Socialist Reading Series II: Walter Benjamin [Part 4]
Section VI and Comments on Post-Modern Cultural Marxism
PREFACE: I originally wanted to write about sections VI and VII, but, as usual, there were just too many interesting things to talk about. So, instead of making a giant post I’m only gonna talk about VI and some comments regarding “Post-Modern Cultural Marxism.”
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We ended the last section by noting that we are explicitly focused on art works that are made to be reproduced, and not on the reproduction of existing art works. Specifically, we are going to focus on photography (and later, film), but, more broadly, we can talk about any set of art works for which the question of authenticity can’t arise. Recall that when two identical oil paintings confront each other, the question of which on is the authentic one makes sense: one was painted first ,and the other was a copy of that first one. We discover the difference by tracing the history of both and determining which one is the original—that one retains its authenticity. The same cannot be said about two photographs.1 It simply doesn’t make sense to ask which of two prints of the same photo is authentic and which one is a copy of it. In one sense, they’re both copies of each other and they’re both equally authentic; in another sense, neither is a copy of the other and the question involves a category mistake. The fact that the question doesn’t make sense unless we start using the term “copy” in a different sense than we normally do indicates that the the very idea of authenticity is undermined when talking about such objects. Indeed, we witness this undermining process as the production of art begins to stress a work’s exhibition value rather its cultic value.
So far, so good—we’ve covered this in detail before.
The shift in question, however, is not frictionless and the cultic value attempts to reassert itself. In photography, it makes its last stand by focusing on the human face.
The cult of remembrance of loved ones, absent or dead, offers a last refuse for the cult value of the picture. For the last time the aura emanates from the early photographs in the fleeting expression of a human face
Thus, for example, the soldier in the trenches carries with him a picture of his beloved’s portrait because it reminds him of her.2 And there does seem to be a kind of magic in this practice—it’s as though the photo says “here’s a real, particular person—a unique being whom you have a particular relationship with! This is exactly what she looks like!” He looks at her to feel her presence. If the soldier dies, his beloved can look at her picture of him and remember what he looked like, how much they loved each other, and so on. The image of his face can meet her across time and space and from beyond death itself! If that’s not magic, then I don’t know what is.
Let’s grant that at least in some respect this is true—some photos are uniquely special to us. This can very well be true, but Benjamin insists that apart from these cases (“as man withdraws from the photographic image”), the exhibition value of photography shows its superiority. How? Here things get a bit tricky because Benjamin points us to Atget’s photographs of Paris as the first time this superiority becomes apparent:
It has quite justly been said of him [Atget] that he photographed them [the streets of Paris] like scenes of crime. The scene of a crime, too, is deserted; it is photographed for the purpose of establishing evidence. With Atget, photographs become standard evidence for historical occurrences, and acquire a hidden political significance.
Set aside the question of the “hidden political significance” of this picture for the moment, and focus on the analogy between a photograph taken at a crime scene and the photograph above. As Benjamin reminds us, photographs at a crime scene are taken in order to preserve a record of what things really looked like—the detectives then refer to it to deduce whodunnit or how the crime transppired. In the same way, the empty Parisian street shows us how Paris really looked.3 The above photograph isn’t a product of a particular artist’s interpretation, mediated by their eye and hand, but is an actual recording of reality: light bounced off the objects in the street, through the camera’s lens, and onto the photosensitive material which produced a negative. There’s no magic happening here but simply a documenting of reality.
Okay, but why think this has a political significance? And how does this show that the exhibition value is superior to the cultic value? Let’s consider an answer to the first question.
They [Atget’s photos] demand a specific kind of approach; free-floating contemplation is not appropriate to them. They stir the viewer; he feels challenged by them in a new way.
This is a puzzling claim, but, I believe, key to understanding it is understanding why free-floating contemplation is not appropriate to these photographs. To contemplate freely is to not be constrained by anything external, but to just focus on and enjoy different elements of the work. One can easily do this if, on the one hand, the work of art in front of them is devoid of subject matter—free-floating contemplation is the order of the day for abstract art, for example. On the other hand, one can also freely contemplate fictitious representations that do have a subject matter. Consider, for example, the following painting by Zdzislaw Beksinski:
Clearly, this painting depicts something (something spooky!), but not something real. As such, the viewer can freely contemplate on how Beksinski chose to depict the hundreds of bony knuckles of the musician, how these bumpy, bony structures contrast with the smoothness of the trumpet, and so on.
