“The concept of aura which was proposed above with reference to historical objects may usefully be illustrated with reference to the aura of natural ones. We define aura of the latter as the unique phenomenon of a distance, however close it may be. If, while resting on a summer afternoon, you follow with your eyes a mountain range on the horizon or a branch which casts its shadow over you, you experience the aura of those mountains, of that branch. This image makes it easy to comprehend the social bases of the contemporary decay of the aura. It rests on two circumstances, both of which are related to the increasing significance of the masses in contemporary life. Namely, the desire of contemporary masses to bring things “close” spatially and humanly, which is just as ardent as their bent toward overcoming the uniqueness of every reality by accepting its reproduction. Every day the urge grows stronger to get hold of an object at very close range by way of its likeness, its reproduction.”
Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction
“Benjamin was not much interested in theories or “ideas” which did not immediately assume the most precise outward shape imaginable.”
“It is through photography that we first discover the existence of this optical unconscious, just as we discover the instinctual unconscious through psychoanalysis.”
When a scene of a film is cut, the potential for interpretation follows. Anticipating what Katherine Hayles refers to as hyper and deep attention in How We Think, Benjamin discusses the role of attention in the act of seeing a film. One of the revolutionary aspects of film came from the way this medium requires both distraction and concentration on the part of the viewer.
“A man who concentrates before a work of art is absorbed by it.”
As a result, the symptom swallows civilization. This absorption works on several levels, though. The distraction and concentration required to consume cinema requires a new mode of perception. This is best understood in the cultural moment in which Benjamin develops his thought – in the same way he challenges readers to bring past and present together to form a new conception of history, he anticipates the way movement that is often unacknowledged in apprehending visuals is absorbed in a way that becomes unconscious material.
Not only does the work of art display unconscious material, the cycle of material production feeds the symptom back to the viewer. The manifestations of this range from political action to humor to beauty and so on. This approach to aesthetics, illustrated with the medium of cinema, revolutionizes literary criticism.
“The boundary at which an image-as-representation-of-something-else meets the image-in-itself is what Benjamin calls its aura.” James McFarland
Aura is the mark of authenticity contained in a work of art. It is a quality that cannot be reproduced and so there is a kind of privileging of the original work of art.
“The authenticity of a thing is the essence of all that is transmissible from its beginning, ranging from its substantive duration to its testimony to the history which it has experienced.” James McFarland
The essay strips the notion of authenticity from mechanically reproduced art. To achieve authenticity, the original is required. This essay is a backbone of the notion of hyperreality articulated by Umberto Eco, the Italian novelist, philosopher, and semiotician. Hyperreality is a concept that Jean Baudrillard and Umberto Eco develop concurrently. When Jean Baudrillard, the French cultural critic and philosopher, describes hyperreality as that which is real without origin, it made a huge splash in contemporary cultural criticism.
What Umberto Eco describes as “real without origin” is precisely what Walter Benjamin found so distasteful. For Baudrillard, hyperreality is a consequence of existence. For Eco, there is a deliberate choice to treat the copy as real – a choice that might be as simple as deciding between a red pill or a blue pill. Eco defines hyperreality as “the authentic fake.” Yearning for authenticity, this “authentic fake” is precisely what Benjamin finds so disconcerting about the status of art:
“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.”
His concern is with the very act of thinking that transforms as a result of apprehending a work of art. While in some sense film provides the tactile quality that Benjamin is after, it simultaneously compromises the viewer’s thought life – as Georges Duhmel points out, “my thoughts have been replaced by moving images.” What Benjamin seems to be grasping with a tightly closed fist is the notion of subjectivity that fades with technological progress.
“Mankind, which in Homer’s time was an object of contemplation for the Olympian gods, now is one for itself. Its self-alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order.”
The challenge for contemporary thinkers has not changed in the past century. We continue to search for Walter Benjamin’s aura in each work of art and each mechanical reproduction. The aura is the presence in time and space that we lose with the speed of technological progress that Paul Virilio talks about in Open Sky. It is opening a thousand eyes of curiosity with Alberto Manguel and Virginia Woolf before him. Harnessing aura in our contemporary cultural moment – in this age of electracy – is a matter of developing a singularity instead of a self.
Walter Benjamin is rightfully concerned for the aura lost in a culture obsessed with the art of war that abolishes aura as we obliterate architecture by dropping bombs over cities. As we erase time and space across the map, we see a culture of what T.S. Eliot calls hollow men turn toward an obsessive state of self-development. In a small but prophetic moment in The Recognitions, William Gaddis observes the Self is precisely that which seeks to exist the moment we start seeking to develop it through artificial means.