Thinking With the Past

In the last post, I cited a passage or two from Hannah Arendt in which she discusses “thinking without a bannister,” thinking that attempts to think “as though nobody had thought before.” I endorsed her challenge, but I hinted in passing at a certain unease with this formulation. This largely stemmed from my own sense that we must try to learn from the past. Arendt, however, does not mean to suggest that there is nothing at all that can be learned from the past. This is evident from the attentive care she gives to ancient sources in her efforts to illuminate the present state of things. Rather, she seems to believe that a coherent tradition of thought which we can trust to do our thinking for us, a tradition of thought that can set our intellectual defaults as it were–this kind of tradition is lost. The appearance of totalitarianism in the 20th century (and, I think, the scope and scale of modern technology) led Arendt to her conclusion that thinking must start over. But, again, not entirely without recourse to the tradition.

Here is Arendt expounding upon what she calls Walter Benjamin’s “gift of thinking poetically”:

“This thinking, fed by the present, works with the ‘thought fragments’ it can wrest from the past and gather about itself. Like a pearl diver who descends to the bottom of the sea, not to excavate the bottom and bring it to light but to pry loose the rich and the strange, the pearls and the coral in the depths of the past–but not in order to resuscitate it the way it was and to contribute to the renewal of the extinct ages. What guides this thinking is the conviction that although the living is subject to the ruin of the time, the process of decay is at the same time a process of crystallization, that in the depth of the sea, into which sinks and is dissolved what was once alive, some things suffer a ‘sea change’ and survive in new crystallized forms and shapes that remain immune from the elements, as though they waited only for the pearl diver who one day will come down to them and bring them up into the world of the living–as ‘thought fragments,’ as something ‘rich and strange,’ and perhaps even as everlasting Urphänomene [archetypal or pure phenomenon].”

As Richard Bernstein puts it in his essay, “Arendt on Thinking,” “what Arendt says in her eloquent essay on Walter Benjamin also might have been said about Arendt.” Bernstein goes on to explain that Arendt “links thinking together with remembrance and storytelling. Remembrance is one of the most important ‘modes of thought,’ and it requires story-telling in order to preserve those ‘small islands of freedom.'”

The tradition may have been broken, but it is not altogether lost to us. By the proper method, we may still pluck some pearls and repurpose them to help us make sense of the present.

That passage, in case your curious, comes from Arendt’s Introduction to a collection of Benjamin’s essays she edited titled Illuminations: Essays and Reflections. Bernstein’s essay may be found in The Cambridge Companion to Hannah Arendt.”

Downton Abbey and Technology

Tonight American audiences rekindle their fascination with Downton Abbey, the popular BBC series set in a stately English manor during the early twentieth century. It is a series that dramatizes the decline and dissolution of a world shorn apart by the violent winds of social change. In the series, the Great War, the women’s movement, socialism, and other contemporaneous developments chip away at the old order. But the opening scene of the pilot episode also strongly suggests that this older world is giving way to the forces of technological change. Consider the first two minutes:

The tapping of telegraph, the whistle of the locomotive, and the curves of power lines all feature prominently in these opening shots. And so too does the sinking of the Titanic, a near mythical case study in the dangers of technological hubris. Strikingly, the telegraph lines and the progress of the train are juxtaposed with idyllic country scenes. It is a filmic version of a prominent nineteenth century literary convention.

Consider the following passage from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s journal. While enjoying the enchantments of the natural (and cultural) world around him, Hawthorne is startled:

“But, hark! there is the whistle of the locomotive — the long shriek, harsh, above all other harshness, for the space of a mile cannot mollify it into harmony. It tells a story of busy men, citizens, from the hot street, who have come to spend a day in a country village, men of business; in short of all unquietness; and no wonder that it gives such a startling shriek, since it brings the noisy world into the midst of our slumbrous peace.”

This passage is a point of departure for Leo Marx’s classic study of technology in the American literary tradition, The Machine in the Garden. Similar vignettes were a recurring feature in the literature of the nineteenth century. For Hawthorne, Emerson, and many of their contemporaries, the train whistle signaled the industrial machine’s disruption of a pastoral ideal in which human culture blended harmoniously with nature.

The opening scenes of Downton Abbey fit neatly within this genre. Of course, Hawthorne was writing about what were for him contemporary realities. We are far removed from the historical setting of Downton Abbey. For us the train whistle signals little more than a break in traffic and the telegraph is merely quaint. But I wonder whether the popularity of Downton Abbey stems, at least in part, from its evocation of the specter of disruptive technological change. It offers the anxieties of a safely distant age as a proxy for our own, and, perhaps, in doing so it also offers something like a cathartic experience for viewers.

Perhaps it merely traffics in nostalgia for an idyllic age, but I doubt it. We know from the outset that there is a snake in the garden. The train, the power lines, the Titanic — they are so many momento mori littering the scene. More likely we are like the Angel of History in Benjamin’s reading of Klee’s Angelus Novus:

“His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.”

As the storm blows us onward we can’t help but glance back at the wreckage of the past piling up behind us … or some often romanticized, frequently commodified representation of it that may or may not bear any resemblance to historical realities.

Of course, it may just be the memes.

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.”

The Internet, the Body, and Unconscious Dimensions of Thought, Part II

The Embodied Unconscious

Part Two of Three. Part One.

Ulmer’s project — fashioning a heuristic apparatus that brings the social unconscious partly into view — focuses on the semiotic elements of the socially situated self. Yet, this is only one of the unconscious, or pre-cognitive, dimensions of identity and action. In How We Became Posthuman, Katherine Hayles drew attention to the relationship among embodiment, cognition, and subjectivity.  The group subject emerges, according to Hayles, not only out of the realm of image, symbol, and language, but also out of the matrix of embodied practice.

