"A book must be the ax for the frozen sea within us." – Franz Kafka

A Critical Response to Benjamin’s “Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”

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I have a confession to make – I have never until quite recently read Walter Benjamin’s Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. It’s an embarrassing admission for me – akin to a film buff admitting that they’ve never seen The Godfather, or worse. If you haven’t read it yourself and would like to, you can find it here in English and here in German.

Now that I’ve read it and spent some time analyzing it I can understand why it attracts so much discussion. It seems to me that much of the productive appeal of The Work of Art lies precisely in its failure to advance a coherent argument, and its beguiling invitation to the reader to try to understand and resolve the hermeneutic fissures that cleave it. These fault lines are artifacts of the application of fundamentally dissimilar systems. We see evidence of his deep interest in Kantian-transcendental, Romantic-aesthetical, and Marxist-critical frameworks. This essay gains interpretive interest from the tension it shows between his commitment to a late Romantic theory of the immanence of the Absolute and his burgeoning commitment to a Marxist analytical framework, but the tensions that immediately surface between these two approaches is never resolved.

I believe Benjamin was prone to add new systems into his existing framework without doing the synthetic work to organize them into a coherent set of views. He may not have regarded this as a problem, and may have simply seen it as a consequence of his philosophical commitments. But that does not defend him from criticism, if his work advances arguments that proceed from conflicting theoretical postures.

In my reading, this productive tension is most clearly seen in to two specific interpretive dilemmas. The first is understanding what he means by this statement in the introduction: “The concepts which are introduced into the theory of art in what follows differ from the more familiar terms in that they are completely useless for the purposes of Fascism.” Benjamin associates the concepts of genius and creativity with fascism and warns against their “uncontrolled application.” This association, which he returns to in the epilog, remains largely unexplained, and is to me somewhat inexplicable.

In most arguments I’ve read by the European left arguing for the necessity of regulating public discourse to defend it against authoritarianism, fascism, or extremism, the preferred tool for such regulation is rational analysis. Perhaps this is due to some extent the substantial post-war legacy of Jürgen Habermas. But even anachronistically, I was surprised when Benjamin claimed the urgent necessity of performing aesthetic analysis in ways that cannot be co-opted by fascism, but then went on to hang this analysis on the poorly-defined and poorly-motivated concept of the “aura” of the unique, non-reproduced work of art

It is common among continental philosophers to introduce key terms without defining them and then use them to perform heavy theoretical lifting, and Benjamin’s use of aura would be at home with any number of existential phenomenologists. It appears to be a quality of experience that is ambiguously tied to space, proximity, and authenticity. The aura “withers in the age of mechanical reproduction,” which displaces authentic immediacy with a kind of simulated proximity tied to replication, convenience, and control.

The postulation of this kind of irreducible existential factor is more common on the German right than on the left – I immediately think of Ernst Jünger, Martin Heidegger, and Karl Heinz Bohrer, all of whom criticize the scope of Enlightenment rationalism and liberal democracy using such categories, to various extents.

What Benjamin means by exactly “aura,” and how he understands its relationship to the problem of mechanical reproduction, is a long-standing source of disagreement, and it constitutes the second principle interpretive dilemma posed by this work.

With this concept, Benjamin’s longstanding interest in German Romanticism and Jewish mysticism become unmistakeable. By refraining from critically analyzing the aura, he may be attempting to posit an irreducible category of direct experience which he sees as a locus of value, thus insisting upon its givenness and non-rational character.

So what does he tell us about it, exactly? I read in secondary literature that Benjamin’s earliest extant discussion of the concept of aura is preserved in a notebook describing the influence of hashish. This makes a certain amount of sense.

In an earlier work on photography, he defines the aura as “A strange weave of space and time; the unique appearance or semblance of distance, no matter how close it may be.” I can’t say that I find this definition particularly illuminating. It is easier to understand the term by watching how he uses it.

From my vantage point that there is something a bit luddite about the term. When I read his statement that “The poorest provincial staging of Faust  is superior to a Faust film,” it reminds me of someone insisting that there is a certain intangible quality that just makes books better than e-books. Perhaps, but then I can carry a library of hundreds of books in my day bag using my Kindle….

In another writing, Benjamin claims that regarding the loss of aura as “merely a symptom of decay” would be “fatuous,” which would seem to suggest he doesn’t see it as a kind of nostalgia for a more innocent time. But he left me with little doubt in his application of the term in this essay that this is how he uses it, whether or not it’s what it necessarily means.

