Hannah Höch, "Cut with the Kitchen Knife Through the Beer Belly of the Weimar Republic, Berlin

Hannah Höch, "Cut with the Kitchen Knife Through the Beer Belly of the Weimar Republic, Berlin
Hannah Höch, "Cut with the Kitchen Knife Through the Beer Belly of the Weimar Republic," Berlin

Saturday, May 16, 2015

5/16 Conclusion

After the war, Germany was divided up between the allied powers before being finally separated into East and West Germany in 1949. The period between 1945 and 1949 is a strange period of time because it is a lull in between the end of World War II and the beginning of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union which continued on and off until the Soviet Union was dissolved in 1991. During these four years the U.S. and Soviets were unlikely allies who slowly became bitter enemies. The Soviet Union exploded their first atomic bomb in 1949, also ending a brief four year dominance of when the U.S. was the sole nuclear power in the world. 

Germany became one of the front lines of the Cold War. The critical difference is that in Germany the war was symbolic and best symbolized by the Berlin Wall built in 1961.
 The graffiti reads: "Unity and Freedom for Berlin," circa 1972

 West German politics in the 50s and early 60s is usually referred to as the "Amnesia Era," under the first post-war Chancellor Konrad Adenauer. Many former officials of the Nazi regime (like in Japan) were restored to their positions by the Allied powers occupying the country due to a shortage of manpower of capable officials to administer the country–despite the official policy of "denazification." Both Germany and Japan have had also mostly conservative governments since the post-war era. In Germany the leading conservative party is the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) a union of Protestant and Catholic voters. The SPD is still active as well and is the largest opposition party. Since reunification in 1990, a major issue dividing German politics is how much the state should spend on the more underdeveloped areas of Eastern Germany. Many conservatives, particularly those in the West are strongly opposed to this. To this day there are also controversies regarding how the Nazi period should be taught in German schools (this is a similar issue in Japan). There are also much higher levels of drug addiction and suicide among German youth than among other European countries, even though obviously none of the young people could have been responsible for what happened in the 1930s and 1940s they apparently lack the skill for denial like their parents and grandparents.

As mentioned in Night and Fog the Nuremberg war crimes trials were held (the first of many) in 1945-46, where many former Nazis claimed they were not responsible for their crimes. The phrase "I was only following orders," has become an infamous appeal by those seeking to absolve themselves of responsibility for their crimes, or Arendt's comment on the "banality of evil." Although in the end, most people do not accept this as a legitimate defense it does raise certain ethical questions to what extent is a person required to follow orders?

Many of the scientists who had helped in the "Manhattan Project", the top-secret government project to create the atomic bomb, had come to the U.S. from Europe, fleeing Nazi persecution, as did many of the artists, writers, and other intellectuals we have already discussed. The U.S. and the Soviet Union also competed in bringing back the best Nazi scientists to their own countries, like Wernher von Braun, who developed rockets for the United States after creating them for the Germans. The U.S. also became the worldwide leader in education since it took in so many of the world's intellectuals, and although its primary school system is compromised, at the university level the U.S. is still considered the best in the world overall (granted this link is from a U.S. news site): http://www.usnews.com/education/worlds-best-universities-rankings/top-400-universities-in-the-world

Culture in effect became a weapon in the Cold War. In 1959, Vice-President Nixon engaged in Soviet Premier Khruschev in what became known as the "kitchen" debate, basically they argued who can better supply the consumer needs of their people, who can deliver the better "lifestyle." In 1950 the Congress for Cultural Freedom was founded by artists and intellectuals who advocated the superiority of the West for promoting culture and openness (later on it was revealed this organization was secretly funded by the CIA) and published journals throughout the world advocating these views. Abstract artists like Jackson Pollack were promoted heavily to show the cultural superiority of capitalism over communism.

In the 1960s what became known as the "counter-culture" in the U.S. was heavily influenced by the nihilist tinged German expressionism and Dadaism. Jim Morrison, the poet and the lead singer of 60s rock group the Doors claimed inspiration from Nietzsche and with other members studies with Josef von Sternberg, director of The Blue Angel, at UCLA in the early 1960s.  One of their early songs was a cover by the playwright Bertolt Brecht who was also a major influence on Benjamin. The name of Jimi Hendrix's band was "The Jimi Hendrix Experience," and as we know, experience is one of the major concerns of the people we have read in this class. The whole concept of "psychedelics" and the "drug culture" comes out of the idea of altered experiences theorized by people like Benjamin (who also wrote an essay about his experience on hashish in Marseilles). The guitarist Eric Clapton claims to have been influenced by Dadaism as well. The fascination with Indian philosophy and meditation was also shared by the Beatles in the 1960s, and arguably this spiritual impulse is still strong today with things like the Kabbala practiced by Madonna (Jewish mysticism which also had an influence on Benjamin).

Modern day forms of "street art" also borrows heavily from the Dadaists, especially the ironic, subversive nature of the art, combined with the need to be publicly displayed instead of in a traditional setting, thus changing the experience of the object. That is precisely what distinguishes street art from traditional art.
John Heartfield, The Hand Has Five Fingers, 1928

Shepard Fairey, OBEY, circa 1990

Banksy, RPG Mona Lisa, 2001

The United States became the dominant economic power in the world after World War II.  The material basis of the so-called "Baby Boom" generation in the United States, which reaped the full benefits of the U.S. post-war prosperity in the 1940s, 1950s and early 1960s.  Often unacknowledged is that the super prosperity of the U.S. during this time was primarily because the other major industrial powers of the world were rebuilding from World War II. Not surprisingly the two most dominant industrial powers after the U.S. were Germany and Japan. By the late 1960s and especially in the 1970s, exports from these countries was seriously eroding U.S. economic power. Arguably the U.S. has never recovered from this.

Although conservative, the governments in Germany and Japan both pursued policies that would be considered "socialist" in the context of U.S. politics. In Germany this is called the "Social Market Economy" (Soziale Marktwirtschaft) and is categorized by a "cooperative" approach between business, labor, and the state. Germans have an extensive system of unemployment insurance and health insurance that are envied for their efficiency and lack of corruption; the state regulates business to ensure quality and competition between industries; Germans also maintain an extensive job training and vocational training program financed by taxes which has been helpful for re-training German workers to meet the needs of a changing economy; union representatives are also legally required to serve on the board of directors of corporations. 

No parallels such as these exists in the U.S. but this is not to argue necessarily that the U.S. should adopt them. The German system works because they are culturally homogeneous to an extent more than the U.S. which is far more diverse, and also much larger. Germany at around 80 million has a larger population than France or Great Britain but is dwarfed by the U.S. population at almost 320 million. It does perhaps suggest that sacrifices made by people like Luxemburg almost 100 years ago does have some impact on the present, and have maintained a strong social democratic impulse in German politics, to such an extent that even conservatives agree on social welfare policy for the state. Obviously the culture of the U.S. has been heavily infused by many of these ideas, but always filtered through a unique American perspective which also draws on many other cultures as well. 

As we deal with all of the same issues today that people were dealing with then it may be possible to predict the future by looking at the past. But, it takes time, dedication, understanding, and skill to pick out the fragments of the past and choose correctly the fragments that reveal the longing for freedom that motivates all of humanity. In the end, it seems the only way to overcome nihilism and all of its destructive consequences, many of which we have seen in this class, is to somehow grab hold of the stored meaning of history while at the same time breaking free of the constraints of obsolete institutions and the identities and values that develop to support these institutions; any theory or movement which is incapable of doing both, or only capable of doing one or the other, is doomed to repeat the failures of past generations.

Hope you all enjoyed the class. It was very nice meeting all of you! Thank you for your participation and your blog posts which are very interesting to read. The papers should be done by next Saturday 5/23 and e-mailed to me.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

5/9 Walter Benjamin "Theses on the Philosophy of History"

The final reading for the course, "Theses on the Philosophy of History" (1940) also by Walter Benjamin like the previous reading is also a challenging read, and like the other essay is less of a traditional essay format, than a series of fragmented writings loosely connected to the central theme: a philosophy of history or an attempt to make sense of history and question whether or not there is some meaning to history. 

Written four years after the previous essay, this essay was written perhaps during the darkest days of World War II. By 1940 Hitler had already occupied most of Europe even "Great Powers" like France surrendered to the Nazis.  A "puppet" government was set up in Southern France, the Vichy government.  Benjamin was detained briefly in a detention camp by this government in 1940.

