Walter Benjamin discusses this alloplastic relation in The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility. Beginning with lithography we see qualitative shift in the technology of reproduction. “In lithography a drawing is traced on a stone, rather than incised on a block of wood or etched on a copper plate [making] it possible for graphic art to market its products not only in large numbers, as previously, but in daily changing variations. Lithography enabled graphic art to provide an illustrated accompaniment to everyday life.” Before long lithography is surpassed by photography which liberates man’s hand from the most intimate relation in pictorial reproduction-tasks which now “devolve upon the eye alone.” The organ of the eye, which is able to process information much more rapidly, supersedes the hand. Pictorial representation is nearly able to keep pace with speech at this stage of alloplastic evolution.
The introduction of photography into the process of pictorial reproduction effected the everyday environment of man. The way photographs are used in everyday life implies a set of assumptions about the world which requires nothing more than our formal participation. Pictorial representation is placed under the rule and absolute monarchy of the photograph — a medium that for many years remained the symbol of the lithograph's arbitrary power. Benjamin captures the moment when man’s immanent contact with the work of art — the work that most fully encapsulates his aura — is severed and replaced by full technological reproduction. Man is subsumed by the apparatus of the camera, and this restructures his relationship with his self as well as his fellow man.
Even in the most flawless method of reproduction, there is always something that is lacking. The authenticity of the original artwork is what is at stake in mechanical reproduction, as well as the original chemical composition and ownership of the work. In other words, what makes an object authentic and irreproducible is its reality or aura. Photographic reproduction can reveal aspects of the original that are not visible to the naked eye, and can place the original in situations that its “here and now” preclude altogether; but it devalues the work generally. The authenticity, or base reality, of the original object is of the utmost importance; it is the “quintessence of all that is transmissible in it from its origin on, ranging from its physical duration to the historical testimony relating to it. Since the historical testimony is founded on the physical duration, the former, too, is jeopardized by reproduction, in which the physical duration plays no part. And what is really jeopardized when the historical testimony is affected is the authority of the object, the weight it derives from tradition.”1 What withers in this process of reproduction is the object’s aura.
At this stage in the alloplastic development of culture man has lost his immanent relation to his work, that is, the manufacture of the work of art by hand. The eye has become the dominant organ of interaction both in the physical reproduction and perception of the work.2 But technology not only withers man’s relation to the object: it withers the object’s relation to itself. Technology becomes the dominant force in the reproduced object as it seeks to absolutely commodify the authentic original as thoroughly as it has commodified man’s manual labor. Man and his authenticity are survived by the machine and its reproduction.
What is constituted in this simulacrum is an organism whose structure is the alloplastic relationship founded on tradition and authority, and whose heart is the technological relationship that binds society together. This society takes on the characteristics of a specific space with the primary function of objects being to fill the space that they share between them and to be inhabited by the aura of man. The real dimension that the objects occupy is captive to the moral dimension which it is their job to signify. They have as little autonomy as their human counterparts. Human beings and objects are bound together in a collusion in which the objects take on a certain authority, a moral value — what might be mistaken for the authenticity of the real aura. The complex interiority of the subject is replaced by external objects which serve as boundary markers of the symbolic configuration of mechanical reproduction. In their anthropomorphism — that is their effacement and dissolution of the aura — objects become miniature gods, incarnations of the bonds and the permanence of authentic tradition.
This alloplastic evolution is symptomatic; its influence extends far beyond the realm of art. The technology of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from its original sphere, and substitutes its unique existence for a massively reproduced existence. In permitting the reproduction to reach the recipient that which is reproduced is actualized. And in the reduction of the subject to the pure image, a new realm of meanings is opened up. A luxuriant growth of meanings, a multiplication of signs as a web of connections between objects that becomes exponentially complex. Meaning creates numerous links so rich and involved only esoteric knowledge could possibly decipher them. Objects become impregnated with new attributes, connections and associations as they lose their original aura. Meaning is no longer read in sense perception, and accordingly objects cease to transmit their meanings directly: a cleft begins to appear, opening the way for the symbolism of Fascism.
