Monday, January 26, 2009

Adorno and Benjamin on Mechanical Reproduction: Objects glanced askew

By the late 1930s, reproduction technologies were by no means alien to Theodor Adorno and Walter Benjamin, two of Europe’s most influential intellectual post-Marxist powerhouses. Through the 1920s, new technological marvels swept through industrial Berlin, which witnessed the “rampant growth” of reproduction technologies such as photography, the gramophone record and the cinema, leaving no sphere of contemporary life untouched. Parallel to the growth of these reproduction technologies was the equally rapid proliferation of new artistic media such as film, television and the radio, which virtually transformed old modes of perceptions and created entirely new ones. With the uniform structuration of working hours made possible by Fordism and Taylorism, an entire generation of the 20th century found with an abundance of “leisure time”, temporal clearings that quickly became filled with new leisure “activities” through these media. Despite the excitement over this explosion of new territories of entertainment and dissemination, critical scepticism was not unheard of, and many contemporary writers and intellectuals (Benjamin and Adorno included) viewed these reproductive media with careful suspicion.

Discursive pockets of technological suspicion began forming as early as the 1920s, serving to counterbalance the rhetoric of technological celebration echoed in the writings and manifestoes of the Italian Futurists. The camp of scepticism included Gilbert Seldes, who sought to deconstruct the economy of what he called “domestic utility” (borrowing a term from David Sarnoff), while attempting to theorize the transformation of art and the status of the contemporary artist with discernable pessimism. For Seldes, the artist who refused to conform with modes of production dictated by popular taste suffered severe alienation; he had “no sources of strength, no material to work with, [and] no background against which they can see their shadows”. The theorist László Mahoy-Nagy was decidedly more optimistic about the creative possibilities of these new technologies, and was an early theorizer on the role of art in crystallizing the “new relationships between familiar and as yet unfamiliar data” of the rapidly modernizing world. Meanwhile, the real threat of totalitarianism was in the air, marked by the rise of Italian Fascism and Hitler’s annexation of political control in 1933. Both Benjamin and Adorno were all-too-aware of the devastating potentials of political totalitarianism; under the threat of Nazism, both intellectuals had fled to alien continents, writing under exile. It was not surprising that a certain “political urgency” therefore charged the bulk of their writings on technology and politics, in hope that their analyses would provide readers with the necessary critical distance to oppose these oppressive regimes.

For both Benjamin and Adorno, understanding the changing status of the work of art under the forces of mechanical reproduction was key to understanding the political potentiality (or lack thereof) of aesthetic resistance. While Adorno unequivocally accorded music special aesthetic privilege in all his writings (not in the least because of his lifelong intentions to be a professional musician), Benjamin loaded his hopes upon the medium of film to carry out its revolutionary ideals and overthrow the shackles of fascism. Aesthetic mediums aside, both writers appeared to differ as to the actual revolutionary potential of art in countering the sedating effect of mass entertainment propagated by these reproduction technologies. Where Adorno acknowledged art’s transformation as a dialectical process between the artist and “the historically developed techniques of his trade”, Benjamin “situated the dialectic solely within the objective forces of ... the mechanical technologies of art’s reproduction”. For Susan Buck-Morris, although both authors wrote from similar intellectual post-Marxist perspectives,

“Benjamin and Adorno had very different evaluations of the historical present. Specifically, Benjamin, like [Bertold] Brecht, continued to support the USSR [and the redemptive ideology of communism] as the leader of a world proletariat movement, while Adorno decidedly did not.”

Indeed Benjamin, who completed his essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility” between 1935 and 1936, was upset to find that Adorno did not take well to his concepts. Adorno, who was working on his essay “On Jazz” took issue with Benjamin’s claims that the ideology of l’art pour l’art (or art for art’s sake) was politically impotent. For Adorno, it was crystal clear that:

“[...] the pursuit of technological laws of autonomous art changes this art, instead of rendering it into a taboo or fetish, approximates it to the state of freedom, as something that can be produced and made consciously.”

Curiously enough, when Adorno finally published his essay in 1936, Benjamin wrote to his friend claiming to apprehend a “deep and spontaneous ... communication” in their theories, describing their studies as “two spotlights ... directed at the same object from opposite sides”. Adorno was surprised, and perhaps their continuing intellectual deviation can be tracked by his subsequent work “On the Fetish-Character in Music and the Regression of Listening” published two years later, which may be read as a response to Benjamin’s concerns.

Central to Benjamin’s concept of the changing status of the artwork is the notion of “aura” which he describes as “a strange tissue of space and time: the unique apparition of a distance, however near it may be”. For Benjamin, the “aura” of the artwork derives partially from its un-reproducibility (the indication of an original) and the “authority of the object” given its specific temporal-spatial coordinates in ritual space. With the onset of mechanical reproduction, the artwork ceases to lay claim to originality. Recruiting the example of photography, Benjamin points out the fact that the “work reproduced becomes the reproduction of a work designed for reproducibility” to such a degree that any demand for an “original” print becomes absurd. To this effect, the artistic reproducible object loses its “aura” and mystical charm, and begins to become serviceable under the wing of politics. Indeed, for Benjamin, the loss of the object’s aura of mysteriousness clears the path for renewed perceptive objectivity that “challenges” the receiver to construct for himself “a particular way to approach” it. The familiar, worshipped cult-like object suddenly strips its mystical veil, allowing perceivers to obtain a new ‘critical distance’ to the object, potentially leading to an apperception of the mode of production of that object, and the superstructures of power that inform that productive capacity.

