This edition of Transformations focuses on the influence Walter Benjamin continues to have on contemporary thought. It seeks to create a dialogue between contemporary scholars, theorists, and writers from a range of disciplines and practices with Benjamin’s ideas on politics, art, and representation in the context of a shift from mass to global culture. In this increasingly privately mediated culture, virtually transmitted communicational artifacts are playing an important role in not only shaping the nature of representation, but the nature of being human itself.
Two things prevail in the essays presented in this collection. The first is the intense interest in the work of Benjamin coupled with a desire to re-invest it meaningfully into theories concerning the living relations of each author’s world. The second is the diversity of positions, terms of engagement, and interpretations of Benjamin’s work the authors herein adopt. Perhaps this second feature ought to have been expected, for just as the virtual dispersion through the media has diluted the power of the producer to determine the meaning of the artifact, so too, a diversity of approaches, interpretations, and applications can be expected to be taken in relation to Benjamin.
One ought not look for uniformity of thought or agreement in this collection of essays, therefore. Taking steps often either already taken or sometimes just foreshadowed by Benjamin, many of the writers assemble not one, but a multiplicity of ideas that produce a complex theoretical machine which will, of their own nature, resist becoming totalised into a single theme or idea. It follows then that each reader may find (and/or create) a number of themes and ideas running concurrently, connecting some of the ideas suggested by some essays to those suggested by some others. Other concerns emerge only gradually – “between the lines” so to say – as threads establish themselves and grow, apparently independently, while reading essays sequentially. And sometimes one might simply imagine a ghostly figure or mirage that appears suddenly to connect or reflect a conceptual structure or ideational formation suggested elsewhere, perhaps in this collection, but, perhaps also, in some other text.
Such is the nature of, and diversity in, the work of Walter Benjamin (one might add, a diversity reflected here). While this finally intensifies the reader’s task of interpreting and translating each author’s essay, it also enriches this encounter. Thus while this introduction aims to precise the concerns of this issue and each writer’s essay, the job of rendering whole and legible the collection belongs to each reader. Like reading Benjamin, this is a complex task and it requires each reader to relate their own sense of the work of art in a globally mediated culture to that which is transmitted virtually by and in this collection. Perhaps then, and only by translating the thoughts that appear herein into one’s own concrete experience, will the hall of mirrors that threatens to become an endlessly mediated virtuality be transformed and a real politics emerge.
Mika Elo’s “Elemental Politics” reconsiders Benjamin’s thought on photography, language, and politics in the light of the present attempts to re-theorise the image in the age of its digitisation. Elo argues that this transformation ought to be regarded as a secondary development in the photographic image in which digitisation reveals (and revisits) not so much questions latent in photography itself, but rather how digitisation can be regarded as an evolution and translation of the photograph and the form of visual language(s) it has generated. Now, however, with photography’s nature becoming more conscious in its secondary development, the questions raised by digital photography serve to highlight the underlying operations of what Benjamin termed “pure language” and the elemental political relations language establishes. For language is the foremost mediation technology, and it is that which enables humans to communicate, and through such communication, establish and alter social bonds and cultural relations.
In “Benjamin, Trauma and the Virtual,”Allen Meek examines how technologically mediated (virtual) traumatic memories can prize open the seal that history creates to conceal the victory of the “present” over the “past.” While all transmitted technological mediations are by nature dislocated and dissociated from time and space, and hence virtual, there lurks beneath the leaky seams of their spatio-temporal dislocation the stories and “traditions of the oppressed.” Meek shows that notions of “past” and “present,” mediation and reality, are actually cognate terms and, following Benjamin and Deleuze through Bergson and Freud, refrains a dialogical image of “past” and “present” framed in the actual and the virtual. With this assemblage, Meek argues that “[t]he task” of media theorists is “to seize upon images of . . . traumatic experience and re-mobilise them in the context of potentially liberatory narratives.”
Julie Doyle’s “Cybersurgery and Surgical (Dis)embodiment” takes Benjamin’s analogy of the surgeon and the painter literally to deconstruct medical discourses of the human body. Concluding that the body’s fate, under the microscopic eye of the new, non-invasive surgical technologies, has been to become diffused into the technology and that its mediation has now become the body’s actual embodiment, Doyle demonstrates how modernist discourses of vision continue to struggle with, and largely overcome, experiental forms of knowledge. In contrast to other writers in this volume, Doyle concludes that the “understanding of embodiment” that remains dominant in social, cultural, and historical discourses is that formed on the basis of the exercise of “power” founded by “masculinist discourses” that privilege vision and mind over the tactile and the physical.
