The Self in the Age of Digital Reproduction

The title suggested itself to me before I had written a word. I picked up Walter Benjamin’s classic essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility,”* and in my mind I heard, “The Self in the Age of Its Digital Reproducibility.” I then read through the essay once more with that title in mind to see if there might not be something to the implied analogy. I think there might be.

Of course, what follows is not intended as a strict interpretation and reapplication of the whole of Benjamin’s essay. Instead, it’s a rather liberal, maybe even playful, borrowing of certain contours and outlines of his argument. The borrowing is premised on the assumption that there is a loose analogy between the mechanical reproduction of visual works of art enabled by photography and film, and the reproduction of our personality across a variety of networks enabled by digital technology.

At one point in the essay, Benjamin noted, “commentators had earlier expended much fruitless ingenuity on the question of whether photography was an art – without asking the more fundamental question of whether the invention of photography had not transformed the entire character of art …” Just so. We might say commentators have presently expended much fruitless ingenuity asking about whether this or that digital technology achieved the status of this or that prior analog technology without asking the more fundamental question of whether the invention of digital technology had not transformed the entire character of the field in question. The important question is not, for instance, whether Facebook friendship is real friendship, but how social media has transformed the entire character of relationships. So in this fashion we take Benjamin as our guide letting his criticism suggest lines of inquiry for us.

Benjamin’s essay is best remembered for his discussion of the aura that attended an original work of art before the age of mechanical reproduction. That aura, grounded in the materiality of the work of art, was displaced by the introduction of mechanical reproduction.

“What, then, is the aura?” Benjamin asks. Answer:  “A strange tissue of space and time: the unique apparition of a distance, however near it may be …” And, he adds, “what withers in the age of the technological reproducibility of the work of art is the latter’s aura.”

Aura, to put it more plainly, is a concept that gathers together the authenticity and authority felt in the presence of a work of art. This authenticity and authority of the work of art fail to survive its mechanical (as opposed to manual) reproduction for two principal reasons:

“First, technological reproduction is more independent of the original than is manual reproduction. For example, in photography it can bring out aspects of the original that are accessible only to the lens … but not to the human eye; or it can use certain processes, such as enlargement or slow motion, to record images which escape natural optics altogether. This is the first reason. Second, technological reproduction can place the copy of the original in situations which the original itself cannot attain. Above all, it enables the original to meet the recipient halfway, whether in the form of a photograph or in that of a gramophone record.”

May we speak of the aura that attends a person in “the here and now,” as Benjamin puts it? I would think so. Benjamin himself suggests as much when he discusses the work of the film actor: “The situation can be characterized as follows: for the first time – and this is the effect of film – the human being is placed in a position where he must operate with his whole living person while forgoing its aura. For the aura is bound to his presence in the here and now. There is no facsimile of the aura.”

The analogy I’ve thus far only alluded to is this. Just as mechanical means of reproduction, such as photography, multiplied and distributed an original work or art, likewise do digital technologies, social media most explicitly, multiply and distribute the self. But in so doing they dissolve the aura that attends the person in the flesh and consequently elicit a quest for authenticity.

Consider again the two reasons Benjamin gave for the eclipse of the aura in the face of mechanical reproduction: the independence of the reproduction and its ability to “place the copy in situations which the original itself cannot attain.” The latter of these is most easily reapplied to the digital reproduction of the self. Our social media profiles, for instance, or Skype to take another example, place the self in (multiple, simultaneous) situations that our embodied self cannot attain. But it is the former that may prove most interesting.

Benjamin’s notion of the aura is intertwined with a certain irreducible distance that cannot be collapsed simply by drawing close. Remember his most straightforward definition of aura: “A strange tissue of space and time: the unique apparition of a distance, however near it may be …” The reason for this is that ordinary human vision, even in drawing close, retains an optical inability to penetrate past a certain point. It can only see what it can see, and a manual reproduction cannot improve on that. But a mechanical reproduction can; it can make visible what would remain invisible to the human eye. Imagine for instance what an extreme photographic close-up might reveal about a human face or how high-speed photography may capture a millisecond in time that ordinary human perception would blur into the larger patterns of movement that the unaided human eye is able to perceive.

