Academic journal article Journal of Evolutionary Psychology

From Aura to Iridescence: Benjamin and Boorstin Theorize Postmodern Mediated Culture

Academic journal article Journal of Evolutionary Psychology

From Aura to Iridescence: Benjamin and Boorstin Theorize Postmodern Mediated Culture

Article excerpt

When Walter Benjamin penned what is often cited as one of the first essays theorizing the effects of visual culture on society "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" in 1935-36, the world of mass media was still in its infancy. Television and digital technology were not even thought of yet, much less developed or distributed and marketed. Photography and cinema were Benjamin's main focal points of his theories addressing technological reproductions of works of art. Benjamin's premise in his now famous essay was that new technological advances of the era, beginning with the development of still photography and continuing to the age of sound film production, were changing modes of human perception. But Benjamin was interested in more than just perception. He was interested in how technological advances created sweeping changes in societal value systems and lifestyles. Some of Benjamin's central themes involved the concept of "aura" or the loss of aura, the devaluation of experience and the loss of cult or ritualistic value through mass reproducibility

Several years later, American historian and author Daniel Boorstin published multiple works theorizing the implications and effects of media technology on society. Boorstin, like Benjamin, believes that each technological advance leads to changes in the human experience. Boorstin, however, is living in a different era of cultural mediation, as well as a tremendously changed political landscape. In addition to film and photography and radio, we now have television, the internet and a whole new realm of digital media to adapt to in this postmodern age. Furthermore, Boorstin does most of his writing from 1959 through the mid 1990's in the United States, while Benjamin wrote most of his work in 1930's Nazi Germany, surrounded by political upheaval in much of Europe due to the ascendancy of several facist regimes.

Though the technology and politics of the two eras have changed, the messages these two writers construct are both vital to the understanding of postmodern visual culture. In this paper I will compare Benjamin's theories of auratic experience with Boorstin's concept of iridescence of experience in regard to postmodern mass mediated images, focusing specifically on television. In doing so, it is also necessary to address the issue of ritual, or lack thereof, in modes of mediated reproduction. Although both writers experience some confluence of ideology on these issues, there are aspects of their theories that are quite polarized. The idea of ritual is one example of how the two writers' views are in opposition. Whereas Benjamin argues that reproduction removes the dependence on ritual from art, Boorstin believes mediated experiences provide democratic societies, which otherwise suffer from a poverty of ritual, with a form of mediated ritualistic experience. (Gardels, 1994). With this essay I hope to explore the theories of both of these writers in an effort to analyze their varied approaches to the proliferation of visual and artistic technological reproductions. By touching upon concepts that both men explored in their writings, including implications of boredom, the value of novelty, and the value of experience, I hope to critique the future societal implications of living in a world of mediated culture.

Although in Benjamin's era television was not yet imagined, one could speculate that Benjamin was thoroughly aware than new technological advances involving the reproduction of moving images were imminent. In fact, one could argue that Benjamin would be fascinated by the new world of digital imagery, satellite delivery systems and the continual nature of television viewing in the home. Whether Benjamin would have embraced this technology is another question, but it is almost certain he would have realized the indelible effects the medium would have on society. How would Benjamin react to television? What would he make of this "new" medium with the ability to bombard the public with moving images and a cacophony of sounds within their own homes? …

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