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Karen Feldman on Walter Benjamin

Karen Feldman is a professor in the Department of German Studies at UC-Berkeley. Her areas of specialization include hermeneutics and phenomenology, the Frankfurt School, German Idealism, literary theory and aesthetics. She received her B.A. from the University of Chicago (1989) and her Ph.D. from DePaul University (1998). Her current research concerns aesthetics and historiography from […]

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This is KZSU, Stanford.
Welcome to entitled opinions.
My name is Robert Harrison.
We're coming to you from the Stanford campus.
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The summer solstice is bearing down on us and those of you who have followed this show over the years know what that means.
Entitled opinions is about to go into hibernation, leaving the world to the bears.
We'll be back on air in a few months from now, but to bring our spring season to a fitting conclusion.
We have a show for you on the German literary critic and thinker Walter Benjamin.
I'm joined in the studio today by Karen Feldman, a professor of German studies at UC Berkeley, who specializes in phenomenology, German idealism, the Frankfurt School, literary theory, and aesthetics.
She's the author of binding words, conscience, and Hobbes, Hegel, and Heidegger.
Karen Feldman is also one of entitled opinions favored guests.
Thanks to the two part show I did with her on Hannah Arent a few years ago.
She's smart, she's tough, she's charming, and she's not here to engage in light conversation.
She's here to dive to the bottom of the matter itself.
The matter today is Walter Benjamin and in particular his essay on the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction.
That sounds so quaint 80 years later, mechanical reproduction.
But you know us academics.
We're so ever nostalgic about things that in the past were on the cutting edge of the future.
Stay tuned, a show on Walter Benjamin coming up.
Here's what Hannah Arent had to say about her friend Walter Benjamin.
I quote, "We are dealing here with something that may not be unique but is certainly extremely rare.
The gift of thinking poetically.
This thinking fed by the present works with the thought fragments it can rest from the past and gather about itself.
It is guided by the conviction that although the living is subject to the ruin of the time, the process of decay is at the same time a process of crystallization that in the depth of the sea into which sinks and is dissolved, what once was alive, something suffrage sea change and survive in new crystallized forms and shapes that remain immune to the elements as though they waited only for the Pearl Diver.
Who one day will come down to them and bring them up into the world of the living as thought fragments as something rich and strange and perhaps as everlasting or fennomen.
There's enough in that quote to keep us going for a whole show, maybe even a two-part show who knows when Karen Feldman is with us things tend to get interesting enough to spill over into a second hour.
We'll see if that happens today but first let me welcome her to the program Karen. Thanks for coming down from Berkeley today. It's good to have you back on entitled opinions.
Thanks for inviting me back.
So today we're going to be talking about an SAS to may not be really well known to everyone who's out there tuning in.
So maybe we could start by telling our audience something about Walter Benjamin.
So Benjamin was born in 1892 to an assimilated Jewish family in Berlin and in the 1920s, 30s he became friends with Gershon Schollum who was important for his thoughts about Jewish mysticism.
He became interested in Marxism and was friends with Beethold Brecht and he became affiliated with the Frankfurt School of the Frankfurt Institute of Social Research, a group of Marxist mainly Jewish thinkers including Max Horkheimer and Taylor.
Dorno and Eric From and Herbert Muckusa among others. In 1933 he left Germany for Paris. He fled Germany and was in France but ended up in an internment camp for German citizens in 1939.
Soon after that he tried to flee France and he attempted to cross the Spanish border but at that time he did not have an exit visa which was required and when his group was turned back he actually took his own life at the border.
So Benjamin is, as you say, somebody who is an essayist who wrote about poetry and art and theater and Hashesh and Messianism and Paris Berlin and Moscow and he is somebody who has a huge range of work on a variety of topics.
And you teach him regularly I gather what is it about Benjamin that 80 years later, even 90 years later makes him still such an exciting thinker and charismatic thinker for people today.
Well in part it's because Benjamin brings together so many different themes and ways of looking at things in sometimes controversial ways. He is, as I said, interested in Marxism, in Jewish mysticism, in art, in literature.
He was very influenced by French surrealism and interested in quotations and montage and again in that circle of very interesting characters in 1920s and 30s Germany and France and in the shadow of course of the disaster to come.
There's just a lot to be read in Benjamin in many different directions.
Do you agree with Hannah Aret that he is essentially a poetical thinker?
Well I'm not sure about that. I think that what Hannah Aret must mean there knowing what we know about Arendt as a high-degurian.
That poetic has to do with a kind of generativity and bringing things together and bringing them to disclosure, to light for the very first time.
So perhaps we might agree with that. I think there would be arguments against that as well. Benjamin had systematic arguments, although he didn't always make them systematically, but he has arguments that are very important, for instance, about the artwork and its change with the changes in forms of production.
So I think that sometimes Arendt's characterizations tend to portray Benjamin as a bit of a dillotente and a flutter himself.
I think that there are in fact some very systematic claims that Benjamin offers that perhaps would be undersold if we stuck to the idea of a poetic thinker.
