Sunday, September 11, 2011

Mechanical Reproduction and Art: an (anesthetic) for the masses?

Concerning Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”, I found his explanation of authenticity within the context of technology not only illuminating but compelling (given the normative assumptions that seem to be interwoven within his text). In particular, his tracing of the degradation of the “aura” as the source of both micro and macro level fascism was interesting as it seemed to highlight an argument I have already encountered in the work of Jurgen Habermas, another thinker considered to be a part of the Frankfurt School. Habermas argues that the public sphere has been transformed from a place for public discourse informed by inter-subjective reason to a closed space used for the negotiation of private interests, usually at the expense of the broader public. Habermas explains that within capitalism the public sphere is now modeled after consumption, where people “participate” in politics by expressing aestheticized political/cultural ideologies. This happens via consumption: if you identify as a “liberal” in the United States, you participate politically by consuming “liberal” political products, i.e. watching MSNBC News instead of Fox News, buying organic food and fair trade products. Instead of achieving the enlightenment model where citizens participate in inter-subjective political discourse, capitalism presents us with an illusionary model where individuals achieve participation passively via uninformed consumption. Not unlike Benjamin’s explanation of how film depicts the world as a place achievable for the common man whilst omitting the technical complexities required to actually realize the depiction, Habermas argues that capitalism depicts itself as “flat” and the provider of equal opportunity to the masses while disguising the social conditions that preclude many from ever realizing “the Dream”.

Benjamin’s description of the aestheticization of the political is, I think, the most important point to extract from his text: when the political becomes aestheticized it enables fascist organizational processes to begin to mobilize increasingly inattentive masses to achieve imperial, neoliberal goals. I see this aestheticization process as triggering two effects (for lack of a better word): (1) the organization of masses, themselves, via the ideological function of film media, and (2) the displacement of inter-subjective discourse as the model for political participation. To elucidate the second point, when participation becomes a matter of expressing mere opinion rather than holding one another to account, dialectically, for the ideas which we espouse, then these masses are easily organized in ways that would seemingly improve social conditions but, in reality, leave the structures of capitalist exploitation intact. I think the state of political discourse in the United States today (see: the “Tea Party” movement) is excellent evidence of this theory’s explanatory potential.

Horkheimer and Adorno’s opening explanation of how culture industries foster aestheticized, hierarchical consumer identities resonates particularly well with Benjamin’s and Habermas’ criticisms. That individuals identify themselves with illusory categories of people I think can be read as symptomatic of a culture that, at a very basic level of understanding, is completely inattentive and uninformed. In fact, when boiled down, the implication of all three authors’ descriptions seems to be that the state of art and culture in the west is such that people are left anesthetized and so over sensitized by the mechanical processes of art/culture industries that they cannot possibly think rationally. I may be treading a fine line when I talk about “rationally”, but I think it remains useful in the sense of its inter-subjective manifestation, not necessarily an appeal to some platonic, universal form of logic or reason that was dismissed by Nietzsche long ago.

One frustration I have with Horkheimer’s and Adorno’s piece is my inability to understand what specific apparatuses compose “the culture industry”. Of course, this is a common complaint with theoretical works (“I can’t understand their application”) but it is particularly problematic in this instance because I can’t envision exactly just how pervasive the “culture industry” is. I often have doubts when encountering arguments such as Horkheimer’s and Adorno’s primarily because they are so “gloom and doom” – their indictment seems to penetrate into every aspect of western society. Is there anything redeeming, anything left to reclaim? Are the forces of capital so inhuman as to be unstoppable even by those who are in positions of incredible power? Is there a meeting of conspirators in some remote location overtly working to preserve the structures of capitalism, to perpetuate the ideological conditions that will allow their continued exploitation of everyday people? I think this is the real challenge posed by critical theory: coming to realize that the battle is waged against the discursive forces which are reproduced in our everyday interactions, not just faraway in a court room or on the floor of the Senate. The ideological conditions in which we live are combatable - we just have to be willing to fight.


  1. great post, mike. there's a lot to think about here.

    one point that i'd like to make about your reading of the anesthetization of art: i think that benjamin's point was that mechanically reproduced art has a tendency to gloss over its own means of production. as people view more and more works of art that have little or no "aura" left, they become habituated to that unreflective practice of judging the work by how it makes them feel. they can't talk about the artist's process or the technique, or even the technologies used to produce the piece. this is what leads us to a state where we can "agree to disagree" on the meaning of a work and its influence in the world.

  2. Thanks for the clarification, Ryan - I don't think I quite understood how the process of "deaurafication" left people uncontemplative or what contemplation actually is, for Benjamin's purposes.