Media theory

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Benjamin (1936) - The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction[edit]


[18] B. does not treat ‘art’ and ‘technology’ as mutually exclusive domains - both have material characteristics, aesthetic properties, and ‘social significance’; [19] B. radically questions assumptions about ‘authentic’ art and politics; [19] the essay is more than a quaint example of early technological determinism or naive political idealism; [19] B. looks at the social and political implications of the impact of ‘mechanical reproduction’ on ‘the artistic processes’ in both the so-called high and low cultural realms; [20] age of mechanical reproduction heralds significant changes in how industrialised societies perceive, experience, and then reproduce the world around them; [20] new technical capabilities (to re-present and distribute images), and the ways they challenge received aesthetic and cultural wisdoms, have ‘revolutionary’ potential; [20] material attributes of film and photography challenge traditional artforms; [20] fifteen theses; [20] ‘the very invention of photography [and film has] transformed the entire nature of art’; [20] this transformation need not be a bad thing for it enables more egalitarian and empowering forms of cultural and artistic expression; [20] ‘in principle, a work of art has always been reproducible’; [21] photography’s popular success set a new standard in ‘pictorial reproduction’ that was achieved by the camera rather than by the artist’s hand; [21] technical (non-manual) reproducibility can put ‘the original in situations which would be out of reach for the original itself’; [21] ‘that which withers away in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art’; [21] What makes these new reproductive techniques socially significant is their ability to detach ‘the reproduced object from the domain of tradition. By making many reproductions it substitutes a plurality of copies for a single existence. And in permitting the reproduction to meet the beholder or listener in his [sic] own particular situation, it reactivates the thing reproduced.’; [22] ‘nature’ and ‘historical circumstances’ both constitute the means and ‘medium’ through which the world is perceived; [22] ‘increasing significance of the masses in contemporary life’ who want to get closer to things ‘spatially and humanly’ and so rejoice in having access ‘to an object at very close range by way of its likeness’; [22] there is nothing inherent in the ‘unique value of the “authentic” work of art’ beyond its basis ‘in the service of ritual’. The gatekeepers (secular and religious) of these rituals (cultural and political) to the ‘first truly revolutionary means of reproduction, photography’ in the preceding century tried to maintain their power over what is/is not ‘art’. B. argues that such reactions simply underscore how ‘for the first time in world history, mechanical reproduction emancipates the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual’. Break that relationship and the whole issue of what constitutes authenticity has to be reframed. Do that and art can become useful again by beginning to be ‘based on another practice – politics’; [23] artist and audience are brought into a much closer relationship; [23] a gradual shift from the ‘cult value’ of artworks to their ‘exhibition value’ (where public showings supplant ritualistic ones); [23] Film and photography’s ability to activate a relatively shared interactivity (taking a photo, looking at photo albums, following and reacting to the plot) is quite different from that of ‘free-floating contemplation’ of an artwork in a hallowed place such as a museum, gallery, or temple; [24] the presence of the movie camera has several consequences to how the actor and audience interact to the situation, and how the each responds to the other. Unlike theatre, film performance is asynchronous, disembodied and then reconstituted by technical intervention; [24] the mediation of the relationship between actor/performer and spectator by the camera; [24] ‘audience’s identification with the actor is really an identification with the camera .. [which] is not the approach to which cult values may be exposed’; [24] ‘shrivelling of the aura’ is simply replaced by the ‘phoney spell of a commodity’; [25] ‘painter maintains in his work a natural distance from reality, the cameraman penetrates deeply into its web. There is a tremendous difference between the pictures they obtain. That of the painter is a total one, that of the cameraman consists of multiple fragments which are assembled under a new law. Thus .. the representation of reality by the film is incomparably more significant than that of the painter, since it offers, precisely because of the thoroughgoing permeation of reality with mechanical equipment, an aspect of reality which is free of all equipment. And that is what one is entitled to ask from a work of art’; [25] ‘distinction between criticism and enjoyment by the public’; [25] ‘direct, intimate fusion of visual and emotional enjoyment with the orientation of the expert’; [26] new art forms should be judged according to their ‘social significance’; [26] popularity is not necessarily in inverse proportion to aesthetic worth; [26] general public are not stupid; [26] ‘entire spectrum of optical, and now acoustical, perception’ offered by film allows deeper, ‘more precise statements’ of everyday life and behaviour; [27] film has potential because of its ability to make traditional ‘cult value recede into the background not only by putting the public in the position of the critic, but also by the fact that at the movies this position requires no attention. The public is an examiner, but an absent-minded one’; [28] the nascent changes in ‘human sense perception’ allowed for by these technical innovations and their creative potential have been sucked into serving the needs of war on the one hand and capitalist expansion on the other. Marianne Franklin, 2003, p.18-28

