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Socialist Reading Series II: Walter Benjamin [Part 6]
Sections VIII and IX
I didn’t forget this, but have had a rather difficult summer, the details of which I won’t get into now, but the most relevant of which is that my laptop bricked and it has all of my notes and books. In any case, I’ve got it back and plan on finishing this project. Link to the text as always.
We’re turning our attention to the stage for this section in order to highlight some differences between theater and cinema. The first such difference is that of presentation: when watching a play, the audience is presented with a person—an actor or many actors—whom they can see right there on the stage. By contrast, when watching a film, we see what the camera presents to us. In other words, the camera mediates or stands between the performance and the audience.
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The first consequence of this mediation is that the camera is not bound to show things in the same way that one might see them on the stage. More specifically, it need not present the performance “as an integral whole.” Consider this: when watching, say, Hamlet, on stage, we are presented with a continuous flow of action. The night-watchmen enter the stage together and are seen all at once (along with the background, setting, etc.). The point of view from the audience watching this scene is from their seat and they see everything on the stage as an integrated whole. The ghost of Old King Hamlet appears before them as part of this totality and when the scene is over, the actors leave the stage and others take their place in one continuous move.
This changes when the camera mediates between the audience and the performance. We can, of course, shoot the same scene flat and from far enough away to see the whole stage. More commonly, though, what we observe now is a specific slice, carved up from the camera’s point of view and dictated by its movements. If they so wish, the cameraperson can guide the camera around the performance which allows them to, for example, zoom in to get a close up, swoop above the action, or provide a worm’s eye-view of what’s happening. And, of course, there is, no need to present everything in one continuous take—the cameraperson can shoot several different snippets from different angles, focusing on different things, and then have the editor string those together in post-production for a coherent narrative. In other words, the ‘whole’ that is produced by the final edit is a composition of various bits that are put together. Thus, the actor’s performance is subjected to what Benjamin calls “a series of optical tests.”
A second immediate consequence of this mediation is that the film actor cannot adjust their performance to the audience as they’re performing. On stage, the actor can, for example, wait out the audience’s laughter after an especially funny line so as to let them delight in the moment, or, alternatively, they can rush through a joke that hasn’t landed. This isn’t true in the case of film (or at least not nearly as true or not usually true) since, normally, there is no audience before the film actor and hence no audience to play-off.
The net effect of both of these consequences is that the camera creates a distance between the performance and the audience. This distance allows “the audience to take the position of a critic, without experiencing any personal contact with the actor” and, in turn, allows the audience to identify with the camera rather than the actor.
What does Benjamin mean by this claim? Quite clearly, when he says that “the audience’s identification with the actor is really an identification with the camera” he doesn’t mean that the audience thinks of themselves as a camera. Rather, he must mean that the audience treats what they are shown by the camera as what they would see themselves—the camera’s eye becomes a surrogate for their own. So much is obvious.
Still, there’s something puzzling about what Benjamin says here that I can’t quite figure out: namely, he says that the audience doesn’t identify with the actor but with the camera. If we grant that the identification with the camera is one of surrogacy, then it seems highly unlikely that that’s the same relation that the audience is supposed to have with the actor on the stage. To put it bluntly, when watching a play one doesn’t identify with Hamlet by treating him as though they are seeing what Hamlet sees from his point of view. It is, of course, true that the audience does see what Hamlet sees (e.g., Polonius stabbed through the curtain, Gertrude sitting next to Claudius, the play within a play, etc.), but this is so because the audience sees everything that is on stage—including Hamlet. At no point, however, do they embody Hamlet or any of the characters on the stage. In other words, every member of the audience retains their very own identity during the stage performance. (Note: this is still compatible with the previous claim that they do take on the identity of the camera in film.)
Another possibility is that during a stage performance the audience really does identify with the actor(s) on stage in a more robust way. After all, we might very well feel as though we are experiencing Hamlet’s ambivalence, his frustration at seeing Claudius on the throne, his grief over the death of his father, and so on. This does certainly happen, but it seems to me that it happens just as often in film as it does on the stage. One can have this kind of identification just as well with Michael Corleone as one can with Ophelia, so the claim that something different is happening in film that doesn’t happen in theater doesn’t hold from the other direction.
