"Postmodernism, like Walter Benjamin's 'mechanical reproduction', seeks to dismantle the intimidating aura of high-modernist culture with a more demotic, user-friendly art, suspecting all hierarchies of value as privileged and elitist. There is no better or worse, just different." Terry Eagleton, Literary Theory

The cultural criticism that arose out of the Frankfurt School was born out of the tension between a high view of art and a low view of human cognition. This tension was aggravated by rapid technological advances in film and radio combined with the rise of fascism. Walter Benjamin tells his reader the problems with artistic reception are not new and illustrates an inherited state of distraction in his famous essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1936).

Walter Benjamin Illuminations
“Architecture has always represented the prototype of a work of art the reception of which is consummated by a collectivity in a state of distraction.” Walter Benjamin

He explains that architecture is experienced in a state of rapt attention, especially by tourists. Still, this tactile experience is even something that becomes habitual and necessarily so. Human perception is ever-evolving and constantly appropriating.

The habit of this non-attentive perception evolves, and movie-goers no longer experience stories like theater-goers did. According to Walter Benjamin, a film is perceived in a state of distraction – and a collective one at that.

His problem with collective distraction stems from the political backdrop surrounding his art and education experience. The rise of fascism is often associated with the perils of what we now all group think. Nietzsche cautioned against the herd mentality, specifically, men who are “eager to please, sickly, and mediocre.” (Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil).

This group thinks phenomenon that the French thinker Gustave Le Bon (1841-1931) explores in his book on the crowd. He describes how heightened emotions experienced in a group diminish the critical faculties of individuals. The argument echoes Aristotle’s early warnings on how the passions ought to come second to reason, but this time the criticism focuses on the group.

Henri Bergson on the Cinematographic Mechanism of Thought

This informs why Walter Benjamin hesitates to appreciate a film experienced in a collective state of distraction. He witnessed his colleagues, friends, and community forfeit their critical faculties to follow what became a violent political regime with the rise of the political rally. How was theater-going much different?  

Attention is a critical faculty that requires our participation. The French philosopher Simone Weil says the habit of attention can scatter illusions so long as the attention is qualified by a looking and not an attachment. 

Walter Benjamin is quick to associate cinema with distraction because of the automated aspect of one side of the relationship. The images are fed to the viewer, guiding them in their organization and processing. Henri Bergson uses this experience to describe the act of cognition that Benjamin calls habitual. Inherited from Immanuel Kant’s criticism of mass thinking, this is a low view of the human’s role in the act of cognition.

Film requires a new mode of perception, but the viewer’s cognitive process is evolving. The contemporary moviegoer has been trained to appreciate the fast-moving scenes of a Marvel movie, and this is criticized as though the brain has not evolved to this point of appreciation. When viewers can process complex storylines that span several films, perceive scene after scene of action, and participate in telling the story on an emotional level, we have something to celebrate, not denounce. 

“The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” offers observers a way to understand the objective aspects of art and consider the way that culture reproduces what used to be made with what Benjamin calls “aura” and with what Scorsese calls “revelation, mystery, or genuine emotional danger” in his recent criticism of Marvel movies. 

Do you know what is dangerous about Marvel movies? The fact that sometimes the Avengers blow up a hospital while fighting the bad guy or the good guy wreaks havoc on the world in a fugue state fueled by gamma-rage. You know what else? Sometimes a villain is crucial to aiding a mission. As the viewer, you don’t always know who to trust. The good guys can be selfish and do not always seek justice. Sometimes they pursue retribution. 

Talk about emotional danger. 

I have to use discernment and participate in creating the storyline. My kids don’t sort characters into super tidy categories of good and evil when they play Avengers. We talk about the nuances, and they understand that sometimes good people do bad things, and the opposite holds.  

When Martin Scorsese divides movies into two categories, cinema and audiovisual entertainment, he forfeits his critical faculties and assumes this inability to think critically about fast-moving storylines characterizes the masses. His low view of the human differs from a professor manipulating students into engaging with a text or class using a brand new tool or app to foster participation. 

We mistakenly think that because a student knows how to decode a text or sound out words, he knows how to read. We believe that because a student can hear, he knows how to listen. We think that because a student can look, he knows how to see. We never consider that we might need to teach students how to attend to the phenomena before them and that sensory perception requires active participation.

My dream is to live in a world with artistic diversity where viewers can perceive a film that moves slowly with the same sense of wonder that they do the rapidly moving plots. Remember that the generation celebrating Marvel movies also esteems complex narratives like Mad Men. We also watched Walter White, and Jesse Pinkman chase a fly around for an hour in a single episode of Breaking Bad. 

The brain craves novelty, which often comes from speed, but not always. Rather than criticize artists for catering to a certain kind of viewer, maybe we can teach the habit of attention. How does one sustain focus while reading a book, watching a movie, or listening to a lecture? 

Walter Benjamin’s famous essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” criticizes culture both in art and observer, but if we each participate in the process of mutual transformation that life is, maybe we can find a way to share a sense of aliveness no matter what phenomena are before us.

Recommended Reading

Walter Benjamin on the Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction