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?

Works Cited

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.

2 thoughts on “Benjamin, Arendt, and Issues in Digital Archiving”

  1. Something else to consider is the way in which digital archiving not only makes the original work available for mass consumption, but also cheapens the overall experience.

    The highest resolution digital photographs are unable to reproduce the sensations of looking at a painting hanging on a wall. Watching a film over a computer monitor will never match the quality and feel of a 35mm print projected on a big screen.

    Experiencing culture through the internet will never compare to experiencing it in person. It’s just too remote, too removed. An insurmountable barrier is created between artist and audience.

    I don’t disagree with your point that digital archiving is good, though. I’m a proponent of mass society in a lot of ways, and feel that giving more people a chance to expose themselves to culture is never a bad thing.The difficulty comes in just how much society should rely on digital media.

    I hate to think of a world without the benefits of the internet. But I also hate to think of a world that is over-dependent on the internet. As you discuss, it’s a fine line between preservation and consumption. Should societal norms reverse themselves from “physical first, digital second,” then it seems that not even high culture would be safe from the consumption cycle.

    1. The point you make here is actually a hot topic in the world of digital humanities, and the subject of much discussion: how do we keep a digital reproduction as close to the original as possible? When I do a scan of a text or a painting, no matter how high quality it is, the lighting might be slightly different each time, or the contrast may be altered. Digital archives make dissemination and manipulation (altering size, contrast, saturation, amount of grains/blemishes, etc.) of art very easy and convenient, but the integrity of the original work is at risk.

      Now I wouldn’t necessarily say the whole experience is cheapened, but certainly a work of art is never quite as impressive as when you see it in person. There’s nothing like the experience of standing across the room to see the whole crystal-clear scene of an Impressionist painting, and then moving forward until your nose almost touches the painting, when you can see the tiny paint blobs and brush strokes that somehow amount to an intelligible image. Physical art shouldn’t, and I think won’t, die. Digital reproductions may make it easier to gain access to art without visiting art exhibits in person, but they are also increasing the interest and scholarly work on those works. As you point out, it’s a two-way street.

      Now what gets really interesting is art that is purely digital. Poets are experimenting a lot with this. Grant Jenkins and his students have been experimenting with flash poetry (http://turbulence.org/spotlight/tulsita/Tulsita.swf), where text and images can rearrange themselves and create new meaning. Print doesn’t allow this, so the digital is actually offering an avenue for new works of art.

      The idea of consumption, of being eaten up, or rather the idea of non-preservation, is particularly important here. These poems are not mass culture carbohydrates to be eaten; but their mutability calls into question the idea of preservation. What do we do with the poems that appear and erase or rearrange themselves? Which part do we label “the poem”? (before the erasure or rearrangement? half-way through? after?) How does a mutable art-form stick to the cultural consciousness? It may do so not through a physical print or image, but through a URL!

      I don’t have answers to these questions, obviously, but they are interesting to think about, and it might force some re-considerations of the effects of the physical and the digital, and how we interact with the digital as if it were physical. Think of an iPad; I can use an app to take notes like a physical notebook. I can also treat it as a film-screen, or a phone (Skype), or even a canvas (painting apps abound). It’s a crazy world, my friend.

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