A Humument in the age of mechanical reproduction (part v)

Andrew David King
August 31, 2012
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(This post is a continuation of a series. Italicized lines in this piece are sourced from Walter Benjamin’s essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, and each corresponds to the section of the original essay in which it appears. This second segment continues to respond to Tom Phillips’s A Humument in light of the thirteenth through fifteenth sections of Benjamin’s piece. Check back soon for an interview with Phillips.)


The movements of the camera—which via its mechanically-bestowed abilities is allowed to so closely mimic human sense perception—have doubtlessly informed so much of the contemporary way of seeing that is embedded and unconscious. It mimics sense perception, i.e. provides us our own publicly-available perceptions in a new context, thereby rendering them worthy of some secondary attention as well, but also bends the rules of those perceptions in ways we cannot break save by exerting the forces of our imagination: With the close-up, space expands; with slow motion, movement is extended. Just as any modification of a text, through a project like A Humument or another, is a revision of materials not co-created with the initial impulse to make art but which had existed separately beforehand, so does the camera distill material from the raw data of sense perception. It subjects to film that which is not totally unlike film, at least not phenomenologically: several key sense inputs, i.e. sight and hearing, are replicated, whereas others like taste and touch are not (though they may be in the future). And because duplications are rarely perfect things—in other words, they usually fail at reproducing verbatim the identity of the thing with which they claim to be identical—they instead offer mutations which might, when examined, allow for the seeming self-contained-ness of those sense perceptions to be stepped outside of for a moment of external examination. The camera introduces us to unconscious optics as does psychoanalysis to unconscious impulses. The images on the screen possess just enough verisimilitude to convince us that their affinity to “real life” is more than just representational; this suspension of disbelief facilitates emotional access to the “content” of the film. But they are not perfect, nor do they—nor do their mechanisms, to paraphrase Benjamin more accurately—work in quite the same way as the human eye, rendering both the eye and the scenes it observes strange. With a film, reality is modified in such a way that we can choose, unlike the eye, to skip between the objects of our choice within the predetermined coordinates of a given frame. Though editorial directives might guide where our eyes go first (and certainly such directives govern where the frame goes) they do not govern this: we might find other images, other symbols, other things of note buried in the background. Similarly, the publication of a modified book like A Humument gives us both the materials—the original book made new again, made a-historical—and the sight-based directives of its alteration: we’re told to look here, and there, and then here again, motions in the service of a greater meaning, one that’s derived from the supposed “intent” of the original text but which is also wholly alien to it. The sense experience of the text is, accordingly, tied to the original—because it could not have happened without it—and independent from it, divorced from it, carrying visual cues and semantic contents that might not have anything to do with the original whatsoever. It may, in this way, be its own original—the way a scene from a movie can be made our own by disobeying the imperative to look here, by taking a set of selected and closed-off materials and attributing them, again, to the “I”.


One of the foremost tasks of art has always been the creation of a demand which could be fully satisfied only later. Art as precedent, art as messenger: these doors are opened to the possible, while the actual steps that must be taken through them are still far-off. Does every original work contain, then, the possibility of its deviant works—does it precede them in a direct, traceable way? It might be easy to say this question doesn’t matter, especially if we’re willing to take works of erasure and altered text and allocate them their own pedestals; if we stick with this singular notion of originality, all of these questions become meaningless. But I don’t think we’ve achieved a clean breaking-off of this notion of originality: I don’t think we have any reason to convince ourselves of its prevalence or correctness, even if defaulting back to it is the norm (“This is X’s book,” “This is Y’s book,” etc.). Just as Foucault, in “What is an Author?”, asks us what’s left when criticism does away with the author, or author-function—is it tenable to say we’ll focus on just “the work” or on “the writing” in absence of this cloaked figure, “the author?”—so we likewise have to ask how the terrain looks when we modify, if not do away with entirely, this onomastic commitment to originality that takes as a foundational tenet the idea that we can name each author, and that each is writing on a tabula rasa. The acknowledgement or incorporation of an influence by an author, then, would be a willing addition to that tabula—it would be an inclusion by choice, not one implied by the genetics of literary lineage, which are beyond individual agency. But maybe this latter picture is the more accurate one: how much do we really know our own influences, and how acutely are we aware of their presences within us, of how they emerge in our own works? With a book like A Humument, the feasibility of reproduction is crucial to Phillips’s project itself; it is the means that allows Phillips to import and repurpose the text of A Human Document for his aims. This allows for a new kind of influence-acknowledging, one in which the object of influence is appropriated to make a different (though not, obviously, entirely “new”) object. So there, in Mallock’s novel, is one influence exhibited in material form; in Phillips’s alterations we find others, which emerge through manipulations of material, but not necessarily as unchanged materials themselves. Maybe this evolving practice of influence-incorporation has something to do with Benjamin’s pronouncements about demand: maybe turning to the site of inspiration and acting upon it itself is akin to the camera moving, as it were, into the eye—which it both informs and, in many ways, replaces. The history of every art form, he reminds us, shows critical epochs in which a certain art form aspires to effects which could be fully obtained only with a changed technical standard, that is to say, in a new art form.