The US had not entered the war, not until the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in late 1941, almost three years into the war.  Germany and the Soviet Union were allies at this point (Germany later betrayed the Soviets and invaded June 1941), and Germany was about to attack Great Britain, the last remaining European power in 1940.
Nazi Germany and Occupied Territories, 1940-1942

 His last work was found incomplete, among his possessions after he died. It was never intended for publication.

Many of the passages begin with quotations and these serve a specific and important function in Benjamin's thinking. As it relates to history, Benjamin argues that wisdom as it is passed through history as tradition is properly preserved in the form of quotations, so quoting is an act of preserving tradition. In this regard, Benjamin's intent is quite conservative, however, as Arendt has argued, Benjamin's sense of preservation becomes destructive once the meaning of these traditions become recognizable as a judgement against the present because the traditions speak to a form of life that has been lost forever. As it relates to nihilism then, Benjamin's position is quite unique from the other thinkers we have discussed. Rather than beginning from the point of a radical break from the past in the present as nihilist thinking has done up to Nietzsche, and animated all the work of all the people we have looked at from Dada to Jünger, Benjamin's intent is to break from the present by using the past. In other words to quote is a way of reflecting upon tradition in order to judge its value in the present, at the same time, to also judge the present by relating it to the past–specifically and above all else by looking at the claims for freedom justice and equality that have gone unrecognized throughout history.

James Joyce writes in Ulysses, "history is a nightmare from which I am trying to wake." The American playwright Eugene O'Neill writes in a similar vein, "there is no present or future, only the past, happening over and over again, now." These quotes suggest the enormous burden of the past on the present and the enormous force which past events still have in the present. Joyce speaks through the character Stephen Daedalus. Daedalus is the name of the architect in Greek mythology who builds the labyrinth, a vast underground maze at the center of which is the minotaur. Some argue that Joyce is suggesting that history is a labyrinth, a vast maze in which we are all trapped in. In mythology the hero Theseus, enters the labyrinth and slays the minotaur, but is able to retrace his steps and find his way out of the maze. Perhaps then through learning history one is able to retrace the steps the past generations have made to be able to escape the labyrinth, or to wake up from the nightmare of history. Benjamin's writings would suggest this interpretation.

Obviously Benjamin's literary background helps explain the development of an approach such as this, but this also relates to his "philosophy of language" which I outlined in the last lecture especially the idea that there is a "natural language" underlying human language to which human language is a flawed derivative. Quotes will reveal certain patterns and common concerns in human history because the language itself derives from a common structure. Traces of this underlying structure which perhaps could be the Proto-Indo European language mentioned at the beginning of class can be revealed through quotes, or more accurately through the proper presentation of quotations. However, Benjamin tended to rely on a more theological theory in which natural language itself derives from the divine language of God (something which Benjamin believes is revealed symbolically in the Book of Genesis where God gives Adam the power to name the objects in nature; Benjamin was also early associated with the Kabbala the recently fashionable school of Jewish mysticism practiced by many celebrities). The idea of naming something, similar to quoting places the highest emphasis on language as a creative force in human life. In many regards Benjamin's position can be summed up by the idea of calling things by their proper names (implying that most things are falsely named). Although Arendt claims that Benjamin later abandoned this early theological framework, his frequent references to the messiah or messianism in his final writings cast some doubt on this.

This leads to the second major aspect of Benjamin's method. Once the emphasis on quotation has been established as a way of accessing traditions buried in the past, the next aspect is how precisely to use quotes to accomplish this, or the presentation of language. Here Benjamin seems influenced by the Dadaists who pioneered the use of photo montage in their work, and montage was the technique used by Russian film director Sergei Eisenstein as well. In both cases, montage refers to the seeming random placement of images, which paradoxically reveal a deeper meaning through the placement of unrelated, or meaningless objects. To this extent, and also through the surrealists in Paris, Benjamin is influenced in this regard to create a kind of montage effect through the use of quotes. The most radical expression of this work was Benjamin's planned project to construct a whole book out of quotations with only minimal text written by himself, never completed.

Two other influences derive from Benjamin's own life but which also became important ideas in his thinking are the professional collector and the flâneur. Benjamin was a book collector and appreciated the unsystematic approach that collectors bring to their passion as opposed to say a more systematic way of categorizing things. The flâneur is a French word borrowed from Baudelaire, referring to someone who wanders aimlessly through the cities, again as opposed to say to the hurried businessman going to a meeting, the flâneur is unsystematic and undirected, free to take in the varied experiences of the city. Before criticizing it is worth noting that these categories  correspond to the categories of time and space also discussed last lecture. The collector who appropriates the past makes his way through time, the flâneur  through space–both emphasizing however again the free and unsystematic nature of both. However their are problems with this as well. For one the idea of the flâneur refers to Paris which has a wholly different urban structure than cities like New York especially in the present. The idea of wandering aimlessly through the city free and unobstructed seems to be itself related to a bygone era, perhaps even worse the construction of suitable public spaces for walking has been confined to special designated areas created by public authorities,  a far cry from Benjamins idea of unrestricted movement through a changing and shifting urban landscape and who did write several travel journals of his experiences in cities like Berlin, Moscow, Naples, Paris, and Marseilles. Similarly the idea of the collector which besides suggesting a somewhat solitary existence has also been transformed into a highly profitable business. However in understanding Benjamin's curious approach to history it is important to draw out these influences in order to explain this approach especially the emphasis on being unsystematic or defying conventional categories of classifying. It should be said, that although I consider these aspects of Benjamin's thought to be the most obsolete today, the idea of collecting seems to be more popular than ever judging by the endless supply of reality television shows about various types of collectors. Even the idea of the flâneur, perhaps somewhat artificially, is re-emerging in New York with the tendency to create  more pedestrian and bike paths, and even creating boat-ways out of once polluted industrial canals, like the Gowanus canal in Brooklyn, although the costs and benefits of this are still uncertain to say the least.

Benjamin himself spoke of his method as "drilling" as in the ancient method of drilling through the earth to get to water. The process of compiling quotes, of sifting through history as tradition in the form of endless documents, relates to the process of drilling when finding some quote reveals something in the present is like the act of drilling through rock to the water–by reaching some vital connection between past and present revealed through a quote. Benjamin says quoting is like drilling for water, not a kind of archaeological excavation which again presumes a more systematic character, but drilling instead proceeds through the act of recognition, of some connection to the present, rather than the archaeologist who often does not know the object until classifying it. This method is sometimes refereed to as hermeneutics and roughly it can be translated as the act of translation. Arendt compares Benjamin to a deep sea diver who goes down into the depths of the ocean to retrieve corals and pearl laying in the depths. The pearls and coral in this case refer to the quotes, but again they only attain value by their connection to the present, by the way in which  they relate present struggles to past ones. Arendt takes the analogy even further by introducing the idea of "sea change" from Shakespeare's Tempest: valueless objects submerged in the ocean over time go through sea change or transform into valuable objects through a process of "encrustation" that happens to objects over time. In other words, once valueless quotes, or random expressions by obscure people acquire value over time as they relate themselves to the present, this relates also to the idea that critic, completes the piece in a sense. The montage effect is preserved through the seeming randomness of quotes that acquire destructive force only in their relationship to their each other. Before moving on it is important to note also the prevalence of the water symbolism. In both analogies water is used to symbolize the totality of existence, similar to the way in which the river symbolizes existence in Siddhartha.  

Benjamin's radical approach to the past and present is obviously antagonistic to the prevalent liberal idea of progress (one that is currently in a state of crisis which it cannot free itself from as seen in the work of Jünger). The idea of progress is central to this work. The myth of European history for at least 200 years prior was the idea that "things were getting better". Although many problems still existed, humanity was making steady progress in solving the problems of human life. Until the 18th century, the Enlightenment, humanity (meaning people in a collective sense) had not developed a historical consciousness of itself. The notion of linear time, as opposed to time-cycles, or even no concept of time at all, is an invention more or less of this period of time. In other words a radically different experience of time. Once this awareness has developed people begin to see themselves as part of a larger continuity that stretches back for thousands of years. Out of this humanity begins to realize it has greater control over its own destiny than previously believed. This opens up new areas of emancipation, and new areas of activity, but it also increases the awareness of the importance of controlling things, including the larger social environment that people share. Paradoxically as people become more self-aware they seem to change less and become more rigid in their character, believing that their values are either natural and eternal or the end result of a long process of development. As new activities are undertaken, people begin to become more aware of the differences in technological development between different peoples at different points in time. The state of technological development then becomes one of the primary, if not the primary, means by which progress and development are measured. 

