The act of looking at someone or something “carries the implicit expectation that our look will be returned.” “Where this expectation is met […], there is an experience of the aura to the fullest extent.” (Benjamin, Forrest 53)
According to the Oxford English Dictionary of 1989, the term aura, with its original meaning as “a gentle breeze,” bears its roots in Latin and was later adopted by the Greek. Up until about the 18th century, aura was nearly synonymous with a “zephyr,” a wind from the west, or when personified, “the god of the west wind.”
Gradually, however, the term came to denote an ‘exhalation from any substance,’ particularly that which can be observed through the sense of smell, for instance, “the aroma of blood” and the “odour of flowers.” Pathologically speaking, aura could be felt as a sensation of rising internal air, and a “premonitory symptom in epilepsy and hysterics.” (OED) The term came to refer to a specific medical condition, defined in 1981 by the Commission on Classification and Terminology of the International League Against Epilepsy as “that portion of the seizure which occurs before consciousness is lost and of which memory is retained afterwards.” Even in its usage as medical terminology, the term has aroused much controversy. The most recent conclusion aimed to discontinue the labeling of measurable phenomenon was to define the aura has solely the “psychic experience,” confined to the “first conscious indication” of an epileptic series.
Webster’s Third New International Dictionary of 2002 affirms the sensory components of the aura with its descriptions “a distinctive and often subtle sensory stimulus (as an aroma)” and “a subjective sensation experienced before an attack of epilepsy, migraine, or certain other nervous disorders.” It appears that aura has in the past consisted of a dual structure: both physical and observable as in the cases above, but also metaphysical and intangible. The OED points out that the term was also figuratively used to describe the ‘distinctive impression of character or aspect,’ and the WTID describes it as “a distinctive highly individualized atmosphere surrounding or attributed to a given source.”
Surprisingly relevant to the realm of media theory, mystics of the late 19th and early 20th centuries viewed the aura as ‘consisting of the essence of the individual, serving as the medium for the operation of mesmeric and similar influences.’ (OED) Aura as celestial presence is still recurrent today in texts that claim to teach the gifts of “aura reading” for advantages ranging from improving health to saving money. The concept of the aura as a medium is particularly evident here. However unlike contemporary usages of the term, it appears that the historical aura envelopes only ‘living persons and things.’ The aura in today’s colloquial language has not lost its original denotation as ‘essence’ of a person, however in the world of media aesthetics it has become more so connected with authenticity, and is primarily used in discourses of the inanimate, non-living objects of art.
The correlation between aura and authenticity in media theory today is most widely speculated by Walter Benjamin, whose main argument is that with the constant reproduction of art, the aura of the original work is consistently degraded. As he puts it, “what withers in the age of the technological reproducibility of the work of art is the latter’s aura.” (Benjamin 104) The aura consists of the time and place, specifically in history and tradition, of the work of art, or as Benjamin coins, its authenticity. Benjamin goes on to define the authenticity of a work of art as “the quintessence of all that is transmissible in it from its origin on, ranging from its physical duration to the historical testimony relating to it.” (Benjamin 103) Reproduction, including both manual and especially technological, remediates the art by transporting it directly to the audience without having the audience move in physical position, substituting the art’s “unique existence” for “mass existence.” The reproduced art is common and immediately accessible, “shattering” the tradition of the original, and results in the loss of the authority of the original object.
Benjamin attributes the “decay of the aura” as the drastic shift in the human mode of perception. He claims that today’s masses desperately urge to “get closer” to things in order to overcome the things’ authority, or uniqueness, by copying it. He argues that “the destruction of the aura is the signature of a perception whose ‘sense for sameness in the world’ has so increased that, by means of reproduction, it extracts sameness even from what is unique.” (Benjamin 105) Conflict arises because the consumer longs for a “facsimile, a reproduction,” when in actuality, “There is no facsimile of the aura.” (Benjamin 105, 112)
For Benjamin, the mass population and its desire for reproduction have transformed not only art’s function in society, but also the society’s participation in it. Art finds itself divided into two functions, that of entertainment and that of contemplation. The difference between the two arises in their point of perception: entertainment is for the masses, contemplation, for the art lover. In the case of architecture, which Benjamin insists is the only art form that has never had “fallow periods,” this dichotomy of participation is explicitly evident. The masses don’t perceive aura, thus contributing to their negligence of it. Authority is transferred from the art to the recipient as the “distracted masses absorb the work of art into themselves.” (Benjamin 119) Krysztof Wodiczko, a contemporary polish artist in New York, exemplifies Benjamin’s need for the appreciation of authentic. He writes of the aura in public buildings as the “mysterious grammar,” the “mediums of gigantic cultural séance,” and finally, the “magnetic field of its architectural appeal and symbolic influence.” (Wodiczko 1065) Benjamin writes that those who concentrate on the work of art are “absorbed by it, enters into the work,” and similarly, Wodiczko claims to “feel desire to identify with or become part of the building,” all the while resenting “the authority of its massive monumental structure.” Wodiczko reflects largely on Benjamin’s associations of aura with time, place, and ritual by further commenting that the “annexation of time and territory (…) the aura of the unmoving building hypnotically animates and sustains our ritualistic movement around its body.” (Wodiczko 1065)
To Wodiczko’s and Benjamin’s great disappoint, this ritualism’s survival is endangered as the aura itself. Through the liquidation of the aura, the original work is taken from its original context of tradition, and in this very way is “emancipated form its parasitic subservience to the ritual.” (Benjamin 106) By devaluing the aura, objects of art are no longer produced in the hopes of uniqueness, but the originals are made for the sole purpose for reproduction. Benjamin uses the example of photography, and also points to film as the “most powerful agent” of these phenomena. Film as an art is entirely dependent on its reproducibility. The art, without the aura, experiences a change in its function in society altogether. Both economic and psychological, “the primary function of art today is to rehearse that interplay,” where play corresponds with imagination and make-believe, the human attempt to distance himself from nature. (Benjamin 107) For Benjamin, aura’s degradation is the basis for political revolution, as it assists in human self-alienation and privileges the apparatus over the artist.
