Shock and Aura
In the 1939 essay “Some Motifs in Baudelaire” Walter Benjamin is deeply concerned with Kantian questions regarding Baudelaire’s lyric poetry. Benjamin begins with the introductory address to the reader in Fleurs du mal, which closes “Hypocrite lecteur, mon semblable,–mon frére!” [Hypocrite reader—my coequal— my brother!]. What are the conditions which would cause Baudelaire to write a book with no hope of an audience, and to consider such a reader his brother? Lyric poetry was largely dead by this time. Benjamin remarks: “the lyric poet has ceased to represent the poet per se. . . . he has become the representative of a genre” (156).
Benjamin suggests that the lower status afforded lyric poetry in the late nineteenth/ early twentieth century is the result of its failure to achieve rapport with the experience of its readers, brought about by “a change in the structure of experience” (156). The enjoyment of lyric poetry, then, would mean that a reader was out of step with society. Benjamin then turns to philosophical developments to establish conditions for such a change:
Since the end of the last century, philosophy has made an attempt to lay hold of the “true” experience as opposed to the kind which manifests itself in the standardized, denatured life of the civilized masses. . . . Their point of departure, understandably enough, was not man’s life in society. What they invoked was poetry, preferably nature, and most recently, the age of myths. (156)
“Towering above” these attempts, according to Benjamin, was the work of Bergson. Matiére et mémoire [Matter and Memory] proposes that establishing structure of memory is important to the establishment of “true” experience. Experience, in Bergson’s theory is not historical, but rather “a convergence in memory of accumulated and frequently unconscious data” (157). Through Bergson, Baudelaire, and Proust Benjamin modifys his assertion in “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” that the work of art was defined by historical duration and links to tradition. Benjamin offers the insight that history might be better explained by its afterimage. Benjamin approves of Bergson’s ahistorical stance:
He thus manages above all to stay clear of that experience from which his own philosophy evolved or, rather, in reaction to which it arose. It was the inhospitable, blinding age of big scale industrialism. In shutting out this experience the eye perceives an experience of a complementary nature in the form of its spontaneous afterimage, as it were. Bergson’s philosophy represents an attempt to give the details of this afterimage and to fix it as a permanent record. His philosophy thus indirectly furnishes a clue to the experience which presented itself to Baudelaire’s eyes in its undistorted version as the figure of his reader. (156)
Benjamin proposes that the model of experience proposed by Bergson could only reach its fulfillment in a poet; and then turns to Bergson’s brother-in-law, Marcel Proust. In Proust, memory is outside the reach of the intellect and can only be released in the chance encounter with a material object. The world of memory in Proust and the experience of the world in Baudelaire was one of alienation; and Benjamin has a strong opinion why. Like many critics of today, Benjamin blames it on the media:
Man’s inner concerns do not have their issueless private character by nature. They do so only when he is increasingly unable to assimilate the data of the world around him by way of experience. Newspapers constitute one of many evidences of such an inability. If it were the intention of the press to have the reader assimilate the information it supplies as part of his own experience, it would not achieve its purpose. But its intention is just the opposite, and it is achieved: to isolate what happens from the realm in which it could affect the experience of the reader. The principles of journalistic information (freshness of the news, brevity, comprehensibility, and, above all, lack of connection between individual news items) contribute as much to this as does the make-up of the pages and the paper’s style. . . . Another reason for the isolation of information from experience is that the former does not enter “tradition” (159)
Rather than blaming it on industrialization, as Karl Marx had, Benjamin sees the alienation as psychological rather than material. It seems entirely logical that the survey of modern experience next turns to consider Freud.
What Benjamin takes as pertinent to Baudelaire’s ennui is Freud’s theories of trauma, of shock. It is impossible in a world saturated by data to feel, except through higher levels of shock. In Benjamin’s view, this is why lyric poetry was destined to fail in the modern world. And yet, Baudelaire’s lyric poetry succeeds now because it represents “the emancipation from experience” (162). The emancipation of experience is tied to the discontinuity of time, which is also a profound part of the storytelling of Proust.
Familiarity with Baudelaire must include Proust’s experience with him. Proust writes: “Time is peculiarly chopped up in Baudelaire; only a very few days open up, they are significant ones. Thus, it is understandable why turns of phrases like ‘one evening’ occur frequently in his works.” These significant days are days of completing time, to paraphrase Joubert. They are days of recollection, not marked by any experience. They are not connected with other days, but stand out from time. As for their substance, Baudelaire has defined it in the notion of correspondences, a concept that in Baudelaire stands side by side and unconnected with the notion of “modern beauty.” (181).
The motif of shock in Baudelaire is usually related to contact with the crowd, and the motif of memory is always isolated from experience. Modern beauty is, as Breton said, convulsive. Correspondences belong to a magical world view—where everything is connected. It is a “crisis-proof” form of experience; not a history, but a prehistory—a form of myth alien to the modern experience. This is much like Levi-Strauss’s description of magic and science as two parallel forms of knowledge. Likewise, Benjamin marks the schism as a part of modern consciousness:
The important thing is that the correspondences record a concept of experience which includes ritual elements. Only by appropriating those elements was Baudelaire able to fathom the breakdown which he, a modern man, was witnessing. (181)
This echoes the connection of art with ritual that Benjamin forged in “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” But the motifs of shock and alienation provide a launching point for the most concise and useful estimation of the mystery of “aura” in a work of art in Benjamin’s writing. Benjamin does not invoke the ritual utility of art in this essay past this moment, nor its authenticity or presence as a thing in time; he forges a links between art and the gaze.
Using the concept of mémoire involuntaire from Proust, he suggests that memory is invoked by an object created by a practiced hand. Benjamin follows Baudelaire in suggesting that the camera is capable of increasing the information available to mémoire voluntaire, but it lacks the same ability to draw our attention as a work of art. The true crisis of “aura” in the age of mechanical reproduction then is not a question of the loss of authenticity, but of perception.
The crisis of artistic reproduction which manifests itself in this way can be seen as an integral part of the crisis in perception itself. What prevents our delight in the beautiful from ever being satisfied is the image of the past, which Baudelaire regards as veiled by the tears of nostalgia.
. . .
If the distinctive feature of the images that rise from the mémoire involuntaire is seen in their aura, then photography is decisively implicated in the phenomenon of the “decline of the aura.” What was inevitably felt to be inhuman, one might even say deadly, in daguerreotypy was the (prolonged) looking into the camera, since the camera records our likeness without returning our gaze. But looking at someone carries the implicit expectation that our look will be returned by the object of our gaze. Where this expectation is met (which, in the case of thought processes, can apply equally to the look of the eye of the mind and to a glance pure and simple), there is an experience of the aura to the fuller extent. (186-7)
In this quantum leap, Benjamin knits up the rough edges of his earlier essays. Aura as distance or obscurity is not essential. Aura as a condition of historicity is not essential. Aura as the triggering of a human experience is:
Experience of the aura thus rests on the transposition of a response common in human relationships to the relationship between the inanimate or natural object and man. The person we look at, or who feels he is being looked at, looks at us in return. To perceive the aura of an object we look at means to invest it with the ability to look at us in return.
Benjamin extends the idea of aura in a footnote to encompass not only visual works, but words themselves. Obviously, mechanical reproduction has not impacted the written word in the same fashion that Benjamin has claimed for images.
Benjamin has neatly refuted his earlier arguments by implication: the loss of aura is not caused by reproduction, or by a quality inherent in photographs, but rather the perception—conditioned by an avalanche of images—of the photograph as disposable and nostalgic, or mythic and rhetorical.