or, the Work of Mechanical Reproduction in the Age of Terrorism
Though it’s not exactly obvious, Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” is a fairly hopeful essay. His famously oracular thesis runs basically as follows: art, in the ages preceding the technological means of its reproduction, derived its value from an essentially cultic quality that Benjamin calls “the aura,” which encapsulates both the work’s physical singularity (there’s only one Mona Lisa) and the concomitant singularity of whatever it is that the physical object incarnates (the Mona Lisa is a specific painting).
This idea is a little-remarked-upon forerunner of much of Mircea Eliade’s writing about religion, in which he holds that, before the gods’ abstraction into juridical or ethical codes, the holy was essentially the point of maximum reality, any object, locus, or rite which put its possessor, inhabitant, or performer in contact with the deepest and broadest spectrum of reality. To perform astronomy was, for the Mayans, to see the universe as an ongoing and coherent act of star-biology; to invoke the Greek gods was to name the durable, recurrent powers of nature. What is holy is what is unshakably real, and what, in its reality, makes contact with the deepest strata of cosmic process. Scale that sense of reality down from religion to artwork, and from sacrality to something not quite sacred nor quite anything else — fin de siècle aestheticism, from l’art pour l’art to The Yellow Book, provides us with our most obvious parallel — and you have Benjamin’s aura. The work is undeniably, irreducibly itself, and derives its power from that combination of uniqueness and mystery.
Until, Benjamin writes, we start taking photographs of paintings, and mass-producing copies of religious texts, and filming nature, and engaging in forms of artistic production — big-budget cinema, pop music — which are meant, from their inception, to be replicated. These sorts of arts do not produce an “original,” in the old sense: there’s the master tape and the first complete print of the film, sure, but neither is any more real than its copies. Neither concentrates reality to a point of greater intensity. Most fans of the Beatles don’t particularly care about owning the Beatles’ master tapes; most Kubrick devotees don’t aspire to the possession of Kubrick’s original prints.
But Benjamin doesn’t mourn the loss of the aura; he views it rather as a possible liberation. The artwork imbued with aura, he writes, takes on an essentially cultic resonance, and therefore comes to participate in the same sorts of devotional practices which power dogmatic religion and, eventually, totalitarian politics. Fascism (he wrote, meaning oppressive ideology in general) is the aestheticization of politics, the moment at which the outward image ceases to have any necessary ratio to the political reality, and the auratic artwork always threatens to lapse into a similarly empty veneration. We can be made to value things not because we actually find them valuable, in a non-monetary sense, but because we’re assured that generations before us have found them so, and that it would be presumptuous to lapse in our devotion. The apotheosis of the auratic artwork is the Bayreuth Festspielhaus performance of Wagner’s Ring cycle, a symphonic Götterdämmerung meant to be heard in one place, under one very specific set of conditions, played according to one vision, during one particular week — and we know now what kind of influence Wagner had on the German mind.
Hitler, who really had almost no “politics” in the contemporary sense of the word, aspired to convert Germanness into a comparable fetish; he was a Wagnerite of bigotry, and his explicit means were nearly always secondary to his goal of race- and Kultur-worship. Though Benjamin’s essay dates from before the worst crimes of the Nazis, it predicts them with remarkable and frightening accuracy. Nazism — a properly aesthetic project, focused less on any particular set of institutional mechanisms than on a confused mélange of police-state oppression, unchecked robber-baron capitalism, and pseudo-scientific theories of racial and cultural destiny — needed not believe anything, and the political realities it produced need have nothing to do with its message. The message was all.
If Hitler succeeded in convincing Germans that they stood poised upon the edge of a new era, that the future of humanity was Volkisch and Saxon, and that backroom Jewish tyranny somehow caused the Treaty of Versailles, both he and his subjects could ignore the realities of their own lives. Suffering was always suffering “in the name of German supremacy and purification,” and joy was always “the joy of German strength.” Kraft Durch Freud; Arbeit Macht Frei. These are cosmological conceits, and Hitler had trespassed upon the realm of religion, hence the famous ideological slipperiness of fascism: it can’t be identified by any specific set of logistical processes or legislative imperatives, because it comprises a retuning of politics entire, a transposition from one domain of reality to another. Indeed, we might say that fascism’s fundamental action is the conversion of the state into a cult, and of once-political acts into primarily religious ones.