Yeah, I'm not sure I would consider that label a condescension towards him, but anyway, we can take that up a bit later.
You mentioned that he does present arguments, that he's not just poetic in that regard, and you mentioned the artwork essay, and we want to devote a good part of our show today to the famous essay that he wrote called "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction."
Yes, yeah, let me correct one thing about that. There's the newer translations of that essay translated as "In the Age of Technological Reproducibility."
This is really significant because it's about technology in part this essay, and it is about what happens when reproducibility affects the nature of the artwork itself.
When the fact that reproducibility comes to be part and parcel of what art is, that affects the very nature of how we see art, the effects art can have on us the political potentials of art and the history of art ultimately.
Okay, so before we get into the substance of his arguments or his claims about the way technology determines the history of art, is there something that you want to say about the essay in general, or can I start now taking issue with something that you said, or is it too early to get down into the trenches with you?
Well, I can briefly say a few things about the essay for those who don't know it. What Ben-Yamin is doing in the essay and what he says he's doing is investigating how the artwork is changing as the conditions of production of art change, and therefore what would the effects be for social and political possibilities given how technology is changing and producing therefore artwork differently?
So this is the general question of the essay. He begins by looking at what he considers cultic artwork, prehistoric artwork, ancient art. He then investigates the development of artwork through a production methods including engravings and lithographs and then photography and ultimately film. He spends a lot of time in the essay talking about film and the potentiality that film represents for social and political changes.
So there is a arc of the essay that it might be important to understand.
Well, there's various ways to approach Ben-Yamin and this essay. We could do like many of our colleagues do take a historical approach and put Ben-Yamin in this context and talk about his relationship to adorno Marxism and various other things.
We could also take kind of hermeneutic approach and look at what he does with his concepts in the essay. Or we could submit his claims to an actual analysis, almost empirical, and see whether they actually hold up and bear out the claims that he advances.
And I'm not sure which approach that we want to adopt in our conversation, but why don't we begin with a reconstruction of one of the most salient and certainly popular concepts in the beginning of the essay, which is that of the aura of the artwork, which he claims technological reproducibility of the modern era has a corrosive effect on the traditional aura of the artwork.
Do you have a clear sense of what he means by the artworks aura?
Well, in fact, there is some debate about that and people argue about what he meant and about the concept in general.
He begins the essay with a very short history of how artwork can be replicated and has always been replicated.
He says, "Well, replicas were always possible in the history of art. There was always copying and imitation."
But the point is that with new production techniques would cut printing lithograph ultimately photography and film.
There's a different kind of art where there is no more original. When you talk about a film, except for certain film fetishes, there is no original film.
Anybody can go see the same film in different times and places. Benjamin talks about the aura of the artwork as its presence in time and space, its unique existence.
He talks about it in terms of the way that work witnesses a particular history.
So, the aura and related concepts of the authenticity and the authority of the artwork have to do with how the artwork has a certain special, unique quality as being just one.
There is one Mona Lisa and people want to be in its presence and experience it firsthand.
So, aura has to do with this desire to be with the original and he relates that notion of aura to cultic practices. He says that aura really began as a cultic practice around the early artworks that people treated them with a certain reverence because they were unique and singular.
Well, if you don't mind, I would like to say that that claim just doesn't stand up to any kind of empirical historiographical pressure because it's if you're going to define the aura as the uniqueness of the artwork in space and its presence in space and time and claim that the reproducibility, even though he will always say that, yes, there was a certain degree of reproduction of artworks in the past.
But the big thing that the modern age has given us is this accelerated reproducibility. When you look at the history of art, what you find is that there is very little singularity in artworks. If you look at the, I can give you any number of examples, the icons of Byzantium.
One Madonna looks very much like another and for the most part, these icons were veiled. It's true that they had a cultic role in religious practice.
But if you look at the statues, you go to the museums in Rome and you see all these Roman statues. The vast, vast majority of them are copies of Greek statues and even Greek statues were oftentimes much more often than not.
copies of other originals that don't even exist. So, I find that reproducibility or reproduction is very much part of the history of art from the beginning. Maybe there is a certain singularity in cave paintings so forth.
So, question, is it how much of Ben Yameen's argument in this essay relies on his claim that the aura of the traditional artwork relies on its singularity and its non-reproducibility in space and time? Do you think?
So, I think that they're, first of all, you're not at all alone in your criticisms of Ben Yameen on aura.
Brecht himself called Ben Yameen's idea of aura and abominable mysticism.
And there are some German scholars Aleda and Jan Asman say, well, if the artwork has aura, then what about the original shredded wheat? They say this is the original shredded wheat cereal of art so that, you know, the notion of this originality and singularity is something that comes under some criticism along the way.
Now, how significant is that for his argument as a whole? A lot of people spend a lot of time talking about aura and art historians and others are very interested in this concept.
I think what might be ultimately more significant in Ben Yameen, although I could also defend aura to some degree, but what might be more significant is what it means when making art, making art objects one at a time as a way of making fun of the art.
