July 16, 2015

Walter Benjamin's Theory of Distraction

Yesterday I was informed via Twitter that it was Walter Benjamin's birthday. And as someone who's lately needed occasions (however arbitrary) for reading, I pulled one of his books off the shelf: the third volume in a set of anthologies I've up to this point mostly ignored. (I always figured Illuminations and Reflections were sufficient surveys of Benjamin's writing.) In it, I found this fragment, a list of speculative theses and directions for thinking about the development of technology and its role in the regimes of art, perception, and politics. Not surprisingly, the anthology associates it with the composition of what is probably Benjamin's most read essay, "The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducability," and dates its writing between 1935-1936.
Theory of Distraction
Attempt to determine the effect of the work of art once its power of consecration has been eliminated
Parasitic existence of art as based on the sacred
In its concern with educational value, "The Author as Producer" disregards consumer value
It is in film that the work of art is most susceptible to becoming worn out
Fashion is an indispensable factor in the acceleration of the process of becoming worn out
The values of distraction should be defined with regard to film, just as the values of catharsis are defined with regard to tragedy
Distraction, like catharsis, should be conceived as a physiological phenomenon
Distraction and destruction as the subjective and objective sides, respectively, of one and the same process
The relation of distraction to absorption must be examined
The survival of artworks should be represented from the standpoint of their struggle for existence
Their true humanity consists in their unlimited adaptability
The criterion for judging the fruitfulness of their effect is the communicability of this effect
The educational value and the consumer value of art may converge in certain optimal cases (as in Brecht), but they don't generally coincide
The Greeks had only one form of (mechanical) reproduction: minting coins
They could not reproduce their artworks, so these had to be lasting; hence eternal art
Just as the art of the Greeks was geared toward lasting, so the art of the present is geared toward becoming worn out
This may happen in two different ways: through consignment of the artwork to fashion or through the work's refunctioning in politics
Educational value and consumer value converge, thus making possible a new kind of learning
Art comes into contact with the commodity; the commodity comes into contact with art
From Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, Vol. 3, 1935-38. Trans. Edmund Jephcott, Howard Eiland et. al. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006.