Tuesday, November 5, 2019

Walter Benjamin The Everyday in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

Walter Benjamin's famous "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" is mainly about art.  But it can also relate to everyday aesthetics.  After all, if perception changes with historical conditions so too will perception of the everyday.  There seem to be the following changes on his account.  First, the authenticity of the landscape changes.  The aura of landscape may be reduced as film takes over our representation of landscape.  Second, magazine illustrations and advertisements, common objects in everyday experience, change not only our perception of artworks but also our lived phenomenological space.  In the age of mechanical reproduction these things take more prominence.   They also influence the way we perceive the things they represent.  In the subsequent age of digital reproduction the images we see on our screens play an important new role in our everyday experience.  Third, the very reduction of cult, ritual and aura in the age of mechanical reproduction means that this also plays less a role in everyday experience.  Fourth, Benjamin's account of the architectural, taken as a matter not of contemplation but of distraction, changes (or describes a change in) our perception of architectural space on an everyday basis.

However these are almost random matters:  perhaps the most significant is just the reduction of aura generally speaking (and not just the aura of art).  Of course aura is mainly associated with cult experience or experience in an artworld context.  But let's say that aura occurs in everyday life outside of cult experience.  Benjamin himself discusses what he calls natural aura, i.e. "the unique phenomenon of a distance" which happens for example when you follow a mountain range with your eyes.  So, if there is less contemplation, less aura, and less distance, then this is true not simply in the art gallery or museum but in everyday life.  Benjamin speaks of the urge of the masses to get hold of things at close range, including picture magazines and newsreels.  (He seems to revel in this, finding it a good thing.) If there is now a "sense of the universal equality of things" and aura is destroyed everywhere then even the natural aura is destroyed.  Uniqueness and permanence are abandoned for the transitory.  Tradition is "liquidated."  Ritual is going to be replaced by politics, although there is a deep ambiguity here since later in the essay it is clear that fascism as much as socialism is the politics that replaces ritual....and fascism really just introduces another sort of ritual...and isn't there a fascism of socialism as well?  The emancipation of the everyday from aura, cult and ritual into politics seems dubious in this regard.  

There are other points in the essay that glance off of the everyday but which are worth considering.  In section VII the dispute of painting vs. photography is discussed as also the question of whether film is art.  Benjamin stresses that various theorists who have tried to make film out to be art have done so in a forced way, for example in holding it to be a kind of hieroglyph or a kind of prayer.  Most interesting for our purposes, at the end of the section Werfel is mentioned as saying that (in Benjamin's words) "it was the sterile copying of the external world with its streets, interiors, stations, restaurants, motorcars, and beaches which until now had obstructed the elevation of the film to the realm of art."  Werfel then says that the true meaning of film is to express "all that is fairylike, marvelous, supernatural."  Benjamin mocks this.  But perhaps what film does in such a meaningful way (take Badlands as an example) is to film the everyday in such a way as to make it marvelous and supernatural-like.  This is what Benjamin misses, that mechanical reproduction can actually assist in the aestheticization of the everyday.  Heidegger speaks of us with disapproval as no longer listening to Being and not allowing the reliability of equipment to shine through in truth, something that great art helps us to remedy.  Perhaps a way out of our current alienation (an alienation that is markedly of the 21st century sort) is to open ourselves up to the aura in the everyday.  

One place where the everyday is explicitly mentioned in in section XIII where Benjamin takes an interested in Freud, especially in his Psychopathology of Everyday Life, a book which he sees as isolating and making analyzable "things which had heretofore floated along unnoticed in the broad stream of perception."  Benjamin observes that this kind of analysis leads to a "deepening of apperception."  Through Freud we see the everyday differently.  And film does something similar on Benjamin's account:  "behavior items shown in a movie can be analyzed much more precisely and from more points of view..." Further, "[b]y close-ups of the things around us, by focusing on hidden details of familiar objects, by exploring commonplace milieus under the ingenious guidance of the camera, the film... extends our comprehension of the necessities which rule our lives..."  And then, "[o]ur taverns and our metropolitan streets, our offices and furnished rooms, our railroad stations and our factories appeared to have us locked up hopelessly" until film burst this prison-world open. With the close-up, space expands; with slow motion, movement is extended and new forms are revealed with photographic enlargement.  Thus, "an unconsciously penetrated space is substituted for a space consciously explored by man."  And then we get a different view even of walking or of reaching for a lighter:  "[t]he act of reaching for a lighter or a spoon is familiar routine, yet we hardly know what really goes on between hand and metal..."   Film reveals this.  In short, "the camera introduces us to unconscious optics as does psychoanalysis to unconscious impulses" and we see the world differently. 

