17. The Frankfurt School of Critical Theory

Prof: As we get into
social perspectives on literature and art,
you may ask yourself out of idle curiosity,
or perhaps even peevishly, “Why Marx?
Why so much Marx?
Why is it Marx who seems to
stand behind the idea that the social criticism of art is the
best and most relevant way to approach this subject
matter?” Well, it’s because whatever the
outcome of Marxist thought may have proven to be historically,
it’s nevertheless the case to this day that the most
devastating critique of existing ideas about things,
of states of affairs that, as it were,
meander along without too much self-consciousness,
remains the Marxist one, together perhaps with the
Freudian one. When we turn to Jameson next
time, we’ll see that in both
cases–and we’ll be working a little bit with this today,
too, when we turn to Benjamin–we’ll see that in both
cases it has to do with the way in which we are brought up short
by the kind of criticism which argues that somehow standing
behind our conception of reality and our understanding of our
place in the world, there is one form or another of
the “unconscious.” We have, arguably,
in this course in literary theory first taken up notions of
a linguistic unconscious, or in any case linguistic
preconditioning, then taken up notions of a
psychoanalytic unconscious; and now, in the very title of
Jameson’s book from which we’ll be considering an excerpt in the
next lecture, we have the notion of the
political unconscious. There are other ways of
effecting a social criticism of literature and art.
From the right,
there is an extraordinary book by Leo Strauss on Aristophanes,
together with his great readings of the traditional
texts of political philosophy. There is, of course,
a very strong liberal tradition of criticism,
particularly in the public sphere, in the journalism of the
public sphere. Perhaps the most notable
proponent of a liberal criticism of art undertaken from a social
point of view is the work collected in Lionel Trilling’s
The Literal- The Liberal Imagination.
So there are options,
but by far the most pervasive mode of social critique in
literary theory and in the modern history of thinking about
literature remains the Marxist one.
As much as we can be in working
through these materials, our concern is of course
primarily with Marxist aesthetics.
What are the options for a
Marxist critic in aesthetic terms?
That’s, of course,
what we’re going to be taking up in a moment and also when we
turn to Fredric Jameson on Thursday.
In the meantime,
what about Marx? I think I can take it for
granted in a course of this kind that most of you have some
familiarity with the history of ideas and with Western culture.
I think I can take it for
granted that most of you have some notion, just as you have
some notion about Freud, of what Marx is all about.
Of particular importance for
the kinds of criticism we undertake to read in this moment
of the course is, of course, the idea of
ideology. Now ideology in the writings of
both Marx and Engels, and in all the complex history
of the writings that have succeeded them–
they were “founders of discursivity”
and there has been great debate within the Marxist tradition!–
“ideology” is a term about which there has
never been wholehearted agreement.
Primarily, the disagreement
concerning ideology in this tradition has to do with whether
or not ideology ought properly to be ascribed to conscious as
well as to unconscious preconceptions about the world.
In other words,
if I know really to the core perfectly well that the moon is
made of green cheese– I can prove it,
I have no doubt about it, and it’s not something that I’m
unaware that I think– but if at the same time,
if my opinion, my belief, my expression of
fact to the effect that the moon is made of green cheese,
can be demystified as ideology, the question is:
well, is it still ideology if I’m
quite conscious>
of knowing that the moon is
made of green cheese and prepared to defend my
position?– just as a kind of belated
aristocrat, prepared to defend the idea
that hierarchy and privilege is appropriate in society,
is perfectly conscious that this is an unpopular idea but
nevertheless fully committed to it and prepared to defend it?
The question sometimes in
Marxism is, “Is this still ideology?”
Particularly in the writings of
Engels, perhaps more than in the writings of Marx,
the answer by and large is, “It is.”
Ideology is essentially the
belief that perspective is truth.
That is to say,
that the way in which things appear from the material and
economically grounded standpoint of my own consciousness is not
just the way they appear to me, but the way they actually are.
