Monthly Archives: February 2011

The Mechanical Reproduction of Simulated Reality

“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. This image makes it easy to comprehend the social bases of the contemporary decay of the aura. It rests on two circumstances, both of which are related to the increasing significance of the masses in contemporary life. Namely, the desire of contemporary masses to bring things “closer” spatially and humanly, which is just as ardent as their bent toward overcoming the uniqueness of every reality by accepting its reproduction. Every day the urge grows stronger to get hold of an object at very close range by way of its likeness, its reproduction. Unmistakably, reproduction as offered by picture magazines and newsreels differs from the image seen by the unarmed eye. Uniqueness and permanence are as closely linked in the latter as are transitoriness and reproducibility in the former. To pry an object from its shell, to destroy its aura, is the mark of a perception whose “sense of the universal equality of things” has increased to such a degree that it extracts it even from a unique object by means of reproduction. Thus is manifested in the field of perception what in the theoretical sphere is noticeable in the increasing importance of statistics. The adjustment of reality to the masses and of the masses to reality is a process of unlimited scope, as much for thinking as for perception.”  — from section III, paragraph 2 of “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Walter Benjamin


Through the above excerpt, I see something of Benjamin’s concerns, approaches, and hints toward his conclusions regarding the function of art in his contemporary context. In this passage, I begin to see how mechanical reproduction effects the image and how this effect is of particular significance to the potential relationships between media and the masses. Through these concerns, the role of mediation in our every day life might be better understood as a way of shaping our perception of the world and our own reality.

One of Benjamin’s central claims is “that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art” (II). This change, to Benjamin, seems to be the most important direct result of the processes of mechanical reproduction of images; in some way, all of the aspects of art in this age that are of concern to Benjamin in this essay seem to rely on this condition. From the quote atop this post, I understand the social significance (i.e. how art/image changes its relationship with the masses/proletariat) as being of two major points, both of which are clearly stated by Benjamin in this above passage, but not necessarily clearly presented upon first read. It is through these two “circumstances” that I wish to explore the relationship between mediation and “reality.”

Benjamin first talks of the masses’ “desire… to bring things ‘closer’ spatially and humanly” (III). With respects to spatially, Benjamin’s concern with the accessibility of art/images to the masses becomes evident; (a member of) the masses can more readily experience a work of art, like a Picasso painting, or experience a physical space, such as the alpine scene used as the foundation for this writing. Mechanical reproduction simply means copies, copies that extend beyond the aural setting or ritual within which the art/image was originally displayed. To show how mechanical reproduction destroys aura, he later states “[t]o pry an object from its shell, to destroy its aura, is the mark of a perception whose ‘sense of the universal equality of things’ has increased to such as degree that it extracts it even from a unique object by means of reproduction” (III). From this, the importance of accessibility (“‘… the universal equality of things’” [though it is unclear is this is Benjamin’s term or if his quotation marks signal another original]) can be understood as a type of leveling of the social structure; art is no longer the exclusive realm of the bourgeoisie.

While the above may account for the spatial closeness, that of the humanly might be understood in a few ways. First, I’d like to suggest that a focus on the interface of the media technology might be an interesting avenue to pursue this human connection. This approach would focus on the human as the bodily connection between the viewer and the image, such as the paper or frame of a photograph. It might be concerned with questions of permanence and trace, or prosthesis and materiality.

Another potential understanding of the humanly might be through the concept of authorship. This, I think, converges with the notion of mechanical reproduction as equalizing. In a perfect copy, there is no human creator–or at least no obvious human creator that is part of the image’s aura (since there is no aura). There may be examples of human-made perfect copies, such as the works of Elmyr D’Hory as shown in F for Fake, in which case we might admire the virtuosity of the forger; there are also images with aura that have no discernible author, such as Chartres cathedral, also featured in Orson Welles’ film. The mechanical reproduction, however, removes the human author from the reproduction that is both accessible to the masses and now humanly closer, in that there is not an authorial ownership exerted over the image in the same way that a single, original painting by Cezanne when viewed in a museum might be subjected to that ownership. [Works by Duchamp or Warhol, to name two popular examples, problematize this last assertion.]

\”The Most Profound Moment in Movie History\”

Finally, I believe this closeness of the humanly can also be understood through “overcoming the uniqueness of every reality by accepting its reproduction” (III). In this way, the human relation to reality is problematized: reality is not a singular possibility, but one potential, probabilistic iteration of a series of conditions and rules. (This fits nicely with both a Marxist view of history and the mention of “the increasing importance of statistics” later in the paragraph that helped to form this post.) The phenomenon of the moving picture, enabled by the mechanical technologies of the camera and the processing of film, reproduces a kind of reality that is immediate, able to approach the speed of speech (I). [It is also interesting that Benjamin notes that cinema only appears to be real through “the height of artifice”–a paradox of  hiding cameras, lighting, microphones, etc., from the viewer through the positioning of the lens (XI).]

