Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Benjamin and _Triumph of the Will_

I'd like to set off these quotes culled from my email inbox this morning (Wednesday) with thoughts around what I've taken to calling Benjamin's _Work of Art blah blah blah_

Quote from New York times article Dr. Grusin sent us: "Digital cameras have been ubiquitous in the modern combat zone, and it was digital pictures and videos that provided the first public evidence of the extreme degree to which military police soldiers had abused Iraqi detainees at Abu Ghraib prison."

From San Fransisco Chronicle: " As we all know by now, science is, to Bush, a vile and dirty word, a low-lying hunk of social detritus, something to be ignored and spat upon as much has possible unless it affects his poll numbers or upsets the base or makes him look dumb -- which is just about, you know, always. No matter that, as the (London) Guardian pointed out, it was just last year that 20 Nobel laureates from around the world warned that 'the scope and scale of the manipulation, suppression and misrepresentation of science by the Bush administration is unprecedented.' Pshaw."

From Rolling Stone : "The administration's aim is to roll back four decades of environmental progress -- to an era before the Endangered Species Act of 1973, the Clean Water Act of 1972, the Clean Air Act of 1970 and the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969. "These laws were all started under President Nixon," notes Sen. Lincoln Chafee, a Republican from Rhode Island. "The environment has always been something that Republicans have been proud of -- but this administration sees it differently." Others put it even more bluntly. "In the eyes of this administration," says Marty Hayden, legislative director of Earthjustice, the legal arm of the Sierra Club, "Ronald Reagan was an environmental extremist."

"[M]ost of Bush's efforts to gut the nation's environmental protections are so incremental, they go unnoticed by the public -- even when they have far-reaching consequences. In August, the Forest Service quietly adjusted the numbers it uses to weigh the benefits of logging vs. tourism, slashing the "recreational value" of the forests by $100 billion. The EPA went a step further: Under its old cost-benefit formula, the agency valued each human life saved from toxic pollution at $6.1 million. But thanks to a new rule, the cost of polluting people to death has plummeted: Under Bush, your life has officially been devalued by $2.4 million."

So what do all these quotes have to do with Benjamin's seminal essay? By assembling them here, in a somewhat montage-like or paratactic structure I want to highlight Benjamin's sense of cinematic assemblage in what has now become for many of us our everyday relationship to technology and the ways in which it filters our information about the world. That is, on a formal level, what Benjamin took to be the possibilities of cinema, which is seen as "progressive" and emancipatory precisely due to its perceptual change and thus potential for collective (and affective or unconscious) response, has been individualized in our own (postmodern) times. But I'm not trying to say that PC's have reintroduced the aura through the mass distribution of technology, that is through its privatization. That may well be an argument, but it's one I'm not sure that a) I can make, b) is correct and/or c) is all that newsworthy. Rather, I'm interested here in just trying to preliminarily suss out how Benjamin's essay can be profitably historicized so that we mght see how to apply its analyis to its present moments to our own reactionary political predicament. This may be stretching it a bit, but I'd like to start or approach a de-mythologization of Benjamin through this attempt.

First, I want to question how Benjamin's reaction to fascist representational imagery works as a critique of that foorm of political representation through a redistribution and reappropriation of its ideological collective response. I think this can be localized and historicized in and through the cinematic presentation of nazi ideology that while admittedly never explicitly discussed in Benjamin's essay nevertheless, I would argue, acts something like a ghostly presence and absent set of images, namely Leni Reifenstahl's 1934 film *Triumph of the Will.* One small example of a kind of resonance will have to suffice although I think there are many.

In Benjamin's discussion of the cult of the film star and the manipulation of the masses (p 114) as a function of capitalist ideology and the resulting subversion and redirection of film's potential (as exemplified, according to Benjamin in Russian cinema) , a direct link too "fascism in general" as that " compelling urge toward new social opportunities is being clandestinely exploited in the interests of a property owning minority" (115). Thus, when Benjamin critiques this "property owning minoiry which controls "film capital" the applied but absent metaphor is the "triumph of the will" which is then revealed or de-mythologized, made to seem collective. Benjamin goes on to state that "[f]or this reason alone, the expropriation of film capital is an urgent demand for the proletariat." (115) In other words a false collective, a mythologizing and ritualizing collective response in the service of and manipulated by a few (the aesthetization of politics) must be overturned by the demythologizing fragmentation of the image and the new modes of perception introduced by the perceptual (receptive) possibilites of montage. Whew! Ok, in plainer speak, what I think is being grappled with here is Benjamin's experience of a totalizing mythic cinema like Riefenstahls. It's highly organic seeming, static, eternal and yet pleasurable and desirable dimensions are retrograde, and this is being opposed to the fragmentation of the image in surrealist and constructivist techniques because these techniques destroy the aura and return us to or push us towards an awareness of our present historical moment, to the factual realities of ephemerality and the progressive posibilities of collectively experiencing modernity's everyday dimensions. (The influence of Buadelaire is of course what comes to mind here).

In the very beginning of the essay, which begins with Marx's concept of the exploitation of the proletariat as a necessary condition of their emancipation, it is the dialectical, i.e. historical "present conditions of production" as they are developed in art that contribute to the neutralization of the aura. The aura of the present day is the sham creation of traditional concepts "such as creativity, genius, eternal value and mystery." As a German Jew fleeing the Nazis, Benjamin's answer is interestingly both modern and traditional: the cinema's technical ability to fragment the image, an iconoclastic breaking of the representational, visual coherence, both creates and exists within a new historical moment and a secularized renewal of the Jewish aversion to the representational .

It would take more than I have to give at the moment to connect all this to the quotes I strung together above... But since they were the initial impetus to my post I'll leave them as an opening for another day... or potential discussion.

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