more notes

Benjamin used the word "aura" to refer to the sense of awe and reverence one presumably experienced in the presence of unique works of art. According to Benjamin, this aura inheres not in the object itself but rather in external attributes such as its known line of ownership, its restricted exhibition, its publicized authenticity, or its cultural value. Aura is thus indicative of art's traditional association with primitive, feudal, or bourgeois structures of power and its further association with magic and (religious or secular) ritual. With the advent of art's mechanical reproducibility, and the development of forms of art (such as film) in which there is no actual original, the experience of art could be freed from place and ritual and instead brought under the gaze and control of a mass audience, leading to a shattering of the aura. "For the first time in world history," Benjamin wrote, "mechanical reproduction emancipates the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual." "Instead of being based on ritual, [art] begins to be based on another practice – politics." For Benjamin, the politicization of art should be the goal of Communism; in contrast to Fascism which aestheticized politics for the purpose of social control. [3]


The period in which Benjamin was writing was the lead-up to the Second World War; a period of ‘mass movements’ in which Fascism gained a firm foothold in western Europe. On the other side of the Atlantic, mechanised manufacturing assembly lines, now known as the Fordist mode of production, were hustling in the consumer society. At the same time, silent movies were giving way to talking pictures. Along with the popularity of film came other forms of ‘mass media’ such as glossy magazines, newsreels (an important vehicle for wartime propaganda), and the ‘great historical films’ of the Soviet Union. Benjamin, taking his cue from the Frankfurt School’s suspicion of the belief that ‘a technologically advanced society automatically embodied freedom and progress’, combined this with a Brechtian understanding of art – and theatre – as a politicised and empowering form of expression for the common person. He then looked at how the cult of ‘High Art’ and its high priests’ control over access were being shaken up by techniques of mechanical reproduction. But these subversive tendencies had to be defended against their appropriation by Fascist, commercial and cultural elitist agendas. Marianne Franklin, 2003, p.18


Adorno and Horkheimer criticised Benjamin for not being ‘dialectical’ enough, among other things. With respect to this essay’s use of ‘crude’ historical materialist terminology and the political exigencies of publishing in the USA, the sticking point for his two colleagues (who were at once fans as well as mentors) was that Benjamin was being way too optimistic about the revolutionary potential of new technologies to affect the structural power of capital. Moreover he was seen to be way too enamoured with popular culture and so too ‘uncritical’ about the political savvy of the ‘masses’, either under the sway of Fascist propaganda or as consumers of the capitalist ‘culture industries’. This difference of opinion was deeply felt for what Adorno and Horkheimer now feared was that mass art had a new political function diametrically opposed to its traditionally ‘negative’ one; art in the age of mechanical reproduction served to reconcile the mass audience to the status quo. Here, Benjamin disagreed ... he paradoxically held out hope for the progressive potential of politicised, collectivised art. Marianne Franklin, 2003, p.16-17

Innis (1950) - Empire and Communications[edit]

McLuhan (1964) - Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man[edit]

Luhmann (1975) - Systemtheorie, Evolutionstheorie und Kommunikationstheorie[edit]

Virilio (1977) - Speed and Politics[edit]

Flusser (1985) - Ins Universum der Technischen Bilder[edit]

Attali (1985) - Noise: The Political Economy of Music[edit]

Kittler (1986) - Gramophone, Film, Typewriter[edit]

Kittler's central project is to "prove to the human sciences [..] their technological-media a priori", or in his own words: "Driving the spirit out of the humanities", a title that he gave a work that he published in 1980. He sees an autonomy in technology and therefore disagrees with Marshall McLuhan's reading of the media as "extensions of man": "Media are not pseudopods for extending the human body. They follow the logic of escalation that leaves us and written history behind it. Consequently, he sees in writing literature, in writing programmes and in burning structures into silicon chips a complete continuum: "As we know and simply do not say, no human being writes anymore. [..] Today, human writing runs through inscriptions burnt into silicon by electronic lithography [..]. The last historic act of writing may thus have been in the late seventies when a team of Intel engineers [plotted] the hardware architecture of their first integrated microprocessor." [4]

Huhtamo (1994) - From Kaleidoscomaniac to Cybernerd. Towards an Archeology of the Media[edit]

Media archaeology is an emerging critical approach Professor Huhtamo has pioneered (together with a few other scholars) since the early 1990's. It excavates forgotten, neglected and suppressed media-cultural phenomena, helping us to penetrate beyond canonized accounts about media culture. Huhtamo pays particular attention to the "life" of topoi, or clichéd elements that emerge over and over again in media history and provide "molds" for experiences. What may seem new often proves to be just new packaging of ideas repeated during hundreds and even thousands of years. [5]

