« Philosophize This!

Episode #153 ... The Frankfurt School - Walter Benjamin pt. 2 - Distraction

2021-04-01 | 🔗

Today we continue talking about Walter Benjamin. 

This is an unofficial transcript meant for reference. Accuracy is not guaranteed.
Hello everyone, I'm Stephen West. This is philosophize. This thinking to the fine folks, unpatriotic help support the show. Thank you to the people they go through the contribute. What you think the shows worth model on the website: philosophizing dot org at times given west on Twitter. What more is there to say I'm going to waste anyone's time? Today's episode is part two on Walter been humming. I hope you love the show today so something important to consider about Walter Benyamin that maybe isn't as much the case with a lot of other thinkers. We ve covered on the show. Is that his work is in many ways just as relevant. Today as it was when he was writing it philosophers. Obviously, are always doing their work within a particular historical context. This context often shades the questions they think are even worth asking so when they come up with answers to these pressing questions as interesting as there
work, may be as much practical value as you might get out of it. If you studied it, the world sometimes can pass their work by in terms of direct relevance, the work of Walter. Benyamin, though, is not this way because, as we talked about last time, one of the main things that concerned him was this relationship between technological innovations and these sensory experience and subjectivity of people. You change the technology that surrounds the person. You change the person. This is what we're gonna be talking about partially today, So when he's giving examples, he's gonna be referencing things like film and radio and tv, probably three things that are on their way out in our modern world, but the way he thought these affected, the individual subject and the political subject can just as easily be applied to different technologies. Things like the internet, things like smartphones, self driving cars, whatever you want, when you consider the fact that new technology is introduced faster than
ever has been before and how much influence this technology has in mediating our entire relationship with reality to the point you can almost think of us cybernetic, maybe the work of Walter been mean has never been more relevant than right now. To make the case for why. I want to start by telling you all a story about stories, story telling, I guess, but maybe the better way to think of this is that it's a story about how mythology has been delivered to people at different points in history, the unverified viable stories that people feel connected to and used to help navigate their existence. Now it used to be that stories and mythology
were passed down generation after generation by story tellers highly specialised position. These people had to have great memories. They had to have great performative abilities, and they often tell these stories to entire crowds of people gathered around few important things to consider about this early age. Storytelling, though one these stories were received collectively by people, this was a group activity, people engaged in some might say, team building and other thing. These stories were told many many times sometimes to the same group of people. But an important point is that these stories were not reproducible You could generally tell the same story, but it would not be in exact copy. There would also be variations different details, most of the time, if you're a good story, teller your base. These adjustments on your audience point is the collective process in which people receive their stories mirrored the collective societies.
That these people were a part of. But, as you know, time goes on Gutenberg Press, Socio economic region be changed and been amene illustrates how, at this point our stories, our mythology started to take form in print. We saw the rise of something called the novel now reading. A novel, in contrast to the oral tradition from before, is a collective activity. People don't all gathered around the same book and wait to turn them. Age until everyone's done reading. No, this is an individual sitting down. Reading a book been, I mean, says even the storylines of novels almost always are about an individual protagonist, conquering some sort of challenge, not a coincidence that the novel becomes the most popular form of storytelling during the extremely individualistic solitary lifestyle of the industrial middle class. One more important point about novels when you have this sort of individual relationship with US
what been mean things it starts to promote, is a type of what he calls concentration or deliberation about the novel. This skill of concentration becomes an extremely potent skill to have not only when you're trying to glean wisdom from a story, but also when it comes to formulating your own political viewpoints more on that later. But again time goes on and during the time of been a mean, what he starts to see is the rise of mass forms of storytelling mass forms of communication. With the introduction of things like film and radio won't, we heard his thoughts on photography and how it can alter a person subjectivity dramatically. What happens when we introduce another technology, the technology of moving images on a screen? How much of an effect is that going to have been a mean famously describes the cinema as a sort of training ground for the citizen of modernity? Let me explain what I mean by this:
when you go to the cinema, you are once again receiving a story or a mythology in a collective way. This isn't like the individual experience of a novel. This is much more like the era of storytelling really become part of an audience of observers and listeners, and when you think of film as a work of art, there is one single copy of gone with the wind. We got a fly across the world to be able to see it. Millions billions of people can I view the same moving images at the same time if they want to do that is to say that film is like the age of storytelling and that its received collectively, but unlike storytelling, in that exact copies of the story, are no mass reproducible when a pause for just two seconds
say that are really important thing to remember here is that in this new age of the mass reproduce ability of art the mean things that this change is several key premises about art that the artist now has to have in the back of their minds if they ever want to survive within a capitalist society which in turn changes the very definition of what art is altogether so an example of this would be that within a capitalist society, if you're, gonna mass reproduce, a piece of your artwork, you always have to in some capacity consider profit as an NGO, which in turn leads you to consider the greatest