We can, of course, do something similar with the Atget photo above, paying attention to the different advertisements on the buildings, the texture of the cobblestone street, etc. Nevertheless, we are constrained by the fact that unlike Beksinki’s trumpet player, we can’t eliminate the fact that we know we’re looking at a real street. Reality impinges on us in photographs in a way that makes truly free contemplation inappropriate.
But is that right? It’s not implausible to insist that there isn’t anything especially challenging about the Atget photo. So what’s going on?
I think the core phenomenon that Benjamin has in mind is a rather subtle one that tends to be overlooked for people like us who have always been exposed to photographs. However, his claim is more plausible than it might appear at first glance if we consider some less-subtle cases. Consider, for example, Eddie Adams’ Pulitzer Prize winning photo “Saigon Execution” (I won’t post the photo here, but chances are that you’ve already seen it; and if not, you can click the link to the Wikipedia article). The photo shows the moment right before South Vietnamese Brigadier General Ngoc Nguyễn Loan executes Viet Cong Captain Nguyễn Văn Lém with a shot to the head from a .38 revolver. The viewer quite literally sees the moment in which Loan’s bullet enters Lém’s head.
Now, in one sense, I suppose it’s possible to freely contemplate this image and detach oneself from the fact that one is looking at a murder to consider the shadows and composition. But there really does seem to be something inappropriate in such a reaction at least part of which is due to the fact that what one sees really happened. The viewer is challenged not only by the gruesome theme of the photograph, but also by the fact that it is documenting something actual as it happened.
Notice that the effect isn’t the same in manually (re)produced pieces of art even if those depict a real event. Here’s a drawing (etching?) of the assassination of Alexander II:
It, too, depicts a real event, but because it is a drawing of that event, its significantly easier to engage in free contemplation. At least I find it much, much easier to do so.
Likewise, it seems less inappropriate to engage in free contemplation of other images depicting much more horrendous (but not real) events. Below is a panel from Junji Ito’s Uzumaki in which a man who has become obsessed with spirals has turned himself into a spiral by horribly distorting his body.
It’s a horrifying drawing, but largely due to the fact that this didn’t really happen, it seems acceptable to, say, contemplate the pen-work of the artist, to focus on the interlocking, broken fingers, the shading on the foot, and so on.
This is not to say that paintings or drawings in general can’t challenge or arrest us—of course they can—but only to illustrate what I think Benjamin has in mind here. If you can get a sense of how the fact that something depicted is real can make a difference as to how one should relate to the work, then you’ve got the general idea.
The challenge that the viewer experiences accompanies another new phenomenon:
At the same time picture magazines begin to put up signposts for him [the viewer], right ones or wrong ones, no matter. For the first time, captions have become obligatory. And it is clear that they have an altogether different character than the title of a painting.
At the same time that photographs bring is in direct contact with reality as it really was or is, and by virtue of its mechanically reproduced nature, photography also brings us in contact with a reality deprived of context. In essence, what we implicitly recognize is that a) “what’s depicted is real” and b) “we don’t know what exactly is being depicted.” It is for this reason that captions become obligatory in magazines: without them the reader wouldn’t know that they’re looking at, say, a picture of a demonstration at Nevsky Prospect from the Russian Revolution rather than just a depiction of something that happened somewhere.
For the first time photography makes it such that bits of reality need to be interpreted.4
If reality doesn’t speak for itself, then the question of what it says and who provides its interpretation becomes very important. And that, of course, is a political matter.
We’re almost at the end. We only need to remember one final bit from section III in order to see the full picture: the masses have a fundamental desire “to bring things ‘closer’ spatially and humanly.” This desire, recall, is ultimately a desire to understand the world and how it works. So much so that the masses are willing to sacrifice the authenticity of a particular, and hence, are willing to destroy the aura of the reproduced object in order to gain this understanding.5
Let’s return to the two questions we raised earlier: why do photographs have a hidden political significance? And why (or in what way) does the exhibition value of this kind of art trump the cultic value found in manually reproduced art?
We can answer both questions by summarizing what has been presented so far: photography’s exhibition value trumps its cultic value because it satisfies the desires of the masses to understand the world. It can satisfy this desire because it presents its the masses with reality as it is (or was) rather than mystifying and obscuring. And, in turn, it can present reality as it is (or was) because of the mechanical process involved in its (re)production.