Benjamin (and this idea is shared somewhat by Nietzsche as well) strongly questioned this idea: maybe life is not getting better, maybe its getting worse, maybe its always been bad. This fear drives almost every major intellectual and artistic work of the 20th century. In these series of fragments he argues for a different consciousness of history and even radically different experiences of time and space. Similar to the essay on mass culture, Benjamin's concern is with the changing conditions of how people experience reality.

Benjamin is concerned with time and how we perceive it, as discussed in the previous lecture on the Kantian "transcendental" that organizes sense-experience into the dimensions of time and space. When he refers to the "eternal now" or "messianic time" he has in mind a conception of time that does not operate in terms of past, present, or future, but more like one present moment that stretches on into forever–until the "messiah" or saviour comes.
The first thesis is an allegorical piece that lays out Benjamin's approach to studying history by combining historical materialism with theology. Historical materialism is the name that Karl Marx gave to his own approach to studying history: an unceasing struggle between competing economic classes that go through various stages of productive development and decline culminating in capitalism in the present, with the belief that the true end of historical development will be completed with the creation of a socialist society in the future. Marxism to this extent is also a part of Enlightenment thinking because it is also driven by, at the time, a new sense of historical awareness.

The "materialism" part of historical materialism suggests that historical analysis should be directed towards the material aspects of society (the economy), not its ideal or cultural aspects. One of Marx's most famous statements on the relation of material life with historical change is the following from "The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte" (1852): 
Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; the do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly found, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living (Marx p. 595).
In other words "history" is the result of previous struggles by previous classes which impacts people in the present. The driving force of these struggles are competition over the economic means of life. As these circumstances change, continuous tension is produced by values and ways of life that are increasingly in greater conflict with a changing environment.

The scientific method is the proper means of studying the material (or physical) aspects of society, and so Marxism always identified itself as a scientific theory. However, science by itself can only understand material life, what remains is the ideal or cultural part of life which historical materialism dismisses as unimportant. What Benjamin is saying in short, that the scientific theory of historical materialism must be united with theology or religion in order to have a true grasp of human life and retain the human concern with emancipation. In other words, Benjamin is trying to see if there is a way to reconcile science with religion which seems to be a distinctly modern problem that people are still dealing with today. However, this view is at odds with Marx's thought who rejected religion and theism as "opiates for the masses."
The second, third and fourth theses outline what should be the focus of history. Benjamin argues in the second that redemption is fundamentally tied to our idea of happiness and that the concern with the past shows a concern with redemption. Redemption meaning the ability to fix or correct past injustices. History should then bring out and make people aware of the long history of injustices inflicted upon people. Becoming aware of this will help motivate people to want to put an end to injustice or as he says, "like every generation that preceded us, we have been endowed with a weak Messianic power, a power to which the past has a claim. That claim cannot be settled cheaply". It cannot be settled cheaply because it is a claim made not only by the present generation, but by all the previous generations that have come before.

As this relates to Benjamin's concept of the "eternal now" all conflicts are placed on an equal level. Ancient struggles against oppression are in a sense no different than conflicts today, because the forces at work and the motives in play are more or less the same–even if technology itself has changed the forms in which these conflicts play out.
The third thesis reflects this concern arguing that historians should not distinguish between major and minor events. Injustice is revealed by looking at the minor events of people who you have never heard of. This also suggests that awareness of these things are obscured or concealed by something else, the major events: the official histories of kingdoms and nations.
The fourth thesis suggests some of the the things which may be lost: courage, humor, cunning, and fortitude i.e. the qualities displayed by the oppressed classes in their struggle against oppression. These qualities develop under conditions of adversity and is important not to lose sight of how they important they are or forget the people who have shown them.

All of these theses suggest that prior histories have tended to overlook or suppress the histories of the oppressed classes. The next several deal with the failures of the bourgeois classes to create accurate and reliable historical works, and how this serves a political function.

The fifth, sixth and seventh theses make up Benjamin's attack on official historians or what he refers to as "historicism". The fifth argues that since it is impossible to ever truly grasp the past in its completeness or as he says "it flits by", the historicists attempt to create objective histories are doomed to failure. In the sixth he echoes this sentiment but also introduces the idea that this is not merely a flaw in scholarship but a part of the process of how the ruling classes justify and legitimate their rule by creating distorted accounts of history that conceal the history of oppression but still present themselves as objective, scientific history. When he says even the dead are not safe he is referring to how great figures of the past are twisted in order to suit the purposes of the powerful in the present–just think of all the bad things that have been done in the name of religious figures. This is kind of a spin on the saying "history is written by the winners". Instead history should be used a way of drawing inspiration from the past to confront the dangers of the present.
The seventh thesis also reflects and expands upon this thinking and really tries to force a confrontation between the present and the history of injustice and oppression in the past or as he says:
Whoever has emerged victorious participates to this day in the triumphal procession in which the present rulers step over those lying prostrate. According to traditional practice, the spoils are carried along in the procession. They are called cultural treasures, and a historical materialist views them with cautious detachment. For without exception the cultural treasures he surveys have an origin which he cannot contemplate without horror. They owe their existence not only to the efforts of the great minds and talents who have created them, but also to the anonymous toil of their contemporaries. There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.

A good example to use here would be the Great Pyramid in Egypt. Although it is a great cultural achievement and world monument, it was built by slave labor. So on the one hand you have the pyramids as representing the cultural values and ingenuity of the Egyptians, a historical materialist would focus on the actual material forces which built the pyramids (slave labor), or as he says a document of civilization and barbarism. This relates to what Benjamin spoke of in the previous essay about the ritualistic function of art; although many beautiful artistic pieces have been created in the past, primarily, they were used for the purposes of ritual ceremonies that played a role in legitimating forms of domination.
The eighth, ninth, and tenth theses are not so much about Fascism as they are Benjamin's critique of liberals who failed to deal with Fascism. This builds on what Benjamin argues in the previous theses. The failings of historicism (the bourgeois discipline) is not just an academic critique but has political importance as well. Liberals were unable to understand Fascism at first because they rested on these sanitized, cleaned up versions of history to form their world view, or because they were unwilling to confront the barbarism in their own culture they were unable to see it in Fascism.
The ninth thesis is the most well-known and is another allegory summing Benjamin's idea of progress (or lack thereof), as he says "wreckage piling upon wreckage." 
Paul Klee, Angelus Novus, 1920, Israel Museum

The angel of history is the myth of progress that is facing backwards. In other words history is blind and does not know where it is going. To assume that we are moving in the direction of progress is just a way of dulling your mind to the obvious disaster and catastrophe that is the modern world.

Benjamin's fragments on history would eventually be synthesized by the Frankfurt School's Adorno and Horkheimer in Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944). As the title suggests, the central argument of the book attempts to unearth how the originally emancipatory ideas of the enlightenment, reverse themselves, and becomes a force of domination. By integrating psychoanalysis into their own studies they develop a theory that explains the reaction to the dehumanizing tendencies of modern scientific rationality as one of the prime stimulants of fascism which is rooted in a rejection of the "sensitivities" and scientific rationality of liberalism as explained by Jünger, even while fascists incorporate the technological forms of organization into their own structure. A controversial aspect of this argument, is that they go on to argue that modern mass culture which produces commodities that exploit mythical ideas and tends towards conformity is rooted in the same kind of rejection of enlightenment scientific rationality as fascism. The dialectical aspect of this also implies that this development is not a result of external forces, but the internal process in which the principles of the Enlightenment are taken to their logical conclusion. This undermines the entire basis of Enlightenment including the concepts of liberty and equality which developed in the context of the Enlightenment.

The core out of which these later arguments developed came from Benjamin's original theses.
The tenth thesis again echoes the critique of liberals who rely on their faith in progress, their "mass basis" or liberal democracy, and the "uncontrollable apparatus" or the capitalist world market.

The next few theses deal with the similar failures of the social-democrats and communists to understand history.
The eleventh, twelfth, and thirteenth theses are Benjamin's critique of socialism or the social democratic parties in Germany and elsewhere. Marxism or socialism also falls back upon both a flawed notion of progress supported by a flawed notion of science which loses the human aspect that has to be maintained to bring about true freedom. As he says, "this vulgar-Marxist conception of the nature of labor bypasses the question of how its products might benefit the workers while still not being at their disposal. It recognizes only the progress in the mastery of nature, not the retrogression of society; it already displays the technocratic features later encountered in Fascism". 
The twelfth thesis, Benjamin argues that social democrats have lost touch with past, and also gives some significance to the Spartacist group. They fought not only for the oppressed of their times but also for the "generations of the downtrodden" who like Spartacus tried but failed in the past.

