ENGL 300: Introduction to Theory of Literature

Lecture 17

 - The Frankfurt School of Critical Theory


This first lecture on social theories of art and artistic production examines the Frankfurt School. The theoretical writings of Theodor Adorno and Walter Benjamin are explored in historical and political contexts, including Marxism, socialist realism, and late capitalism. The concept of mechanical reproduction, specifically the relationship between labor and art, is explained at some length. Adorno’s opposition to this argument, and his own position, are explained. The lecture concludes with a discussion of Benjamin’s perspective on the use of distraction and shock in the process of aesthetic revelation.

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Introduction to Theory of Literature

ENGL 300 - Lecture 17 - The Frankfurt School of Critical Theory

Chapter 1. Marx, Engels, and Ideology [00:00:00]

Professor Paul Fry: As we get into social perspectives on literature and art, you may ask yourself out of idle curiosity, or perhaps even peevishly, “Why Marx? Why so much Marx? Why is it Marx who seems to stand behind the idea that the social criticism of art is the best and most relevant way to approach this subject matter?” Well, it’s because whatever the outcome of Marxist thought may have proven to be historically, it’s nevertheless the case to this day that the most devastating critique of existing ideas about things, of states of affairs that, as it were, meander along without too much self-consciousness, remains the Marxist one, together perhaps with the Freudian one. When we turn to Jameson next time, we’ll see that in both cases–and we’ll be working a little bit with this today, too, when we turn to Benjamin–we’ll see that in both cases it has to do with the way in which we are brought up short by the kind of criticism which argues that somehow standing behind our conception of reality and our understanding of our place in the world, there is one form or another of the “unconscious.” We have, arguably, in this course in literary theory first taken up notions of a linguistic unconscious, or in any case linguistic preconditioning, then taken up notions of a psychoanalytic unconscious; and now, in the very title of Jameson’s book from which we’ll be considering an excerpt in the next lecture, we have the notion of the political unconscious.

There are other ways of effecting a social criticism of literature and art. From the right, there is an extraordinary book by Leo Strauss on Aristophanes, together with his great readings of the traditional texts of political philosophy. There is, of course, a very strong liberal tradition of criticism, particularly in the public sphere, in the journalism of the public sphere. Perhaps the most notable proponent of a liberal criticism of art undertaken from a social point of view is the work collected in Lionel Trilling’s The Literal-The Liberal Imagination. So there are options, but by far the most pervasive mode of social critique in literary theory and in the modern history of thinking about literature remains the Marxist one. As much as we can be in working through these materials, our concern is of course primarily with Marxist aesthetics. What are the options for a Marxist critic in aesthetic terms? That’s, of course, what we’re going to be taking up in a moment and also when we turn to Fredric Jameson on Thursday.

In the meantime, what about Marx? I think I can take it for granted in a course of this kind that most of you have some familiarity with the history of ideas and with Western culture. I think I can take it for granted that most of you have some notion, just as you have some notion about Freud, of what Marx is all about. Of particular importance for the kinds of criticism we undertake to read in this moment of the course is, of course, the idea of ideology.

Now ideology in the writings of both Marx and Engels, and in all the complex history of the writings that have succeeded them–they were “founders of discursivity” and there has been great debate within the Marxist tradition!–“ideology” is a term about which there has never been wholehearted agreement. Primarily, the disagreement concerning ideology in this tradition has to do with whether or not ideology ought properly to be ascribed to conscious as well as to unconscious preconceptions about the world. In other words, if I know really to the core perfectly well that the moon is made of green cheese–I can prove it, I have no doubt about it, and it’s not something that I’m unaware that I think–but if at the same time, if my opinion, my belief, my expression of fact to the effect that the moon is made of green cheese, can be demystified as ideology, the question is: well, is it still ideology if I’m quite conscious [laughs] of knowing that the moon is made of green cheese and prepared to defend my position?–just as a kind of belated aristocrat, prepared to defend the idea that hierarchy and privilege is appropriate in society, is perfectly conscious that this is an unpopular idea but nevertheless fully committed to it and prepared to defend it?