So, whether or not it's one copy, one icon at a time being made, versus batches of things that can be produced almost.
This, I would say, has more to do with Ben Yameen's concern in this essay. What does it mean when techniques of production mean that the very nature of art is changing? In fact, in the epigraph to the essay by Valavee, by the version of the essay that we're talking about, the third version or depending on how you count.
There are several versions. There is the statement that techniques of the technique of the beautiful is changing and with that the very nature of art is changing.
So, I suppose if you want to remain with your skepticism about the concept of aura, you could look at this more in terms of what it means when artwork is not produced one object at a time, but produced in such a way that there is no more original at all, where there is no single thing being copied or reproduced, but rather there is only reproduction as with photography as ultimately with film.
Great. Okay, so he then draws certain conclusions from reproducibility and his conclusions are largely political in nature.
Namely that this new regime of technological reproducibility has some kind of liberation effect that's related to the Marxist agenda of revolution.
Well, in fact, I mean one can do a technological history of the artwork and come to, you know, it seems almost self-evident that with the evolving technologies artwork changes with the evolving technologies, but we don't always come to the same conclusion, the historians who have written very extensively on the relationship between art and technology.
So, what Benjamin is not just an art historian talking about the history of the artwork, is where he says with these changes in the nature of art itself owing to technological methods, art takes on new functions that in fact he suggests there was a cultic magical ritual function for art, but with the loss of aura, art becomes
appropriately by politics and even the notion of just art for art sake, arrives, he says in the 19th century, there's a certain moment of ideology, but that in fact with the new forms of art there are possibilities for social change, revolution, and political change that we're not possible before.
So, yes, in fact, this is about how the change in the technological production of artwork produces changes to class relationships, for instance.
And do you agree with him on that? Do you buy into this conclusion of his?
Let's see, I think that the way he gets to that point would be important to trace, what he ultimately says toward the end of the essay is that we're developing new modes of perception in fact.
So, he says that with the technological methods of producing, let's say, film, we have new capacities to perceive things differently.
And since in film, things can be slowed down, there can be close-ups. Benjamin writes, we can see better than necessities which rule our lives.
He says it's a little bit like psychoanalysis, we can see what makes us the way we are.
And he says this is really an opportunity to, again, examine the hidden necessities of that rule our lives by noticing those hidden details.
So, in a certain regard, I would accept pieces of what he has to say as very significant contributions to, I don't know if you want to call it, the sociology of our history, something like that, how the changes in our modes of perception make possible other possibilities.
Now, perhaps a little more controversial would be some of his arguments later in the essay about how film produces a certain revolutionary potential among the so-called masses.
And this is something that's more controversial.
Yeah, so he writes, "Reception in a state of distraction, which is increasingly noticeable in all fields of art and is symptomatic of profound changes in app perception, finds in the film its true means of exercise.
The film with its shock effect meets this mode of reception halfway.
The film makes the cult value received into the background not only by putting the public in the position of the critic, but also by the fact that at the movies this position requires no attention.
The public is an examiner, but an absent-minded one."
Now, that's fine, he's writing in the 30s, but I think the subsequent history of film and especially of Hollywood would have to cause us to be extremely skeptical.
About certain claims that he makes there.
Above all, the idea that the film makes the cult value received into the background, nothing is more of a cult in global human civilization these days than film stars and certain movies.
And it's taken on all the kind of ritualistic aspects that he says are supposed to have been disappeared through this new technology.
And it comes back with the vengeance and the new saints of our age are the movie stars and the rock stars.
And one wonders to what extent this premise of his that reproducibility in powers the public or the masses, the consumer of art, to be the critic and to almost take the place of the author of the traditional author of art works, is absolute nonsense when you think of the absolute passive spectra,
that is involved in the consumer art and the kitchen consumer art of Hollywood and other forms of television media and so forth.
Well, you have to put this in a little bit of historical context because Beniamine is talking about Russian film of the time, like Potemkin.
So certain Russian films, these would be produced in the Soviet Union. He is specifically not talking about Hollywood. He says in the West, there is the capitalist exploitation means that the human being cannot really be presented as such.
And he absolutely indicates that with the loss of the aura in film, Hollywood responds by cultifying movie stars and making them into precisely the object of adoration and ritual respect that you indicate.
It's important to know that what he's talking about here are Russian films in which workers are represented, actual workers are in the film doing their job.
So one of the points he says about film is that anyone could be in it. It represents the workers to themselves in their working function.
It sounds great, but I don't know if you or I would ever want to go see those movies.
Some of these are great movies, have you seen Potemkin? No, no, no, this is some, well, it's not, you're absolutely right. It's not a Hollywood movie with some kind of a dramatic plot with getting the girl and winning the lottery at the end.
So in fact, these are very different kinds of movies and there is a lot of scholarship certainly on what Beniamine meant with film. He meant a certain kind of a film.
