Thursday, March 06, 2003

Week 06, Gramsci and Benjamin

Notes on Antonio Gramsci and Walter Benjamin.

Notes on Antonio Gramsci’s “The Formation of the Intellectuals” from Prison Notebooks.

1138. “Every social group, coming into existence on the original terrain of an essential function in the world of economic production, creates together with itself, organically, one or more strata of intellectuals . . . .” So each group in a given society will have its own intellectuals, those who come from within that group. Below this quotation, Gramsci suggests that the organic intellectuals of a given group will “specialize” in being generalists when it comes to society at large; i.e. an intellectual has “the capacity to be an organiser of society in general.”

1139. However, every ‘essential’ social group which emerges . . . has found . . . categories of intellectuals already in existence . . . .” So each new ruling class encounters the previous class’ functionaries, who make it appear that continuity reigns. Gramsci identifies the clergy as the “most typical” of these old but persistent classes. They don’t give way easily. Gramsci says that these categories of intellectuals have an esprit de corps; they see themselves as fully autonomous rather than beholden to the now defunct or diminished class the articulation of whose interests was once their function. They see their domain as separate from the class interests that give rise to them. One might imagine them as something like Blake’s “priesthood,” those great proponents of God’s will and promoters of “mercy, pity, peace and love” whose efforts actually prop up an authoritarian government. Except, of course, that Blake generally portrays the priesthood as viciously cynical. Gramsci is suggesting only that the old-line intellectuals have become idealists: they believe their ideas and ideals exist in some Platonic realm free of earthly bonds. Nietzsche—certainly no friend of Marxists—wrote that forgetting is essential to the process of civilization. The phenomenon Gramsci describes is one example of such forgetting: ideals breaking free of materiality.

1140. “The most widespread error of method seems to me that of having looked for this criterion of distinction in the intrinsic nature of intellectual activities, rather than in the ensemble of the system of relations in which these activities . . . have their place with the general complex of social relations.” This view is close to structuralism in its rejection of essentialist definitions and methods. Further down, Gramsci writes that simply being capable of intellection is not the same as functioning as an intellectual professionally.

1141. What kind of organic intellectuals are needed for new proletarian class? Not, says Gramsci, a specialized rhetorician who deals only in “eloquence.” He writes, “The problem of creating a new stratum of intellectuals consists . . . in the critical elaboration of the intellectual activity that exists in everyone at a certain degree of development, modifying its relationship with the muscular-nervous effort towards a new equilibrium . . . .” The new intellectual must be grounded in technical education linked to material kinds of work, and should be “directive (specialized and political)” and not merely “specialized.” Gramsci also says that an ascendant dominant class’s own intellectuals must be available if the older, “traditional” intellectuals are to be most efficiently subsumed. Gramsci comments as follows on education: “Parallel with the attempt to deepen and the broaden the ‘intellectuality’ of each individual, there has also been an attempt to multiply and narrow the various specialisations.” This narrowing depoliticizes those who specialize; it creates a division of intellectual labor that encompasses scientists, technologists, and others who can be grouped into similar “specialized fields.”

1142. Gramsci offers a basic Marxist point about the life of intellectuals: “Naturally this need to provide the widest base possible for the selection and elaboration of the top intellectual qualifications . . . creates the possibility of vast crises of unemployment for the middle intellectual strata . . . .” The classic “contradiction” here is that a given society requires the proliferation of intellectuals so that a wide enough pool of talent will exist, but then the top people fill the necessary slots and mid-level intellectuals aren’t exactly guaranteed a job: a crisis of overproduction. As for the relationship between intellectuals and material production, Gramsci says it is “‘mediated’ by the whole fabric of society and by the complex of superstructures, of which the intellectuals are, precisely, the ‘functionaries’ . . . .” Civil society and the State comprise two main levels of the superstructure. The first takes care of the hegemonic function, while the second deals with the need to effect “direct “domination of the populace. I suppose the recent term “soft power” would be a good way to describe the hegemonic operation of civil society affiliated intellectuals.