The filmic medium, for Benjamin, heralds the possibility for a new political dimension in art par excellence due to its “renunciation of eternal value”. Indeed cinema rehearses the symbolic triumph of the film actor in asserting his individuality (“humanity”) “against the apparatus” on behalf of the masses by “placing that apparatus in the service of his triumph”. The cinema becomes an educational facility in which to rehearse the mastery of man over machine rather than machine over man. The reproductive capacity of film also upsets traditional topologies of power: though not every man may be entitled in making decisions for a nation, “any person today can lay claim to being filmed”, therefore collapsing the distance between “author” and “public”. Faced with the possibilities of new technologies, the “masses” are empowered by their uses of these technologies for their own purposes and in their own interests, disseminating concentrations of political power that had once been allocated to a privileged few. Granted, these daydreams of democratized political authorship requires the “masses” to actively participate in these technologies, not merely “consume” them; and yet for Benjamin, the mere possibility is paramount to counter the forces of fascism which he sees as “an aestheticizing of political life”. The hopeful antidote, then, would be communism’s answer of “politicizing art”.

Adorno’s reply was decisive: “If nobody can any longer speak, then certainly nobody can any longer listen.” Instead of sharing Benjamin’s dreams of “technological utopianism”, Adorno’s theoretical contribution to the politics-aesthetics nexus was a pessimistic note that sought to describe what he termed “the Regression of listening”. Disciplined and standardized by the needs of the industrial society, Adorno attempted to unapologetically articulate “the pockets of silence that develop between people moulded by anxiety, work and undemanding docility”. The central culprit for this “regression” was ultimately the culture industry, which sought to commodify the artwork in service of the mass market as “so-called cultural goods”. As a result, the work of art pales as an object of genuine contemplation and circulates in the consumer market, becoming an object sought out for its “exchange value” rather than its ‘deep’ principles. A curious vicious cycle of double-anticipation: the leaders of large entertainment companies anticipate the “tastes” of the “mass market” by reproducing what the “market” has deemed “popular”. Yet, Adorno points out that what is “popular” is “the most familiar” and “is therefore played again and again and made still more familiar”. This circuitous nature of production-reproduction could only signal for Adoro a different dimension of listening not based upon the artistic object as one sought after for its “attributes of the ethereal and sublime” but one based upon the aesthetic object as a “fetish” object, valorised for an abstract quality (exchange value) imposed upon it by an external determining system unregulated by aesthetic principles.

Here is where Adorno and Benjamin depart. For Adorno, the Benjaminesque reduction of “aura” only paves the way for the reduction of art “to a common denominator” articulated by the mass industry. Whereas Benjamin accords the loss of aura to the gain in potential critical reflexivity, Adorno sees the reduction of aura as a symptom of over-familiarization with musical “formula” placed into repetitive orbit by the consumer industry. Indeed this over-familiarization of musical formulae can only serve as fodder to fetish, leading to the docile condition of regressive listening which causes listeners to “lose, along with freedom of choice and responsibility, the capacity for conscious perception of music, which was from time immemorial confined to a narrow group, but they stubbornly reject the possibility of such perception.” Reduced to mere otological “surface” or “appearance”, genuine music loses its “deeper” social significance.

Despite the theoretical disputes over “aura” and the nature of l’art pour l’art, it should be noted that Adorno’s main site of criticism was the systematic docility of bodies operated upon by capitalism and the consumer industry which, above all, signposted “the liquidation of the individual” in favour of the entertained, satisfied masses. These symptoms, though seemingly trivial, promoted a ‘stupid’ form of mass subjectivity that bent to the will of the consumer market which was controlled by a small group of individuals in power. In other words, the consumer market perfectly rehearsed the conditions of subordination to totalitarian dictatorship, while preserving the illusion of individuality and free-choice in a distracting sea of commodities. It was this fast-and-easy subservience to a dumb existence of fetish-like consumption that marked the regression of listening – also a metaphor which suggested that the masses were so busy engaging in a systematic trap prepared especially for them that they failed to apprehend the deeper, more insidious political ramifications of their activities. Benjamin shared similar concerns with Adorno; in fact, for all his apparent optimism about the new revolutionary potential of technology, Benjamin was aware that it was a precarious tightrope walk between communism and fascism. Fetishism, in particular, was a great concern on his part:

“It should not be forgotten, of course, that there can be no political advantage derived from this control of film until film has liberated itself from the fetters of capitalist exploitation. Film capital uses the revolutionary opportunities implied by this control for counterrevolutionary purposes. Not only does the cult of the movie star which it fosters preserve that magic of the personality which has long been no more than the putrid magic of its own commodity character, but its counterpart, the cult of the audience, reinforces the corruption by which fascism is seeking to supplant consciousness of the masses.” (My emphasis)

Whereas Benjamin posited a productive possibility for the communist revolutionary cause in the de-auraticized artistic object, Adorno centered his critique solely on the deleterious effects of the consumer market, disagreeing with Benjamin on principle of the de-auraticized object as effect of the industry, not the ambivalent manifestation of potentials. Where the spotlights of their critiques gaze (and inadvertently miss), the object of inquiry bears two shadows in opposing directions. In the first, Adorno indicates the value of retaining the l’art pour l’art dimension as a necessary counterpoint to the standardizing forces of consumerism. In the second, Benjamin’s casts a hopeful shadow toward the political possibilities by carefully harnessing the productivity of these new technologies, always aware, however, that the threat of a larger fascist shadow always looms at large beyond the tipping point.

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