From Gallery to Galleria

Mackinaw City, MI

I wrote a paper I didn’t read. I’m not really happy with it, and it is unfinished. It seems like the Internet is an okay venue for it (below the fold). I feel like I cheated my audience by not using some of it; but it’s hard to do a 12 minute presentation that actually says much of anything.

From Gallery to Galleria: Walter Benjamin and a Blogger’s Progress

As Colin described in the proposal for this panel, it seems as dubious to theorize about blogging as a general activity as it is to assume that writing can be explained through general theories of its processes or products. However, there is no shortage of specific reflections on blogging. Virtually anyone who began blogging in its first few years as a definable venue has attempted metatheoretical reflection, or “metablogging.” What seems rare, however, is explicit theory occupying a space between anecdotal personal accounts and general economics of social linking and exchange. My candidate for a “more nuanced approach” for theorizing blogging revolves around careful reading of the work of Walter Benjamin, specifically his sprawling and unfinished Das Passengen Werk. But I must begin with anecdotes, at least to define what blogging does not mean for me. From my perspective, blogging is not analogous to keeping a diary; it is not an opportunity to participate as a citizen journalist, a pundit, or a political revolutionary; it is not primarily a social activity at all, but rather a personal one. As such, my blog writing is entirely out of step with contemporary theories of blogging.

In late 1999, I began maintaining a presence on the Internet. It was conceived as a sort of gallery—I was, at the time, a recovering photographer who had moved from California to Arkansas who had lost any venue for showing photographs. It was, in the terms of the time, a “home page” for a displaced pilgrim in search of progress. I used it as a final project for a course in “Writing for the Web” as I completed an undergraduate degree in scientific and technical communication. During this same semester, Pyra introduced “blogger” to the public. At first, I was not interested. Eventually, I suppose I succumbed to peer pressure. The structure of blog sites was such that you could tell what was new immediately; this innovation altered my concept of the web as a static gallery. In 2000, I converted my “home page” into a blog, updated manually at first, but soon maintained using a variety of blogging softwares. I still feel excited by the transformation; my web presence ceased to be a mausoleum of pages and became an evolving site for writing. I use the term evolution only as a description of change wrought by natural selection, not as a movement toward actualization or perfection. Then, as now, my presence on the Internet is clumsy: full of unrealized dreams, half-finished ideas, and broken links. But I did my best to write something almost every day.

After 9/11/2001 I became fascinated with the way that the media sold the event to the public within moments. I was a Master’s student in STC, and chose to revisit one of the most influential essays on the impact of technology, “The Work of Art in the Age of its Mechanical Reproducibility” by Walter Benjamin. I was surprised that few collogues were familiar with it. As a photographer, I railed against its inaccuracies. Benjamin suggested that in the modern age, the pseudo- religious “aura” surrounding ritual objects would be dissolved. He heralded the arrival of film as a truly democratic, truly critical art form. Sculpture, and other forms reliant on a physical presence had no effectiveness in the modern age. These pronouncements, built on impeccable Marxist logic, are as overblown as they are false. The reality of the religious iconoclasm that brought down the twin towers was inescapable; it was more than a media event. It cost thousands of lives immediately and escalated into horrific shock and awe. It began with a change in the skyline of Manhattan—image, clearly, was not everything. All the same, the reproduction and repetition of images, electronically reproduced, became an obsession for me. I wrote my way through it on my blog, digging through the roots of image-making and media practices at the turn of the century.

Barclay Barrios called 2003 “The Year of the Blog,” and by 2004 the New York Times followed suit. The reason for the increased attention, I think, was not only the growing number of people writing on the Internet but rather that serious amounts of revenue (rather than hype) were being generated. The galleries of individuals generating content were being overrun by the gold rush of Google ad revenues—even the simplest of blog pages could generate income through the Amazon referral program. Kind strangers could support their local blogger by buying gifts via their wishlists or send money via paypal. The end result, ultimately, is that money changes everything. The galleries became transformed into gallerias. It was at this point that I became disenchanted with the energy I had expended writing in public, and turned my energy elsewhere. I have continued to blog, but never with the same spirit that I had in those earlier days. In 2004, as a Ph.D. student, I chafed at the circulating concept of blogging as a professional responsibility. My blog had always been a nonprofit public presence where I could share, test and transmit ideas and images to an eclectic audience. The grand attempts at theories, or qualitative appraisals of trends had little resonance for me.

