Walt, Ted and Andy: Some notes on mechanical reproduction.


It was one of those times when you read something and think, WHAT!! The something in this case being Susan Buck-Morss (1977) The Origin of Negative Dialectics. Just to be clear, this book explores the interrelated of Walter Benjamin and Theodore Adorno as they developed between the 1920s and 40s, which later culminated in Adorno’s (2001[1970]) essential, if impenetrable, Negative Dialectics. I could, and probably will, say a lot more about this topic, but here I want to concentrate on Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, first published (in French) in 1936.

I have always assumed that this was Benjamin’s defence of the “aura” of art against the impersonal nature of mass production. “Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be.” (Benjamin 1999[1968]: 214). As the Wikipedia entry says; “through the act of reproduction something is taken from the original by changing its context.” Indeed I have specifically disagreed with this argument, because I think the products of industry can possess an aura (music recordings being the operative example), and because I am sceptical of, but not dismissive of, the magical contagion that surrounds “authentic” artefacts (Graves-Brown 2009; forthcoming). I would go so far as to say that the status of mass produced, popular material culture is one of the key issues in understanding the contemporary World.

But with respect to Walter Benjamin, Buck-Morss has made me think again…

Maybe the clue is in the original German title; Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit – The work of art in the age of its technical reproduction (see Note below). Mechanical replication not as context but as subject. According to Buck-Morss (1977: 147)

Benjamin situated the dialectic solely…within the mechanical technologies of art’s reproduction. Furthermore, he judged their effects positively….Specifically, the possibility of the artwork’s unlimited duplication robbed it of its “aura,” that very uniqueness which in Benjamin’s original philosophy had been the source of its cognitive value. Now he claimed that the liquidation of art’s aura had a positive effect, and art had acquired a new use value:

“for the first time in world history, mechanical reproduction emancipates the work of art from its parasitical dependency on ritual. Instead of ritual, it begins to be based on another practice: politics.”


Whereas the audience for painting or books was individual, for film it was the collective, and Benjamin affirmed its potential for “mobilising the masses”

Blimey! That certainly requires something of a volte-face.

To consider whether Buck-Morss is right (and I genuinely think she has a point), you need to look at this in context; in terms of Benjamin’s own thinking at the time, the text, and the reaction to it, specifically that of Adorno. Firstly, Benjamin and Adorno had for some time been developing their negative dialectical approach. In a way this can be seen as comparable with John Keats notion of “negative capability”; “when a man (sic) is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason” (letter to George and Thomas Keats, 21 December 1817). Being able to simultaneously entertain contradictory ideas or points of view. Negative dialectics goes further to argue that there are some contradictions in the world that are just unresolvable, and we just have to get on with it. Indeed that this situation is desirable, in that it resists resolution into a comfortable and inert synthesis (Adorno 2001[1970]; Graves-Brown 2011; 2013).

For Benjamin this dialectic is most obvious in his simultaneous Marxist and Kabbalist thinking, an approach which simultaneously entertains both dialectical materialism and magic, see esp. the Theses on the Philosophy of History. Maybe it helped that he was smoking a lot of dope at the time. In this context it is possible that the aura of art can be both celebrated and seen as dispensable in terms of a Marxist argument against false consciousness and bourgeois fetishism. Interestingly, Horkheimer persuaded Benjamin to omit his Marxist preable from the first published version, because, with the Frankfurt Institute in exile in New York, he was nervous about appearing openly Marxist. By contrast, Benjamin himself, at least until the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, was becoming ever closer to Soviet Marxism as the only counterforce to the Nazis; so one could argue that he was compromising his belief in aura as the source of “cognitive value” for political reasons.

What is clear is that this article did not go down well with Adorno; “Benjamin’s argument managed to tread on all ten of Adorno’s intellectual toes” (Buck-Morss 1977: 148). Adorno wrote to Benjamin in March 1936:

In…your earlier writings, the great continuity of which, it seems to me, your present essay dissolves, you differentiated the concept of the work of art as an image from the symbol of theology as well as from the taboo of magic. I find it questionable, then…that you now effortlessly transfer the concept of magical aura to the “autonomous work of art” and flatly asign to the latter a counter-revolutionary function.

Benjamin was, as Buck-Morss puts it, bringing “autonomous art into a constellation with fascism”, whereas Adorno, himself an accomplished musician and composer who had studied with Berg and Schönberg, consistently privileged art over mass culture. Popular culture would ultimately be an irrelevance “only for the simple reason that in the communist society, work will be so organized that the people will no longer be so tired and so stupefied as to need diversion.”

Frankly I have never understood Adorno’s snobbish aversion to popular culture (c.f.Adorno 1991). In fact for a long time it put me off fully appreciating his ideas, which in the developed form of negative dialectics takes the arguments that he and Benjamin had begun, but presents them in a more coherent form. Specifically, whereas Benjamin was content to lay out contradictory motifs in a surrealist style, Adorno did the analytical spade work that showed the principled value in embracing both contradiction and the concept of knowledge as constellation. Yet, according to Buck-Morss, Benjamin argued that “the cameraman, the polar opposite of the magician, penetrated reality like a surgeon”. Whereas one might argue that in this context Adorno was clinging on to a bourgeois myth, Benjamin recognised the false division between “brainworker and handworker” and that popular culture had a value in its own right.