Marita Bullock’s “Fossilising the Commodity” considers how postmodernism and capitalism have conjointly reformed modernity’s contradictory sense of consciousness of time and history, updating what Baudelaire describes as the eternal and transitory, the mutable and the immutable, into a new-old dynamic. In a paradox that tests the frozen immutability of the discarded object on the one hand, and the permanently unstable fluxus of capitalism’s revolutionary devices and inventions on the other, Bullock examines how artist Ricky Swallow’s re-working of “recently outdated” commodities can be seen to signify both an increasingly rapid decline of the present into archaeological relicry while simultaneously feigning an on-going mimesis of life in a never ending passage of renewal – fossils of eternally dying life or unceasing living death.
Warwick Mules’s “Aura as Productive Loss”begins by fossicking through the architecture of Benjamin’s thought. In this substrate, Mules finds hidden in the vanishing signs and marks of the aura the on-going trace of an imaginary origin. In this origin, aura stalks the object/subject world created in and shared by the relationship between artifact and viewer. Mules then re-injects Benjamin and his ideas to again examine and develop an insightful critique of the capitalist phantasmagoria. Mules finally invokes media producers and theorists to reconsider the role of the auratic in “deflecting” the senses and alleviating the craving for origins.
Similarly, but to different effect, Martin Dixon’s “The Horror of Disconnection”finds residual aura in the breakdown, or to be more precise, the malfunction, of technology. In this sonically jarring moment, a latent conflict in the human psyche, notably the struggle between the creative and the destructive in the libidinal life-death force, is again released. Yet at the instant that technical failure blurs the line between animate and inanimate objects, life itself can still sometimes be heard, squealing pitilessly amidst the deranged and unmusicated distortions of its technological disruption. Then out of the stillness of the now silenced wreckage comes the ego’s revitalising creative force, that dark and sometimes antisocial impulsewhich threatens to re-arrange everything, even if it means its own destruction. Dixon’s essay takes its last unaided breath while shaking hands with Benjamin before following Virilio and technology into the diving bell bound for the abyss.
Amresh Sinha’s “Politicizing Art”dredges through Benjamin’s oeuvre, focusing on Benjamin’s political commitment to antagonise fascists’ attempts to control life by aestheticising politics through the return of art to the service of ritual and tradition. Following Benjamin, Sinha finds redemption for technology only when directed at the discarded, the uselessness of art, and at the leisurely, unemployable, and un-commodified aspects of life that art can sometimes represent. Finding greatest empathy, like Benjamin, in the reception of art, rather than its production, Sinha sees (a lost?!) opportunity in the repetitive mimesis between audience and mediation, a mimesis that, in its very essence, carries the residual of its own conclusion.
Catherine Russell’s “Dialectical Film Criticism” also dredges through the “convolutes” of Benjamin’s thought and considers concepts such as the dialectical image, the collector, and the quotation to situate his work within contemporary cultural as well as film discourses. Russell then proposes her own critical method of “dialectical film criticism” which she implements in a number of analyses of films by the Japanese director Naruse Mikio as well as Ivy Meeropol’s Heir To an Execution: A Granddaughter’s Story (2004) and Christoph Giradet and Matthias Müller’s Kristall.
Kristen Daly’s “The Dissipating Aura of Cinema”takes another perspective on the relationship between critic and auteur, artist and audience, textual objects and those who encounter them, and argues that Benjamin’s analysis of cinema was not fully realised until films became digitised. Pre-empting arguments introduced by later writers, Daly argues that the dissipating aura of the original has forever altered power relations between viewers and producers. In what Roland Barthes termed the “birth of the reader,” Daly finds new opportunities for whoever watches films, not only in extending their meaning as interpreters, but now too, in creatively interacting with them, thus forever “shattering” the role of who determines the meaning of art. Daly’s pivotal essay raises core questions posed by the onset of the digital era.