Frankly, I’m not sure how to resolve the puzzle of what Benjamin means by the phrase we’ve been discussing. I still think the best gloss is the one that appeals to surrogacy (i.e., the audience identifies with the camera because the camera serves as their mechanical surrogate eye), and that this is possible precisely because of the mediating role the camera plays in the mechanical (re)production of film. However, I’m at a loss as to how to understand the initial identification with the actor.
In any case and regardless of how we understand the relation of identification, what seems to be especially important here is the claim that the mechanical means of reproduction creates a certain kind of distance between the viewer and the performer, and that this distance allows the viewer to enter the position of critic. Benjamin doesn’t tell us precisely what taking this position entails, but he does tell us that “this is not the approach to which cult values may be exposed.”1 Recall that the realm of the cultic values is that of mystification, magic, and metaphysics—it speaks to a world that is beyond the control and influence of the ordinary and operates on the grounds of certain presumed authority that is not shared with the viewer. By contrast, to take a critical stance towards something is to take it as an object of inquiry, as something that can be unpacked, understood, analyzed, and evaluated. Criticism2 seeks to demystify and investigate what it takes into its scope, and, as such, the critical stance is simply ill-suited to the presentation of cultic values. That makes sense: it’s much harder to mystify someone who is hell-bent on understanding what is put before them than someone who is not.
Thus, we once again see how Benjamin is building up his argument: in this case, the very means by which film is made and, hence, presented, turns the audience into critics.
Now, given that theme of this section has been the comparison between theater and film, I think it’s natural to ask whether Benjamin is implying that the audience is unable to take the critical stance in a live performance or that people who watch films must become critics. I don’t think he’s saying either of those things. It seems quite possible that one could, on the one hand, take a critical stance towards live theater and, on the other hand, fail to take that stance when watching film. After all, theater critics exist, and I personally know a few people who have never taken the critical stance while watching films. The relation between the way one observes a performance and the critical stance is not one of strong necessity. Rather, I think the way to interpret Benjamin here (and elsewhere) is as saying that the mechanical reproduction involved in film makes it easier for the viewer to take this stance because it naturally guides them to take it. As such, it opens up new avenues to engaging with the performance that would not have been (as) readily available to the viewer previously. Likewise, we might reason, the fact that a live theatrical performance still has an aura (after all, to see a live version of Hamlet is to see that specific performance, at that specific time, in that specific place, involving this specific cast), makes it harder to take on the role of the critic.
Thus, what the shift to mechanical reproduction provides us with is a horizon of new possibilities rather than a necessary means of engaging with art. This will become clearer as we get near the end.
The main task of the film actor, claims Benjamin, is to present themselves—whoever they might happen to be playing—before the camera. Thus, the film actor is not simply or merely pretending to be someone else, but rather, and crucially, they are pretending to be someone else for the camera. Stage acting involves performing for people; film acting involves performing for an instrument.
We have already been made partially aware of this fact in the previous section where Benjamin drew our attention to the fact that a film actor cannot adjust their performance to an audience, and that the reason they couldn’t do that was, obviously, because there generally is no audience present. However, his initial observation here is not simply a restatement of this previous claim and it’s worth noting why. The difference rests in this. One can easily imagine an situation in a scene is filmed in front of a live studio audience and in which the actors on stage can respond to the audience’s reactions. Indeed, from the audience’s perspective, one can also treat the given scene being shot as something that may as well have been performed on a stage as a theatrical production.3 Nevertheless, whether this is the case—whether there is, to put it loosely, a successful connection between performer and audience—doesn’t matter unless the scene works for the camera, and shoots and re-shoots are done until that standard is met. In other words, what matters isn’t the success of the actor in front of the audience, but rather their success in front of the machine that records their actions; a scene that doesn’t look good on camera is worthless, regardless of how successful it was before the studio audience.
