While more intelligible than the Adorno and Horkheimer reading last week, Walter Benjamin’s articles, “The Author as Producer” and “Paris, the Capital of the Nineteenth Century,” for this week are still rather confusing and riddled with terms that seem charged for Benjamin but remain enigmatic to me. In “The Author as Producer” he repeatedly refers to “political tendency,” “literary quality,” “literary tendency,” and “apparatus” without specifying what these terms mean or providing clear examples (p 80, 90). While I know that “tendency” in general refers to a “direction” or “leaning,” Benjamin seems to have a specific meaning in mind in his discussions (or at least a specific kind of work or product to which he is referring) that I cannot quite decipher. Problems in terminology, and the lack of context I have for his discussion of author and producer, are central to my confusion of his article.
Regardless of these issues, however, what I can draw from Benjamin’s article is a conviction that an artist, to be in service of the proletariat and its struggles, must not only create art about or for the proletariat, but must ensure that the entire means of production of the work (the technique, materials, etc.) must be in service of the proletariat. For example, he explains that popular newspapers may publish articles in favor of the proletariat, or working against the bourgeoisie, but these newspapers are run by or in service to the capital. An intellectual must recognize this discrepancy, and his inherent place—as receiving a bourgeois education—in the bourgeois class despite his political leanings. To have the correct political tendency, and thus literary quality, he must betray “his class of origin” (92). He must shape his work in every way—in its contents, form and production—“to the purposes of the proletarian revolution” (93).
The above description, in my opinion remains vague, but hopefully reveals some relevant insight into Benjamin’s article. Overall, I understand that Benjamin is calling more a more comprehensive understanding of the role of an author, and that an author must be attuned to the process of production of his work—not just to the objective work itself.
I found Hannah Arendt’s article both more understandable and more interesting in the context of contemporary society. Her use of biological processes in relation to consumption of mass entertainment, I think, works rather well (at least, once she provided some clear examples). Her discussion is much less politically or class-focused, but instead centers on a fear that cultural objects will be subject to the consumption of mass society (that is, they will become entertainment that mass society consumes and destroys). An interesting contemporary dilemma, however, is the preservation of cultural artifacts in digital archives. These archives make these artifacts more accessible for viewing—even for consumption, especially considering the fact that they are viewed through the internet which has become mass society’s primary means of consumption—but simultaneously set these objects apart as worthy for preservation. Take Jerome McGann’s Rossetti Archive for example. Here, Pre-Raphaelite art, poetry, and related cultural objects are preserved through their digital transformation; however, as publicly accessible through the internet, and in some sense a form of entertainment (art, poetry, etc.), they are subject to the consumption of any user on the internet. They are simultaneously cultural objects and entertainment, preserved both because of their inherent beauty and their inherent utility for scholarship and entertainment.
Contemporary projects in digital humanities–such as the Rossetti Archive, the Blake Archive, and the Modernist Journals Project–are in the business of preserving cultural artifacts. The cultural objects’ inherent beauty (as art, poetry, etc.), according to Arendt, render these objects worthy of preservation (of being set aside, separate from mass consumption and thus destruction). At the same time, however, their preservation through digital means and distribution on the internet render them available for mass consumption, and emphasize their functionality or utility as objects for scholarly work or for entertainment. Does this digital work reveal a discrepancy in Arendt’s assertions? Can a cultural object be both preserved and consumed?
Arendt, Hannah. “Society and Culture.” Daedalus 89.2 (1960): 278-87. JSTOR. Web. 28 Nov. 2008. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/20026571>.
Benjamin, Walter. The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility and Other Writings on Media. Ed. Michael W. Jennings, Brigid Doherty, and Thomas Y. Levin. Trans. Edmund Jephcott, Rodney Livingstone, and Howard Eiland. Cambridge: Belknap-Harvard UP, 2008. Print.