By 2005, academic interests had largely moved on to social networking sites such as facebook and myspace, other media tools such as podcasts, videoblogging and youtube, leaving many key theoretical issues raised by the rise and fall of blogging unaddressed. Yes, it now seems appropriate to speak of the decline of blogging because in 2007, the number of active blog sites is no longer growing but declining. The bubble, like all bubbles, has burst. The row of individually owned galleries and shops is in quiet decline as franchises such as Gawker media have taken greater and greater share of the market. The social sites, including Flickr have learned from the progress of the blogs to include planning for individuals to control their own revenue streams as an incentive to continue the frenzy of image and sound creation in the current wave. But economic theories rarely account for the processes of cultural capital in any meaningful way, as Benjamin’s “Mechanical Reproducibility” essay easily attests. More importantly, the level of acceleration in communication technologies has lead many people, particularly in media studies, to throw up their hands and declare that there are no precedents that can help us make sense of the constant shifts in landscape.

What we find instead of nuanced theory is a belief that we are disconnected from history. A defining moment, I think, in conceptualizing the scale of this displacement came at the New Media and Social Memory conference in January 2007, where Bruce Sterling read a list of dead media that lasted around six minutes. Dead technologies outnumber the living. At the same conference, Stewart Brand presented a pessimistic view of the relationship between art and new media, insisting that new media always lower the bar for creativity. When media are new, to be novel or innovative as an artist is easy because there are no precedents. By the same logic, the bar for media theory remains low when we remain in a state of perpetual amnesia, ignoring or falsely generalizing the previous media structures that new media, by necessity, cannibalizes. But it would be a mistake to read Sterling’s litany of dead media as a call for theory. Sterling’s Dead Media Project, active from 1995-1999, now dead, unfinished, and archived on the web was conceived as food for the imagination, not the intellect. It was a corrective for the ebullience of new media studies, a cyberpunk jab to the ribs for those who feel that each successive technology moves us closer to some ideal democratic media landscape. Brand’s dig at the quality of emergent avante garde art was a similar gesture; art survives and thrives after the initial period of awkwardness that is the hallmark of change.

Why, then, would I like to invoke Walter Benjamin, whose generally upbeat Marxist account of evolving media technologies is dramatically at odds with contemporary events and thought? It is precisely the awkwardness of that essay that recommends it. Endlessly revised and debated, discussed ad nauseum for its strengths and weaknesses it is above all else situated in a context that is non-transferable. Transplanted into contemporary media landscapes, its prognostic power fails. But as Gumbrecht and Marrinan, editors of a 2003 anthology compiling thirty essays responding to the key terms in Benjamin’s essay suggest, the direction and dynamics any historical reconstruction of Benjamin’s observations obliges us to “rethink our own cultural, technological, and media environments” (xiv).

“The Work of Art in the Age of its Mechanical Reproducibility” first entered the popular consciousness in the 1960s, an age of media excitement and utopian idealism. Quoted out of context in John Berger’s highly influential 1972 BBC series Ways of Seeing as if its precepts were law, it was transformed into, in the words of Stephen Bann, “a mesmerizing assortment of half-truths and banalities” (319). This essay, taken outside its larger context, became “Walter Benjamin for beginners,” resulting in the systematic misrepresentation of his thought. Bann provides a compelling allegory for the progress of Benjamin’s signature essay:

I imagine that ideas have a lifespan similar to that of great fishes in the ocean. First of all, they play vigorously in the upper levels, often breaking the surface and following the waves in their flux and reflux. As they reach the end of their natural lives, they begin to sink lower and lower into the murky depths, and become prey to other, more predatory sea creatures. Piece by piece they are gobbled up, but enough flesh remains on the bones to turn rotten and produce a phosphorescent glow.

