When Walter Benjamin proclaimed the aura lost, he was hardly writing in grief. Being a Marxist, he saw in the means of technical reproduction – primarily manifested in the cinematic medium – art’s final liberation from the bonds of ritual and tradition. The “aura” – basically signifying a quasi-mystical quality ascribed to objects based on their unique presence in space and time – was understood as something to be overcome, an unfortunate relic from times when the majority of men were excluded from art and a situation that only “ultrareactionaries” would have any interest in maintaining (Benjamin 1936). In short, the loss of art’s aura through its mechanical reproduction – that is to say mechanical media’s unprecedented reproducibility – signified for Benjamin the very necessary democratization of art.
It is no coincidence that Benjamin’s artwork essay continues to be read and used by theorists interested in art, cinema, political theory and visual culture. In many ways the text is prophetic. When Benjamin states that “[a]ny man today can lay claim to being filmed” he is foreseeing the Warholian dictum that in the future everyone will have their 15 minutes of fame. His observation that “the distinction between author and public is about to lose its basic character” is proto-post-modern. And yet, he can impossibly imagine that the 21st century will unfold itself in a world where being filmed is not only a right, but a civilian duty. From surveillance cameras to YouTube “vlogs”: there is no escaping the lens. And woe to the analphabetic teenager who is not a free-time blogger; truly, authorship today is more pastime than profession.
If we agree with Benjamin that “the cult of the movie star […] preserves not the unique aura of the person but the ‘spell of the personality,’ the phony spell of a commodity [my italics]”, we might ask ourselves whether the democratization of media that Internet supposedly brings is not, in fact, the transformation of any given subject into a commodity. There are certainly those who think so; for while scholars like Pelle Snickars preach the Google gospel, a theorist like Tiziana Terranova lays forth the provocative argument that Internet users constitute a new league of free labourers (using a Webzine significantly titled “NetSlaves” as her empirical starting point) (Terranova 2000).
With mechanical reproduction, Benjamin seems to claim, the very distinction between original and copy starts becoming obsolete. “[T]he work of art reproduced becomes the work of art designed for reproducibility. From a photographic negative, for example, one can make any number of prints; to ask for the ‘authentic’ print makes no sense.”
There are at least two ways to respond to this claim, which in later theory came to relate to the totality of existence and not just art. Post-modern philosophy observed, with fascinated horror, how the increasingly mediated world was sucked into a vortex of hyperrealization, a “generation of models of a real without origin or reality” (Baudrillard 1994: 1). This is, so to speak, Benjamin’s democratic dream turned into the Baudrillardian nightmare. To this, more corporeally oriented theorists like Vivian Sobchack respond that the reality of physical experience remains (Sobchack 1991: 327).
This leaves us with two relevant questions. Firstly: is the loss of the aura irreversible? Secondly: to which extent can we discuss the aura of objects without taking the experiential reality of embodied subjects into consideration?
I have elsewhere argued that, with material decay, the aura of the object does indeed return: touched by time, every copy becomes an original (Rozenkrantz 2007). The ongoing debate about the supposed death of cinema seems to confirm this claim. What characterizes this discourse is an almost obsessive interest in the transience of film. The fact that analog film carries its own death within its conditions of existence (with each projection the print comes closer to being destroyed) makes the materiality of film a pressing issue. With the fear that the last film strip will one day have vanished, each print is felt as existentially valuable. Scarcity, we could say, is the potentiality of uniqueness. Uniqueness, as we know, is the prerequisite of the aura.
Now, if we turn our gaze from the screen to the spectator we cannot help but wonder where the latter fits into the equation. Benjamin is no stranger to the affective level of art: “From an alluring appearance or persuasive structure of sound the work of art of the Dadaists became an instrument of ballistics. It hit the spectator like a bullet, it happened to him, thus acquiring a tactile quality [my italics].” These sentences would satisfy the most orthodox of affect theorists, were it not for the fact that, throughout the essay, Benjamin seems to neglect the plurality of experience. Although he makes the significant observation that reproduction allows for a re-contextualization of the artwork, he does not seem to consider the possibibility that no two experiences are ever alike.
Each screening is unique, and so is each spectator. Since, to use Jacques Rancière’s elegant formulation, every spectator “composes her own poem with the elements of the poem before her” (Rancière 2009: 13), we cannot really say that a film is ever only one. To draw this little exercise in pluralization even further, we could even claim that no subject is ever only one. This is, of course, the Deleuze and Guattarianconception of subjectivity – that “each of us [is] several” (Deleuze and Guattari 2010: 3) – the consequence of which would be that you never watch a film with the same two eyes. If all this sounds abstract, you need only consider the fact that a film is never the same on second viewing – the elements with which you have composed the first experience are, so to speak, no longer the same.
A less obvious, but perhaps equally agreeable suggestion is that the experience of a film changes depending on whom you watch it with. A steamy love scene is not felt the same way if seen with a lover, a parent, a friend or alone. If we are familiar with the emotional constitution of the person in our company, we might even experience the film partly through him or her. To borrow a Deleuzian term: we may engage in a mutual “becoming” with our fellow spectator insofar as we know each other (or at least think that we do).
My point in alles, is that the constitution of material and experiential existence is so manifold that the very concept of “copy” is problematic. This is not to say that Benjamin is wrong in claiming that experience (in his words “perception”) changes over time, but that we must take his claim even further: experience is always already a process of change. If this is true, uniqueness, that is to say the aura, resides not in objects, but in experiences.
Am I, Marx forbid, taking an “ultrareacionary” stance in reading the aura in potentially positive terms? I hope not. Certainly, post-Marxist thinkers like Deleuze and Guattari find the greatest political potential in the manifold micro-revolutions of de-subjectified subjects, not in the one-way movements of subjects en masse.
Jonathan Rozenkrantz is the cinema editor of LOFT the Scandinavian Bookazine, in which he also writes about art, media and culture. He has an MA in film studies and his writings have appeared in Film International, among others.
Baudrillard, Jean (1994), Simulacra and Simulation, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
Benjamin, Walter (1936), “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”.
Deleuze, Gilles and Guattari, Felix (2010), A Thousand Plateaus, London and New York: Continuum.
Holmberg, Jan (2011), Slutet på filmen. O.s.v, Göteborg: Daidalos.
Rancière, Jacques (2009), The Emancipated Spectator, London and New York: Verso.
Rozenkrantz, Jonathan (2007), ”Förfallets rena estetik”, Tidningen Kulturen, no. 20 – 21, July 10-24.
Sobchack, Vivian (1991), “Baudrillard’s Obscenity”, Science-Fiction Studies 18, November.
Terranova, Tiziana (2000), “Free Labor: Producing Culture for the Digital Economy”, Social Text, no. 63, Summer, pp. 33-58.
 See, for instance, Jan Holmberg’s excellent contribution to this debate (Holmberg 2011).