Benjamin viewed the dissolution of the aura as a safeguard against such methods of perception, and he was optimistic about the aura’s replacement: his essay predicts the development of “political,” rather than “religious,” aesthetics, and for Benjamin, “political” was as layered a word as “surreal” was for the Surrealists. He didn’t mean it in any narrow agitprop sense; Benjamin considered Surrealism a benchmark of political art, and he named Baudelaire as the fundamental political artist of the 19th century, Baudelaire, the ideological arriviste quite as confused as Hitler, the self-proclaimed student of proto-fascist Joseph de Maistre. But Baudelaire’s express politics had nothing to do with Benjamin’s evaluation of him as a political artist. That critique hinged rather upon the manner in which Baudelaire’s poetry and prose incarnated the realities of his day, exposed scenarios which had not yet developed into politics, registered the dream-life which precedes political change. There’s a lot of Goethe in Benjamin, and his notion of the “political” had much to do with Goethe’s Urphänomen: the “political,” in the conventional sense of laws and elections, is only the causal shadow of true politics, which are the way we conceive of and enact our own reality, and these conceptions are driven by forces much more chthonic and feral than rational calculation. The political is the ghost of sleep, and the newspapers are the ghosts of ghosts.
This sort of thinking endeared Benjamin to virtually nobody during his life: the Marxists called it non-dialectical, and everyone else ignored it. (Benjamin’s Marxism was as hermetic and mystic as his Judaism.) But in the mediatized age to which World War II gave way, there is no other explanation of our politics which rings as true as Benjamin’s, and no more fundamental vision of the split between the parliamentary spectacle of business as usual and the real, immanent politics of what we do and how we do it every day. (In this respect, Situationism and Deleuze and Guattari’s idea of “micropolitics” are definitely Benjamin’s children.) These two violently opposed forms of reality may have once lived in consonance, or at least in some uneasy truce; the development of mass media, however, has turned each into a weapon to be used against the other, and mass-spectacle politics has hardly lost even a skirmish to the politics of the lived moment. Not long before his death, Benjamin was to write that the only historian capable of altering the present by writing about the past is the historian “who is firmly convinced that even the dead will not be safe from the enemy, if [the enemy] wins. And this enemy has not ceased to be victorious.” Success aside, the enemy is still winning every battle, and the dead are perhaps even more endangered than the living.
And this is the other side of Benjamin’s argument about auratic and religious perception, and the side to which he pays the briefest, but most cryptically charged, attention in his comments about fascism and aesthetics. Mass reproduction may destroy the old aura by revoking singularity; but it may also create a new aura, whose gravitational force is derived directly from mass reproduction. The aura hasn’t elapsed; it has simply redistributed its force about the opposite extreme. Now the most reproduced is the most real, and the singular is the statistically insignificant, the politically inconsequential, the illegible-because-incomparable. And this, the cultural dream-life in which move and act the most reproduced and common images, is what I want to call the Eikonosphere.
Very specific circumstances had to converge to create the Eikonosphere:
1). Power, both military and economic, needed to converge in a bloc of nations culturally similar enough to provide the possibility of a homogeneous mass culture and rich enough to supervise its dissemination throughout the world. In the modern era, this power has of course been concentrated principally in the United States of America, and the remaining Western nations are satellite states of the USA, culturally if not socioeconomically, though often the latter, as well.
2). There needed to come into being the mass-media technology capable of creating such omnipresent images, and of injecting them forcibly into the psychic lives of the human race. This technology, as we tend to forget, was developed as the direct result of military research and development funding for World War II and the Cold War, such that “media” in their present sense are entirely an outgrowth of the American military. (Except for audiotape, which was invented by the Nazis to fake live versions of prerecorded Hitler speeches.) To the extent that we’re mediatized, we’re test subjects of the American military-industrial complex, and even a meager poverty-line existence will partake unwittingly of military tech: cell phones, personal computers, electronic music, data storage, and a fair fraction of modern medical technology were paid for by the American military as a result of its nebulous and half-century-long ideological war with the Soviet Union.