Simon Lindgren takes up the challenge of critically analysing the dawning digital era and explores the new communities created through YouTube and flickr technologies. Seeing the user of these techniques as contemporary flâneurs and flâneusen, Lindgren sees evolutions taking place – particularly in developments of participatory culture – that approximate earlier formations of modernity found in the Paris arcades. Adapting his understanding of the flâneur with an amended understanding of the psychoanalytical notion of ego-representation and the “mirror” phase, Lindgren finally proposes a new form of self-reflexivity based on the repeated reproduction of “self” in the YouTube and flickr communities.
Shifting to an art critic’s perspective, Daniel Palmer asks how present day art critics might attain or maintain the critical distance needed for judgment in the face of their immersion into contemporary virtual art. With the aid of Benjamin and Adorno, Palmer revisits art historical and art critical debates concerning aesthetics and contemplation and returns with an idea of Contemplative Immersion. In a move that could converge – even if only tangentially with Deleuze – Palmer’s hybrid concept of contemplation places the body of the critic – who is no longer the mouthpiece of a privileged and rarefied community but rather the assertive “immanent” body of the everyday net-art observer – at the centre of the critical process.
A.-Chr. Engels-Schwarzpaul’s “Tillers of the Soil/Travelling Journeymen”explores the re-coordination of the transposition, translation, and commodification of a number of village dwellings from around the world, and the stories such buildings yield in a rural setting south-east of Berlin. In the midst of this Northern temperate simulation of the tropics, Engels-Schwarzpaul investigates the prospect of a critical politics emerging from what might be, at first sight, regarded as a straightforward reversal of colonial relations between the European voyeur self and the pacified exotic other.
Finally, John Grech’s “Paradise Regained?”imagines what a future community guided by Benjamin’s critical insights might be like. In identifying that community, Grech turns to anthropologist Pierre Clastres and the social structures of the un-mediated political communities of South America. By considering how Indian societies enable people to pursue their interests without fear of violence or coercion, Grech suggests that the individuals making up a global community are paramount, over and above law and convention and other normative codes (including the grammars of language) that seek to govern a communicative society. Henceforth, individuals, in this futuristic society, retain the right to mediate and transform the social bonds and cultural relations they share with others, just as each individual retains the right to use whatever means they, as autonomous independent actors, determine are appropriate to their needs.
In concluding, I would like to thank, in addition to the writers themselves, the following individuals for their generosity in helping to realise this issue of Transformations: Tony Mitchell, John Hutnyk, David Cubby, Graham Evans, Johan Fornas, Noel King, Ross Gibson, Gerwin Van Der Poll, Peter Mayo, Greg Noble, Martyn Jolly, Hart Cohen, Sherman Young, Stephen McElhenny, Cavan Hogue, Roberto Ferné, Jodi Brooks, Ray Spiteri, John Lechte, Robert Sinnerbrink, Nikki Sullivan, Nick Mansfield, Warwick Mules, Ashley Holmes, Bert Wigman, Angi Beuttner, Phillip Roe, and Grayson Cook and the members of the Transformations Editorial board who lent valuable support to this issue. I would also like to thank all those writers who expressed interest in the issue but through a range of circumstances were unable to be amongst those finally published. Finally, to Christiane Hellermann, I owe my thanks not only for originally making the suggestion of realising some of my work on Benjamin in editing such a collection, but for her unceasing love and support throughout the turbulent months leading up to its realisation.
