Letchworth, © 2019 Jeff Ward

The most significant and oft-quoted factor highlighted by Benjamin is the concept of the aura, initially discussed as surrounding an authentic original, a unique object situated in place and time. Developing the concept, almost a theory of the alienation of objects, Benjamin considers it thusly:

The concept of aura which was proposed above with reference to historical objects may usefully be illustrated with reference to the aura of natural ones. We define the aura of the latter as the unique phenomenon of a distance, however close it may be. 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. (III)

The “unique phenomenon of a distance, however close it may be” is a powerful way of conveying the strange sense of awe one feels in the presence of a powerful artwork, and a description of the sort of “aura” that clings to authentic objects. I remember a trip to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, feeling this strange, visceral feeling when standing in front of the clothes of performers that I had only experienced as reproductions: as records, movies, tapes, etc. There is a similar distance even when you’re present with a performer in concert and leave with a sense of them that will be retained and held closer in memory than in actuality.

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. (III)

To be there, situated in space and time, as feelings unfold is at the core of our experience of art. Increasingly, however, art comes to us in the form of reproductions in books, in movies, and in other mass media. Benjamin continues:

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. (III)

The urge that Benjamin describes here is akin to the drive to privatize that Martin Pawley has described: to have the benefit of experience without its social component, to disconnect art from its social roots, savoring the sensual in isolation and achieving the natural without nature as an the ultimate goal.

This reading is supported by his discussion elsewhere in the same essay of the stripping of the “cult” value ascribed to unique objects.  However, it’s worth noting that the technologies Benjamin is discussing are recording technologies— technologies designed to aid memory. There’s another possibility, raised by Benjamin himself in an earlier fragment:

The great art of making things seem closer together.  In reality. Or from where we are standing; in memory. “Ah! que monde est grand à la clarté des lampes! / Aux yeux du souvenir que le monde est petit!” [Ah, how big the world is by lamplight, / But how small in the eyes of memory!] This is the mysterious power of memory—the power to generate nearness. A room we inhabit whose walls are closer to us than to a visitor. This is what is homey about home. (248)

I am reminded of other scholarship about the parlor as a the public portion of a home where visitors were welcomed, and brought together in middle class culture as it was emerging in the mid-nineteenth to early twentieth century. In a sense, a collective memory of places and celebrities and fashions was presented to make visitors feel less foreign in a new space. It plays much the same role as the stock backgrounds and scenarios that were offered to visitors to a photographer’s studio, positioning them as someone they want to be— manufacturing memories. The fragment continues:

In nurseries we remember, the walls seem closer to each other than they really are, than they would be if we saw them today. The sight of them tears us apart because we have become attached to them. The great traveler is the person who passes through cities and countries with anamnesis; and because everything seems closer to everything else, and hence to him, since he is in their midst, all his senses respond to every nuance as truth. The distanced Romantic is as ignorant of this as the Positivist. (248)

The mechanism at work here seems similar to the function of metaphor, in that the “strangeness” of the comparison creates new pathways, new knowledge through holding two ideas in suspension. I am struck by the similarity between anamnesis and amnesia. To travel with remembrance rather than the feigned amnesia of “objectivity” results in a heightened sense of place.

Romantic forgetting of the actual specifics of the world (the bugs, the dirt) is equally bad. Knowledge, in this formulation requires both distance and closeness to be effective. Hence, it come full circle to the formulation of aura. A translator’s footnote to the second draft of Benjamin’s essay adds clarity to a unique phenomenon of a distance, however close it may be:

“Einmalige Erscheinung einer Ferne, so nah sie sein mag.” At stake in Benjamin’s formulation is an interweaving not just of time and space—einmalige Erscheinung, literally “one-time appearance”— but of far and near, einer Ferne suggesting both “a distance” in space and time and “something remote,” however near it (the distance, or distant thing, that appears) may be. (123)

The “one-time appearance” might be taken as a unique encounter between self and world, a “never the same stream twice,” view suggestive of Heraclitus and obliquely echoing his observation regarding traveling with anamnesis. There is an aspect of “the things they carried” involved in any recounting of experience. This a deeper reflection than simply recounting the mystic aura of a cult object, or of a history through the distance of time; it is a suggestion of things being woven together in the making of sense, a bit like the “ah-ha” moment when one deciphers a metaphor.

Benjamin’s discussion of the loss of aura isn’t a conservative bemoaning the loss of the previous mode of art, but rather an attempt to understand the work of art (in both nominal and verbal senses) in a new frame of reference that does not rely on sublime experience but rather on closeness and possession of a universal image of the world, overcoming its uniqueness.