J. A. Koster

What is Walter Benjamin’s Artwork essay about? “The crisis in cognitive experience caused by the alienation of the senses”, Susan Buck-Morss writes. Marx had written that “The forming of the five senses is a labor of the entire history of the world down to the present”. Modern society opened up the prospect of the progressive realization of human capacities, but in capitalism this development reached an impasse, leading to artificial refinement on the one hand, and a “bestial barbarization, a complete, unrefined, abstract simplicity”, on the other (Marx). Benjamin took up this question and studied how sensibility was transformed under conditions of industrial production. Freud had pointed out that the sensory apparatus is a “protective shield”; its function is to ward off stimuli as much as to receive them. In capitalism, this protective function assumed its own peculiar form. The senses were dulled through overexposure (phantasmagoria), shock, or intoxication. In the interplay between objective factors (the transformation of life, especially in the cities) and subjective factors (the sensory response to this transformation, whether by shutting it out, drug-use, or the consumption of entertainment) a new, compensatory reality emerged that prevented consciousness of our “real conditions of life”. Benjamin noted that the alienation of the senses took a literal, “prosthetic” form in photography and film. These technologies promised a “deepening of apperception”, but they could also be used for the opposite end, to mystify and deceive. “The film production of Western Europe”, Benjamin wrote, does not “promote revolutionary criticism of social conditions” but rather the opposite: “the movie-makers’ capital sets the fashion”. Reactionary art appealed to aesthetic values — “creativity and genius, eternal value and mystery” — which technological developments had rendered contradictory. Art’s task was to engage in a self-critique of these values. While art could not resolve the crisis in cognitive experience caused by the alienation of the senses, it could bring it to critical consciousness. This is what it meant to politicize art.