Business as usual or not: Rape, social media.

Here we have incontrovertible evidence of happy young people not only hurting and humiliating others, but taking pleasure in it, posing with their victims. The Abu Ghraib torture pictures were trophies. The Steubenville rape photos are trophies […] The Steubenville rapists had fun, and they broadcast that fun to the world. They were confident that nothing could touch them, so baffled by the idea of punishment that they wept like children in court.

→ New Statesman, Laurie Penny: Steubenville: this is rape culture’s Abu Ghraib moment

This may be the end of the cycle that began with Friendster and Livejournal. Not the end of social media, by any means, obviously. But it feels like this is the point at where the current systems seize up for a bit. Perhaps not even in ways that most people will notice. But social media seems now to be clearly calcifying into Big Media

→ Warren Ellis: The Social Web: End Of The First Cycle

Oh, it’ll get better. Diversity – that so often mocked of modern societal goals – will make such dust-ups far less common. More and more games being made by people other than heterosexual men for a gaming audience that grows similarly diverse will mean less feelings of marginalization. The problem isn’t, and has never been, that The Sorceress (or Ivy, or Cammy, or Lara, or Daphne, or whomever else) look like they do… it’s that everything looks like they do.

→ Escapist Magazine, Bob “MovieBob” Chipman: It never ends

So, I no longer want a seat at your restaurant, where you serve me begrudgingly, where I am belittled for asking for food without pork, where I endure your dirty looks at my hijabi friend. I want my pride intact, I want this struggle of mine to be recognized, for you to look me in the eye and acknowledge that yes, this tumor called bigotry is indeed rivering through your veins, polluting your mind, and is so malignant that it compels you to squash my dignity.

→ Huffington Post, Seema Jilani: My Racist Encounter at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner

Writing on writing Benjamin

A while back Daniel Josefsson of The Immaterial asked me to do a writeup of a project or an idea, and he suggested that I’d expound on the video project How to write like Walter Benjamin i did back in 2009-2010. I finally got around to writing the short essay, and it’s now up his blog.

Link to The Immaterial: Let me explain how to write like Walter Benjamin

Edit 2021.07: As The Immaterial seems defunct, I’m posting my essay here instead. I’m clearing up the text a bit, adding quotes and such where needed.

Let me explain how to write like Walter Benjamin

A while back I transcribed Walter Benjamin’s seminal 1936 essay The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction by hand. I recorded it in real-time and published it on my blog and elsewhere to be used as an introduction to writing art theory. It was titled How to write like Walter Benjamin. The whole series spans 18 episodes, and makes for about 13 hours of video. I don’t know that anyone has seen the whole thing.

Hindsight is a mixed bag when it comes to explaining ones earlier motivations, so I won’t try to explain how I came up with the idea or why I thought it was worth to carry through. But the two years that have passed since, make a dispassionate analysis easier and I think I can see three ways to read the work — not mutually exclusive — which present it as a stop along a path rather than the final destination.

Perhaps it’s telling that the version of the essay that I used for the project was chosen based on accessibility — It’s certainly something which Benjamin might have found interesting — and you don’t get much more convenient than Wikipedia, where I found the original link to the essay transcribed by Andy Blunden.

As a preamble to the explanations below, let’s agree that doing no research at all on a text before embarking on a two month long art project — one of the core tenets of which is the bearing of authenticity on an artwork — is lazy in a stupid way. Benjamin is throughout the text concerned with how the “aura” of an actor is lost in the translation from stage to film, while my approach is to not even bother to check if the actors are switched out in the middle of the movie and their voices dubbed over.

With that in mind, let me offer three readings of How to write like Walter Benjamin:

First as humour

When it comes to artists doing theory or framing themselves within an academic discourse, it’s easy to point to the Post-modern essay generator and have a laugh at the convoluted language, never-ending name-dropping, and the discourse by way of apophenia that is too often accepted for publication. But there are texts which actually say something about the state of the world or how we perceive it, and Benjamin’s is one of them. Therefore, everyone aspiring to write coherent, well-understood and reasoned art theory would do well to mimic his style and reasoning. And what better way than to transcribe it whole cloth?

Above all other considerations, the first thing, which strikes me about the project, is the deadpan seriousness of both the pretence and the execution. On the face of it, it’s an instructional video much like any other you might find on Youtube or Vimeo, made by someone who takes their work seriously and has already accepted the framework of what they are offering as legitimate. There is no question in our presenters mind that what he is offering is a reasonable approach to learning how to write art theory.

The instructor conflates the two meanings of “writer” (as in “author” and someone who sets letters to paper) and sees himself as setting an example by showing you that he’s actually “writing” the text, and to emphasise that it’s “writing” and not “copying,” he’s doing it by hand no less!