Modern culture’s desire to get closer to things while reducing their uniqueness to perceptual statistics produces the facsimile reproduction of the aura which allows mass audiences to get at it in close range while maintain a comfortable distance. But this distance is inherent in the aura no matter how close we may get. The reality that the photograph captures is the night in which all cattle are black and sameness is exacted for that which is unique. The calibration of reality with the masses is of immeasurable importance for Fascism.
It is through the camera that we first discover the optical unconscious, and through it Fascism renders its architecture legible to optical reception. Attention and habit become the meaning of perceptual statistics, and future historical epochs are sublimated in the medium of photography. Orders are thus reproduced through the camera, as “even the distracted person can form habits... [and] the ability to master certain tasks in a state of distraction first proves that their performance has become habitual.” The distraction of vision and contemplation provided by art represents “a covert measure of the extent to which it has become possible to perform new tasks of apperception.”
Reproduction is designed for reproducibility. This revolutionizes the whole field of art, and renders it inherently political. The necessity of paradoxical authenticity throughout the history of mechanical reproduction is linked to a decisive action that extracts a statistics from background noise and its monotony, a statistics which is transmitted and culminates in time. All that matters is that images are reproduced, and that technology has free reign. The equipment-free aspect of reality is the height of artifice. Whereas earlier photographic representations such as lithography can be thought of as an attempt to master nature, photography aims at an interplay between man and nature. The rehearsal of this interplay is the primary social function of art.
Film is nothing more than a tool used to “train human beings in the apperceptions and reactions needed to deal with a vast apparatus whose role in their lives is expanding almost daily.”3 The subject learns that he can only be free once he has adapted himself to the new productive forces which this technology has set free. The scene of the crime is immediate reality. This distancing from the aura can be read through Foucault’s “return to the immediate” in which the suppression of the theatre (or the apparatus) is directly entrusted to the vain paradox of the aura: the artifice of nature, its own truth and closest contradiction. The equipment-free scene of the crime thus appears to be the distancing of distance4, in the sense that it both contains the aura and simultaneously conceals the principle of its suppression: “The games of theatrical illusion lose their meaning, and the artful techniques of imaginary realization are replaced by the simple, more ingenuous art of a natural reduction. But this replacement has an ambiguous sense, as it is both a reduction through nature and a reduction to nature.”5
It is in this passivity of the subject with regard to himself, and the silence that he imposes on his art and artifice, that “nature unveils an activity that is the exact reciprocal of the renunciation.” The subject’s passivity is revealed to be a genuine activity; when he engages in perceptual statistics, he eludes the law that nature imposes upon him, sliding into the world of artifice and counter-nature. This is only an apparent passivity and is at bottom an industrious fidelity to the embedded apparatus. The morality of this inverted nature is that man is “made to work, not to meditate.” That is at least how Bernardin de Saint-Pierre explains how he was delivered of “a strange sickness” in which, “like Oedipus, he saw two suns.”6 He cast his eyes to the works of nature, which spoke to his senses in a language that neither time nor nations could alter. It was not that his thoughts “went painfully towards [nature], as in the system of men,” but that their thoughts came to him in a thousand agreeable forms.
The systems of men remain unchanged in this inverted nature. Expression is granted to the masses as long as it is mediated through the apparatus of capture. There is salvation in granting this expression, but there is no granting of rights. Mass reproduction is especially favored by the reproduction of the masses. In the propaganda of the news media the masses “come face to face with themselves.” This process is key to the development of reproduction and recording technologies. The optical unconscious of mass movements is more clearly apprehended by the camera than the naked eye. The image formed by the eye does not have the index of a photograph. Mass movements are a form of behavior especially suited to the camera.
