Friday, December 16, 2016

Cyberkitsch: How The Machine Colonized Us When We Weren’t Looking

Walter Benjamin at work in the National Library in Paris, 1937. (Photo: Gisèle Freund)

The present digital age is the ideal time to re-examine the ideas of the great German cultural theorist Walter Benjamin, author of one of the most important essays in the history of art criticism and visual culture appreciation. His 1936 reflections on “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (sometimes translated as "The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility") is still salient.

Walter Benjamin (1892-1940) was a German-Jewish culture critic who made a precarious and eventually doomed living as a unique kind of journalist, one who tried to make clear the impact of our modern mechanized history on our daily lives. His precious but exotic form of journalism captured both the past history of how we got to live so comfortably among our machines as well as the future history of what those machines might be capable of doing, not just for us, but to us. How we became their people and how they forever altered our hearts and minds  in ways not simply good or bad, but more often mysterious, the outcome of which has still yet to be fully determined.

We live largely in the world he imagined, through his insightful and penetrating study of how what we communicate is controlled by how we communicate. If that sounds vaguely familiar it’s probably because another visionary, Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980), managed to travel far and wide with the passport that his earlier and considerably more obscure struggling elder made possible. But rest assured, McLuhan’s own brilliantly entertaining passport was stamped on every single rumpled page with the mystical imprint of Benjamin’s brief 48-year presence on this complex and perplexing earth. The medium is the message is something that might have been said by someone who had cleared the ground beforehand and created a context for Benjamin's cogent observations about how history functions, how technology altered history, and how we have all been colonized by something as simple and useful as “the machine."

Instead, Benjamin attempted the Herculean and almost impossible task of clarifying his breathtakingly beautiful ideas in a massive 1000-page tome (The Arcades Project) which he was unable to complete during his short, sad life, and which wasn’t even translated into English until the very last year of the very century he so poetically captured in his research. (Harvard University Press published the book in December 1999.)

Some people are just too important to be left in the hands of academics or to be explored in the narrow confines of academic discourse, and their importance in understanding our shared predicament is so vital that it needs to be presented in a manner that teamsters (I speak as the son of a teamster), taxi drivers or plumbers can easily grasp. This is not because these trades lack the brain power at all; on the contrary, it is because Benjamin’s ideas are so powerful that they percolate into every single nook and cranny of our contemporary world in ways that might amaze you. Academics can have a hard time dealing with poets and mystics, and he is a case in point.

There is, of course, nothing inherently wrong with either academic thinking or writing, assuming you like that sort of thing, but academics do speak primarily to themselves in a somewhat hyper-specific and often arcane lingo which seems to preclude easy or shared understanding. This frequently involves a kind of decanting process where the intellectual wine of a given subject is poured back and forth from one vessel to another in a clarifying procedure that removes all sediment. And that is all well and good, except that it is precisely the sediment of Benjamin’s thinking which is so valuable and so influential upon later vintages such as the writing of Marshall McLuhan and beyond.

It also explains why Benjamin himself never thrived in the academic world (his thesis advisors couldn’t figure out what he was talking about and denied both his research and his degree) and why he never acquired the nice, comfortable spot of a permanent university teaching position from which he could quietly explore both the past and the future. Instead, he was hounded into exile and died by his own hand in desperation after trying to cross the illusory French border to freedom in 1940, the day before the frontier opened once again. His was without a doubt the worst luck imaginable.

What we need is a process whereby we can create a kind of distillation of that thinking, a kind of balsamic reduction of Benjamin for the purposes of easier access and enhanced pleasure. If you’ve heard of him at all, it is likely due to his exploration of something he called the aura of an artwork (or indeed, of anything) and how it undergoes decay as a result of mass reproduction. There has been much debate as to whether the aura does in fact decay (I suspect that it undergoes transformations and mutations, but never decays), but few insights into just exactly what the aura is and was in the first place. We’ll all need to take a fresh look, especially in today’s digital world.

Walter Benjamin and Marshall McLuhan were brothers in arms of a unique sort, separated in their work by a mere twenty years, thinkers who altered the landscape of our human sensorium in ways that are only now becoming apparent. Such a delayed reaction is quite common in the world of ideas and images, where we often can’t see the forest for the trees, and perhaps it is especially common in the case of peripheral visionaries. Such people can see into the future, but only way off to the edges, so they are seldom accorded the attention they so richly deserve -- since those edges are usually invisible to the average eye and, by the time the future arrives, they have become the obvious centre, and consequently just as invisible as they were before.

Number 8, 1949 by Jackson Pollock (1949)

I am struck by an exemplary book, also deceptively modest in scale and with the added virtue of extreme brevity, written by W. Terrence Gordon about the complete and utter magnificence of Marshall McLuhan and his ideas. Entitled Everyman’s McLuhan (Mark Batty Publisher, 2007), it was a marvelous attempt to encapsulate something profoundly huge in importance within the scope of a brief but revealing glimpse into that greatness. The only thing missing in that little book was much mention of Walter Benjamin, the often-forgotten figure who made it possible to approach the mechanized world with a clear head and a poetic sensibility. Alas, everyman’s McLuhan was nobody’s Benjamin.

But as time goes by, the grandeur of Benjamin’s persona and his place in the cultural world will become more and more obvious as we slip and slide yet further into a domain that he characterized with both candor and grace: the domain of technics and its implications on our images and humanity. We have become the tools of the tools we got used to using. It’s too late to go back to an earlier age and make different decisions. But it’s about time we began to see the astonishing contributions that Benjamin made to McLuhan, and that McLuhan made to all of us. The life of humanity in the age of its technological dominance is too huge to ignore.

