Philosophy and Cognition in the Age of Mechanical-Digital Reproduction, #3 — The Ground of the Aura.
By Otto Paans
Previous Installments in This Series
III. The Ground of the Aura
In his 1936 essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Walter Benjamin introduces one of his most notorious concepts: the “aura” of a work. At first sight, this notion appears as a kind of supernatural idea on the scene, a conceptual deus ex machina. In an otherwise rational and concise discussion of art and reproducibility, why introduce something so intangible as an “aura”?
The concept of aura emerges in Benjamin’s discussion of the relation between authenticity and reproducibility. While it would be possible to mechanically reproduce a Van Gogh painting by technical means, the resulting replica would be cut off from the historical and process-based circumstances that give rise to the original. A part of what makes the painting authentic is its embedding in a cultural context that belongs to history.
The authenticity of a thing is the essence of all that is transmissible from its beginning, ranging from its substantive duration to its testimony to the history which it has experienced.[i]
For Benjamin, the reproducibility of an artwork is detrimental to its aura. And “aura” in this case means the sum total of eliminated elements that connect the artwork to history and tradition. The first thing to notice, then, is that the aura is not some mysterious property “X” that dwells in a work. Instead, it is a nexus of forces that ties an artwork to tradition, history, a specific locus in time, a genesis (Entstehungsgeschichte), the expressive power and skill of the artist, etc. In short, the aura designates and demarcates the very specificity of the artwork.
It is not surprising that Benjamin runs headlong into a question that has puzzled aestheticians ever since: if an artwork is reproduced, what is the original? In asking this question, one runs also directly into its corollary — if an artwork is reproduced, what happens to the status of the original? Is it still an original, or is it interchangeable with its replicas? Or, is the very term replica meaningless for an artefact that can be mass-produced? Benjamin’s position seems the last one: it is meaningless to ask for originals in a time of reproduction.[ii] At the same time, the production of art changes: no longer is there one pure act of original, singular creation, but instead, practices and processes take pride of place.
The issue that Benjamin touches upon is the “type-token distinction,” in which the original is seen as the type, and each reproduction as a token (i.e. instantiation) of that type. Reproduction seems to be detrimental to specificity. At first sight, this seems true for at least one class of objects. A replica of a Rothko painting is just that — a double that still refers to an original, its value as a replica determined by something outside itself; its value as original zero. In order to designate these values correctly, one must know the original from which it is a copy. For Benjamin, history and tradition link an artwork to a specific locus in (cultural) space and time. It is conceived and made in a given culture, under specific conditions, it sprung from an individual’s mind, and is executed in an artistic process that bears the stamp of that particular historical epoch, with materials that were fashioned according to the production processes of the time. Moreover, its pictorial contents might depict a scene that was meaningful for that particular time, and for spectators in that historical epoch.
In other words, then, an artwork is not just a particular (as opposed to generic) object. Instead, it is a singular object — it could only emerge at a specific point in cultural space and time, and this embeddedness or rooting to that historic-cultural-artistic location constitutes its specificity. Or, phrased differently: “The uniqueness of a work of art is inseparable from its being embedded in the fabric of tradition.”[iii]
So far, Benjamin is a classic Romantic thinker with regard to his aesthetics. Each artwork is unique and therefore it is an artwork, a one-of-a-kind. It follows that for Benjamin, natural objects do not have an aura in this artificial sense.[iv] Yet, they possess a different type of aura. This is a first point about his position that should be rethought under the heading, The Ground of the Aura.
The aura of natural objects, whether it concerns tree branches, mountain ranges, brooks, meadows or a flowers rests on their distance. They cannot fully be grasped and comprehended; and they are all unique. Even in a field of snowdrops, you cannot find replicas. Thus, there is a sense of distance or openness that permeates natural objects. Second, natural objects possess permanence: the mountain range points beyond itself because it reflects in its massiveness the flow of time; the snowdrops may seem fragile, but they are heralds of the returning spring. Moreover, they are part of the plant kingdom that is always present at the periphery of perception. This is the second point that merits a critique, and we can do so under the heading, The Myth of Permanence.
The artificial object, on the other hand, is marked by closeness, by proximity. The reproduced image is something we want to be able to have close, at our disposal. We want not just to have one, but multiple instances of it, and so Benjamin identifies artificial objects with reproducibility. But here again, the discussion is somewhat confused. The crucial distinction that can be made is between reproducibility and replicability. These terms denote something quite different, and this is the third point that can be constructively rethought, titled The Differential Recurrence of Similarity.
