The Traffic in Trauma: Commodifying Cultural Products (2)

This is the second of a series of posts under the same title.

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In 1936—only three years after the Nazis were given power, two years before Kristallnacht, and four years before he himself committed a life-affirming act of suicide to rob the Nazis of the chance to exterminate him—Walter Benjamin, of German-Jewish provenance, wrote his well known essay on “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (in Illuminations, translated by Harry Zohn, New York:  Schocken Books, 1968).  Only a few months earlier, in November of 1935, Martin Heidegger, another German, Catholic born and eventually Catholic buried, who joined the Nazi party in 1933 and continued to pay his party dues as long as there remained a party to pay them to, first delivered his probably even more well know lecture on “The Origin of the Work of Art.”  The comparison of those two cultural products, Heidegger’s lecture and Benjamin’s essay—both of which cultural products are themselves about those cultural products par excellence called works of art—is revealing on a number of counts, only one of which will concern me here in this post.  That is how each of the two addresses the “shock” that, according to both, pertains essentially to the work of art.

Since Heidegger’s lecture came first, I will start with that.  Heidegger addresses how the work of art as such always comes as a “shock” to those upon whom it works art’s work.  The German term Heidegger uses is Stoß, which can also be variously translated as “push, poke, punch, kick (as, say, moonshine liquor has, when one swallows it), nudge, butt (as a goat might, with its horns), stab (as with a knife), thrust, stroke, or (with less punch or kick) impact.”  The Stoß of the work of art is how it strikes a blow to those who receive it, bringing them up short, knocking the wind out of them, as the sudden revelation of beauty in the face of another can strike us so forcefully that it renders us, as we say, “breathless.”  The work of art always comes as such a shock, if it truly comes at all.  That such a thing as the work can even be, says Heidegger, that is the “shock” of the work.

An example from my own experience that I have used before (namely, in my first published book, The Stream of Thought*) happened to me when I was a teen-ager, on a foundation-sponsored trip one winter to Washington, DC, that included a visit to the National Gallery of Art, where surrealist Salvador Dali’s painting of The Last Supper was on loan for display.  When I entered the room where Dali’s painting hung, I was indeed “shocked,” in Heidegger’s sense.   All I could do was stand transfixed before the painting, gaping at it.  I remember clearly that what transfixed me were the colors on Dali’s canvas, which presented themselves to me as impossible—that being the very word that came to my adolescent mind at the time.  No doubt not altogether inappropriately, given the term and notion of “sur-realism,” there was nothing at all “real” or “natural” about those colors, as they gave themselves to my perception then.   Yet there they were, totally redefining the whole domain of “color” for me, shattering my old, familiar, taken-for-granted understanding of just what that word ‘color’ even meant.

In my very experience, those colors, precisely as “impossible” and altogether outside the domains of anything that might occur in “nature,” also riveted my awareness to the sheer createdness of the painting.  Heidegger points to this by saying that, in the work of art, the very having been created of the work is, as it were, co-created into the work itself.  In The Stream of Thought I spoke of that as the “self-presenting” character of the art-work, and contrasted it with what might be called the “self-effacing” character of, for example, a good snapshot in a family photo album.  A snapshot as such (as contrasted, say, with one of Ansel Adams’ photographs, which is itself a work of art) is just a tool, an instrument, there to be useful and used, no different in that regard than a hammer or a computer; and the utility of a tool is inversely proportional to demands it places upon users to attend to it, rather than staying focused on what they are trying to do with it.  A tool or instrument is not supposed to call attention to itself, but instead to facilitate the accomplishment of the task for which it is employed.  In contrast, the work of art does call attention to itself, and in so doing it delivers us a blow, bowls us over—shocks us out of our complacent everyday going about our usual business.

As with any shock, the shock delivered by the work of art exceeds the capacity of those to whom it is delivered to “process” it.  That is to say it is always traumatic.  And as Freud has taught us, its impact—the very delivery of the shock with which it shocks us—is marked by a certain “belatedness,” as I prefer to translate Freud’s German term Nachträglichkeit, which in the Standard Edition of Freud’s works in English is rendered by “differed action.”  The shock of the work of art is really felt and fully at work, as it were, only in its after-shocks, which keep on coming after the first, definitive shock has struck, allowing the shock itself to “register.”  That’s precisely the job of what Freud identifies as the “repetition compulsion,” the compulsion to repeat the original, shocking experience, until the numbness, the “going into shock” as we say, that is the other side of the two-sided effect of traumatic shock (a redundant expression:  “traumatic shock”), finally breaks down, creating the possibility that it may at last be broken through.

