Brief Response to Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility”

by Shaun Terry

“[Humankind’s] self-alienation has reached the point where it can experience its own annihilation as a supreme aesthetic pleasure.” (P. 122)

In Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Reproducibility,” his primary concern seems to be how art—and film, in particular—are mechanized to inflict and enable the infliction of violence upon the working class.

Benjamin seems to see film as having the ability to transmit bourgeois ideology. He draws a distinction between the intentional consumption of high art and the distracted, passive spectatorship that often accompanies mass culture, like in the case of watching film. He points out that we often learn how to do things without being very aware of how we are learning it or what is, exactly, that we are learning. If ideology is what we do without knowing that we do it, then surely this kind of learning is the process by which that occurs. Benjamin says, “Even the distracted person can form habits. What is more, the ability to master certain tasks in a state of distraction first proves that they performance has become habitual. The sort of distraction that is provided by art represents a covert measure of the extent to which it has become possible to perform new tasks of apperception.” (p. 120)

Interestingly, by acknowledging film’s power to disseminate bourgeois ideology, he acknowledges the potential emancipatory power in cinema. But, he is reluctant to characterize the film of his time as having emancipatory quality. Benjamin supposes the purpose of film:

the original and justified interest of the masses in film—an interest in understanding themselves and therefore their class. Thus, the same is true of film capital in particular as of fascism in general: a compelling urge toward new social opportunities is being clandestinely exploited in the interests of a property-owning minority. For this reason alone, the expropriation of film capital is an urgent demand for the proletariat. (pp. 114-5)

He has good reasons for this.

As film operates in his time (and the same could likely be said of today), film often serves to squelch the urge to cause civil unrest. Film often plays the role of living out our fantasies so that we do not have to:

[O]ne also has to recognize that the same technologization has created the possibility of psychic immunization against such mass psychoses. It does so by means of certain films in which the forced development of sadistic fantasies or masochistic delusions can prevent their natural and dangerous maturation in the masses. …The countless grotesque events consumed in films are a graphic indication of the dangers threatening mankind from the repressions implicit in civilization. (p. 118)

However, when this repression does not work, the proletariat are able to redirect the violence of the proletariat. This is accomplished by instilling ideology and discipline and through a maneuver that reverses the objectification at which Marx directed so much of his ire: by swapping the affect’s quantitative characteristic to a qualitative characteristic more useful to the bourgeoisie, violence can be directed to perceived threats outside the nation-state and apart from the bourgeoisie.

Fascism attempts to organize the newly proletarianized masses while leaving intact the property relations which they strive to abolish. It sees its salvation in granting expression to the masses—but on no account granting them rights. The masses have a right to changed property relations; fascism seeks to give them expression in keeping these relations unchanged. (pp. 120-1)