The majority of urban residents relinquish their humanity to the apparatus of capture during office hours. In the evening these city dwellers flock to the theatre, to “witness the film actor taking revenge on their behalf not only by asserting his humanity (or what appears to them as such) against the apparatus, but by placing that apparatus in the service of his triumph.”7 This is a false dialectic. Whether or not the actor performs a role before the audience matters little compared to whether or not he represents himself before the apparatus of capture. What matters is that the equipment is the true audience. This form of labor, namely observation, has been supplanted by the apparatus. In this new relationship between actor and audience, man assumes the function of an equipment-free immediate reality. The movie set is absorbed into his optical unconscious and mingles with his being. His whole living person, his aura included, is replaced by the cold reproduction of the apparatus. There is no facsimile of his aura: in assuming the role of the apparatus of capture he distances himself from the paradoxical distance within himself without withering it through reproduction. The subject becomes “one of the props.”
The subject’s aura exists in relation to the monotony of perceptual statistics, or at least in relation to the logic of reproduction which, in its anonymous generality, represents it and grants it the value of an exigency; and on the other hand it exists for the movements of the masses, in that it appears in the consideration of Fascism, which perceives it as pure difference from the mass. The aura now has a double mode of facing the apparatus of capture – it is at once on the other side, and offered to its gaze. It is the paradoxical distance that the apparatus of capture is always approaching in its attempt to render it legible to the optical unconscious. On the other side, the aura is immediate difference, pure negativity that betrays itself as background noise in a manner that cannot be ignored; it is the total absence of commodification, immediately perceived as such against the machinations of Fascism. And, as an object before the gaze of the camera, the aura is an anomaly different from the monotony to be found in a “normal person.” Through these particular aspects, the aura unveils itself to reproduction, and is thereby caught up in the structures of representation.
The logical outcome of fascism is an aestheticizing of political life. All efforts to aestheticize politics culminate in one point. That one point is war. War becomes the only legible and logical goal of a mass movement that serves to reinforce traditional property relations. This is how the production of art is politically mediated: “If the natural utilization of productive forces is impeded by the property system, the increase in technical devices, in speed, and in the sources of energy will press for an unnatural utilization, and this is found in war... Fascism...expects war to supply the artistic gratification of a sense perception that has been changed by technology.”8
Foucault might read this situation as the form of an economy that removes the undesirable in its glorification of existing power structures: In this marvellous economy, work is doubly effective: it produces and destroys, as work necessary to society is born out of the death of workers whose disappearance is desirable. The dangerous, restive lives of men passed into the docility of objects. The irregularities of these senseless existences [are] all ground and polished as smooth as marble. The classic themes of [politicized art] here reach a paroxysm of perfection: the [undesirable] are excluded until their death, but each step taken towards this death is useful to the society from which they are banished.9
All that exists in this mediation are the attributes that are siphoned off from the raw aura of the subjects who are always already excluded from property relations. The images of war crimes on the screen are hieroglyphs of the aura. And what is seen, the battles, destruction, gore all of it is marvellous and beautiful and figures into the moral geometry of a social hell.
Benjamin quotes Abel Gance who compares film to hieroglyphs: “By a remarkable regression, we are transported back to the expressive level of the Egyptians.... Pictorial language has not matured, because our eyes are not yet adapted to it. There is not yet enough respect, not enough cult, for what it expresses.”10 For war coverage merely to exist is not enough, it must be on view, it must have display value. The absolute emphasis on the display value of war coverage grants it entirely new functions, among which is the rehearsal of interplay. There is nothing beautiful or magical about the war coverage, perhaps except for the obfuscation of existing property relations. This architecture, which is not hidden but implicit, becomes the magic that secretly animates war coverage. It is what becomes the cult object of worship.
The cult value of the fleeting expression of a human face is here transposed to the soldier, the victim, the general, the news anchor. Melancholy and beauty are rendered as expressions of the glorious war machine. The exhibition value of these expressions shows its superiority to the ritual value. The world is a deserted crime scene like Atget’s photographs which were standard evidence for historical occurrences, and acquired a hidden political significance.11 This evidence demands a specific kind of reading; “free-floating contemplation is not appropriate to them.” Something in these images stirs the viewer. The running message ticker at the bottom of the TV screen is a signpost for him, true or false, no matter. Captions are obligatory.
