friends typifies certain class stratum that is both identifiable and to be aspired towards (bourgeois), but wholly unrealistic and unobtainable for all but a minority of people. They are sustained financially through an income abstracted from the productive forces on which their lives are based; existing as ideal consumers comfortable in their relationship with commodities which have no material base. Whilst the viewer tunes in to be distracted from the habitual nature of everyday life, Friends reinvests them with the ideology which maintains the status quo of their material relations. Benjamin states that "collective laughter is one such pre-emptive and healing outbreak of mass psychosis" (WOA 118), however Friends displaces this emotion through an automated laughter which is projected onto the audience and thus the home. Even the capacity for human trauma in the face of technological reproduction is contained. The television, an object which from its inception has operated as the reverse side to the conditions of labour, destroys its capacity through its adherence to entertainment and its banalisation of experience, to inspire the political potential of the mass audience that its invention made possible.

In the Theses on the Philosophy of History, Benjamin’s critique of how power is exerted through history in its normalisation of new technologies is particularly relevant to the developments in the moving image since its publication

To articulate the past historically does not mean to recognize it “the way it really was” (Ranke). It means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger. Historical materialism wishes to retain that image of the past which unexpectedly appears to man singled out by history at a moment of danger (257).

The task of analysing technological transformation in art is to arrest its consequences just as it seeks to naturalise itself through its effects on the subject. This is the project for understanding the culture industry; not to pretend the way in which art’s cooption into a transformative field of effects of commerce and politics is in any way transparent or in service of progress, but to observe the shadow cast by its aspersions to progress.


Works Cited

Adorno, Theodor ‘Free Time’ in The Culture Industry, ed. J.M Bernstein (New York: Routledge 1991), 187-97

Benjamin, Walter

-‘The Work of Art in the Age of its Technical Reproducibility (Second Version)’. Selected Writings Vol. 3: 1935-1938, ed. Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings, trans. Harry Zohn (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2002): 101-133.

-‘On Some Motifs in Baudelaire’. Selected Writings Vol. 4: 1938-1940, ed. Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings, trans. Edmund Jephcott and Harry Zohn (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2003): 313-355.

-‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’ in Illuminations ed. Hannnah Arendt trans. Harry Zohn (Glasgow: Fontana/William Collins Sons & Co Ltd, 1970) 255-66

Carriere, Jean-Claude and Eco, Umberto This is Not the End of the Book trans. Polly McLean (London: Harvill Secker, 2011)

Heidegger, Martin ‘Bremen Lectures: Insight into That Which Is’ in The Heidegger Reader ed. Gunter Figal, trans. Jerome Vieth (Bloomington: Indiana University Press , 2009) 253-83

Jameson, Fredric ‘Postmodernism and Consumer Society’ in Modern Criticism and Theory: A Reader ed. David Lodge and Nigel Wood (Harlow: Pearson Education Ltd, 3rd Edition 2008) 542-54

Marcuse, Herbert One Dimensional Man, (London: ABACUS edition pub. Sphere Books, 1972)

Proust, Marcel Remembrance of Things Past trans. C.K. Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin (Middlesex: Penguin Books Ltd, 1983)

'The One With The Jellyfish' Friends. Bright/Kauffman/Crane Productions assoc. Warner Brothers Television, September 25 1997

Citroen Xsara Picasso, Advertisement, ITV 2006

The Triumph of the Will. Dir. Leni Riefentahl, 1935

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