Thursday, March 12, 2020

Iconosphere: The Ekphrastic Works of Walter Benjamin

The False Mirror, by Rene Magritte, 1929.
“Images, our great and primitive passion . . .”  – Walter Benjamin, ca. 1930
The word ekphrasis comes from the Greek for the description of a work of art produced as a rhetorical exercise, often used in the adjectival form ekphrastic. It is a vivid, often dramatic verbal description of a visual work of art, either real or imagined. In ancient times it referred to a description of any thing, person, or even experience. The word comes from the Greek words for “out” and “speak” respectively, and the verb "to proclaim or call an inanimate object by name." According to the Poetry Foundation "an ekphrastic poem is a vivid description of a scene or, more commonly, a work of art." More generally, an ekphrastic poem is a poem inspired or stimulated by a work of art.
From the cave wall to the computer screen in the blink of an eye: that’s how swiftly the evolution our deeply ingrained appetite for images sometimes feels. The ekphrastic response to images is equally diverse and sweeping, and it includes work that is not customarily considered to be “poetry” in the common sense of the term but is definitely and defiantly poetic in scope, scale, subject and theme. As a profound craving, it is, in fact, one of the principal features that distinguishes us from all the other life forms around us: the urge to depict images and to watch them. We do seem to need reflected pictures of what we look like, of how we feel, and of what it all might mean. That blink of an eye was approximately 30,000 years long, a lengthy blink indeed, but in the subtle concept of an Iconosphere, the realm, domain, and even the kingdom of images can be examined and interpreted as both overlapping physical locations and also an emotional geography. One that continues expanding in a recursive and endless feedback loop daily.

One critic who did a masterful job of interpreting the urge to make images, especially poetic images in response to the physical world of images, was the French author Gaston Bachelard, whose Poetics of Reverie is a masterful take on this subject. Another one is the German culture critic Walter Benjamin, whose brilliant study The Arcades Project, among others, approached the subject with stealth and charm. In this cartography of the imagination, the imaging system itself provided Benjamin especially with a poetic map of sorts to a territory everyone can recognize regardless of the personal style or taste contours of the images they hold dear. From drawing to painting to photography to cinema to television to digital technology to virtual reality, the history of art unfolds as a huge landscape of propulsively produced images created to both entertain, amuse and edify ourselves.

Benjamin’s unique form of ekphrasis in particular is a highly effective means for doing so. Even advertising and political propaganda make crucial use of images in the applied arts transmission of their commercial messages. Certainly the French theorist of signs and meaningful symbols, Roland Barthes, demonstrated that very well in his own studies of the structures of semiological codes and how they convey ideas and feelings. In fact, it might even be possible that the entire European Renaissance itself was largely an advertising campaign designed to convey the Medici brand abroad via some of the greatest artists in history. Images are us: they cater our dreams.

What meanings are embodied in our vast array of images across human history and what do they tell us about the phenomenon itself: constructing new pictures of what we already have directly in front of us, and then, reflecting on those images in a poetic manner, whether or not that reflections takes the ‘shape’ of poetry or prose? Thus it truly does encompass a human history of something the culture critic Walter Benjamin identified as “our great and primitive passion.” Where are we and how did we get here? Why does the world of contemporary visual culture look the way it does? What will it look like tomorrow? Considering the fact that this key aspect is recursive and as a result plunges forward in endlessly accumulating iterations of image after image, each one building on the last like an exploding avalanche and archive, it should even be possible to predict the future of images based on the earliest examples such as cave paintings or illustrated stories such as the tales of Gilgamesh for example.

Walter Benjamin (1892-1940).

This cascading image-building is precisely the opposite of a science: a visual party for our eyes, hearts and minds glancing across a landscape which every single one of us already knows, that we love to watch, and to reflect. Benjamin in particular amounts to retrospect, prospect and futurespect in the crowded carnival of imagery that surrounds us outside and in. The first brief proviso regarding images, whether art or design or otherwise, is that there is more than meets the eye, and that the secret of the power of images is the fact that what really matters is behind our eyes: our assumptions, beliefs or even superstitions, which we look through when ever we look at them. And it is of course behind our eyes that ekphrasis takes place.

Popular culture and its unconscious visual memes consider the impact and implications of art after Walter Benjamin and later on, his fellow explorer of the ekphrastic response to visual culture, Marshall McLuhan. The dynamics of aura, affect and agency in the history of images: some cultural commentators are so significant that they actually alter the nature of art itself, not only after their presence amongst us but also even all the art made before their arrival on the pop culture stage.