On the other hand, he also says that film has the effect of making the masses more progressive in several ways. As you indicated, he says it makes us more critical because we enjoy it, it fuses pleasure with appraisal because things are slowed down and everybody can go to the movies because it's relatively inexpensive.
People have, and the camera takes a critical point of view that allows you to see different things. He says this fusion of pleasure and appraisal allows the audience to become critical and he also talks about the experience of sitting in the movie theater.
He suggests that the mass becomes a mass or congeals as a mass. People regulate each other's reactions. They laugh with each other and they therefore sort of notice each other indirectly as an audience.
He suggests that somebody like Chaplin would allow for people to accept a progressive form of art namely film in a way that they wouldn't with regard to, let's say Picasso painting. He says the same audience would scorn a Picasso but would love Chaplin.
So he claims that it makes the audience more progressive.
Now Adorno, his friend, but also sometimes interlocutor with whom there were disagreements. Adorno said no, this is absolutely not true.
The masses are just as bourgeois and sadistic as ever and certainly you can't say that the me watching film is going to make any difference there.
So again, in his own time and with his own interlocutor's and friends there were some disputes about the claims he made for the possibilities of film.
Well, I, he, listen, I'm a fan of Ben Yemi, I think I find him a very charismatic thinker.
I like the poetic aspect of his use of figures more than concepts to convey deep ideas of history and so forth.
But I'm, I'm a little mystified at the, the star power that this essay has had in his corpus because I find it, you know, if a graduate student submitted up this as a paper to me, I would say you've got a lot of great ideas in here.
Now you got to work on this and you know, you have to back this up, you have to enlarge on that, you have to, in other words, there's pockets of opacity to say the least.
When he claims, and I'm reading the distinction between author and public is about to lose its basic character.
The difference becomes merely functional, it may vary from case to case because of the loss of the aura of the artwork.
I tell myself that a religious worshipper in a Byzantine church in front of an icon of the Virgin, using it for meditation prayer and, you know, communion with his or her God, is much more in the position of the author of the artwork or the distinction between the artist of that icon and the devotee who uses it as for religious spiritual power.
The idea of religious spiritual practice is much less than the spectator of a movie who is bombarded aggressively and very tyrannically inside the cage of a movie theater where it's just sitting there and having this flood of images pass over him.
I'm wondering why Benjamin will make a counterintuitive claim like that and I feel like he must have reasons for making these kind of counterintuitive claims.
I read through the essay again and again and I don't find that he makes a strong enough case for the revolutionary potential of art in the new technological era.
Well, it's surprising to me that you bring that up this way that what he says about the reader has a potential to become an author that this is questionable to you because Benjamin is in fact here, most prescient of all.
For instance, the internet, every reader can be an author, everyone can have a blog, YouTube is full of people filming their own lives.
Those aren't artworks.
Those are not artworks.
On the other hand, in so far as Benjamin is prognosticating about social changes.
That's a different thing.
Social changes I understand.
I go with him. I can understand what he's talking about in Mass Society and so forth. I just don't understand the revolutionary potential of a certain kind of art that is predicated on technological reproducibility like photography and film which the history in the intervening 80 years has not borne out the veracity of that claim.
Here you are, in fact, going along with some of the other commentators on Benjamin including Richard Woland that this is not even about art and it's certainly not about anything aesthetic, but about the intersection of a work and it's onlooker and that art is not ultimately at stake here.
So if we want to take that analysis for a moment as one possibility that would suggest that whether or not it's true about art per se, it does, what Benjamin suggests is going to happen.
Namely, the spread of production possibilities seeing oneself becoming one of the producers of the artwork. This is, again, in terms of technological advances precisely what has happened.
And it might be, in fact, that this is where his prognostication that what is considered art will change. So what about digital art? What about the internet? We might not consider that as art, but if he, what he is saying about the future of technological advances and what it means for public participation and self recognition in media, let's say, then this is for that reason above all, a very prescient article.
In fact, in an earlier version of this essay, he quotes Andre Priton that he writes, he quotes Priton, the artwork has value only in so far as it is alive to the reverberations of the future.
Well, I do believe that Benjamin with his consideration of the reader becoming author is absolutely alive to the reverberation of the future, namely digital art and the internet.
I agree with you, I agree with you entirely when I read the essay, there are places in it which are extremely prescient of the internet. They have to do a social change, however. I just am not convinced by his arguments about the artwork, at least certain aspects of that argument, especially when it comes to the loss of the aura of the artwork. I cannot just empirically look around at the art market, for example.
Or I cannot go into the Louvre, which is almost like a parody of the hyper-oratic power of the artwork, because 80% of those people are scrambling around all wanting to go see only one artwork in this great museum, which is Mona Liza, as if being in the presence of an artwork of which they have seen innumerable images reproduced,
is a very special experience that they insist on having. Therefore, that artwork still seems to exude an aura. There are paintings when they go on the market. A vango original will sell for obscene amounts of money, because it's original, because it's unique and so forth.