…What is most relevant to this inquiry is the fortune of this essay, over the course of the last twenty-five years or so, during which it has been picked over continuously—and begun to glow with a specious glamour. It will certainly be a long time before the essay is assimilated, as so much detritus, into the history of Western thought. But at present, I will argue, its effects are almost wholly fallacious. The light that it casts has ceased to reveal anything, and remains itself as a baleful glare, obstructing the possibility of vision. (318)

To recover the possibility of a nuanced conception of Benjamin, and of the effects of electronic reproduction on writing, it is essential to widen the search beyond easily digestible catchphrases, such as the “death of the aura,” or the “politicization of art.”

James Elkins offers a similar cautionary note in Visual Studies: A Skeptical Introduction, claiming that citing “The Work of Art” essay is “a way of smuggling in lingering nostalgia for late romantic concepts that would otherwise be prohibited” (97). What troubled Elkins most in the appropriation of fragments of Benjamin, however, is the loss of the depressive and melancholy tone that infuses his work. I would argue that this melancholy tone resonates nicely with commentators such as McLuhan, Sterling and Brand; it seems to be a common response to the dispacement, or shock of radical changes in the media landscape. Das Passengen Werk, commonly called “The Arcades Project” must be considered as Benjamin’s ultimate failure. It is the failure of the Arcades project that I find most instructive in theorizing blogs; it is both methodological progenitor and as spiritual forefather. The arcades fragments are not utopian, but archeological.

Physical evidence of The Arcades Project consists two summaries (exposes) written years apart of a group of folders containing fragments, and some discussion in Benjamin’s correspondence. It was begun before the “Work of Art” essay, and left unassembled and incomplete at his death. It is important to note that fragments, after 1925, had been central to Benjamin—but rather than multipurpose samples, he considered them to be a key path in search of the truth. In the “Epistemo-Critical Prologue” to his dissertation, The Origin of German Tragic Drama, he declared that the treatise and the mosaic are related in that “truth content” is only found through immersion in the minutest details of subject matter. The Arcades Project was originally conceived as a fifty-page essay; it sprawled into an unmanageable stack of such details, a mosaic that was never fitted to its frame. The tricky part in appropriating any of these fragments is that, as Benjamin declared in his dissertation, “the value of fragments of thought is all the greater the less direct their relationship to the underlying idea” (29).

Bann’s oceanic metaphor is curiously close to the sustained metaphor of the “human aquarium” noted by Richard Wolin as central to the genesis of the Arcades project. In Aragon’s Paris Peasant, the melancholy is palpable. Writing about the Paris Arcades, Aragon laments:

The great American passion for city planning, imported into Paris by a prefect of the police during the Second Empire and now being applied to the task of redrawing the map of our capital in straight lines, will soon spell the doom of these human aquariums. Although the life that originally quickened them has drained away, they deserve, nevertheless, to be regarded as the secret repositories of several modern myths: it is only today, when the pickaxe menaces them, that they have at last become the true sanctuaries of a cult of the ephemeral, the ghostly landscape of damnable pleasures and professions. Places that were incomprehensible yesterday, and that tomorrow will never now. (14)

It was Benjamin’s aim to uncover the source of “modern myths.” His method was to store and comment on a diverse range of quotes, about 850 of them, sorted in folders. The several attempts at conceptual apparatus, beginning with the mechanism of “dream interpretation,” remain unrealized. The hazard of this method, as identified by James Elkins, is that it presents the text as a commodity snatched from the circumstances of its production. But the real danger, in my estimation, is the obliteration of the past by superimposition of the contemporary. In a strong sense, this is the root of Benjamin’s melancholy: the present is always an unfolding catastrophe.

The expose of 1939 closes on this note: novelty is the attribute of all that is under sentence of damnation.