The technology of mechanical reproduction and its media, such as photography and cinema, allow us to understand our reality in new ways. For instance, high-speed photography allowed us to see that all four legs of a horse simultaneously lose contract with the ground while running. If this mediation can reveal, I’d like to think that it can shape, as well, especially with our perception of reality.

With specific concern of bringing closer the human and understanding reality as a probability, one way of understanding the potential relationship between mediation and reality for the masses might be through the insertion of the individual into the work itself–an extreme closeness, in a way. Some possible veins to explore would be: alternate reality games and their employment of multiple media, interactive transmedia narratives/games; Marxist and recombinant theatre and their focus on the interactive and iterative, producing new simulations of power relationships blurring viewer and actor and author; digital database narrative and interactive fiction, whose output is influenced by the viwer’s input. All of these objects share an element of interactivity and immersion and those are what can bring the human closer to the work of art while emphasizing the equality of copied images. Specifically, perhaps as the name implies, alternate reality games can also blur the distinctions between “real” and “fictional” space, through the genre’s specific “this is not a game” aesthetic and strong immersive qualities, leading players to renegotiate the “real” and to manifest social and economic change through the conferring of narrative events from ARG to spaces outside the boundaries of the game.

What articles and reviews might tell us about media studies and culture

The four articles I read [Adrienne Shaw’s “What Is Video Game Culture? Cultural Studies and Game Studies”; Patrick Crogan’s “Tracing the Logics of Contemporary Digital Media Culture”; Gigi Durham’s review of Douglas Kellner’s Media Culture: Cultural Studies, Identity and Politics Between the Modern and the Postmodern”; Bo Reimer’s review of Jostein Gripsrud’s Understanding Media Culture”] were more convergent than I may have expected, given their divergent objects of study. These articles converged in their focus on cultural studies and the common academic ethos, likely as part of that wide-ranging discipline, that could be found in the various interrogations.

To begin, let me first elaborate on the individual articles and approaches. Shaw examines how the term “video game culture” has been used, adopted, and challenged through a discourse analysis of popular and academic articles using the aforementioned phrase. Through this analysis, she sees “culture” as a combination of actions, identities, and values—particularly how individual texts and genres of games are valued. Crogan explores the relationship between the simulation technology—screen mediated virtualization and visualization of the real that leads to a potential shift in the role of history as data for simauthors and as a way to check the accuracy of simulations (SIMNET)—and the political, economic, and power influences of and on society. Durham sees Kellner as being concerned with alternate, combinatory approaches to the cultural studies of US mass media. Reimer reads Gripsrud as writing an exemplar and useful text book for introduction to media culture for students and for serving as a common touchstone text for faculty in the traditionally various humanistic and social science approaches that might be valued in a typical media studies department.

Throughout these texts, a search for a reflexive and complex understanding of the relationship of culture and media is a common concern. Shaw challenges academics to reflexively ask why some favorable stereotypes of video game culture (VGC) are blindly accepted in the field while the more unflattering assumptions of VGC are destabilized. Rather, she argues that we interrogate all aspects of VGC, whether perceived as favorable or not, in order to reflect an inclusive and diverse understanding of VGC.
Crogan seeks to unearth the connections between the post-WW2 state of “pure war” (Paul Virilio’s term for the condition of military build-up and mobilization that made peace time indistinguishable from war) and Eisenhower’s notion of the military-industrial complex that fed “pure war.” This connection can be seen in the development of the screen-mediated virtualization of reality, reified first through the command and control defense system the Semi-automated Ground Environment (SAGE)—used to manage a potential nuclear strike response—and then through the networked military simulation system SIMNET. In both cases, Crogan focuses on how the simulation technology is both shaped by the cultural expectations of graphical and cartographic representation and is a shaping force for those expectations, specifically through the films and video games associated with the Military-Entertainment complex. Furthermore, and perhaps of higher stakes, contemporary military simulation techniques use data gathered from real battles, such as those in Desert Storm, to develop conditions and systems, which can then be used to simulate alternate outcomes. Crogan argues that this might be a shift in the perception of history, from “historical discourse as a hermeneutic, critical processing of the past” to a set of conditions used to predict probable futures—and secure national interests against perceived future threats.