At its core is the impact which printing, reproduction, photography, films, television and computers have had on our perceptions of visual art, and indeed, how reproducibility has completely altered our shared perceptions of the world we live in and perhaps even of reality itself.

Several artists can especially be examined and interpreted in light of Walter Benjamin’s insights and observations: Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968), Andy Warhol (1928-1987), and Joseph Beuys (1921-1986). It is my contention that these four artists are the most important and influential in the 20th century because each of their unique bodies of work addresses most emphatically the implications of Benjamin’s technological insights, albeit from drastically different angles, often mapping a route back to the mythical and ritual components of art which has been altered by our current role as technovores.

My central notion is that Benjamin is an iconic emblem of an iconic enigma. This will be obvious when the time comes for a virtual reality delivery system, what I would call the seventh formal shift in the Iconosphere since the invention of the printing press, and its presence amongst us makes Benjamin’s insights all the more prescient and distressing. In point of fact, we may already have entered that particular passageway, via the digital cyber-arcade.

What we clearly need most is a comprehensive survey of the history of images from the cave to the canvas which asks the simple question: why are visual images of all kinds so important in our lives? What happens to our perception when the flow of images is so constant and inescapable that we now longer actually see the many images bombarding us?

Walter Benjamin’s seminal concept of the decay of the aura of an artwork through its mechanical reproduction can be updated to focus on digital reproduction and its impact on the affective domain in light of the absence of a distinction between original and copy. Benjamin’s unique contribution to a history of the 19th and 20th centuries through his unfinished magnum opus, The Arcades Project, is equally vital. Like the steel arcades of capital cities in the last two centuries, the internet is the connective tissue for a global culture with no central capital city but with a presence everywhere via the Iconosphere.

Marilyn Diptych by Andy Warhol, 1962.

It is natural enough to reconsider and reevaluate art objects in the ever-evolving context of critical insights from major thinkers in the field (Pollock after Greenberg, for instance, or surrealism after Apollinaire, or Auerbach after Hughes). However, some thinkers are so major in their contribution that a case can be made for the sheer necessity of reinterpreting all the art which occurred before their time as well, in their critical shadow. Such a thinker was Benjamin, a cultural theorist and historian who is so influential that his influence is almost invisible, and whose insights were so visionary they did not come fully into play until the 21st century. Even the Mona Lisa looks different after Benjamin.

As rightly famous as he is as one of the premier cultural theorists of the last century, he is ironically, on the other hand, a highly undervalued documentarian of the pre-modernist and even postmodernist periods, due in part to the fact that he employed drastically modernist techniques in the elliptical delivery of his highly recursive and idiosyncratic content. His most amazing accomplishment in this respect was in using the hyper-modernist methods of montage, juxtaposition, seriality, dissonance, and inter-text. Each epoch, he argued with Michelet, dreams the epoch that is to follow.

Baudelaire dreams Benjamin and Benjamin dreams McLuhan. But who or what does McLuhan dream? We must consider the cathode-ray tube as an ethereal and infinitely repeatable arcade. In addition to the obvious ramifications of Benjamin's central thesis in that historic essay and book, he also provides us with the even more ideal vehicle with which to further explore the dialectics of private and public, interior and exterior, art and commerce, meaning and value, modernist humanism and postmodernist solipsism.

And of course most crucially for our purposes, his concept of the aura of an artwork and its impact on our emotions and actions explores the purposes and results of the aesthetic experience as the consequence of his remarkable and wistful contribution. Thus we arrive at this most impactful aesthetic equation: aura equals affect (emotions) and agency (actions). This is a conceptual chain reaction of epic proportions.

Benjamin’s cultural project is especially compelling considering the fact that the digital domain we inhabit, an Iconosphere of global proportions at the very event horizon of images, is a digital world in which we witness a proliferation of copies without an original. Every copy is equal to every other copy and is equal to the original, itself being only one of the copies. This phenomenon is, of course, echoed in the social codes of our global culture itself, caught in an ever-accelerating arc of recursive change, a historical flux most obviously celebrated in the neo-Baroque age we have unwittingly entered.

One of the things both Benjamin and McLuhan secretly revealed to us is that the electronic version of the arcade has utterly erased any distinction between entrance and exit. We have all become global and digital flâneurs wandering alone together via reality television and social media.

Somewhere along the way from printing press to computer, the machine colonized us when we weren’t looking. How did it do this? By inviting us to look and to watch so intensely that we could no longer see what was happening right in front of our eyes, and even more importantly, what was happening behind our eyes. The transformation of all ideas and images into something I can only call cyberkitsch is the imperative lesson of our times. Whether we learn that lesson is still up to all of us.

– Donald Brackett is a Vancouver-based popular culture journalist and curator who writes about music, art and films. He has been the Executive Director of both the Professional Art Dealers Association of Canada and The Ontario Association of Art Galleries. He is the author of the recent book Back to Black: Amy Winehouse’s Only Masterpiece (Backbeat Books, 2016). In addition to numerous essays, articles and radio broadcasts, he is also the author of two books on creative collaboration in pop music: Fleetwood Mac: 40 Years of Creative Chaos, 2007, and Dark Mirror: The Pathology of the Singer-Songwriter, 2008. His latest work in progress is a new book on the soul music of Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings, slated for publication in Spring 2018.  

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