In fact, modern capitalism entire is a byproduct of the Cold War, and the struggles to define “democracy” and “capitalism” in that war’s wake are the precise and predictable consequences of our Cold War-era expectations. We want an Eisenhower economy without the Eisenhower war, and we’ve made the horrible mistake of trying to replace “communism” with “terrorism” as an enemy just vague enough to inspire vast military spending, but never quite so real as to attack us where we live. The end of the Cold War was a moment of vertigo and fear for the capitalist bloc, not a moment of triumph, and should we ever see the unlikely end of the War on Terror, we will be struck with a comparable disorientation. An analogy presents itself: just as capitalism, at first, is nothing more than the excess wealth created by imperialism (i.e., the vast natural resources of the New World, plus the amount of money saved in having such wealth extracted by slaves rather than by paid workers), modern capitalism is nothing more than the gap between military R&D and actual military engagement. Haiti, in the early 1800s, was responsible for two thirds of the French economy; I would suggest that the Cold War comprised a comparable portion of the American and European economy from the 1950s to the early 1990s.
Along this continuum, the history of recent American foreign policy is primarily a history of attempts to reinstate the political economy of the Cold War — beginning, in fact, during the Cold War itself, when the group of sociopathic Straussians known as Team B sought in the mid-’70s to ratchet up American terror of (and defense spending against) the Soviets despite the obvious decline of the Russian economy and military. Their counterfeit panic led the CIA to bankroll the Afghan mujahidin in the early 1980s, which led directly to the emergence of modern Islamist terrorism via Ayman al-Zawahiri and his followers, which brought us the War on Terror and specifically the Iraq War — engineered by such ghoul luminaries as Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, and Richard Perle, all of whom were originally members or partisans of Team B. None of this is simply adventitious.
3). As a subset of the two preceding conditions, the spiritual power-vacuum created by the massive and horrific events of the early 20th century needed to be filled with the image of its own emptiness, to be rededicated in a strangely Puritan manner to the rebirth of Vanitas. After Darwin, Marx, Nietzsche, Frazer, Freud, we’d learned fear the death of god; after Hitler, Stalin, Oppenheimer, we’re quite sure of god’s death, and we fear equally the birth of any new god, having seen the consequences of our most recent and popular god-surrogates. So we, as a people, replace god with his own absence, and raise to a power of religious veneration all the factors responsible for his murder: psychology, the physical sciences, and the Protestant equation of wealth with virtue.
The privileging of scientific, rational-empirical truth over all other forms of reality is a particular necessary in the creation of a worldwide Eikonosphere, because so much of its content must be reproduced. Only a statistically-minded people is capable of taking reproductions for their originals, of smoothing out the differences between the two by appealing to averages and reduction of error, and of eventually dispensing with the original altogether. Were we still traditionally religious, and possessed of the attendant focus on qualitas and quidditas, the specific, singular, and irreducible (as it reflects back, in a Judeo-Christian schematic, from the individual soul to the godhead) we would be incapable of such a contortion.
What, then, are the contents of the Eikonosphere, the Eikons themselves? Generally, they are composed of any image, sound, idea, personality (not “person”), etc. which has been massively reproduced and draws its value from the fact of reproduction; which has assumed an importance out of all proportion to its actuality; and which has come to occupy a psychic or imaginal position irreducible to its practical significance. (I use the word “imginal,” i.e. “located in the imagination,” as distinct from “imaginary” and its implication of untruth.)
In Goethean terms, the Eikon is anything which has become the parody of its own Urphänomen. Semiotics would describe it as any sign which is both signifier and signified, an eternal feeback loop of self-reference. Along more traditional linguistic axes, the Eikon is anything which stands on both the literal and the figurative side of a metaphor: it is perpetually the image of itself, and perpetually rehearses its own repetition, promising depth and delivering flatness, promising variety and delivering monotony. It’s a Saussurean feedback spiral, both signifier and signified, in which the aft half of the equation is implicitly realer or more central but, when focused upon, can refer only to a further forward shunting, until all motion becomes omnidirectional (progress is regress is a circle) and the semiotic overloads with the sheer, blunt, inexplicable thereness of the thing. But its thereness is not presence, because it’s always referring us to the next link along the chain, which in turn is only another forward or backward or circular reference. Seize on the Eikon, and you find only the promise of what it’s about to be, what it’ll mean at some proximate but still deferred point, what it contains but can’t yet disclose; you access an autistic system of exchange-for-itself, spinning up and powering down under the sign of its own multipath distortion.
