The first section of this essay will broadly explore the etymology of the word “shock.” The remainder will closely examine Walter Benjamin’s employment of the word within his analyses of Baudelaire and of the cinema. Benjamin’s work was chosen both because his conception of shock directly addresses the human mediation of an external environment and because his formulation of shock is by far the most influential one in modern media theory.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, shock, adopted from the French word choquer, was first used in its most common noun form in the mid 16th century as a military term meaning “the encounter of an armed force with the enemy in a charge or…the encounter of two mounted warriors or jousters charging one another.” This military usage presents shock as a collision between two forces. It is intriguing because it does not define the occasion of shock as one force acting on another, but rather the meeting of two seemingly equal, or at least not explicitly unequal, forces.
But this equality, in form or size, of colliding bodies, is not present in a later, more specifically physical usage, which defines shock as “a sudden and violent blow…tending to overthrow or to produce internal oscillation in a body subjected to it…also, a sudden large application of energy other than mechanical energy, esp. thermal energy; a shock wave.” Here, a body, an environment, receives a quick and powerful jolt of energy, and becomes altered. This usage is most frequently applied to the study of physics, and the OED quotes a 1966 science and technology encyclopedia as explaining, “such shock arises when body at one uniform temperature is suddenly accelerated to or decelerated from high supersonic or hypersonic speeds.” The word “media” is often used in conjunction with shock in the context of physical science. One experiment on cosmic-ray transport and acceleration applied the derivation of the kinetic equation to cosmic rays first in “static cold media,” then in “moving cold media with application to diffusive shock wave acceleration” (Schlickeiser, p. 243-293).
Perhaps the most loaded definition of shock for the purposes of a study of media, is a medical one which presents shock as “a sudden debilitating effect produced by over-stimulation of nerves.” This definition is underscored by a later one that describes shock as “a momentary stimulation of a nerve. Also a stimulation of nerves with resulting contraction of muscles and feeling of concussion.; spec. = electric shock.” When in a condition of shock, the body is literally over-stimulated, is taking in too much information.
In his analysis of both Baudelaire and the cinema, Walter Benjamin employs this final definition of shock as over-stimulation within the context of psychoanalysis. In his essay, “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire,” Benjamin quotes Freud as writing “‘for a living organism, protection against stimuli is an almost more important function than the reception of stimuli’” (161). According to Freud, the human “‘protective shield’,” which has its own energy, guards the nervous system against “‘the excessive energies of the outside world’” (161). For Benjamin reading Freud, “the threat of these energies is one of shocks” and “the more readily consciousness registers these shocks, the less likely they are to have a traumatic effect” (161). Freud through Benjamin is contending that the external world is constantly threatening to over-stimulate us and that, instead of requiring more means of accessing the world, the body needs protectors, shields, to help block it out. The principle shield is consciousness, which protects the subconscious from suffering the after-effects of shock. Much of this language recalls Marshall McLuhan’s definition of media as “extensions of man” (3). Here the extension, consciousness, is most decidedly a shield, and not a spear.
In his reading of Baudelaire, Benjamin employs shock both in the context of the creative process and in the context of the modern city. According to Benjamin, Baudelaire “speaks of a duel” between consciousness and the shocks of the external world (163). Consciousness is behaving here as a kind of combative and active shield, constantly parrying the shocking blows from the environment. Crucially, Benjamin contends that for Baudelaire, “this duel is the creative process itself,” and thus he “placed the shock experience at the very center of his artistic work” (163). The highly sensitized artist is constantly being shocked, over-stimulated, by the world around him and must enlist his consciousness to aid him in the battle. Benjamin introduces “Le Soleil” by arguing that Baudelaire “has pictured himself engaged in a fantastic combat” in a poem “that shows the poet at work” (164). The poem itself reads, in part, “When the cruel sun’s redoubled beams/ Are lashing city and field, roofs and grain,/I go alone, to practice my curious fencing/In every corner smelling out the dodges of rhyme” (164). There is a violence, a conflict, in the poem which recalls the first OED definition of shock, that of a military confrontation. More specifically, though, the artist’s consciousness is behaving as a combative shielding medium to protect his subconscious from the shock of the outside world.
For Benjamin, part of this external shock is inherent to the crowded modern city. He directs our attention towards the “the close connection in Baudelaire between the figure of shock and contact with the metropolitan masses” (165). Because the city, with its “traffic signals” and “technology” provides so much external stimulation, so much opportunity for shock, its population has collectively trained its consciousness to always be alert, to always be parrying those shocks (175). Put differently, the inhabitants of the modern city constantly have their mediating shields raised, to the shocking environment that surrounds them. Thus, Benjamin explains, “Baudelaire speaks of a man who plunges into the crowd as into a reservoir of electric energy. Circumscribing the experience of the shock, he calls this man ‘a kaleidoscope equipped with consciousness’” (175). Here we get the explicit use of electricity as a conduit for shock. But, more broadly, we get the sense that crowds acclimated to the over-stimulation of the modern city, with its multiplicity of potentially shocking elements, are nothing less than fast-moving packs of excited shielding mediation. They are a kinetic bundle, equipped with the shield of consciousness and ready to do battle with modernity.
In his essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Benjamin again equates shock with modernity. Discussing the rapid succession of images inherent to cinema, Benjamin writes, “the spectator’s process of association in view of these images is indeed interrupted by their constant, sudden change” (238). Unlike a painting, which allows the viewer’s eye to settle, giving their consciousness the time to address the shock of the external stimulation, a film is all violent change and movement. Benjamin calls this quality “the shock effect of the film, which, like all shocks, should be cushioned by a heightened presence of mind” (238). This heightened presence of mind is consciousness, which, in contact with cinema, is at a real disadvantage in its duel with shock. In fact, in comparing film to Dadaism, Benjamin explains that while Dadaism contained only moral shock, cinema is imbued with actual physical shock (238).
This physical shock is related to, but in a sense broader than, the shocking juxtapositions of images which Eisenstein both articulated and realized, and which Giles Delueze addresses in Cinema 2: time-image. Benjamin here is not exploring the effects caused by the associations drawn from images placed next to each other. Rather, he is simply addressing the fact that images are placed next to, or on top of, each other at all, and that the audience does not have proper time to react to those images. With cinema, shock is allowed to penetrate the audience’s barrier of consciousness and thus the audience’s ability to mediate the world is neutralized.
Thus, for Benjamin, cinema wrests the agency of Baudelaire’s dueling poet from its audience. No longer able to parry the shocking blows of the external world at its own pace, cinema’s audience is left naked in the hands of both the film’s director and the film projector’s mechanical rhythm. While Benjamin is more ambivalent about the long-term effects of cinema than his pessimistic protégé Theodor Adorno, he makes it clear that cinema decreases the audience’s ability to combat shock. The new experience of watching cinema may not signal the death of culture, but it does leave the audience weakened in its battle with the external world.
Benjamin, Walter. “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire” Illuminations. Ed. Hannah Arendt. New York: Shocken Books, 1968. 155-200.
Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” Illuminations. Ed. Hannah Arendt. New York: Shocken Books, 1968. 217-251.
McLuhan, Marshall, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. The MIT Press: Cambridge, MA. 1994.
Schlickeiser, Richard. “Cosmic-ray transport and acceleration. I – Derivation of the kinetic equation and application to cosmic rays in static cold media. II – Cosmic rays in moving cold media with application to diffusive shock wave acceleration.” Astrophysical Journal, Part 1 (ISSN 0004-637X), vol. 336, Jan. 1, 1989, 243-293.
“Shock.” Oxford English Dictionary online [computer file] (2nd ed.1989). 15 Febraury 2006.