Socialist Reading Series II: Walter Benjamin [Part 7]
Sections X and XI
After a very long hiatus, I found some time to pick this project back up. Let’s dive right in—here’s a link to the text.
In the previous section, we focused on the the transformed, and alienated performance of the actor before the camera. This section begins by drawing our attention to the fact that what is produced as a result of such a performance is, from the very beginning, something put before the public. And, crucially, a public of “consumers who constitute the market” before whom the actor has little to no influence. Whether, for example, the film they’re in will be a success or a failure becomes something that is not necessarily a function of their performance, but on how “market forces” play out.1 As such, the actor’s performance ends up much like any other factory produced commodity.
Benjamin then makes some suggestive, but rather under-developed remarks about how this might explain the rise of “the cult of the movie star” and the accompanying anxiety that Pirandello discusses elsewhere.2 I won’t discuss them in details here because Benjamin quickly turns to a much more important matter: the way in which the publicity of mechanically reproduced art changes the public itself.
The first thing to note is that Benjamin believes that film turns “everyone who witnesses its accomplishments [into] somewhat of an expert.” This, recall, simply builds on his previously established claim that film allows people to become critics by virtue of the mediating role played by the camera. Just like people who watch sports quickly grow to feel like they have some expertise in the matter, so, too, claims Benjamin, people watching films quickly grow to think of themselves as experts in what is presented.
It’s worth pausing here to assess this claim because, in one sense, it might seem rather implausible. After all, nobody claims to be an expert in archeology or fighting Nazis after watching Indian Jones, or to have mastered street racing after finishing The Fast and the Furious. However, from a different perspective, it’s clear that Benjamin is absolutely correct. Consider, for example, the well-known phenomenon in which the audience criticizes a character in a horror movie for doing things that it, the audience, wouldn’t do. “Don’t go in there!” or “Why would you split up?!” are criticisms raised from the position of expertise—we know that splitting up makes it easier for you to get picked off by the murderer, and we take ourselves to have learned that information from previous experiences with the genre. Likewise, we tend to immerse ourselves in the world of the film and to analyze and critique the choices characters make within that world’s rules. How many forum posts have been made about the mistakes the Jedi Council made in light of the rising threat of Palpatine in the Galactic Senate? While people might not claim expertise in something like archeology after watching Indiana Jones, they do (implicitly or otherwise) claim expertise in intergalactic politics, lightsaber techniques, and podracing tactics, none of which, mind you, are even real things in which one can have expertise.
More generally speaking, I believe Benjamin is drawing our attention to the fact that we tend to identify closely with the characters and situations in film, and to critically think through the choices and decisions that the characters make in those situations.3 Just as everyone who watches football frequently, sooner or later comes to dabble in some Monday-morning quarterbacking, so, too, anyone who watches movies frequently also tends to dabble in the same activity.
But this raises a natural question: is this not just a general phenomenon in art? After all, is it not true that we also empathize with Hamlet, think through his predicament, and come to criticize him for his indecisiveness, his melancholy, his cruelty towards Ophelia, and so on? Do we not picture ourselves in Achilles’ sandals, furious in his tent over the insult delivered by Agamemnon? In other words, do we not take ourselves to become experts in anything in which we take sufficient interest? The answer is that, of course, we do experience the same effect in other forms of art. The introduction of film doesn’t present an entirely new way of engaging with art, but rather, signifies both a qualitative and quantitative change in that very engagement. Let’s consider both briefly.
On the qualitative side, film shows its audience that every person can be a subject of art (in Benjamin’s words “…the newsreel offers everyone the opportunity to rise from passer-by to movie extra. In this way any man might find himself part of a work of art…”). This is a qualitative change from the past because it was simply not true that everyone could be the subject of a portrait or the main character of a play. Recall, the manual production of art is mediated through the artist’s hand. In other words, there is no circumstance in which an artist “accidentally” paints a passer by in a scene, and it is safe to say that everyone who is depicted in a painting was placed there by the artist in its final form. But, quite clearly, one can be captured accidentally, anonymously, in a film or a photograph. Indeed, while not everyone can claim to have had been painted, there are very few people alive today who have never been photographed or filmed at least once. It’s worth pointing out here that nothing in this discussion hangs on the fact that, on the one hand, a painter can, quite obviously paint anonymous people on purpose—one doesn’t need to be especially important to be the subject of a painting, though, historically, it seems, this helped. Similarly, and on the other hand, nothing hangs on the fact that there are many directors and photographers who take excruciating pains to depict all and only those people they specifically want to depict, precisely in the way they want to depict them.4 The point, rather, is that it becomes much easier, and much more commonplace to be depicted as a subject in film and photos, and that this is precisely because of its mechanically reproducible nature.
At the same time, this also speaks to the quantitative change: it is by virtue of the sheer number of photographs, magazine spreads, collages, family albums, newsreels, etc. that one comes to understand that they, too, can “find [themself] part of a work of art.” As always, the quantitative and qualitative are dialectically aligned in Benjamin’s analysis: a qualitative change in the production of art leads to a quantitative change in that production, which, in turn, leads to a qualitative change in the social relation between people and art (have I mentioned how admirable Benjamin is as a Marxist analyst?)