The rehearsal of interplay is entirely scripted, and expression must never interfere with the hidden cult object of infrastructure. The presentation of war, which is the only legible art form today, unfolds as a rapid and unified scene, in a sequence of separate events which may take hours to montage. Nothing is what it seems, and everything is “beautiful because it establishes man’s dominion over the subjugated machinery.” This dominion over machinery is the height of artifice and the dialectic sequence of this dominion is entirely out of joint; “a jump from the window can be shot in the studio as a jump from a scaffold, and the ensuing flight, if need be, can be shot weeks later when outdoor scenes are taken.” If footage is not satisfactory, genuine frightened reactions can be cut into the montage. The realm of the “beautiful semblance” is the only sphere where art thrives.
Speculation and philosophical decision rend the subject from his aura and are always depreciating his actual existence. Mechanical reproduction does not actually touch him, yet the quality of his presence is always depreciated. The war-torn landscape which passes before the spectator in CNN war coverage or in a film is divorced from its substance as well. The most sensitive nucleus of the subject is interfered with. In the montage, the natural progression of history is thrown out of joint and what this jeopardizes is the historical testimony and authority of the political subject. They can always express themselves, they have freedom to think and speak, but their words must be unhinged and harmless, politically impotent and irrelevant.
Expression is effectively illegible in the political sphere. Emotion exists on in semblance, and is mobilized by Fascist programs of exploitation and conquer. A mutant form of artistic reception characterizes the beautification of mechanized humanity. Certain forms of expression are strictly forbidden. The equipment-free aspect of reality in war is inverted, and the “human material” which was under the gaze of the camera becomes a target. War becomes the history of human drainage and the removal of the real matter of existence. Radical alienation becomes so extreme that mankind comes to “experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order.” The misapplication of the apparatus of capture finds its analogue in the “discrepancy between the tremendous means of production and their inadequate utilization in the process of production—in other words, to unemployment and the lack of markets.” Mankind does not know how to contemplate its own existence, to appreciate the distancing of its aura, and instead translates its raw material into an alienated substance that can only be commodified and exterminated.
If art happens to infiltrate the fortress of property relations, it is always because it accommodates the laws of power. We see this in Benjamin’s interpretation of the Sistine Madonna. The purpose of the molding in the foreground of the painting which the two cupids lean upon, and the reason the sky is furnished with two draperies is that the Madonna had been commissioned for the public lying-in-state of Pope Sixtus. The picture had been fastened in a niche like background of the chapel, and portrays Madonna approaching the papal coffin in clouds from the background of the niche, which was demarcated by green drapes. The painting was eventually rejected form the church because exhibition works with display value such as paintings were strictly forbidden from being objects of cult worship. This regulation devalued the exchange value of the work, and in order to obtain a good price nevertheless the church tolerated the picture above the high altar. So we see the architecture of the church embedded into the painting being the first prerequisite to its being permitted within the walls of the church. It is then precluded from residing on the wall of the church on the grounds that it violates the regulation of ritual objects, and then it is tolerated because it maintains existing property relations. At every step of this process, it is the power relations which dictate the visibility of the painting. The aura and emotions that might be aroused by the painting are thus neutralized entirely. The subject is “beautiful because it initiates the dreamt-of metallization of the human body.” The painting becomes nothing more than an articulation of the law. Free-floating contemplation is slowly eradicated by the imperatives of social structures and commodification.
The substitution of contemplation for that of extermination is the expression of a form of collective trauma, of the distance of existence that is felt in contemplation of the aura but rejected in mechanical reproduction. But this distance is not experienced as distance that is forever receding into the horizon: it becomes immanent to social relations, an established and unchanging fact of life. Whereas previously the distance of the aura manifested the hidden nature of cult objects, the “unique phenomenon of a distance however close it may be,” it now it is merely a reminder that a universal distance will soon unite mankind with death in war.
We see this phenomenon manifesting in the roles of Benjamin’s analogy between the magician and surgeon as they compare to the painter and cameraman. The magician maintains a natural distance between himself and his audience (like the painter capturing the aura of base reality) whereas the surgeon does exactly the reverse and penetrates into the core of the individual, rendering distance immanent to the social relation (as the cameraman alienates the actress from herself on the movie set). This penetration is the initial step of the procedure of interplay and its rehearsal. The cameraman-surgeon penetrates deep into the web of reality and institutes a new law which is the equipment-free height of artifice.
