Of all the work that came out of the Frankfurt school, Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” is perhaps my favorite to teach, particularly in my video games related courses, though not, I hope, for the reasons that are immediately obvious.
Certainly, Benjamin’s invocation of aura – a question of the authenticity of an experience tied to the means of its production and the viewers (or audiences of art, for lack of a better word) understanding of it – provides ample ground for debate in relation to video games. It’s not hard to imagine a week of discussion coming from how we might talk about aura in a medium where everyone’s individual play-through is, at least potentially, unique. Benjamin versus Twitch seems like a theoretical argument as likely to result in someone shouting “Fatality!” as any game of Mortal Kombat. And if you look deeply, you can see Benjamin is beginning to conceive of those same viewers as potentially part of the cultural industries – audiences subsumed into the role of producers - an astute observation particularly as in the digital realm audiences, viewers, users or whatever term you like tend to become the critics – “the media” – that they so often are railing against.
Rather, what I most enjoy about that particular essay – the meta-lesson that I hope my students take away and that I think is perhaps the most important but one of the least discussed – is that it is a marker of an intellectual taking stock of their arguments, their beliefs, and their practices, and adjusting accordingly. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” is not just a moment of someone reconsidering, it is a testament to them admitting they were wrong and, so, trying to think differently. By the time of its first publication in 1935, the Frankfurt School had been in existence for more than a decade, and in the time, many of the assumptions associated with its school of thought had calcified. Stands had been taken. Benjamin’s essay represents a reassessment, not just of his own thought but of the school of thought he was a part of. The essay represents a moment of Marx's ruthless critique of the hardest thing to turn the lens on: ourselves.
For Benjamin, the shifting technologies of photography were cause to reassess. Photographs and all the related technologies allowed more than simple reproduction. They didn’t destroy the aura of something; they changed it. And as its own art form, they required new ways of conceiving of the very idea, a point that Benjamin himself wrestled with throughout a range of his writings.
Many of the ways we have studied digital technologies – the two I am most in tune with are the critical Political Economy of Communication and Game Studies, though these are just the two examples I’ll work with – have each experienced their own points of calcification, as have, all too often, the thoughts of my students and pitfalls and potentials of the range of media they use. Benjamin’s essay reminds us to not get too comfortable with what we think we know and with how we have come to know it; it demands that we revise and critique not just our area of study but ourselves along with it. To some extent, we’ve seen Game Studies already take on some of this task, having expanded on, if not exactly moving beyond, the narratology/ludology poles that dominated conversation for so long, while Political Economy of has begun to move beyond the discussions of industries and companies to recognize that while industries and companies are important so, too, are questions of the variety of labor, access, and differences across cultures and geographies.. Two excellent examples of this can be seen in the studies of modding, independent game production, and accessibility. But Benjamin’s point works for whatever theoretical lens one works through, towards whatever end: sometimes we must reassess and recognize the limits of our approaches.
That leaves the study of the digital with some challenges, ones not unfamiliar to Benjamin and the Frankfurt School. First, the study of digital media has become increasingly focused on the algorithm and software as a means cultural control. While that is certainly a valid concern, the field is going to have to reckon with the increasing centrality and separation presented by hardware. Second, the field all too often struggles with both its own fandom and a need to justify its legitimacy. Both are really just a painted over versions of the high/low culture struggles which led members of the Frankfurt school to decry jazz as low culture. The legitimatization of digital culture is certainly a battle worth fighting, but it seems like a battle that is largely won, even as it makes it harder for the field to turn a truly critical eye on the range of things we study.