Walter Benjamin

Walter Benjamin

This term I am privileged enough to be a part of Professor Warren’s Literary Theory class. One of the theorists we have touched upon is Walter Benjamin (1892-1940), whose theories about Marxist tradition possess a timelessness that is very attractive to modern day social media aficionados such as myself. Benjamin explores the ways in which our world has become an audio-visual world in his essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”. This essay is visionary in that Benjamin focuses on the history of the future as it relates to his present time in 1936. The fragmented style of the essay is much like a piece of artwork itself. Benjamin plays on the montage style in order to allow room for all of the many intruding forms of artistic reproduction that are beginning, in 1936, to rely on mechanical function. Benjamin focuses on the relationship of various forms of artistic reproduction, such as film, to its audience and determines that sacrificing the tangible qualities of the original object for the abstract and separated nature of film, theater, or paintings provides a degradation of its original authenticity. The audience, or the masses, concentrates on the diluted presence of mechanically reproduced art as a means of disconnecting, of reaching a state of passivity that lends itself to non-thinking.

Benjamin’s theory raises questions about digital technology and the plethora of handheld devices practically begging me to consume myself with on a regular basis between, and even sometimes during, class. Benjamin’s essay is prophetic in that it is the history of now, whenever that may be for the individual reader.  In reaching out to people through my Iphone I am merely touching a screen in hopes of establishing some sort of connection with flesh and reality half a mile away from me, but far enough for me to choose layers of abstract separation as an excuse for diluting authentic connection.  Movies provide that same level of distraction discussed by Benjamin in that they offer an escape from concentration. Rather than be absorbed by the action, we, the masses, passively absorb it- make no effort to become a part of it, but rather lend ourselves to distraction.

Benjamin’s essay, while it will not keep me from my Iphone and favorite movies, will certainly be on my mind the next time I reach for my phone to text, call, skype, snap chat, heytell, whatsapp, Facebook, or tweet at a loved one.

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One Response to Walter Benjamin

  1. R.T. Smith says:

    Snap chat? Heytell? I’m lost. However, unengaged as I am by most of the electronic devices we have decreed “social networking aids” (but which are mostly toys), I wonder if Benjamin neglected to consider that what he saw as distractions might become so prevalent that they would be the subjects of our concentration, and the world of physical objects existing only as distractions. We face now virtual worlds for warfare, partying and farming, and I can only hope that federal subsidies will soon be given out to those of us who leave our imaginary fields fallow and grow no crops.

    I’m also curious about Ben’s opinions about film which isn’t a recording of some literal antecedent but which is shot specifically to be viewed. Film as record of what is (footage of Old Faithful or an armadillo scuttling along) must surely invite our surveillance in a different way from “Psycho” and “Unforgiven.” I think.

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