I don't want to be this low-life empiricist, because it's not my style, but I still feel that either I'm going to take him as being a prophet of the liberation power of new technologies in the digital sphere, where everyone can now express their opinion.
But, of course, you have to have an entitled opinion beyond this show, or I'm going to take him seriously as providing a theory of art, in which case I find myself endlessly frustrated.
Well, on the one hand, he claims, in fact, that the changing function of art is exemplified by the shift from its cult value to an exhibition value.
That might be what you're talking about, the value of people going to see the artwork and re-revering it in a different way, not in a magical and religious context, but perhaps in a consumer-related one.
It becomes the artwork becomes something to be exhibited and moved around and shown around. And this is the switch from cult value to exhibition value in what Benjamin has to say.
On the other hand, your arguments against Benjamin are not very far off from some of Adorno's arguments, and I think this is pretty significant.
So Adorno had a lot of complaints about this essay, which we can talk about. Mainly that Benjamin is equating the aura of the artwork with the autonomy of the artwork, and if you say that aura is dissolving and falling away, the autonomy of the artwork will also fall away, and then it's just another consumer product.
So I think that's what you're getting at. And Adorno says, the difference here is key. The artwork has to have an autonomy. It has to in some way have a, there has to be a barrier between it and the sheer utility and consumerism of capitalist society.
And he claims that Benjamin doesn't understand that the aura has a dialectical element, that in fact that distance is important and that he thinks that Benjamin is essentially throwing the baby out with a bathwater.
And in describing and evoking the destruction of aura, Benjamin is also throwing away or shattering the possibility for an autonomous art, and all we would then have left is consumer kitchen products and commodities to be bought sold and desired and fetishized.
Now, well, I would be happy if Adorno wants to agree with me. I don't think I need him to come to my defense because I don't use the terms that he uses. I don't think it's just about the autonomy of the artwork. Nor is it about the dialectical method that it's absent in Benjamin's treatment of the artwork.
What for me is missing primarily is the philosophical concept of world or of worldhood in this sense.
So what's it, 1979, I give you an example, 79 or 80, a diver in 10 meters of water off the Calabrian coast sees a hand of bronze hands sticking out of the sand on the beach, not that far from the coast.
And lo and behold, he discovers that there's a statue that's buried in the sand. They come, you know, the municipality goes and digs up and it's not only one statue, it's two statues, bronze statues near the Achi.
And they are among the most astonishing, beautiful Greek statues that were dated, you know, by the municipality there to the archaic Greek world.
And they were put on display and they were the wonders and are still these wonders. But then there were some suspicion among some people, there's Americans because they wouldn't let them radio carbon date them.
It was actually, it was a bit of a crisis. What if these, what if it was a scam, what if these statues were in, were placed there and were just made in a modern kind of laboratory, according to the fantasy of what we think Greek art and statue was,
What would change, what would be lost? Okay, here's where the question of the originality of the artwork comes into being and where what Benjamin calls the phenomenon of a distance, that's how he defines the aura, not only of the artwork but of even natural finale,
it calls it the phenomenon of a distance, where we would feel cheated if these two bronze statues which were not proven to be forgeries. But where we would have felt cheated had they been revealed as forgeries is that they would no longer incarnate present in the sphere of visibility and beauty, they would no longer be a configure a world configuration, they would no longer be a manifestation of what a world, the world that produces the world.
The world that produced them believed about presence, about gods, about the human body and so forth, it would just, it would not have that world revealing power of the artwork that we expected to have.
We expect artworks to belong to their age and reveal something about their age or the world that brought them into being. That's where I think the aura of the artwork per jurors, because it's an kind of authentic, I use it almost in quotes, an authentic
certification of the world from which they are wrong. That's where I take high diggers, you know, essay on the origin of the work of art, to have a little bit more punch for me because he speaks about the artwork as a side of encounter between earth and world, but world there is a historical world, there's historicity involved. Benjamin does speak about history and historicity of the artwork but I don't think he goes to the bottom of what makes for the aura of the artwork as being linked to worldhood.
I think that your vocabulary and your reference to Heidegger indicate that from what I would consider a Benjaminian point of view, you have a metaphysics here, you have a metaphysics of art as world-disclosive in the Heideggerian vein, as a distance that actually belongs to the work as if it would be embodied in the work.
I think ultimately, Benjamin is a materialist, perhaps unorthodox form of a Marxist, and ultimately I don't think he is concerned that art be a special kind of thing.
I think the whole point is that the way we treat certain objects, the human practices around them are what define art in any particular time, a cultic relationship to an object defines it in ancient times.
And the Renaissance he calls it the cult of beauty, which has certain elements that resemble that ancient cultic worship, that the practices toward certain works that were called art are then venerative and so forth.
And in the modern era, and as things move on, the practices toward certain ranges of objects that people make will change.
So ultimately, if you are looking in Benjamin for an essence of art and essentialism, I think precisely what he is concerned with throughout here, I think in a classic Marxist way, is in the character of art objects as human products, according to human categories that vary according to historical periods and forms of production.