The question sometimes in Marxism is, “Is this still ideology?” Particularly in the writings of Engels, perhaps more than in the writings of Marx, the answer by and large is, “It is.” Ideology is essentially the belief that perspective is truth. That is to say, that the way in which things appear from the material and economically grounded standpoint of my own consciousness is not just the way they appear to me, but the way they actually are. Now this is a mode of belief which in various historical periods, according to Marx, has characterized each dominant class in turn. With the rise of capitalism, the evolution of capitalism into what’s called late capitalism, of course this ideology is primarily what’s called “the bourgeois ideology.” In other words, the idea that the various premises on which bourgeois, middle class, existence is based–the premises that have allowed for the rise and appropriation of power of the middle class; the idea, for example, of the work ethic; the idea of family; the idea of certain forms of moral behavior–all of this is “ideological” insofar as it is supposed to be valid and equally the case for all in all circumstances at all historical times: in other words, the belief that what I see the world to be is just universally the way the world is. That is the general characterization of ideology.

Now we’ve seen this, of course. We began the course with the quotation from Marx, from Marx’s Kapital, on commodity fetishism. We’ve seen this in the way in which it is just spontaneously supposed reflexively, without reflection, that the labor properties of something that’s produced–that is to say the value that can accrue to it because of the amount of labor that’s gone into it–is actually something that inheres in the product itself of labor. This, of course, applies as well to art, and it’s something that Benjamin is fully aware of alluding to when he talks about “the aura.” If I forget that art isproduced–that a certain quantum of labor, in other words, has gone into the emergence of the work of art–and if I simply, in rapt contemplative attention, address myself to the work of art itself as though it had objective value apart from having been produced, in a mode of production, then what I’m doing is “commodifying” the work of art. From Benjamin’s point of view, in other words, to be seduced by the aura of the work of art is, in a certain sense, to experience the work of art ideologically as a commodity.

Chapter 2. The Aesthetics of Marxist Criticism [00:09:46]

All right. Now returning then to the whole question of the aesthetic objectives of Marxist criticism, there are basically four options. In other words, Marxist criticism has not consistently agreed–particularly in its more sophisticated versions–about what the aesthetic of art ought actually to be. In other words, how should art reflect society? How should it constitute a critique of society? How should it predict an ideal, emergent, utopian society? All of these questions are questions of aesthetics, because the way in which art does express the social is necessarily aesthetic. It’s done through form. It’s done through genre. It’s done as a matter of style. It’s done ultimately, as the Marxists would say, in this or that mode of production. All of these mediations of what you might call the expression of society, then, are understood as the aesthetic in Marxist thought and need to be understood in terms of possible options.

The aesthetic of Marx and Engels themselves was realist, but it was a kind of realism that was really rather sophisticated. When aspiring writers, already with the idea that they ought to be writing for the advancement of the proletariat, would write Engels–I’m thinking of Ferdinand Lassalle, Mina Kautsky, other people–would send Engels manuscripts of their sort of “socialist realist” novels, Engels hated them. He [laughs] just couldn’t stand that kind of literature, and he said in effect, No, no, no, no. You don’t have to glorify the proletariat. You don’t have to project a future in this way. What you want to do is see, in a way that exposes it, the social dynamic as it exists. What you want to do is understand the world realistically but not tendentiously–that is to say, not from an open point of view. Engels’ literary hero was Balzac, who was a royalist reactionary but who nevertheless, in Engels’ view, was so brilliant in evoking society in all of its manifold complexities, particularly in the complexity of its class structure, that this was the appropriate model for people hoping to engage in the business of realist writing.

Now this was a mode of thought that prevailed largely in Marxism through its early energetic years, including the early energetic years of the Revolution itself. In 1927, the literary philosopher Georg Lukacs, L-u-k-a-c-s, who had been a kind of Hegelian theorist of literature–he’d written a very brilliant book called The Theory of the Novel before he turned to Marxist thought–in 1927 still, and notice that this is the same year in which Eichenbaum is writing his “Theory of the Formal Method” and the same year in which Benjamin visits Moscow–in other words, a period of real continued social and intellectual ferment within the framework of Marxist government–in 1927 he wrote a book called The Historical Novel. This book reads as though it were taken from Engels’ letters. It’s partly an attack on what Lukacs took to be the sort of narcissistic inwardness of High Modernism, particularly Joyce and Proust. It’s a tendentious attack and certainly subject to criticism on all sorts of grounds. It’s partly that, but it’s also argued just in the way that Engels championed Balzac in his letters. It’s a book that champions the novels of Sir Walter Scott. Scott, too, was a political reactionary, a Tory, but one whose great dialectical balances in his novels between highland and lowland, feudal and mercantile, Scotland and England–whose balances of an old social order with an emerging social order Lukacs took to be perfect exemplifications of what realism, of seeing class relations as they really are, can do.