The thirteenth thesis also argues that the social democrats rely too much on a flawed idea of progress.
In the fourteenth and fifteenth theses Benjamin draws on some lessons from the French Revolution. In the fourteenth Benjamin talks how Robespierre (one of the leaders of the revolution) evoked the ancient Romans but used them in a way as if the Romans really had come back to life again in the French Revolution. He contrasts this with the superficial way in which people appropriate fashions without really getting to the real significance and meaning of what they appropriate.

In the fifteenth, Benjamin examines one curious aspect of the French Revolution and perhaps maybe its most revolutionary aspect besides "Dechristianization"–the revolutionary calendar. Basically, after the French deposed their king in 1792, they created a new calendar and started from the year one! 1792 became 1 in their calendar in other words. What is the significance of this? An example of Jetztzeit, a radical perception of time. Again relating to the idea of the "eternal" quality of conflict. 

He recounts an event from the second French revolution in 1848 where people shot at the clock-towers to stop them from moving: to freeze time in the revolutionary moment. Revolutionary moments he argues necessarily break with the ordinary flow and progression of time, they pierce the everyday rhythms of life and disrupt the order of things. This relates to Benjamin's concern with "cultic" behavior (from the last essay) which is defined by repetitive behavior in the form of rituals legitimated by myths: the opposite of the explosive, disruptive behavior that is he speaking of. Ritualistic behavior also tends to assume the person is not fully aware and is acting out the rituals mostly out of habit; a revolutionary consciousness would require a full awareness of the historical moment. 
The sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth theses deal with the experience of time and are the most metaphysical of theses. In the sixteenth Benjamin argues that our experience is flawed, the past isn't really past because time itself never really changes, we only experience it as such. That's why he talks about the whore called "once upon a time", what he means is that phrase gives the impression of past events which are so remote and detached from our present lives that they no longer have any impact upon us–he is arguing for the opposite. Instead he is arguing that we take the promise of happiness in stories literally.
The seventeenth is probably the most complicated of all the theses. Since past and present do not follow a linear path (move in a straight line) the proper approach to history is to take historical fragments of people and events that are connected in some way in order to draw some connection to the present or provide some inspiration to present people in moments of danger (like fleeing from Nazis). This sounds very crude almost, but since the possibility of creating true objective history is an illusion anyway, the only thing left to do is to pick out the pieces of history that serve the goal of freeing the oppressed: the constellation, a series of points connected together which combined reveal a new object.
In the eighteenth thesis Benjamin argues that our concept of time is relative, that from another perspective the whole history of humankind can look very brief. Seen in this compressed way makes it easier to think of history as one long present moment and makes it easier to select out pieces of history for this.
Finally, in the epilogue parts A and B Benjamin argues about causality and the future. In A he argues again that historicists create a false awareness of history by proposing simplified cause and effect relationships in their historical work. Since the reality of history is so complex he doubts that one can create an accurate linear model of history, or history seen as moving in a straight line. 

Instead, he gives his metaphor for connecting different fragments of the past–the constellation. Instead of a straight line, a constellation is composed of many points that do not seem to follow any kind of linear order but are instead of a sequence of points and connections that intersect each other in a way that it is hard to tell which point is first and which is last. However despite the lack of order, the wholeness of the constellation creates a definite shape and image. This is his idea for historical studies, you unearth different fragments and assemble them in a way so that different fragments become something complete and give some kind of definite direction or idea (or a monad as he calls it in the 17th thesis).
In B, Benajmin who has talked mainly about the past and the present says a little about the future. Although he is distrustful of an idea of progress that always points to the future when things might get better instead of fixing the present now, he does not want to dismiss the future. The future is as important as the past. The future is the realm of anticipation and waiting, it is not empty time as he says, but where one waits for the moment to come when a new order is created (the Messiah returns).
So in many ways, Benjamin's text is the most nihilistic of all the texts that we have looked at. History is one big disaster, full of suffering and misery, dominated by the strong who have imposed one conception, their conception, of "justice" and the "good life" one after another till another more powerful group comes around. Yet, the only way to overcome this is to immerse oneself in history completely, rather than to run away from it. Remember if we have talked about nihilism as a rejection of traditional morals and values, then Benjamin's philosophy of history reflects this idea perfectly. As he says "wreckage upon wreckage" is his view of the past, so why would anyone want to preserve wreckage (traditions and conventions)? This goes back to what I said earlier about quoting. The only way in which anything from the past can be persevered anymore, Benjamin says, is through a quote which is by definition fragmented and torn out of its context.
At the same time, his knowledge of the past and his embrace of religion (albeit in his own unconventional way) suggests a more complicated relationship with traditions. At the very least, one must know the past before they can reject it as a history of oppression. But his own peculiar way of approaching history, through the metaphor of the constellation, suggests that it is not the past in and of itself that is wrong, but how we have interpreted and made sense of the past that is flawed:"history is written by the winners."
 Contrary, to critics who dismiss nihilism as "the belief in nothing," nihilism forces one to confront and investigate traditional meanings and values in order to create new values.  Nihilism is critical of how morals and truth have been passed down to us, acknowledging the power and influence of tradition. But nihilism itself is not something positive, it represents emptiness, meaninglessness, and intense longing. Nihilism is the breeding ground of Nazism and all other forms of totalitarianism

Just as bad is the pathetic attempt to deny nihilism, to try to recreate a way of life that no longer has any connection with the actual conditions of life. The challenge of nihilism then, is to create new values to replace those traditional systems that have been destroyed. It is a two step process: 1) recognition of nihilism; 2) the will to overcome it. Benjamin critiques liberals for denying nihilism and he critiques fascists who celebrate "nothingness" as a way to justify their brutality. The relation between the two may be even closer than Benjamin realizes, as Adorno argues in Dialectic of Enlightenment it is the failings of liberalism, because of its inner tendency to control, which in its way pushes people towards authoritarianism. This can be explained in part by the denial of nihilism and the censorship of all who speak of it.

As it relates to experience, these shallow one-dimensional interpretation of history and of people in history impoverishes people's ability to experience, what he called Erharfung or integrated experiences. A higher level of experience is opened by understanding things in their historical context, at the same time, true objective views of history are more or less impossible. Integrated experience is persevered through this idea of the constellation (a structure of quotations similar to the structure of astrological constellations), that literally allows one to "cherry-pick" aspects of history in order to form a meaningful experience of the history of a thing. All prior history are really just different constellations of ideas and patterns that historians found meaningful.

This idea is inseparable from Benjamin's overall view that modern life is experienced in a fragmentary, discontinuous way. More modern commentators have picked up on this idea, suggesting that the best way for emancipation is not to impose order and uniformity upon an increasingly complicated modern world but to "adapt" to it in a sense:
To be modern, I said, is to experience personal and social life as a maelstrom, to find one's world and oneself in perpetual disintegration and renewal, trouble and anguish, ambiguity and contradiction: to be part of a universe in which all that is solid melts into air. To be a modernist is to make oneself somehow at home in the maelstrom, to make its rhythms one's own, to move within its currents in search of the forms of reality, of beauty, of freedom, of justice, that its fervid and perilous flow allows (Berman 1982 pp. 345-346).
We must also remember the social climate that produces this kind of thinking. The period of time in German history we are looking at was a period of time when almost all of the traditional ways of life were destroyed in the carnage of World War I. Those who still held on to their beliefs had to live in a world where revolution was a constant threat, people were prey to an erratic capitalist world market, and new radical forms of extremism were seizing power. On the other hand, new modes of perception and experience were being created leading to new forms of sexuality, traditional gender roles were beginning to be challenged and although the loss of traditions can lead to uncertainty and anxiety it also creates the possibility for liberation once oppressive traditions which hold people back have been thrown away.
Technology both destroys old values but also creates new forms of communication that can help articulate new values. It expands the power of the state, but it also gives people power to resist the state. Technology can be both liberating and oppressive, although this view is controversial. However in the context of modern American life, often only the positive aspects of technology are mentioned, the negative side is often concealed.  These tools have opened up new areas of human understanding and allowed us to see things and think about things that people were not able to do prior to this. And of course the development of technology contributed to the nihilistic mood. Psychoanalysis challenges traditional notions of sexuality, communication (and community), and identity. Photography and film change our perception of our bodies and allow us to study the human body in ways we never could before. This also makes it easier to control people but also gives us greater insight into ourselves and others.