1143. Gramsci elaborates on the above point as follows: civil society functionaries enjoy a kind of prestige that generates “‘spontaneous’ consent” to the policies and worldview of the dominant group. And for those who don’t offer such consent, there’s always “state coercive power” to make them consent, or at least act as if they do. Gramsci further explains that his goal in thus expanding on Marxist thought by refining our understanding of what intellectuals do is to arrive at “a concrete approximation of reality.” In other words, this paradoxical phrase suggests, the goal is to understanding how the increasing number of people who work mainly with ideas relate to, influence, and are influenced by the material, economic activity that traditional Marxism primarily accounts for. Gramsci sees this as a vital update of traditional Marxism because “hegemony”—indirect domination and manufacture of consensus by soft power—is tremendously important to the success of capitalist societies in his time; it must, therefore, figure heavily in any Marxist account that claims to offer hope for fundamental change. If you want to change a complex reality, you must be able to describe it and analyze it with sufficient complexity. The Law and the State are by no means unimportant, but in comparison with sophisticated hegemonic operations, they are in essence mop-up components. From the administrator on up to “the creators of the various sciences, philosophy, art, etc.,” demand close attention from the critic: they are part of the total effect Gramsci calls “hegemony.”

Finally, I would suggest that the beauty of Gramsci’s scheme is to point out that even those who articulate hegemonic power see themselves for the most part as free-wheeling, independent voices. Consider the process whereby political consensus and consent are generated today in America. Talk radio and Sunday morning punditry, the work of “think tanks” in Washington D.C., and so forth are vital to this process. All you need to do is watch or listen to some of the most popular television programs to see that even when the hosts and guests are speaking what they believe to be true or at least in the best interests of the country, they serve what Gramsci would call an hegemonic purpose. The public is usually presented with a very limited set of positions on key issues, and not much attention or weight is accorded any view that does not support those positions. In effect, the more “with-it” cross-section of the public—unfortunately I can’t improve at the moment on Gore Vidal’s condescending phrase “the chattering classes”—is led (by means of high-toned discussion or bluster, depending on the program) towards certain intellectual frameworks within which to talk about issues like health care, “the war on terror,” “Iraq,” and so forth. Gramsci’s analysis reminds us that a great deal of thought in a modern republic is second-order stuff; it’s manufactured or pre-fabricated for us, and by no means the product of our own hard intellectual labor. Adam Smith, the author of that capitalist bible, The Wealth of Nations, was prescient when he suggested that more and more we would come to pay people to do certain kinds of thinking for us, just as we would pay a cobbler to mend our shoes.

A problem with standard Marxism, it has long been noted, is that it posits a naïve view that wrong will ultimately be set right, that chickens will come home to roost, and that a fraud exposed will not be tolerated. If people know the truth about class interests and their own human potential, the idea goes, they will take the reigns and accomplish their own destiny. But the market, it would appear, has outlasted the Twentieth Century’s Marxist experiments in the old Soviet Union and elsewhere, and now reigns supreme. That doesn’t mean it’s a perfect or even an adequate system if we are talking about alleviating poverty and dealing with injustice of various kinds. But it is persistent to a degree that old-line Marxism can’t deal with convincingly. Gramsci was writing in a time when thinkers such as himself were beginning to see a strong need for what we might call “Marxism 2.0”: a view that could grapple with the impressive persistence of an order Marx had thought would give way to something better in the not too distant future. So the Italian’s concentration on intellectual labor and on “hegemony” is his attempt to provide us with that new view.

Notes on Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.”

„Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit.“ (1936)

Benjamin is interested in the potential of new technical media to transform people’s perceptions. Art is a politically relevant social phenomenon in Benjamin’s view; it can serve the interests of the working class. He wants an art for the people, not just for critics and collectors or reactionary highbrows. He sees the potential in modern technical reproducibility for the liberation of art from the tyranny of outmoded ways of thinking and behaving: nostalgia for bygone days can be wiped away. Marx had characterized our enjoyment of ancient art as more or less nostalgic, as if, by implication, we might remain too fond of (and perhaps, therefore, mystified by) the old contexts that produced such classical art but that can never return.