Precisely your example shows what would be lost if the sculptures that were unearthed turned out not to be authentic.
What would not be lost is the value of authenticity.
And Benjamin is concerned for what it means that with new forms of art.
Why would it not be lost?
Well, the concept of authenticity wouldn't be lost.
People might regret that these sculptures didn't have it.
But whether or not those particular sculptures are true to date or not, whether there are forgeries, frauds, or whether they are in fact from the air.
The value of authenticity doesn't change.
So Benjamin would put that whole discussion within a framework of this leftover ritual practice, the erratic character, that is falling away with objects that are made now in different technological fashions.
So, yeah, but my point in bringing up that example is that I don't have to rely on Heidegger, I don't have to be Heidegger's minion and say I'm following the master and the worldhood and history.
I'm saying that what we expect of an original artwork or an authentic one is that it disclose the phenomenon of a distance.
I'm using Benyamin's vocabulary.
Now, that phenomenon of a distance in the artwork for me is the distance of historical time.
It's the distance of other worlds.
And although there would be absolutely no difference between the aesthetic evaluation of the bronze of the diachi, what would changes that they are not revealing of not only the material forms of production, because we know what the material forms of production.
But they're not disclosing the world to which they're periodically belong.
So, now you're rescuing Ora here, wait a minute, you said you don't buy it.
No, no, no, no, I buy the concept of Ora, but I just don't go along with the conclusions that Benyamin comes to about the loss of Ora in the modern age.
First, I doubt that there's been that much of a loss the way he describes it.
And second, I don't see how the loss of the Ora is now opening us up to a kind of new liberation in the political sphere, and that this is going to become a new kind of weapon against fascism, the way he claims in necessity.
Well, you focused again on distance, and he makes a comparison at one point in the essay between the surgeon and the magician.
If you recall, he says the magician, when he operates, he keeps a certain distance and has a certain authority.
The surgeon reduces the distance, interferes in the object.
And I think he's suggesting that what is happening in the new forms of art, which again, I don't think Benyamin is focused on art as he is on forms of human production, let's say, is that we are intervening in the things.
We are in fact getting closer to them. This is one thing that Adorno also be moaned, that the distance from the artwork is going to dissolve, and that Benyamin celebrates that.
For Benyamin, the dissolution of distance is precisely where people can take hold of a form of art, like take the camera in their own hand and make something.
The behavior toward artworks will change. He says the increase of participation with art will change the quality of participation.
You refer to this with regard to distraction, that different forms of attention will evolve, that he ultimately believes are better suited to the revolutionary task ahead.
So, in this way, I think you are focusing on the essence of art and on the aura, which would be in a way to remain with the first three aphorisms of this essay.
And to say, okay, there is this quality and Benyamin evokes the notion of distance and authenticity.
But once he starts to talk about the liquidation of a tradition that the essay then falls apart or this starts to be incorrect.
What do you make about his claims about dad-aism? If I can get a little particular here, he has an interesting discussion of the relationship between dad-aism and film, where what dad-aism put forward had a shock effect on the audience, and mostly was met with revulsion, but that film was doing the same thing in a way that seduce the audience rather than repulses the audience.
And he talks about dad-aism using...
Here again, I have issues with his claim that dad-aism technique, for example, putting buttons on the canvas or tickets, the train tickets on it, these kind of found objects, said this was a deliberate war against the aura of the artwork.
But now, if we are in front of it, a really good dad-aism work of that sort, it has an huge aura.
In fact, it's aura is even greater than the artworks that we're trying to be auratic at the same time.
So in a certain way, the aura of the artwork is something that is very difficult to degrade it if the artwork is authentic.
So again, it starts me very metaphysical. I think we could try this in a different fashion. What if aura is not inherent to the artwork, but has to do with the form of attention that it commands from people?
This is where the dad-a-a-e-ample is significant. So Ben-Yamine claims, and this is moving toward the end of the essay, that in every case, forms of art create demands that can only be satisfied later so that it evokes certain possibilities of the technology and of people's attention that only a later form of art is going to.
He says, "Dada is a particular way to see this. It produces certain effects that the public would later seek in film."
Namely, he says, "Dada works to annihilate aura, specifically what this means, as opposed to considering that the work has some kind of metaphysical aura in itself.
What if we say, as Ben-Yamine does, "Dada works to," or let's say calls forth a form of attention that is not contemplative.
"Film is distractable. Your associative process gets switched around. You're always getting hijacked by a sudden change of scene on the screen.
"Dada has a similar quality in that the relative superficiality of the material that it uses, the word salad they called it, the waste products of language they called it, that these don't offer themselves to contemplation in the same way, let's say, that the ancient icon would.
"The Dada is right," or Ben-Yamine writes, "The material involves studied degradation."
For Ben-Yamine, the point is that Dada evokes a form of attention that is more fleeting, more distractable.
You look around at all the different things on the Quichetors collage and you notice, "Oh, there's a ticket stub and there's something else and there's some lettering and you get distracted and some of that's upside down and you can't read it very well."
