602 version of notes:
Citation (list the author, title, and year of publication):
— Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility.” 1935–36. 2nd version. The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility and Other Writings on Media, edited by Michael W. Jennings, et al., Belknap P of Harvard UP, 2008, pp. 19–56.
Intellectual Problem (state the question being answered or relationship/confusion being investigated):
— How have the operations of capitalist production, namely the capacity to technologically reproduce things with little human effort, changed the nature and status of art in culture? And, how can these changes be articulated within a program of anticapitalism and antifascism?
Key Concepts (name up to 3 terms that the author invented or employed and offer definitions):
- “Technological reproducibility”: the mechanical process by which the work of art can be made multiple. Benjamin also distinguishes between art wherein the technological reproduction expands the purview of an already-existing artwork, such as a photograph of a painting, and art wherein reproduction produces the art itself, as in film.
- “Aura”: “A strange issue of space and time: the unique apparition of a distance, however near it may be” (23). The aura is that unknowable immanence inherent to the work of art, the experiential “authenticity” of the thing. In “aura” we have authority: access to the uniqueness of the original that then “decays” in subsequent reproductions.
- “Cult value”/“exhibition value”: the “two polarities” of an artwork’s value, the former its value to ritual and the latter its value in being show to fellow humans. Reproduction severs the link that produces cult value, and so increases opportunities for engaging with exhibition value.
Thesis Statement (quote 1-2 sentences that best encapsulate the main thesis/argument):
— “It might be stated as a general formula that the technology of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the sphere of tradition. By replicating the work many times over, it substitutes a mass existence for a unique existence. And in permitting the reproduction to reach the recipient in his or her own situation, it actualizes that which is reproduced” (22).
Secondary ideas (summarize up to 5 pieces of supporting evidence):
- Before reproduction, the value and place of art was based on its uniqueness, which was analogous to its authenticity. The singular nature of the work of art gave it a power that Benjamin characterizes as “ritualistic” (perhaps even fetishistic?). Reproduction, in removing “uniqueness” and thus shattering “authenticity” institutes a new regime of art’s social function as a matter of politics over ritual.
- The plays of cult and exhibition value are not just enacted in the social sphere, but emerge from the material conditions of the arts’ production: Benjamin uses the example of the Greek coin, wherein the mechanical processes of casting and stamping led the Greeks to impute “eternal values” into the art itself.
- Film introduces a special case, wherein the human being’s self-alienation is key to any “aura” that the artwork has. In this sense, film is both the revolutionary artwork par excellence and deeply counterrevolutionary, as the film actor exerts no control over the means of her own production and reproduction.
- “The most important social function of film is to establish equilibrium between human being and the apparatus” (37). Film, through this identification or equilibrium, is then perhaps the most useful technology through which to train the proletariat in particular ways of seeing relations, both between themselves and the technologies dominating their lives and between themselves and the bourgeoisie controlling those technologies.
- The stakes of all of these claims are against fascism, which offers (to quote Christina in class) aesthetic expression without rights: in the fascist aesthetics of the Futurists, expression becomes a distraction from politics, which then releases an energy channeled towards domination. Communists must respond by politicizing art expressly to counter these fascist tendencies.
Theoretical Foundations (list up to 3 theorists that the author relies on, explicitly or implicitly, and state what each offers the argument):
- Bertolt Brecht’s idea of the alienation effect underlies Benjamin’s claims that film can use its formal and material aspects to call attention to its own constructed nature and thus the constructed nature of society more broadly.
- These ideas also emerge from the Russian Formalists, in particular Viktor Shklovsky’s idea of “enstrangement”/“defamilization,” which while less focused on the role of technology still call for an art that makes the present world strange again to the viewer such that he or she can recognize (and change) the structures lying underneath.
Theoretical Antagonists (list up to 3 theorists that the author responds against, explicitly or implicitly, and why):
- Marinetti and the Futurists, whose fascist aesthetics are Benjamin’s main point of opposition at the close of this essay. The Futurists deployed technology as proof of the glorification of war; Benjamin in turn argues that such a move is only possible if there is no consideration of the politics of such technologies, if one uncritically places such technologies at the center of society.
- As I wrote in my notes on Adorno and Horkheimer, Benjamin’s position that film can operate as a liberatory tool runs counter to their vision of film as the technology par excellence of bourgeois domination. In particular, Benjamin’s emphasis on film as a technology that trains in the seeing and thus understanding both of its own operations and the operations of bourgeois domination more generally is not present in Adorno’s model.
Implications (describe in 1-2 sentences the value, impact, or stakes of this text in cultural, political, ethical, or aesthetic terms):
— Benjamin’s essay proposes a number of key concepts—particularly the “aura”—that would come to be popular in literary and media criticism more generally in the latter half of the 20th century. Writing from 2017, I’m struck by the clarity with which Benjamin considers the interrelated nature of culture and technology, and the carefulness with which one must recognize the politics that shape and also emerge from the technological apparatus—particularly when a disregard of such politics leads, as he convincingly argues, into fascism.