Now this is a mode of belief
which in various historical periods, according to Marx,
has characterized each dominant class in turn.
With the rise of capitalism,
the evolution of capitalism into what’s called late
capitalism, of course this ideology is
primarily what’s called “the bourgeois
ideology.” In other words,
the idea that the various premises on which bourgeois,
middle class, existence is based–the
premises that have allowed for the rise and appropriation of
power of the middle class; the idea, for example,
of the work ethic; the idea of family;
the idea of certain forms of moral behavior–
all of this is “ideological”
insofar as it is supposed to be valid and equally the case for
all in all circumstances at all historical times:
in other words, the belief that what I see the
world to be is just universally the way the world is.
That is the general
characterization of ideology. Now we’ve seen this, of course.
We began the course with the
quotation from Marx, from Marx’s Kapital,
on commodity fetishism. We’ve seen this in the way in
which it is just spontaneously supposed reflexively,
without reflection, that the labor properties of
something that’s produced– that is to say the value that
can accrue to it because of the amount of labor that’s gone into
it– is actually something that
inheres in the product itself of labor.
This, of course,
applies as well to art, and it’s something that
Benjamin is fully aware of alluding to when he talks about
“the aura.” If I forget that art is
produced– that a certain quantum of
labor, in other words, has gone into the emergence of
the work of art– and if I simply,
in rapt contemplative attention,
address myself to the work of art itself as though it had
objective value apart from having been produced,
in a mode of production, then what I’m doing is
“commodifying” the work of art.
From Benjamin’s point of view,
in other words, to be seduced by the aura of
the work of art is, in a certain sense,
to experience the work of art ideologically as a commodity.
All right.
Now returning then to the whole
question of the aesthetic objectives of Marxist criticism,
there are basically four options.
In other words,
Marxist criticism has not consistently agreed–
particularly in its more sophisticated versions–
about what the aesthetic of art ought actually to be.
In other words,
how should art reflect society? How should it constitute a
critique of society? How should it predict an ideal,
emergent, utopian society? All of these questions are
questions of aesthetics, because the way in which art
does express the social is necessarily aesthetic.
It’s done through form.
It’s done through genre.
It’s done as a matter of style.
It’s done ultimately,
as the Marxists would say, in this or that mode of
production. All of these mediations of what
you might call the expression of society,
then, are understood as the aesthetic in Marxist thought and
need to be understood in terms of possible options.
The aesthetic of Marx and
Engels themselves was realist, but it was a kind of realism
that was really rather sophisticated.
When aspiring writers,
already with the idea that they ought to be writing for the
advancement of the proletariat, would write Engels–I’m
thinking of Ferdinand Lassalle, Mina Kautsky,
other people–would send Engels manuscripts of their sort of
“socialist realist” novels,
Engels hated them. He>
just couldn’t stand that kind
of literature, and he said in effect,
No, no, no, no. You don’t have to glorify the
proletariat. You don’t have to project a
future in this way. What you want to do is see,
in a way that exposes it, the social dynamic as it
exists. What you want to do is
understand the world realistically but not
tendentiously–that is to say, not from an open point of view.
Engels’ literary hero was
Balzac, who was a royalist reactionary but who
nevertheless, in Engels’ view,
was so brilliant in evoking society in all of its manifold
complexities, particularly in the complexity
of its class structure, that this was the appropriate
model for people hoping to engage in the business of
realist writing. Now this was a mode of thought
that prevailed largely in Marxism through its early
energetic years, including the early energetic
years of the Revolution itself. In 1927, the literary
philosopher Georg Lukacs, L-u-k-a-c-s,
who had been a kind of Hegelian theorist of literature–
he’d written a very brilliant book called The Theory of the
Novel before he turned to Marxist thought–
in 1927 still, and notice that this is the
same year in which Eichenbaum is writing his “Theory of the
Formal Method” and the same year in which Benjamin
visits Moscow– in other words,
a period of real continued social and intellectual ferment
within the framework of Marxist government–
in 1927 he wrote a book called The Historical Novel.
