Archive for November, 2020

“The horrible features of imperialistic warfare are attributable to the discrepancy between the tremendous means of production and their inadequate utilization in the process of production – in other words, to unemployment and the lack of markets. Imperialistic war is a rebellion of technology which collects, in the form of “human material,” the claims to which society has denied its natural material. Instead of draining rivers, society directs a human stream into a bed of trenches; instead of dropping seeds from airplanes, it drops incendiary bombs over cities; and through gas warfare the aura is abolished in a new way.”

–Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in The Age of Its Mechanical Reproduction (1936)

Virtual Futures presents Anna Feigenbaum in conversation on her new book, Tear Gas: From the Battlefields of WWI to the Streets of Today.

Anna Feigenbaum shares the story of how a chemical weapon went from the battlefield to the streets. Originally designed to force people out from behind barricades and trenches, tear gas causes burning of the eyes and skin, tearing, and gagging. Chemical weapons are now banned from war zones. But today, tear gas has become the most commonly used form of “less-lethal” police force.

“In addition to looking at entanglement of colonialism and the history of capitalism we also have to look at the rise of Public Relations. And it’s not a coincidence in the 1920s during the Edward Bernays rise of Public Relations. The first marketing of tear gas is happening this kind of Bernays-style PR stunts.”

–Ana Feigenbaum

Final Readings of The Semester

Posted: November 28, 2020 in Readings

You guys, these are the final readings for this strange remote semester. There’s so much more I wanted to show to you. For better or worse, I drastically slowed our pace so as not to lose those persons who chose to keep up. I have so much admiration for everyone who put in a genuine effort.

Beatriz Colomina is one of the most intelligent and engaging persons with whom I have ever spoken. Her writing can be challenging, but she’s not deliberately obscure. These are materials that I hope will resonate with you. Colomina’s thoughts on a world composed of screens certainly resonate with me, especially at this moment. All these pieces draw from both the thoughts of both Benjamin and Nochlin, so please keep those authors in mind as you read.

Try to enjoy these, and best wishes to you all!

Beatriz Colomina
Princeton University
Architecture and Planning
Director of Graduate Studies

Split Wall: Domestic Voyeurism (1991)
(part 1 and part 2)

Domesticity at War (1991)

Enclosed by Images: The Eameses’
Multi-Media Architecture

Photographers and reporters gather near Frenchman Flat
to observe the Priscilla nuclear test, June 24, 1957

Richard Nixon and Nikita Khrushchev
American National Exhibition, Moscow, 1959

Walter Benjamin’s famous essay discusses the conditions and effects of cultural objects losing their ‘aura’ or sacred status. But is it possible for nature to undergo a similar process of devaluation through the ever increasing ease of access to it?

If anything is endangered in America it is our experience of wild nature—gross contact. There is knowledge only the wild can give us, knowledge specific to it, knowledge specific to the experience of it. These are its gifts to us.

How wild is wilderness and how wild are our experiences in it, asks Jack Turner in the pages of The Abstract Wild. His answer: not very wild. National parks and even so-called wilderness areas fall far short of offering the primal, mystic connection possible in wild places. And this is so, Turner avows, because any managed land, never mind what it’s called, ceases to be wild. Moreover, what little wildness we have left is fast being destroyed by the very systems designed to preserve it.

Natural resource managers, conservation biologists, environmental economists, park rangers, zoo directors, and environmental activists: Turner’s new book takes aim at these and all others who labor in the name of preservation. He argues for a new conservation ethic that focuses less on preserving things and more on preserving process and “leaving things be.” He takes off after zoos and wilderness tourism with a vengeance, and he cautions us to resist language that calls a tree “a resource” and wilderness “a management unit.”

Here’s a reply I wrote to one of your peers, who asked me a few excellent questions yesterday. Perhaps some of you will find my spontaneous thought on this extremely influential thinker to be interesting and helpful.


