“Some company recently was interested in buying my ‘aura,’ they didn’t want my product.” — Andy Warhol, The Philosophy of Andy Warhol
The word aura dates to antiquity (Latin, ‘breath’ or ‘breeze; later, ‘a subtle emanation from any substance’) and has been used in numerous ways, not least to describe the existence of electromagnetic fields around the human body (OED). Although this usage predates Walter Benjamin’s 1936 essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” i the use of the term in contemporary media studies is dominated by the specter of Benjamin and by his elaboration of the term here and in his work on the storyteller and Baudelaire. ‘Aura’ refers to the authority held by the unique, original work, which under modernity is liquidated by the techniques of mass reproduction. This involvement with authenticity and reproduction squarely ensconces Benjamin in an older debate over the nature of the original and the copy, which dates to Plato and continues through today in (amongst others) Jean Baudrillard and Gilles Deleuze. Benjamin’s entrypoint to aura is his concern with technical reproducibility. Aura for him refers first and foremostly to a certain kind of aesthetic presence of art, grounded in religious experience, and eliminated by the modern development of the technologies of reproduction–photography and especially film. Aura also, however, refers to the model of a certain kind of intersubjective experience, in the experience of an object gazing back at one. In this way Benjamin means to approach both aesthetics and ethics and, in doing so, to approach what mass media might mean as the grounds for a revolutionary politics. As Miriam Hansen argues, however, the tension in Benjamin between the liberatory potential of mass media and the vulgarity it represents is never fully resolved (Hansen 187).
1. Aura, Presence, Politics
The aura of a work issues from the presence it has: from being situated squarely in a particular space and having a certain history, or in other words, its authenticity. The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel has an aura–and an authority–which derives not only from its formal qualities but the fact of its being in the Vatican, having lasted five centuries, having been painted by the hand of Michelangelo, and even more than that, that it cannot ever be duplicated. A replica of an entire Dutch village has been built in the south of Japan but it is throughly without aura: it lacks the tradition of the former, the history of the former, it is ersatz and in this sense inauthentic. As Benjamin writes, “Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be (Benjamin 220).” Under modernity aura becomes degraded: in the proliferation of reproductions, the authority of the original is obliterated. To be sure, technologies of reproduction have always existed. But for Benjamin there is a categorical difference between the reproduction the Greeks were capable of and the technical reproduction we are capable of. Inherent in the medium of photography is the process of reproduction: a negative can be used to produce an infinite number of prints, none of which can really be called an ‘original.’ Technologies such as the lithograph and the photograph allow the work of art to be reproduced endlessly, and not only reproduced–but allow it to be seen better, as in process reproduction, which can enlarge an original. Reproduction can also transport the original to “situations where it would be out of reach for the original itself (Benjamin 220),” for example, when the Sistine Chapel is reproduced in middle school civilizations textbooks. The aura that issues from apprehending the Sistine Chapel in the state of its history, in the Vatican, dissipates with each reproduction. As Benjamin writes, “[T]he technique of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the domain of tradition,” which is to say, it takes the object out of the time and place in which it was made. Reproductions are not just other objects: they degrade the aura of the original.
But while aura is to be found in authenticity, Benjamin is very careful to tether it to religious life ii. Benjamin being a certain kind of Marxist, the destruction of aura–and the progression of history–cannot be read in elegiac terms: the end of aura is also the end of the ritual and political structures which surround aura. “[T]he unique value of the ‘authentic’ work of art has its basis in ritual, the location of its original use value… for the first time in world history, mechanical reproduction emancipates the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual” (Benjamin 224). The destruction of aura in “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” is also the destruction of a certain kind of social organization which propagates it in the first place. The unspoken debt in Benjamin’s discussion of ritual is to Durkheim and his discussion, in The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, of mana (to which aura is closely tied, as it is a power from which authority issues) and to his affirmation of the hierarchical nature of early societies. The new technologies of mechanical reproducibility are above all, then, emancipatory technologies: mass culture is positioned as a kind of democratization when, as under the regime of mechanical reproducibility, the authentic original disappears, and the legitimation of political resistance thus becomes unnecessary. Benjamin self-consciously means for “The Work of Art…” to function as a political exhortation: “The concepts which are introduced into the theory of art in what follows… are useful for the formulation of revolutionary demands in the politics of art,” he proclaims. Aura is an aesthetic experience; but above all, for Benjamin, the liquidation of aura is a kind of political emancipation. In the age of technical reproduction, the authentic, original image or document cannot exist; asking the question of authenticity of a Microsoft Word document is for Benjamin incomprehensible. “The instant the criterion of authenticity ceases to be applicable to artistic production, the total function of art is reversed. Instead of being based on ritual, it begins to be based on another practice–politics (Benjamin 224).” The politics of aura under premodernity are such that the work of art is out of reach for most people: the reliquaries of the church and the Kunstkammern of the German princes are closed to the eyes of the public. In the reproduction of works of art–in photography and in film and in print–there is a radical accessibility at work, which for Benjamin opens up the possibility of finding in the work of art a place for revolution.
But while true aura dissipates under modernity, Benjamin does note that it resurfaces in mass culture as a kind of dream image: it is refigured, as pastiche, in the production of mass culture. One example of this refiguring would be Ikea furniture design: the design of an eccentric and homely chair is meant specifically to elide or gloss the enormous global distribution networks from which it emerges. Susan Buck-Morss describes the habit of buying covers and boxes and packages for our bought objects, by which we seem to want to make a home for them (Buck-Morss 184). Aura, thus, resurfaces in its dissolution as ersatz tragicomedy; and more than this, Benjamin has through asserting this foreclosed absolutely on the possibility of any kind of restoration of the mystery and distance of the world, of traditional notions of subjectivity, by working through the structures of capital. If one is to formulate a revolutionary politics based on mass culture it cannot be predicated on finding a home within mass culture.