The Eikon is an inexhaustible surface, which, by its combination of superficiality and inexhaustibility, toys with our reactions: we’re gratified by its omnipresent sameness, but we’re also tempted to scour it until something other than the surface appears. Nothing ever will, and of such scouring there can only be two results: submission to the Eikon or destruction of the Eikon — which is itself a form of submission.
Test case: the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center — and I begin to make my case by noting that only politicians and historians add, “and the Pentagon.” The Pentagon attack is already an antiquarian matter, because we didn’t see it happen, and we have no definite mass image of the destruction it caused; the World Trade Center was the Eikon, and it was expressly designed to be so.
Part of the wicked genius of terrorism is the understanding that, in the age of mass media, an attack on an Eikon is hugely more effective than any mere killing. If 3,000 Americans abroad had been murdered in separate incidents on 9/11/01, it would’ve raised a stir, but it wouldn’t have constituted the destruction (and, in the logic of sacrifice, paradoxical elevation) of an Eikon. To think that there’s a number of casualties which will equal a change in the function of late capitalism is preposterous. America kills thousands of people every day, many of whom are its own; killing is perhaps the single most integral element of its machinery, and with the parallel and not at all fortuitous development of the means to kill en masse and the means to record it en masse (both products of World War II and the Cold War), only the reproducible image of an attacked Eikon can truly register.
In 1970, a million people protesting the Vietnam War was a political crisis; in the early 2000s, a million people protesting the second Iraq War was a Tuesday; and in 2015, thousands of people protesting the bigoted slaughter of black people by the racist institution of our police force is not only not helping the protestors, it’s actively prejudicing mediatized society against them. We have left the age of passive resistance and mass demonstration, and terrorism, whether we like it or not, occupies precisely the position once held by Million-Man Marches. It is become our central political activity, and all other politics must be constantly recalibrated to match the demands of terrorism.
And, from a terrorist’s standpoint, the World Trade Center aptly fulfilled the basic demands of an Eikon: it was a physical entity known to far more people than had ever seen it in person, and possessing a figurative importance far more intense than the thousands of offices where financial bureaucrats did paperwork. It was also, in fulfillment of what is perhaps the key Eikonic criterion, a metaphor for itself: the building emblematized Trade, and therefore domineering capitalism, but it also literally incarnated trade, in that the micropolitical actions which create the nebulous entity of “economics” were carried out on its premises. Emblem and incarnate act played hopscotch across the signifying line, thereby falsely mending the fissure of Lacan’s “split subject”: there can appear no divide between je and moi, or signifier and signified, when each is in a state of perpetual reference to the other. Derrida would’ve called it a mise-en-abîme, and Baudrillard a simulacrum, but these are both limited and provisional definitions, and neither includes the full psychic aspect of incorporation into the Eikonosphere. (Hence, in part, the Eikon’s frustrating allure: it promises a reconciliation of reference and self-reference, a plenitude of meaning which exists not in any center but in the innumerable networks of dispersal.)
So by attacking the World Trade Center, the 9/11 suicide pilots did much more than simply kill 3,000 Americans or knock down a particularly famous building, any of which could’ve been done much more easily outside the United States. They ruptured the properly sacred (or perhaps post-sacred) envelope around the Eikonosphere; they violated the terms of its removal from and elevation above actual lived life. The Eikon must remain apart. It may have an actual host, but the host is not the Eikon, and endangers himself deeply should he confuse himself with his own Eikonography. Individual actors die; “movie stars” survive, and not because of talent or bodies of work. Kennedy the Assassinated is in much better shape than Kennedy the politician. Che Guevara is a silkscreen.