So this is the tradition of realist aesthetics in Marxist criticism, but then as–really dating from 1927, precisely with the rise of Stalin–things began to change, at least in the Soviet sphere, the original ideas of all these people who used to write to Engels–Mina Kautsky, Ferdinand Lassalle, writers of that kind–began to prevail in Soviet thought. There was a literary critic named Zhnadov who articulated a doctrine of socialist realism. Even Marxist critics themselves in those days devised a sort of joke about the sort of novel that Zhnadov had in mind. You probably know the joke: Boy meets tractor, boy loses tractor, boy goes to the city to find tractor, finds tractor, continues to be in love, takes tractor back to the countryside and lives happily ever after. This fundamental plot, obviously a variant on the marriage plot that very much engaged also in what [laughs] Benjamin would call “the mechanical aspect of reproduction”– [laughter] [laughs] this sort of plot as the characteristic plot of socialist realism began to take hold officially, so that in 1934 the Soviet culture minister, Bukharin, convened an International Soviet Writers Conference in which it was simply decreed from on high that henceforth literary practice would consist in the promotion, of an exemplification of, socialist realism. This continued really right up until the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989, since until then there really was a form of censorship abroad in Soviet and Soviet sphere societies to the effect that literature was subject to challenge, possibly to suppression, if it didn’t adhere to socialist realist tenets.

So those are the forms of realism that I think are most often identified with Marxist criticism and its possibilities; but as a matter of fact, probably the most dynamic criticism since Lukacs of the twentieth century has recognized that realism is something that, after all, from a Marxist perspective can easily be shown to have been commandeered by the bourgeoisie. Who else “tells it like it is”? Who else insists that reality is just one drink below par? Who else insists that he or she is a realist?–other than the characteristic sort of middle class person who tells you that they’ve been there, done that and know everything that there is to know? The middle class in other words, from the standpoint of much Marxist thought since Lukacs, has commandeered for itself–just as it commandeers everything else for itself–has commandeered for itself the idea of realism which has therefore become, in these views, outmoded aesthetically.

Now Benjamin is himself acutely conscious of this problem, and he insists that realism in a variety of ways is a kind of late capitalist form of commodifying the aura. It is the last gasp of bourgeois art in a variety of ways, he says hopefully. It needs to be counteracted with what he takes to be a participatory aesthetic: an aesthetic of the fragment, an aesthetic of intermittent attention of participation, which does not, nevertheless, in any way involve a sense of persistently contemplating that which is real, but emphasizes rather the idea that one is oneself in a communal spirit engaged with the very mode of production of the work of art and somehow or another involved in that. That’s what we’ll come back to when we turn to Benjamin’s “Work of Art” essay.

Chapter 3. Adorno, the Work of Art, and Collectivity [00:19:58]

Perhaps the most unusual aesthetic move for a Marxist critic is the one that you will find in Adorno. Adorno was devoted to precisely what Lukacs had attacked in The Historical Novel, namely the High Modernist aesthetic. He admired Beckett in literature. He admired Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern in music. Adorno was by training a musicologist, and he devoted much of his writing career to producing essays and treatises on music and the history of music. These were heroes in Adorno’s pantheon, and of course, the question arises: how can these people who have nothing to say about society, who are totally preoccupied with form, and who seem to be indifferent to the whole course of history–how can these people be the aesthetic heroes of a Marxist critic? This is something you see much more clearly in the “Fetish Character” essay, from which I’ve given you the two excerpts which I hope you have. I want to pause over them because I think Adorno’s essay–while perhaps a little quixotic, because after all, who ever could profit from a concept of this kind?–Adorno’s essay is nevertheless rather brilliant in its distinction between the totality, or wholeness, that’s offered to you by artistic form and the mere totalization or totalitarianism that’s offered to you by modern hegemonic forms of government–whether truly totalitarian or insidiously totalitarian like, for example, the “culture industry” to which he devotes the essay that you’ve read.

