Aura, Memory, and Film

I am moved by fancies that are curled
Around these images and cling

--T.S. Eliot, Preludes


Are movies a form of art? In the first half of the twentieth century, the West saw the advent of this new form of representation. Typically produced for a mass audience, these motion pictures were in terms of production the very epitome of capitalism. Walter Benjamin's The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction is a reaction to this trend. In this work, Benjamin offers a Marxist critique of the new means of production of what is ostensibly art. One of the most important idea expressed in The Work of Art . . . is what Benjamin calls ``aura'': ``that [aspect of a work of art] which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction'' (Benjamin 221).

For various reasons, Benjamin's initial analysis of aura is unsatisfactory. The definition is somewhat circular: it does not so much specify what aura is as where aura is not found. To talk of this aura is to presume its existence, which Benjamin does not adequately prove.

A later essay, On Some Motifs in Baudelaire, looks at aura from a different perspective. Here, Benjamin (no longer so dependent on the financial resources of Theodor Adorno and the Frankfurt School) ignores the economic aspects of the motion picture industry. Instead, he provides a psychological analysis of aura, relating it to Marcel Proust's mémoire involontaire and Sigmund Freud's theory of consciousness. In refocusing his work, Benjamin gives us a better understanding of the term.

Memory, consciousness, and shock

In his essay On Some Motifs in Baudelaire, in particular §§II-IV, Benjamin presents a theory of memory and consciousness. Benjamin's theory is an amalgam of ideas from other late 19th- and early 20th-century writers and philosophers. In particular, he combines Marcel Proust's mémoire involontaire (itself derived from Henri Bergson's mémoire pure) with Freud's theory of consciousness as protective mechanism. The combination of these theories is developed primarily to explain certain aspects of Charles Baudelaire's work; however, Benjamin himself also reëxpresses aura in terms of this theory.

Central in the Proustian-Freudian-Benjaminian theory is the distinction between mémoire volontaire and mémoire involontaire. The former is a product of intellect, of consciousness: to Proust and Benjamin, it can succeed in conjuring up only lifeless images. As Benjamin says, ``The information which it gives about the past contains no trace of it'' (Benjamin 158). Mémoire involontaire, on the other hand, truly contains the past, which is ``somewhere beyond the reach of intellect'' (Proust, qtd. in Benjamin 158). The past may be brought to life through the mémoire involontaire by a smell, the taste of a pastry, or some other stimulus. According to Proust, the memory is in fact ``unmistakably present in some material object (or in the sensation which such an object arouses in us)'' (Proust, qtd. in Benjamin 158). It is as if the memory never resided in the subject in the first place.

Freud enters the theory by providing a link with consciousness. Benjamin's restatement of Freud's hypothesis is that ``becoming conscious and leaving a memory trace are processes incompatible with each other within one and the same subject'' (Benjamin 160). Benjamin integrates Freud with Proust's theory of memory by saying that ``only what has not been experienced explicitly and consciously . . . can become a component of the mémoire involontaire'' (Benjamin 160--1). So, if we regard the ``subject'' as the object of consciousness, then the memory in fact does not reside in the subject---the subject cannot have memory (at least of the ``real'' involuntary variety).

If it does not receive memory, then, what is the purpose of the consciousness? It is to protect against stimuli, ``an almost more important function than the reception of stimuli'' (Freud, qtd. in Benjamin 160). ``Excessive energies'' in the outside world threaten an ``equalization in potential'' and hence destruction of the psyche. The consciousness is a ``protective shield'' which protects against the ``shocks'' those energies induce in us. Thus ``the more consciousness registers these shocks, the less likely they are to have a traumatic effect'' (Benjamin 160).

Aura restated and redefined

Now that he has established a theory of memory and consciousness, Benjamin can better explain what he means by ``aura'' than he did in The Work of Art . . . . In the Baudelaire essay, therefore, he puts forth a new definition. Aura consists of ``the associations which, at home in the mémoire involontaire, tend to cluster around the object of a perception'' (Benjamin 186). This aura is destroyed by mechanical reproduction because the latter serves to ``extend the range of the mémoire volontaire'' (Benjamin 186).

