Benjamin’s “Optical Unconscious”

Posted: April 8, 2019 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)

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