New media that have developed during the capitalist era are better suited to the working class. The big question is whether this transformative potential will realize itself or whether it must give way to forces of assimilation. Who owns culture? In keeping with Marxist arguments against essentialist definitions of human nature, Benjamin opposes a universal, eternal way of seeing, hearing, presenting and receiving art. Our perceptions change over time, and historical experience alters them as well for whole classes. The split or division between science and art is beginning to seem bridgeable. That possibility is important to Benjamin because for him, a completely anti-technological art will probably be reactionary, isolated, bourgeois in its tendencies. The processes of mechanical reproduction of art works seems to play something like the role of Coleridgean imagination: it breaks up old verities and realigns and combines them in vital new ways, transforming perceiver and perceived in the process. Again, who owns culture? Ideally, nobody: it should be a shared experience, not an isolated meditative refuge from life, not a safe House Beautiful for the intellectual offspring of the middle class, those dissenters from within who so often end up as “apolitical” guardians of high culture and the old order for which it stands.

1168. “Around 1900 technical reproduction had reached a standard that not only permitted it to reproduce all transmitted works of art and thus to cause the most profound change in their impact upon the public; it also had captured a place of its own among the artistic processes.” And further down, “Even the most perfect work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be.” In The Poetics, Aristotle suggests that we can either appreciate a work of art or representation because it resembles the original or because it is pleasing in its own right. Benjamin uses “reproduction” in a similarly broad sense: our response to art need not be based on its status as a faithful copy or as a material object embedded in its original time and culture. The “reproduced” work of art is free from the tyranny of the original time and place in something like the manner Aristotle ascribes to the pleasing formal qualities of a painting or statue, regardless of how faithfully it represents an object in nature. We may not, as he says, “happen to be familiar with the original” in nature or in the human realm. Imitation ties us closely to nature and makes us forget, we might say today, that art doesn’t have to copy nature at all; to treat something artificial as if it were natural is one definition of ideological mystification.

1169. “The whole sphere of authenticity is outside technical—and, of course, not only technical—reproducibility.” The authenticity/inauthenticity binary opposition isn’t invoked by the new technical means of reproduction. If you hand-paint a copy of a painting by one of the Old Masters, you’ve perpetrated a forgery; not so if you make an excellent “copy” by mechanical means. Benjamin goes on to suggest that a photo, for instance, doesn’t re-present the copy in a way that calls for mimetic analysis. He says that a photograph or phonograph recording “enables the original to meet the beholder halfway.” What exactly is meant by “authenticity”? Well, says Benjamin, “The authenticity of a thing 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.” In art, authenticity is not a given. It is part of the historical process: the work is authenticated in relation to a certain tradition. Further, writes Benjamin, “One might subsume the eliminated element in the term ‘aura’ and go on to say: that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art.” Plurality of copies replace the original object, for which there is no call to return: “the technique of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the domain of tradition,” and thereby “reactivates the object reproduced” in a new an perhaps liberating context. Consider an audiotape or CD recording of Mozart’s Eine kleine Nachtmusik: you don’t have to go to an antiquated (or even new) concert hall, but can instead listen to Mozart’s music in your car or while you work at your computer. (In fact, I’m listening to a Haydn symphony as I type these notes on my laptop.) Conditions of reception can change, for better or for worse: we aren’t tied by iron chains to traditional settings, critical norms of reception, and so forth. Listening to Mozart or Haydn or Beethoven, or viewing a digitized copy of Leonardo’s The Last Supper (available at, Benjamin might say, releases the work from original contexts and interpretive frameworks, and makes it possible to see or hear a technically reproduced work of art differently. In its original context or embeddedness, the art object helps to naturalize the sociopolitical order and representational conventions that made it possible for that unique object to be produced. But if detached from that order, it can speak anew.