I’m super impressed that you chose to read this essay, even though it was not officially assigned, as was the case in semesters past. Your endeavor speaks very well of you. I admire your hard work and thoughtful remarks. They will certainly count positively toward your overall grade. In the short term, having read this essay will do much to prepare you to read Beatriz Colomina, who is our next author.

Benjamin’s essay can be a bit confusing. Even persons very experienced in these matters are not always in full agreement over Benjamin’s contentions. Im these matters, I often find myself disagreeing very powerfully with persons who are much smarter and better informed than I. So take my opinions for what they’re worth.

In any case, Benjamin, from the very beginning, announces that art, since the rise of the modern machine age, has undergone a number of changes. These are not incidental modifications, but they are radical transformations that cut right to the very heart of human experience. They reveal that we now live in a reality the likes of which earlier societies had no notion. Benjamin is clear in his belief that the first works of art had a religious and ritual function. Each work of art was utterly unique and existed only in a single place. Persons wanting to experience such works of art – which originally was for devotional purposes – had to go on a literal pilgrimage. Further, such works generally could be viewed only one person at a time. This is what Benjamin means by ‘aura’ (which derives from the Latin word for gold). The work of art was special, singular, valuable, irreplaceable. The Sistine Chapel ceiling didn’t come to you, but you had to travel to the Vatican to see it.

With the rise of mechanical reproduction – of which Benjamin gives a quick survey – the poles are reversed. As art can now easily be copied and distributed through mechanical means, it is now possible to have the Sistine Chapel ceiling, or Michaelangelo’s David, in your own home, and on demand. And all you have to do is pay a few dollars and flip a switch. The work of art, under these conditions, loses its singular qualities, its aura. Further, artworks no longer need to be viewed by isolated individuals, one at a time, but they can be viewed simultaneously by a mass of persons.

Nothing embodies the new conditions of production and consumption more completely than the latest form of art, cinema. Cinema is not just the newest form of art, but it is also the most complex and expensive form of art. Entire factories, with diversified teams of employees, come together in a coordinated effort to produce a movie. And the material resources upon which they draw to make a movie come from every corner of the globe. Indeed, the only other human creation whose production involves such an enormous coordinated effort is war. Already politics begins to enter into the picture.

In addition to mass production, films also involve mass consumption. As I said, we watch them not in isolation but rather as members of a large audience. What Benjamin suggests is that the process of movie making – which involves scripting, set and costume design, lighting, filming, editing, and a thousand other tasks, as the credits of at the end of any movie will indicate – not only assembles an artificial reality of a sort that could never be achieved on stage, but it also assembles a mass of viewers which could never be created through any other means. Filmmakers are not just making movies, but they are actually creating mass consciousness. This means not just that movies fill our heads with thoughts which would not occupy them otherwise, but they also create a kind of conscious, a massive ‘herd mentality’ through which an entire population can be made to think, feel, and act alike.

This group think is especially alarming to Benjamin, because he realizes that it can and will be used to political ends. Not only can films create the larger-than-life media image of political leaders, but they they can also create a mass of millions of persons willing to follow that leader to war. These are things Benjamin holds generally to be true. But in particular he has in mind major events occurring in his own day. Hitler had recently come to power in German, and a major contribution to Hitler’s rise were the political rallies regularly organized to display him and promote his ideas. These were popular and successful events, but they were nothing in comparison to what could be achieved through the power of cinema.

The year just prior to Benjamin’s essay saw the production and distribution of a major film by director Leni Riefenstahl, Triumph of The Will. For all her questionable motives, Riefenstahl was unquestionably brilliantly innovative and hugely ambitious young woman who used all the means made available to her to create a work of art the likes of which the world had never seen. Looking back at her work now, it is easy to be horrified. But it’s also hard not to be simultaneously impressed by the way Riefenstahl turned a bunch of loosely organized public speeches into Olympian events – she actually makes a remarkable documentary film of the Berlin Olympics – but also by the way she manages to turn a dumpy and homely little man with an odd mustache into the greatest movie star of the day. It was a tremendous feat that actually won Reifenstahl an award at Cannes for ‘best propaganda film of the year’ – though nobody would offer that type of award these days. Who knows what will be the case in the coming years.