brave reproductions for the lowest cost, which in turn leads you to consider not just art. For the sake of the merit of the art alone. Now you have to consider what sort of art is going to be the most reproducible distributed, evil and sensible when the relationship between the observer in the artist becomes filtered by making art into a commodity. There are real consequences for both parties there and we're going to see this present itself in this new era of moving pictures on a screen, but first a couple more things about the sensory experience of film. This was really important to Walter enemy. He compares something like a painting to something like a film when you get a painting, the images standing still there is time to observe, concentrate deliberate to have that individual moment of aesthetic reflection, but with a film. The images and sounds are coming at you. So rapidly things are changing so quickly
there is never any point where you can have a reflective moment, because by the time you start on one: it's already moved on to a completely different set of moving pictures and a different seen. The result of this is that the default state of subjectivity, when you're consuming artful stories, made up of moving images and sounds on a regular basis, but also when consuming many other forms of art. It should be said. The default state is for a person to absorb the art in a constant state of distraction. So we have two different modes of thought here: concentration on one hand and distraction on the other,
been a mean, describes the difference between concentration and distraction. Here quote distraction and concentration form polar opposites, which may be stated as follows: a man who concentrates before a work of art is absorbed by it. He enters into this work of art. The way legend tells of the chinese painter when he viewed has finished painting. In contrast, the distracted mass absorbs the work of art. This is most obvious with regard to buildings. Architecture has always represented the prototype of a work of art, in the reception of which is consummated by collectivity in a state of distraction. The laws of its reception are most constructive input. So again, this is going to be a really important distinction. The Bene mean makes about different ways to experience, art someone who concentrates on a work of art is absorbed by it, whereas
stranded mass of people absorb the work of art so as point comparison think about someone experiencing art during the era of the novel, when concentration and deliberation were really important modes of thought, a person sees a painting, for example, they stared it. They dissected there in a contemplative state where their entire aesthetic experience is rooted in a type of focus on the painting, The enemy would say that they are absorbed by the work of art, but dont mistaken for being somebody that saying that this is way better than being distracted all the time we got to go back to doing things. This way he actually talks at one point about how art that requires us to be absorbed into it. To have an aesthetic experience is kind of an aggressive move. By the artist. If you think about it, the artist is essentially holding the aesthetic experience hostage. I mean they're, basically saying that if you Surrender to me, you're, undivided attention and a million dollars and unmarked bills. I'm going to get anything from me
but in our modern world, with the new technology, that's been introduced, concentration and deliberation have become outdated modes of thought. Being able to concentrate is just not as useful of skill in the metropolitan societies we live in today, and this not only leads to the crisis of the novel has been a mean, puts it in our people are no longer able to relate as much to this type of art to get their mythology, but it also leads to the strategy- that's more useful in today's world, which is, of course to live your life in a constant stew, of distraction. Let me give an example of what he's talking about. Think of life and a modern metropolitan city- you are constantly being bombarded by fleeting images, sounds smells textures. Look. You may be walking down the street, wondering you see a flashing add on a screen in the distance for a bottle of shampoo you're in,
rapid by the sound of a car horn next year. But then someone tries to hand you they're mix tape because because they're trying to get their music off the ground, then someone walks past you in there talking to themselves in your mistake them for one to talk to you. But then he pass a restaurant is smell. The food. You look at their logo to try to see the name of the restaurant, but then summoned shoulder checks, because Europe The way this experience is like none other in human history and on the arch answer, listen and danger, not among you're, not wearing an orange munsey. All the time for the average person trying to concentrate or delivery on the experience that you're having in a modern metropolitan life. Not only would the overwhelming, but downright impossible. The modern subject exists in a state of distraction because they have to Rosalie wouldn't get anything done at all think of distraction by the way, not only in terms of your visual senses being fragmented, now you're looking at something you see something else. You look over there, you're distracted
no Benjamin would say this is not the only way we pay attention with our senses. He says you could justice, easily be in a state of distraction because you are constantly getting fleeting inputs across a multi sensory landscape. This is important because he's gonna say that during the of the novel things were way over indexed in terms of the visual components of things site became this monolith of our experience. People would sit down in a quiet commonplace, so they wouldn't get to distracted so that they could concentrate on what they were reading when you go into an art gallery, your pride on expect there to be a mud wrestling tournament going on in the lobby and that's for good reason. Visual things are important, but there are things you just cannot communicate through the single sensory communication of writing that you can only communicate and a multi sensory way as the storytellers of the past well understood the constant since ribbon barred meant and lack of stillness of modern life,
requires a different mode of thought to be able to absorb it properly. Once again, the world no longer absorbs us into it. We have, of the world as members of the distracted masses and film and videos service, the ultimate training ground for someone who has to live immersed in this distracted reality, while still meeting to passively absorbed, meaning they go about their life, so in the same way, the salons in cafes in Europe earlier and history, would train the political subject through reading discussions and debates. In these places, the cinema becomes the training ground for the modern subject. This is what he's referencing when he talks about architecture, which he also considered to be a form of mass media chair. You could theoretically stuff look at a building over index on the visible and really take it in for the work of art that it is but venom points out. We are not tourists, ok, because in our seas it is when going about our daily lives. Do we stop and view era?