This book reads as though it were taken from Engels’ letters.
It’s partly an attack on what
Lukacs took to be the sort of narcissistic inwardness of High
Modernism, particularly Joyce and Proust.
It’s a tendentious attack and
certainly subject to criticism on all sorts of grounds.
It’s partly that,
but it’s also argued just in the way that Engels championed
Balzac in his letters. It’s a book that champions the
novels of Sir Walter Scott. Scott, too, was a political
reactionary, a Tory, but one whose great
dialectical balances in his novels between highland and
lowland, feudal and mercantile,
Scotland and England– whose balances of an old social
order with an emerging social order Lukacs took to be perfect
exemplifications of what realism,
of seeing class relations as they really are,
can do. So this is the tradition of
realist aesthetics in Marxist criticism,
but then as–really dating from 1927,
precisely with the rise of Stalin–things began to change,
at least in the Soviet sphere, the original ideas of all these
people who used to write to Engels–
Mina Kautsky, Ferdinand Lassalle,
writers of that kind– began to prevail in Soviet
thought. There was a literary critic
named Zhnadov who articulated a doctrine of socialist realism.
Even Marxist critics themselves
in those days devised a sort of joke about the sort of novel
that Zhnadov had in mind. You probably know the joke:
Boy meets tractor, boy loses tractor,
boy goes to the city to find tractor,
finds tractor, continues to be in love,
takes tractor back to the countryside and lives happily
ever after. This fundamental plot,
obviously a variant on the marriage plot that very much
engaged also in what>
Benjamin would call “the
mechanical aspect of reproduction”–
this sort of plot as the
characteristic plot of socialist realism began to take hold
officially, so that in 1934 the Soviet
culture minister, Bukharin, convened an
International Soviet Writers Conference in which it was
simply decreed from on high that henceforth literary practice
would consist in the promotion, of an exemplification of,
socialist realism. This continued really right up
until the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989,
since until then there really was a form of censorship abroad
in Soviet and Soviet sphere societies to the effect that
literature was subject to challenge,
possibly to suppression, if it didn’t adhere to
socialist realist tenets. So those are the forms of
realism that I think are most often identified with Marxist
criticism and its possibilities; but as a matter of fact,
probably the most dynamic criticism since Lukacs of the
twentieth century has recognized that realism is something that,
after all, from a Marxist perspective can easily be shown
to have been commandeered by the bourgeoisie.
Who else “tells it like it
is”? Who else insists that reality
is just one drink below par? Who else insists that he or she
is a realist?– other than the characteristic
sort of middle class person who tells you that they’ve been
there, done that and know everything
that there is to know? The middle class in other
words, from the standpoint of much Marxist thought since
Lukacs, has commandeered for
itself–just as it commandeers everything else for itself–
has commandeered for itself the idea of realism which has
therefore become, in these views,
outmoded aesthetically. Now Benjamin is himself acutely
conscious of this problem, and he insists that realism in
a variety of ways is a kind of late capitalist form of
commodifying the aura. It is the last gasp of
bourgeois art in a variety of ways, he says hopefully.
It needs to be counteracted
with what he takes to be a participatory aesthetic:
an aesthetic of the fragment, an aesthetic of intermittent
attention of participation, which does not,
nevertheless, in any way involve a sense of
persistently contemplating that which is real,
but emphasizes rather the idea that one is oneself in a
communal spirit engaged with the very mode of production of the
work of art and somehow or another involved in that.
That’s what we’ll come back to
when we turn to Benjamin’s “Work of Art”
essay. Perhaps the most unusual
aesthetic move for a Marxist critic is the one that you will
find in Adorno. Adorno was devoted to precisely
what Lukacs had attacked in The Historical Novel,
namely the High Modernist aesthetic.