When, earlier in the essay, Benjamin introduced Proust's theory of memory, he included a quote which places memory as ``unmistakably present in some material object''. Here we see one source of Benjamin's views on mechanical reproduction. Such reproduction creates hundreds, thousands, or even millions of false duplicates of the original, memory-bearing object. According to Proust, it is a matter of chance whether we ever find the object bearing a particular memory (Benjamin 158). An unchecked proliferation in the number of identical-looking objects, then, causes the probability of finding the ``correct'' object to approach zero.

These considerations may help explain why Benjamin did not find that mechanical reproduction of books stole their aura. Benjamin was an avid collector of books; he dedicates an entire essay, ``On Unpacking My Library'' (Benjamin 58--67) to his passion for books. To such a collector, books are not identical, interchangeable objects; each individual copy of each individual book as a life of its own---previous owners, the memory (!) of the auction at which it was purchased, etc. Thus the printing press, rather than duplicating objects, creates new ones.

Photography and film are for Benjamin completely different from aura-bearing works of art. A painting or a book is an object on its own, above whatever it might represent. A photograph or film, on the other hand, is merely a means of conveying an image; in a mechanically-reproduced work, there is no object whatsoever. Also, photography preserves with great precision a particular point in time (or, in the case of film, a series of such points). Such detailed precision gives the reproduction the same effect as the ``shock defense'' of p. 161: ``assigning to an incident a particular point in time in consciousness, at the cost of the integrity of its contents''. This is because the ``integrity'' is for Benjamin the presence of something beyond an image---something a photograph or a reel of film could never be.

Benjamin on progress

In the essay Theses on the Philosophy of History, Benjamin presents us with a striking image of the ``angel of history'' (Benjamin 257). The angel's ``face is turned towards the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet.'' (Benjamin 257). What is this catastrophe? It is a storm which ``irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward'' (Benjamin 258). It is, in a word, progress.

Film was new and shocking to Benjamin. In much the same way, Baudelaire found something ``profoundly unnerving and terrifying about daguerreotypy'' (Benjamin 186). Benjamin speaks in The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction of ``the feeling of strangeness that overcomes the actor before the camera'' which ``is basically of the same kind as the estrangement felt before one's own image in the mirror'' (Benjamin 230). Benjamin sees, as do many of his era, a kind of unheimlichkeit in motion pictures and the movie camera.

If we keep all this in mind, Benjamin's reasons for denying the aura in movies becomes clearer. Benjamin sees photography and motion photography as ``extend[ing] the range of the mémoire volontaire'' (Benjamin 186). That is, movies make us conscious of something, thus preventing us from receiving a true memory of the experience. But, in Benjamin's interpretation of Freud, consciousness and the mémoire volontaire serve as ``protection against stimuli'' (161). What stimulus is being guarded against by Benjamin's explicit consciousness of photographs and films? It is the stimulus of the duplicate object. Like Jorge Luis Borges, Benjamin fears an ``endless proliferation of symbols''; to him, such a proliferation is engendered by mechanical reproduction. This ``preparation of anxiety'' accompanies, according to Freud and Benjamin, the deflection by consciousness of a shock. Perhaps because of its novelty, perhaps for other reasons, the realistic images of photography and film produce such shocks in Benjamin, just as mirrors produce an uneasiness for Borges.

Sixty-five years later

In the years since the appearance of Benjamin's essay, we have had time to adjust. Most people alive in the Western world today were born into a world of film and mechanical reproduction. We have managed, through constant exposure, to eliminate or at least reduce the shock or uneasiness that Benjamin felt when seeing a movie. When mechanically-reproduced images of reality become, through television, part of our everyday experience, we can begin to build a mémoire involontaire around this new mirror-world. Motion pictures, photographs, and television have been given the aura that they lacked for Benjamin and for many others of his day.

Works Cited

Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations, tr. Harry Zohn, ed. Hannah Arendt. New York: Schocken, 1968.

Borges, Jorge Luis. Selected Non-Fictions, tr. various, ed. Elliott Weinberger. New York: Penguin, 2000.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Culture and Value, tr. Peter Winch, ed. G. H. von Wright. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984.

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