Social Media and the Artwork Essay

Over at Shenandoah, Mary Cotter looks into her iPhone and sees Walter Benjamin. Referring to “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” (1936), she writes,

Benjamin’s essay is prophetic in that it is the history of now, whenever that may be for the individual reader. In reaching out to people through my Iphone [sic] I am merely touching a screen in hopes of establishing some sort of connection with flesh and reality half a mile away from me, but far enough for me to choose layers of abstract separation as an excuse for diluting authentic connection. Movies provide that same level of distraction discussed by Benjamin in that they offer an escape from concentration. Rather than be absorbed by the action, we, the masses, passively absorb it- make no effort to become a part of it, but rather lend ourselves to distraction.

Cotter raises a question that gets asked a lot: what does the Artwork Essay have to say about the Internet and social media? She’s giving the question some thought. Hopefully Cotter comes up with some good answers.

In the meantime, however, let me clarify some common misconceptions about Benjamin’s essay. The Artwork Essay doesn’t break down into a simple binary between distracted and focused attention. Distraction isn’t all bad; Benjamin says buildings are consumed in a distracted manner. Distracted can also mean internalized. Reproduction doesn’t just mean making copies. It also extends our awareness of perceptual reality by allowing us to see what ordinary perception misses. Eadweard Muybridge‘s famous galloping horse photographs are one example. In this way, reproduction leads us into the optical unconscious.

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