The Aesthetics of Distracting Media — Mark Poster

Benjamin’s Challenge

‘Mankind[‘s] … self alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order. This is the situation of politics which Fascism is rendering aesthetic. Communism responds by politicizing art’ (Benjamin, 1969: 242). So ends Walter Benjamin’s path-breaking, stimulating, confusing, and contradictory essay, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical [sometimes Technical] Reproduction’. And so begins a question which has of late become more and more urgent: what is the relation of aesthetics to politics? Can one simply draw an inverse parallel between fascism and communism, the right and the left?

In this article, I shall look at Benjamin’s quote and draw attention to something which is often forgotten: I shall place the quote from Benjamin within the context of the rest of his essay, which after all concerns the relation of technology to art, or film, and to a lesser extent photography as media. I shall then briefly sketch a history of several media in relation to art and to politics.

The reassuring smell and touch of book pages, the anticipatory crackle of opening a new music CD, the cozy comfort of surrendering oneself to broadcast television’s scheduling, the magical darkness of an audience watching a cinema, the warm community feeling of listening to radio — these aesthetics of media might now be forgotten. And the politics that accompanies them — the liberal, autonomous individual of print and film, the pacified consumer of broadcast media — might also now gradually dissipate with the advent of new media, with their different aesthetics and politics. The screen-network interface of living online (Turkle) absorbs these earlier media, restructures or remediates (Bolter/Grusin) them into the realm of the virtual. The subject position of the user has become a human/machine assemblage and a node, a cyborgian point (Haraway) in a global web of collective intelligence (Levy). What are the politics and aesthetics of this haptic regime?

The Limits of Film as Critique

Benjamin sees the new methods of mechanically reproducing art in his day as contradictory to fascism and promoting revolution: ‘creativity and genius, eternal value and mystery’, authenticity and aura, tradition and cultural heritage, are principles which he thinks will be brushed away by the cinema (218ff). Mechanical reproduction, he argues, adjusts culture to the increasing importance of the masses in ‘reality’. In the case of film, art for the first time is produced without an original; it is created specifically for mechanical reproduction, thereby destroying the link of art to ritual. The reproduction of the filmic work of art is possible because it is recorded, he contends, by a camera. Cameras intervene between the actor and the audience, destroying aura first because the actor cannot adjust to the audience’s response in the manner of a feedback loop, and second because the camera takes up positions for the recording which are also later composed through a cutting process by an editor with the result that the audience views what the camera allows, not what the actor intends. The camera then enacts a ‘thoroughgoing permeation of reality with mechanical equipment’ (234). The mediation of the recording machine, for Benjamin, destroys aura by defeating presence (229). Instead of aura, the actor’s performance, enhanced outside the work of art by the culture industry’s promotional efforts, elicits ‘the spell of the personality, the phony spell of a commodity’ (231).

In addition to ‘shriveling’ the artwork’s aura, mechanical reproduction changes the audience. First it brings the work of art to the audience, dispersing copies throughout society as compared with auratic art which must, as an original, be attended in its own space (museums, concert halls, theaters). Film, therefore, is part of society, not distant from it, easy to experience for people regardless of class. Second, in place of a ‘reactionary attitude’ toward an auratic artwork, the response of the movie audience is ‘progressive’. This is so because the audience for a film, unlike a painting, enjoys a ‘collective experience’ and finds itself in the position of a critic. Audience reaction is progressive also because of the ‘shock effect’ of film, its continuous changing of viewpoints. The viewer of film must have a ‘heightened presence of mind’ to follow the shifts in perspective afforded by montage and shifts in the position of the camera. If film is received by the audience in a distracted mode, as compared with the contemplative stance evoked by traditional art, Benjamin stubbornly turns this high-brow dismissal of film into an argument for its politically revolutionary effect. Distracted by the movies, the masses become ‘an absent-minded examiner’ (241).