“Just as the entire mode of existence of human collectives changes over long historical periods,” Benjamin observed, “so too does their mode of perception.” The point then is this: mechanical reproduction, photographs and film, enabled new forms of perception and these new forms of perception effectively neutralized the aura of the original.

Benjamin neatly summed up this dynamic with the notion of the optical unconscious:

“And just as enlargement not merely clarifies what we see indistinctly ‘in any case,’ but brings to light entirely new structures of matter, slow motion not only reveals familiar aspects of movements, but discloses quite unknown aspects within them … Clearly, it is another nature which speaks to the camera as compared to the eye. ‘Other’ above all in the sense that a space informed by human consciousness gives way to a space informed by the unconscious … it is through the camera that we first discover the optical unconscious …”

The camera, in other words, has the ability to bring to the attention of conscious perception what would ordinarily be perceived only at an unconscious level. Benjamin was explicitly pursuing an analogy to the Freudian unconscious. If you prefer to avoid that association, perhaps the term optical non-conscious would suffice. In this way this way this mode of perception may be elided to the bodily forms of intentionality discussed by Merleau-Ponty that are not quite the products of conscious attention. In any case, the capabilities of mechanical reproduction brought to conscious attention what ordinarily escaped it.

So what is the connection to digital reproductions of the self. Well, we might get at it by identifying what could be called the “social unconscious.” Just as photography and film disclosed a real but ordinarily invisible world, might we not also say that digital reproductions of the self materialize real but otherwise invisible relations and mental or emotional states? What else could be the meaning of the “Like” button or the ability to see a visualization of our history with a friend as chronicled on Facebook? Moreover, interactions that before the age of digital reproduction may have passed between two or three persons, now materialize before many more. And while most such interactions would have soon faded into oblivion when they passed out of memory, in the age of digital reproduction they achieve greater durability as well as visibility.

But what are the consequences? Benjamin can help us here as well.

“To an ever-increasing degree, the work reproduced becomes the reproduction of a work designed for reproducibility.” In an age of digital reproduction, the self we are reproducing is increasingly constructed for maximum reproducibility. We live with an eye to the reproductions we will create which we will create with an eye to their being widely reproduced (read, “shared”).

Benjamin also noted the historic tension “between two polarities within the artwork itself … These two poles are the artwork’s cult value and its exhibition value.”  When art was born in the service of magic, the importance of the figures drawn lay in their presence not necessarily their exhibition. By liberating of the work of art from the context of ritual and tradition, mechanical reproduction foregrounded exhibition. In the age of digital reproduction, mere being is incomplete without also being seen. It hasn’t happened if it’s not Facebook official. The private/public distinction is reconfigured for this very reason.

For those keen on registering economic consequences, Benjamin, speaking of the actor before the camera, offers this: “The representation of human beings by means of an apparatus has made possible a highly productive use of the human being’s self-alienation.” Now apply to the person before the apparatus of social-media.

Finally, Benjamin speaking of the human person who will be mechanically reproduced by film, writes:

“While he stands before the apparatus, he knows that in the end he is confronting the masses. It is they who will control him. Those who are not visible, not present while he executes his performance, are precisely the ones who will control it. This invisibility heightens the authority of their control.”

Apply more widely to all who are now engaged in the work of digitally reproducing themselves and cue the quest for authenticity.


* I’m drawing on the second version of the essay composed in 1935 and published in Harvard UP’s The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility and Other Writings on Media (2008)According to the editors, this version “represents the form in which Benjamin originally wished to see the work published.”

9 thoughts on “The Self in the Age of Digital Reproduction

  1. i think you are hitting on exactly why people think the digital is trivial and lesser: the reproduced self lacks an “aura.” this results from, indeed, depends on, a dualistic conception of self and technology, a similar dualism Benjamin had with respect to art and technology. i call this “digital dualism” and fundamentally think it is a fallacy:

    further, the notion that the lack of a digital “aura” of the self presupposes that facebook is a reproduction, another dualistic assumption. i’ve tried before to argue that our offline selves are every bit as much a reproduction:

    the concept of “aura” is very good at illuminating the fallacy of facebook as a separate/reproduction. once that fallacy is uncovered, the argument that reproduced selves lack aura, a view i think is common, becomes moot.

    last, this brings up the question your post begs: what is the distinction between the self and art? can we assume a parallel? might reproduction destroy aura for one and not the other? why?