Walter Benjamin (1892-1940) was a German-Jewish culture critic who made a precarious and eventually doomed living as a unique kind of journalist who tried to make clear the impact of our modern mechanized history on our daily lives. His precious 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, not always in a merely good or a bad way, but more often in a mysterious way, the outcome of which has yet to be fully determined.

Harvard University Press, 1999.
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 obscurely struggling elder made possible. But rest assured, McLuhan’s 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. And both are master practitioners of ekphrasis.

The medium is the message is something that Benjamin would have said, if he had possessed the previous gift of someone like himself who cleared the ground beforehand and created a context for his 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.

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 all of us can easily grasp. Academics have a hard time dealing with poets and mystics, and Benjamin is a case in point: it is precisely the sediment of Benjamin’s thinking which is so valuable and so influential upon the later vintages such as McLuhan and beyond.

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 and believe 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.

Benjamin is 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 actual 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 which McLuhan made to all of us. The life of humanity in the age of its technological dominance is something too huge to ignore.

His is the ironic legacy of an invisible or at least opaque presence in our lives. What is the actual nature and meaning of the aesthetic aura and what are its impact and importance in our everyday lives, both inside and outside art history? My interest is in developing a typology of images and their aura(s), encompassing all symbolic forms from art to advertising and beyond, in a manner which questions certain assumptions about the so-called decay of the aura via reproducibility. I will maintain that, far from decaying, the aura undergoes the same kind of essential structural transformation (mutation) that the concept of beauty underwent during the last century. This includes a taxonomy of images which can provide a continuum link between Vermeer and television, for instance, and a clear philosophical link between the image/media work of Benjamin and McLuhan. In particular: the uncanny parallels between the Arcade and the Internet.

Benjamin’s passport photograph.

If Charles Baudelaire was the first modernist subject (ca. 1840), was Walter Benjamin the last modernist subject (ca. 1940)? Is he the first postmodern subject, and what are the consequences of living in the future he imagined? How was Benjamin's interrupted work eventually completed by McLuhan, and how did interruption itself become a hallmark of Benjamin's embodied dissonance and his prescient postmodern critique of cultures? A second but equally primary question is concerned with the intimate but invisible dialectical relationship between the aura, affect and agency in the history of images, and their new relationship within our current Iconosphere, where emotional distance has apparently been abolished.

We need an interdisciplinary art historical and popular culture study comprising overlapping areas of research, including art, design, architecture, photography, film, television, computers, cultural theory and media studies, and focusing on The Work of Art in the Age of Digital Reproduction, by exploring its impact on the affective domain in light of the absence of a distinction between original and copy. Images besides the visual should also be considered, including musical, poetic and mathematical.

To accomplish this task, Benjamin’s unique contribution to a history of the 19th and 20th centuries, his unfinished magnum opus The Arcades Project, needs to be reverse-engineered. Like the steel Arcades of capital cities in the last century, the Internet is the connective tissue for a global culture with no central capital city but with a presence everywhere via the Iconosphere. And a vital poetics of the aura, pace Bachelard, has long been as required.

As rightly famous as he is as one of the premiere cultural theorists of the last century, Benjamin 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, self-reflexive, digressive and idiosyncratic content. He amply showed that inherently modernism was a negative dialectic which of necessity had to negate itself, the result being the late-mature deconstructive stage of modernism popularly most often mis-identified as post, during our collective headlong rush into the Neo-Baroque realm we now occupy, or rather which occupies us.

Even now Benjamin’s long shadow suggests something crucial along the lines of a Kant or Hegel for our technological age, and his posthumous work was largely explored and fully executed by Canadian cultural theorist Marshall McLuhan. Like that later inheritor, his most salient and seductive accomplishment in this respect was in using the hyper-modernist methods of montage, juxtaposition, seriality, digression, quotation and dissonance, and his even more advanced (visionary and prophetic even) use of the postmodern conceptual format of the intertext, long before the notion even existed in cultural circles.

His interrupted 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 one of the copies. Thus the arrival of the domain of Cyberkitsch.

Pages from Walter Benjamin's notebook on the Parisian Arcades.

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 re-entered. One of the things Benjamin secretly revealed to us is that the electronic version of the arcade has utterly erased any distinction between entrance and exit, actual or virtual.