1170. “During long periods of history, the mode of human sense perception changes with humanity’s entire mode of existence.” Perception isn’t merely natural or given, but instead it changes with “historical circumstances.” Further down the page, Benjamin addresses the meaning of the key term, “aura” with an analogy drawn from natural scenery: “We define the aura of the latter as the unique phenomenon of a distance, however close it may be. If, while resting on a summer afternoon, you follow with your eyes a mountain range on the horizon or a branch which casts its shadow over you, you experience the aura of those mountains, of that branch.” So we get the sense of a distance between ourselves and the object. I presume he means something like a halo, which is a matter of acoustics and atmospherics, if we look to etymology. The English and German aura are derived from the Greek noun aura (wind, breeze) and probably from aer(upper air, ether). There’s a connotation of distinctiveness and even mystical quality, in some usages.

1171. Benjamin writes of “the desire of contemporary masses to bring things ‘closer’ spatially and humanly, which is just as ardent as their bent toward overcoming the uniqueness of every reality by accepting its reproduction.” He is optimistic that “The adjustment of reality to the masses and of the masses to reality is a process of unlimited scope, as much for thinking as for perception.” So the common person in Benjamin’s time (the 1930’s, here) wants to bring artistic objects closer, to “make it new,” to embrace change. They want to overcome uniqueness in favor of equality, or what Benjamin calls a “sense of the universal equality of things.” This constitutes a profound democratization of sensory experience and of “sensibilities” more broadly—a shift away, I suppose, from a more primitive mode of perception that endows objects of perception with unique essences and mysterious value. For the Marxist-allied Benjamin, this revolution of perceptions and sensibilities is filled with potential to transform the social sphere. The work of art is beginning to respond to and shape the proletariat’s perceptions; this is a collective and not merely an individual change, as romantic theorists seem to have posited. Of course, it might be said that in the way lie some very powerful obstacles to such transformation, forces that work to maintain the auratic distance-effect.

1172. Benjamin describes aestheticism as an escapist, apolitical “negative theology”: with the advent of photography and the coming-on of socialism in the Nineteenth Century, he explains, “art reacted with the doctrine of l’art pour l’art, that is with a theology of art. This gave rise to what might be called a negative theology in the form of the idea of “pure” art, which not only denied any social function of art but also any categorizing by subject matter.” He identifies Mallarmé as the earliest continental theorist in this vein. Of course, in both the continental and English traditions there’s an anti-utilitarian, anti-moralist line going back at least to the dandies and incroyables, admirably summed up by Oscar Wilde in the statement, “All art is quite useless.” But it’s probably true to suggest that Mallarmé the symbolist poet and critic states the aestheticist credo to its fullest, most theological degree. Benjamin sees all of this as mystery-propagating, cultic priestcraft in an almost Blakean sense: direct perception of truth, even direct experience, must be kept always from the public’s grasp and posited as something distant, auratic, mysterious, to be controlled and doled out in limited amounts, if at all, by a privileged few who share the old order’s social and political power.

We might reflect on the case of English fin de siècle decadence and aestheticism here. Even in a savvy theorist such as Wilde, who saw in art a “disturbing and disintegrating” power that might produce radical change in the sensibilities of those who engage intensely enough with it (just as his old professor Walter Pater would have it—a proper experience of art demands the right temperament, one that allows sufficient openness to intensity of thought and feeling and perception), the question of audience breadth remains. It might be said that while Pater’s and Wilde’s books actually sold quite well, the general effect they exerted amounts to “preaching to the choir” rather than changing the hearts and minds of millions of people. Benjamin would probably say such authors still play an essentially priestly role because they don’t appeal to the collectivity; they appeal only to fairly limited numbers of individuals as individuals, even as bourgeois “consumers.”

1173. At a certain point in the age of technical reproducibility, writes Benjamin, art’s “fitness for exhibition increased to such an extent that the quantitative shift between its two poles turned into a qualitative transformation of its nature.” Art has gone from being prehistoric magic to “art” to a new, collective field of experience more suitable to ordinary people. The photographic portrait, he suggests, is the last bastion of the old auratic, cultic valuation of art: the countenance shot remains tied to that which it reproduces: the actual human face, often the image of a departed loved one for whom someone may mourn. Benjamin makes a very interesting point when he says that Eugène Atget’s photos of emptied Paris streets remove the portrait’s lingering auratic effect and instead challenge the viewer to contemplate what is presented in a less melancholy, passive way: “exhibition value” now trumps “ritual value,” and Atget captures the moment when this happens, so to speak.

