Walter Benjamin has left an interesting, if not underappreciated legacy, for contemporary thinking—particularly for conversations in and around emerging media. For while he was, among many things, a champion of criticism, an avid collector (of words in all forms), a lover of the aphorism, a poetic thinker, and one who reveled in making the familiar strange, he also was a writer whose work revealed a core truth of the human-technology dynamic. In his now renowned essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Benjamin illuminated, with cunning insight, not only the ways in which changes in technologies altered the means by which we represent our environments and the modes and methods available to interpretation, but also, some 20 years before Marshall McLuhan would mainstream the idea, that transformations in technologies altered the very core of human sense perception.
For example, working with a hermeneutic and metaphorical exactness, Benjamin exposed the different ways of seeing and sensing that the camera (and film) made available: “With the close-up, space expands; with slow motion, movement is extended. The enlargement of the snapshot does not simply render more precise what in any case was visible, though unclear: it reveals entirely new structural formations of the subject” (236). What the camera made accessible was a different nature, revealing what Benjamin referred to as unconscious optics (much in the way psychoanalysis revealed unconscious impulses). That is, it introduced quantitative and qualitative shifts in how we see, sense, and make sense of our worlds, and this should be at the core of how we situate Benjamin’s legacy for a digital/post-digital culture.
For if, as Benjamin insists, “a different nature opens itself to the camera than to the naked-eye” (236), might we not make the same claim with computationality? Or put another ways, does a data-driven, algorithmically-saturated, networked computer culture expose something of an unconscious computationality? Benjamin’s take on the impact of the camera on art, culture, and history can serve as a model for or operative way of thinking about the digital/post-digital conditionality. In so doing, it gestures toward how a culture oriented around data (and the processing of data) renders human activity (and humans in general) as data streams that can be intervened into (and/or manipulated) by computational systems. And here we glean not only that computationality allows for new kinds of “close ups”—altering the ways in which we measure and analyze space, motion, and the like—but also that part of this unconscious computationality includes a reduction of humans to data, and human behavior to being directed toward computational agents as much as for other humans. It is akin to not only what happens when the actor starts acting for the camera-eye rather than the theatre audience, but more so, as Benjamin extends the idea, to what happens when the mechanical contrivance renders the human-actor as nothing more than an object-prop in a mechanical production (230).
All of which is to suggest that Benjamin’s legacy is a rich one for digital/post-digital culture. His more obvious contributions stem from his focus on criticism, his illumination of aesthetic considerations, and his insights into the transformations of art (and their shift in the socio-politico-cultural order). But underlying these more widely recognized projects is an exposure of a human-technology relationship that has been echoed, quite prominently, though indirectly, throughout the birth of media studies, new media studies, and the conversations on the philosophy of technology. This is where his legacy resides: not in the specifics of his own work, but in his work’s impact on the thinking of others, and the thinking of the post-digital scholars to come.
Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations: Essays and Reflections. Translated by Harry Zohn, Editor Hannah Arendt, Schocken Books, 1968.