Photography and Yearning After Permanence

As a childhood-to-present lover of photography who has experienced several dramatic shifts in the medium during my lifetime, but also one whose sensibility has ever been more medieval than modern, I found this brief excerpt of Walter Benjamin’s account of the image in “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” refreshingly straightforward. It also, however, caused me to wrinkle my brow a bit (is that a phrase? I feel like it is) in both chagrin and, at times, hesitation over his statements. On one level it is certainly hard to argue with his assertion that print reproduction has dramatically altered not only the individually artistic endeavor but also many other aspects of (societal and political, he implies) life, especially as the ideal held within mass production has become not only possible but, in many cases, preferred (any mention of mass production or appeal reminds me that a great amount of US produce is discarded or at the very least considered unsaleable, although being perfectly healthy, just because it does not match the common perception of a perfectly shaped/colored supermarket Red Delicious).

Surely Benjamin’s words strike a chord in me when he claims that this thirst for sameness occurs due to “the desire of contemporary masses to bring things 'closer' spatially and humanly, which is just as ardent as their bent towards overcoming the uniqueness of every reality by accepting its reproduction” and declares that “Unmistakably, reproduction as offered by picture magazines and newsreels differs from the image seen by the unaided eye” because “Uniqueness and permanence are as closely linked in the latter as are transitoriness and reproducibility in the former" (219). I have ever believed that the photographic image is, in some poignant way, an attempt (and only such, be it ever so joyful or desperate) to hold the moment within the permanent, to find “the still point of the turning world” and preserve a in instant eternally. So I appreciate his words on this subject very much, and yet I still wonder if this is unique to photography. Does not the Grecian Urn attempt permanence? And were there not likely many poorly made urns or statues of Venus that have not inspired reverence in the same vein as mass produced art today?

I am also curious about this statement: “If, while resting on a summer afternoon, you follow with your eyes a mountain range on the horizon or a branch which casts its shadow over you, you experience the aura of those mountains, of that branch” (219). This is true, I feel, and it is not something to make light of—the value in the individual experience of any given mountain, stream, forest. I do wonder, however, if to view a photographic image created by another (even one that has been gasp reproduced) who themselves viewed and contemplated the scene is so very far removed from its “aura” as Benjamin implies. What of the “aura” of the individual photographer who has crafted the image? Although I know it is not always the case, I have long considered the intent of “real” photographers, for lack of a better term, to be something akin to providing the viewer with a depiction of his or her own unique perspective upon viewing of a scene. True, photographs must be made, but in being made they also, at times, bring into sharp focus one aspect of a scene (take a macro photograph of a leaf or an apple, for instance) and show it to the viewer in a manner so focused and pure that it causes one to reexamine their own reality with greater care. Is this experience truly utterly lacking in the “aura” of that scene?

I have quite a few more thoughts on this rather delightful reading this week, but have unfortunately run out of time to formulate them in writing.

Borges and Benjamin

I really enjoyed the readings this week, particularly the Library of Babel. I was really struck by the passage: "when it was proclaimed that the Library contained all books, the first impression was one of extravagant happiness. All men felt themselves to be the masters of an intact and secret treasure. There was no personal or world problem whose eloquent solution did not exist in some hexagon." I connected this to the digital, the promise of the digital archive to provide a solution seemingly at the touch of our fingertips and its ability to hold all the world's knowledge (the knowledge that we choose to place there). This reminded me of our past discussions surrounding the archive. 

I was also struck by the idea of reproduction in Benjamin's work and the idea that art is being designed for reproducibility; this idea in particular extends to the digital age. Works are now being produced for a digital medium, art designed to be retweeted and re-shared via a community. This ties into how cult value is being replaced by exhibition value; works of art are now meant to be displayed and the once sacred process of art-making through ritual, intended for the gods, is now, as Benjamin puts it, hidden. Quantity is another issue in Benjaimin's piece that relates to the digital; he notes that "quantity has been transmuted into quality," meaning that the quality of a piece of art is now determined by the number of its reproduction. A modern example of this at work is a popular YouTube channel, the videos becoming quality pieces of film by the number of times they are viewed or liked rather than the actual technique of filming or another aesthetic quality. 