So this is what Adorno says in these two passages. He’s talking about the way in which people in the culture industry who appreciate music are completely victimized by the coloratura local effect, what you might call–this is a conductor whom Adorno hated–the Toscanini effect: that flourishing of a particular moment in a concerto, the riding it into the ground at the expense of the whole, and everything that has what Adorno elsewhere calls “lip-smacking euphony”; in other words, a kind of cultivation of perfection of local sound, as opposed to an awareness of the total composition. So he says in the first passage:

The delight in the moment and the gay façade become an excuse for absolving the listener from the thought of the whole, whose claim is comprised in proper listening. The listener is converted along his line of least resistance [because after all, it’s so beautiful to listen to] into the acquiescent purchaser. No longer do the partial moments serve as a critique of the whole as they sometimes do in Modernism. [Dissonance, in other words, is in and of itself a critique of that overarching harmony with which we associate wholeness, right? So there’s a real sense in which the parts can be understood as a critique of the whole without challenging or breaking down the whole.] No longer do the partial moments serve as a critique of the whole. Instead they suspend the critique which the successful aesthetic totality exerts against the flawed one of society.

In other words, nothing can criticize the inauthenticity of the bad totalities of society except the authenticity of a genuine achieved wholeness in a work of art. The difference between these senses of the whole is precisely the zone of critique which in Adorno’s view might–just might–awaken the victim of the culture industry from the slumbers of happy conformism and acquiescence.

Now in the second passage, just to reinforce this:

Great Modernist composers like Berg, Schoenberg and Webern are called individualists by other Marxist critics [in other words, by people like Lukacs who don’t like what Lukacs would call “fetishization of form,” reification of form at the expense of social reference and expression], and yet their work is nothing but a single dialogue with the powers that destroy individuality, powers whose formless shadows fall gigantically on their music. In music, too, collective powers are liquidating an individuality past saving, but against them only individuals are capable of consciously representing the aims of collectivity.

Chapter 4. Bloch’s Principle of Hope [00:27:54]

In other words, the totality–the achieved, successful, authentic totality–of the work of art models the totality of a collective state in ways that none of the false totalities of current hegemonies can possibly do or even approximate. In other words, there is an implicit politics–in Adorno’s argument–in pure form. The achievement of pure form, which is after all a collection of parts, is an implicit politics modeling the achievement of a collective society.

So that is the argument of Adorno. It’s a fascinating one. As I say, it’s perhaps somewhat quixotic because it’s kind of hard to imagine anyone actually listening to Schoenberg and saying, “Gee. Maybe I should be a communist.” [laughter] [laughs] Actually putting this to work, in other words, entails a certain amount of difficulty, but at the same time, intellectually, it seems to me to be a fascinating turn of thought and one that certainly does give one pause, if only because Marxist criticism is so often engaged in a critique of what it takes to be the mainstream aesthetic of Western civilization, which is a kind of fetishization of wholeness. Think of the New Criticism, the unity of the poem, the discrete ontological object as a unified whole. This is, of course, commonplace in being attacked by Marxist criticism, and it’s very interesting to see a figure like Adorno, a champion of this very wholeness, who sees it as a model not of narcissistic individuality, but rather of collectivity.

All right. Finally–and I won’t pause much over this because it’s going to be the subject of Thursday’s lecture–the last aesthetic option for Marxism is a surprising one. It actually goes back to a book by Ernst Bloch called The Principle of Hope, in which Bloch essentially argues that in the world as we have it–in other words, the grinding down of hope, the grinding down of possibility for all in late capitalism–there is no longer any hope available. This is a kind of gloomy prognosis with which Bloch counters the idea that especially in folk art, folkways, oral culture and in popular culture–in other words, in the expressions of longing one finds in the work of the dispossessed and the oppressed–there is a kind of utopianism, a romance, and a sense not so much of wishing for something past, even though it seems to take the form of nostalgia, but rather a projection of a possibility on the future which is simply unavailable in the real world.

Of course, the best example I can think of is “The Big Rock Candy Mountain.” This is a song sung by people on chain gangs about liquor running down the sides of mountains in rivulets and everything just as it should be. “The Big Rock Candy Mountain,” in other words, is a perfect example of the “principle of hope” as Ernst Bloch understands it. This is something that’s picked up and taken very seriously by Fredric Jameson, not so much in the excerpt from The Political Unconscious that you’ll be reading for the lecture but in an earlier part of that introductory chapter in which he talks about the importance of romance replacing the bankrupt aesthetic of realism–the aesthetic of realism that has been appropriated by the bourgeoisie–and as expressing in a seemingly hopeless world the hopes of the oppressed and the dispossessed. So this too, the idea of romance, the idea of utopian evocation, is a last, viable aesthetic for a certain turn of Marxist thought which has been interesting and productive in the twentieth century.