The media effect of film — to dissolve aura and to promote critique — is not to be equated with the appropriation of film by political movements. Fascists aestheticize politics — they film their rallies — in order, Benjamin insists, to keep property intact, and communists turn art into politics, favoring realist styles as a means of extending education about reality. In neither case do these movements intentionally deploy the media effect of art. The surrealists, Benjamin notes, may be revolutionary in politics but their artistic practice is decidedly retrograde, relying upon the aura of the artwork. The one exception in this essay mentioned by Benjamin is the films of Sergei Eisenstein. The media criticism offered by ‘The Work of Art’ proposes not to reproduce contemporary modes of aesthetics and politics but to introduce a principle of analysis which lies at a level outside the intentions of political and artistic movements. Benjamin’s argument for a progressive role of film intervenes at the level of unconscious effects, suggesting that the spread of movies throughout society will gradually produce a more critical and progressive population. This of course is the exact opposite position from his friends Adorno and Horkheimer, whose ‘culture industry’ chapter in Dialectic of Enlightenment, written a decade after ‘The Work of Art,’ proposes that the democratic potential of the working class has been eviscerated by popular culture in all its forms — film, radio, and so forth.

Judged by the history of the past fifty years Benjamin was clearly wrong, although Adorno and Horkheimer may not have been correct either. There has surely been no massive swing to the left during this period in the country where film viewing is most widespread, the United States. To the extent that there have been radical politics such as the anti-war movement, the New Left and the counter-culture of the 60s and 70s, these have been far more influenced by rock and roll music and even television than by film. The civil rights movement of the 60s, the feminist movement of the 70s and 80s, the anti-racism and anti-heterosexism movements of the 80s and 90s cannot be tied convincingly to any particular medium of popular culture. Film then does not promote socialist revolution in any consistent way. But in another sense Benjamin was clearly correct or at least insightful about the analysis of the media. For he heeded the machine. He paid attention, as did few if any others up to his day, to the structure of the mediation of cultural objects (phenomena formerly known as art).

Machine Mediations

Benjamin was wrong about more than the possible critical effects of film. Although he presciently paid attention to the mediation of the information machine he remained tied to the binary opposition presence/absence. For him, presence was associated with aura and conservatism; absence with distraction and radicalism. This contrast does not work. High or traditional art like painting forecloses its media effect: it is, for Benjamin, pure presence. The painting is a direct line to the artist, one that enhances tradition and authority and that reanimates ritual. Arts that sustain aura do not, for Benjamin, have a media effect. The spirit of the artist goes through the material in which her work is presented, touching the viewer. For the actor it is the same: the presence of the actor to the audience is what counts, affording the actor authority. For Benjamin then machinic mediations begin only with lithography and reach their fruition in cinema. This conceptualization of the relation of art to technology fails to account for the differential effects of media, for the always already mediated nature of art. It erects a false opposition between art and technology that spills over into the opposition between Fascism and Communism, aesthetics and politics.

Benjamin does not want to do this, at least his text begins with an assertion that ‘a work of art has always been reproducible’ (218). But he quickly loses this insight by arguing that ‘Mechanical reproduction of a work of art … represents something new’ (218). The difficulty Benjamin has introduced derives from taking a secondary difference and making it primary. Reproducibility is his criterion for technology. Its opposite is the original, such as in painting, which cannot truly be reproduced, although there can be copies, prints, photocopies, etc. But aside from the question of reproducibility, art requires technology: the work of art is always mediated as are all cultural objects, a lesson that deconstruction has taught us well. Reproducibility, that is to say, the absence of an original, is a secondary difference within the technology of culture. Certainly mechanical reproduction marks an important break in the history of culture, a break that leads progressively to Baudrillard’s simulacra, to a culture in which originals properly speaking do not play a role in the work of art.

Benjamin’s ‘mistake,’ if I can call it that, is nonetheless productive. His mistake brings into the foreground a leading problem in the theorization of the relation of culture to technology. This problem is made increasingly exigent as art becomes digitized. It is the question of the relative significance of different aspects of technology. How are we to understand the place of technology in the formation, dissemination and reception of cultural objects? Once we acknowledge that technological mediation is a general condition of culture and we recognize that this mediation is not neutral, not to be understood under the sign of the tool, we are compelled to look seriously at the object as a material construct. We are urged to consider the multiple dimensions of the materiality of the object and to assess their relative importance. Such an approach to culture goes against deeply ingrained habits of mind which give prominence primarily to the subject, to the creator, to the heroic individual, to her genius. With the advent of ever more capable, interesting and intelligent technologies, we are advised to heed the object not in a simple reversal but to put forth and conceptually to develop a multiplex standpoint in which both the traditional subject and the traditional object are displaced in new registers of understanding.