Much has been made of Benjamin’s analysis of the his reading of a historically-prior cult function of art, which preceded the was tied to its ritual use rather than the purely aesthetic appreciation of art per se that evolved in the Renaissance. I would maintain in his analysis of the cult he neglected what I would consider an important precursor to mechanical reproduction, and in so doing, misread the character of cult art substantially. Specifically, I would argue that the production of iconic art is a form of reproduction.

In this sense, iconic art refers to works of art that are valued not in terms of their unique content, but insofar as they duplicate established types. Anyone who has walked through a gallery of Italian Renaissance art and seen canvas after canvas depicting with formulaic fidelity the Annunciation or the Virgin Enthroned with Child will recognize that was is principally salient about many of these paintings is their expression of a sacred formula. This is a characteristic of most cult art, from the thangkas of Tibet, with their rigorously-determined proportions and attributes, to the cases of Cycladic Bronze Age goddess sculptures you can view in the Louvre, displaying dozens of nearly-identical design created over the span of centuries. I think it opens up the concept of reproduction to recognize that it occurs on many different planes.

Benjamin makes strong claims that the diminution of the aura in the age of mass entertainments is a tool of fascism, as is the interpretation of aesthetics with respect to intangible psychological factors such as genius, but he never explains or defends these assertions, and it is not at all obvious to me why fascism should benefit from the loss of the aura any more than communism, or any other political ideology. The assertion that using particular forms of argumentation could guard against misuse and appropriation sounds like the kind of declaration that only a naive Marxist could endorse, still persuaded by the scientific and objective character of Marx’s historical analysis.

In a final statement of nostalgia at the end of the essay, he writes:

Mankind, which in Homer’s time was an object of contemplation for the Olympian gods, now is one for itself. Its self-alienation 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.

Has Benjamin read the Iliad? I think immediately of Homer’s lengthy description of Peneleos spearing Ilioneus in the face, likening his bloody head bobbing on the shaft with a poppy on its stem. No work of art in the history of letters has equalled its power in aestheticizing war.


Written by Mesocosm

April 14, 2018 at 3:32 am

Posted in Uncategorized

4 Responses

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  1. Thanks. You’ve written a clear analysis of what sounds like a rather murky theory.

    Keep ’em coming 🙂

    Anne Campbell

    April 14, 2018 at 6:49 pm

  2. Critical reason arises as the preferred tool of resistance—which is a negative function—against the abuse of authoritarianism and extremism when the need for reason arises from a search for truth and certainty, decoupled from a quest for meaning that embraces paradox and tragedy—a reflection that is made as I leave behind me the S21 prison museum of the Cambodian killing fields in Phnom Pehn. What is to be said of the “aura” and “reproducibility” of these photographic “works” on display in this non-museum museum, hovering in the margins of “art history” not unlike light being fatally sucked into a black hole?

    “Science describes accurately from outside, poetry describes accurately from inside. Science explicates, poetry implicates. Both celebrate what they describe. We need the languages of both science and poetry to save us from merely stockpiling endless “information” that fails to inform our ignorance or our irresponsibility.”

    — Ursula K. Le Guin


    April 14, 2018 at 9:30 pm

    • Thanks Marcherman, that’s interesting. I’ve been reading an essay by Manfred Frank on mythology and poetry in the German Romantics which makes a series of similar claims – to wit, that the disenchantment of the world by analytical reason dissolves solidarity by depriving mental experience of positive content, thus preserving a solely-negative function. It’s increasingly clear to me that the negative dialectics of critical theory are to a substantial degree a continuation of the criticism of the Enlightenment that goes back to the Romantics.

      I myself have very little nostalgia for such mythological solidarity. I’m not sure critics of disenchantment often grapple with the stark historical reality that solidarity has itself a largely negative function, negating in-group differences, coercing conformity, and positing a metaphysical gulf between in-groups and outsiders.


      April 14, 2018 at 10:43 pm

      • The visit to the Killing Fields S21 museum inevitably reminded me of a Christian Boltanski exhibition I saw in Bologna, Italy, last year. Boltanski, as you may know, is a French artist who works with photography, seeking to connect art with life and (re)generate shared cultural memories. “The fascinating moment for me is when the spectator hasn’t registered the art connection, and the longer I can delay this association the better.” — CB, an interesting alternative to Benjamin’s idea of aura it seems to me. This has little or nothing to do with a Romantic art-as-religion idea, nor does this suspension of reason necessarily lead to an abandon thereof in favour of a mythico-nostalgic mindset from which—and I agree with your suspicion of tribalism of any kind—“cultural memories” of the worst kind can arise, even more so as they are “shared”.


        April 15, 2018 at 12:31 am

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