Anyway, Benjamin is rightly alarmed by these happenings and writes his essay to reveal the awesome and dangerous power of film. But he also admits that because filmmaking is a highly technical process, one can learn, if not to make films for oneself, then at least to ‘read’ film so as not to be deceived and indoctrinated by it. Indeed, it’s possible, and Benjamin insists absolutely necessary, to make experimental films which resist indoctrinating the masses and actually educate people so that they can see that the world we take for reality is in fact the product of the media industry. There are numerous examples of such experimental, pedagogical cinema to which I might refer you, but the director whose work I hoped to show you in class was the Soviet filmmaker Ziga Vertov, whose Man With a Movie Camera expressly sets out to teach its audience how films are made, to reveal all the hidden labor behind the finished product.

This should explain Benjamin’s concluding remarks. Thinking of the intimate relationship between movies and war – something we still see today – Benjamin remarks that never before has it been possible for humanity to look at the destruction of the world, at the destruction of itself – from the perspective of the very gods – and perceive it to be the greatest show on earth. In the light of this possibility, it becomes imperative for Benjamin that we begin think of art always in political terms. As politics has become the dominant form of art, it now becomes urgently necessary to reverse the equation and expose the political motives underlying any art. The motives may be hidden, but Benjamin insists they are always there.

TV audience views atomic bomb test for first time – Las Vegas

In addition to launching an entire new academic discipling known as Media Studies, Benjamin’s work marks a decisive turn of art and criticism toward the political. It becomes the role of the critic now to point out the underlying political motives associated with all art, however hidden those motives may be. Most every art critic following Michael Fried will have read Benjamin and the greatest care, and taken his ideas very seriously. If Fried believes that art should be the last sanctuary which remains free of all personal interest and above all politics, any serious critic coming after Fried reject this utopian ideal and instead follow Benjamin’s recommendations, rejecting any notion of art as value-free and existing for its own sake. Everything we read for the rest of the semester will proceed along these lines.

Ok, that’s it for now. I just the just genuinely explanatory and interesting. Thanks so much, as always, for your participation!

This is our penultimate reading of the semester. It’s longish and fairly challenging, but hugely influential. You can do it!

Walter Benjamin
(1892 – 1940)
The Work of Art in The Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1936)

What Art Would Linda Nochlin Like?

Posted: November 14, 2020 in Uncategorized

I hope you can see that this art, though well wrought and highly interesting, hardly has the sublime and heroic (male) ambitions of the work we’ve seen from the like of Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Barnett Newman, or other New York School painters. Far more than the sublime or even the beautiful, it’s interested in the human. Paintings of humans, for humans, by a human. Geniuses need not apply.


Alice Neel
(1900 – 1984)




1978 NEEAL0004-200


Readings for March 3rd

Posted: November 14, 2020 in Readings

As most of you know, we are quickly running out of time, and the President of the U has opted to forego fall break and end the semester earlier.  This means we’ll have to continue to jettison important readings.  A number of you have made a real effort to keep the pace, while others of you have scarcely made an effort at all.  That’s your own business; just know that you’ll be graded accordingly.

Here is a set of three massively influential feminist statements, each of which is quite different from the other two.  I only expect you to read the second, by Linda Nochlin, though the other two are there for youy perusal.