Benjamin illustrates his point by pointing to a similar situation with the proliferation of literature following the proliferation of the printing press. Here, I’ll provide a longer quote than normal because I really like how succinct his summary is:
With the increasing extension of the press, which kept placing new political, religious, scientific, professional, and local organs before the readers, an increasing number of readers became writers—at first, occasional ones. It began with the daily press opening to its readers space for “letters to the editor.” And today there is hardly a gainfully employed European who could not, in principle, find an opportunity to publish somewhere or other comments on his work, grievances, documentary reports, or that sort of thing.
In other words, as more and more people engaged with a new means of writing (which was spurred by a new technological change in the reproduction of writing itself) more and more people became writers. They could come to see and think of themselves as writers, and, crucially, to become writers because of this quantitative-cum-qualitative change in engaging with literature.5
What Benjamin says next is especially interesting:
Thus, the distinction between author and public is about to lose its character. The difference becomes merely functional; it may vary from case to case. At any moment the reader is ready to turn into a writer. As expert, which he had to become willy-nilly in an extremely specialized work process, even if only in some minor respect, the reader gains access to authorship.
This is a very important point in Benjamin’s argument: just as the change in how we came to engage with literature broke down the hierarchical barrier between author and reader, so the change in how we engage with visual art will break down the hierarchical barrier between artist and viewer. We can picture how before the advent of popular writing and literacy (aided by the technological innovation of the printing press), there was a clear divide between those who have the power and means to write, and those who only have the power to receive or consume that writing. The monks write, we read (or, more likely, we listen to someone read). As the masses become literate that division cannot be sustained—what distinguishes a reader from a writer is simply whether they are writing or reading at some specific time (this is what Benjamin means when he says that the difference becomes merely functional). And just as I could come to write about my experience as, for example, a former graduate student and student of philosophy—surely an extremely specialized work process—so, too, in the age of mechanical reproduction, I can also come to make visual art about it.
I think the dual phenomena of reality television and “going viral” illustrate this point beautifully and show how Benjamin’s analysis has been proven astute in ways he could have hardly imagined. The very premise of reality television is that it can take “ordinary” people as they are, and make them into subjects of art by putting them in specific situations and selectively presenting their “genuine” responses. The same is true for people who “go viral.” Here, even more so than reality TV, we can see how the average person, with some luck, some intuition, and perhaps some talent, can rise through the ranks of stardom and fame simply through creating “content” which pleases the masses (and, indirectly, the market). This is only possible because of the dialectical relationship between the quantitative changes in production which lead to the qualitative changes in consumption.
If there’s a single reason to read Benjamin today, it is to understand this precise dynamic.
This section, I admit, is a difficult one for me to place in relation to the others. This is, in part, because it appears to repeat much of what has already been said before. Yet, as I hope I’ve shown before, the times in which Benjamin repeats himself usually add something to the previous claims he has made. I suspect this is the case here as well.
We begin by noting that the production of a film is something spectacular in the sense that it involves a whole lot of machines, lights, equipment, and people, none of which are actually seen in the final product. Indeed, the bare minimum expected of a film-maker is that those elements never bleed into what the audience sees—a boom mic shadow in a shot or a PA walking in the background is the mark of incompetence. As such, the making of a film is the production of an illusion and the suppressing of the means by which the final product is made. In that respect, the production of a film is very much like the production of any other fetishized commodity. When I look at my phone I don’t see the thousands of people who were instrumental in bringing this product to me. If they appear to me at all, they appears as unwanted or unexpected intrusions into my fantasy—a thumbprint on the pristine screen, a smudge of cooling paste on the case, an etched note asking for help, etc. To see the traces of the production in a commodity is to see the commodity as defiled, and vice versa. In both film and ordinary commodities, we must see the final product as having arrived ready-made and complete, lest we start to think seriously about what it means to have such commodities in our lives.6
Benjamin then brings up a rather difficult analogy. The question which he wants to answer with this analogy is this: “How does the cameraman compare with the painter?” He responds:
The surgeon represents the polar opposite of the magician. The magician heals a sic person by the laying on of hands; the surgeon cuts into the patient’s body. The magician maintains the natural distance between the patient and himself; though he reduces it very slightly by the laying on of hands, he greatly increases it by virtue of his authority. The surgeon does exactly the reverse; he greatly diminishes the distance between himself and the patient by penetrating into the patient’s body, and increases it but a little by the caution with which his hand moves among the organs. In short , in contrast to the magician—who is still hidden in the medical practitioner—the surgeon at the decisive moment abstains from facing the patient man to man; rather, it is through the operation that he penetrates into him.
What is Benjamin talking about here?