1174. “When the age of mechanical reproduction separated art from its basis in cult, the semblance of its autonomy disappeared forever.” No more theories about art’s absolute autonomy or elite value should have come forwards. However, says Benjamin, the early theorists of film don’t seem able to grasp what has happened, and that’s why authors such as Abel Gance, he says, write of film as if it were a resurgent mode of ancient hieroglyphic writing. Some theorists insist that “you just can’t talk about film” as if it presented some ultimate mystery, an equivalent for pure expression, etc. That kind of talk would make film an experience to be indulged in only by a privileged few, not by the man whose interests Benjamin means to promote. A destabilizing new medium provoked reactionary theories about photography and film.

1175. Now Benjamin turns to film in earnest. He writes, “The camera that presents the performance of the film actor to the public need not respect the performance as an integral whole.” Further down, he says that “The audience’s identification with the actor is really an identification with the camera.” The medium, then, dematerializes the actor and fragments or detaches the performance given. It seems that a movie camera is inherently transformative and denaturalizing—so much so, suggests Benjamin, that Pirandello is quite right to say that “The film actor . . . feels as if in exile . . . his body loses its corporeality.” (Scorsese’s early film Taxi Driver is intriguing in this regard: the camera shots actually labor to make us identify with the camera, and indeed Travis, the film’s antihero, perceives and registers things much like a camera, taking in almost literally everything as he goes through life.)

1176. According to Benjamin, “for the first time—and this is the effect of the film—man has to operate with his whole living person, yet forgoing its aura. For aura is tied to his presence; there can be no replica of it.” An example: some time ago I attended a performance of King Lear at UCLA’s Royce Hall starring that remarkable Shakespearean actor Sir Ian McKellen. And there’s no doubt of the auratic effect Benjamin imputes to actual stage performances: aside from one’s physical distance from the stage (my seats weren’t the best in the house, but they were adequate), I felt the distance-effect at work. Watching a DVD performance on my bedroom television, I don’t experience the same distancing effect. Paradoxically, a film performance seems more “real” and immediate than a play put on by real, eminently “auratic” actors. I’ve long said that what’s shown on film seems to be happening directly, while what happens on the stage invites a certain aesthetic and reflective distance. But Benjamin at the moment is focusing on the sensibilities of the film actor: “The stage actor identifies himself with the character of his role. The film actor very often is denied this opportunity. His creation is by no means all of a piece; it is composed of many separate performances.” Of course, anyone who has ever seen one of those “behind the scenes” documentaries about the making of a film knows this to be true: films are shot in short, fragmented scenes, for the most part, and they don’t generally take place in linear sequence, either. So no, an actor certainly would not get the same sense of acting in a stage play from Act 1 through Act 5: his or her role would be broken up into many “bit parts,” not experienced as an integral performance.

1177. “The cult of the movie star, fostered by the money of the film industry, preserves not the unique aura of the person but the ‘spell of the personality,’ the phony spell of a commodity.” Benjamin recognizes that capital has got hold of film already, even in 1936. It promotes a new way of making art special, though not exactly “distant” from the masses: the “film star effect.” The effect is really that of slick packaging: actors become “hot properties” who images and actions may be consumed by an eager public. Thus the aftermarket campaigns of blockbuster films that sell all sorts of trinkets related to the film: caps, clothing, posters, and whatnot. The tabloid and industry presses further promote what Benjamin calls “the spell of the personality.” Whatever can a famous actor (or prominent politician—see Benjamin’s footnote allusion to Mussolini and Hitler, those camera-loving dictators) do to escape the paparazzi? Not much, it seems. We may hope that Wilde’s dictum is some consolation: “The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about”—or photographed, in this case.