All right. So today we take our numbers two and three, the participatory aesthetic of Benjamin and the Modernist totality of Adorno. We see the way in which they conflict with each other.

Chapter 5. Benjamin and Mechanical Reproduction [00:31:09]

Now in some ways I wish we were still reading the “Fetish Character” essay because it has more to do with aesthetics than the excerpt you have in your book by Adorno and Horkheimer called “The Culture Industry”; but “The Culture Industry,” too, is a response, as was the “Fetish Character in Music” which was published 1938, to Benjamin’s “Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Adorno was a close friend of Benjamin’s and exchanged letters about Benjamin’s “Work of Art” essay with him–letters, by the way, which were republished in The New Left Review of 1973, for those of you who are interested in looking at them, because this is another source of ways of seeing how Benjamin and Adorno were in conflict over this matter.

Adorno and Benjamin, as I say, were very close friends. Benjamin was only for a relatively brief period in the 1930s a Marxist critic. He had hitherto been much more interested in cabalistic literature and in the Hegelian tradition of philosophy, and even in the 1930s he was famously torn between two possibilities. He had visited Moscow in 1926, ‘27. He had become interested in what was still, after all, as I’ve said, a vibrant culture in the Soviet world. At the same time, he had become very close friends with the Marxist playwright Bertolt Brecht and had fallen also very much under his influence. But another very close friend, a friend equally influential, was the Jewish theologian Gershom Scholem, who had emigrated to Jerusalem, who was a Zionist, and who wanted Benjamin to join him studying the Torah in Jerusalem and to engage himself in that community, as opposed to the sort of international Marxist community toward which Benjamin was perhaps more leaning, especially owing to his friendship with Brecht.

So even in the 1930s, even in the period when Benjamin wrote his “Work of Art” essay and also a shorter, even more tendentious essay called “The Author as Producer,” 1936, an essay in which he actually takes up at length something he mentions in passing in “The Work of Art” essay–that is to say, the way in which in Russia everybody is judged not just for being able to do a job but for being able to talk about doing a job, to be able to write it up, to describe it, to write a brochure about it, to write a letter to the paper about it, and in other words to participate, to be engaged not just in the labor force but also in reflections on the labor force in a way that really does mean that everyone can be an author and also that every author is a producer–that is to say, engaged in writing, which is part and parcel of the productions of labor, all of this was a focus of Benjamin’s–at the same time, even within this focus, part of him is being torn in another direction. No one can for a minute, in reading the “Work of Art” essay, fail to notice that Benjamin evinces tremendous nostalgia for the “aura.” It’s not an easy thing for Benjamin to say we have to tear down the aura and replace it with a kind of participatory mode that engages with and is involved in mechanical reproduction.

I don’t know: when I was a student I worked on and off–I did this for years–in an art supply and picture framing store on the Berkeley campus, and of course, every student needed a picture to put in his room; so we had huge stacks of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers and Matisse’s Dancers and certain other paintings, all of them eighteen-by-twenty-four, which we called “brushstroke prints.” They were mounted on cardboard, and a huge–whhhhoooom!–cookie-cutter of some kind would come down on top of them, actually laminating into the print the appearance of brushstrokes. These things, if you squinted at the beginning of a semester you saw the stack going down like this. [Gestures.] Then before you knew it, the stacks were gone, and so you knew for a fact, because you knew how many prints were in that stack, that 240 students’ rooms were festooned with Van Gogh’s Sunflowers and [laughter] [laughs] Matisse’s Dancers. You said to yourself, This is the fruit of mechanical reproduction? You asked yourself, again, Just what is the value of this as an aesthetic? Yeah, it takes it out of the museum. Yeah, it means that nobody has to pay fifty bucks in order to wait in a long line in order to get a peep at the Mona Lisa. Yeah, it really does bring it home to the people, but how and in what way and at the expense of what genuine knowledge of art history, and even of Van Gogh and Matisse, does the fetishization–because it is, after all, [laughs] fetishization–of these little mechanically reproduced brushstroke prints amount to?

Obviously, this introduces complications, and they’re complications–the whole point of my anecdote–they’re complications of which Benjamin is far from being unaware. He knows extremely well that, after all, the greatest threat to an aesthetic of the kind he propounds is that it can be commandeered by capital. Of course, I’m getting ahead of myself, because that’s precisely what Adorno says in opposition to him, but in the meantime that was the situation of Benjamin in the 1930s.