The great distance that appeared on the horizon in the aura begins to fade in the age of mechanical reproduction, and the dark power that lurked in the magician’s wand or the painter’s brush begins to lose its magic. The aura lives on, now transparent and docile, forming part of the great cortège of equipment-free artifice. Distance has ceased to be a ritualistic object at the edge of the world of mankind, and that unique phenomenon into which mankind stared and made out impossible forms. It has retreated into the very core of each human in their rehearsal of interplay, in a great obfuscation that falls on the world, and distance is no longer a strange doorway from here to the netherworld; the fugitive and absolute limit. The aura is solidly anchored in the world of mechanical reproduction, no longer an art object at all, but the media.
Tamed, the distance of the aura still keeps up the appearance of its rule. It has become part of the measure of power, and of the labor of truth, “it plays on the surface of things in the glittering light of day, on all games of appearance, on the equivocation between the real and the illusory, and on the constantly broken and mended thread of the weave that unites and separates truth and appearance. It hides and shows, speaks truth and lies, and is both shadow and light. A central yet indulgent figure, it flickers and shimmers, an already precarious figure...”12 The distance of the aura has walked out with its lantern into the full midday sun. It now becomes the scission of mankind and his being, the traumatic gap of alienation, a boredom that can only be remedied in war.
The equipment of capture penetrates into man’s being, and he now identifies not with his fellow man but with machinery. He sees not with eyes of sympathy, but with a surgeon’s coldblooded gaze. The film cannot transpose cult value: “[It] . . . provides—or could provide—useful insight into the details of human actions. . . . Character is never used as a source of motivation; the inner life of the persons never supplies the principal cause of the plot and seldom is its main result.”13 The inner distance of mankind is not the impetus of film, and thus becomes the horizon upon which we must analyze the application of universal film. Economic conditions and property relations thus become the impetus of popular film, rendering film production little more than vocational aptitude tests: “What matters in these tests are segmental performances of the individual. The film shot and the vocational aptitude test are taken before a committee of experts. The camera director in the studio occupies a place identical with that of the examiner during aptitude tests.”14
Mankind spends its life in the face of the apparatus, and he must relinquish his humanity in the face of it. The film actor is not “taking revenge on [mankind’s] behalf” by “asserting his humanity (or what appears to them as such) against the apparatus. Nor does this act “place the apparatus in the service of his triumph.” If there was ever a moment to make a move, it would be before the camera. But there can be no revolutionary activity that is not a “failure” of the camera’s test; it is always edited out. The actor stands before the apparatus, and he knows that he is going to be viewed by the masses. But the masses themselves must place the apparatus in the service of their triumph for “it is they who will control [the actor]. Those who are not visible, not present while he executes his performance, are precisely the ones who will control it. This invisibility heightens the authority of their control.”15
And this applies inversely as well. This is the height of artifice. The invisibility of equipment perfectly embedded into the deep core of reality heightens its authority. There is a mutual disappearance. A vanishing of vanishing. But this hidden dialectic is not idle. The architecture is working its subliminal magic in the rehearsal of interplay “by use and by perception.” The film reprograms the audience, it sublates an imperative, but because “there is no counterpart to contemplation on the optical side... tactile appropriation is accomplished not so much by attention as by habit.” It is the habits that are formed by the audience in their reception of the film that forms tactile habituation. In distraction the audience masters its habits.