Kellner and Gripsrud seem to approach their objects of study through more common understandings of media: mass media. These objects seem appropriate for their focus. Kellner is interested in a combinatory methodology of modernist and postmodernist theories of social science and cultural studies to excavate the connections between mass media and identity, ideology, race, gender, class, and politics, to name a few areas of concern. Through this “multicultural, multiperspective” (Kellner via Durham) approach, he seeks to open new opportunities for discussions of policy in the name of the grand project of the “democratization of society through media culture” (quoting Durham). Gripsrud, in composing a text book on media culture, offers a structured yet diverse approach to understanding media culture, through a audience-text-production context trichotomy. (neologism ftw…) The main critique of Reimer, the reviewer, however, is the lack of reflexivity in discussing why theories are included/excluded and what the historical influences on media culture theory might tell us about what theories have become privileged. Reimer’s critique, to me, seems very similar to Shaw’s critique of VGC: too little reflexivity, limited inclusiveness.

In these objects and methodologies I see at least two very specific echoes of what Mitchell and Hansen privilege in their introduction: interdisciplinary approaches and the concern with the “middle” position of media—its (at least) duality of being. Media is both influenced and influence; it occupies a complex role in the ecosystem of everyday (not ordinary, but ubiquitous) life.

Responding to Mitchell and Hansen’s Introduction

In their discussion of “media” and “media studies,” Mitchell and Hansen, perhaps in harmony with the “triangulation” approach of the text and its organization, attempt to avoid singular (or even binary) understandings of what is “media,” what “media studies” might include, and what me might do in performing “media studies.” Therefore, in distilling what they might mean by one of these terms, there seems to be significant cross-over into how we might understand the other(s). Similar to one understanding of media, we might view this in the same way that the authors view critical analysis of Schwarzenegger’s election as Governor of California in 2003 or the relationship of the printing press and the French Revolution: “rather than propose a language of cause and effect, we propose a language of necessary (but not sufficient) conditions, a vocabulary of catalytic effects and conflicted situations rather than determining forces” (xvi). This triangulation is also evident in their collective destabilization of Kittler’s concept of media as causal (in the sentence “Media determine our situation” [emphasis added]) and their focus on the middle/mediative interpretation of McLuhan’s media as the “extension of man” as being both prosthesis and amputation.

I first, then, turn to “media studies”–not necessarily because that is where I must begin, as this triangulation approach would seem to reject that notion, but it serves as one entrance into the ecology of the term. To Mitchell and Hansen, media studies is a multivalent effort. They take great pains to be inclusive in what is media studies, providing a list of objects of study and approaches that span disciplines and interdisciplines (vii-viii). After this lengthy enumeration, they concluded with “we are, it seems, all practitioners of media studies, whether we recogonize it or not” (viii). As meaningless as this statement might be in terms of concretely defining the term, it does seem in line with my interest in media studies (disciplinarily a creative writer who is interested in games and multimodality, and sometimes writes about books, films, television, said games, and combinations of those artifacts), as well as the varied interests of my fellow classmates.

This transdiscplinary makeup of media studies is again reflected in the authors’s structuring of the text: aesthetics, society, and technology–categories which might easily be seen as non-exclusive, porous, and overlapping. Can we/should we talk about technology without an understanding of its relationship to society and/or aesthetics?

One way the authors are particularly effective in discussing the multi-/inter-/trans-disciplinary and non-causal/-binary approach to media studies is through the notion of “understanding from the perspective of media” [emphasis original] (xi). While this bit of translation of perspective might be problematized by the imposition of ideology, identity, or anything else on media, it therefore also calls into question those very same notions: media are not sterile containers, but exist in a complex system of exchanges of ethics, ideas, power, genders, and exist non passively, but with perspectives that can shape and be shaped. In this light, I find the authors notion of mediarology, a simulatory metaphor, based on meteorology, for an approach to understanding the “dynamic interactive… pressure systems and storm fronts that crisscross the man-made world of symbols we have created” (xiv).

What, then, can we understand about “media” from their definitions of “media studies”?

The interrogation of the noun as singular and plural singular follows the “mediative” approach of between cause and effect, between prosthesis and amputation. This middle ground, wherein media can be considered as discrete or as part of a continuum of other media, reflects the complexity of the “mediarlogical” system described above. Media can be both, dynamic; media is/are both effected and affected, effective and affective. Media are objects, too, though, as we see from approaches such as media archaeology. They are mediative, in that they occupy middle ground and serve as exchange points.

Finally, media, for Mitchell and Hansen, seem to be both phenomenological and ontological. They write, “media form the infrastructural basis, the quasi-transcendental condition, for experience and understanding” and that “media broker the giving of space and time within which concrete experience becomes possible” (xvii). We experience and understand ourselves and the world through the media we create and experience and consume and value, at least when thinking of media studies through a humanistic lens.