But is something like A Humument really “a new art form”? Is it not, to shove aside the question of originality which I discussed previously, but a developed possibility of something that came before it? We can, thanks to authorial documentation by Phillips, trace A Humument back to Mallock—but how far are we willing to go? Past Mallock, and to his predecessors? And what of their predecessors? Doing away with titular originality—to say “this particular artist is the sole ancestor of his artwork”—leaves us this problem of infinite regress: how far do we go back? Who was the first creator? A solution might be to say that cultural memory only extends back so far, and at one point falls off abruptly, like a cliff or coastal shelf. Memory might, in this case, only go back a few hundred years; everything before then, as with all of the hypothetical future, is static—a blankness out of which things seem to emerge history-less and whole. I’m talking, mostly, about the phenomenological character of how the past appears, in which case it seems safe to say that the events of the past two centuries are, if not sharper, at least more familiar to us than the events that occurred in the centuries before them. (There is, here, an odd parallel to human memory, in that it would seem to maintain, somewhere within its vaster archives, a reserve recent experiences that are particularly vibrant.) In the midst of this constant cycle of acquisition and disposal, new modes of art come into being—modes that increasingly make use of socially-available technologies, that enlist these technologies in the service of their goals. And the idea of goals in relationship to art changed also, of course. One requirement [of the Dadaists], Benjamin writes, was foremost: to outrage the public. Outrage as a subversive motion, a salve for artistic stasis. The artwork of the Dadaist hit the spectator like a bullet, it happened to him, thus acquiring a tactile quality. Regardless of what one thinks about ideas of originality, it is hard to deny that the question of materials in relationship to artwork has changed, and will continue changing with the advent of not just electronic communication but electronic living. And because this “question of materials” is just another way of addressing the idiosyncratic effects that technologized production has on a work, commerce and technology’s influences on art become pressing—and not just present—unknowns.


The processes of transformation and alteration aren’t limited to the creation of an artistic work, but extend also to a consideration of its entrance into society—where it encounters populist and critical reactions, where it bears the burden of an assigned meaning, however wrongheaded. The mass is a matrix from which all traditional behavior toward works of art issues today in a new form. This matrix is itself a technology, though it may be one that is not altogether aware of itself: its macro-level movements may be the result of countless micro-level decisions. How a thing is viewed becomes a matter of expectation, as well as of technology and circumstance and ideas about artistic lineage. Another criterion is the specific nature of representation; in certain temporal or cultural locations, more mimetic likeness is required, while at others a greater removal from it is sought after. (Artworks in the latter case don’t necessarily bear more “distance,” per se, than more lifelike works do from the perceived world itself; both are observations recollected and conjured post-hoc from the same sense material, and both are brought into the world by human hands.) But viewing and perception need not be directed things; the aesthetic choices that eventually govern this wide-scale “behavior toward works of art” is vague not because gathering empirical data about it is difficult, and so we are prone, mostly, to speculation—it is because these attitudes, taken on any macro level, are inherently vague, even to those participating in them. Only in retrospect, as usual, do things become easier to trace—but while they’re in the process of resolution, they’re too mercurial to be but gawked at, or absorbed obliquely. Of this latter category, Benjamin calls up the example of architecture. Architecture has always represented the prototype of a work of art the reception of which is consummated by a collectivity in a state of distraction. We see it, but we do not see it; what would happen if every architectural feature were labeled, on its face, with the names and the eras and the artistic techniques that founded its aesthetic? If we took A Humument to be but an explicit example of a general phenomenon, then every work brought about by engaged artistic practice—a practice that, like most, can’t help but be conscious of other practitioners of art, of other artworks out in the world—is an erasure and modification and fusion at once. [Optical reception], too, occurs much less through rapt attention than by noticing the object in incidental fashion, and this is where the film, with its ability to capture both a specific object and its environmental trappings, begins to encroach on the senses. It is the result of this elliptical, peripheral viewing—the sort with which we view architecture, or the unnoticed backgrounds of film shots—and also of direct attention—that which is required to read a book, for instance. As modes of production change, so do modes of seeing: from the eye all the way up to the lens that supplants it.

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