1177-78. Farther down on 1177, Benjamin mentions writers: “For centuries a small number of writers were confronted by many thousands of readers. This changed toward the end of the last century.” In his extensive footnote, Benjamin refers to Aldous Huxley’s rather Wildean complaint about the supposed proliferation of hack writers producing worthless books, while the number of truly talented authors remains as limited as ever. “The mode of observation is obviously not progressive,” adds Benjamin to fine comic timing at the end of Huxley’s lengthy pronouncement. Indeed, what Huxley says sounds a lot like Wilde’s elitist quip: “In old days books were written by men of letters and read by the public. Nowadays books are written by the public and read by nobody.” In Benjamin’s view, this desire to protect art from the ignorant public is downright reactionary; proponents of it see the increasing availability of literature and other kinds of art as a contemptible effort on the part of “the market” to supply simulacra for works of true genius, thus meeting the demands of an eager but not-too-choosy public. Well, the view described is hardly new: Gissing’s New Grub Street is a delightful instance of it, and we may recall that many a complaint resounded about “Fleet Street Hacks” all the way back to the Eighteenth Century. Periodical literature’s development was long the target of more or less elitist criticisms.

1178. As for film, “In Western Europe the capitalistic exploitation of the film denies consideration to modern man’s legitimate claim to being reproduced.” As we have seen, Benjamin takes issue with “high culture” notions and practices; he sees them not as uplifting but rather as reifying (“thingifying,” lending solidity to) outmoded ways of thinking, doing, and relating. The potential is with ordinary working people, and the medium of film in particular should serve their interests and allow them to participate in the productive processes that goes into the making of modern art.

1178-79. Benjamin points out a radical difference between stage productions and the shooting of a film: if you attend a film shoot, you would never at time be free of the sight of instruments such as cameras, lighting, and staff people. So it would be nowhere evident just how the remarkable “reality” of the finished product was created. Not so with a stage play: “In the theater one is well aware of the place from which the play cannot immediately be detected as illusionary.” I am not certain exactly what is meant here, unless Benjamin is just saying that when we go to a play, we allow ourselves what Coleridge had called a “willing suspension of disbelief” whereby we at least partly allow the play’s dialog and action to wash over us as if it were “really happening.” Well, as Dr. Johnson’s noteworthy tautology goes, the drama is “credited with all the credit due to a drama” (Norton 478). The illusion isn’t complete, (as Johnson’s mimetic language goes on to emphasize), but Benjamin’s point seems to be that we don’t fasten onto the stage trappings like bulldogs and ignore the compelling, integral live performance before us. Its wholeness is itself goes a long way towards generating an illusionistic effect. But in the case of film, we must go to the cutting floor to find out how the reality-effect originates. The slicing and dicing that take place there, says Benjamin, means that “the sight of immediate reality has become an orchid in the land of technology.” The cameraman “penetrates deeply into [the web of reality],” says Benjamin, and the initial fragments are then “assembled under a new law.” Technological processes work together to generate an all but seamless reality-effect, the one we enjoy at the theater or even, nowadays, on our television screens. It’s as if what had been the function of Coleridgean imagination—namely the dissolving, dissipating, and diffusing of the objects of perception in order to create of them something new—has been taken over by complementary technological processes. The camera and the cut act like the human imagination. New media and new technologies call forth and speak to new ways of perceiving and understanding.

1179. At the bottom of the page, Benjamin says that “The progressive reaction [of the masses to art] is characterize by the direct, intimate fusion of visual and emotional enjoyment with the orientation of the expert. Such fusion is of great social significance.” In a sense, “everybody’s a critic”: the public obliterates the privileged position of the critic, and the barrier between experts and passive consumers of art breaks down. (Silly aside: I’ve noticed that people today take this “instant expert” business to extremes: at the stage production of King Lear I mentioned above, I was driven to just short of Lear-like howling madness by a number of people around me during the intermission who sounded like rival film directors bent on pseudo-deconstructing Trevor Nunn’s every move. This wasn’t quite right, that was a bit off, such-and-such didn’t work for me, etc. I wanted to shout, “would you just STFU and enjoy the play already?! I suppose that puts me in league with Aldous Huxley....)