We also learn in section X that film can break down the distinction between art and life:  "Some of the players whom we meet in Russian films are not actors in our sense but people who portray themselves - and primarily in their work process."  I want to return however to a strange thing in Section VI.  First we see that there is some cult value in photography, it is in the photograph of the human face:  there is an aura which emanates from early photographs, and these have "an incomparable beauty."  Benjamin insist that exhibition value is superior to such ritual value, although this seems strange since exhibition value is value of a commodity, exhibitions being capitalist market places mainly.  There is no surprise that aura is lost in such a market-place, but is this an improvement over the aura of the photograph.  Benjamin speaks of the "incomparable significance of Atget."  But I think he gets Atget wrong.  He likens Atget's photographs of deserted city streets to crime scene photographs.  But there are no dead bodies in these photographs.  This is not Weegee.  "With Atget, photographs become standard evidence for historical occurrences, and acquire a hidden political significance."  They demand not "free-floating contemplation" but stir the viewer in a new way.  I frankly do not see the crime scene or the politics.  Atget gives us something for contemplation, the deserted city streets.  Now, so many years later, they are also nostalgic...a Paris that no longer exists.  They have an aura.  They do challenge the viewer in a unique way but not a way so different from the way we look at early photographs of human faces, which Benjamin takes to have cult value.   More importantly, they train us for experiencing the everyday.  

The last section is about architecture, but in a way that brings in the everyday.  Benjamin wants to make the complaint that the masses demand distraction (whereas art demands concentration) into something more positive.  Whereas the man who concentrates is absorbed by a work of art the "distracted mass absorbs the work of art" and this happens in architecture whose reception "is consummated by a collectivity in a state of distraction."  This seems, at least on the face of it obviously false.  If you are distracted you are not paying attention, and yet to enjoy the fine aspects of a work of architecture even if you are a member of "the masses" you still need to pay attention.  No one will appreciate a work of Frank Lloyd Wright if they are all the time distracted by their Facebook activity.  But Benjamin goes on to say that "[b]uildings are appropriated in a twofold manner:  by use and by perception - or rather, by touch and sight.  Such appropriation cannot be understood in terms of the attentive concentration of a tourist before a famous building."  There may be some truth in this;  the tourist experience is only one way to appreciate architecture.  "On the tactile side there is no counterpart to contemplation on the optical side.  Tactile appropriation is accomplished not so much by attention as by habit" and in architecture habit also determines optical reception, i.e. "less through rapt attention than by noticing the object in incidental fashion."  To bring back in distraction:  the distracted person can also form habits.  His conclusion is that this also happens in film where the "public is an examiner, but an absent minded one." 

I find nothing helpful in this idea:  perhaps the English word "distraction" is a hindrance here.  However it is certainly the case that our experience is architecture is just one of rapt attention but also in the incidental and habitual mode...it may only be in the back of our consciousness that this building we walk by is well proportioned.  There are in between states as well:  today I noticed an architectural element on my campus, a winding pathway, I had never noticed before, and this was delightful even though neither a matter for rapt attention or for incidental and habitual awareness.  Indeed, I think that this sort of awareness is more important architecturally in terms of everyday life than the other two.  


1 comment:

Brian Verduzco said...

I think the hindrance or misunderstanding of the word "distraction" comes from our liberal use of it. When we are at an art gallery it can be said we are distracted, but this is because our attention is diverted from our environment and into the paintings within the frames. In which case, we possibly aren't ever distracted, but rather, we lose focus of "other things;" this can be interpreted as the same thing, however, the focus is still present. When our minds are unable to concentrate on other things; it is precisely because our minds are preoccupied with art, when we are in a gallery. I believe this is the reason why Benjamin chose the word "distracted."

If we have a necessity, it can be said we are distracted when we prioritize something we want.
Thus, when I read this segment, I understood his statement to read more like so:
Art distracts us from reality.