The invisibility of the audience is perceived in their distraction. They reinforce their own invisibility by participating in the role of audience member and identifying not with their human counterparts but with the camera which is also in the constant process of disappearing into the fabric of reality. The subject object distinction is replaced by the pure object of capture, and all that is left is an alienated mass of invisible pedestrians. Both the audience and the camera walk out with their lanterns into the midday sun.16
The film, in its rewiring of the distracted audience, becomes an ideal house of correction, functioning unhindered with no disadvantages, in silent perfection, an oneiric architecture where all the mechanisms of correction operate in a pure state, where order and punishment and sentence are carefully measured, an organized pyramid of work and chastisement, the best possible of all worlds of evil. And in these ideal labyrinths, the fantasy is that “there will be no contact at all with the real world; [mankind is] to be entirely closed in on themselves, and... rely on the sole resources of [optical perception], circumventing any risk of contagion and [unleashing] terror. These independent microcosms [are] an inverted mirror of society, where vice, constraint and punishment... take the place of virtue, liberty and the just rewards that made for the contentment of mankind.”17
The equipment-free aspect of film tackles the most difficult and most important habits where it is able to mobilize the masses. Film finds its true means of exercise in its “reception in a state of distraction, which is increasing noticeably in all fields of art and is symptomatic of profound changes in apperception.” Reception is met halfway with the cult value of the art object, its always distant aura receding into the background not only by the audience’s identification with the camera, “but also by the fact that at the movies this position requires no attention. The public is an examiner, but an absent-minded one.”18
It is this bored distraction that could signal a radical form of negative development, but instead it takes the form of an artificial positing of man’s aura. Mankind now assumes the role of interrogator and mistakenly thinks he reveals his triumph over his oppressor. “The film responds to the shriveling of the aura with an artificial build-up of the ‘personality’ outside the studio. The cult of the movie star, fostered by the money of the film industry, preserves not the unique aura of the person but the ‘spell of the personality,’ the phony spell of a commodity.”19
The truth of man was only spoken during the moment of its disappearance: it only showed itself when it had already become something other than itself.20 We can see the work on the self that occurs in the individual through free-contemplation and extended reflection when gazing upon an art object is replaced by a distracted reprogramming of the blank masses. This is Fascism’s aestheticization of politics. This process is so completely alienating that it can only lead to war. The absolute dissociation from the self that occurs in identification with an equipment-free reality is a form of collective schizophrenia, and the only thing that can wake the human material from its catatonia is self-destruction.
Self-destruction is not really a destruction of the self because the self is so thoroughly alienated from the species-being of man that his own body becomes the canvas up which he can contemplate the beauty of its destruction and metallization. The surgeon’s dream of a world penetrated by procedure is fatally rehearsed. The beautiful is wildly perverted by the blurring blindspot of private property. War is beautiful because Fascism has so thoroughly reengineered the distracted audience’s habits that they can only interpret the extermination of man and his mutation into a quasi-object as the inevitable goal of their collective will: “War is beautiful because it initiates the dreamt-of metallization of the human body.”21
This is a crisis of ethics. The great struggle between Good and Evil is juxtaposed as the irreconcilable conflict between the aestheticization of politics and the politicization of art. Foucault might interpret this as something that is a system of slave morality which explains the strange fidelity to the mesmerizing aura. There are obsessional gestures within the war machine that seem like “magic rituals, delirious patterns [and] are placed in the same light as ancient religious illuminations, and in a culture where the presence of the sacred has been absent for so long, a morbid desire to profane sometimes surfaces.”22 The persistence seems to be an indicator of the dark memory that accompanies the traumatic cleft in the aura. Aesthetic inventiveness may be nothing more than repetition, but it is designated as the spontaneous formation of culture. The aesthetic experience of art is the great traumatic memory of mankind, their greatest fidelity to the past, where history is now rendered atemporal by cinema. All that remains is to reinvent the object within which persistence takes place. The illusion in identifying with the apparatus is a trap: the false continuity of montage is actually a radical discontinuity, and if archaic patterns of ritual have survived, it is only in mutation. The problem of reinvention only exists for the nostalgist; “if one follows the warp of history, it becomes apparent that the real problem is the transformation of the field of experience.”23 The ritual of the cult has been eliminated, but that is not to say that it has disappeared – it has rather been thrown out of joint. The survival of the aura and its mystifying properties is not to be explained by the properties of a collective unconscious, but rather by the structure of the domain of experience that is aesthetics, and its politicization.