Some reflections on Benjamin’s optimism here and elsewhere in the essay: Benjamin’s hopes are attractive, but as he seems to know very well, film and photography, like everything else, are subject to capitalism’s (now we would generally use the term “late capitalism”) perhaps infinitely creative ways of assimilating cultural objects initially endowed with transformative potential: dispersal, deflection, diffusion, spin, co-optational imitation, etc. The market swallows up and renders useful whatever threatens it: new trends in fashion, youth’s innovations in music and culture, new ways of looking at sexuality, etc. Hip-hop and Malcolm X memorabilia, racy images of Che Guevara, and all that sort of thing. Nothing sells like radicalism and rebellion in a consumerist society, nicht wahr? The Internet offers a great deal of promise, I think, in fostering new (as well as real-time, immediate, “non-auratic”) communities not dependent on the political or cultural authorities for validation—though I wouldn’t take that notion to the level of some techno-yea-sayers and John-the-Baptist types who think that the Net is going to transform the world into a democratic paradise. Blogs and other such phenomena are being rapidly, if only partially, commercialized. FaceBook and MySpace—which to this middle-aged fogy seem like a massive and intolerable self-inflicted privacy wound—are no doubt blending the personal with the commercial in ever-new and fascinating ways. “Not that there’s anything wrong with that!” as Jerry Seinfeld and his crew would say.

1180. Benjamin suggests that the conditions of presentation determine the public’s response: “Although paintings began to be publicly exhibited in galleries and salons, there was no way for the masses to organize and control themselves in their reception. Thus the same public which responds in a progressive manner toward a grotesque film is bound to respond in a reactionary manner to surrealism.” The question here is, who “owns” art? Whose reactions are valid? The individual, private response is not likely to promote progressive change, tied as it is to modes of presentation that discourage communal response and encourage hierarchical reception and elucidation. A surrealist painting on display at LACMA has no chance of getting the kind of response a popular film can get at a big theater. It is treated as a precious object, and while the viewer may stand very close to it, there’s always that auratic distance-effect of which Benjamin writes.

1181. Here Benjamin characterizes “the mutual penetration of art and science,” saying, “The enlargement of a snapshot does not simply render more precise what in any case was visible, though unclear: it reveals entirely new structural formations of the subject. So film and photographic magnification can reveal a new nature, and we can immediately explore this new reality. Today’s high-resolution digital cameras are available to anyone with a few hundred dollars to spare, and the effect Benjamin describes is stunningly apparent in the images obtainable with such cameras. The technology Benjamin has been writing about wasn’t developed for the revolutionary purposes he wants to connect them to; they came from capitalist productive processes and developed to the point where they might be enlisted in the cause Benjamin favors. In his view, the new media mean that critical understanding need not be kept separate from ordinary people and their ordinary enjoyment of art. To some degree, Benjamin posits the healing of a rift that widened between technology and human desire at the outset of the Industrial Revolution. (Wordsworth’s rhetoric on Norton 658 testifies to Romantic sensitivity to that rift.) There’s no need, he argues, to cast art as a flight from unpleasant reality, or as the preserver of essences and mysteries. The new kinds of art now emerging can help to align our perceptual processes and sensibilities with change for the better, with progress.

1182. As for the Dadaists, says Benjamin, they “attached much less importance to the sales value of their work than to its uselessness for contemplative immersion.” As a modern rock band used to say, “Stop making sense!” The Dadaists wanted to make radical inroads against the very concepts of “value” and “experience.”

1183. On this page, Benjamin returns to the contrast between elite high culture and the people. It’s common to insist, he says, that while “the masses seek distraction whereas art demands concentration from the spectator.” His comeback to that criticism is “A man who concentrates before a work of art is absorbed by it. . . . In contrast, the distracted mass absorbs the work of art.” The people absorb the non-auratic work rather than being absorbed by or diminished in its auratic presence. (A fun example of this aesthetic absorption effect is Wilde’s Dorian Gray—this young man wishes his soul onto a canvas and into a portrait in exchange for the promise of eternal youth. He aims to live irresponsibly as a private man while yet interacting with others as untouchably superior to them.)