And so that it's not a form of attention that is associated with contemplation. And the point here is that the artwork does not absorb the spectator. Instead, the distracted mass absorbs the work of art.
So this is one reason that Ben-Yamine sees a revolutionary potential, not in the dissolution of a metaphysical aura, but in the change of practice in the way people attend to the work.
He also emphasizes in that passage the deliberate attempt to shock the audience in Dada.
And he goes on to say that what film does is that it preserves the shock effect of Dada.
And I'm reading here, he says, "By means of its technical structure, the film has taken this physical shock out of the wrappers in which Dadaism had as it were kept inside the moral shock effect."
Now, I bring this up because there's some relationship here between shock and aura. And if you don't mind, I'm going to jump to the end of another essay wrote on the famous essay on the "Samotifs and Bodleur."
Where he quotes Bodleur, who says, "Lost in this mean world, jostled by the crowd. I am like a weary man whose eye looking backwards into the depths of the year sees nothing but disillusioned and bitterness. And before him nothing but a tempest which contains nothing new, neither instruction nor pain."
Benjamin comments, "Of all the experiences which made life what it was, Bodleur singled out his having been jostled by the crowd as the decisive unique experience."
The luster of a crowd with motion and soul of its own, the glitter that had be zazzled the flanur had dimmed for him. Then he goes on saying,
"That this is the nature of something lived through to which Bodleur had given the weight of an experience. He indicated the price for which the sensation of the modern age,
may be had the disintegration of the aura in the experience of shock. He paid dearly for consenting to this disintegration and so forth."
So here he's relating the loss of the aura to the experience of shock and he's identifying shock as the quintessential modern experience in the technological age of reproducibility.
What does aura or its loss have to do with shock in your view?
Well, I'm going to keep pulling you in the direction of understanding aura in terms of contemplative behavior on the part of the audience.
So shock being jostled around the crowd or in the case of Dada having sort of strange things thrown together in a way that doesn't easily let you contemplate them.
This shock provokes a different form of attention, a different way of looking at an object.
It takes you out of a contemplative, you could say passive, even subservient mode of behavior toward the artwork.
So in that regard, the shock is even the word with the sort of physical connotation implies a kind of shaking someone out of a still submissive passive relationship to the object and evokes a kind of a jolting that would produce a more active behavior,
a reactive behavior.
So it would have revolutionary potential is what you're suggesting.
It does for Benyamine in several ways.
In a way, it means that we don't just submit to the artwork in a contemplative fashion.
However, the ongoing aspect of shock that even the boat layer passage with the jostling and some of the other references to shock and what is sometimes called the dissolution of aura,
sometimes called the change in form of attention, what they involve are distracted ways of perceiving things.
You spoke about this earlier in the show that Benyamine evokes distraction as having a revolutionary possibility.
Let me say a bit more about that because I think that is key to understanding what is significant in this essay.
That when the artwork no longer is absorbing the spectator as a cultic object absorbs the spectator's contemplative gaze and requires the spectator in a way to submit her subject.
When the work is out there and the viewer is no longer in that contemplative relationship to it, what are the ways there to apprehend a work?
What are the ways there besides contemplation?
One of the other ways that Benyamine finds significant is the form of attention that he calls distraction.
And architecture is a prime example and I know given you our interest in architecture and houses, I actually thought you would pick up on this,
the way we absorb a building as a work is in distraction.
We live in the buildings, we know them in and out, we use them every day.
They are architecturally a beautiful, frank, Lloyd house is a work of art.
But that does-
They're ready at hand.
Well, yes, if you want to use the hide and carry term as I know you do, but I would say trying to stick to Benyamine,
who with Brecht tried to find a reading group where they would destroy hide and hide together.
Early on.
We absorb a building in a distracted way and he claims that this kind of reception, a reception in distraction,
that is now the case in part produced by the shock and the loss of aura, namely the loss of contemplative habit,
that this gets trained in film, we get distracted in film because we're not really paying attention to ourselves or anything else.
We get lost in it and yet we're also examining it.
And he claims toward the end of the essay that there are tasks which face the human apparatus of perception at historical turning points.
You might like the hide-a-gurion ponderousness here.
I like it all, but I don't need hide-a-gurion in order to engage in a debate with you about the claims that Benyamine is advancing here.
Well, what he says is that those tasks which face the human apparatus of perception cannot be performed by optical, that is contemplative means,
they need to be mastered in some other way, and he says it's about developing new habits, which is surprising.
Well, I understand, but this is what bothers me about the essay, is that he makes a lofty argument that, for me, seem like apologies
for the worst kind of passive, distracted, spectatorship of what Gidabur called "Lasociete du Spectac"
and the horrible impoverishment of the dimension of experience in the consumer stage, capitalist consumer stage,
he is tying himself into knots in order to exalt something that we know in retrospect has been, you know, culturally,
a radical impoverishment of the whole realm of experience.