The digital provides a platform for more reproducible art and a space that acts as an archive, as problematic and challenging as those concepts are. I'm looking forward to class discussion.


Borges and Benjamin - Art in the Internet Age

Borges was a fun story to read, if a little obvious in his metaphors/allegories when we get to specifics. But the general idea of a Librarian who is seeking to interact with books when all books have been catalogued and contained into a central structure pretty accurately and succinctly mirrors what I brought up a month or so ago; to ask us to deal with these electronic archives on a mass scale is like giving us the Enterprise and saying "Alright. You have the entire universe at your fingertips. Go find God." Borges highlights the same feelings of fear and inadequacy I know I feel when I realize just how much information is out there for us to access.


Then there's the Benjamin, which sees this electronic reproduction as a natural occurence. That makes sense. We've been reproducing stuff since time immemorial, and we're not going to stop just because there's such a thing as copyright law. He mentions though that this seems to separate the art from an inherent quality it possesses, and that this is yet another natural separation between art and the cult that the Decadents called 150 years ago. That's a major point of connection between Benjamin and Borges, though Borges still seems to be engrossed by the hidden potentialities of the texts despite the general unease of the short story.


I do find myself wanting to disagree with Benjamin, but have you ever found some 150 year old text that's simply been written out in a text document and uploaded to either Gutenberg or some other content aggregator? It's distressingly plain. Even sites like that upload PDF scans/pictures of the entire book, including its front cover and spine, add a bit of the mechanical. Not that print books aren't a mechanical process. I think my point is that the scanning/eletronic reproduction process highlights and maybe even exacerbates the mechanical aspects of production and drains a bit of what Benjamin would call the "aura" of the object away from it.

Benjamin, Borges

Benjamin’s writing, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ explains how the concept of art has changed along with modernity. Originally, artifacts were made by man, but as technology has developed, the way of producing artifacts has changed. Printing, and photography were such examples of technology that made and copied artifacts in a massive and instant way. For this reason, the authenticity within artwork has lost its meaning, because the process of reproduction became independent on manual reproduction, and we can access to artifacts whenever we want, regardless of the existence of original. From this, he explains that the ‘aura’ of artifacts loses its influence on the artwork, because artifacts made independent on traditional sphere, and people can easily appreciate artistic works based on their own particular situation. Because of that, masses can easily access to art, overcoming uniqueness of the art work, and the concept of pure art (art for art sake) can be contradicted. The social implication of art would become more important in the age of mechanical reproduction. We are living in a society of mass culture, and reproduced cultural stuffs can be easily accessible to anyone else. In our daily life, we can appreciate art easily, and this could be possible due to technological development. Benjamin’s analysis on the relation of art and our lives seems convincing.

Jorge Louis Borges’ writing, ‘The Library of Babel’ describes a library which contains all kinds of knowledge with every languages and its knowledge is infinite. He also says that as the library has all kinds of knowledge, human would lose their certainty and even feel themselves as phantasmal. The desire of accumulating knowledge has been started for a long time. In the age of enlightenment, people tried to record all kinds of knowledge through dictionaries and encyclopedia, and they tried to build library of Babel suggested in the story. What Borges seems to suggest is that at his age, as the knowledge made by human has become so overpowering that human cannot resistant against it. This overwhelming influence of artifacts on reality has been discussed by critics like Baudrillard, but we can also think in different way in terms of knowledge. Although knowledge exists out there, still human has their own knowledge within themselves in their particular way, and this would not necessarily need material, or external medium outside from human subject. Characters who can remember without helps from the library depicted in drama Sherlock reminds me of such counter example of Borges’ human in the library.