Thus, we see how the very role of the actor is transformed by the introduction of the camera. Not only has the audience been changed from spectator to critic, but the actors themselves have changed from people who perform for people to people who perform for machines. This, understandably, is an alienating transformation: “for the first time—and this is the effect of the film—man has to operate with his whole living person, yet foregoing its aura. For aura is tied to his presence; there can be no replica of it.”4
This, in turn, is important to note not only because it once again brings us awareness of the aura of a performance (or lack thereof), but also because it signifies that the actor now does something different (i.e., they act for the camera rather than the audience) and that what they produce is different. An actor on a stage performs with their “whole living person” and their performance retains its aura; an actor before a camera might very well make the same physical motions, but, by definition, their performance always and necessarily lacks an aura. This, recall, is not the case with mechanical reproductions of paintings; a mechanical reproduction of the Mona Lisa also lacks an aura, but the original of which it is a copy retains its authenticity. In other words, it’s not as if there is some “authentic” version out there of Bill Pullman giving the speech from Independence Day, of which we see an inauthentic, aura-less copy when we watch the film. Rather, that very performances is and always was intended to be performed for the camera and was always going to be aura-less. Crucially, by drawing attention to this fact, Benjamin allows us to see how the introduction of a new technology alters, in the first place, how art is made, and in the second place, how this change in production changes art itself.
Let’s return to the aura for a second and remind ourselves of something we’ve touched on previously. As mentioned, the actor’s transformation from someone who acts for an audience and whose performance has an aura, to someone who acts for the camera and whose performance necessarily lacks an aura is an alienating phenomenon. This is because, broadly speaking, shooting film turns the actor into an instrument or “a stage prop, chosen for its characteristics and…inserted at the proper place.” Quite separately from their performance lacking an aura, the film actor’s performance is also often broken up in time around the material needs of the production, only to be stitched back together in editing. Thus, there need not be any internal coherence to any given performance. One part of a scene can be shot on Monday and another on Friday; the ending of the film can be shot first with the opening scenes being filmed months later. This fragmentary nature of film is, of course, well-known, and especially so by us in the 21st century who have never known a time before film. Nevertheless, Benjamin’s point is shown to be a much more subtle one than might appear at first glance by the closing sentence of the section. Thus, it’s worth slowing down just a bit to unpack what precisely that point is.
As we have seen, the primary focus of the last few sections has been to contrast acting on stage—a recognized art form—with acting for film. To act on stage is to have an aura, to embody a character, and to present that character’s actions and thoughts in the very order that the audience sees them; to act in front of a camera is to lack an aura and for one’s performance to be split up into as many sections as is necessary, in any order that is necessary. At this point, it is tempting to think that by drawing this distinction Benjamin is implying that there’s something wrong in how acting has changed. This is also enforced by the fact that I’ve presented this as a shift towards alienation. The parallel between the alienated nature of the actor whose formerly unified work has now been split up into a jumble of disconnected movements and the alienated nature of the factory worker who faces the same crisis in a different setting is apparent. However, it’s of absolute importance to remember that for Benjamin, the loss of the aura is not itself a bad thing, but rather opens up the possibility for true understanding of the world and for political liberation. This, of course, is not to imply that everything that comes along with the loss of the aura is itself a good thing—indeed, the alienation of the actor before the camera is probably not good in itself—but it is enough to refrain from making the snap judgment that, as a whole, the difference between stage and film acting involves some kind of fundamental loss of value. Indeed, I read Benjamin’s aim as much broader than simply making judgments about whether certain changes in the production of art are good or bad. Rather, he is concerned with what such changes—whatever value we ascribe to them—mean for art, our relation to art, and the political possibilities that are entailed therein.
Why am I harping on this? It’s because keeping this in mind is necessary for having a proper understanding of the whole piece. We can see this with the last sentence of the section. Having discussed how the actor’s performance is (or can be) fragmented by film, he says: “Nothing more strikingly shows that art has left the realm of the ‘beautiful semblance’ which, so far, had been taken to be the only sphere where art could thrive.” If one reads this section (or most of the essay) with the impression that Benjamin is merely lamenting the changes that come as a result in the shift to mechanical reproduction, then this final sentence of the section is a deeply puzzling one. But this isn’t how it should be read because that isn’t what Benjamin is doing. Instead, Benjamin is showing us that our previous mystified idea of what art must be—a unified, complete, integrated whole, with an aura that’s presented in a certain way—is mistaken. Thus, the guiding question here isn’t “is this shift in production good or bad?” nor is it the related “we know theater is art, but is film art?” Film is art, and by seeing it as such, we can see that art is not what our mystified notions of it told us it was. Once that’s recognized, it’s a short step to raising the question “what should we do with art such as this? What do we want to do with it?”