It’s not meant to be a parody of actual theory instructions or criticisms; it’s much more fun to view it as a documentation of an absurdist performance than a pisstake on the teaching of art theory to artists. Repeat a sentence enough times and the repetition takes on a meaning of itself, be it for humorous effect, as a means to extinguish meaning as in Alvin Luciers “I’m sitting in a room” or to make technology visible, as in Patrick Lidells take on Luciers original.

Perhaps the monotonous instructions can persuade you for at least a moment and actually say — yeah, this might totally be a thing I could do. That would be fun.

Secondly, we can perhaps use this work to try the premise of Benjamin’s work — to see what happens with the aura of the text, or of him as writer, when someone else writes it verbatim.

One would have to assume that a text itself has aura, which is not something Benjamin mentions in the essay. The absence of references to classical literature in his analysis allows us to speculate freely — surely there is an aura of authenticity in a book, or does it merely exist in the act of writing? If it only exists in the act, how then understand the following quote, on the role of the author:

“Thus, the distinction between author and public is about to lose its basic character. The difference becomes merely functional; it may vary from case to case. At any moment the reader is ready to turn into a writer.”

Walter Benjamin (1936) The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

This observation, combined with the assumption of the act of writing as being the moment where “aura” can be understood, would leave us with an understanding that any writing could be understood as containing more aura, more authenticity, than any printed — mass reproduced — book might convey.

Perhaps it’s here that our instructor can be found — someone writing for the sake of the aura which writing bestows on him.

Should we assume the obverse, that the text itself is a “medium-free” object, having a self-contained aura or authenticity quite apart from it’s means of dissemination, we would need to give reason to the special status of text which sets it’s “aural worth” apart from other works of art.

By his own words, text might almost take the place of a natural phenomena — perhaps one might assume “thinking on paper” — when he categorically says of aura that:

“In the case of the art object, a most sensitive nucleus —namely, its authenticity —is interfered with whereas no natural object is vulnerable on that score.”

Walter Benjamin (1936) The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

In Borges short story Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote, he describes how the eponymous writer word by word rewrites parts of Don Quixote, but “[…]doesn’t contemplate a mechanical transcription of the original: he did not propose to copy it. His admirable intention was to produce a few pages which would coincide — word for word and line for line — with those of Miquel de Cervantes.” Menard goes on to write parts of the original text, but even though the resulting text is exactly the same, Borges comments that it has different qualities, which sets it apart from the “original.”

In Borges, a writer on the edge, Beatriz Sarlo focuses on what Borges is actually suggesting in the somewhat absurdist description of Menards works, and writes that:

The process of enunciation modifies any statement. As a study of linguistics in the twentieth century has emphasised, this principle destroys and at the same time guarantees originality as a paradoxical value which is related to the ‘enunciation’: it comes from the activity of writing and reading, not tied to words but to words in a context.”

And this understanding of context is much the same as what Benjamin writes about an object of art having a certain position within society based on the societal norms.

“It is significant that the existence of the work of art with reference to its aura is never entirely separated from its ritual function. […] This ritualistic basis, however remote, is still recognizable as secularized ritual even in the most profane forms of the cult of beauty.”

Walter Benjamin (1936) The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

If aura is created in the ritual of thinking on paper — writing — we confer aura when writing; but if reading is a creative endeavour, one where our approach and understanding of the text and the conditions under which it was created shape its meaning, the ritual we celebrate is the creative one, and each moment we reflect is a moment of creation. In this latter interpretation, an art object is imbued with aura at the time of “consumption” (viewing, listening, reading, etc.) rather than at the time of creation. I.e. we can’t help but to be creators of aura most all of the time.

Or as Benjamin somewhat dramatically puts it:

“This image makes it easy to comprehend the social bases of the contemporary decay of the aura. It rests on two circumstances, both of which are related to the increasing significance of the masses in contemporary life. Namely, the desire of contemporary masses to bring things “closer” spatially and humanly, which is just as ardent as their bent toward overcoming the uniqueness of every reality by accepting its reproduction. […] To pry an object from its shell, to destroy its aura, is the mark of a perception whose “sense of the universal equality of things” has increased to such a degree that it extracts it even from a unique object by means of reproduction.”

Walter Benjamin (1936) The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

Thirdly, it’s a presentation of art production as drudgery.

One way of reading the work is as a metaphor for what artistic work is, or could be, or ought to be understood as. The western celebration of the individual as a “free agent” in combination with the lingering societal understanding of an artist as a “free spirit,” has built a cherished altar for the gods of creativity. Coupled with a competitive scene comprising millions and millions of creators of all strand, each vying for attention, novelty takes the lead.

If Benjamin complained about print transforming us all to writers, I would lament that global communications and the eyeball business-models are promoting the “barely-unconventional,” and this has found willing adherents among artists who in this approach actually find a metric by which they can justify themselves as “useful.”