If such a break-through finally does occur, then what it breaks through to—the “other side” to which musical artist Jim Morrison, for example, long ago urged listeners to “break on through”—is nothing other than letting oneself at last be shocked.  It is ceasing, so far as one can (which means moment by moment), to numb oneself against the shock, and instead opening oneself to it and (again, moment by moment) holding oneself open within it.  In short, to adopt and adapt a formula I’m fond of from Heidegger, it is a break-through into maintaining oneself in the truth opened up in the shock itself, “preserving” that very truth by continuing to stand firm within it, withstanding it, as we might well say.

The origin of the work of art, says Heidegger, is truth’s setting itself into work in the work.  Truth sets itself into work in the work in an at least double sense.  First, it sets itself up there, fixes itself fast there, takes form there.  That’s what art needs artists for:  to create works of art as places where truth takes form, fixes itself fast, sets up.   Second, it goes to work there, in the work, as mechanics goes to work in their garages:  Truth is at work there, in the work, “doing” its work there.  That brings us to what the rest of us are for, that “rest” of us who are not ourselves artists—or insofar as we are not the artists who created the given works of art at issue—but to whom those works are “addressed,” its “recipients” (to use Jean Laplanche’s way of speaking).  If what “artists” are for is creating works of art, then what we “recipients” of those works are for, is (to go back to a Heideggerian locution) “preserving” those works.

Such “preservation” of works of art has nothing to do with keeping them locked safely away in closets, attics, or vaults–or even in art museums.  Or, rather, it does have something to do with that, since locking the works away somewhere, even if that place is a museum, is only possible if those works are no longer “preserved,” but are instead taken out of their original circulation, the circulation of truth itself around the circuit of artists, art-works, and recipients, and forced into a very different sort of circulation (today, ever more around the circuit of the provision and consumption of pleasures, ultimately to somebody’s profit).  It’s only the remains of dinosaurs that one will find in museums of natural history, not the real, living thunder-lizards themselves.  Likewise, it’s only the remains of dead works of art that can be visited in art-museums.  Insofar as the very works whose carcasses we can see put on display in museums are still somehow at work in our world, it is not in museums that we will find those works at their work, but in our daily lives together.  They will be at work there only if and insofar as we continue to hold ourselves open to and within the blows that they deliver to us, letting them shock us out of the usual rush of busy-ness with which we strive to avoid all such blows.

What Heidegger calls “preserving” the work of art is a matter of persevering in exposure to the shock it delivers.  Only in such perseverance does the truth that has set itself into work in the work still keep on working.

So much for Heidegger!  Now on to Benjamin!

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When Walter Benjamin talks about the “shock” delivered by the work of art, in his own way he says the same thing as Heidegger, but then he also adds something of major significance.  That important addition derives from Benjamin’s concentration on the fate of the work of art “in the age of mechanical reproduction,” as he puts it in the well-chosen title to his piece.

In the process of articulating his thoughts on art today, Benjamin develops a vocabulary of his own that diverges from the one Heidegger is simultaneously developing to articulate his own thoughts on the same topic.  Both vocabularies, however, have a common provenance, as readers should be able to see for themselves in what follows.

In the second section of a total of fifteen (plus a brief introduction and epilogue) of his essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Benjamin writes:  “The situations into which the product of mechanical reproduction can be brought may not touch the actual work of art, yet the quality of its presence is always depreciated.”  Once again, I can use my own teen-aged experience with Dali’s The Last Supper to exemplify the point I take him to be making.**  Before taking the student trip that brought me before the actual, original painting itself, I had often seen reproductions of Dali’s paintings, including that one, The Last Supper.  In fact, in all the reproductions of his work that I had seen by that time, his painting of Jesus’ last meal with his disciples had always interested me the very least of them all.  Looking back now, I would say that it was precisely my dis-interest in that particular painting, as it was delivered to me in all the reproductions I had seen of it, that set me up—like a bowling pin, as it were—to be knocked flat when I suddenly found myself in the actual presence of the painting itself.  It is precisely that “quality” of the “presence” of the work that, as Benjamin writes, is “depreciated” in any “mechanical reproduction” of it.