Next class we will wrap things up and brings thing up to the present.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

5/2 Walter Benjamin: "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

Walter Benjamin (1892-1940) was part of the same generation of radical intellectuals like Sigefried Kracauer, Max Horkheimer, and Theodor Adorno–collectively known as the Frankfurt School–who we discussed in the lectures on mass culture. While maintaing an opposed stance to capitalism and emphasizing a cultural critique of capitalism, based on the concepts of "ideology" and "consciousness," and "subjectivity," at the same time they were distancing themselves from traditional Marxist thought, precisely because these ideas had been neglected by previous Marxist thinkers. Intellectuals from this generation basically created the field of media and cultural studies today, especially after many of them emigrated to the United States after 1933, where the first major studies on the effects of radio and movies on a mass audience were created. The influx of so many German and Austrian intellectuals (and soon after from all the other nations in Europe) from so different fields greatly contributed to the development of the American academic establishment, and is a large reason why the American university system is still considered to be the best in the world today.

Benjamin was among the first to leave Germany after Hitler took power in 1933 and settled in Paris. Yet for some reason he seemed to overestimate his security in France. Perhaps he loved the city–which he referred to as "the capital of the 19th century"–too much. Or perhaps, it was his large uncompleted work on urban life in Paris–known as "The Arcades Project," after the indoor/outdoor shopping malls constructed in 19th century Paris, the "arcades"–that he was still working on that kept him from leaving. 

He was also a great admirer of French art and wrote extensively about poets like Baudelaire (1821-1867) and new art movements at that time like Surrealism (something which we have not really discussed that much and different from Dada or Expressionism). 

Most of the Frankfurt School had emigrated to the U.S. between 1934-1936 (along with many other German refugees or émigrés). Adorno, who stayed in England for some time, joined his colleagues in New York in 1938. Once settled in the U.S. the Frankfurt School taught at Columbia University for several years through the 1930s and 1940s, where it was officially renamed the International Institute for Social Research. After the war, many of them stayed in the U.S. although Horkheimer and Adorno went back to Germany and reestablished the Institute at Goethe University Frankfurt (named after the German writer Goethe). 

On several occasions, Adorno and others tried to persuade Benjamin to leave Paris. After the war began in September 1939, French authorities briefly detained Benjamin and other German refugees in "detention" camps. After Germany invaded France in the Spring of 1940, Benjamin, with others, tried to illegally cross the border into Spain. The ultimate goal was Lisbon in Portugal which was a neutral port and a haven for refugees seeking asylum in the United States. 

Unfortunately, after crossing into Spain they were detained by Spanish authorities who had just decided to close the border at this time. Fearing he would be turned over to the Germans, Benjamin (a Jew with known communist associations) committed suicide by an overdose of morphine tablets–the guards were apparently so shocked that they allowed the rest of the group to go through. As a result of this, most of his work was unknown in America until the 1970s. He tends to fit into the mold of other people like Nietzsche (or Van Gogh) who became more famous after they died. The German-American theorist Hannah Arendt quotes Cicero when writing about Benjamin's life: Si vivi vicissent qui morte vicerunt–"if they had been victorious in life who have won victory in death."  Even his colleagues in the Frankfurt School, during his lifetime, disagreed with many aspects of his work especially regarding mass culture and sometimes refused to publish his work or published it with revisions. They did however publish this essay in 1936 in their journal Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung (renamed Studies in Philosophy and Social Science in 1939).

There is some strange irony in life that people like Benjamin and Rosa Luxemburg, had violent deaths, while Ernst Jünger (1895-1998)–who in his earlier work wrote about war as some kind of elevated religious experience and supported the Nazis early on–lived to be 102 and became one of the most respected German writers in the 1950s and 60s, and died in 1998, having lived through almost the entire 20th century. Or Leni Riefenstahl (1902-2003) who directed Nazi propaganda films, continuing in the art world after the war and lived to be 101. If Benjamin had lived he would have come to the U.S. and would have provided a balance from his more elitist comrades who were almost unanimously skeptical and disdainful of all form of "popular culture." Instead the fields of study revolving around the media and culture have an unmistakable elitist bias that continues into the present, in large part due to the large role people like Adorno had in establishing the very concepts and language we use to analyze and study the media.

The essay that we are reading this week, as its title implies, deals with the transformations in how art is produced, and how people receive it, brought about through technologies of mass production. 

Benjamin unlike many other media critics is positive in his overall view on the media–although with some qualifications–he believes it has great potential for freedom and the ability to undermine traditionally repressive systems of values. At the same time however, Benjamin is concerned with the loss of tradition in life. 

Mass media then gives us a more realistic view of the world and increases our ability to communicate with others even though we lose out in the sense of the supernatural and the mysterious that used to make art so powerful, what he later refers to as the "cult value" of art. But he is aware that the potential exists for fascism to capitalize on this technology for its own purposes as well. Take for example the almost constant rituals and rallies complete with torches, flags, banners, and other ritualistic objects in the film Triumph of the Will. The director Leni Riefenstahl had near unlimited resources granted to her by the German government and at that time (and for some still in the present) the film was praised for its sophistication and technique.  In other words, Benjamin believed that mass culture or rather any commodity produced under a capitalist system contains both "utopian" or "regressive" elements (as in utopian, a striving for something better, and regress, the opposite of progress)The task of the critic (himself) is to bring out these elements in their own criticism–the critic "completes the piece" in a sense which is incomplete until it has been critiqued for only then does  the deeper meaning of the work appear. The rest of the Frankfurt School were highly opposed to this position and saw the attempt to read utopian ideas into mass culture as giving them a fake magical quality and overly subjective, in other words they saw all mass culture as the deceptive and manipulative aspects of mass culture created by the Nazis. In one of their most controversial arguments made later in the 1940s they argue explicitly that mass culture in America or what they call the "culture industry" essentially produces the same totalitarian system of control in a fascist state, they are "two sides of the same coin" they say. 

A major influence on Benjamin was the German playwright Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956), who championed the idea of art having a social consciousness, or being didactic, and who among other things stressed the idea of what he called "crude" thinking to Benjamin. It is meant as a revolutionary tactic, based on the belief that to have any impact upon a mass society that social and political ideas are best expressed in simple forms. Benjamin for example once said that Charlie Chaplin films have the same effect as Dadaism, except he does it more "naturally." Brecht and Chaplin both parodied and mocked Hitler: Brecht in his play The Resistable Rise of Arturo Ui (1941) and Chaplin in the film The Great Dictator (1940). After hearing of Benjamin's death, Brecht reportedly said it was the first real loss Hitler had caused German literature.

Brecht declared that "crude thinking is the thinking of great men." In another essay that was not assigned, Benjamin speaks of the Brechtian influence of crude or coarse thinking in its relation to praxis (action): “Coarse thoughts have a special place in dialectical thinking because their sole function is to direct theory toward practice. They are directives toward practice, not for it: action can, of course, be as subtle as thought. But a thought must be coarse to find its way into action” (Benjamin p. 199).

 Positions like this horrified the Frankfurt School who had a very developed aesthetic taste and saw crude thinking as a justification for communist doctrine (Brecht was much more in line with the Soviet Union and some would accuse him of being a "Stalinist"). Benjamin also quotes Brecht saying "do not build on the good old days, but the bad new ones," which suggests a turning away from cultural tradition and an embrace of new forms of art which create new experiences.

Art is after all communicated through a kind of language even if it is a pictorial or symbolic language just as music is considered a language. Evaluating or judging the status of mass culture in contemporary society is still one of the most controversial aspects of modern life. Many, like the Frankfurt School believe that mass culture only has a harmful and regressive effect on the population–even if they are willing to admit that consumer impulses still contain a distorted demand for respect and dignity. 

Adorno's critique of Benjamin's approach is that it "lacks mediation" meaning that it is caught up in the "immediacy" or the immediate experience of the object, and not able to distance itself from the object and put it in its proper context. In essence they say: Benjamin judges things too much at face value. 

However, they all place special emphasis on the "experience" of art by people, how it affects consciousness by giving us categories by which to interpret the world, whether this develops in a group setting or individually. One of Benjamin's goals then is to explain how the experience of art changes when it is reproduced. Benjamin theorizes about two kinds of experience Erfahrung (integrated experience) and Erlebnisse (isolated experience). Integrated experience was a fuller and more developed form of experience as its name implies than isolated experience. Integrated experience occurs by understanding the historical origins of objects that you come into contact with–as tradition–while isolated experience suggests the opposite: objects are encountered in isolation and usually seen as hostile. Analysis, as a cognitive skill that can be developed, refers to the process of breaking down an object, to separate that object into parts, and observe each piece in isolation. In other words, the process of analysis itself, upon which reason and science rest and which is developed through rigorous disciplining, itself creates isolated experience. Integrated experience establishes a continuity or connection between experiences transmitted through tradition, while isolated experience sees no connection between one experience and another. Although Benjamin praises the potential liberating power of mass culture, the detachment of objects from their historical context–which mechanical reproduction makes possible–risks cutting the vital connection to history that makes integrated experience possible.

