Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

The Deepening of Apperception: On Walter Benjamin's Theory of Film

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

The Deepening of Apperception: On Walter Benjamin's Theory of Film

Article excerpt

In spite of his continuous interest in film, Benjamin did not do for film what he did for photography, that is, compose a "Little History" of the new medium. Perhaps he thought that, after the "Little History" of 1931, the principles for such a history had been outlined, and that it would have been redundant to do such an analysis of film. In any case, we can assume that the mist covering the beginning of photography is denser than the one that obscures the origins of film. Then again, as Benjamin writes at the outset of his study, the one that hovers over the discovery of print is thicker still. And yet, as is the case with the "Little History of Photography," a history of film would have shed light on the early days of the genre. In the essay on "The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility," as well as in the essays devoted to the new Russian film, the achievements of the American grotesque and Russian revolutionary, movies are at the centre of Benjamin's concerns; he pays little or no attention to the early forms of this technology. In fact, Benjamin is primarily interested in the revolutionary potential of the new medium in these essays. However, to fully grasp this potential--in particular the deepening of apperception that "The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility" tells us comes with the new medium--a reflection on early forms of film would be of great help. Benjamin's elaborations on cinema only provide at best a few hints for such a reflection. By contrast, "On Some Motifs in Baudelaire" will be of some help in this respect--paradoxically, since it is an essay on poetry. But first let me summarize as succinctly as possible what the "Little History of Photography" establishes about the early forms of this reproductive technique.

According to Benjamin, the early stages of photography were marked by a sharp correspondence of object and technology. The auratic, eerie quality of early photographic pictures, especially early portraits, derives from its objects, namely, the "member[s] of a rising class equipped with an aura that had seeped into the very folds of the man's frock coat or floppy cravat" (Selected 2.517). The portrait's aura manifest in the early pictures, "everything about [which] was built last," thus rests on a social class's will to immortality. But, according to Benjamin, although this aura is not exclusively the product of a primitive camera, it is nevertheless still, and dominantly, a function of the technology itself. As Benjamin makes quite clear, magic and technology are stark opposites. But in early photography they come in direct contact with one another. The glance of the figures reproduced by the new medium, which seem to stare back at their beholder as if the two could see one another, endow these pictures with an aura. This aura is the result of "the length of time the subject has to remain still," which early photographic technology demanded of its subjects in order to be able to take a picture (2.514). If "the human countenance had a silence about it in which the gaze rested" in these photographs, it is also because many of these pictures had to be taken outside for technical reasons, in spaces where nothing interfered with the long concentration of the model required by the "low light-sensitivity of the early plates" (513-14). Benjamin remarks that nothing characterizes the early period of photography more than the degree to which the models are at home in the cemetery. And he adds that the "technical equivalent" of the aura that gives the glance of the human beings in the first pictures "that lent fullness and security" (515) "consists in the absolute continuum from brightest light to darkest shadow," a result owed to the long exposure time required by the new technology (517). Benjamin is thus led to speak of the "technical determinedness [Bedingtsein] of the auratic appearance." He remarks that "the most precise technology can give its products a magical value. …

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