The are many ways of dislocating “human material” from the ethical crisis of ideology. Foucault analyzes forms of experience such as libertinage that remained largely underground and were “treated as a police offense.” This is what the aestheticization of politics really is: the policing of experience. Sade’s Justine and Juliette were formidable pamphlets written against the philosophes.24 The thought police today are the taste makers and warmongers. For Foucault, Sade’s infamy had to “be able to go as far as ‘to dismember nature and dislocate the universe.’” Sade’s complex moral disorder is not a liquidation of “human material,” but rather a return to the self in inalienable forms of experience.
Sade’s work is a study of the rigorous geometry of Desire, and takes place primarily in the high places of confinement. It offers us an escape route from the aestheticization of politics and its politicization of desire. Sade weaponizes desire; his art was scandalous and it outraged the public in a way that anticipates the Dadaists. Reading Sade is like being hit by a ballistic instrument. His prose hits the reader like a bullet, it happens to him, thus acquiring a tactile quality. But it is the reverse of film’s invasion in distraction; the tactility of Sade’s art shakes us from our torpor. His moral disorder is a weapon. But his morality is not complicated in the way that “the stench of putrefaction [becomes] a symphony” for Fascist aesthetics. His morality is more than mere aestheticization; he is seeking something deeper, an emancipation from philosophy and nature, “in Sade, as in Goya, [distance] still watches in its night; but through that watchfulness it connects with younger powers. The [aura]... becomes the power to destroy. Through Sade and Goya, the Western world rediscover[s] the possibility of going beyond [the aestheticization of politics] with violence, and of rediscovering tragic experience beyond the promises of dialectics.”25
Sade’s work dredges up the last vestiges of the aura, and it lends them a more distant meaning for the future. Between the broken lines of Goya and the unbroken line of words of Sade, there is a certain movement which doubles back on the course of contemporaneity and dries up its source and rediscovers the secret repetition of art. In Sade’s castle perverts lock themselves away and the agony of their victims is played out. What is made possible is the totally free play of desire. What is rediscovered there is a truth that has been forgotten despite its obviousness: that is desire that cannot deviate from nature, when it is nature that generates the desire in mankind, reinforcing it with the mystery of the aura and art. The violence of desire, barbarous murders and unreasonable passions become a form of ballistic wisdom. Everything that the asinine morality of Fascist society had thought it snuffed out in man comes back to life in the murderous castle. Here man is in tune with his aura; or rather by an ethic consistent with this strange confinement, here man is to take care to remain unflinchingly faithful to desire. “Until you have experienced everything, you will know nothing; and if your timidity causes you to pull up short before nature, then she will escape you forever.”26
When Fascism amputates desire from culture, it is up to man to revolt. It is the invisibility of Fascism’s equipment that confers its authority, and it is the invisibility of man that renders him lethal. But this revenge, like the insolence of desire, belongs to the aura and is outside of the false history of film. There is nothing in all that the aestheticization of politics has reinvented that is not the aura manifested or the aura restored. For Sade, there is not a return to the aura, nor a hope that the refusal of the aestheticization of politics surreptitiously changes into the politicization of art, in a dialectical process where Fascism renounces itself, thereby confirming the primacy of the aura’s distance. The autism of desire, which for the philosophes plunged man into a primitive world that was inevitably reclaimed by a social world, for Sade casts man into the void of the aura’s distance, in a total absence of mass movements, in the endlessly repeated lack of satisfied desire. The aura has no limits; it is the violent core of man and the infinity of distance.
The monotony of Sade becomes a sovereign, ever-triumphant game in Juliette, where there is no negativity, and perfection is such that novelty can only ever be identical to itself. There is no horizon for this game, and never any shadows. There is only the inevitable progression towards the death of Justine. Her innocence frustrates even the desire to torment her. Crime does not fail to overcome her virtue, she simply exhausts all the possible ways in which she can be an object for crime. The only thing crime can do is expel her from the castle, then the aura, which has so long been dominated submits to that which contradicted it; in its turn it enters violence, and there it restores its moral order. Fascism does not succeed in rendering war into a criminal subjectivity, unlike the lightning that strikes Justine outside Sade’s castle. The aura belongs to mankind more profoundly than war. The imperative for war is proof that Fascism is beginning to tear itself apart, that it is reaching the extremes of contradiction, and that what it is doing is both its own and something totally other than itself: the sovereignty of a collective schizophrenia which has reached its limit and turned against and aborted itself at the moment when it seemed to have mastered art so entirely that it earned the right to identify totally with art. Like the equipment-free reality it seeks to install, Fascism will also vanish into nothingness, leaving nothing it can reclaim. The nothingness of artifice, where the machinations of Fascism are silenced forever, becomes a violence of art and against art, and that to the point of the abortion of itself.
