"Marx says that revolutions are the locomotives of world
history. But the situation may be quite different. Perhaps revolutions are not
the train ride, but the human race grabbing for the emergency brake"----Walter
In recent years, there has been a great interest in the work
of Walter Benjamin. Until 1968, none of his work had been published in English;
since then, several works have been translated. Today, no discussion of the
German intellectual scene between the world wars is complete without a mention
of Benjamin, and no Marxist aesthetics or cultural criticism ignores his work.
In the 1920s, Benjamin developed relationships with both T.
W. Adorno and B. Brecht. Their studies had led him to a confrontation with
aesthetic theory. His own experience of intellectual proletarianization and his
friendships with Adorno and , later, Brecht, led him to a serious consideration
of dialectical materialism as a critical method. He moved away from earlier
mystical-religious formulations toward political analysis (Witte, 1975, p. 9).
Thus Benjamin's position within Marxism can be seen to have evolved in
connection with, and out of several different and conflicting ideological
patterns. A Jewish mystical strain is generally recognized in his early work
in a 1922 project for a literary journal, Angelus Novus ; also in the final
"Theses on the philosophy of history." Later he was strongly drawn to Brecht's
Marxism, to the possibility of uniting artistic and political integrity with
urgent, concrete political focus. At the same time, Benjamin shared
philosophical and sociological interests and approaches with members of the
Frankfurt school, for example with respect to the cultural works (1975, p. 18).
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This paper may not be a critical account, even where I seem to
be explicating Benjamin's thought. It would be difficult in any case to know
what an adequate critical account of Benjamin would look like, since there are
several Walter Benjamins and he will not permit such reductiveness. However,
with the best possible critical eyes available, this paper will attempt to
explore a side of aesthetic theory especially some central motifs concerned with
questions of the cinema. To achieve this purpose, the study has two thrusts:
first, it will attempt to analyze and document Benjamin's aesthetic theory,
especially his film theory; second, it will take critical views of the theory.
Overview of Benjamin's Aesthetic Theory
The analysis is complicated in part, because of Benjamin's
encyclopedic and exegetical scopes (like McLuhan's paratactic exegetical
approach). He decodes the coded meanings of objects at all levels of
signification and social structure, from times past and present. Benjamin saw
his method as a kind of drilling, of plumbing the depths. He once wrote, "I
tell Brecht that penetrating into depth is my way of travelling to the
antipodes" (Benjamin, 1973, P. 110). According to Benjamin, all human knowledge
must take the form of interpretation. At a time when the gap between the
individual subject of action or perception and the larger social movement grew
wider, and their links more tenuous, Benjamin was troubled by the problematic
locus of the individual observer and tried to redefine the author's subjectivity
out of existence, to yield the fullness of epistemological space to the presence
of the object (Adorno, 1967; Witte, 1975). In other words, since his experience
was not that of revolutionary struggle, but rather financial insecurity endured
and observed individually, he did not return to the classics; instead, he turned
to a literature that was devoid of authority and could only gain its political
significance by way of his interpretation.
Over the question of method, Benjamin differed with G. Lukacs,
one of Marxism's most important critics. Lukacs stressed continuity in history
and in culture, while Benjamin emphasized discontinuity; where Lukacs saw
revolution as the consummation of the historical process, and articulated a
persisting cultural concern with the preservation of bourgeois tradition of
critical realism, Benjamin saw revolution as a radical break with development,
and sought to mobilize language to explode reality, not to evoke its totality
(Witte, 1975, p. 16-17; Eagleton, 1981, p. 83-86). For Benjamin, the
intellectual should reveal the significance of the present historical instant,
and should analyze the explosive convergence of past and future in the presence
of the now so that it can be transformed.
Benjamin's method was a complicated one. He tried to relate
fragments to the broader social reality. He considered the society as a complex
weave, that "the rigid, isolated object (work, novel, book) is of no use
whatsoever. It must be inserted into the context of living social relations"
(Benjamin, 1973, p. 87). In one sense, this philosophy of fragments, one of the
most important features of Benjamin's work, provides a critical challenge to the
dominant tendencies of the inter-war period which were totalitarian on both
theoretical and practical levels (Witte, 1975).