Walter Benjamin on Photography: Towards Elemental Politics
In contemporary media studies Walter Benjamin’s “media aesthetics” is often considered as being based on a materialistic notion of media that has lost its currency. However, a closer study shows that it is only against the background of Benjamin’s early writings that the currency of his “media aesthetics” can be properly estimated today. In this article, I’ll study the intertwining of the “metaphysical” and the “historical” registers of Benjamin’s “media aesthetics” focusing on photography. Hereby, I’ll argue for the relevance of the Benjamin’s approach for theorising the photographic medium at the threshold of the “post-photographic era.” The notion of “optical unconscious” serves here as a starting point. Benjamin coined the notion to designate the new realm of experience made accessible by photography. “It is another nature that speaks to the camera than to the eye.” This “second nature” speaking to the camera detaches the visible form the capacities of the eye. This can be termed virtualisation of vision. Equipped with the camera, the eye sees virtually more than it can actually read. Subsequently, the eye is facing the task of learning how to read the “second nature” – how to actualize virtualities of the visible. By displacing the vision, photography undermines any notion of natural visibility, i.e. natural “readability” of the visual appearances. This displacement opens up possibilities for grasping the “difference of magic and technics” as throughout the “historical variable.” Benjamin writes of August Sanders Antlitz der Zeit (1929) in terms of a “training atlas” (Übungsatlas). He also mentions Karl Blossfeldt’s Urformen der Kunst (1928) and Eugène Atget’s Lichtbilder (1930) in the same vein. Benjamin obviously suggests that in these “training atlases” a new readability of photography can be discerned, and that these photography books can be used to train “visual literacy.” The mode and the goal, or programme, of this training, however, is anything but obvious. In order to interpret Benjamin on this point, recourse to his “Work of Art” essay (especially to the second version of it) is needed. Here, Benjamin develops a dialectics of nature and technics. In his analysis, the photographic media make up a decisive scene of demarcation between “first” and “second” technics. What is at stake in this process of negotiating, is the reconfiguration of the “medium of perception” on the one hand and the “politicisation of art” on the other hand. Hereby, as I will argue, the task of media theoretician turns out to be comparable to the “task of the translator.”
Walter Benjamin and the Virtual
Trauma has become central to debates about history and memory in an era in which digital information has apparently freed itself of any past located in place or material objects. Has trauma become the model for deep memory in a culture of pure simulation? While Benjamin developed his widely influential cultural analysis in the 1920s and 30s, new media today support a virtual culture that claims to have moved beyond these earlier technological revolutions. This paper, however, argues that Benjamin’s reading of Freud with Bergson enables us to think trauma with the virtual in ways that remain provocative today. By arguing that Bergson’s philosophy of time unintentionally described what cinema would become, Deleuze potentially collapses all human experiences into technologically-mediated forms. In Benjamin the virtual describes a transformative potential that includes, but is never completely assimilated into, mediated experience. Mediated images, carrying the traces of traumatic events in the past, become the site of a critical intervention in history.
Cybersurgery and Surgical (Dis)embodiment: Technology, Science, Art and the Body
In “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Benjamin deploys the analogy of the magician and surgeon to illustrate the different ways in which the painter (magician) and cameraman (surgeon) technologically mediate, and hence alter, our perception of reality. For Benjamin, the use of camera equipment by the cameraman refigures reality by technologically penetrating and re-presenting it as “multiple fragments” (227). This penetration is, according to Benjamin, unlike that of the painter, whose “distance from reality” (227) enables a more total representation of reality than the fragmented one presented in film. Benjamin’s use of the figure of the surgeon to illustrate how the technological mediation of reality constitutes a new condition of modernity is a radical, but surprisingly under-examined, evaluation of the mediated status of the body within contemporary medical science. By choosing the surgical penetration of the body as representative of an increasingly fragmented and technologically mediated reality, Benjamin inadvertently highlights the role of medical technologies and surgical practices in conceptions of the body. The result of this mediation is the fragmentation of the body through the medicalised focus upon specific body parts and organs, at the expense of the whole. At the same time, the increasing technological penetration of the body in medicine, which in Benjamin’s terms leads to a distortion of and disembodiment from reality (and hence the body), anticipates the current use of virtual and remote technologies in cybersurgical practices, where both imaging and surgical technologies penetrate the body.
This paper examines Benjamin’s understanding of technological mediation and fragmented reality in specific relation to the surgical mediation of the body and to conceptions of embodiment. Through a focus upon the historical development of surgery in the late eighteenth century and its current practices, the paper demonstrates Benjamin’s relevancy in understanding the mediation of the body, and processes of (dis)embodiment, through the lens of surgical technologies. At the same time, it critiques Benjamin’s assertion that the painter and surgeon offer different versions of reality by analysing the intimate relationship between art and surgery, as a set of perceptions and practices, in the (historical) mediation of the body, examining their similarities and differences.* The paper shows the importance of Benjamin’s work in understanding the surgical mediation and medical treatment of the body in (late)modernity and in the (dis)embodied practices of (cyber)surgery. In doing so, it seeks to re-embody the body by calling attention to the artistic and technological processes which underpin the practice of surgery, critiquing the authority of medical science in conceiving and managing the body as a fragmented, disembodied form.
