Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Reproducing Ambivalence

And while I’m linking and punning on Benjamin, I meant to draw attention some time ago to the nice reading of Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” posted by Ryan/Aless over at massthink. A brief excerpt:

While modern mass are has negative effects, then, its potential benefits (esp. the development of a progressive stance in the waging of social battles) outweigh them. It must be stressed, however, that these positive effects, as Benjamin points them out, are potential ones. They, first and foremost, require (which is where we began with) that art be politicized. Art must find its basis in politics and politics must permeate art (art must concern politics; politics must be concerned with art) to explicitly make it a site of ideological struggle. If Benjamin is right in his assessment that massive reception is inherently progressive, then this-the mechanical reproduction of art, its massive reception, its explicit politicization-bodes well for a progressive social program (i.e. for Marxist political goals).

This is why Benjamin feels it necessary to politicize art. It is inevitable. “The growing proletarianization of modern man and the increasing formation of the masses are two aspects of the same process,” a process that has and is happening. It is inevitable that art be mechanically reproduced, that it be massively received. The age of the masses has come, and the masses demand social and artistic participation. Thus, it is inevitable that art and politics be implicated with each other. This is why we must strive to politicize art. The only other alternative is for politics to be aestheticized, which, Benjamin points out, culminates in one thing: “War and war only can set a goal for mass movements on the largest scale while respecting the traditional property system. [. . .] Only war makes it possible to mobilize all of today’s technical resources while maintaining the property system.”

This, precisely, is what fascism aims for: “Fascism attempts to organize the newly created proletarians masses without affecting the property structure which the masses strive to eliminate. Fascism sees its salvation in giving these masses not their right, but instead a chance to express themselves. The masses have a right to change property relations; Fascism seeks to give them an expression while preserving property.” Fascism finds its means of survival precisely in the aestheticization of politics: “If the natural utilization of productive forces is impeded by the property system, the increase in technical devices, in speed, and in the sources of energy will press for an unnatural utilization, and this is found in war. [. . .] Instead of draining rivers, society directs a human stream into a bed of trenches; instead of dropping seeds from airplanes, it drops incendiary bombs over cities; and through gas warfare the aura is abolished in a new way.”

The demand (and energy) of the masses, in other words, along with the novel forces of technology that society has developed ((e.g. mechanical reproduction), if art is not politicized (to change property relations), finds its object in war. Hence war-politics-is aestheticized: to legitimate it, to make the masses accept it. War, in effect, “suppl[ies] the artistic gratification of a sense perception that has been changed by technology. [. . . 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-the aestheticization of politics, of war, of death-is precisely (since it does not want to change property relations) what fascism does-the only alternative, according to Benjamin, if we do not politicize art-if we do not make art, see art for what it is: a crucial site of ideological struggle. In other words: Destruction if not progress(ive social goals). Fascism if not Marxism.

R/A is on break for the moment – I’ll miss reflections like this until he returns.

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