For Benjamin, art must not only be evaluated in terms of its
depiction of the social reality of class antagonisms, but also must be analyzed
in terms of its position within the literary production relations of a given
era. Benjamin seemed to admire Brecht's demand that intellectuals "not supply
the production apparatus without, within (sic) the limits of the possible,
changing that apparatus in the direction of socialism." The form of art had to
be changed as well as the content. Benjamin saw that it is not good enough
simply to make people aware of human misery: Photography can "make human misery
an object of consumption" and can even turn "the struggle against misery into an
object of consumption" (1973, P. 96). Art must not stand above and outside the
context of living social relations. Here, Benjamin seems to try to break the
barriers of competence - the distinction between artist and audience. He also
attempts to build different form and conceptualizations of the role of art and
artists. "What we must demand from the photographer is the ability to put such
a caption beneath his picture as will rescue it from the ravages of modishness
and confer upon it a revolutionary use value" (1973, p. 95).
In 1934, in an address delivered to the Institute for the
Study of Fascism in Paris, Benjamin declared, "We are in the midst of a vast
process in which literary forms are being melted down, a process in which many
of the contrasts in terms of which we have been accustomed to think may lose
their meaning" (1973, p. 89). The implication of these changes for Benjamin was
that artists could no longer afford to stand above the social struggle and look
down: artists had to take sides. Benjamin saw that art was not innocent, that
every artists living those years had to choose between the fascist
aestheticization of politics and the communist politicization of art.
The Impact of the Work of Art in the World
In his essay, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical
Reproduction", Benjamin locates a connection between specific forms of
industrial and technological organization and the restructuring of subjectivity
and signification brought on by changes within capitalism. He tried to deal
specifically with film as an art form for modern times. All forms of mass
communications (Benjamin only experienced newspapers, radio and film) are made
possible by the advent of mechanical reproduction that allows the reproduction
of a word, a picture, or a scene, so that they become accessible to a wide
audience. The mode of artistic production and communication plays a large role
in determining the relation between the working class and bourgeois society.
Benjamin, in this essay, outlines the modern development in this way.
Certainly, Benjamin was fascinated by the potential
democratization of the communications media and the arts implicit in advances in
mechanical reproduction. The introduction of the technology of lithography,
which enabled many copies to be printed from the same master plate, increased
the potential of the lithograph to reach a mass audience. A work of art that
once could only be seen by the wealthy in a museum or gallery could be
reproduced at little cost and made accessible to many more people. The advent
of inexpensive illustrated newspapers meant that current events had become the
business of the masses. According to Benjamin, film allows an event or a
performance to be recorded and be available for countless audiences to see.
Thus, mechanical reproduction makes possible the involvement of the masses in
culture and mass politics. I shall return to discuss more about his impact
theory of art as it relates to the function of art.
Benjamin argued that the film organized on the principle of
montage not only destroys the authenticity of origins, but also exposes a
plurality of meaning, implying a mode of perception whose very premise requires
activity, production, and transformation. "For the first time in world history,
mechanical reproduction emancipates the work of art from its parasitical
dependence on ritual" (Benjamin,1969, p. 224). To Benjamin, the value of the
work of art no longer stems from its ritualistic cult value, whether it be a
magical cult, religious cult or secularized cult like the cult of beauty.
Authenticity is no longer a relevant criterion for evaluating artistic
production. In photography, for example, it makes no sense to ask for the
authentic art, according to Benjamin.
The effect of the aura is significant to Benjamin: "instead of
being based on ritual," Benjamin notes, the function of art "begins to be based
on another practice - politics" (p. 224). What this means is that art for art's
sake is rejected for artistic production that serves a purpose, that stands in
direct relation to the political struggles of the time. When the distance
between artist and society is lessened, then the false distinctions between the
social roles of artists and educators are negated. Benjamin explains, "By the
absolute emphasis on its exhibition value as opposed to an ahistorical cult
value, the work of art becomes a creation with entirely new functions, among
which the one we are conscious of, the artistic function, later may be
recognized as incidental." And he adds: "This much is certain: today,
photography and the film are the most serviceable exemplifications of this new
function" (p. 225).
For Benjamin, the aura is the result of two developments in
films: the new relationship between actor and audience, and the mass nature of
the medium. In the theater, the actor responds to and adjusts to the audience,
Each performance is different: there is a subtle interaction between actor and
audience. According to Benjamin, there is no audience for the performance in
film; there is only the camera. The actor's performance is not one performance
but rather a series of performances. A film is an ordering of multiple
fragments and a series of shots in order to experience the whole. The actor is
put in the paradoxical situation of operating with his/her whole living person
while being robbed of the aura that is tied to his/her presence. The actor is
present to the camera, not to the audience; as a result, "the audience's
identification with the actor is really an identification with the camera"
2. The Relationship of Film and Audience
The importance of this, in Benjamin's opinion, is the
distancing it forces on the audience: the filmgoer more easily takes on the role
of critic, for there is no personal contact with the actor to influence
judgements. The film viewer becomes a tester, almost a back-seat director.