One might argue, however, that the conception of aura which I have just presented is as unstable as its namesake: as Miriam Hansen argues in “Benjamin, Cinema, and Experience: ‘The Blue Flower in the Land of Technology,’” Benjamin’s conception of aura, when mapped against the theory of experience as found in his work on Baudelaire and on storytelling, is ‘profoundly ambivalent’ (Hansen 187). In “The Storyteller,” for example, Benjamin decries the devaluing of ‘experience’, and ennobles the teller of stories: “Experience has fallen in value… Every glance at a newspaper demonstrates that it has reached a new low… (Benjamin 83-84)” It should be clear that this is an entirely different tack than is taken in the ebullient optimism of “The Work of Art…,” that what is being decried here is in fact that which the other essay takes as the new direction for revolutionary politics. Aura is by no means a unitary concept unto itself for Benjamin and his ambivalent oscillation between the emancipatory possibilities of mass culture and the sense of mass culture’s degradation remains a problem for contemporary media studies. To some extent Benjamin’s work in mass culture can be read as a predecessor of Jean Baudrillard, who writes in Simulacra and Simulation: “Simulation is no longer that of a territory, a referential being, or a substance. It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal (Baudrillard 1).” In this sense Benjamin’s assertion that the original under technical reproduction ceases to exist is taken to its most extreme in Baudrillard, in which the disintegration of the original has been such that it is no longer, even, a point of reference. The hyperreal spins off reproductions endlessly, without grounding. (See also articles on simulation, simulacrum: 1, 2).
2. Returning the Gaze
If one aspect of the aura was the question of its uniqueness, another is the way it is ensconced in a certain kind of subjectivity. ‘Aura’ implies a relation between the object and the spectator which, for Benjamin, is a relation characterized by distance. “We define the aura of [natural objects] as the unique phenomenon of a distance, however close it may be. If, while resting on a summer afternoon, you follow with your eyes a mountain range on the horizon or a branch which casts its shadow over you, you experience the aura of those mountains, of that branch (Benjamin 222-223).” This idea of contemplation, important for Benjamin’s conception of what conditions are necessary for critique to be possible, thus implies a certain kind of distance and a certain kind of subjectivity. As Susan Buck-Morss rejoins to this, “Characteristic of aura, despite its ‘unique phenomenon of distance,’ was the sense that ‘the gaze is returned (Buck-Morss 194).’” If one were ever to find an ambivalence in Benjamin it would be here: for Benjamin, in the watching of a film one relates not to the face of the actor (who is directed towards an infinite number of spectators ad infinitum), but to the camera. In saying this he means to call attention to the technical medium, which enacts a generalized degradation. This is, however, the same medium by which he hopes to launch a platform for a radical politics. Inasmuch as the concept ennobles authenticity, it places Benjamin squarely on one side of a debate which dates back to Plato–which is to say that in this position, Benjamin is making a certain claim about the degradation and inadequacy of the copy, famously explicated in Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave,” although the issue of ‘the modern break’ for him looms large in a way which it does not for his ancient forebearer. Yet it also ennobles a certain kind of politics which lead ultimately to the very unseating of the mechanics of reproducibility.
3. Aura since Benjamin
Despite the fact that at the time of its conceptualization, aura was for Benjamin a concept withering under duress, it remains important for its engagement with issues which remain front and center for art historical discourse, especially as regards authenticity. Rosalind Krauss et al in Art Since 1900 describes Donald Judd as attempting very baldly to eradicate any sense of ‘aura’, by which is meant the hand of the artist, the uniqueness of a particular piece. In a 1990 public letter to Jacques Derrida, the architect Peter Eisenman writes of the need in architecture to create auras, which he glosses as “the possibility of a presentness of something else” (Eisenman 17), or in other words, a gesturing into the beyond, an open-endedness. “But I am not talking about this kind of Benjaminian aura–the aura of metaphysical fullness,” Eisenman is quick to rejoin, “but rather of an other aura evolving from the remainder of the here and now after its deconstruction… My architecture holds that architecture could write something else” (Eisenman 17). If nothing else, Eisenman reflects the continuing need to answer to Benjamin, and thus his continuing importance.
i Due to ambiguity over the translation of the German (“Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit” should have been translated as, “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technical Reproducibility”). Miriam Hansen and Susan Buck-Morss have taken to calling this the “Artwork Essay.” The word ‘aura‘ is also the word that is used by Benjamin in the original German; this is not an approximated translation.
ii It’s worth noting that the word aura does not come from the same Latin cognate as aureola, the technical term for the halo that in medieval Christian imagery surrounds the head of Christ. Aura refers to an emanation or a breeze; aureola’s cognate is aureolum, which refers to the color of gold. Aureola moreover refers only to halos around the head; holy emanations from the body of Christ at large are nimbuses (OED).
Baudrillard, Jean. Simulacra and Simulation. Trans. Sheila Faria Glaser. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2006.
Benjamin, Walter. “The Storyteller: Reflections on the Works of Nikolai Leskov.” Illuminations. Ed. Hannah Arendt. New York: Schocken Books, 1968: 83-109.
Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Illuminations. Ed. Hannah Arendt. New York: Schocken Books, 1968: 217-251.
Buck-Morss, Susan. The Dialectics of Seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project. Boston: MIT Press, 1991.
Oxford English Dictionary, online
Eisenman, Peter. “Post/El Cards: A Reply to Jacques Derrida.” Assemblage 12 (1990): 14-17.
Hansen, Miriam. “Benjamin, Cinema, and Experience: ‘The Blue Flower in the Land of Technology.’” New German Critique, 40 (1987): 179-224.