    1. As you know, I’m pretty sympathetic to your critique of digital dualism. It seems to me, however, that not all distinctions necessarily imply a dualism. In the case of Benjamin, I’m not sure that he is opposing art to technology per se so much as he is registering the transformations in art wrought by a new kind of technology as art. I’m not so sure I’d label this a dualism so much as the recognition of new forms brought into being by new technologies.

      On your second point, I may need you to flesh that out a little more. I’m on board with your conclusion: “we cannot continue to view the Person as the temporal and causal antecedent and the Profile as something that is the subsequent result.” But I don’t see how this leads to the conclusion that the profile and the person are consequently indistinguishable or that certain properties (an “aura” let us say) pertain to one and not the other — entwinement does not entail identity. In my view, the person in “the here and now” as Benjamin puts it, while dialectically constructed by the profile, also retains certain unique modes of signification and being that are particular to bodies in the presence of other bodies. With more time, I might have fleshed out the link between Merleau-Ponty and Benjamin’s optical unconscious to develop this thought a bit more (perhaps I’ll be able to get back to that in the near future).

      As I read Benjamin, the aura of the work of art was partly the result of a certain impenetrability to perception that the camera dissolves. My suggestion is that perhaps the manner in which social media materialize aspects of social life carries with it an analogous effect. If so, this would be the opposite of a digital dualism as I understand it since it would implicate social media in the construction of perceptions and experience on and offline.

      Let me know if I completely missed your point, which of course is always possible.

      Now your closing questions address the really interesting stuff, and that I’m going to think on for awhile!

      1. I find the role of photography in this discussion fascinating, although I disagree with it. The camera does not dissolve the impenetrability to perception, it only replaces the distortions of our unaided vision with a freaquently rather seductive set of distortions of time and perspective, which becomes another aura,another set of unconscious perceptions.

        I do like Nathan’s suggstion that self and art are at least parrallel. Both rely on technology for their execution, and that technology significantly influences the choices available in the contrucction of the art/self.

        1. For the record, I’m not an expert on Benjamin and I’m not reading the original German. That said, it seems to me that Benjamin has something rather concrete in mind when he discusses the optical unconscious and I’m not sure that bringing in the language of distortions quite fits here. This is isn’t a matter of one mode of perception achieving pristine clarity, that doesn’t seem to be what Benjamin is arguing for. So yes, both the unaided eye and the camera engage in interpretive works of perception and neither is an unmediated apprehension of reality, whatever that might be.

          Benjamin’s point, as I read him, is that the camera reveals dimensions of reality that are ordinarily impenetrable by the vision of the unaided eye even while they were in some sense apprehended in their total effect. In this way the mechanical reproduction achieves an independence from the original which breaks its aura.

          I would agree that self and art are parallel in terms of their relationship to technology. And perhaps we might even say that the construction of the self can be understood as a kind of art in itself.

          In any case, this is certainly a productive comment thread.

  2. Switcing away frrom the nested comments.

    I guess my question is, “Why privedge the unaided eye?” If one distinguishes between doodling and art, then one can distingusih among different levels of photography. Phototgraphy can be an artistic medium, just as pencil and paper. The relationship between the artist and the medium, the relationship between the artist and the technology is the same – cyborg. Painting manifests the artists unconcsious eye through the technology of painting just as surely as photography does. The “artisitc process” is experienced by many artists partially as if someone/something else was doing it.

    The vewer in either case confronts a representation of experience. The genre of Photorealism painting embraces this viewpoint.

    1. Okay, that helps me see where you’re coming from. I wouldn’t disagree, and I’m not sure Benjamin would either. I would just say that in this particular essay he is using the term “optical unconscious” to refer to something more narrow and specific than what you mean by the term. Perhaps the confusion lies with the use of “unconscious”. He was explicitly drawing an analogy to Freud, but his elaboration points to a distinction in perception grounded in the objective capabilities of the camera rather than the (cyborg-) subjectivity of the photographer. So Benjamin is tying his sense of the optical unconscious to the camera’s capabilities, but in your sense all work with a medium implies some level of distributed agency, perhaps simply the technological unconscious.

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