The emphasis on experience is rooted in the neo-Kantian philosophy that was standard in German universities in the early 20th century and was an influence on Benjamin and the Frankfurt School and others. Central to Kant's philosophy is the idea that there are forms of knowledge that do not depend upon experience in order to know this knowledge or to verify it, that there is knowledge prior to experience–this is known as "rationalism" or "apriorism" or a priori (Latin for "prior to" experience, literally translated as "from the earlier"), and is in contrast to "empiricism" which is knowledge learned through experience. Kant then divides our mental apparatus (our mind) into the "understanding" which is prior to experience, or transcendental, and the "sensibility" which perceives sensory stimuli from the outside world. The understanding processes or "interprets" what the sensibility perceives and converts these fragmentary sense impressions into knowledge. The understanding is different from the senses however. Kant argues this structure within the mind is universal, and seems to suggest that is at least close to the idea of what people refer to as a soul (another meaning of transcendent), although Kant would resist this kind of unscientific classification.

The most important ideas or concepts of the understanding, again, prior to experience are "space" and "time." In other words before we learn anything through experience our minds already perceive (and thus "know") time and space which Kant regards as a form of prior knowledge that is also universal and is the foundation of all experiences in general– the transcendental. Time and space are what makes experience possible by "organizing" sensory perceptions from the outside world into knowledge. Kant's position is meant to address the arguments by empiricists or materialists who believed that our minds passively "reflect" or record the objects of the external world, and on the other side, that the outside world is only real to the extent we are aware of it. Kant argues that there is an external objective world that exists outside of people, but that our minds are much more active in processing the information that comes from the outside. His ultimate objective is to clarify the limits of knowledge, and famously Kant claimed we could never know the "thing in-itself" (Das ding ah sich) meaning the outside world as it really is, our conceptual apparatus in our minds will always function as a kind of screen or lens to the outside world that interprets the world.

 Benjamin would later argue that Kant's concept of the transcendental misses the role of language in experience, and that Kant only defines experience in terms of mathematical or scientific knowledge, Benjamin wants to include religious and artistic modes of experience into his philosophy, even though he risks losing the scientific basis that Kant had been developing. Instead of a unitary form of experience that experiences the world in a uniform way, Benjamin proposes multiple forms of experience   that reconstitute our perceptions of the world in radically different ways–all mediated through language. Although not really a direct connection, Benjamin was likely influenced by the "theory of relativity" developed by Albert Einstein (1879-1955) also in the early 20th century, which states among other things that space and time are relative to the perspective of the viewer (later scientists even dispute the notion of time at all). Thus the Kantian idea of time being a universal feature of experience is now thrown into doubt. At the same time, jazz music is continuing to evolve in the United States and has already become popular in Europe from World War I on after being introduced to it by James Reese Europe (1881-1919) and the "Harlem Hellfighters." Musicians like Louis Armstrong (1901-1971) revolutionized music by changing the rhythm of music in a way which so many critics have noted was more reflective of the pace of the modern world, and of course the 1920s is sometimes referred to as the "Jazz Age" in U.S. history.  

"Swing kids" in Germany were a subculture in the 1930s that listened to banned American jazz and "swing" records. It is not clear that Benjamin was influenced by Einstein or Armstrong directly, in fact Benjamin's most direct influences seem to be primarily European and literary and aesthetic not scientific, but in fact the seeming randomness reveals the ways in which conventional notions of even things taken for granted like time and space were being challenged in a variety of ways, all a response to the radical changes in all societies at this time.

As it relates to integrated experience, Benjamin believed that the experience of time would change as well, what he called Jetztzeit, time "charged with the presence of now," a theological concept where the experience of times passing slows and a sense of the "everlasting present" takes hold. Again not to overemphasize the connection but Einstein once summarized his theory of relativity by pointing out the different experiences of time when you are doing pleasurable or painful activities, like "talking to a beautiful woman" or "sitting on a hot stove," time spent doing something pleasurable like talking to someone you are attracted to will seem to pass by fast even if a lot of time has gone by while sitting on a stove for ten minutes will feel like an hour, as he says. The important point is that the Kantian idea of how time is experienced in a standard, uniform kind of way is challenged by both science and philosophy. 

A more direct influence would be the Hungarian theorist Georg Lukacs (1885-1971), another unorthodox or "renegade" Marxist thinker who had a literary background like Benjamin. Lukacs, unlike Benjamin, had participated in a similar failed uprising in Hungary in 1919 as Spartacus in Germany and was likewise concerned with the importance of ideology and consciousness in shaping the attitudes and the actions of the proletariat. Benjamin borrows the concept of "mediation" which is central to Lukacs' early approach, and which he himself borrows from Hegel to explain the construction of different forms of experience. 

To "mediate" literally means to go between, and suggests already, implicitly, the later importance of "the media." In the original Hegelian sense it meant to explain the development of history and culture through the different "in-between stages," or mediations between the so-called Absolute Spirit and the particular: the finite material world. Mediation then referred to the relationship between concepts like universal & particular or transcendent & immanent, and is concerned with language to the extent to which language reveals the different stages of development of the Spirit. Hegel's philosophy of history is central to the notion of progress in history and the liberal worldview. Lukacs had tried to adapt this to the Marxist idea of class struggle and of the "class consciousness" of the proletariat as it goes through different stages of development. Benjamin, inherits all these past meanings, but is more concerned with the effects of technology on art and on how we experience it as a political phenomenon.

During World War I, Benjamin (who did not serve) wrote a series of essays on language where he separates language into: human, divine and natural language. Human language could be English or German or any other language; divine language is revealed through prophecy and revelation; natural language is the language between things. Experience is basically the act of translating into human language the divine and natural languages–misinterpretations are very common. Again, integrated experience would be able to experience the true natural language of things while isolated experience is limited only to human language. Benjamin through his analysis of the reproduction of art–which depicts divine and natural images and does not use language in the traditional sense–is actually trying to show that perceptions of space and time do in fact change, and thus experience changes too and is not the same at all times for all people.

Benjamin relies on the ideas of Johann Hamann (1731-1788), a contemporary of Kant's who critiqued Kant on the grounds that his "transcendental" concepts of experience, were in fact conditioned by experience after all, namely through the medium of language which conditions all experience, as he says:

Indeed, if a chief question does remain: how is the power to think possible?–The power to think right and left, before and without, with and above experience? Then it does not take a deduction to prove the genealogical priority of language….Not only the entire ability to think rests on language…but language is also the crux of the misunderstanding of reason with itself (Dickson 2007, N III, 286: 1-10).  

Or as he says elsewhere, “Hence it happens that one takes words for concepts, and concepts for the things in themselves” (Dickson 2007, ZH 5, 264:34-265:1).

Instead, Hamann argues that language, and thus thinking are inseparably connected with tradition and experience, as Dickson explains:
Language is the embodiment of experience and tradition; as long as the ability to think rests on language, neither ‘reason’ nor ‘philosophy’ can be pure of the empirical, of experience, and of the experience of the others to whom we relate. It itself is a ‘union of opposites,’ of the aesthetic and the logical, the bodily and the intellectual; it unites the division Kant’s Critique creates (Dickson ibid).

As this relates to mechanical reproduction, in short, it creates a new language for art and new forms of experience. What reproduction does is to strip away what Benjamin refers to as the 'aura' of a work, the aura being the unique presence that each work has, or as he says:
Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be. This unique existence of the work of art determined the history to which it was subject throughout the time of its existence (p.220). 

Elsewhere he defines aura as: the unique phenomenon of distance no matter how close the object may be. In other words, a sense of distance that is immeasurable, that comes from the sense of mystery and otherworldliness the object produces–and which the person experiences upon beholding the work of art. This aura is dependent upon one crucial condition: uniqueness. As soon as art is reproducible its aura, or auratic quality is diminished–and under the conditions of mass society he would say it is completely destroyed, or as he says:
 One might generalize by saying: the technique of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the domain of tradition. By making many reproductions it substitutes a plurality of copies for a unique existence. And in permitting the reproduction to meet the beholder or listener in his own particular situation, it reactivates the object reproduced. These two processes lead to a tremendous shattering of tradition which is the obverse of the contemporary crisis and renewal of mankind. Both processes are intimately connected with the contemporary mass movements. Their most powerful agent is the film. Its social significance, particularly in its most positive form, is inconceivable without its destructive, cathartic aspect, that is, the liquidation of the traditional value of the cultural heritage (p. 221).