Sensible Media Theory

McLuhan began this theoretical reorganization but did not carry it far enough. For him the media were themselves a message but one that was limited to the all-too-human faculty of sensation. McLuhan theorized media in relation to what he called the sense ratio: the relative prominence of a single sensory organ. Books intensified the visual sense, reducing the senses of smell and hearing that were dominant before Gutenberg’s invention. Electronic media reversed the situation, bringing especially touch into play. For McLuhan media had their effect on the human being as it was conceived in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Locke and Condillac theorized the human as a machine for receiving and processing sensory information. Condillac’s famous statue of clay took on human form as sense capacities were added one by one. These Enlightenment thinkers were determined to root the human essence in the natural and material world, far from the otherworldly imaginings of the priests. McLuhan’s innovation was simply to insert media, information machines, into the world of the Enlightenment’s human. The great resistance to McLuhan during his life concerned the apparent agency he gave to information machines, an agency that threatened to swamp or to displace the reign of reason over the senses. Yet McLuhan did not reach far enough into this Enlightenment worldview to question the human at the level of culture, the issue of the constitution of the subject.

If McLuhan’s media theory failed to open the question of the subject, it also fell short in its theory of the object, the media itself. McLuhan conceived media as ‘extensions of man’. Each medium allowed humans to expand the limits of their sensory capacities. Books were excellent memory devices; radio amplified the voice across space; film and television extended the eye’s reach throughout the globe. Media for him were thus anthropomorphized. They were theorized as human senses and little more. In this view, the Internet would be understood no doubt as the nervous system and the brain combined. Information machines in McLuhan’s theory had no specificity as machines. It is hard to imagine, for instance, what McLuhan would make of the computer screen as interface. His famous ‘global village’ was a space in which highly extended sense organs attained local presence. Because of television, all human beings, in principle, could experience the same sights and sounds, the same events and do so at the same time. What better definition of a village community?

The otherness of information machines and the destabilization of the subject when interacting with them are lost upon McLuhan. Despite the extraordinary prescience of his understanding of media, McLuhan cannot be our guide in questioning the relation of aesthetics to politics in the era of networked computing.

Underdetermined Art

The question of aesthetics and politics takes on surprising new turns in relation to the medium of the computer. In 1985, the Centre Pompidou opened an exhibit, ‘The Immaterials’, curated by Jean-François Lyotard that featured the use of computers in art. One installation consisted of several Minitels each containing a document in which intellectuals, writers and artists responded to the curator’s request to define certain words (such as freedom, matter, maternal, and so forth). The goal of the installation was to destabilize accepted meanings and to explore the polysemy or ‘immateriality’ of language. While computers were not necessary for the exhibit, they did allow a form of browsing that amplified the exhibit’s purpose. On the screen words were electronic and presumably became less material. In another room, an installation wired each square of the floor which was activated by the movement of the participant. As one walked through the space of the installation, one’s body provided inputs to a computer. Sounds and lights changed based on an algorithm programmed into a computer, transforming the participants’ input into data, and then into sound and light configurations. (When I was in the room, there were technical problems that aborted the installation, not an uncommon experience in early applications of computers to art.) In both cases, the use of computers facilitated the questioning of the stability or materiality of cultural forms and automatically included the audience in the work of art. Already the position of the audience had changed from the disinterested contemplation of the traditional gallery of paintings to the distracted participation of computerized art. Already the work of art was losing its fixed and delimited characteristics and becoming less of an object than an experience, less determinate.

A decade later artists are far more sophisticated in the application of computers to art projects. Above all, recent installations employ not stand-alone computers, but networked computing. The installation is displaced into cyberspace as well as embedded in traditional sites. An exhibit at the Centre Pompidou in 2001 by George Legrady illustrates the new configuration of aesthetics and politics in relation to the media. Legrady’s installation, ‘Pockets Full of Memories’, calls for visitors to input in digital form some object they regard as important. Visitors to Beaubourg are greeted by a phalanx of scanners, machines which enable the digitization of any object in the visitor’s pocket that many be significant, loaded with memories. Those attending the exhibit via the Internet may upload images from their computer. The visitor also may add text to the image of the object. After this contribution to the work of art, the visitor passes, by foot or by computer, into a room with a large wall upon which the digitized objects appear. Before objects appear on the wall, however, a computer program decides upon placement based on a complex set of criteria. Interest in the exhibit lies to a great extent with the relation of objects to one another drawn by the computer. The work of art, the wall, is a collective work, formed by visitors in person, visitors by the Internet, and by the computer program that arrays the images. Once again the mediation of networked computers allows the artist to experiment with including the audience and the machine in the composition of the work. Far from disinterested contemplation or aura, the work appears to the audience as in part its own creation. The clear separation of artist and audience, subject and object, is broken in a new relation of aesthetics and politics.