He admired Beckett in
literature. He admired Schoenberg,
Berg, and Webern in music. Adorno was by training a
musicologist, and he devoted much of his
writing career to producing essays and treatises on music
and the history of music. These were heroes in Adorno’s
pantheon, and of course,
the question arises: how can these people who have
nothing to say about society, who are totally preoccupied
with form, and who seem to be indifferent
to the whole course of history– how can these people be the
aesthetic heroes of a Marxist critic?
This is something you see much
more clearly in the “Fetish Character”
essay, from which I’ve given you the
two excerpts which I hope you have.
I want to pause over them
because I think Adorno’s essay– while perhaps a little
quixotic, because after all, who ever could profit from a
concept of this kind?– Adorno’s essay is nevertheless
rather brilliant in its distinction between the
totality, or wholeness,
that’s offered to you by artistic form and the mere
totalization or totalitarianism that’s offered to you by modern
hegemonic forms of government– whether truly totalitarian or
insidiously totalitarian like, for example,
the “culture industry”
to which he devotes the essay that you’ve read.
So this is what Adorno says in
these two passages. He’s talking about the way in
which people in the culture industry who appreciate music
are completely victimized by the coloratura local effect,
what you might call–this is a conductor whom Adorno hated–
the Toscanini effect: that flourishing of a
particular moment in a concerto, the riding it into the ground
at the expense of the whole, and everything that has what
Adorno elsewhere calls “lip-smacking
euphony”; in other words,
a kind of cultivation of perfection of local sound,
as opposed to an awareness of the total composition.
So he says in the first
passage: The delight in the moment and
the gay façade become an excuse for absolving the
listener from the thought of the whole,
whose claim is comprised in proper listening.
The listener is converted along
his line of least resistance [because after all,
it’s so beautiful to listen to] into the acquiescent purchaser.
No longer do the partial
moments serve as a critique of the whole as they sometimes do
in Modernism. [Dissonance,
in other words, is in and of itself a critique
of that overarching harmony with which we associate wholeness,
right? So there’s a real sense in
which the parts can be understood as a critique of the
whole without challenging or breaking down the whole.]
No longer do the partial moments serve as a critique of
the whole. Instead they suspend the
critique which the successful aesthetic totality exerts
against the flawed one of society.
In other words,
nothing can criticize the inauthenticity of the bad
totalities of society except the authenticity of a genuine
achieved wholeness in a work of art.
The difference between these
senses of the whole is precisely the zone of critique which in
Adorno’s view might– just might–awaken the victim
of the culture industry from the slumbers of happy conformism and
acquiescence. Now in the second passage,
just to reinforce this: Great Modernist composers like
Berg, Schoenberg and Webern are
called individualists by other Marxist critics [in other words,
by people like Lukacs who don’t like what Lukacs would call
“fetishization of form,” reification of form
at the expense of social reference and expression],
and yet their work is nothing but a single dialogue with the
powers that destroy individuality,
powers whose formless shadows fall gigantically on their
music. In music, too,
collective powers are liquidating an individuality
past saving, but against them only
individuals are capable of consciously representing the
aims of collectivity. In other words,
the totality–the achieved, successful, authentic
totality–of the work of art models the totality of a
collective state in ways that none of the false totalities of
current hegemonies can possibly do or even approximate.
In other words,
there is an implicit politics–in Adorno’s
argument–in pure form. The achievement of pure form,
which is after all a collection of parts, is an implicit
politics modeling the achievement of a collective
society. So that is the argument of
Adorno. It’s a fascinating one.
As I say, it’s perhaps somewhat
quixotic because it’s kind of hard to imagine anyone actually
listening to Schoenberg and saying, “Gee.
Maybe I should be a
Actually putting this to work,
in other words, entails a certain amount of
difficulty, but at the same time,
intellectually, it seems to me to be a
fascinating turn of thought and one that certainly does give one
pause, if only because Marxist
criticism is so often engaged in a critique of what it takes to
be the mainstream aesthetic of Western civilization,
which is a kind of fetishization of wholeness.