Simone de Beauvoir
The Second Sex (1949)

Linda Nochlin
(b. 1931)
“Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” (1971)


Laura Mulvey
(b. 1941)
“Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” (1975)

Frantz Fanon engaged the fundamental issues of his day: language, affect, sexuality, gender, race and racism, religion, social formation, time, and many others. His impact was immediate upon arrival in Algeria, where in 1953 he was appointed to a position in psychiatry at Bilda-Joinville Hospital. His participation in the Algerian revolutionary struggle shifted his thinking from theorizations of blackness to a wider, more ambitious theory of colonialism, anti-colonial struggle, and visions for a postcolonial culture and society. Fanon published in academic journals and revolutionary newspapers, translating his radical vision of anti-colonial struggle and decolonization for a variety of audiences and geographies, whether as a young academic in Paris, a member of the Algeria National Liberation Front (FLN), Ambassador to Ghana for the Algerian provisional government, or revolutionary participant at conferences across Africa. Following a diagnosis and short battle with leukemia, Fanon was transported to Bethesda, Maryland (arranged by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency) for treatment and died at the National Institute for Health facility on December 6, 1961.

Gillo Pontecorvo
The Battle of Algiers (1966)


Prescient Tense

Re-creating the carnage of fifties Algeria — bombings, assassinations, police torture — The Battle of Algiers is as relevant today as it was in 1965.

By Peter Rainer
News York Magazine
January 12, 2004

The most electrifyingly timely movie playing in New York was made in 1965. Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers is famous, but for some time it’s been available only in washed-out prints with poorly translated, white-on-white subtitles. The newly translated and subtitled 35-millimeter print at Film Forum is presumably the version that was privately screened in August for military personnel by the Pentagon as a field guide to fighting terrorism. Former national-security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski volunteered this blurb: “If you want to understand what’s happening right now in Iraq, I recommend The Battle of Algiers.” I wonder if these politicos are aware that Pontecorvo’s epic was once used by the Black Panthers as a training film? In fact, not much in the current Iraq situation is historically comparable to the late-fifties Algerian struggle for independence dramatized in The Battle of Algiers, but its anatomy of terror remains unsurpassed—and, woefully, ever fresh.

(read more)

It’s hard to overestimate he significance of photography in the work (and life) of critic Susan Sontag, perhaps one of the 20th century’s most photographed women. (Sontag spent the final years of her life in a long-term relationship with noted celebrity photographer Annie Liebovitz, who documented her demise from cancer.) To elucidate this subject it might be valid to refer to the work of French art historian, novelist and statesman André Malraux – a figure whose ideas we’ll soon see critiqued in the comparatively recent writings of art historian Douglas Crimp.


André Malraux with his “Museum Without Walls,” 1950

One of Malraux’s very first texts, a 1922 preface to an exhibition catalog, already presents this notion of art as a vast semiotic system, a multiple chorus of meaning. In it Malraux had written: “We can feel only by comparison. He who knows Andromaque or Phedre will gain a better idea of the French genius by reading A Midsummer Night’s Dream than by reading all the other tragedies by Racine.

– Rosalind E. Krauss

In particular, one thinks of Malraux’s concept of the “Museum without Walls”. Taking the form of an enormous book, Voices of Silence, this museum was more properly to be understood as a strictly ideal space in which art works from multiple cultures and historical periods would be reduced to weightless and isolated photographic images, thus allowing for a free-association and comparison of a vast catalog of works in various media. Not that it makes strict sense, but my impression is that Wimsatt & Beardsley’s criticism is essentially an similar attempt to reduce all poems to pure data, disembodied word images.

Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre, Che Guevara

If you think about it, photography, which reduces all of life and culture to documents, presents itself as the most anonymous, intentionless and affectless medium – that medium which, even more than language was for Shelley, is no medium at all, and consequently the very best medium to function as the “universal” medium through which to convert a host of culturally specific works of art into to a large-scale display of “global” culture. Photography converts the work of art into a sign, and the sign, like the commodity in Marx, obeys the law of universal equivalency and exchangeability. Or so Jean Baudrillard taught in his For A Critique of The Political Economy of The Sign.


Reading For November 4th

Posted: November 4, 2020 in Readings

As the semester has bogged down due this mode of asynchronous, I’m finding myself forced to pick and choose which readings to retain and which to jettison. This piece by Fanon is a landmark statement in the history of post-colonial studies and critical race theory. I hope you will find it both interesting and relevant to our times. I certainly do.

Frantz Fanon
“The Wretched of The Earth”