A final example of the new relation of art and politics is Sharon Daniel’s online piece, ‘Narrative Contingencies’ ( It reveals a still more elaborate relation of media to the work of art. Unlike Legrady’s art, Daniel’s exists exclusively on the Internet, removing art completely from traditional spaces of exhibition. The displacement of art from museums, galleries and other places of presence, was in part anticipated by Benjamin, who wrote, ‘In the same way, by the absolute emphasis on its exhibition value the work of art becomes a creation with entirely new functions, among which the one we are conscious of, the artistic function, later may be recognized as incidental’ (225). For Benjamin film showings throughout society eroded the centrality of the artist. This tendency is developed still further in the placement of the artwork in cyberspace.

‘Narrative Contingencies’ consists of passages from certain published works which may be commented upon by the online user. The user may add texts and images of her own. A key feature of the work is that the database includes operations that randomly rearrange and alter the texts initially inscribed and added by participants. The resulting work combines the conception of the overall design and selection of initial texts by the artist, the database application by the programmer, texts added by the participant, and the transformation of texts by the program. In this case, the work of art is a collective creation combining information machines with engineers, artists and participants in a manner that reconfigures the role of each. Art is then not a delimited object but an underdetermined space in which subject and object, human and machine, body and mind, space and time all receive new cultural forms.

Sharon Daniel’s essay, ‘The Aesthetics of Databases’, explaining her work, draws directly on the media and makes explicit links with the politics of art. One finds in it many echoes of the ‘Immaterials’ exhibit such as:

Narrative Contingencies was built based on the assumption, or belief, that — while it is impossible to escape the image and language of the existing symbolic order it may be possible to restructure them by circumvention and dislocation. It is hoped that a participant — who is able to find a meaningful interpretation of images and texts that she herself brought together and altered using random or chance operations — may conclude that relations of meaning are not dependent upon the ordering intention of a single author but inherently contingent upon the subjective location of the reader or viewer.

(Daniel, 2000: 209)

Digitized, networked art installs a new relation of art to politics, one in which the stable positions of artist and consumer are erased. Aesthetics of beauty and practices of contemplation are subverted.

The deep rupture introduced into art by the medium of networked computing calls upon critics and theorists to rethink aesthetics and its relation to politics. One critic, Janez Strehovec, proposes that, given the rise of artworks such as those of Legrady and Daniel, we can no longer speak of art but instead of ‘would-be-works-of-art’. He defines this conjunctive term as the art of the ‘extraordinary’. He writes: ‘The key concept of the new aesthetic is therefore not contemplation but immersion based upon atmospheres of the extraordinary’ (a-r-c, 3, November 2000, Acknowledging that theorists such as Heidegger, Benjamin, Baudrillard, Adorno, Barthes and Hegel anticipated the transformation or even the disappearance of art, Strehovec argues that the practice of art in recent years has introduced science and technology in a manner that requires new aesthetic theory. In my view, the concept of the extraordinary does not specify clearly enough the nature of the transformation introduced by new media. I prefer the term ‘underdetermination’ to suggest the unsettling of basic components of culture in the art of networked computing. From the perspective of new media, art of the modern era preserves features of social practice as much as it sets itself in opposition to them. The critical value of modern art is limited by the form of its objective presentation, that is, it appears as an object that may become a commodity and that reinforces the hegemonic relation of subject to object characteristic of modernity. The art of Legrady and Daniel, by contrast, opens a space of transformation, a complex object that remains incomplete, requiring the viewer to change the object in the process of experiencing it. As such, the art of networked computing brings forth a culture that highlights its future transformation rather than confirming the completeness of the real. This art insists upon the virtuality of the real, its openness to possibility. It solicits the participant not simply to admire the real, or even imagine a critique of the real in the sense of a future happiness (Marcuse). Instead the art of networked computing invites the participant to change the real. If Marx called for philosophy not simply to interpret the world but to change it, the new art, more forcefully than he, fulfills his own purpose.


Benjamin, W. (1969) ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ in Illuminations. New York: Schocken. 217-251.

Daniel, S. (2000) ‘Collaborative Systems: Evolving Databases and the “Conditions of Possibility” – Artificial Life Models of Agency in On-Line Interactive Art’. AI & Society 14(2): 196-213.