Mechanical reproduction, another thought-provoking reading

So for Comm Lab we’ve had a number of interesting readings. This week was Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”. Actually, I’d read this one before, but it was quite a while ago. In fact it was waaaay back in one of my earliest philosophy classes: Dr. James Shelley’s “Meta-aesthetics”.

It’s interesting to come back to it so many years, and a sociology B.A., later. After all, the piece is incredibly Marxist, and the analytic school of philosophy isn’t all that Marxist. But all that sociology reading gave me a much better grasp of Marxist ideas and direction than I had before. I actually found this reading more thought-provoking as a result.

Benjamin actually has a lot of ideas packed into this tiny little essay, and he expresses them in a very Continental way. It’s very strongly about politics, and the ideas themselves are argued in historical rather than analytic terms. There are many references to French thinkers too, and that’s generally a good tip-off. Of course with it being such a Continentally-styled piece of writing it’s hard for me to judge whether Benjamin actually misses the key to all of his discussion, or if he just says it in a way that I don’t parse well. I suspect the former. (As with Ong, I’m being uncharitable and assuming a mistake in thinking rather than one in communication.)

While Benjamin presents his argument as being about mechanical reproduction generally, I suspect that he’s really concerned with a very specific set of mechanical reproduction: film, and perhaps, recorded music. Sure, he pays lip service to the changes introduced by other forms of reproduction, and these shouldn’t be taken lightly for they are certainly significant, but most of his arguments don’t seem to be about those in general, but about film in particular.

He talks a bit about aura (a poorly chosen piece of specialty jargon), and that’s certainly a general concern for all mechanical reproduction, but it seems that the real thrust of his argument is about the nature of viewing. What he seems to want to call the shift to “political” viewing of art. (I’ll talk a bit more about aura later.)

The problem with all of this is that he seems to attribute both more and less than he should to film. He hails it as the first medium of its kind, and justifies this by pointing to its wide audience intention and sort of requirement of a passive, rather than engaged, audience.

I actually don’t feel like I have the time or energy to do a deep analysis of all thism, so I’m going to break it down to a couple of quick points.

1. Film audiences operate at two scales: everyone watching a specific screen (and thus able to directly interact with one another) and everyone watching the film on any screen (no matter how separated).

2. The key to film’s differences is, as Benjamin brushed across, the way that it mediates time for the audience. This makes it like music more than like any form of static art.

3. The other key actually is mechanical reproduction. It is because film must be a mediated experience, it can not interact with or adjust to its audiences, that makes it so different.

4. Combining 2 and 3 actually does give us a new art form of sorts in that prior to film, mediated art was static. (There might be a very interesting exception here in recorded music.)

5. Benjamin’s thoughts about architecture are brilliant. The suggestion that its an art-form properly appreciated “tactiley” (I’d say kinesthetically) is extremely good and opens up a number of new questions.

6. He does a terrible job of justifying his ideas about art becoming “political”. In fact I feel like he has too much unexamined Marxism in his thinking in general.

That’s it for now.

Thomas

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