The Work of Art in the Age of Electronic (Re)Production[Notice]

  • Douglass H. Thomson

…plus d’informations

  • Douglass H. Thomson
    Georgia Southern University

To the growing list of modern and postmodern critics seen as prognostic of hypertextuality and the paradigm shifts it entails , one should add the name of Walter Benjamin. His "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" not only uncannily anticipates many of the new theoretical formulations about art and discourse in the age of electronic reproduction and production; it also can mediate recent debates about the aesthetic and political character of the changes now taking place. Writing in 1936 and taking photography and the cinema as primary indications of a media revolution, Benjamin pinpoints the changes that will take place in traditional understandings of art as it enters the age of replication and mass commodification. His definitions of these changes (see below) provide a helpful context in which to place our contemporary revolution in media: the transition from print to electronic culture. But Benjamin's essay is valuable in another important way. Although one would expect Benjamin, as a socialist, to applaud the "proletarianization" of art, he actually expresses considerable nostalgia for the loss of art's "aura" as it becomes a medium for mass audiences. That crucial ambiguity in his essay echoes concerns raised today about the artistic and ethical value of electronic media, even as we continue to discover its great potential for education, scholarship, and communication of various kinds. After all, one finds even among the most ardent of e-enthusiasts in academia a degree of nostalgia for book culture. It is an interesting question to ask alongside celebration of what is undeniably gained through hypertextuality: is there some aura lost as we move to the electronic text? Or are we supplying an entirely new meaning for such a ritualistic and cultic term? Does the web have an aura of its own? One, of course, can only raise such questions. And the web will supply not an answer but many answers as it recasts the questions. But, with Benjamin's help, I want to turn in the fourth section of this document to address an exemplary instance where issues of art, aura, politics, and audience converge: the canon debate in literary studies. Perhaps it is best to begin with a table organizing Benjamin's main contentions in an easily intuitable form: And, even more so, "authenticity," "uniqueness," and "permanence": Benjamin sees this triad of privileged (and privileging) terms in the aesthetic tradition as radically displaced by the onset of mechanical reproduction. What was once authentic can now be replicated and placed in a variety of new contexts that alter meaning; what was once valued as unique loses its function as it becomes the common property and experience of many; what was once permanent and irreversible becomes transitory and reversible, even disposable. Nevertheless, the residual force (or "aura") of these terms continues to play its role in debates about the efficacy of the hypertext. One obvious example: when we cite a URL as part of a scholarly article, can we be sure it will still be there as a "permanent" reference point in the near and distant future? Another: how can we be sure our students draw material from "authentic" academic sites as opposed to their often wayward and idiosyncratic (but as technically sophisticated) clones? If web projects are increasingly viewed as collaborative efforts, what happens to the private, "unique" view of discourse that still forms the basis for evaluation in most academic systems? Should, say, a teacher of writing evaluate a team of page-builders based on the fluidity and malleability rather than upon the originality (not to mention correctness) of their written expression? Those are just some questions …

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