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.

1 thought on “The Mechanical Reproduction of Simulated Reality

  1. anne

    I have to admit that I get a little lost in what you write, Jay, and I know that some of that has to do with the quickness with which you must write and that these are preliminary, developing thoughts, but I also know that some of my inability to make connections across parts of your writing have to do with an issue I have with Benjamin.

    In passages like the long one you quote and others, Benjamin seems to me to be taking up a very Marxist belief that living as a human is about fulfilling the possibilities of human freedom to live well in the world, as a producer of what we need, unalienated from what we make as well as from the stuff — the nature — we use to make it and the others with whom we share/circulate what we make.

    I take Benjamin then to be saying that there are ways of living — and so of mediation — that are more conducive to such a life than others. In “The Work of Art” I see him accepting that media, senses, and “reality” are all historical, in the sense that they change as we change modes of production; I also see him arguing/assuming that there are ways of living more conducive to the “humanly” than others, and that we might want to shape our mediations toward that.

    He is therefore, for me, NOT supportive of the “seeking of closeness” you explore. That seeking of closeness — which he sees as destroying uniqueness — goes against, for him (at least as I understand him), what is most humanly.

    Given my take, then, can you see why I might have trouble following you from your first paragraph to your apparent desire to increase closeness?

    Enlighten me!


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