* The current exhibition, How Do You Look? Visual Cognition in painting and surgery, at the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons of London, is an example of how artists and surgeons share similar ways of seeing, and explores the intersections between imaging and surgical technologies.
Since the mid-1990s, the Melbourne-based artist, Ricky Swallow, has created meticulously detailed, 1:1 scale models of outdated mass cultural forms, all of which have been constructed from the rudimentary materials that we might find in a kindergarten – cardboard, craft glue, plastic tubes and paint. Many of the objects that Swallow appropriates for his works evoke the ubiquity of late capitalism and the infiltration of the commodity image throughout all forms of cultural life; most recently he has taken particular care with outdated technologies and toys, such as the once cutting-edge Apple Mac logo, an upturned pair of Campers-brand sneakers, a lonely ibook, telescope, game boy, and a number of stonehenge-like ghetto-blasters, to name just a few examples. All of these forms are suggestive of a thoroughgoing warping of time: the laborious processes through which Swallow constructs his commodities in 1:1 scale precision off-sets the speed with which late capitalism renders its images obsolete, just as the small-time precision detailed within the hobby models come to recall the big-time equations and myths unearthed by an archaeologist’s fossil.
This paper analyses the multiple ways in which Swallow’s uncanny replications of obsolete technologies stage a tactical engagement with questions of time, the commodity and the virtual in postmodern culture. It suggests that Swallow’s forms undermine the capitulation of time to commodity culture and the subsumption of art to design that, in Hal Foster’s words, mark the “cynical duplicity” generally attached to ‘postmodern’ simulations and repetitions. The paper mobilises Walter Benjamin’s metaphor of the commodity fossil, and its associated critique of time and commodity relations as the central critical concept; I argue that Swallow’s handcrafting of outdated commodities, as if they are objects unearthed from an archaeological dig, extend Benjamin’s fossil metaphor into a critique of postmodern/virtual image culture. The paper contends that Swallow’s forms enact a critical distance from the postmodern, and the stagnant temporality of retroversion, in the way that they literalise Benjamin’s metaphor whilst rendering commodity logos into concrete forms. Swallow’s practise of literalisation is further read in light of Michael Taussig’s theory of the tactics of mimesis, which is understood as enabling a new reading of Benjamin’s analysis of time, representation and the commodity in the fossil form. This, in turn, opens up a reading of Swallow’s ‘handmade readymades’ as both ironic and sincere engagements with Benjamin’s dilemma of reification; Swallow’s forms are read as subversions of the stagnation of time in the commodity in the way that they literally draw us to our senses.
Aura as Productive Loss
This paper explores the concept of aura as productive loss. My aim is to read Benjamin’s later essays on photography and art in the age of mechanical reproduction in the light of a reading of some of his earlier essays, especially “On the Program of the Coming Philosophy,” and “Painting, or Signs and Marks.” I argue that Benjamin’s theory of aura (outlined in the later essays) stems from his attempt in the earlier essays to uncover a field of lived experience defined by the mark as the material trace of a technological operation that no longer functions, but which nevertheless provides an oblique access to originariness, or the capacity of technology to make present that which has already passed. In the later essays on photography and art, Benjamin renames this experience “aura.” When read in this way, aura no longer designates an ontological division between an original experience of plenitude in a pre-reproductive culture, and an impoverished experience of the copy in reproductive culture. Rather, aura becomes that which is necessary for and produced in reproductive culture: its mark of originariness as (false) primary access to presence. Benjamin thus provides us with a way of reading culture in terms of the production of origins, as false or pseudo-presence. In particular I identify phantasmagoria as a contemporary site of virtual experience saturated by aura. I argue that a critique of the auratic quality of phantasmagoria is now necessary in order to uncover the stake that contemporary digital technologies have in recovering lost origin.