1183-84. Architecture is Benjamin’s prime example in this section: people encounter fine buildings in their daily lives, and use them in a state of “distraction.” That is, they aren’t going to the buildings to contemplate them aesthetically; they have everyday things to do. Further, says Benjamin, “Buildings are appropriated in a twofold manner: by use and by perception—or rather, by touch and sight.” This is important because, in his estimation, habit rather than free contemplation is the most important way to accomplish “the tasks which face the human apparatus of perception at the turning points of history. . . .” We learn to do new things not all at once but by means of gradually acquiring habits, and the way people deal with buildings is largely a matter of habits formed during their “distracted” life experiences with them. As Benjamin says, “The public is an examiner, but an absent-minded one.” Criticism (and we might even invoke the old term “taste” here) is part of everyday life; further, it isn’t something primarily individual and rarified but is instead a collective enterprise. Analysis need not be reified or specialized as the province of “the masters of them that know.” And yet it is still, to borrow a Gramscian term, “directive.”

1184-85. At this point Benjamin turns to the Fascist ideology besetting Europe in the 1930’s. Mussolini had long since taken over Italy, and Hitler had become Chancellor of Germany in January, 1933. Benjamin describes Fascism as an expressive theory for the externally organized masses: a carefully stage-managed and directed upwelling of Romantic sentimentality, aided of course by technology. Benjamin writes, “Fascism attempts to organize the newly created proletarian masses without affecting the property structure which the masses strive to eliminate. Fascism sees its salvation in giving these masses not their right, but instead a chance to express themselves.” He goes on to explain that Fascism very effectively aestheticizes political life. Some of us will have seen filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl’s diabolically brilliant films Die Olympiade (about the 1936 Berlin Olympics) and her 1935 Triumph des Willens (Triumph of the Will), which propagates the Führer-Kult view of Hitler and his Nazi Party: “Vor uns liegt Deutschland, in uns marschiert Deutschland, und hinter uns kommt Deutschland!” (“Before us lies Germany, in us marches Germany, and behind us Germany follows!”) Hitler created a command economy in Germany, allowing the big industrial manufacturers to make a profit so long as they made what he wanted them to (mostly guns, tanks, and bombs—forget the “Volkswagen in every garage” promise). He also enlisted talented people like Riefenstahl and whoever designed his torchlight rallies and parades—a little net research reveals that Albert Speer designed the famous “Cathedral of Light” for the 1936 “Party Rally of Honor” (see, and the home page for the German Propaganda Archive is War became the chief organizing principle of German life: war is a wicked thing, but there’s little doubt that it generates lots of employment and gives people a sense of collective purpose. Hitler clearly understood that government could be reduced to a couple of key functions: a protection racket (get behind me, surrender your will and freedoms to me and I’ll protect you from our big bad enemies) and a means of collective aspiration and expression for otherwise depressingly ordinary individuals.

Benjamin explains that Hitler even managed to turn war itself into a work of art. (That goes beyond even Jacob Burckhardt’s notion that during the Renaissance, the state started to become an aesthetic production.) As Benjamin says, “The destructiveness of war furnishes proof that society has not been mature enough to incorporate technology as its organ.” His point is that imperialist violence stems from our not knowing how to use our productive potential wisely and efficiently: we don’t put our efforts into benignly improving our natural environment, but instead just start killing one another and fighting over allegedly “scarce” resources. “Fiat ars—pereat mundus,” is Benjamin’s description of Fascist logic: “let there be art, and let the world perish.” The “self-alienation” of humanity, says Benjamin, “has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order. This is the situation of politics which Fascism is rendering aesthetic. Communism responds by politicizing art.” If Fascism has enlisted the photograph and the film into its aesthetic politics, Benjamin’s essay has been about liberating it from that appropriation.


Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home