The more mundane and boring we can make art, the more we will provoke a discussion on why we do it, and under what conditions it’s most valuable to us. Ten years ago I had a notion that it would be interesting to cover a full grown pine tree with potato peelings — branch by branch, carefully minding the needles and peeling it all by hand — for no other reason than as a gesture of futility and human defiance in the face of death meaning. As art works go it wasn’t much of an idea, but the sense of doing art work has stuck, and there’s a sense that if I only put in my dues, I’ll actually be an artist, and will in the process be judged on the merits of what role I have in society rather than the novelty of my work.

That is, if I do more boring art, perhaps people might leave me alone.

The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction. Part 18: Epilogue

Part 18 covers the epilogue of Walter Benjamins 1935 essay “The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction.” It’s the longest part of the text, so I encourage you to warm your wrist up, and maybe consider a short break in the middle. As usual, we’re using the Andy Blunden version of the essay which you can find through Wikipedia (Although you know this already, since you’ve done the previous tutorials, right?)

With this, this course on how to write art theory comes to an end. I’d like to thank you for your patience and perseverance, and I hope that you feel it has been time well spent. Hopefully you’re more confident in your ability to write art theory, and I wish you good look in your future endeavors, be they professional or private!

Don’t hesitate to get in touch if you have questions or comments regarding this or any other episode, or would like some advice on how to further hone your writing skills.

The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction. Part 17

In this episode we’re writing the last chapter of Walter Benjamins 1935 essay “The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction,” as translated by Andy Blunden. Once we’re done with this chapter, only the epilogue remains. This episode is rather long and clocks in at around one hour, so you might want to prepare for taking a break halfway.

By now you know the drill, and hopefully you’re feeling more confident of your ability to write art theory. Good on you! If you have any questions or comments, please get in touch.

The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction. Part 16

In this episode we write chapter 14 of Walter Benjamins essay “The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction” as it’s translated by Andy Blunden. Your writing speed and confidence ought to have increased by now, and if you set out to learn how to write art theory I hope that you feel that our time together has been well spent so far. If you’re just joining us, I recommend that you stop this video and go to the first episode; Learning how to write art theory is hard work, and jumping in at the end will only frustrate you.

The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction. Part 15

Welcome to the fifteenth episode of this series, where we try to learn how to write art theory using Walter Benjamins 1935 essay “The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction,” translated by Andy Blunden.

In less than one hour we go through chapter thirteen of the essay. If this is the first episode that you watch, please go back and review the previous ones before embarking on this one. As usual, you might want to warm up your wrist. Questions and comment are welcome here.

The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction. Part 14

Part 14 of the series “How to write like Walter Benjamin” covers chapter 12 of the essey “The work of art in the age of mechnical reproduction” and we blaze through it in less than 40 minutes. As usual, if you haven’t seen the previous episodes, I urge you do that, since there are no shortcuts in learning how to write art theory, only hard work.

Warm up your wrist, settle down comfortably, and follow along as we dig in on the last third of our series. The end is nigh, but in a good way, so I hope that you take on the challenge with gusto! Should this or any other episode stump you in any way, don’t hesitate to get in touch. Enjoy!

The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction. Part 13

Part thirteen of the series, covering chapter 11 of Walter Benjamins essay. How to write like Walter Benjamin is a primer intended to help you write proper art theory, and if this is the first episode that you’re watching, I really recommend you to go back to the beginning and start there. If you’re writing by hand you ought to warm up before starting to write proper, and if you haven’t already, download the Andy Blunden translation which we’re using here; It’ll allow you to write at your own pace, should you find my tempo not suiting you.

The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction. Part 12

Welcome to part twelve of “How to write like Walter Benjamin,” a series intended to help you to learn how to write proper art theory, using Walter Benjamins 1935 essay “The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction” in the Andy Blunden translation.

Chapter 10 clocks in at less than one hour, despite being a good bit longer than the previous chapter. If you haven’t done the previous tutorials, I recommend you to check those out before coming back to this one, especially as we’re getting into the home stretch of the essay, and those of you who’ve followed along should be rather comfortable with the exercise by now.

The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction. Part 11

Chapter nine of “The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction” is somewhat longer than the previous one, so prepare for an hours worth of writing art theory! If you are just joining us, please start the course from the beginning; It will do you no good to drop in at this point.

We’re past the halfway mark of this tutorial series, and by now you ought to feel that writing like Walter Benjamin comes easier to you. If you’re still struggling, don’t worry about it — writing art theory is hard work and you might not get it right the first time. Revisit those episodes which give you grief, and you will soon find that studious attention will do wonders for your skill.