The Horror of Disconnection: The Auratic in Technological Malfunction
This paper revisits Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” essay and traces the fate of the idea that contemporary media technologies have abolished the auratic component of “distance.”. Such technologies have long been understood as participating – for good or ill – in globalisation. But there is a tension in the Mechanical Reproduction essay since while it is often taken as celebrating the revolutionary possibilities of post-auratic mediation, it also anticipates the dialectical return – indeed, the “resurrection” – of the auratic within these same technologies. I will emphasise an obvious but overlooked fact of modern technology: it often fails. And I will argue that it is in technology’s failure that traces of aura, of cultic and religious elements reappear. It is a fact of the economy of digital technology that sound and visuals must be “compressed;” because of the constraints of bandwidth, data must be stripped to a bare minimum if it is to be stored or disseminated. Digital representations and mediations, therefore, are often of an extremely poor quality; they are distorted and obscure. What is more, when the most horrific of events are technologically mediated (i.e., CCTV footage of the last sighting of a missing child; the increasingly desperate efforts of air traffic control to reach a hijacked plane; digital photographs, taken on mobile phones, of the London underground bombings; video statements by masked suicide bombers) these terrifying testimonies are delivered by low fidelity, even failing technologies, and their representations are marked by the mute, asignifying patina of the functioning of the medium. So it is that communication technologies – the mobile and satellite phone, the video link – often do not work as intended (the channel breaks up, the message is distorted) and, as a result, one experiences the sudden reintroduction of distance, the veiling of the phenomenon and the horror of disconnection.
Strategically, this collapse of communication plays into the ideology of global news reportage as it dramatises the struggle to connect with dangerous parts of the world. And, ironically, the “authenticity” of modern technologically mediated testimony (another important Benjaminian theme) is proportional to its interference, to the poverty of its representation. Noise escapes the logic of mechanical reproduction and mediation since it is not reproducible as such, but arises in and through the act of reproduction and mediation. Noise reintroduces distance, uniqueness and eventality to the reproduced. Noise, distortion, interference and failure mark the return of a technology to its state of nature. And as Benjamin points out in “Language as Such and the Language of Man,” nature is mute, it has no language, and in its muteness, it laments. In the midst of communication, in suppressed and repressed noise, in its ghostly insubstantiality, is an asignifying lament.
“Politicizing Art”: Benjamin’s Redemptive Critique of Technology in the Age of Fascism
Benjamin’s essay on “The Work of Art in the age of Mechanical Reproduction” is a meditative exercise on the relationship of art and technology and its profound impact on the history of human perception In this paper I argue, as opposed to the widely held belief, that Benjamin’s interest in the art of reproduction is not purely animated by the development of technology for its own sake, but is prompted by the given political urgency of the time in 1936 to prevent its regression or mediation into a politics of ritual. What can Benjamin teach us about the constellation of language, politics, destruction, and tradition? If fascism, by rendering the political sphere into the aesthetical realm, is using aesthetics for its own political end, then the political necessity of the time makes it imperative for the arts to be organized at a political level. The function of art is crucial both to the preservation and the destruction of society. One must also ask what the instrumental power of art and technology as expressed in the fascist appropriation of culture as a means of political propaganda can achieve? Between the aestheticisation of politics and politicisation of aesthetics, the concept that mediates is that of usefulness. Benjamin always endeavours to show his affinity for the discarded and useless productions of art, and it is not surprising that he finds them “useful,” especially at the time of extreme danger, when life itself cannot be salvaged unless a useful opposition is mounted against the increasing threat to life by fascist forces. The technological redemption does not lie in its usage, in its functional aspect, but in its discarded and unrecognised potentials, in its uselessness.
Dialectical Film Criticism: Walter Benjamin’s Historiography, Cultural Critique and the Archive
Walter Benjamin suggests that the past “only comes into legibility” in the present. Several of Benjamin’s more familiar terms, such as the flaneur, dialectical optics, the collector and the gambler, may likewise be applied to the practice of historical film criticism. In this paper Benjamin’s historiography is developed as a method of film criticism. The renewed access to film history made possible by new digital technologies has opened up new modes of film criticism that draw on the archive of film history.
This paper will draw on Benjamin’s Arcades Project in conjunction with the film studies concepts of “vernacular modernism” (Miriam Hansen) and film melodrama, in addition to theoretical frameworks provided by Giorgio Agamben, Jürgen Habermas. Benjamin’s diverse and unsystematic writings, in my view, provide important tools for writing film criticism that is “against the grain.” The sense of urgency and impending political crisis –and the utopian potential of image culture – that are embedded in his view of modernity are no less relevant to contemporary society, and his criticism is a reminder of the critical values that are embedded in popular culture and in image culture on a larger scale. Film examples in the paper include the narrative cinema of Naruse Mikio, the documentary film Heir to an Execution, and the experimental film Kristall.