Think of the New Criticism,
the unity of the poem, the discrete ontological object
as a unified whole. This is, of course,
commonplace in being attacked by Marxist criticism,
and it’s very interesting to see a figure like Adorno,
a champion of this very wholeness, who sees it as a
model not of narcissistic individuality,
but rather of collectivity. All right.
Finally–and I won’t pause much
over this because it’s going to be the subject of Thursday’s
lecture– the last aesthetic option for
Marxism is a surprising one. It actually goes back to a book
by Ernst Bloch called The Principle of Hope, in
which Bloch essentially argues that in the world as we have
it– in other words,
the grinding down of hope, the grinding down of
possibility for all in late capitalism–
there is no longer any hope available.
This is a kind of gloomy
prognosis with which Bloch counters the idea that
especially in folk art, folkways, oral culture and in
popular culture– in other words,
in the expressions of longing one finds in the work of the
dispossessed and the oppressed– there is a kind of utopianism,
a romance, and a sense not so much of
wishing for something past, even though it seems to take
the form of nostalgia, but rather a projection of a
possibility on the future which is simply unavailable in the
real world. Of course, the best example I
can think of is “The Big Rock Candy Mountain.”
This is a song sung by people
on chain gangs about liquor running down the sides of
mountains in rivulets and everything just as it should be.
“The Big Rock Candy
Mountain,” in other words,
is a perfect example of the “principle of hope”
as Ernst Bloch understands it. This is something that’s picked
up and taken very seriously by Fredric Jameson,
not so much in the excerpt from The Political Unconscious
that you’ll be reading for the lecture but in an earlier
part of that introductory chapter in which he talks about
the importance of romance replacing the bankrupt aesthetic
of realism– the aesthetic of realism that
has been appropriated by the bourgeoisie–
and as expressing in a seemingly hopeless world the
hopes of the oppressed and the dispossessed.
So this too,
the idea of romance, the idea of utopian evocation,
is a last, viable aesthetic for a certain turn of Marxist
thought which has been interesting and productive in
the twentieth century. All right.
So today we take our numbers
two and three, the participatory aesthetic of
Benjamin and the Modernist totality of Adorno.
We see the way in which they
conflict with each other. Now in some ways I wish we were
still reading the “Fetish Character”
essay because it has more to do with aesthetics than the excerpt
you have in your book by Adorno and Horkheimer called “The
Culture Industry”; but “The Culture
Industry,” too,
is a response, as was the “Fetish
Character in Music” which was published 1938,
to Benjamin’s “Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical
Reproduction.” Adorno was a close friend of
Benjamin’s and exchanged letters about Benjamin’s “Work of
Art” essay with him– letters, by the way,
which were republished in The New Left Review of
1973, for those of you who are
interested in looking at them, because this is another source
of ways of seeing how Benjamin and Adorno were in conflict over
this matter. Adorno and Benjamin,
as I say, were very close friends.
Benjamin was only for a
relatively brief period in the 1930s a Marxist critic.
He had hitherto been much more
interested in cabalistic literature and in the Hegelian
tradition of philosophy, and even in the 1930s he was
famously torn between two possibilities.
He had visited Moscow in 1926,
’27. He had become interested in
what was still, after all, as I’ve said,
a vibrant culture in the Soviet world.