If Benjamin had not killed himself in 1940 (tragically without needing to, since he could have crossed the paperless border after all) he would have been 58 in 1950 when television arrived, he would have been 68 in 1960 when computers arrived, and he could theoretically have been 98 in 1990 when the internet arrived, broadly speaking. He would have seen everything his theory of technical reproducibility was capable of predicting come into being at an alarming rate, as if following Moore’s Law precisely. He would not have been amazed.

To a great extent, it is also embodied by four artists best examined and interpreted in the shared light of Benjamin’s and McLuhan’s insights and observations: Picasso (1881-1973), Duchamp (1887-1968), Warhol (1928- 1987), and Beuys (1921-1986), with the most significant status as key responder to reproducibility being Warhol. It is my contention that these four are the most important and influential artists in the 20th century because each of their unique bodies of work, especially Warhol’s, addresses most emphatically the implications of both Benjamin’s and McLuhan’s cogent technological insights. Likewise the critical and ekphrastic insights of Arthur Danto and Suzi Gablik clarify their work as well.

We have all followed a circuitous but utterly recursive path and seem to have arrived at an informational and image singularity, that realm where meaning itself could vanish on the rim of a black hole made of collapsed meanings precipitated by too much information, or at least more than can be adequately and usefully processed. It is this notion of an image-singularity that also fuels one of Benjamin’s most mysterious concepts, that of “the expressionless,” which I believe is at the very heart of any meaningful appreciation of his invocation of auric perception, since it is the very interruption of any work of art by “the expressionless” which alone makes the aesthetic aura tangible to our perception.

We need the anastylosis of Benjamin, almost as if he were an architectural ruin, especially as practiced in the classical conservation and reconstruction of monuments, which is clearly what I claim Benjamin is. I believe he is an architectural ruin, but a ruin from the future, one of those born posthumously and, almost as if he were a literal time-ghost (zeitgeist) both personally as well as professionally, just like Poe, Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Nietzsche, Jarry, Ives et al, a community of shadows from the future, so connected to modernity that they all lived a speeded-up version of the century yet to come through their own nervous systems.

Angelus Novus, monoprint by Paul Klee, 1920 .

And having no living community with which to share their neurological tribulations, they had to resort to sharing them with us, their unlived future. All of these precursors operated, as Benjamin’s own criticism does, at the very edge of the “expressionless,” where by its very interruption of the artwork or concept the inexpressible becomes a veiled entrance to the affective domain leading instantly to the agency of other gifted artists. When Benjamin invokes the automaton motif borrowed from Poe to explain history’s use of theology to perform a distracting spectacle, he is already in our century instead of his own. He clearly belongs in both, with the most profound among Benjamin’s wayward notions being that of access to the “optical unconscious” which the machine age was able to render possible for the history of art.

One of the best examples of ekphrasis as personified by Walter Benjamin was his extensive writing on a little Klee print that so moved him he developed an entire history around this curiously poised angel, stuck forever in between the past and the future. According to his good friend Scholem, Benjamin felt a deep mystical identification with the Angelus Novus and incorporated it in his theory of the “angel of history,” a melancholy view of historical process as an unceasing cycle of despair.
A 1920 Klee painting named Angelus Novus shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress. (Walter Benjamin, "Thesis on the Philosophy of History". Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn, New York: Schocken Books, 1969: 249.)
Benjamin’s writings on this little work of art alone are well worth the effort to find, as they demonstrate in no uncertain terms how powerful the gesture of ekphrasis can be upon us, if we let it. Benjamin not only changed the art created after his powerful insights; his incisive visions were so pronounced that he also dramatically altered the entirety of the history of all the art made before his lifetime, much in the same manner as the work Kant is distinctly different after the work of Duchamp. Indeed, geniuses of their order and caliber not only have a retroactive impact on history; they also share an exotic kind of reciprocal maintenance with each other: they didn’t only nourish the future, but they also continue to nourish the past. And Walter Benjamin especially is a melancholy ekphrastic master par excellence: he is a veritable emperor of what Roland Barthes would later evocatively (and also ekphrastically) call the Empire of Signs.

Donald Brackett is a Vancouver-based popular culture journalist and curator who writes about music, art and films.He is the author of the 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, and is a frequent curator of film programs for Pacific Cinematheque. His latest book is Long Slow Train: The Soul Music of Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings, published in November 2018. His new book, Tumult! The Incredible Life and Music of Tina Turner, is forthcoming from Backbeat Books in 2020.

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