The Dissipating Aura of Cinema
In the “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproducibility,” Walter Benjamin predicted the decline in aura of the art object. This paper argues that in fact, cinema, as film, remained precious and original, hard to reproduce and distribute, retaining cult-value. Only now, with the introduction of digital and computer technologies, have Benjamin’s expectations of cinema come to fruition. Benjamin discusses two characteristics of art objects that change under conditions of reproducibility. The first is the reduction of the primacy of the original. According to Benjamin, previous to mechanical reproduction, the original was the prerequisite to the concept of authenticity. Reproducibility makes the copy independent of the original, thus reducing the primacy of the original. This paper will argue how, increasingly, the ease of digital storage, reproduction, manipulation, and distribution threatens the concept of an “original” and therefore the aura of cinematic objects as representational artworks. The second characteristic is the mobility of the copy. This mobility of the copy allows it to be experienced in different and unanticipated ways, modifying the way cinematic artworks “take place.” Digitization takes this mobility to new levels; thus in the digital age our exposure to moving images becomes increasingly ubiquitous. This paper will examine in greater detail how this ubiquity changes the experience of cinema. The paper examines the characteristics Benjamin prematurely attributed to the reproducible filmic art object and how the “tremendous shattering of tradition,” which he described is beginning as movies morph from ritual art objects to tele-cultural forms with new expectations and experiences.
From Flâneur to Web Surfer: Videoblogging, Photo Sharing and Walter Benjamin @ the Web 2.0
In the “Mirror file” of The Arcades Project, Walter Benjamin describes a popular fascination with looking glasses, lenses and image stimulation. He talks about an ocular passion marking the late nineteenth century when mirrors were incorporated into strangely named machineries of image production: kaleidoscopes, phantasma-parastasia, phanoramas, stereograms, cycloramas, kigoramas, myrioramas etc. This paper explores and illustrates how Benjamin’s analysis of the nineteenth century culture of consumption might contribute to an understanding of the new communal formations and self-reflexive subjectivities of the Internet in the twenty first century. Theoretically, this is done with a specific focus on the concept of the flâneur as discussed in The Arcades Project, and on some lines of reasoning that are central to his essay on “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” The empirical emphasis is on two examples of so called Web 2.0 technologies: The photo sharing service of flickr and the videoblogging functionality of YouTube. The paper firstly addresses how the notion of the flâneur needs to be updated and modified to work in an analysis of Web 2.0 technologies. Secondly, it brings the contemporary examples of online photo sharing and videoblogging into the discussion. Thirdly, it revisits some key passages of Benjamin’s writing and tries to apply them to these examples before returning to the overarching question concerning the continued usefulness of Benjamin’s theory.
Contemplative Immersion: Benjamin, Adorno & Media Art Criticism
This paper explores the immersive character of digital media art in relation to aesthetic theories of Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno. It asks what contribution Benjamin and Adorno have to offer media art criticism. In particular, it seeks to understand how their different approaches enable us to critique the “virtual” experience of an interactive digital installation. Benjamin is famous for his complex, non-deterministic relation to technological media. In “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1936), he offers what has become the twentieth-century’s most influential interpretation of both the threats and opportunities posed by the mechanical media of film and photography. Theorists of digital media have seized Benjamin’s ideas, such as the notion that the work of art comes to look more and more like the work of art meant for reproduction. In contrast to Benjamin’s ambiguous embrace of the spectator’s new critical agency brought about by mechanical media, Adorno held a more antagonistic relationship to technology, and a more redemptive role for art. Adorno understood art as a reservoir of critique – ascribing to art a capacity to challenge the instrumental rationality and repressive authority of capitalism.
In this paper I am interested in locating Benjamin’s and Adorno’s ideas in relation to the experience of immersion characteristic of digital media installations. While immersion has a long history in Western aesthetics (as traced by Oliver Grau), in the face of new media artworks that require the active involvement of the viewer – in which the work is constantly updating and transforming itself – we are left with the “interface” in place of the art object. For example, photo-based art in the digital era increasingly becomes a spatialised interface for embodied viewer interaction. Its “flexible data set” (Mark Hansen) may be contrasted to the traditional photographic image’s static inscription of a moment in time. The temporal experience of new media art also involves a process of spatialisation that challenges the tradition of aesthetic distance. As Oliver Grau points out in his book Virtual Art, “in certain seemingly living virtual environments a fragile, central element of art comes under threat: the recipient’s act of distancing, which is essential for producing the “aesthetic image space” and enabling critical reflection.