If we reverse Benjamin’s original thought that natural and artificial objects possess different types of auras, we must still conclude that these auras emerge from the same ground. That is not to say that there are no differences between natural and artificial objects, but simply that the auras must well up from a deeper ground that unifies rather than divides them. The point that Benjamin raises vis à vis artificial objects is that they possess a singular character, a set of characteristics brought about by their artistic-cultural-historical embedding. Their point of origin marks what they are and how they develop. But the exact same point can be raised for each natural object. The geological history of a mountain range shows natural necessity at work in every mark and dent on the stones. The different trees in a forest are what they are because of their position, their access to nutrients, exposure to climatic influences, etc. Each natural object itself is imbued with singularity of the highest degree.[v] As such, there are only exceptions to the rule, and no typical instances of oaks, frogs, bacteria, cacti, seagulls, etc. You cannot point to the “typical seagull,” the “typical cactus,” etc. One individual cannot be used to exhaustively represent seagullness or cactushood. Representatives, genera, orders, families and species are at best elaborate fictions. They are useful, but they are fictional, nonetheless.
Conversely, reproductions are indeed representatives of an entire series. For instance, a cast concrete beam is the result of a well-defined production procedure. Designing, drawing, casting and drying are discrete procedural steps involved in the reproduction of the same element, each of which is therefore exchangeable with another one. The relation between original and derivative is meaningless for this type of product, and therefore it is this class of objects that can only be used to say “X1 is representative for series [X] as a whole.”
Natural objects cannot be used for doing this — or at least not without underestimating what they really are. A thought experiment suffices to show this. I can discriminate between bacterium A and bacterium B, but it will be hard to tell the difference. I can do the same thing for two daffodils, and it might still be hard to tell the difference between the two, but it is already more palpable. I can repeat the procedure, and distinguish between two trees, and still more their individual character shines through. Then, repeat the step with two dogs of the same breed. No one will say “one dog is exchangeable for the other.” They are individuals in a way that we regard as natural. But to regard the bacteria not as individuals is a grave mistake: it amounts in confusing the models used to think about reality with the structure of reality itself.
Models are references that are idealized or simplified across a range of properties. For cacti, for instance, a range of characteristics must be satisfied before they are included in the Cactaceae family. In addition, they must satisfy additional requirements if they are to be included in a specific species or genus. This procedure runs into its limits, however, because it stems from a natural mechanist viewpoint of thinking about biological life.[vi] The best example I can give to clarify my point is to refer to Edward. F. Anderson’s magisterial encyclopaedia The Cactus Family.[vii] The genus Opuntia freely hybridizes and is at least “fuzzy around the edges” so to speak. It is continuous with the genera Cereus, Cumulopuntia, Cylindropuntia, Nopalea, and Platyopuntia. Its structure and the hedonistic character of the sexually active cacti must have given generations of taxonomists headaches. In one case, the specific species in the genus Opuntia had been renamed 50 times, because individual botanists could not determine its place in the larger taxonomy. The models that they used could not determine where this particular species should belong. The first possible response to this conundrum is to refine the model, and describe the properties in more detail, reduce them to still more fundamental properties or weigh some properties over others. The second possible response is to change one’s approach and question the set of premises on which the idea of taxonomy is based. In the case of the genus Opuntia, it would be more useful to have genetic markers to determine which plants were involved in bringing a specific species about. That is, until this method bumps again into its limits. At any rate, all these attempts at taxonomy run into the same problem: there are only exceptions, no representatives.
What is it that unites the auras of natural objects like cacti and artificial objects like artfully cast concrete beams? Both objects answer to an order of necessity. The cactus is a splendid designoid object that is fully adapted to the pressures and forces of its environment.[viii] The same can be said of the concrete beam. Its sizes, shape and the composition of its material are precise responses to the demands imposed on it. Yet, in the case of the cactus the design process is evolutionary-biological, while in the case of the concrete beam, the design process is top-down directed by humans. In the first case, the selection pressures interact in real-life with natural objects on an evolutionary timescale. In the second case, the pressures and forces are individually mapped and calculated in advance, and the object is retrospectively moulded to withstand them. Consequently, it is frozen into a functional description. It can only deal with a limited range of pressures.