At the same time,
he had become very close friends with the Marxist
playwright Bertolt Brecht and had fallen also very much under
his influence. But another very close friend,
a friend equally influential, was the Jewish theologian
Gershom Scholem, who had emigrated to Jerusalem,
who was a Zionist, and who wanted Benjamin to join
him studying the Torah in Jerusalem and to engage himself
in that community, as opposed to the sort of
international Marxist community toward which Benjamin was
perhaps more leaning, especially owing to his
friendship with Brecht. So even in the 1930s,
even in the period when Benjamin wrote his “Work of
Art” essay and also a shorter,
even more tendentious essay called “The Author as
Producer,” 1936,
an essay in which he actually takes up at length something he
mentions in passing in “The Work of Art”
essay– that is to say,
the way in which in Russia everybody is judged not just for
being able to do a job but for being able to talk about doing a
job, to be able to write it up,
to describe it, to write a brochure about it,
to write a letter to the paper about it,
and in other words to participate, to be engaged not
just in the labor force but also in reflections on the labor
force in a way that really does mean that everyone can be an
author and also that every author is a producer–
that is to say, engaged in writing,
which is part and parcel of the productions of labor,
all of this was a focus of Benjamin’s–
at the same time, even within this focus,
part of him is being torn in another direction.
No one can for a minute,
in reading the “Work of Art” essay,
fail to notice that Benjamin evinces tremendous nostalgia for
the “aura.” It’s not an easy thing for
Benjamin to say we have to tear down the aura and replace it
with a kind of participatory mode that engages with and is
involved in mechanical reproduction.
I don’t know:
when I was a student I worked on and off–
I did this for years–in an art supply and picture framing store
on the Berkeley campus, and of course,
every student needed a picture to put in his room;
so we had huge stacks of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers and
Matisse’s Dancers and certain other paintings,
all of them eighteen-by-twenty-four,
which we called “brushstroke prints.”
They were mounted on cardboard,
and a huge– whhhhoooom!–cookie-cutter of
some kind would come down on top of them,
actually laminating into the print the appearance of
brushstrokes. These things,
if you squinted at the beginning of a semester you saw
the stack going down like this. [Gestures.]
Then before you knew it, the stacks were gone,
and so you knew for a fact, because you knew how many
prints were in that stack, that 240 students’ rooms were
festooned with Van Gogh’s Sunflowers and
Matisse’s Dancers.
You said to yourself,
This is the fruit of mechanical reproduction?
You asked yourself,
again, Just what is the value of this as an aesthetic?
Yeah, it takes it out of the
museum. Yeah, it means that nobody has
to pay fifty bucks in order to wait in a long line in order to
get a peep at the Mona Lisa.
Yeah, it really does bring it
home to the people, but how and in what way and at
the expense of what genuine knowledge of art history,
and even of Van Gogh and Matisse, does the
fetishization– because it is,
after all,>
fetishization–of these little
mechanically reproduced brushstroke prints amount to?
Obviously, this introduces
complications, and they’re complications–the
whole point of my anecdote– they’re complications of which
Benjamin is far from being unaware.
He knows extremely well that,
after all, the greatest threat to an aesthetic of the kind he
propounds is that it can be commandeered by capital.
Of course, I’m getting ahead of
myself, because that’s precisely what
Adorno says in opposition to him,
but in the meantime that was the situation of Benjamin in the
1930s. Adorno, in the meantime,
had gone to the United States. Benjamin was living in Paris
ever since 1933. Adorno had gone to the United
States, which he hated. The gloom of Adorno’s view of
the world is not so much the result of his experience of the
weak forms of democracy in the Weimar Republic,
sort of ominous as those experiences were;
not even perhaps so much the rise of Nazism,
because like Benjamin he was able to flee that.
The gloom that he felt and the
gloom that pervades his writing, which after all starts in the
mid 1940s, is the result of his exposure
to American culture. He simply could not stand us or
our culture. He couldn’t stand
“jazz.” Remember this was not yet the
age of bebop, and I’ve always felt that maybe
if Adorno had hung around a little longer he could have been
reconciled. It was no longer the jazz of
the aptly named conductor Paul Whiteman.
It was jazz that was somewhat
more serious. He couldn’t stand the movies.
I have just been,
for purposes I won’t go into, watching a film called
“Broadway Melody of 1940” with Fred Astaire and
Eleanor Powell tap dancing. Fred Astaire and his sidekick,
George Murphy, are grabbed out of obscurity in
order to be the leading gentlemen of Eleanor Powell.
