Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.”Illuminations: Essays and Reflections. Trans. Harry Zohn. Ed. Hannah Arendt. New York: Schocken, 1968. 217-51. (35 pages)
Benjamin considers the theoretical consequences of mechanical reproduction in art and taking a particular look at film, an art whose primary means of production relies on mechanical reproduction. While Benjamin concedes that art has always been reproduced in many means, he also contends that “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” (220). The original artifact, itself, exists in a unique context that the work derives authentic meaning from: its physical condition, tradition of ownership, etc. As Benjamin sees it, reproduction—technical reproduction in particular—is antithetical to authenticity. Benjamin defines authenticity in terms of historical testimony: “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” (221).
He makes a distinction between two kinds of reproduction: process and technical. Process reproduction “can bring out those aspects of the original that are unattainable to the naked eye yet accessible to the lens” (220); in other words, process seems to be akin to media and remediating the work. Such a reproduction affords an enhanced or extended experience of the text. Technical reproduction “can put the copy of the original into situations which would be out of reach for the original itself” (220). A technical reproduction of a work is meant to resemble the original as closely as possible to be distributed in mass contexts. Benjamin concludes, “The technique of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the domain of tradition. By making many reproductions its substitutes a plurality of copies for a unique experience” (221).
Benjamin discusses the idea of aura, which is what withers in the age of mechanical reproduction. As it sounds, the aura is what surrounds the original artifact and its original context. The aura includes the material, physical markers of the text, the cult and rituals attached to it, the historical testimony, and presence in a time and place. When a text is mechanically reproduced, the rituals, cult, material is left behind and the meaning made from this object is drastically different than the original piece. (Benjamin offers a kind of exigence for travel & phenomenology as outlined by Clarke and Halloran.)
Turning to film, Benjamin theorizes the role of the technologies of mechanical reproduction and audiences/actors. Films’ reliance on editing and staging in order to forward narratives displaces the audience’s identification with the actor and moves it toward the camera; “consequently, the audience takes the position of the camera” (228). Likewise, “the part [of the actor] is acted not for an audience but for a mechanical contrivance” (229). As Benjamin writes, “consequently, the aura that envelops the actor vanishes, and with it the aura of the figure he portrays” (229). In other words, with greater mediation between actor and audience, the aura—which holds a kind of meaning and meaning-making apparatus—is further broken down. What replaces this aura is the “cult of the movie star” or “spell of the personality” which commodifies the actor.
But not just the actor: film’s ability to reproduce slices of reality allows the ordinary person to become an actor (“any man today can lay claim to being filmed” 231). He also points to the participatory nature of newspapers, e.g. letters to the editor. “Thus, the distinction between author and public is about to lose its basic character….at any moment the reader is ready to turn into a writer” (232). He continues, “literary license is now founded on polytechnic rather than specialized training and thus becomes common property” (232)
Switching gears, Benjamin begins to discuss the immersive qualities of film. Aspects of reality depicted in film present a “equipment-free aspect of reality” which, to Benjamin, is the height of artifice. In this way, film constitutes a particular kind of reception: that of distraction. He makes the distinction between distraction and concentration as modes of reception: “a man who concentrates before a work of art is absorbed by it. He enters into this work of art the way legend tells of the Chinese painter when he viewed his finished painting. In contrast, the distracted mass absorbs the work of art. This is most obvious with regards to buildings. Architecture has always represented prototype of a work of art the reception of which is consummated by a collectivity in a state of distraction” (239). By looking the distracting and immersive qualities of architecture, Benjamin is able to discuss touch and tactile ways of making meaning. Namely, he looks at the ways attention is drawn not by optical perception, but creating habits within space. In this way, the public becomes an absent-minded examiner.