Benjamin compares the film shot to a vocational aptitude test, describing both
as examples of "segmental performances of the individual ..... taken before a
committee of experts" (p. 246). According to Benjamin, this audience attitude
is radically different from the audience attitude that appreciate the work of
art for its cult value, and that bows to the mystery and ritual power of the
unique work. With the development of film, Benjamin argues, the audience no
longer stands in awe of the work of art. The very nature of art is transformed,
and it is transformed in a way that encourages the removal of film from " the
realm of the 'beautiful semblance' which, so far, had been taken to be the only
sphere where art could thrive" (p. 230).
The actor's function is radically altered as well. The film
can record reality; can document what is. This makes it possible for everyone
to participate, as an actor, in the creation of the work of art. In many early
Russian films, the people played themselves and they were collectively the stars
of the film. Benjamin explains that some of these players "are not actors in
our sense but people who portray themselves - and primarily in their own work
process" (p.232). The distinctions that normally are considered important in
art are blurred by means of mechanical reproduction on film. For Benjamin, the
most revolutionary contribution of film is "the promotion of a revolutionary
criticism of traditional concepts of art" (p. 231).
Film can open up our own world for us, capture the
significance of the insignificant moment, and consciously explore a space. Film
has "burst this prison world asunder by the dynamite of a tenth of a second" (p.
236). It is true that film has a potential use value in that it enables us to
explore and understand our world and our historical situation. Benjamin,
however exaggerates the use value of film: "the film, on the other hand, extends
our comprehension of the necessities which rule our lives; on the other hand, it
manages to assure us of an immense and unexpected field of action" (p. 236).
When we all become actors; when the passitivity of the awed
art viewer is given up, then the potential for self-motivated creative and
political activity increases, according to Benjamin. Film and other forms of
mechanical reproduction further the possibility of such radical changes of
mindset by the way they change the reaction of the masses toward art. Unlike
painting and sculptures, which are placed in museums for the contemplation of
the few, film presents an object for simultaneous collective experience.
Everyone is an expert: enjoyment and criticism are intimately fused. The
questions of Benjamin's conviction on the democratic aspect of film will be
3. Film under Capitalism and Fascism
Benjamin contended that film was not being used in a
revolutionary way under capitalism and that the potential inherent in the medium
might never be fully utilized. According to him, the very dominance of cinema
by capital diminished the revolutionary use value of film. In turn, the masses
are influenced to reestablished the false distinctions between audience and
actor, between art and public. Thus, a false aura is created, an unnatural
build-up of the "personality." For Benjamin, "the spell of the personality" is
"the phony spell of the commodity." Benjamin criticized the nature of film
production under capitalism and its attempts to mystify the audience further.
Benjamin saw the film industry "trying hard to spur the interest of the masses
through illusion-promoting spectacles and dubious speculations" (p. 233), to
spur the interest of the masses toward illusion while denying them access to
participation in those spectacles that would reflect their true interests.
Benjamin also analyzed the way in which fascism uses the film medium for its own
purposes and the ways in which the film medium lends itself to such use.
Benjamin argued that under capitalism, the mechanical reproduction of reality
onto film not only is not progressive, but it is also dangerous. This is
probably due to the very nature of film. Standing before a painting, Benjamin
notes, " the spectator can abandon himself to his associations. Before the
movie frame he cannot do so. No sooner has his eye grasped a scene than it is
already changed" (p. 238). For this reason, Benjamin was aware of the fact that
the propaganda value of film is great, greater than that of static arts. Of
course, the Nazis and Russians knew this well: Leni Riefenstahl's films are a
case in point.
The film is the art and communications medium for modern
times, Benjamin claimed. He wrote in a footnote, "the film is the art form that
is in keeping with the increased threat to his life which modern man has to
face" (p. 250). Further, film is the only medium which can reproduce the masses
and bring them face to face with themselves. "Mass movements are usually
discernible more clearly by a camera than by the naked eye .... The image
received by the eye cannot be enlarged the way a negative is enlarged. This
means that mass movements, including war, constitute a form of human behavior
which particularly favors mechanical equipment" (p. 251).