The Aura and Mechanical Reproduction

It feels great to be positive about a reading again. I rather like and agree with most of Benjamin's assertions about mechanical reproductions of art and the inability to capture the original piece's sense of uniqueness and singular existence in time and space. There is a vast difference between looking at a copy of transition, for example, in PDF form and acutally holding the real thing during our photography sessions for the MJP. This poses some interesting questions regarding the notion of digital archiving of not just literary works, but all forms of art. Are we actually preserving the art, or just creating a simulacrum of it that lacks what inherently makes art itself special? I don't think Benjamin is necessarily saying that the loss of the aura is a bad thing, but one cannot deny he has a point.

Benjamin also initially uses film as an launching point for the conversation. However, in the case of film in particular, I wonder if there isn't a chance for the aura to still exist. In an episode of a podcast called Lore Reasons, Waypoint's Editor-in-Chief Austin Walker posits the idea that public exhibition of film, despite all films being theatrically screened are reproductions of an original reel (which itself was editied together making it a reproduction as well), potentially creates the sense of uniqueness and place that Benjamin attributes to the aura. I wonder how valid this assertion is, and if we can see any avenue for this sort of preservation with literary works (most of which are reproductions themselves, if mass produced).

Reproduction and Ritual

"The Library of Babel" is probably one of the most unique reading experiences that I've had - I feel like a need to read through it a couple more times and sit on it a bit before I can start unpacking it. Regarding the Walter Benjamin piece, I quite enjoyed his discussion regarding the relationship between 'aura' and ritual. Yet, for me, it's a bit difficult to think about 'aura' and authenticity in regards to literature, film, and video games, mediums to which I have only been exposed in the conext of contemporary mass production. Although first editions, director's cuts, and factory sealed video game cartridges can fetch a pretty penny (an unopened rare copy of Super Mario Bros for the NES sold at an auction this year for over $100,000), it would seem odd nowadays to judge a work of literature based on the copy you own - we even have an idiom that speaks to this point. Is this an indication, more than 80 years after Walter Benjamin's piece, of a larger societal disregard of ritual? Or, rather, should we look at 'aura' regarding literature more in terms of the physical vs. the digital? Is the 'aura' of art based in the ritual of "owning" a copy of a book, a film, or a video game? Can one even experience the 'aura' of a piece of art that was designed specifically for mass production? 

Araby Map

This is a basic guesstimate of the track our protagonist in "Araby" would have taken in order to get to the bazaar. This exercise really helped me understand just how hard mapping stories from a decent amount of time in the past is. This is probably easier than most stories from the early 1900's, since there are a few street/place names that remain the same. But what of stories from the mid-1800's, where names can't be assured?


Franco Moretti Map

Franco Moretti’s writing on map allows us to understand literary works in terms of visual aspect, and this seems to make us to rethink about the narrative and structure of the literary works in a different way. He explains that the structure of Mary Mitford’s Our Village shows circular pattern of the narrative by making connections between components of the work and geographic places. Moretti asserts that this visualization can be possible only through examining the components of literary works through mapping and the ‘mentalite’ of literature can be found from the examination of activities in the literary work. For this reason, he says that the ideology of literature can be found in the map of the works. He also explains that reducing text into a map does not just mean that it makes the text as a part of the map. Rather, by doing this, he says that we can find some relations within components and this can extend the concept of geography to geometry. He gives an example of Atlas of European Novel and examines how the characters in the novel are situated in different places and how the relationship can be found from this geographic analysis and he says that this relation can be analyzed in a geometric way. He also adds that such literary interpretation of using map not only shows us meaning extensively, but also the intrinsic characteristic of the components. His analysis of literature in terms of geographic analysis seems convincing as it deals with the structure of literature in a more dynamic and refreshing way. If we read literature only with close reading, we would not be able to conceptualize such way of examining plot structure. Because of that, such way of reading would be necessary for future studies.