Ulmer’s unconscious may be labeled the semiotic (or iconic) unconscious.   Adapting Lacan’s psychic schema, Ulmer proposes to map the group subject by recognizing the pattern of recurring signifiers within the four discourses of what Ulmer calls the popcycle (Family, Entertainment, School, Career).   The recurring signifier, analogous to the Lacanian symptom, takes on the role of Guattari’s “existential refrain”: “An implication for electrate identity,” according to Ulmer, “is that a unique refrain, a singularity, may be the clasp that holds together a collectivity (that the nation, so to speak, ‘hangs by a thread’).” The emerging apparatus of electracy allows the group subject to be written, and thus to emerge, at least partially, from its blind spot.

Hayles supplements the semiotic unconscious with what may be called the embodied unconscious.  The embodied unconscious consists of “bodily practices” which have sedimented

into habitual actions and movements, sinking below conscious awareness.   At this level they achieve an inertia that can prove surprisingly resistant to conscious intentions to modify or change them. By their nature, habits do not occupy conscious thought; they are done more or less automatically, as if the knowledge of how to perform the actions resided in ones’ fingers or physical mobility rather than in one’s mind.

Pierre Bourdieu

In articulating the significance of the embodied unconscious, Hayles draws heavily on the work of French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu.  Bourdieu arrived at his conceptions of practice and embodied knowledge through his study of a group of Berber tribes known as the Kabyle living in North Africa.  Bourdieu observed that the seasonal rituals of the Kabyle conveyed considerable “understanding” about the world, but did so by communicating not “abstractions,” but “patterns of daily life learned by practicing actions until they become habitual.” Habitus, as Bourdieu put it, preserves “a past which survives in the present and tends to perpetuate itself into the future by making itself present in practices structured according to its principles,” and it does so by embedding this knowledge or remembering in the body.

In summarizing Bourdieu’s findings, Hayles concludes that his

work illustrates how embodied knowledge can be structurally elaborate, conceptually coherent, and durably installed without ever having to be cognitively recognized as such . . . The habitus, which is learned, perpetuated, and changed through embodied practices, should not be thought of as a collection of rules but as a series of dispositions and inclinations that are both subject to circumstances and durable enough to pass down through generations.  The habitus is conveyed through the orientation and movement of the body as it traverses cultural spaces and experiences temporal rhythms.

This durable knowledge carried in the body and yielding dispositions and inclinations is transmitted through the ritualized practices of a society.  Ulmer tends to associate embodied knowledge and its modes of acquisition with oral cultures and religious liturgies, consequently this form of subject formation is unfortunately marginalized in his analysis of literate and post-literate societies.  By contrast, Hayles forefronts this form of knowledge and argues for its ongoing significance.  She concludes her discussion of Bourdieu by identifying four key elements of embodied knowledge that emerged from his research:

First, incorporated [or, embodied] knowledge retains improvisational elements that make it contextual rather than abstract, that keep it tied to the circumstances of its instantiation.  Second, it is deeply sedimented into the body and is highly resistant to change.  Third, incorporated knowledge is partly screened from conscious view because it is habitual.  Fourth, because it is contextual, resistant to change, and obscure to the cogitating mind, it has the power to define the boundaries within which conscious thought takes place.

The fourth point is particularly significant in relation to ATH or blindness and Arendt’s call to think what we are doing.  Hayles explicitly links the obscurity of embodied knowledge with the contours within which conscious thought flows.

Walter Benjamin

Connecting embodied knowledge with blindness is not intended to disparage embodied knowledge.  In fact, without offloading certain procedures, interactions, and functions to the embodied unconscious, it would be difficult to function at all.  But the benefits of embodied knowledge come at a price.  Here it is helpful to recall Ulmer’s discussion of Walter Benjamin’s notion of the “optical unconscious”:

The capacity of the camera to separate itself from the human physical and mental eye, combined with the theories of psychoanalysis, produced the notion of the ‘optical unconscious’ (Benjamin).  The attitude toward truth as standpoint in the image apparatus of electracy is that clarity is an effect of repression, blindness (ATH).

“Clarity is an effect of repression” is a dictum that applies not only to the optical unconscious, but also to the embodied unconscious.  The benefits of the embodied unconscious come at the cost of installing habitual repression into our experience of the world.  Habituated forms of attention are simultaneously habituated forms of inattention.  Interestingly, the connection between repression and habituation appears in Rosalind Krauss’ analysis cited by Ulmer in his discussion of the optical unconscious:

As Rosalind Krauss explained, applying the poststructural psychoanalysis of Jacques Lacan, the ‘extimate’ inside-outside nature of the human subject installs an opaque obstacle “within the very heart of a diagrammatic clarity that is now a model both of vision’s claims and of vision’s failure . . . . The graph of an automatist visuality would show how the vaunted cognitive transparency of the ‘visual as such’ is not an act of consciousness but the effect of what is repressed:  the effect, that is, of seriality, repetition, the automation.”

Just as we often see through habituated acts of not seeing, we also often act through habituated acts of not thinking.

“Archival Consciousness”

From Richard Terdiman’s Present Past: Modernity and the Memory Crisis:

“[Walter Benjamin] argued that the nineteenth-century city produced a particularly acute experience of disconnection and abstraction. Such abstraction defeats the associative structure of natural memory and induces in its place a different form of the habitus or technology of recollection that we could call ‘archival consciousness.’ Its principle would be the increasingly randomized isolation of the individual item of information, to the detriment of its relation to any whole, and the consignment of such information to what earlier I called ‘extrindividual’ mnemonic mechanisms. Such abstraction has been increasingly programmed by the practices of modern socio-economies since the industrial revolution.”

Is the structure of this 19th century “memory crisis”  recapitulated within the further abstractions of memory within 21st century digital culture?