WALTER BENJAMIN QUESTIONS FOR ENGLISH 492 THEORY, CSU FULLERTON
WALTER BENJAMIN, "THE WORK OF ART IN THE AGE OF ITS TECHNOLOGICAL REPRODUCIBILITY"
Assigned: Walter Benjamin. "The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility" (1051-71). Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 2nd edition.
"The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility"
1. On 1053-54 of "The Work of Art . . ." (Section II), how, according to Benjamin, does technological reproducibility destroy the "aura" of a work of art? Further, how does the author explain what he means by the term "aura"?
2. On 1055-56 of "The Work of Art . . ." (Section III), how does Benjamin lead up to and validate his claim that ordinary people ("the masses") have in fact embraced the destruction of the auratic quality of works of art?
3. On 1056-58 of "The Work of Art . . ." (Sections IV-V), why is Benjamin opposed to "l'art pour l'art" (art for art's sake) or aestheticism -- what relationship between producer, receiver, and art object does that doctrine maintain? Further, what does Benjamin specify as the differences between art created for its cult value and art created or produced for its exhibition value?
4. On 1058-59 of "The Work of Art . . ." (Sections VI-VII), Benjamin describes a sort of reactionary resistance to the camera's potential to revolutionize people's sensibilities. How does he analyze the role of "the human countenance" in this resistance? Then in Section VII, what significance does he find in the nineteenth-century critical argument about the "relative artistic merit of painting and photography" (1058)?
5. On 1059-63 of "The Work of Art . . ." (Sections VIII-X), Benjamin begins by addressing what the camera does to the actor of a film role. What happens to the real person's "stage presence" (an auratic quality if a dramatic actor is in front of a live audience) once the camera captures the performance on film? Subsequently, how does he deal with the role of Hollywood and capitalism more generally in holding back what he considers the transformative potential of film?
6. On 1063 of "The Work of Art . . ." (Section VIII), Benjamin writes in a footnote that Aldous Huxley's complaint about the production of modern literary texts is "obviously not progressive." What view of the transmission of literary culture is Huxley upholding in his complaint, and why does Benjamin oppose it?
7. On 1063-66 of "The Work of Art . . ." (Sections XI-XIII), Benjamin begins by comparing how a painter and a movie cameraman, respectively, capture and process reality. Why does he see more potential in what the filmmaker does? As Benjamin moves forward with his analysis of film as a transformational medium, how does he explore the change that he says comes about with film both with regard to the objects captured (or represented) and the viewers' capacity to perceive and process them? Ultimately, how does film overcome the longstanding divide between art and science or technology?
8. On 1067-69 of "The Work of Art . . ." (Sections XIV-XV), Benjamin begins by discussing Dadaism's way of waging war on "contemplative immersion" (1067) as a precursor of film's modus operandi. How did Dadaism fight such immersion? As Benjamin's argument progresses, why is modern "distraction" better than older-style "concentration" when one is experiencing film or art more generally? How is it that the masses are able to experience art in a "distracted" yet satisfying and productive manner, a manner that is appropriate to the modern era?
9. On 1070-71 of "The Work of Art . . ." (Epilogue), in what way does fascism, according to Benjamin, transform politics into aesthetics? Why does this transformation lead inexorably to a society organized entirely around the preparation for and waging of war? How is it possible that human beings can experience war, a profoundly destructive act, as pleasurable and even beautiful?
10. General question that you might fold into a presentation or journal entry on one of the final questions above. What warning does Benjamin's analysis of fascism's success in exploiting film's potential hold for those who concern themselves with art? Do you think that Benjamin's claims about the progressive or even revolutionary power of the movie camera as a mode of "technological reproducibility" are convincing in light of such abusive treatment by reactionary movements? (In responding, you might consider how, in the 1930s particularly, Adolf Hitler and helpers like filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl and Reich Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels succeeded in crafting the Nazi Party and its war machine -- and to some extent even the German people -- into a kind of aesthetic object.)
Edition: Leitch, Vincent B. and William E. Cain. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism 2nd edition. Norton, 2010. ISBN-13: 978-0393932928.