The first thing to remember is that the two figures are not on equal standing. The magician is not someone who can actually heal—or rather, the extent to which they are able to heal is precisely the extent to which they are lucky—but they are someone who are seen as having the authority to heal. The surgeon, by contrast, can actually do some healing—they can get to the bottom of an illness through their understanding of the body and its inner workings—and it is precisely that understanding which gives them the authority to do their work. If the painter corresponds to the magician and the film-maker corresponds to the surgeon (as they clearly are), then it’s clear that the distinction in their actual abilities and their relation to their understanding of reality as it really is must be carried over.7
Next comes the question of “facing” and “penetrating.” I admit, I struggle with these terms and how they should be understood in this context. Here’s my best attempt: to “face the patient man to man” is to see the patient as a integrated whole, complete and finished. The painter faces their subject in this way—they paint the other as one complete thing (even if, presumably, they only paint a fragment of them). To penetrate into a subject, by contrast, is to seem that subject as being comprised of other things. The surgeon doesn’t have to think about the entire body of their patient, let alone their patient as an entire subject. Rather, they have to think about these particular blood vessels that are obstructed, this particular incision, this particular muscle group, and so on. In that sense, they are not dealing with a complete human being and do not face their patient “man to man”, but deal only with a collection of systems that they must understand and manipulate (carefully!) if they are to succeed at their task.
With these pieces in place, then, we can get a sense of how the analogy is supposed to work: the painter engages in and treats their subject as a whole—whether that be a landscape, a person, a scene at a factory, etc.—and presents it to the viewer as such; the cameraperson treats their subject as a collection of separate fragments which are re-assembled as a whole after they have penetrated to their essence.8 What matters between the two pictures presented, I believe, is the fact that one is more firmly rooted in the truth whereas the other is purely dealing with appearances.9
If this reading is correct, then we can see just how optimistic Benjamin is about the role that film and photographs can play in revealing the truth. Crucially, given that film and photography are, by their nature, products for the masses, we can also see how and why Benjamin thinks that the age of mechanical reproduction can be liberatory. Simply put, the most optimistic summary of Benjamin’s thesis so far is that the age of mechanical reproduction will (necessarily) result in a mass demystification, which, in turn, will lay bare the political realities of the world and usher in a revolution.
We, with our knowledge of how things actually developed, may look upon this as utopian, or perhaps even naive. Film did nothing of the type and, in fact, it could be argued that the mechanical and digital ages of reproduction have done more to repress our understanding of reality than any aura-imbued piece of art. But it’s worth remembering that we only feel this way because of our position in the flow of history—it is not a foreclosed question that things should have turned out as they did, nor is it clear why Benjamin was wrong here.10 If we truly think that he is wrong in his prediction (as I do), then it warrants a serious explanation for why that should have been the case.
Each of us knows, of course, that good performances don’t guarantee market success and that market success doesn’t entail that the actors’ performances were good. Some films are wildly successful despite having terrible performances, and some of the films with the most beautiful acting are considered financial failures.
There might be some very interesting things to mine here, but the first thing that comes to mind is that there, as far as I’m aware, there have always been famous artists (in the broadest sense) who have taken on a cult status. Perhaps it’s true that the excitement generated by, say, Mozart, doesn’t match the pitch and fervor of the excitement generated by the Beatles, or, that if it did generate it, that excitement wasn’t experienced by as many people, but I’m just not sure. Likewise, the degree and kind of anxiety that Pirandello describes would have to be put into contrast with the kind of anxiety experienced by Shakespeare’s stage actors, or something of comparable importance. But both of these matters seem like empirical questions that require a historical analysis that I’m just not qualified to offer.
“Tend to” is the key phrase here. There are, of course, people who make no such attempts to engage in film, but, I believe, those are fairly few in number.
Gregory Crewdson and Stanley Kubrick come to mind as examples of photography and film, respectively.
I suppose it goes without saying that this is just as much true today when it comes to engaging with writing given the Internet. To get a bit personal, I’m one of those people who was turned into a “writer” by virtue of my access to the internet and my engagement with seeing other people writing blogs. A hundred years ago, I couldn’t do what I’m doing now. But thanks to the nearly universal access to the internet, anyone can do this crap. As I’ve said before, if there isn’t a paper or book out there applying all of Benjamin’s observations to digital reproduction, then that low-hanging fruit is just waiting for someone to pick it.
Don’t let me overstate this too much—films have credits whereas the chair in my living room does not, or only does so elliptically through the brand stamped on the bottom of its seat. The degree of invisibility in the production process is not the same in both cases, though, I suspect, at least part of that is due to the concerted efforts of people in the film industry to demand that they be seen and credited for their work—something that labor unions still fight for today, of course.
I don’t think it’s out of line to read some of Plato’s criticisms of the arts here. The painter doesn’t have to understand what he paints, just as the magician doesn’t need to understand the human body in order to do his work. But is it true that the film maker has to understand his subject?
Note, the surgeon can still encounter their patient as a whole after the operation—it would be bizarre if the surgeon still saw their patient as an interconnected set of biological systems rather than a person after the operation. Thus, there is always a pull towards a unified subjects in both the magician and the surgeon, but one ends up at this place while the other starts from it.
Seriously, I’m just doing Plato here.
All platitudes to the corrupted nature of humanity, to a collective stupidity, or to “just how things are” are to be banished to the wastebin of lazy thinking.