It’s a perfect sort of Samuel
Smiles success story, replete with the necessity of
occasional self-sacrifice on the part of both of them.
It is made for the wrath of
Adorno, this film.>
It’s nevertheless,
in ways that Adorno could not possibly ever come to feel,
quite charming. But Adorno wanted no part of
American culture. He was in anticipation of that
whole trend of American sociology obsessed with the way
in which American society is dominated by conformism.
He takes this to be the effect,
the result, of the pervasive,
oppressive thumb of the culture industry,
so that our very eccentricities,
our very quirks and little originalities,
all of them are assessed carefully by the culture
industry. A niche is found for them,
and the next thing you know, we’re suborned just like
everybody else. There is for Adorno no sideways
escape from the monolithic, ubiquitous surveillance and
dominance of the culture industry.
All right.
Now the “Work of Art in
the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”
is influenced obviously by the promise of Russian art before
1934: the films of Vertov in particular,
and other ways in which it’s possible for Benjamin to say
that the spectator really can be a participant.
It’s possible for Benjamin to
say that in such contexts it’s a good thing that the pedastaled
aura of the work of art has been successfully torn down,
that we no longer stand in rapturous attention and in
contemplative postures before works of art but that we reach
out to them and they reach out to us.
We meet halfway and we become
engaged with them; we become part of them.
Now how does this work in this
essay? Primarily through the insertion
of the labor function of the apparatus in the represented
field. Now this is a complicated idea
that Benjamin develops in various ways.
What he means by this is that
the spectator sees the object, sees whatever the field in
question is, from the perspective of the
mode of production– that is to say,
the spectator participates by joining the process of
production. Most obviously this means that
when I watch a film, I see the film,
necessarily of course, from the standpoint of the
camera eye; my eye, in other words,
joins that of the camera. Very interesting that in Berlin
in the 1930s, Christopher Isherwood in his
Berlin Stories wrote one story called “I Am a
Camera” that took place in Berlin.
I have often thought there’s
some sort of symbiosis between the notion of “I Am a
Camera” in Christopher Isherwood and the way in which
it may be appropriated– or it may simply be a happy
coincidence– in the work of Benjamin.
But in a certain sense for
Benjamin, the spectator, in order to be a participant,
is the camera, is in other words the camera’s
eye. What is the consequence of this?
Well, the spectator is,
in a certain sense, then, a critic.
Benjamin keeps comparing the
eye of the camera with a “test.”
He even compares it with the
vocational aptitude test. It’s as though what in the
theater would count as an audition–
I appear before the director, I recite certain lines of the
script, and I’m either told to come
back another day or I’m given the part–
it’s as though to substitute what counts as an audition with
the perpetual audition of the film actor before the camera,
because after all, there is the camera recording
what the film actor is doing– not this camera up here,
by the way– but ordinarily,
the camera has the option of later on throwing out what isn’t
any good.>
Would that they [gestures to
film crew] could, but the film camera can
edit. The film camera is part of an
editing “process, so that the actor in front of
the camera is perpetually being tested and auditioned in just
the way that you might be tested or auditioned if you took a
vocational aptitude test for a job.
That’s Benjamin’s point,
and what he means to say is that if the spectator then takes
the camera’s eye position the spectator,
him- or herself then becomes a critic,
like a sports fan. Benjamin doesn’t pretend for a
moment that to become a critic of this kind is to be a good
critic–not at all. Benjamin agrees with people who
say, “Well, we go to the movies when we’re
tired. All we want is to be
entertained.” In fact, we are
distracted. We are critics,
as Benjamin argues, in a state of distraction.
The German word is
Zerstreutheit. We are zerstreut.
We are perpetually,
in other words, not quite paying attention even
while at the same time we are seeing things from the
camera-eye point of view. To see things from the camera–
I’ll come back to distraction in a minute–
from the camera-eye point of view is a position of privilege
because it exposes, as Benjamin tells us again and
again, things about reality that we
wouldn’t otherwise notice. The camera is capable of slow
motion, and it’s capable of angles of incidence that we
couldn’t otherwise see. It’s capable of all kinds of
effects. Let me enumerate them.