Again, to relate this to experience: the decisive difference is that since you do not have to go to the original location of the object (space), and since the historical uniqueness of the object (time) no longer matters, it fundamentally changes the experience of the object, and literally alters the configurations of time and space by which previous generations perceived art: "in his own particular situation...reactivates the object the reproduced," even if you did then see the original afterwards it would not be the same as the original experience of it. For example, a famous example of art in a specific location could be the frescoes in the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican, painted by Michelangelo. The very fact that I can reproduce images of it here, Benjamin says, diminishes the aura of the work–even if it creates a new experience of the object:
Michelangelo, The Last Judgement, 1537-1541

The function or purpose of aura is closely connected with what Benjamin refers to as the cultic or religious function of art. Basically, in ancient times up until the Renaissance: artistic production was used in religious ceremonies and rituals, and thus art has always served a social purpose and served to maintain a specific social order. By the time of the Renaissance (circa 1400-1650), secular, non-religious themes began to replace the religious purposes of art, although religious themes remained very dominant during this time as well–and the dependence of art on social forces never diminished either like the Catholic Church or rich nobles and kings who commissioned artists for works and became their "patrons." 

This development culminated in 19th century Romanticism which stressed the doctrine: "art for art's sake," (l'art pour l'art in French) meaning that art was an independent realm of human activity separate from politics and society which operated according to its own rules and standards of excellence–in Benjamin's view this is only the last attempt to preserve the decaying aura that art once had. In reality, "independent" artists were still dependent upon rich patrons or upon commercial publishing houses and newspapers which were developing rapidly in the 19th century. 

Fascism draws upon Romanticism for its own imagery and because romantics emphasized "feelings" over "reason." These are basically still the two dominant approaches to art: art for art's sake (Kant had similarly defined art as "purposiveness without purpose"), or the didactic: art as a tool of social and political consciousness. 

Reproduction takes away the aura since works are no longer unique they exist along with perhaps thousands of copies of the original. This destroys the mystical aspect of art and Benjamin regards this as a positive development since it allows us to approach art in a more realistic way–although the destruction of the aura does diminish the experience of the object since it is taken out of its historical context which is one of the bases of integrated experience. He regards the auratic quality as a kind of supernatural domination that in effect serves the mundane purpose of protecting dominant classes in society. Later he says that the destruction of the aura allows people to see "the universal equality of things." Reproduction is then seen as a positive development even though it does create the possibility for art to become a mass produced commodity for the first time and also allows new political forces like fascism to use it as well. But in what ways are art mechanically reproduced?
He gives special emphasis to photography and to film. With photography one is able to examine images in ways previously unavailable to the naked eye. Photography is actually an invention of the French. The first known photograph is credited to French inventor Nicéphore Niépce in 1826:
First Known Photograph, 1826, La cour du domaine du Gras

Niépce died in 1833 and gave his notes to his partner Louis Daguerre, who developed the first commercially successful photographic process, the daguerrotype:
Daguerrotype, 1838, Boulevard du Temple, Paris

 A French-Brazilian inventor Hércules Florence, coined the term photographia, in 1832 and perfected a similar process, but was relatively unknown in his time. English inventor John Herschel is credited with coining the term "photography" in 1839. He was an influence on Fox Talbot who in 1841 developed the calotype process of photography. This was the process adopted by George Eastman (inventor of roll film) who founded the Eastman Kodak company in 1889 which set the standard for how all consumer camera and photography equipment would be produced–kodak originally was a word specifically for a small hand-held camera. 

The invention of roll film would be crucial for the development of motion picture film which is really just a further technical development of photography, pictures that move and later have sound–the first films were produced in the 1880s (the automobile was also invented during this time period), the first films made for a public were produced in 1895 as mentioned in the lecture on Caligari. This also changed the artistic standards in painting. Before the invention of photography, the standard of excellence for a a painter was the ability to recreate nature in painting and represent it accurately. The development of photography and its flawless accuracy makes "naturalistic" painting seem obsolete and it is in the latter half of the nineteenth century and after that you see the development of "abstract" forms of art–many of which we have discussed already or check the "modern art timeline."

With photography, one is now able to enlarge images to see things that would be hard to see or invisible, and slow motion allows us to examine movement and motion in ways that people would not be able to in real time, "For example, in photography, process reproduction can bring out those aspects of the original that are unattainable to the naked eye yet accessible to the lens, which is adjustable and chooses its angle at will. And photographic reproduction, with the aid of certain processes, such as enlargement or slow motion, can capture images which escape natural vision" (p. 220). How does this contrast with Jünger's analysis of the camera as the "evil eye?"

These technical developments in the reproduction of art leads to a "quantitative shift between its two poles" and causes a  "qualitative transformation of its nature." What he means by that is that artistic production could be analyzed as having a "cult value" and "exhibition value"–the two poles. The cult value refers to its status in magic and rituals; exhibition value refers to the content or the "information" contained within the piece, literally by showing or exhibiting it. Although both values are always present one is always stronger than the other and until modern times, the cult value of art (which supports social order by making it seem mystical) tended to dominate, but reproduction of art in ever greater numbers has caused this to shift so much, that the defining quality of art now tends to emphasize exhibition value over cult value. This is the framework by which Benjamin analyzes art, and he is suspicious of any attempt to recreate "cult value" under the modern conditions of production. One form in which this takes is fascism; the other is the American entertainment system–Hollywood by this time had already been established.  Emil Jannings, I already mentioned, star of The Blue Angel and later celebrity of the Nazi regime won the first Academy Award for Best Actor in 1928.

Benjamin stresses that the exhibition value of art clearly begins to dominate over the cult value for the first time with photography, especially with the the work of Eugéne Atget (1857-1927) who depicted street scenes in Paris, known for their haunting, almost supernatural quality–Benjamin says they look like "scenes of a crime":

Pavers (Bitumiers), 1899-1900
all Atget images from The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Edge of the Marne (Bords de la Marne), 1903

Cour, 41 rue Broca, 1912
Magasins du Bon Marche, 1927, Famous French department store

Atget had a tremendous influence on a whole generation of photojournalists also from Benjamin's generation (although Americans), like Walker Evans (1903-1975) and Dorothea Lange (1895-1965) and others who became well-known for their depiction of scenes of the Great Depression and basically created the style of documentary photojournalism that is still popular today. 

In this example, the camera is used not to glorify but to expose the contradictions within the economic and social system not by statistical arguments but by depicting human suffering, and to give expression to groups and individuals who normally would not be able to express themselves. This is true both of the economic underclasses but also of racial minorities such as many Japanese-American citizens who were placed in "internment" camps by the U.S. government during World War II:
Walker Evans, Vicksburg, Mississippi, 1936

Dorothea Lange, Migrant Mother, Florence Owens Thompson, 1936

Dorothea Lange, Japanese Americans line up at Tanforan  Assembly Center, San Bruno, California, 1942

It also increases our awareness of the horrors of the world and forces people to confront these aspects of life:

Lynching of Laura and Lawrence Nelson, Oklahoma, 1911

Stanley Forman, Fire Escape Collapse, 1975

Another prominent photographer during this time was Margaret Bourke-White (1904-1971), the first Western journalist to photograph the Soviet Union and the first female war correspondent. Here the camera allows the viewer to see distant locations and thus brings us into contact with these people in a way that was impossible before, but also serves as a chronicle of human abuse and misery and stands as a reminder to the atrocities committed by humanity:
Tractor Factory, Stalingrad, USSR, 1930

Prisoners at Buchenwald, Weimar, Thuringia, Germany, 1945

Nuremberg, Bavaria, Germany, 1945

The reproducibility of all these photographs–indeed Benjamin points out it is absurd to ask for an "original" photograph–makes it difficult to use these images for a "cultic" purpose, instead however, the exhibition value–they communicate a lot of information–is strong. The later photographers of the 1930s, (the same time in which Benjamin is writing on this) mark an even stronger insistence on the social and political function of their photography and developed the "documentary" style of photojournalism which is still popular today. Atget's work, from another generation, seems otherworldly and recreates almost an "aura" or auratic kind of quality, but not on the work itself, but what the work depicts: it gives the "real world" an aura, but also hints at a hidden darkness or evil under the surface of reality. Benjamin suggests that Atget's photos makes a person feel the traces of people who have occupied the spaces before even if they are empty. In this way, he is able to preserve a sense of historical connection in his work that makes integrated experience possible. After discussing photography, Benjamin shifts the discussion to film, which is not so much distinct from photography as it takes the technological development that is photography and refines it to a higher level of expression.