It is strange that Fascism authorizes the confusion between art and war, this quasi-identity between the act of war and the act that encapsulates our aura. It imposes a junction of violence and morality that is both an anticipation of a cybernetic, human-free reality and an attempt to bring the social hell of property relations to health. The key is the ruse in moral reasoning that does good while deleting excess boredom and alienation of the flesh. Human constraints come to the assistance of justice by striving to render it unnecessary. Repression thus becomes a doubly efficacious economy, as it deletes the body and drains the swamp of culture to its labyrinthine infrastructure of speculative finance. In this manner, the height of artifice makes possible the whole panoply of morality, or war crimes, that are the principal activity of shaking up the imagination of the alienated, and imprinting therein the beautiful sensation of terror.
1: Benjamin, Walter. (1968). Hannah Arendt, ed. "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction", Illuminations. London: Fontana.
2: “Moral truth [is] ’seeing a correct relation between moral objects, or between those objects and ourselves’. To lose the ability to discern those relations [is] a form of madness, such as the madness of character, of conduct and of the passions.” Foucault, Michel (2006). History of Madness. My emphasis.
3: Benjamin, Walter. (1968). Hannah Arendt, ed. "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction", Illuminations.
4: Einmalige Erscheinung eincr Ferne, so nah sie sein mag." At stake in Benjamin's formulation is an interweaving not just of time and space- einmalige Erscheinung, literally "one-time appearance” - but of far and near, eine Ferne suggesting both "a distance" in space or time and "something remote," however near it (the distance, or distant thing, that appears) may be.
5: Foucault, Michel (2006). History of Madness. Routledge.
7: Benjamin, Walter. (1968). Hannah Arendt, ed. "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction", Illuminations.
9: Foucault, Michel (2006). History of Madness.
10: Benjamin, Walter. (1968). Hannah Arendt, ed. "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction", Illuminations.
12: Foucault, Michel (2006). History of Madness.
13: Brecht, Bertolt. Versuche, “Der Dreigroschenprozess,” p. 268.
14: Benjamin, Walter. (1968). Hannah Arendt, ed. "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction", Illuminations.
16: “Hundreds of times I walked out with my lantern / Into the full midday sun.” Régnier, Satire XIV, lines 7–10.
17: Foucault, Michel (2006). History of Madness.
18: Benjamin, Walter. (1968). Hannah Arendt, ed. "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction", Illuminations.
20: Foucault, Michel (2006). History of Madness.
21: It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to interpret the nuclear bomb as the cult object par excellence in Fascism’s aesthetic arsenal. It is never to be displayed, and is the secret object of worship of the apocalyptic cult. The missiles in the nuclear silos are “accessible only to the priest in the cella; certain Madonnas [to] remain covered nearly all year round; certain sculptures [in] medieval cathedrals [that] are invisible to the spectator on ground level.” For Benjamin, the “destructiveness of war furnishes proof that society has not been mature enough to incorporate technology as its organ, that technology has not been sufficiently developed to cope with the elemental forces of society... Imperialistic war is a rebellion of technology which collects, in the form of ‘human material,’ the claims to which society has denied its natural material.”
24: The philosophes (French for "philosophers") were the intellectuals of the 18th-century Enlightenment. Few were primarily philosophers; rather, philosophes were public intellectuals who applied reason to the study of many areas of learning, including philosophy, history, science, politics, economics, and social issues.
25: Foucault, Michel (2006). History of Madness.
26: Marquis de Sade. Cent vingt journées de Sodome. Paris, 1935.