In an unusual turn of phrase in Aesthetic Theory, Adorno writes: “Aesthetic experience becomes living experience only by way of its object, in that instant in which artworks themselves become animate under its gaze. . . . Through contemplative immersion the immanent processual quality of the work is set free. . . . This immanent dynamic is, in a sense, a higher-order element of what artworks are” (175–6, emphasis added). Adorno’s notion of “contemplative immersion” appears paradoxical, suggesting both a distance and a nearness. In this paper I explore Adorno’s paradoxical phrase in light of Benjamin’s understanding of aura, distraction and the spectator’s critical agency. At a time when art criticism is widely held to be in crisis – even without reference to the changes of production, transmission and reception that media art bring – this paper examines the unrealised potential of Benjamin and Adorno to media art criticism.
Tillers of the Soil/Travelling Journeymen: Modes of the Virtual
Walter Benjamin’s account of story telling as an exchange of experience uses images of embodied interaction: between a “resident tiller of the soil” and a “trading seaman,” or between “resident master craftsman and . . . travelling journeymen working together in the same rooms” (85). These metaphors may make his approach seem traditional but, historically or in terms of agency, Benjamin’s conception of mediation (in “The Task of the Translator” and “The Storyteller”) is anything but static. According to him, a good translation risks the translator’s own language, to be “powerfully affected by the foreign tongue” (81), and there is a “central reciprocal relationship” of mutual supplementation and renewal between languages” (74-5). 
Virtual technologies in global contexts seem to intensify mediation’s Babelic side. They are also part of blended everyday realities that mould our sensorium, through virtual and embodied experiences, changing the ways in which the latter presents the world to our reflection. Thus, apart from its relationship to the real, actual and potential, the virtual as modality has an aesthetic dimension. This is, as perception, about “visibilities of . . . places and abilities of the body in those places, about the partition of private and public spaces, about the very configuration of the visible and the relation of the visible to what can be said about it.”  It opens up different aspects of embodied experience and creative imagination which, in rare cases, can become political.
Assuming that the transformations caused by electronic communication and media flows have already developed past their early stages, it is possible to look for historical connections linking them to earlier technological, spatial and temporal developments.  Before Benjamin’s time, the panopticon and panorama as architectural forms set up regimes of visibility that created new distinctions between being seen and seeing. The position of the Samoan fale at the Tropical Islands Resort in Germany may reveal different regimes of reality (virtual, real, blended) and the changing roles of aesthetics and imagination. It may focus questions about connections between the local and global; translatability in digital mediation; and spatio-temporal ruptures and interconnections.
This paper will examine changing modes of reality at Tropical Islands Resort, taking into account the history of its planning and implementation. Master craftsmen from Samoa, Singapore, Bali, the Amazon basin, Kenya, and Thailand assembled in the same space, inside a gigantic hangar in the East German countryside, to erect tangible, real buildings made from traditional materials. It seems this exotic architecture alongside exotic performances is supposed to house a virtual – between digital flows and place-bound experience – while the website mediates the resort’s physical environment in a global domain. In this complementary reorganization of the visible – what is the task of translators? Will they risk their own language, and do they strengthen or weaken the reciprocal relationships between languages or images? If aesthetic experience enables a different way of seeing, then what becomes visible here, and what can we say about it?
 Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations. Illuminations. Ed. H. Arendt. New York: Schocken, 1969.
 Rancière, Jacques. “Comment and Responses.” Theory & Event, 6.4 (2003): 1-28.
 See Fold, Søren. (1999). “An Aesthetic Criticism of the Media: The Configurations of Art, Media and Politics in Walter Benjamin’s Materialistic Aesthetics.” Parallax 5.3(1999): 22-35.
Paradise Regained? The Work of Mediation Technology in an Age of Open Communities
Paradise Regained? takes up Benjamin’s thought on violence and the role of globally transmitted artifacts in an age of mediation in conjunction with anthropologist Pierre Clastres’s analyses of South American Indian society’s political and power relations. It then speculates on the prospects for the arrival of an open, democratic, mediated community, revisiting and redefining ideas about the role and freedom of individuals and communities in conjunction with the State’s use of violence and coercion in making global society governable.