thing visually and and start a freak out about it, guys guys, you gotta see this airport bathroom tile. It is incredible, get in your guys come on! No, we don't do that. How could you possibly do that you be like Bob Ross with a smartphone if Bob Ross never had to get anything done with his day? We couldn't ever do it. So that's why our aesthetic experience is realised in the mode of distraction by absorbing bits and pieces through our use or per section of the world around us. Distracted masses of people with any capitalist society are not getting their mythology from deliberative concentration about things they usually appropriately in the world around them based on habits that they form? Usually, without ever even realising their forming those habits or why they're doing it, he says quote: even the distracted person conform habits
What is more, the ability to master certain tasks in a state of distraction first proves that the performance has become a bitter will. The sort of distraction that's provided by art represents a covert measure of the extent to which it has become possible to perform new tasks of a perception end quote so by living in a state of distraction. We appropriate the world in many cases, based on the habits that we happened to form one of the main ways we appropriate the world around us is by having a particular worldview mean, is clearly very concerned with these new possibilities of delivering what he saw as a bourgeois ideology to the masses,
through the medium of moving pictures, most prevalent during his time, obviously in the realm of cinema, but don't get him wrong, especially in comparison to its counterparts in the Frankfurt school, he's actually very optimistic about this new technology and its ability to have emancipatory potential for the masses. He just doesn't think that's what it's being used for again we're combining passive spectatorship with film and videos ability to promote a story or mythology. That's in line with a particular political ideology. This is a far cry from the sky, retailer passing down wisdom from other generations. This is far from the novel from the age of concentration, This is a mass reproducible delivery system that keeps people distract and absorbing a story that could at best pacify their discontent with their place within society and at worst, render people foot soldiers in the regime of a mass murder, not to mention when you
buying all this with capitalism. You have to also consider the filter. That's always present between film, in the spectators that the film needs to be funded by someone and Benjamin wants us to always keep in mind that the very people that's to benefit from keeping the masses distracted, absorbing an ideology that keeps things the way that they are just happened to be the very people that have the capital resources to be able to pick and choose which films to fund at all or which videos to produce all of this segways pretty well into his next big point that the combination of this new century, the position of the subject that we're distracted, overtime, plus the new role of art in the age of mechanical reproduction, plus the introduction of new mass communication technologies. All of this creates a sort of fertile soil that seems do inevitably lead to fascism. See art throughout history has typically been connected to some sort of religious underpinning or ceremony or tradition. Once again, the role
of art was never to be mass, reproduced and sold, but now that it is yet again been, I mean he's going to say that this comes with both some good and some bad the good is that now the meaning of a work of art can take any shape you wanted to. Ultimately, in this new world, the distracted masses are the critics and in this new world now so more than ever, but the art means to you actually matters, but once again, every silver lining has a cloud, and the cloud here for Benyamin is that, in the sense that it can be appropriated in any way we want now and that its now mass reproduced art has moved from what Benjamin refers to as the colt work of art to the exhibitionist work of art. Art in our new world is creed,
primarily to be displayed, and whenever you display a piece of artwork, it must then take on the form of being intrinsically political put. Another way the technology being introduced during this time has made it possible to politicize and Mass distribute art and away. That's never been done before so, if you're an aspiring fascist leader out there. This becomes an incredible weapon in your arsenal in this age of the distracted masses, because back in the age of the novel, the political subject relied on concentration and deliberation to make their political decisions as well. They might go outside, find a nice treaty set under find a good quiet place to think about things. Consider all the options deliberate about which one is the best. Then they go and tell
their local representative, and then they reflect on their decision. Afterwards. Bene mean thought we are no longer in the era of deliberate of politics. More than that representative democracy was in crisis and it seemed like it was on its way out for good if for no other reason than how people in power are now able to directly communicate to the masses themselves seat, the relationship between. The political subject and the president or ruler used to be mediated by representatives in a representative democracy. Now it's mediated by technology, as is our entire experience with reality and what's even going on in the world, the representatives still exist. They still show up to work, they still go to the parliamentary meetings, but to Ben I mean these representatives have become spectators. Almost like the audience at a cinema, they are quickly becoming an obsolete part of the political process.