Or, to anticipate the conclusion of the essay, it makes the task before us one of politicizing art rather than aestheticizing politics.
As an aside, the vast majority of Benjamin’s footnotes are virtually incomprehensible to me. If they expand on the sentences to which they’re attached, they seem to be so only in the most oblique way. Here, for example, Benjamin puts in a footnote about the parallels between the visual testing of the camera and the aptitude testing of the worker. “Thus vocational aptitude tests become constantly more important. What matters in these tests are the segmental performance of the individual. The film shot and the vocational aptitude test are taken before a committee of experts. The camera director in the studio occupies a place identical with that of the examiner during aptitude tests.” Now, this is very interesting, but it strikes me as disanalogous (perhaps because I just don’t know enough about the kind of testing that the cameraperson does). Apart from the segmented presentation to be evaluated by an expert, testing seems to bring to mind the notion of a standard. And surely, there is a standard that the cameraperson or a director has in testing out a shot. However, what is presented to the viewer in the final product is not a series of tests, but rather what is the result of such tests. In other words, the camera’s testing occurs prior to the viewer’s identification with it and what the viewer is presented with is something rather deliberate.
This is criticism in the sense of “critical thinking” and not in the sense of, say, telling someone why a certain film or play is bad.
I’ve limited my discussion to just a particular scene for the obvious reason that changing scenes on a live shot is a much more disruptive process than it is on the stage. Not only might it require a significant amount of downtime, but scenes might not necessarily be shot sequentially. This, of course, is not true in the theater where, as we’ve already discussed, one engages with the entire performance as a whole from start to finish.
A note on Pirandello, who seems like fascinating person and whom I’m frankly embarrassed to say I’d never heard of before. Here’s a brief synopsis of Si Gira I found at gale.com
In Il Romanzo del Novecento (1971) Giacomo Debenedetti describes Si gira as the most autobiographical of Pirandello's novels, where the identification of the author with his character is quite transparent. Serafino's profession is a natural expression of his personality, in that camera work requires objectivity, coldness, and abstraction. No feelings must accompany the shooting of a movie, for Serafino is merely "a hand that turns a handle." This judgment, however, does not please him, since he foresees the day when even his hand will no longer be needed, and he will be replaced by a machine. Pirandello implies that machines will supplant man and eventually destroy him.
Another critic, Romano Luperini, argues in Introduzione a Pirandello (Introduction to Pirandello, 1992) that Si gira is Pirandello's masterpiece. While its open structure, flashbacks, and stories-within-a-story easily categorize it as an experimental novel, the plot of Si gira resembles that of a movie drama typical for that era. A story of passion, abandonment, and jealousy, it centers on a femme fatale who is killed in the end by one of her suitors during the filming of a hunting scene for a movie under production. The suitor, Aldo Nuti, is supposed to shoot the preyed-upon tiger, as the script requires; instead he shoots the actress, Varia Nestoroff, whom the tiger then tears to pieces. Serafino records this bloody, violent scene in its entirety; his own arm apparently glued to the camera, he himself seems to turn into a machine and loses his voice from the shock. Such estrangement from life, already seen in Il fu Mattia Pascal, serves as the main theme of Si gira and characterizes the essence of Serafino, whose name harks back to Seraphim, the rank of angels that stand in the presence of God. The prototype of the passive observer, he is detached from life and limits himself to recording, rather than living, it; Serafino's self is reduced to the hand that operates a machine. The silence that overcomes him at the end of the novel sanctions not only the total estrangement of the artist from life but also his reification of "il silenzio di cosa" (the silence of an object).
Fascinating stuff. Might be worth picking up soon.