No Aura?

After about a year and a half, I decided it was time for a name change. No one outside of the few German friends who read this site could pronounce "Feuilleton," especially as it's a German-by-way-of-French word; also, given how often even old friends misspell my name, wasn't necessarily the easiest way of finding the site.

Still, I spent a good half year pondering new names for my site. I asked for suggestions on my mailing list, but the lack of response made me wonder if anyone on the list actually read my e-mails. One friend did e-mail to say she didn't think anything was wrong with the name, but I suspect the German papers she clips for a living (hey there! you know who you are!) have affected her brain. "Feuilleton"? Come on.

OK, so the old name had to go. But what to put in its place? Enter The One And Only, and my Marxisms tutorial.

Yeah, in 2003, I'm taking a tutorial on Marxisms. And before you ask why, let me 'splain: Because it's important. Marxism is more than political ideology. It's about methodology, and for those of us doing cultural studies, it's vital to have a grounding in one of the few theories that actually takes the material facts of culture seriously. Remember "It's the economy, stupid"? Well, yes. Exactly. Literature and culture don't exist in a separate realm from economy. They're not divorced from the mundane, daily concerns of economy and materialism. So, regardless of the mess that's been made of "real existing socialism" in the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc, Marxism does still have something to teach us, and it's this: You can't ignore economics, even in the world of culture.

Now that's all well and good, but what does that have to do with naming a website? Well, for this tutorial, I was reading Walter Benjamin, who actually played a role in the original name of the site. He's one of my all time favorite writers, and his writing - even the stuff that's more theoretical - is lyrical and easy to read, even though he deals in complex ideas. He's a great read, which is even more unusual given that he was German. (Germans and theory? Not exactly a mix that makes for a fun evening with a book.)

Benjamin was also a Marxist. Well, really he was more Marxish than Marxist. There are elements of mystical Judaism in his theory that would've given Marx an apoplectic attack. (Religion being the opiate of the masses and all.) He's more interested in culture than economics, and (yes, I'm slowly getting to the point here) he was fascinated by modern culture. Writing in the 1920s and 1930s, Benjamin was drawn to what he saw as the revolutionary possibilities of photography and film.

Revolutionary? Well, yes. Because with the advent of photography and film, art became easily reproducible. No longer did it require hours of painstaking work by a long-trained artist with expensive paints to reproduce artwork. Any photograph could be easily mass-produced. Films could go through multiple printings, each one as good as the next. And no one could distinguish the original from the reproduction anymore. As a matter of fact, there was no original anymore.

So, Benjamin suggested, artworks lost their aura - the aura of genius, the aura of cult value, of uniqueness and authenticity as a singular product of human genius. And although it might not seem that way at first, Benjamin pointed out that this was a good thing. Art lost its aura, and that made art less mystical and less elitist. Instead of being the province of those who could afford years of apprenticeship under a master craftsman, art became something that could be produced by a factory worker, or by a film crew. And art could be made about a factory worker, or a film crew. Everyday life could become a part of art, and art a part of everyday life. People became artists, and art became far less elitist, but no less art.

Much the same argument could be made about the internet as a technology. Granted, access to the internet is still limited, largely by geography and class; but in principle, it allows most everyone to become an author. Blogging and journaling software and sites make it easier than ever to gain a voice, and many of the usual barriers to publication have been removed. And yes, that makes the internet a cacophony of voices - but as Benjamin points out, the proliferation of people producing creative works means more people are speaking, are finding their own voices.

And that is revolutionary. In a world where most of us work at something we'd rather not be doing, the internet - and other technologies - provides a place to create something you are invested in. And it's not just the internet. It's the same thing for the folks who create 'zines or make their own movies. They're finding voices and outlets for their creativity.

Of course, not all of this turns out to be something you want to read, or watch. But the fact that it's out there changes our relationship to what we think of as art. Art becomes something broad-based, not the province of remote genius but something we have contact with, on a daily basis. And perhaps we can begin to think about art as not merely a product, but a process, and that this process is slowly turning all from from laborers into creators.

And so, with the help of The One And Only, who pointed out that No Aura would actually be a pretty cool name for a site, I give you I'll still be posting to as well, so you don't need to change your bookmarks - and bear with me while I continue uploading everything to the new site and working out the bugs!


October 15, 2003


Walter Benjamin

Quotes from his influential 1935 essay "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction." Translations don't really get the lyricism of his writing, but at least the ideas get across...

Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be... The presence of the original is the prerequisite to the concept of authenticity... The whole sphere of authenticity is outside technical--and, of course, not only technical--reproducibility. Confronted with its manual reproduction, which was usually branded as a forgery, the original preserved all its authority; not so vis a vis technical reproduction.

Earlier much futile thought had been devoted to the question of whether photography is an art. The primary question--whether the very invention of photography had not transformed the entire nature of art--was not raised.

For centuries a small number of writers were confronted by many thousands of readers. This changed toward the end of the last century. With the increasing extension of the press, which kept placing new political, religious, scientific, professional, and local organs before the readers, an increasing number of readers became writers - at first, occasional ones. It began with the daily press opening to its readers space for "letters to the editor." And today there is hardly a gainfully employed European who could not, in principle, find an opportunity to publish somewhere or other comments on his work, grievances, documentary reports, or that sort of thing. Thus, the distinction between author and public is about to lose its basic character. The difference becomes merely functional; it may vary from case to case. At any moment the reader is ready to turn into a writer. As expert, which he had to become willy-nilly in an extremely specialized work process, even if only in some minor respect, the reader gains access to authorship. In the Soviet Union work itself is given a voice. To present it verbally is part of a man's ability to perform the work. Literary license is now founded on polytechnic rather than specialized training and thus becomes common property.

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