Culture, communications, art -- they constitute a single
battleground where, Benjamin argues, fascism and communism have no choice but to
fight. This given the increasing formation of mass audiences, the historical
development of capitalism in the 1930s and the technological development of art
at that time. Fascism introduces the aesthetic into political life as a way of
giving the masses "a chance to express themselves" instead of a chance to claim
their "right to change property relations" (p. 241).
Before proceeding to the critical analysis, it is important to
point out how Benjamin's views of history is different from that of Marxism.
Although, it is not clear whether Benjamin consciously attempted to be a Marxist
or not, it seems to me that Benjamin's historical views in the study of film is
not far from Marxism, which stresses invention and technique as the primary
cause of historical change. Technology, Benjamin explains, can be utilized
either for progressive (communist) ends - to provide for a collective experience
and to enrich perception in such a way as to break with traditional hierarchies,
or for reactionary (fascist) ends - to provide for a collective experience of
destruction in which the aesthetic manipulation of violence serves to mask the
property system in the defense of which such technological holocausts occur. At
the same time, his conception of human history also seems to differ from that of
Marxism. Marx saw revolutions as the "locomotives" of history; Benjamin saw
revolutions as the pulling of the "emergency brake," as the miraculous rescue of
a world gone out of control. "The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that
the 'state of emergency' in which we live is not the exception, but the rule.
We must attain to a conception of history that is in keeping with this insight"
(Benjamin, 1969, p. 257). For Benjamin, modern history has been the record of
the overpowering of tradition by conformism rather than simple material
My problem with Benjamin's aesthetic theory is the question of
the function of art. In the case of film, regarded as a new art form that has
no tradition, Benjamin did not seem to inquire into the possibilities and
conditions of artistically great films. In this sense, strictly speaking, he
was not developing a film aesthetic at all - he was not conceiving of the film
as an aesthetic form. Benjamin argued that "the work of art becomes a creation
with entirely new functions, later may be recognized as incidental" (1969, p.
227). In this process the work of pure art is relativized.
In Benjamin's film theory, art no longer functions as such an
autonomous sphere of life. It is said to lose its autonomy, its aura; it
becomes naked information available for political purposes. Adorno (1973)
criticized this as a "blind confidence in proletarian spontaneity" which reduces
art to political utility (p. 55-80). It seems to me that Benjamin gave up on
aesthetic form, in favor of a preoccupation with the utilization of aesthetic
content. In this context, he raised two points - concerning cinematic technique
designed for mass reception; and the effect of this technique on the masses.
Both became very important.
The reason that film was important for Benjamin was precisely
because of its democratic character - in the sense of his claim that film is
universally accessible and that everyone is an expert; and that criticism of
film is one, with enjoyment of film. Today, however, the art film and the mass
entertainment film have separated into different categories, and, although the
art film remains to an extent popular, it is no longer a democratic genre.
Though Benjamin's view on the democratic nature of film is no longer valid, I
think his question needs to examined - how a democratic, collective reception of
art is possible?
On the question of the effect of art, Benjamin tried to
stylize this effect into pure utility and instrumentality as far as his theory
of film was concerned. As mentioned above, Benjamin believed that film is able
to have an immediately useable, instrumental impact on everyday life. The whole
question of aura hangs in the balance on this problem of utility and immediacy.
It seems to me that Benjamin develops his point of view of modern media -
although he only experienced newspaper, radio, and film - too narrowly out of
the visual arts where aura may be tied to the material uniqueness of object.
Moreover, Benjamin did not consider the forms of mass communication to be
aesthetic forms, and applied them to his inexperienced political assumption that
the mass movement which he expected to mobilize (with help of film) to defeat
fascism would also mean the end of the bourgeois world, and hence open up a
world of higher creative immediacy. But the world of domination has remained.
Though it is not clear whether Benjamin's theory was a model
for any developments of political and Avant-Garde cinema, Benjamin's desire to
give the people access to and representation in their own films should not be
ignored. What is clear is that he analyzed a mode of film production that still
exists today, but in an even more highly developed form than in the late 1930s.
Although his belief on the function of film which is based on his naive
political assumptions that film is the critical necessity to advance socialism,
is more or less exaggerated, he clearly understood both the dangers of film, and
its importance in mass society. It is amazing that 50 years ago, only eight
years after the first talkie, a German critic or essayist could have been so
perceptive about the nature of the film medium under capitalism.
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