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Hansen Benjamin Aura

Hansen Benjamin Aura

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Benjamin's AuraAuthor(s): Miriam Bratu HansenReviewed work(s):Source:
Critical Inquiry,
Vol. 34, No. 2 (Winter 2008), pp. 336-375Published by:
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Accessed: 25/03/2012 10:43
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Critical Inquiry.
Critical Inquiry 
34 (Winter 2008)
2007 by Miriam Bratu Hansen. All rights reserved.
Work on thisessaywasmadepossibleby an EllenMariaGorrissenFellowshipat the AmericanAcademyin Berlin,Spring2004.Forcriticalexchangesandsuggestions,I wishto thankPaulaAmad,BillBrown,DipeshChakrabarty,FrancesFerguson,MichaelFried,MichaelGeyer,TomGunning,RobertaMalagoli,Dan Morgan,andGarySmith,as wellas lectureaudiencesat theAmericanAcademyand the HumanitiesCenter,JohnsHopkinsUniversity.Unlessotherwisenoted,translationsof textsunpublishedin Englisharemy own.I have addedreferencesto the Germansourcefollowingthe Englishto indicateonlywhenI havemodifiedthetranslation.1.
WalterBenjamin,“Protocolsof DrugExperiments,”
On Hashish,
trans.HowardEilandet al.(Cambridge,Mass.,2006),p. 58; hereafterabbreviated“P.” I returnto thispassagebelow.
Benjamin’s Aura
Miriam Bratu Hansen
Walter Benjamin’s first comment on the concept of aura can be foundin an unpublished report on one of his hashish experiments, dated March1930: “Everything I said on the subject [the nature of aura] was directedpolemically against the theosophists, whose inexperience and ignorance Ifind highly repugnant. . . . First, genuine aura appears in all things,notjustin certain kinds of things, as people imagine.”
This assertion contrastssharply with the common understanding of Benjamin’s aura asa primarily aesthetic category—as shorthand for the particular qualities of traditionalart that he observed waning in modernity, associated with the singularstatus of the artwork, its authority, authenticity, and unattainability, epit-omized by the idea of beautiful semblance. On that understanding, aura isdefined in antithetical relation to the productive forces that have beenren-dering it socially obsolete: technological reproducibility, epitomized by film, and the masses, the violently contested subject/object of politicalandmilitary mobilization. Wherever aura or, rather, the simulation of auraticeffectsdoesappearonthesideofthetechnologicalmedia(asintherecyclingoftheclassics,theHollywoodstarcult,orfascistmassspectacle),itassumes
Critical Inquiry / Winter 2008 33
Thisnarrowunderstandingof aurais particularlypronouncedin the essay’sthird,1939version,whichwasfirst publishedin 1955andenteredEnglish-languagedebatesunderthe title“The Workof Art in the Age of MechanicalReproduction,”
trans.HarryZohn,ed.HannahArendt (New York,1969),pp. 217–51.A thoroughlyrevisedtranslationof thisversionisnow availablein Benjamin,“The Workof Art in the Age of ItsTechnologicalReproducibility:ThirdVersion,”trans.Zohn andEdmundJephcott,
],trans.RodneyLivingstoneet al.,ed. MarcusBullocket al.,4 vols.(Cambridge,Mass.,1996–2003),4:251–83.However,I will be usingprimarilythe second(firsttypescript)versionof 1936,to whichBenjaminreferredas hisurtext;see Benjamin,
],ed. Rolf TiedemannandHermannSchweppenha¨user,7 vols.(Frankfurt,1989),7:350–84;trans.Jephcottand Zohn underthe title “The Workof Art in the Age of ItsTechnologicalReproducibility:SecondVersion,”
3:101–33.I discussthe implicationsof these differentversionsin MiriamHansen,“Room-for-Play:Benjamin’sGamblewithCinema,”
no.109(Summer2004):3–45,an essaythat offersa counterpointto the presentone;bothwill be partof abookthat putsBenjamin’sreflectionson film andmass-mediatedmodernityin a conversationwith thoseof SiegfriedKracauerandTheodorW. Adorno.
See BertoltBrecht,entryfor25 July1938,
1934–55,trans.HughRorrison,ed. JohnWillett and RalphManheim(London,1993),p. 10:“a loadof mysticism,althoughhisattitudeisagainstmysticism”;on Scholem,see below.
an acutely negative valence, which turns the etiology of aura’s decline intoa call for its demolition.The narrowly aesthetic understanding of aura rests on a reductive read-ing of Benjamin, even of his famous essay “The Work of Art in the Age of ItsTechnologicalReproducibility”(1936),whichseemstoadvancemostax-iomaticallysuchcircumscription.
IfweagreethatBenjamin’swritings,readthrough and against their historical contingencies, still hold actuality forfilm and media theory—and hence for questions of the aesthetic in thebroadest sense—this notion of aura is not particularly helpful. I proceedfrom the suspicion, first expressed by Benjamin’s antipodean friends Ger-shomScholemandBertoltBrecht,thattheexemplarylinkageofauratothestatus of the artwork in Western tradition, whatever it may have accom-plished for Benjamin’s theory of modernity, was not least a tactical movedesigned toisolateanddistancetheconceptfromtheatoncemorepopularandmoreesotericnotionsofaurathatflourishedincontemporaryoccultistdiscourse(anddotothisday).
AsBenjaminknewwell,tocorralthemean-ings of aura into the privileged sphere of aesthetic tradition—and thus to
is Ferdinand Schevill Distinguished ServiceProfessor in the Humanities at the University of Chicago, where she teaches inthe Department of English and the Committee on Cinema and Media Studies.Her publications include a book on Ezra Pound’s early poetics (1979) and
Babel and Babylon: Spectatorship in American Silent Film
(1991). She is currently completing a study entitled
The Other Frankfurt School: Kracauer, Benjamin, and Adorno on Cinema, Mass Culture, and Modernity.
Her next project is a book onthe notion of cinema as vernacular modernism.

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