The American photographer Paul Strand (1890-1976), slightly older than Evans, Lange, and Bourke-White was also a major influence on establishing photography in the early 20th century. However, I mention Strand in this context because he serves as a link between photography and film. In 1921 he co-directed with painter Charles Sheeler, the short film Manhatta. This film in some ways recreates the sense of experience captured by Atget but now with actual moving images:

Film more than any other art form destroys the aura of traditional works of art, or as he says "liquidates the cultural heritage." Again, this frees people from the cultic power that art once had, but also cuts the connection for integrated experience that has to be reestablished somehow. Also Benjamin's influence by the playwright Brecht means that he partially conceives of the relationship between film actor and audience similar to the relationship between stage actor and audience. Since Brecht especially emphasized the interactions between actors and audience in his plays (in some cases actors would "break character" and speak directly to the audience) and this element is obviously lost in filmmaking–there is no connection between actors and audience at all–Benjamin interprets some aspects of film negatively:
The camera that presents the performance of the film actor to the public need not respect the performance as an integral whole. Guided by the cameraman, the camera continually changes its position with respect to the performance. The sequence of positional views which the editor composes from the material supplied constitutes the completed film. It comprises certain factors of movement which are in reality those of the camera, not to mention special camera angles, close-ups, etc (p. 228).

The fragmentation of the actor's performance brought about by mechanical reproduction and the second-hand quality of the performance which is not delivered live, in person, but through the mediation of a machine naturally destroys the aura–aura depends on presence. Benjamin argues in this case the destruction of the aura (which implies the authority of the actor) is substituted with celebrityhood:   "The film responds to the shriveling of the aura with an artificial build-up of the 'personality' outside the studio. The cult of the movie star, fostered by the money of the film industry, preserves not the unique aura of the person but the 'spell of the personality,' the phony spell of a commodity" (p. 231). Elsewhere he argues that there is great potential in filmmaking–for example he says in Soviet films  like those directed by Sergei Eisenstein (1898-1948) who created frenetic, fast-paced films, using innovative film editing techniques that also speed up the flow of time by displaying  rapid sequences of images from different perspetives and angles–similar to the pacing of music videos today. Eisenstein's editing techniques like Louis Armstrong's trumpet solos are both indicators of a new experience of time. In contrast to the Hollywood style Eisenstein's films usually featured "real" people instead of actors, and were explicitly political and revolutionary.

 Although: "In Western Europe the capitalistic exploitation of the film denies consideration to modern man's legitimate claim to being reproduced. Under these circumstances the film industry is trying hard to spur the interest of the masses through illusion-promoting spectacles and dubious speculations" (p.232).  These are aspects more unique to film: there are not really celebrity photographers at least not to the level of famous actors and actresses; and photography requires much less capital to produce than film (although some forms of independent or "guerrilla filmmaking" get around this difficulty). 

Film opens up entirely new areas of perception to humanity that previous art forms like painting could never do. Benjamin compares this to a surgeon:
 How does the cameraman compare with the painter? To answer this we take recourse to an analogy with a surgical operation. The surgeon represents the polar opposite of the magician. The magician heals a sick person by laying on of hands; the surgeon cuts into the patient's body. The magician maintains the natural distance between the patient and himself; though he reduces it very slightly by the laying on of hands, he greatly increases it by virtue of his authority. The surgeon does exactly the reverse; he greatly diminishes the distance between himself and the patient by penetrating into the patient's body, and increases it but little by the caution with which his hands moves among the organs. In short, in contrast to the magician–who is still hidden in the medical practitioner–the surgeon at the decisive moment abstains from facing the patient man to man; rather, it is through the operation that he penetrates into him (p. 233).
Rembrandt,"The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nichoales Tulp," 1632, The Hague
Even if some aspects of this sound unpleasant and suggest something lost that painting had, at the same time the ability to record and reproduce living moving images of human beings for the first time in human history created new forms of perception which before this did not exist:
Then came the film and burst this prison-world asunder by the dynamite of a tenth of a second, so that now, in the midst of its far flung ruins and debris, we calmly and adventurously go traveling. With the close-up, space expands; with slow motion, movement is extended. The enlargement of a snapshot does not simply render more precise what in any case was visible, though unclear: it reveals entirely new structural formations of the subject. So, too, slow motion not only presents familiar qualities of movement but reveals in them entirely unknown ones 'which, far from looking like retarded rapid movements, give the effect of singularly gliding, floating, supernatural motions (p. 236).
This even changes our own self-awareness so we can now study in detail how people move and behave:
Even if one has a general knowledge of the way people walk, one knows nothing of a person's posture during the fractional second of a stride. The act of reaching for a lighter or a spoon is a familiar routine, yet we hardly know what really goes on between hand and metal, not to mention how this fluctuates with our moods. Here the camera intervenes with the resources of its lowerings and liftings, its interruptions and isolations, its extensions and accelerations, its enlargements and reductions. The camera introduces us to unconscious optics as does psychoanalysis to unconscious impulses (p. 237).

Benjamin compares the impact of film with the Dadaists, noting that the "shock effect" of Dada art is reproduced by the rapid sequences of images produced by film, in fact it is enhanced by the presentation of the film and that in many ways dadaism is a prelude to the film (this could also explain why Dadaism is usually received well even in the present by a modern movie going public). He also contrasts "concentration" with "distraction" as ways of experiencing art and argues that the distracted mode is most similar to the experience of architecture in that you are in contact and experiencing the "art" but you are not concentrated on it–he also mentions that architecture is the oldest and most durable of all the art forms and is indispensable for humanity. He also compares it to optical (visual) and tactile (touch) art. Benjamin argues that distracted mode of experience is more social than concentration which assumes a certain antisocial behavior, and that similar to how we use architecture, he suggests, that we will use art in the same kind of tactile way (maybe clothing could be another example).

He ends by noting the difference between the fascist and communist appropriation of art so far. At the time in which Benjamin is writing in 1935-1936 there is a significant propaganda war going on throughout the whole world. Italy by this time has already invaded Ethiopia. Germany is about to make its first expansionistic move into the Rhineland. However, a new force has emerged in Europe to challenge the fascist influence–the Popular Front. 

This was an alliance of communist, socialist, and even bourgeois liberal parties. In 1934, Stalin through the Comintern (international socialist organization) had decided to align the communist parties of Europe with their social democratic counterparts and even bourgeois liberal parties who were willing to accept any ally to counteract the fascists. Popular Front governments were established in France (where Benjamin was) and also in Spain and animated the spirit of '30s radicalism in the U.S. during the New Deal. It was the election of the Popular Front government in the Second Spanish Republic (only established in 1931) that prompted right-wing extremists to initiate the Spanish Civil War in 1936 which culminated in the takeover by fascist dictator Francisco Franco in 1939.
Spanish Republic Allegory
 Note the symbols of progress and modernization. The plaque on the left is inscribed with a famous saying from the French Revolution: "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity."

The Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) was also notorious because it was the first time German warplanes were used to bomb a city, Guernica, in the Basque region of Northern Spain. This was memorialized by the painter Pablo Picasso (1881-1973).  In many ways the Germans regarded this conflict as "practice" for their own war they were about to unleash on the continent. The Germans began their war just as the Spanish Civil War was ending, costing the lives of Walter Benjamin and over 60 million more (more than half civilians). The Popular Front collapsed completely in 1939 after the Germans and the Soviet Union signed a non-aggression pact–a major betrayal by Stalin who initiated this five years before.

Some have argued that Picasso's style was influenced by film. His style later referred to as "cubism" reveals another radical reconstruction of experience. If Armstrong and Eisenstein reveal radical new experiences of time in their work, then Picasso's paintings represent a new conception of space that defies the conventional linearity and separation of objects. Similarly, Eisenstein's film editing, being a visual form, also transforms the spatial configurations of objects, allowing the viewer to see combinations and sequences of imagery that could never occur in reality, and allows the director to juxtapose or combine distinct, unrelated images together. 
Pablo Picasso, Guernica, 1937, Museo Reina Sofia, Madrid

Assignment Due 5/9: Choose a passage from "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," write out the passage, explain what it means and why you chose it.