My own experience, not only of Dali’s painting but also of other cases, tells me that Benjamin is speaking very cautiously when he uses the word ‘depreciated.’  I would say ‘lost’ or ‘buried’ is better.  By all my experience, the “presence” of the art-work as such is just what, in and of the work, simply cannot be reproduced, at least in any “mechanical” reproduction:  any striking of copies off of some original—or some “first” copy of the original, as in an initial photograph of a painting—used as a template.***  Benjamin himself a few lines later refers to this “quality” of the work’s “presence” as “the eliminated element” in the work, and proposes calling it the work’s “aura.”  At any rate, whether it is only depreciated or totally eliminated, it is this “aura” of the work, Benjamin says, that “withers in the age of mechanical reproduction.”

Significantly, Benjamin does not confine the notion of “aura” solely to works of art, or even to what he calls “historical objects”—what I’m following Jean Laplanche in calling “cultural products”—in general.  Rather, he extends it to cover “natural objects” as well.  “If,” he writes in section III of his essay, “while resting on a summer afternoon, you follow with your eyes a mountain range on the horizon or a branch which casts its shadow over you, you experience the aura of those mountains, of that branch.”    He defines aura, in effect, as that “quality” of the very “presence” of each and every thing in its uniqueness, its very irreproducibility.

At this point, we can combine Heidegger with Benjamin to observe that it is the very way the work of art has of bringing us up short, literally arresting us before its presence, that also—through and in the work, that “historical” or “cultural” product—breaks through our ordinary numbness in the face of the presence, the aura, of what is “natural” as well.  So, to stay with the same example from my own younger life, when my attention was first riveted by the “impossible” colors of Dali’s painting of The Last Supper during my adolescence, what also riveted my attention was what might well be called the aura of color itself.  Even at the time, as I’ve already noted, the thought came to be that until that moment I had never really seen color at all.  I never saw color in its full presence or aura until then.

To “preserve” the work of art, to revert for a moment to Heidegger’s way of speaking, is keep open to aura as such—to the presence of what is present.  That is what it means to stand within the truth of the work, to hold open the truth, namely, that very truth first opened up in and as the work itself.  It means to persist, to persevere, in holding oneself open to and in the aura of things, the aura itself first opened up to one in the work.  It is to bring all one’s saying and doing, thinking and speaking, into that opening of the aura of things, and to maintain it there.

That, in turn, is what’s called “living.”

To lapse back into what today has become an ordinary yet—as befits the day—distorting way of speaking, the “job” of art, what art’s “for,” by both Heidegger’s and Benjamin’s accounts, is to open the way to living, which, like all things human, always comes belatedly, as a sort of after-birth to birth itself.  In that sense, we are all still-born, all born dead, and only subsequently shocked into life.  If we are lucky!

Art brings us luck.  That’s what art’s for.

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In this post, the second in my series under the title “The Traffic in Trauma:  Commodifying Cultural Products,” I have focused on the nature of cultural products, as paradigmatically exemplified in works of art.  In my next post, the final one of the series, I will focus on what happens to art, and to cultural production as such, when it gets shanghaied by the market—which is to say commodified. 

* A couple copies of which I still have available.  So let me hasten to commodify my own cultural product by repeating an offer I made already in my second-before-last post:  you may purchase an author-autographed copy of The Stream of Thought from me in person for the bargain-basement price of $14.95 (for a book that originally cost a whopping $27.50!), plus shipping and handling expenses of $5.17, for a total of $20.12.  To make purchasing arrangements, contact me via email right away at

** It wasn’t until a few years after my experience with Dali’s painting in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D. C., that I read Heidegger’s essay on the origin of the art-work, and then a number of years after that before I read Benjamin’s on the art-work in our age of mass reproduction, but both readings brought my experience with Dali’s painting back to my mind.  My experience helped me to understand the two essays, and they both in turn cast light back upon that experience for me.  

*** Exploring the difference between the multiplication of mechanical re-productions of such works of art as paintings, on the one hand, and multiple productions of such works of art as plays, symphonies, or comedy sketches, on the other, would certainly be well worthwhile.  Even more worthwhile, perhaps, would be to go on from there to an exploration of what further shift occurs with the move from mechanical reproduction to digital proliferation, where once again, as with multiple performances of the same work of music, there is, taken strictly, no “copying” of any “original,” but in which, rather, multiple iterations of one and the same work occur.  I will, perhaps, take up such matters in eventual later posts.

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