Quotes of quotes of quotes of quotes, 8/20

Though he didn’t write all that much on the subject, I’ve always really enjoyed reading what Walter Benjamin had to say about cinema. Unsurprisingly, Benjamin argued that the emergence of cinema as a popular artistic medium signaled a broader shift towards new forms of collective and individual consciousness; indeed, the same can be said for all artistic mediums, if we accept that there’s even a grain of truth to McLuhan’s assertion that all changes in human consciousness are preceded by changes in our technological environment (the newspaper yields the public; the telephone yields the modern form of conversation; etc.).

But what kind of shift did cinema cause? For Benjamin, cinema served roughly two transformative functions:

1. Cinema injected our modern environment with a sense of pervasive wonder and beauty (it’d be interesting to try to link this notion to the persistent Warholian belief that everything, for better or worse, is art) by uncovering what Benjamin refers to in some of his writings as the optical unconscious (in short: the aspects of our environment which hide in plain sight but which are exposed by means of cinematic techniques like slow-motion, superimposition, cutting, etc.). I think that there are a number of intriguing affinities between Benjamin’s theory of cinema as that which reveals the optical unconscious and Martin Heidegger’s theory of art as a mode of aletheia (the unveiling of concealed truth), but I’m in no mood to work out such a comparison.

2. Cinema accustoms our nervous apparatuses (our noggins) to the “shocks” of our modern environment. This thesis is the central pillar of Benjamin’s short engagement with the Soviet avant-garde cinema of the 1920s and with the silent work of Charlie Chaplin. For Benjamin, the films of Eisenstein, Pudovkin, Dovzhenko and Chaplin effectively trained spectators to be able to withstand the barrage of sensory stimulation that constitutes so much of our experience of the world outside the movie theater, especially for audiences seeing these films in metropolises like Paris, Moscow, New York, and so on.

Today’s quote addresses only the first of these two functions, but it does so in what I think is an eloquent and poetic way. The quote itself is taken from a letter-to-the-editor Benjamin wrote in response to… a book review, I think? I forget precisely what it was responding to, but the letter can be found in the recently published The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility, and Other Writings on Media, which, despite its cinder-block of a title, is extremely worthwhile (and available here).

In every new technical revolution, the political position is transformed—as if on its own—from a deeply hidden element of art into a manifest one. And this brings us ultimately to film.

Among the points of fracture in artistic formations, film is one of the most dramatic. We may truly say that with film a new realm of consciousness comes into being. To put it in a nutshell, film is the prism in which the spaces of the immediate environment—the spaces in which people live, pursue their avocations, and enjoy their leisure—are laid open before their eyes in a comprehensible, meaningful, and passionate way. In themselves these offices, furnished rooms, saloons, big-city streets, stations, and factories are ugly, incomprehensible, and hopelessly sad. Or rather, they were and seemed to be, until the advent of film. The cinema then exploded this entire prison-world with the dynamite of its fractions of a second, so that now we can take extended journeys of adventure between their widely scattered ruins. The vicinity of a house, of a room, can include dozens of the most unexpected stations, and the most astonishing station names. It is not so much the constant stream of images as the sudden change of place that overcomes a milieu which has resisted every other attempt to unlock its secret, and succeeds in extracting from a petty-bourgeois dwelling the same beauty we admire in an Alfa Romeo. (Walter Benjamin, “Reply to Oscar A.H. Schmitz”)

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