Andy Warhol observed that “[a] Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking.” (Warhol 2007[1975]: 100-101). Which, to me, makes the point that there is an essentially levelling quality about mass production. Was Benjamin specifically endorsing such a point of view, or merely embracing popular culture in instrumental terms for “mobilising the masses”? Given the nature of the negative dialectical approach, its possible he was doing both, in that he wanted to retain the sense of magic that surrounded a work of art, such as his treasured Klee painting of the Angelus Novus, but at the same time recognised that mass produced culture had a quite different power all of its own.

Despite the popularity of Adorno’s critique of the “Culture Industry”, much of which, like the work of Marcuse and Horkheimer, still has a resonance today, his writings on this topic now look pretty dated (c.f. Adorno 1991). Most of it was written before the countercultural movements that began in the 1960s, perhaps reflecting the rather dull and stolid “Eisenhower Era” when popular culture was either so much cotton wool or anti-communist paranoia. Not that the individualism of the post 60s era is immune to a negative dialectical critique (c.f Marcuse 1964). But perhaps such a critique needs to be a bit more Benjamin than Adorno in its attitude to popular culture.

We live in an era of “cool capitalism” (Pountain and Robbins 2000; McGuigan 2012), a situation which Riesman (Riesman et al 1950) called “other directedness”. Here, as the late Vivian Stanshall aptly put, we are all striving to be “different and original like everybody else”. This is what Adorno and Horkheimer dubbed “pseudo individualisation”. Capitalism, with the increasingly sophisticated tools of advertising and industrial design, cool hunting and internet data gathering, is able, as Marcuse (1964) suggested, to absorb and disarm any counter cultural form almost as soon as it exists. Being largely other directed, taking their values from their peers and the media, many people are perfectly willing to believe, as one late 60s advert had it, that “the revolution is happening at Warner Brothers”.

But this is not a counsel of despair. As Warhol pointed out, there is something essentially democratic about mass culture. Or rather in a more anarchistic spirit I would say something levelling. Popular culture is not, as one famous piece of graffiti described Nicholas Parsons, “the neo-opiate of the people”, but nor is it immune to appropriation and subversion by Capital. A classic negative dialectical relationship guaranteed by the uniformity of mass production. At one time the conspicuous consumption of kings and Tsars relied on the exclusivity of Sevres porcelain or Fabergé Easter eggs. The problem for Thorsten Veblen is that, in an affluent society, conspicuous consumption is available to all, and in this context the super rich struggle to be different. The best that they can manage is to have more of what everybody else has.


Another glaring clue is in the quote from Paul Valéry. The quoted essay The Conquest of Ubiquity (1928) more or less predicts the availability of media on the internet, regarding it entirely positively.

See Also:

This video on The Guardian website

This exchange in Grayson Perry’s first Reith Lecture:


Q: I’m Will Self. I enjoyed the lecture very much, Grayson. You name-checked Duchamp, invention of the readymade but you didn’t talk at all about the Work of Art in the Age of its technological reproducibility to quote the title of Walter Benjamin’s famous essay. What do you think is the impact of a work of art’s technological reproducibility on this notion of artistic quality?
GRAYSON: Well if you sort of make a series of identical artworks that are churned out by a technical process, they’re all, hopefully they’ll all be of a high a quality as each other, won’t they?
Q: Ergo the quality is therefore diluted since the quality is then spread.
GRAYSON: Is uniqueness part of the quality then?
Q: Well I think it’s interesting because I think of you and one of the things that makes you to my way of thinking a good artist, is that your work has a hectic quality. It is made by your hand, it is touched by your hand and it has that quality.
GRAYSON: I think this could be fetishized. I mean I’m sometimes held up as the sort of poster boy of the handmade but I don’t want to become that person because I think that you know we’re in a modern world now and the idea of uniqueness, I think you can get really hung up


Adorno, Theodore 1991 The Culture Industry: Selected Essays on Mass Culture London:Routledge

Adorno, Theodore 2001[1970] Negative Dialectics (Translated by Dennis Redmond) Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt

Benjamin, Walter 1999[1968] Illuminations. (edited by Hannah Ahrendt) London: Pimlico.Buck-Morss, Susan (1977) The Origin of Negative Dialectic. New York, Free Press

Graves-Brown, Paul Nowhere Man: Urban life and the virtualisation of popular music. Popular Music History 4.2: 220-241

Graves-Brown, Paul 2011 Touching from a distance. Norwegian Archaeological Review 44(2)

Graves-Brown, Paul. 2013 Inside is out. In Alfredo Gonzalez-Ruibal (ed) Reclaiming Archaeology

Graves-Brown, Paul. forthcoming a. Authenticity. In Paul Graves-Brown, Rodney Harrison and Angela Piccini (eds) The Oxford Handbook of the Archaeology of the Contemporary World.

McGuigan, Jim. 2012 The Coolness of Capitalism Today. TripleC 10(2): 425-438 http://www.triple-c.at. (accessed 27/11/12)

Marcuse, Herbert 1964 One-Dimensional Man.

Pountain, Dick and Robins David 2000 Cool Rules. Anatomy of an Attitude. Reaktion Books, London.

Riesman, D., Glazer, N., & Denney, R. (1950). The lonely crowd: A study of the changing American character. New Haven, Conn ; London: Yale University Press.

Warhol, Andy 2007[1975] The Philosophy of Andy Warhol. Penguin, Harmondsworth.

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