Chapter 6. Adorno and Conformism [00:37:54]

Adorno, in the meantime, had gone to the United States. Benjamin was living in Paris ever since 1933. Adorno had gone to the United States, which he hated. The gloom of Adorno’s view of the world is not so much the result of his experience of the weak forms of democracy in the Weimar Republic, sort of ominous as those experiences were; not even perhaps so much the rise of Nazism, because like Benjamin he was able to flee that. The gloom that he felt and the gloom that pervades his writing, which after all starts in the mid 1940s, is the result of his exposure to American culture.

He simply could not stand us or our culture. He couldn’t stand “jazz.” Remember this was not yet the age of bebop, and I’ve always felt that maybe if Adorno had hung around a little longer he could have been reconciled. It was no longer the jazz of the aptly named conductor Paul Whiteman. It was jazz that was somewhat more serious. He couldn’t stand the movies. I have just been, for purposes I won’t go into, watching a film called “Broadway Melody of 1940” with Fred Astaire and Eleanor Powell tap dancing. Fred Astaire and his sidekick, George Murphy, are grabbed out of obscurity in order to be the leading gentlemen of Eleanor Powell. It’s a perfect sort of Samuel Smiles success story, replete with the necessity of occasional self-sacrifice on the part of both of them. It is made for the wrath of Adorno, this film. [laughter] [laughs] It’s nevertheless, in ways that Adorno could not possibly ever come to feel, quite charming.

But Adorno wanted no part of American culture. He was in anticipation of that whole trend of American sociology obsessed with the way in which American society is dominated by conformism. He takes this to be the effect, the result, of the pervasive, oppressive thumb of the culture industry, so that our very eccentricities, our very quirks and little originalities, all of them are assessed carefully by the culture industry. A niche is found for them, and the next thing you know, we’re suborned just like everybody else. There is for Adorno no sideways escape from the monolithic, ubiquitous surveillance and dominance of the culture industry.

Chapter 7. Benjamin, the Spectator, and Distraction [00:41:01]

All right. Now the “Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” is influenced obviously by the promise of Russian art before 1934: the films of Vertov in particular, and other ways in which it’s possible for Benjamin to say that the spectator really can be a participant. It’s possible for Benjamin to say that in such contexts it’s a good thing that the pedastaled aura of the work of art has been successfully torn down, that we no longer stand in rapturous attention and in contemplative postures before works of art but that we reach out to them and they reach out to us. We meet halfway and we become engaged with them; we become part of them.

Now how does this work in this essay? Primarily through the insertion of the labor function of the apparatus in the represented field. Now this is a complicated idea that Benjamin develops in various ways. What he means by this is that the spectator sees the object, sees whatever the field in question is, from the perspective of the mode of production–that is to say, the spectator participates by joining the process of production. Most obviously this means that when I watch a film, I see the film, necessarily of course, from the standpoint of the camera eye; my eye, in other words, joins that of the camera. Very interesting that in Berlin in the 1930s, Christopher Isherwood in his Berlin Stories wrote one story called “I Am a Camera” that took place in Berlin. I have often thought there’s some sort of symbiosis between the notion of “I Am a Camera” in Christopher Isherwood and the way in which it may be appropriated–or it may simply be a happy coincidence–in the work of Benjamin. But in a certain sense for Benjamin, the spectator, in order to be a participant, isthe camera, is in other words the camera’s eye.

What is the consequence of this? Well, the spectator is, in a certain sense, then, a critic. Benjamin keeps comparing the eye of the camera with a “test.” He even compares it with the vocational aptitude test. It’s as though what in the theater would count as an audition–I appear before the director, I recite certain lines of the script, and I’m either told to come back another day or I’m given the part–it’s as though to substitute what counts as an audition with the perpetual audition of the film actor before the camera, because after all, there is the camera recording what the film actor is doing–not this camera up here, by the way–but ordinarily, the camera has the option of later on throwing out what isn’t any good. [laughs] Would that they [gestures to film crew] could, but the film camera can edit. The film camera is part of an editing “process, so that the actor in front of the camera is perpetually being tested and auditioned in just the way that you might be tested or auditioned if you took a vocational aptitude test for a job.

