FROM THE TIMES LITERARY SUPPLEMENT, JULY 4, 2008
THE WORK OF ART IN THE AGE OF ITS TECHNOLOGICAL REPRODUCIBILITY
And other writings on media
Edited by Michael W. Jennings et al
448pp. Harvard University Press. £12.95
Until recently, Walter Benjamin’s seminal essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility”, was available to English-speaking readers only in the version that appeared in the 1968 collection Illuminations. Harvard’s new volume of the German cultural critic’s writings on media offers as its title-piece an earlier, edgier incarnation – the second of three composed between 1935 and 1939 – in a superior translation. It already contains Benjamin’s key theses: his argument that the capacity for photographic and cinematic reproduction dispels the traditional artwork’s unique “aura”; his diagnosis of fascism as “the aestheticizing of politics”; and his invocation of film’s emancipatory potential. But this draft’s particular speculative boldness is evident in Benjamin’s stress on how cinema transforms perception, training the human sensorium to absorb the shocks of the industrialized, urbanized world. Equally provocative is his analysis of early Mickey Mouse films as a form of “psychic immunization” against the threat of “mass psychosis” lurking in modern life: by triggering an unconscious release of “sadistic fantasies or masochistic delusions”, they homeopathically avert dangerous tendencies.
Such innovative interpretations abound in Benjamin’s reflections on diverse modern phenomena, among them radio, photography, children’s literature, the newspaper, and the Paris arcades. Some pieces develop lines of inquiry from the “Work of Art” essay, such as his posthumous notes on Charlie Chaplin, in which Benjamin suggests that the slapstick actor’s genius lies in his physical mimicry of the “dialectical structure of film”: just as film confers the illusion of continuity upon a sequence of discrete images, Chaplin’s body language synthesizes “a succession of staccato bits of movements”. At other times, Benjamin takes a wholly different tack, as in his recollection of how the first telephone in his childhood home disrupted the cozy space of bourgeois privacy.
Throughout The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility, Benjamin’s startling, often oblique language reveals his subjects from unexpected angles; in an essay on Austrian press satirist Karl Kraus, he writes: “The life of letters is existence under the aegis of mere mind, as prostitution is existence under the aegis of mere sexuality”. This volume amply demonstrates the keenness and ingenuity of Benjamin’s intuitions at the dawn of modern media culture.