Benjamin’s “Optical Unconscious”

Posted: April 15, 2018 in Uncategorized

By close-ups of the things around us, by focusing on hidden details of familiar objects, by exploring common place milieus under the ingenious guidance of the camera, the film, on the one hand, extends our comprehension of the necessities which rule our lives; on the other hand, it manages to assure us of an immense and unexpected field of action. Our taverns and our metropolitan streets, our offices and furnished rooms, our railroad stations and our factories appeared to have us locked up hopelessly. Then came the film and burst this prison-world asunder by the dynamite of the tenth of a second, so that now, in the midst of its far-flung ruins and debris, we calmly and adventurously go traveling. With the close-up, space expands; with slow motion, movement is extended. The enlargement of a snapshot does not simply render more precise what in any case was visible, though unclear: it reveals entirely new structural formations of the subject. So, too, slow motion not only presents familiar qualities of movement but reveals in them entirely unknown ones “which, far from looking like retarded rapid movements, give the effect of singularly gliding, floating, supernatural motions.” Evidently a different nature opens itself to the camera than opens to the naked eye – if only because an unconsciously penetrated space is substituted for a space consciously explored by man. Even if one has a general knowledge of the way people walk, one knows nothing of a person’s posture during the fractional second of a stride. The act of reaching for a lighter or a spoon is familiar routine, yet we hardly know what really goes on between hand and metal, not to mention how this fluctuates with our moods. Here the camera intervenes with the resources of its lowerings and liftings, its interruptions and isolations, it extensions and accelerations, its enlargements and reductions. The camera introduces us to unconscious optics as does psychoanalysis to unconscious impulses.

–Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1936)

The Optical Unconscious is a pointed protest against the official story of modernism and against the critical tradition that attempted to define modern art according to certain sacred commandments and self-fulfilling truths.
… Krauss gives us the story that Alfred Barr, Meyer Shapiro, and Clement Greenberg repressed, the story of a small, disparate group of artists who defied modernism’s most cherished self-descriptions, giving rise to an unruly, disruptive force that persistently haunted the field of modernism from the 1920s to the 1950s and continues to disrupt it today.

Umberto Boccioni
Unique Forms of Continuity in Space (1913)
  1. Joseph Blanton says:

    This is one of the coolest videos I’ve seen in a while. It makes it so apparent that 99.9% of our experience is within the bounds of how our brain and consciousness interpret reality. Just photons hitting optic nerves and interpreted by the thalamus. There is SO MUCH of space and time that we miss, so it’s nice to gain this new appreciation of film. I had never considered the implications of slow motion, close ups, or reversing the tape. Now I realize how much better the physics of reality could be examined once we got another way of seeing stuff besides our eyes.

    • I had wanted to discuss this topic in class today but never got around to it. What the camera, with its ability to zoom and slow and accelerate, reveals to us are all sort of realms of human experience which have not yet been invaded and colonized by the dominant culture and the market. Most of our consciousness is absorbed by the optical regime, and do we think that it provided us with an accurate picture of reality. But as was suggested, the only one aspects of the total human sensorium, and perceiving the world through other senses, or in terms of a different temporal or spatial scales can open whole new worlds to us.

    • Here’s a book I had meant to reference in class. Unfortunately, I went a a long tear about Jonathan Crary and lost sight of Martin Jay.

      Long considered “the noblest of the senses,” vision has increasingly come under critical scrutiny by a wide range of thinkers who question its dominance in Western culture. These critics of vision, especially prominent in twentieth-century France, have challenged its allegedly superior capacity to provide access to the world. They have also criticized its supposed complicity with political and social oppression through the promulgation of spectacle and surveillance.

  2. Ivan Lee says:

    What I find really interesting about this video is that I’ve worked in animation and digital art. Let me tell you, when you first start studying different positions and postures in a movement, it opens a whole new world for you to explore. I started looking at people more closely, noticing how much their body rose and fell as they walked to class or the small movements that people unconciously did when shifting in their seat. I looked closer at expressions on people’s faces and studied them so that I could apply them to my art later. There are so many cool aspects of movement and gestures that make people feel “alive” that go unnoticed and when you are able to replicate even one movement, it feels like you’ve discovered something completely new.

    • Benjamin’s thought is that these unexplored details open you realms of activity that have yet to be explored in the name of either freedom or oppression. Or problem, he seems to think, is that we have a tendency to view reality on an everyday human scale. Everything too large or too small gets neglected. And if this is true specially, it is even more to case temporally. We only see the world from within a human time friend. One of the artists most interested in creating art that refused to restrict itsrlf to the UK to familiar human timeframe is Robert Smithson, creator of the Spiral Jetty.

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