H: "'Media archeology' has two main goals: first, to the study of the cyclically recurring elements and motives underlying and guiding the development of media culture. Second, to the "excavation" of the ways in which these discursive traditions and formulations have been "imprinted" on specific media machines and systems in different historical contexts." [6]

de Kerckhove (1995) - The Skin of Culture[edit]

Zielinski (2005) - Deep Time of the Media[edit]

Beller (2006) - The Cinematic Mode of Production: Attention Economy and the Society of the Spectacle[edit]

Beller: "Cinema and its succeeding (if still simultaneous) formations, particularly television, video, computers, and the internet, are deterritorialised factories in which spectators work, that is, in which we perform value-productive labor’." (Cinematic Mode of Production, p. 1)

Beller: "My current interests beyond The Cinematic Mode of Production and Acquiring Eyes have to do with thinking through media technologies themselves as imbricated in the histories of colonialism/imperialism/ empire as well as gender and racial formations. Technologies, frozen under what Allen Feldman has termed "platform fetishism" often are not legible as products of the lived social mediations that are the conditions of possibility of our "media." The practices and histories, which themselves constitute the appearance, uses and significance of various technologies, are then seemingly frozen into the apparatus and for most practical purposes rendered invisible. Thus the utilization of media quite often seems like a far more autonomous (and thus ahistorical) exercise (a user plus a value-neutral technology) than it actually is. How to make the playground pulse with the struggles that underpin, situate and overdetermine our very presence (virtual or otherwise) in this, our space-time-now.
I'm also interested in ye ole real subsumption of society by capital and the expropriation of the cognitive-linguistic capacities of the species (that would be us, I guess.) Two main aspects here: the role of visual and audiophonic media in the deliverance (in both senses) of this emergent discursive situation. Shouldn't we consider further that with the rise of photography and phonography language became one writable medium among others (and was thereby relativized and demoted). Shouldn't also, all of the discourse theory of the 20th century be rethought in this light? Psychoanalysis, Structuralism, Post-structuralism -- all artifact of new modalities of mediation. Second, the situation of writing now: not from the point of view of those of us who fill out forms all day long but from those (parts) of us who are looking to crack the code(s). This is where I am very interested in the work of so many of you on this list. I am looking forward to learning more about the extraoridnary things people are thinking and doing. For my part, I will try to direct my comments in a way that explores the implications for the kinds of writing and speaking we do, which is to say the politics of our own practice. Don't all our locals, petty or otherwise, bear the signature of the globopolis? What then might a geopolitical pedagogy of the oppressed look like?" [7]

Scholz: "Life is not all about labor in the traditional sense but what creates economic value is continuously changing and expanding. Beller describes this as the financialization of everyday life (our attention, imagination, creativity, and faith). This financialization applies as much to the mortgage as it does to the current economic shakedown, the dotcom crash, and to what happens when we log on. The value of new social media, speculative and 'real' (in terms of actual revenue) is created through advertising and the digital traces of our attention. Driven much more by the desire for praise than remuneration, people participate and this social participation has become the oil of the digital economy." [8]

Cubitt (2009)[edit]


  1. Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, 1936, (essay)
  2. Harold Innis, Empire and Communications, 1950, (full book)
  3. Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, 1964, (full book)
  4. Niklas Luhmann, "Systemtheorie, Evolutionstheorie und Kommunikationstheorie", in: Soziologische Gids 22 3. pp.154–168, 1975
  5. Paul Virilio, Speed and Politics, 1977, (full book)
  6. Vilém Flusser, Ins Universum der Technischen Bilder, 1985, (review)
  7. Jacques Attali, Noise: The Political Economy of Music, 1985
  8. Friedrich Kittler, Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, 1986, (google books)
  9. Erkki Huhtamo, "From Kaleidoscomaniac to Cybernerd. Towards an Archeology of the Media", ISEA '94 Catalogue, edited by Minna Tarkka, Helsinki: The University of Art and Design, 1994, 130-135. (essay)
  10. Erkki Huhtamo, "Resurrecting the Technological Past. An Introduction to the Archeology of Media Art", InterCommunication No.14 1995, (essay)
  11. Derrick de Kerckhove, The Skin of Culture, 1995, (google books)
  12. Siegfried Zielinski, Deep Time of the Media, 2005, (google books)
  13. Jonathan Beller, The Cinematic Mode of Production: Attention Economy and the Society of the Spectacle, 2006, (full book)
  14. Jonathan Beller, "The Cinematic Mode of Production: Towards a Political Economy of the Postmodern", Culture, Theory & Critique, 2003, 44(1), 91–106. (essay)
  15. Sean Cubitt, 2009, [1], [2]