In other words, the decline of the aura even extends to our political leaders. Leaders can now put their voice on a radio or their face on a screen, and now they can directly communicate with masses of political subjects, works of art, propaganda, films, radio programmes, books
videos songs all these can now be mass reproduced and distributed to those masses. These masses, through images on a screen through photographs from above, can now come face to face with themselves. They can see themselves as a collective subject at this point. Identifying yourself as one of the masses, becomes even easier. Consider the fact that, as the masses come face to face with themselves as people see the masses depicted in a particular light on their screens, could those images be producing the subjectivity of the masses themselves now, if this were true, which Benyamin thought it was then the implications of that or that we are essentially just living in a completely mass
produced existence, not only all the obvious reproduction of material goods and art, and basically every way you can possibly express yourself as a supposed individual, but we're even now. Mass producing people been aiming at one point, talks about just think about the fact that things like film and tv and video lend themselves so much to political theatre or political spectacle and propaganda, because, when you're shooting a video of any variety and you point a camera at a scene that you want to capture. There was only one perspective from which that scene gets delivered in that way shot from just a little bit of a different angle. You might see all the cameras, the sound people, the strings attached to the performers that allow them to fly around. In other words, you would not see the image that has been designed for you to see the world through a wider lens. Now match
if there was a direct line of communication between people and ultimate positions of power through an online medium, that only allows you to get your point across in two hundred and eighty characters. Just imagine a tweet has to encapsulate your thoughts on a matter. What's funny is that people do it all the time essentially conceding to the point that there's zero new wants to whatever issued their commenting on. Can you really communicate any? thing other than eighty ology and two hundred and eighty characters. So doesn't the platform itself filter out nuanced points of view by default, when the only things that can ever get up, voted and shared are things that you can
down on a fortune cookie, is that really the way we want people in positions of power to deliver messages to the political subject, especially considering the distracted masses need easy to grasp messages to absorb anyway? Benyamin says this in one of his most famous passages he says, quote: fascism attempts to organise the newly proletarian eyes masses while leaving intact the property relations which they strive to abolish it, sees it salivation and granting expression to the masses, but on no account granting them rights. The masses have a right to change property relations fascism, seeks to give them expression in keeping these relations unchanged, and quote technology mediate everything that we do today. We
mostly exist in a digital ontology that we use to make sense of the physical ontology we actually live in more so than ever when I've been a means. Greatest point starts to come abundantly clear that, as time goes on the communicable eighty of our experience as people seems to become more and more difficult. Now, we're gonna talk about this concept more, but in a very general sense, It's interesting to think about. One have been her means examples here. He says that when soldiers went away to world war, one and came home you'd expect them to return with all sorts of stories about what their life had been like during the conflict. But he says what you typically sea because of the new
who sometimes brutal technology that mediated their whole experience there. What you see our people that clearly have a lot to say, but have a really hard time communicating any of it. There's always a pause, there's, always a searching for the right turn of phrase to put somebody in their experience, who wasn't? Actually there were one if the technology that progressively mediate saliva, the average person has a similar effect. How alienating would it be too have a host of experiences that you'd, like nothing more than to share with the people you love and care about, but that language and communication has atrophied to such an extent that it will always be impossible for you to actually tell them about it. Thank you for listening I'll talk to you. Next time
Transcript generated on 2021-04-02.