I think it’s on page 1235 at
the top of the left-hand column: “…photographic
reproduction, with the aid of certain
processes, such as enlargement or slow motion,
can capture images which escape natural vision.”
Then on page 1245,
he gives this process a name. He says, “The camera
introduces us to unconscious optics just as does
psychoanalysis to unconscious impulses.”
In other words,
the camera’s-eye point of view is a privileged perspective.
It does show us things as they
are or, perhaps if not as they are,
at least it reminds us that things as we see them with the
naked eye aren’t necessarily “as they are.”
It’s not, perhaps,
so much a notion of privileging what the camera sees as real
over against what I see. It’s a question of the camera
reminding us– demystifying our ideology,
in short– reminding us that things as we
see them aren’t necessarily the way things are.
The camera, too,
may have its bias. Slow motion is an obvious bias,
speed-up is an obvious bias; but the speed at which we see
things may be a bias, too.
It’s not that the
psychoanalytic unconscious is telling the truth.
Dreams are crazy, right?
That’s the whole point of
dreams. It’s not that it’s reality over
against a mystified world seen in consciousness.
It’s a challenge to
consciousness by the world evoked in the unconscious,
not a question of what’s real and what isn’t real.
Well, it’s the same with the
camera’s-eye point of view, and it’s all of this which,
in a certain sense, awakens the spectator from the
complacency of supposing his or her own perspective to be the
truth. At the same time,
admittedly the spectator is distracted–remember
Zerstreutheit. Well, what then?
The point is this:
there is a kind of dialectic between distraction and shock
which is crucial, Benjamin thinks,
to a genuine aesthetic revelation.
Perhaps the best analogy is
with Saul on the road to Damascus.
You know how the story goes:
Saul is trotting along on his horse and not paying a lot of
attention. He’s distracted,
daydreaming, whatever, and whhoooop!
All of a sudden he falls off
his horse, right? That’s a shock,
and it’s such a shock that he’s converted to Christianity,
and he stands up and he brushes himself off and his name is
Paul, right? He’s a completely different
person as a result. This couldn’t have happened,
in other words, if he hadn’t been distracted.
That’s Benjamin’s point.
Distraction is the atmosphere
or medium in which the shock of revelation can take place,
and that’s the advantage of distraction.
He gives a wonderful example of
the way in which we do receive works of art in distraction even
if we’re the kind of person who does pay a lot of attention when
they go to the movies. “Oh, that’s not me,”
we say. Nevertheless,
there is one way in which all of us receive works of art in a
state of distraction, and that’s in our reception of
architecture. We pass through architecture.
I work in the British Art
Center every day. I have long since ceased to pay
any attention to the British Art Center as a building.
I receive the British Art
Center, in other words, in a state of distraction,
but that doesn’t mean that it’s not part of my aesthetic
experience. It does, however,
show that the aesthetic and the ways in which we process the
forms of the world can be assimilated in more than one
kind of state of attention. It is in one’s bones,
in a certain sense, to receive architecture;
and yet at the same time, unless we are sort of tourists
gaping in front of the Taj Mahal with a camera or something like
that– and Benjamin does take that
into account– unless we are in that
particular mode, we receive the forms of our
dwellings in a state of what you might call constructive
distraction. All of that goes into
Benjamin’s aesthetic of participation.
Now I am out of time.
Perhaps I have said just about
as much about Adorno as I need to say,
although admittedly I haven’t said much about the
“Culture Industry” essay.
Maybe I’ll come back to that
briefly before launching into Jameson on Thursday.
On Tuesday of next week,
we’ll be talking about the New Historicism.
Then we’ll bring Tony back and
we’ll go through all of these various perspectives that we
will have been rehearsing to see what we can do with them when we
read Tony.

Maurice Vega

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