The same criterion applies more or less to the cactus or bacterium. They have evolved for a specific niche, and the pressures and demands of the niche shape their physical form and capabilities. However, for them as for natural objects, the necessity that shines through their physical appearance gives them a degree of rational intelligibility. Thomas Nagel argued that “rational intelligibility is at the root of the natural order”, but we can extend this statement easily to the artistic order as well.[ix]
One of the predominant aesthetic traditions — inaugurated by Alexander Baumgarten and continued by Immanuel Kant — located beauty on a spectrum that runs from absolute disorder to absolute uniformity. Absolute disorder is not rationally intelligible: it is just a formless mess. In the words of the Japanese philosopher Nishi Amane:
[I]f one composes poems and songs without following rules at all, merely expressing whatever comes to mind, surely what results is not a form of poetry. If a road is very dangerous, winding to the right, turning to the left, climbing a precipice, then it must not be called a road.[x]
According to Amane, this is the so-called outer aspect of aesthetics: there must be a minimum of regularity in an object to enable its intelligibility. On the other side of the spectrum, we encounter absolute order, which can also not be regarded as beautiful:
All stiff regularity (whatever approaches mathematical regularity) is of itself contrary to taste: the consideration of it affords no lasting entertainment, but rather, insofar as it does not expressly have cognition or a determinate practical end as its aim, it induces boredom.[xi]
Indeed, endless repetition is extremely boring, as can be inferred from pictures taken in data storage centres: a mind-numbing regularity and predictability characterizes these environments. Not coincidentally, the repetitive tendencies of modern architecture and its emphasis on repetition of the same building modules has been linked to the autism disorder and the inability to deal with changes.[xii]
Somewhere between chaos and uniformity, then, beauty can emerge, and it is presumably also the place from where the aura (in its artificial and natural senses) emerges. But still, we require a theory on how beauty does emerge, and if the tension between chaos and uniformity is the only factor that determines whether an object or artwork is regarded as beautiful.
If we re-iterate the thought that the experience of beauty is somehow connected to the intelligibility of some order of necessity in them, we might well come to appreciate the dynamics of the reception of such objects, but equally the dynamics of their creation. In addition, the receptivity of our sensory apparatus (what Kant called “sensibility”) and the creative possibilities of our imagination (what Kant calls “the free play of the imagination”) may be even closer connected than previously thought.[xiii]
[i] W. Benjamin, Illuminations: Essays and Reflections (New York, NY: Schocken Books, 2007), p. 221.
[ii] Benjamin, Illuminations, p. 224.
[iii] Benjamin, Illuminations, p. 223.
[iv] The claim here is that natural and artificial beauty are two different qualities. Of course, the Romantics held that a specific mountain, forest, ruin, or rock formation could possess a wild, natural beauty. This distinction is a product of post-Kantian aesthetics, and it caused quite some confusion, for instance when Western metaphysics was introduced in Japan.
[v] Kant uses also the example of the trees and distinguishes between two forms in which the tree acts as a natural end: first, it generates other trees, thus preserving the species as such; second, it generates itself as an individual. The third point that Kant raises with regard to the dependency of wholes and parts in organisms has little to do with organisms as natural ends. See Kant, I., Critique of the Power of Judgment, rans. P. Guyer and E. Matthews (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), pp. 242–243.
[vi] See, e.g., R. Hanna, “Kant’s Anti-Mechanism and Kantian Anti-Mechanism,” Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Science 45 (2014), available online at URL = <http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1369848614000107>; and R. Hanna, “The Organicist Conception of the World: A Manifesto” (February 2020 version), available online HERE.
[vii] E.F. Anderson, The Cactus Family (Portland, OR: The Timber Press, 2001).
[viii] I borrow the term from Richard Dawkins’s discussion of the “natural theology” argument for intelligent design. A designoid object looks as if it is purposively designed; yet its form comes about by external selection pressures over prolonged periods of time.
[ix] T. Nagel, Mind and Cosmos (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), p. 17.
[x] M. Marra, Modern Japanese Aesthetics: A Reader (Honolulu, HI: Univ. of Hawaii Press, 2002), p. 33. The quotation is from Nishi Amane’s 1877 A Theory of Aesthetics, the first text written by a Japanese thinker that dealt with aesthetics in the Western sense of the term, although it was initially presented as a series of lectures. It should be emphasized that Amane deploys the distinction between too much order and no order not because it is indigenous to Japanese thought; he presented this Occidental (specifically Kantian) distinction to a Japanese audience.
[xi] Kant, Critique of the Power of Judgment, p. 126.
[xii] A. Sussman and K. Chen, “The Mental Disorders That Gave Us Modern Architecture,” Common Edge (22–8–2017), available online at URL = <https://commonedge.org/the-mental-disorders-that-gave-us-modern-architecture/>. Sussman’s and Chen’s view has been criticized, but it brings the modern reductive tendencies to light that still characterize scientific naturalism and its associated scientism.
[xiii] For a discussion of the free play of the imagination, see O. Paans, “The Expanse of Thought: Kantian Imagination, Différance, and Creativity,” Contemporary Studies in Kantian Philosophy 4 (2019): 85–98, available online HERE; and for a critique of the idea that receptivity is passive, see O. Paans, “The Imaginative Spectrum: Kantian Imagination and Nonconceptual/Conceptual Interactions,” Contemporary Studies in Kantian Philosophy 5 (2020): 95–115, available online HERE.
AGAINST PROFESSIONAL PHILOSOPHY REDUX 465
Mr Nemo, W, X, Y, & Z, Thursday 13 August 2020
Please consider becoming a patron!