That’s Benjamin’s point, and what he means to say is that if the spectator then takes the camera’s eye position the spectator, him- or herself then becomes a critic, like a sports fan. Benjamin doesn’t pretend for a moment that to become a critic of this kind is to be a good critic–not at all. Benjamin agrees with people who say, “Well, we go to the movies when we’re tired. All we want is to be entertained.” In fact, we are distracted. We are critics, as Benjamin argues, in a state of distraction. The German word is Zerstreutheit. We are zerstreut. We are perpetually, in other words, not quite paying attention even while at the same time we are seeing things from the camera-eye point of view. To see things from the camera– I’ll come back to distraction in a minute–from the camera-eye point of view is a position of privilege because it exposes, as Benjamin tells us again and again, things about reality that we wouldn’t otherwise notice. The camera is capable of slow motion, and it’s capable of angles of incidence that we couldn’t otherwise see. It’s capable of all kinds of effects.

Let me enumerate them. I think it’s on page 1235 at the top of the left-hand column: “…photographic reproduction, with the aid of certain processes, such as enlargement or slow motion, can capture images which escape natural vision.” Then on page 1245, he gives this process a name. He says, “The camera introduces us to unconscious optics just as does psychoanalysis to unconscious impulses.” In other words, the camera’s-eye point of view is a privileged perspective. It does show us things as they are or, perhaps if not as they are, at least it reminds us that things as we see them with the naked eye aren’t necessarily “as they are.” It’s not, perhaps, so much a notion of privileging what the camera sees as real over against what I see. It’s a question of the camera reminding us–demystifying our ideology, in short–reminding us that things as we see them aren’t necessarily the way things are. The camera, too, may have its bias. Slow motion is an obvious bias, speed-up is an obvious bias; but the speed at which we see things may be a bias, too.

It’s not that the psychoanalytic unconscious is telling the truth. Dreams are crazy, right? [laughs] That’s the whole point of dreams. It’s not that it’s reality over against a mystified world seen in consciousness. It’s a challenge to consciousness by the world evoked in the unconscious, not a question of what’s real and what isn’t real. Well, it’s the same with the camera’s-eye point of view, and it’s all of this which, in a certain sense, awakens the spectator from the complacency of supposing his or her own perspective to be the truth. At the same time, admittedly the spectator is distracted–rememberZerstreutheit.

Well, what then? The point is this: there is a kind of dialectic between distraction and shock which is crucial, Benjamin thinks, to a genuine aesthetic revelation. Perhaps the best analogy is with Saul on the road to Damascus. You know how the story goes: Saul is trotting along on his horse and not paying a lot of attention. He’s distracted, daydreaming, whatever, and whhoooop! All of a sudden he falls off his horse, right? That’s a shock, and it’s such a shock that he’s converted to Christianity, and he stands up and he brushes himself off and his name is Paul, right? He’s a completely different person as a result. This couldn’t have happened, in other words, if he hadn’t been distracted. Right? That’s Benjamin’s point. Distraction is the atmosphere or medium in which the shock of revelation can take place, and that’s the advantage of distraction.

He gives a wonderful example of the way in which we do receive works of art in distraction even if we’re the kind of person who does pay a lot of attention when they go to the movies. “Oh, that’s not me,” we say. Nevertheless, there is one way in which all of us receive works of art in a state of distraction, and that’s in our reception of architecture. We pass through architecture. I work in the British Art Center every day. I have long since ceased to pay any attention to the British Art Center as a building. I receive the British Art Center, in other words, in a state of distraction, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not part of my aesthetic experience. It does, however, show that the aesthetic and the ways in which we process the forms of the world can be assimilated in more than one kind of state of attention. It is in one’s bones, in a certain sense, to receive architecture; and yet at the same time, unless we are sort of tourists gaping in front of the Taj Mahal with a camera or something like that–and Benjamin does take that into account–unless we are in that particular mode, we receive the forms of our dwellings in a state of what you might call constructive distraction. All of that goes into Benjamin’s aesthetic of participation.

Now I am out of time. Perhaps I have said just about as much about Adorno as I need to say, although admittedly I haven’t said much about the “Culture Industry” essay. Maybe I’ll come back to that briefly before launching into Jameson on Thursday. On Tuesday of next week, we’ll be talking about the New Historicism. Then we’ll bring Tony back and we’ll go through all of these various perspectives that we will have been rehearsing to see what we can do with them when we read Tony.

[end of transcript]

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