Side Discussion: Isn’t this the Post-Modern Cultural Marxism that my Pee-Pop talks about?!
Okay, I hate having to talk about this, but, sadly, it’s relevant here.
First, what is “Post-Modern Cultural Marxism?”
The term, taken literally is nonsense,6 but it is often used to refer to the general idea that Leftists (Marxists) impose their ideology through a strict control of popular culture and education. Here’s how this is supposed to work: on the one hand, Leftists control access to the production of cultural products—mainly television, film, art, and music—and infuse those products with subversive messages that the unsuspecting public (and especially children) consume and internalize. Depending on what flavor of conservative you are, those messages encourage sexual deviancy, anti-patriotic sentiment, reverse-racism, satanic worship, or any other number of horrible things you can imagine.7 On the other hand, educators, the media, and cultural critics—all of whom work hand-in-hand with the producers of that culture and instruct them on the messaging—control the interpretation of pop culture through the application of social, political and economic punishments for any deviation. By doing this, the Left is able to crush dissent and impose complete thought control on the population.
In practice, it looks like this: You send your beautiful, God-fearing child to college and after only a year, they come back with blue hair and “new pronouns.” Whereas previously they loved Thanksgiving, they’re now talking about how it’s a holiday that white-washes the brutality of settler colonialism and not a celebration of fraternal love! They won’t let you mention your favorite football team by name and when you roll your eyes at one of the players taking a knee they lecture you on the history of policing (as though your uncle wasn’t a cop that let you touch his gun). What the hell is going on? The answer, of course, is that the Cultural Marxists have gotten to your precious angel. They’ve taken facts about the police, football, history, American values, and even biology and reinterpreted them brainwash your child so they can use her as a pawn in their subversive agenda.
This, it should be clear, is a cowardly tactic on the part of the Left. Having failed to convince the people who matter about their political vision, they have resorted to waging a guerilla war in the culture sphere.
Now, I hope it’s obvious from context that I think this is dumb as hell, and I won’t here go into all the reasons why that is.8 One thing that always bothers me about this story, however, is that it has nothing to do with Marxism! As I’ve mentioned over and over again, Marxists are committed to historical materialism and the claim that culture does not drive historical change is about as axiomatic as you can get when it comes to historical materialism (that’s the ‘materialism’ part!). Simply put, Marxists don’t take affecting the way people think through the manipulation of culture to be one of their political goals at all!9 What conservatives are upset about isn’t a Marxist project, but a bourgeois liberal one.10 It’s liberalism and not Marxism that takes seriously the claim that political, historical, and economic change is primarily driven by the beliefs and ideas that people hold, and it is liberalism and not Marxism that places its faith the long arc of history can be bent towards justice through the manipulation of those ideas.
But hold the phone: am I being inconsistent here? Haven’t I been arguing that, on the one hand, Benjamin does really good Marxist analysis, and, on the other hand, have I not just argued that he himself thinks that the interpretation of art is a matter of politics? Is that not precisely the thing that those decrying post-modernist cultural Marxism are worried about?
This point is made by those Conservatives Who Know a Thing or Two and who have some passing familiarity with the history of the post ‘68 New Left campus crusades. These people know, for example, that Marcuse was part of that movement and that he was part of the Frankfurt School. Thus, the link is solidified: here are Marxists who are advocating for culture warfare stuff. Doesn’t all of this have its root here in Benjamin?
The answer is no! But to see why this is the case, we have to see the underlying assumption that’s being made here: namely, that the claim that images/art has to be interpreted and that interpretation is a political matter entails the further claim that truth is relative. That is, that at the end of the day, all interpretations are just a matter of which side can muster the most political/social/economic pressure to their side and that they have nothing to do with the truth of the matter. Now, to be clear, that would take us directly into post-modern territory. But this is not the only way to interpret Benjamin, nor is it an accurate way of reading him.
To see the alternative way of reading the text, we just have to acknowledge the there is such a thing as the truth about certain matters and that some interpretations are better at getting at that truth than others. With Benjamin, then, we can say that, yes, there’s a truth of the matter (about art, images, etc.) and that truth is one that is best revealed through the method of historical materialism.