In response to Benjamin’s claims that film and photography represent the decay of aura, Dag Petersson and Erik Steinskog pose the question of the actualities of aura in relation to digital space. They ask whether it revives the aura, or transforms its meaning all together. Though most critics declare the age of the auratic to have been completely terminated, in Actualities of Aura: Twelve Studies of Walter Benjamin, editors Steinskog and Peterson seek the voices of contributors from Salford, Sydney, the USA, Scandinavia and Germany to provide insight on the modern status and implications of the aura. Petersson personally challenges Benjamin’s definitions of the aura by presenting digital imagery and cloning as forms of reproduction that undermine Benjamin’s theory on the basis that Benjamin does not recognize the “different structuring of time” that permits the “constant alterability” of technological reproduction. (Leslie 150) In another account, David Kelman, resting on views from Baudelaire, interjects that there can realistically be only two options to the question of aura’s existence: either the inactuality of aura or the actuality of its degradation. (Leslie 149)
Amongst other commentators include Graeme Gilloch who presents the term “artificial aura” as the edition of Benjamin’s aura that has been disintegrated by the contemporary culture of duplicative technology. Gilloch considers Baudelaire’s and Barthes’ reflections on the female movie star and extracts a notion of the mutated version of aura which is able to survive in technological culture. Hollywood silent film star Greta Garbo has a face that is “expressionless,” “dead,” and “exudes immutability,” that Gilloch readily compares to the face of Audrey Hepburn, “whose look is ‘modern’ and ‘motile’, and whose gestures are imitative.” In the face-off, Hepburn’s visage succeeds in better exemplifying the modern aura, in that it moves, “paralleling the moving principle of cinema.” (Leslie 149) Aura taken by Gilloch, then, can be seen as that which most represents and encompasses its medium, so much so the auratic being or object gauges its place in modernity, granting the medium a significant place in time. In this sense, Hepburn possesses, though artificially, an aura that signifies her as cinema’s “appropriate icon.” (Leslie 149) Benjamin would maintain this view, as in historical-economic terms, the aura is a by product of commodity fetishism and in its artificial replica, a misplaced source of value.
The aura is also linked with the drugged experience of intoxication and the childlike perceptions this mental state elicits. From the perspective of the contributor Tara Forrest, author of The politics of imagination: Benjamin, Kracauer, Klug, aura is a form of altered perception that grants the world exclusive access to a new kind of cognition. Forrest’s conclusions on the concept are based soundly on Benjamin’s clinic experiments with the effects of the drug hashish. Benjamin claimed such effects represented the auratic experience, ranging from the “heightened perceptual acuity, the experience of the expansion of space, and the return to the infantile,” to the “the activation of memory.” (Forrest 44) The “new cognition” corresponds with Benjamin’s “image space” that is made accessible through the hashish experience. With strong correlations with Surrealist views, the image space presents a continuity of time through the increased recollection of memories prompted by the mental affects of the drug. Thus, the capacity for imagination and perception is renewed, and there is greater potential for the interaction with the unconscious. Because of this, aura is made possible.
Involuntary memory provides the data that corresponds to the “means” to experience aura, or as in Benjamin’s own words, “To perceive the aura of an object we look at means to invest it with the ability to look at us in return. This experience corresponds to the data of the mémoire involontaíre.” (Benjamin, Forrest 59) The observing subject, through the involuntary memory provoked by hashish, experiences hallucinations that transform the objects of his immediate surrounds into data from his memories; He thus enters the openness of time, the “empty passage,” and is “able to envision the possibility of a different kind of relationship to his or her environment, and with it, the possibility of a different kind of existence.” (Forrest 56) This is the manifestation of the auratic experience though the medium of memory.
Alvarez-Silva S., Alvarez-Silva I., Alvarez-Rodriguez J., Perez-Echeverria M.J., Campayo-Martinez A., Rodriguez-Fernandez F.L. Epileptic consciousness: Concept and meaning of aura (2006) Epilepsy and Behavior, 8 (3), pp. 527-533.
Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility.” Walter Bejamin Selected Writings. Ed. Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings. Trans. Howard Eiland, and Others Edmund Jephcott. Vol. 3. Cambridge, Massachusetts, and London, England: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2002.
Binkley, Timothy and William J. Mitchell. “Digital Media.” Encyclopedia of Aesthetics. Ed. Michael Kelly. Oxford Art Online. 30 Jan. 2010 <http://www.oxfordartonline.com/subscriber/article/opr/t234/e0172>
Forrest, Tara “The politics of imagination: Benjamin, Kracauer, Kluge” Chapter 2 Aura and Imagination in Benjamin’s Writings on Hashish pp 43-63 <http://books.google.com/books?id=a3KijfFz8WcC&lpg=PA9&ots=NHHpP2_elK&dq=tara%20forrest&lr=&pg=PA43#v=onepage&q=&f=false>
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