Tradition Toppled, Cannibalized – The Triumph of Mass Media

Posted: April 18, 2019 in Uncategorized

STUDENT: Walter Benjamin talks about how the substructure changes faster than the superstructure and the fact that it is only now that we are able to discern what form it has taken. Is he referring to an overall change in society due to the modern era of limitless reproduction?

Also, Benjamin distinguishes between exhibition value and ritual value. He says a piece of art always has an aura which is never independent from its ritual function, and that every piece is “embedded in a fabric of tradition.” He then goes on to say that with the rise of mechanical reproduction art has shifted to being based on a practice of politics. Is this change in art’s principle motivation the exhibition value he mentions, or am I missing something?

TEACHER: By substructure and superstructure, Benjamin means technological conditions and the form of consciousness these conditions bring into being. His argument, derived from Hegel and Marx, is that there is NO SUCH THING AS HUMAN NATURE OR HUMAN CONSCIOUSNESS, PER SE. Rather, different forms of human consciousness are brought into being by technological conditions. Recall Brecht’s assertion, in The Epic Theater, that ‘human nature’ is alterable and a discontinuous ‘process’. If this is true, it’s not possible to understand a social formation, to become conscious of it, until after it has developed. We can’t theorize the age of mechanical reproduction until after is has already shaped the very consciousness with which we will attempt to understand it.

One more word about giving instruction as to what the world ought to be. Philosophy in any case always comes on the scene too late to give it… When philosophy paints its gray in gray, then has a shape of life grown old. By philosophy’s gray in gray it cannot be rejuvenated but only understood. The owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk.

–G.W.F. Hegel

By implication, we can’t make very many predictions about the future – which is why Benjamin writes in terms of tentative theses – and must rather reflect upon history, rethinking and rewriting it in terms of new insights. The example I gave of this in class the other day was that of the heroic creator Rodin, whom Krauss teaches us to rethink and reevaluate from the perspective of Andy Warhol, the avowedly mechanical artist. It’s only from the position of Warhol that we are able to look back at Rodin, the authentic and original artists who sculpted ‘with the hand of God’, and see just how deeply immersed he was in the market, repetition and modes of mechanical reproduction.

To our astonishment, Rodin, viewed in retrospect from this new ground, suddenly appears no longer the genius artist we knew and loved but now the impresario of Kitsch. Thus, a ‘Great Man’ has been rendered historical and a great myth, that of the ‘originality of the avant-garde’, has been debunked. We are freed from the romantic ideology of “heroism and hero-worship”.

Barbara Kreuger
I Shop Therefore I Am (1987)

Ritual value is the magical power objects have over individuals. Recall, in Ivan Illich‘s Vineyard of The Text, the power that reading the Bible had before the rise of the printing press. Bible were rare and precious, and the reading of them had a cult value. It was a sacred event. After the printing press, everybody can have their own Bible and reading it whenever they want in the privacy of their own home. If an object has ritual value then it actually has authority over us, whereas if an object has exhibition value we have authority over it. If you want to see the Sistine Chapel, today, you don’t make a pilgrimage to Rome. Instead, you click this link. Cultural artifacts are available ‘on demand’.

Benjamin’s argument addresses the transition from cult value (in which the work of art is “embedded in a fabric of tradition”) to exhibition value (within modern Capitalism, under which history is nothing more than a bargain basements of styles from which the consumer picks and ‘samples’). This transition marks a seismic shift in human ‘nature’ and consciousness. Further, this shift in the cultural superstructure reflects a prior shift in the material substructure, one ripe with political implications. Benjamin ends his essay with the clarion call that contemporary critical thought must concentrate not on ‘aestheticizing politics’ (recall the films of Leni Reifenstahl, which occasioned Benjamin’s essay).

Rather, critical thought today should be directed toward ‘politicizing aesthetics’.

By extension, Benjamin’s essay argues that we must critical interrogate the entire optical realm we inhabit, the ‘architecture’ of manufactured images that surrounds us so completely that we now take this ‘world’ entirely for granted and consider it to be natural, normal and inevitable – if we bother to consider it at all.

The implications of all of the above for today’s university are tremendous. This should give you plenty to consider for your final. Good luck as you prepare it!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s