But destroying an Eikon also raises that Eikon to a third degree of autometaphor, the Martyr-to-Itself, and that status can never be revoked. “World Trade Center” has acquired in the American mind a nobility and tragic grandeur out of all proportion to the billion acts of petty evil committed by the people who worked there, and the not-necessarily-greater evil of the people who knocked it down. It is now the ghost of a ghost of a ghost, and such removals are almost impossible to cross or to contract. It will, in all likelihood, be invoked until there is no longer a political entity called the United States of America, and each invocation will solidify its status as a posthumous Eikon.
There are, however, failed Eikons, and the whole spectrum of “crank politics” and “conspiracy theory” is largely the obsession with potential Eikons which never quite made the leap. In recent years, “Benghazi” has assumed this perpetually-aspirant status. Maybe ten percent of those who use the word daily can tell you that it’s a city in Libya, and maybe ten percent of that ten percent can tell you in any degree of accuracy what happened there, or why they’re angry about it. That doesn’t matter and never will; what matters is the process of its conversion into Eikonography, and the failure of that process, perhaps because it was too complicated, but perhaps also because it wasn’t properly converted into media at the time. There’s footage, there were photographs, but the alleged scandal is in a series of emails, not in the fact of a burned-out embassy, and trying to build an Eikon out of textual archives is a task so difficult that it’s taken us several millennia to produce the Bible and Koran as the entities they now compose.
(The Bible is a proto-Eikon par excellence, and via the history of mechanical printing, inaugurates the shift of aura from the individual artifact to the bulk of mass production. It’s a book, of course, and can be read; its reading has virtually nothing to do with its Eikonic status. The place and period of the Bible’s greatest cultural influence, Europe from the Dark Ages to the late Renaissance, was not coincidentally a period in which the vast majority of the Bible’s supposed adherents couldn’t read much of the Bible. They took it largely on faith, believed it contained whatever clergy told them it contained, and went about syncretizing their own rites and doctrine in semi-indifference to the Bible’s actual contents. By the time the entire Bible was available in the demotic languages of Western Europe, it had begun to give ground to rationalism and the early world-historical self-image of capitalism. The Biblical fixation of the American Christian, in which “American” is always a much more significant term than “Christian,” recapitulates this history. Our Baker Bucket packrats and IHOP endtimers don’t want the book; they want the Eikon.)
It might be objected that the process I’m describing is no more than a subset of the signifying drift that overtakes all events, identities, and ideas given time, and that the Eikonosphere is simply another way of saying “the collective imagination.” It is another way of saying “the collective imagination,” but what’s important and distinctive is the method of its composition. 1). The Eikonosphere happens specifically now, as a derivative of media technology derived from the massive electronics push in the west after the second World War; and, crucially, 2). Events in the Eikonosphere are mediatized faster than instantly; their mediatization often occurs long before they do. The Olympics and World Cup, for example, are Eikons years before the actual catastrophes of greed, plunder, corruption, and institutionalized violence begin.
The Qatar World Cup of 2022 is an Eikon already; the fact that, by 2022, its death toll is likely to be twice that of September 11? Not part of the Eikon. Merely an inconvenience, as desultory and easily ignored a piece of data as the fact that the second, third, and fourth largest genocides in known history (Mao’s, Stalin’s, and Hitler’s, respectively) come nowhere near the likely total of the colonists’ genocide of Native Americans. The Eikon includes a vague sense of shame, counterbalanced with an equally vague but more persuasive sense of entitlement — and that statement is equally applicable to the murdered Indians and to the World Cup in Qatar. Only one of these, however, can be Eikonography, because only one occurs in the age of faster-than-instant media.
And the human personality is now no more than an adjunct of such media, a series of prefabricated moments and traits whose entire reality is derived from their capacity to be technologically reproduced. In the absence of any serious focus on class, the welfare state, or civil rights, this is the obvious têlos of identity politics: each of us, provided the Calvinist grace to have been born into a mediatized class (but even poor people have iPhones now!, the libertarians crow), now has the inalienable right to try and fail to convert himself into an Eikon until he dies. Benjamin was right, to a degree: we do move toward manifest political relations. It’s simply that we do so in the worst, falsest sense of the word “politics,” and that even our heart rates are sponsored elections.