Here’s a toy example: you can, for example, interpret the difficulties accompanying a health emergency as an unfolding of God’s plan to teach you about the fragility of your body and the ease with which all of your savings can be wiped out overnight. From a historical materialist perspective, this interpretation simply obscures and mystifies the social and economic relations that underlie the situation in question. Rather than showing you that the reason you’re struggling is because you live in a world in which the integrity of your body is something that has to be earned through success in the market, it displaces any political impact that we, collectively have and places it into the realm of individual responsibility, fate, and metaphysical mystery. In other words, the unfolding of reality is a matter of what happens between you and God (and primarily what He decides for you based on your behavior) and everything else is just window dressing. Now, I don’t mean to single out religious literalists here since this kind of thinking is present in other guises in, say, the liberal myth of merit and desert, but it’s just easiest to see its mystifying nature when a supernatural figure is involved.
Crucially, the historical materialist picture is not one of relativity about truth, but is one that takes seriously the claim that there really is one Truth that we’re all subject to and according to which the world operates. This, of course, is the same thing that those who decry Post-Modern Cultural Marxists believe with respect to their ideology, but we should not confuse the fact that different groups of people believe different things about the Truth with the claim that because such a disagreement exists, truth is relative. It would be wild to think that because Evangelical Christians believe such-and-such that differs from what non-religious people believe and that they use political, social, and economic pressures to put their interpretation of it in practice, that therefore, those Christians are relativists about the truth. The same holds for historical materialists: there’s one truth and some interpretations of the world are more closely aligned to it than others.
Thus, when Benjamin says that the interpretation of reality becomes a political matter in the age of mechanical reproduction, he’s not advocating for some position in which truth is so fragmented that the only thing left is pure coercive power. Rather, he is making a not of the inflection point of possibility that the present moment presents and how we are at a crossroads: on the one hand, we can take advantage of the way the cultural means of (re)production have provided us with a path towards getting at the truth and ridding ourselves of mystification, or, on the other hand, we can drift further into that mystification through fascism. There’s nothing post-modern here.
This will become very apparent when we get to the concluding section of the essay. But we’re not even halfway there yet (yikes!)
It’s worth noting that the relation here is of identity. We can, of course, take two pictures of the same subject—say, two pictures of my dog Ted—but that wouldn’t make them two tokens of the same picture. By contrast, two prints from the same negative are two identical pictures. We’re talking about the latter relation.
I’m thinking of some corny WWII movie, but, of course, this holds true for any portrait that we keep on display. Currently, I have two photos of my little niece on display in the living room. Incidentally, when I was in high school, people used to go to the mall and get their pictures taken (usually with a boyfriend or girlfriend though sometimes alone), and would give out prints of those pictures to their friends. It wasn’t unusual to have a stack of photographs of people you carried around in your wallet like Ordinary People Trading cards (PS. I think with some stats I would absolutely collect such cards). I don’t know if this was a regional or generational thing or if it’s still around.
We are, of course, ignoring the possibility of doctoring photos or of photorealistic AI creation or whatever. We can’t blame Benjamin for not taking that into account.
Philosophers may be reminded of some of Wittgenstein’s philosophy here, though I have no reason to think that Benjamin ever read Wittgenstein.
This desire, remember, is neither arbitrary nor irrational. It is the willingness to embrace abstraction that makes all the sciences possible!
Marxism is a modernist philosophy. It is committed to rational inquiry, the objectivity of truth, and posits a telos. All that is at odds with everything post-modern. Talking about post-modern Marxism is like talking about Satanic Bishops or animated stones.
One that I will mention only in passing is the similarities between the role the Left is taken to play in this paranoid fantasy and the role of the Jew for the Anti-Semite. Both end up being empty signifiers to which anything can be attached. I’m also sure that the fact that many of the members of the Frankfurt School were Jewish and the fact that many prominent Bolsheviks were also Jews has nothing to do with these similarities. No sir, none at all.
Do Marxist think that the way one thinks matters for politics? Of course, they do! The process of developing class consciousness, for example, is of paramount importance in Marxist theory. But, crucially, that consciousness is not and cannot be done from without, but must be done consciously. Education is a part of that, of course, but, speaking as a former teacher, you simply can’t teach someone through force or subversion (believe me, I didn’t have the power to get students to read short stories, let alone the power to indoctrinate them in the subtleties of Marxian economics…). One learns by being aware of what they’re learning.