Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Benjamin - The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1936)

Then came film and burst this prison-world asunder by the dynamite of the tenth of a second, so that now, in the midst of its far-flung ruins and debris, we calmly and adventurously go traveling (236).

The possibility of multiple copies--an indistinguishable hoard of duplicates--is central among concerns covered in Benjamin's time-worn essay on art and mechanical reproduction.  The essay reads almost episodically; it is broken into a preface, fifteen chunks and an epilogue.  I first read this essay ten or twelve years ago, again (if skimmingly) sixteen months ago, and most recently, today.  As explicitly concerned as Benjamin is with shift in mass consciousness with the advent of the camera (for photography or for film), he's also tacitly concerned with the propaganda-subjected mass consciousness that would foment under the conditions of so easily produced and circulated materials.  In this sense, reproducibility qua image/art and photo/film is but one symptom of more general massification (234), spectacle (232), the blend and fade of author/public distinctions (232), changing "modes of participation" (239), the degradation of human aura (presence-force) (229), and distraction's weakening of concentration on the art object (240). 

But are we yet in an age of mechanical reproduction?  How have digital productions--the internet's hearty copycopia--slanted and refigured Benjamin's predictive insights?

The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction...

Benjamin makes a few claims dependent on the distinction between cult value and exhibition value.  As I re-read today, the cult value persistently struck a chord with me as the art object's situatedness in a kind of local, inertial aesthetic--originality, tradition, religiosity and the magical.  In the cult value (223), a "ritual function."  But in the age of mechanical reproduction, the art object is freed from these constraints; it enjoys a release to multiplicity (twenty-four screens; Technorati, etc.). Bust out of the museum case, Art; go out and play (although everyone's not comfortable with this). 

Finally, returnables (5cME):
(-1-) This notion of aura (presence) (229) tends toward essentialism?
(-2-) Atget's photos of the barren Paris streets in 1900 (226); the photo as evidence; people, no people?  Barthes (where, in RB?) says that people must be present for him to feel the sting...yes?
(-3-) On the "pioneering" Dadaists (237): How far-reaching or well established is Benjamin's contempt for them?

Bookmark and Share Posted by at September 13, 2005 10:00 PM to Reading Notes

You might be interested in John Unsworth's "Electronic Scholarship or, Scholarly Publishing and the Public," in which--starting at paragraph 7--he considers Benjamin and the digital age.

Posted by: gzombie at September 14, 2005 8:06 AM

Thanks for the reference, gz. Definitely thought-provoking stuff worth coming back to for a more careful read.

Posted by: Derek at September 14, 2005 11:02 PM