And the funny thing is that he cites Bodlehir on the experience of shock, which is supposed to contain this late revolutionary potential,
but what does Bodlehir actually say? He says, "Lost in this mean world, Jostle, by the crowd, I am like a weary man,
whose eyes looking backwards in the depths of the sea is nothing but dissolution and bitterness."
So far from empowering him to set himself into the new horizon of possibilities, it actually demoralizes decent chance and disempowers the subject of shock.
So I don't understand why he would invoke a quote like this where Bodlehir is actually surrendering himself to impotence as a result of the experience of shock,
and then go on to say that shock has this power to liberate us, and give us a new form of attention which he calls distraction, I just don't get it.
Well Adorno doesn't either. He says that if people need distraction or rather what he says is, distraction won't be needed when people aren't exhausted and stupefied all the time.
So he precisely agrees with you that distraction could not be anything like a liberatory form of attention but reflects people's own suffering and ultimately enslavement to a capitalism.
So Adorno was with you on that. Now, Benjamin here, I believe, has very much as his parent in the prologue to the version that we're talking about here, has a consideration where he compares the aestheticization of politics to the politics of art,
or he contrasts them. And this is, I think, what really helps perhaps focus your concern here. He says fascism tries to create aesthetic events that would organize the masses and involve a lot of mass behavior and congeal masses but would leave property relations intact.
In other words, the masses express themselves in marches and in parades but that doesn't change anything. Benjamin says this is a way of aestheticization political life that produces ritual values, this introduces aesthetics into politics.
And in this fascist expression of aesthetics in politics, he says politics becomes just a matter of the proletariat being expressed, okay, in parades and marches and in certain ways without actually changing anything about rights or
property, the goal would become just a beautiful rally and aesthetic of the masses and that wouldn't question anything. It puts the value of art over that of life. He says, well, the culmination of this is going to be war and here he leans on Marinetti in the futurists because war really lets the mass express itself without changing property relations at home in any way. So there is a real concern here for what aesthetic expression on the mass level is the most important thing.
The mass level means for actual worldly conditions of war and peace and politics and social movements.
So it's not as though Benjamin is throwing away by any means the possibility for positive social outcomes here.
It would be that contemplation is part of a tradition, a form of attention that belongs to a tradition that is I think in Benjamin we're going to use more adornos terms part of commodity culture and that another form of attention on the part of human beings would be required in order to break out of the relationships in which we are enslaved at this point.
I couldn't agree more that a different form of attention is required. I just don't understand how he can amalgamate it with distraction and movie going. Nor do I believe that the importation of politics into aesthetics is a solely a vice of the fascists. I think it's very much part of the Soviet socialist realism agenda and so forth.
So there's plenty of that going on and I guess you can tell me whether adorno agrees with me or not. In both cases it's something to be resisted because what adorno calls the autonomy of the work of art has to be it has to exert this autonomy over against its co-optation by politics.
That is definitely adornos concern. So for adorno art is precisely what follows its own formal laws what resists any kind of social utility any kind of consummability.
This is also he writes a he gives a lecture called why is the new art so hard to understand adornos does. And he says well it's hard to understand because it's trying to maintain a distance from all the values of society and all the uses of society that there could be so it's going to be hard to understand because otherwise it's too easily co-optable.
So in fact this is this is a concern that adorno has that art needs to be a placeholder for something that does not follow the laws of society culture capitalism it needs to be autonomous not heteronomist to those laws this is perhaps adornos content like heritage really to see art as holding the place open for freedom in simply following a formal law and nothing else.
As I said I think ultimately Benjamin is not concerned to hold art apart from other social products and practices I think in fact he does not see that there is an essence to art of autonomy in fact he ultimately criticizes the notion of the autonomous work of art as belonging to the 19th century doctrine of art for art sake which he sees as a reactionary move against the development of photography photography which he calls the first revolutionary form of production of art.
So do you think that Benjamin wins out over adorno in this debate?
Well that's a really hard question I think in certain ways Benjamin's materialist analyses despite your skepticism I think have some some pressing qualities with regard to internet digital art reproducible art art that no longer has an original I think he's in terms of his material analysis of production processes I think that is a very important way to understand the art of art.
I think that's absolutely true I think that adorno however in a way has the last word when it comes to an idea that art should have a space for holding open something that would not follow the laws of society and culture.
I think it depends in a way on how deeply materialist you are versus how deeply dialectical you are I think adorno wants to maintain a certain dialectics that Benjamin is not as concerned about the proximity to art and to the techniques of production is not something that I think Benjamin is concerned about in the same dialectical way that adorno is.
Well I'm quite allergic to dialectics but one of these days I think I'm going to have to make my piece with adorno because there are many ways in which I actually do agree with him on some of these issues.
Karen we've come to the end of our hour thank you very much for coming down from Berkeley to speak with us about Walter Benyemi.
It's nice to be here thanks we've been speaking with Karen Feldman Professor of German Studies at Berkeley I'm Robert Harrison for entitled opinions.
We're going to take a break over the summer and we're going to be with you sometime in the next academic year so stay tuned bye bye.