Insular Attention (Talmud & Aura)

I think the form of attention particular to a tradition based thing like Talmud is fundamentally “endogymous” Avert the gaze. Don’t look at the beautiful furrow. Don’t look at women. Don’t even pay too much mind to God. Stay fixed on what’s important, namely Torah. This is an intensive form of attention. The world of external objects (walls, trees, avenues, animals, “women,” “God”) are both excluded and brought inside the very narrow, cave-like enclosure. Miniaturized, they start to look funny and do funny things. That’s what makes Talmud a kind of technology, a very dangerous one when you don’t get out of the cave. But there’s something still to be said for the miniature and the close-up and closed-in perspective.

The close-up view calls to mind Benjamin’s reflections in “Little History of Photography” on the photographs of Karl Blossfeldt:  “Yet at the same time, photography reveals in this material physiognomic aspects, image worlds, which dwell in the smallest things—meaningful yet covert enough to find a hiding place in waking dreams, but which, enlarged and capable of formulation, make the difference between technology and magic visible as a thoroughly historical variable. Thus, Blossfeldt with his astonishing plant photographs7 reveals the forms of ancient columns in horse willow, a bishop’s crosier in the ostrich fern, totem poles in tenfold enlargements of chestnut and maple shoots, and gothic tracery in the fuller’s thistle” (Selected Writings, vol.2 p.512).

In contrast, the internet is a type of technology more given, not to intense contemplation, but to what Benjamin in “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” referred to as “distraction,” i.e. distracted, more glancing, groping forms of attention. That Benjamin believed in the power of avant-garde art and its “shock effect,” its capacity to “[paralyze] the associative mechanisms in the beholder” (p.527), well, it’s a quaint art conceit that I’m not sure anyone still believes today.

Is one form of attention “better” than another, the long extensive view or the close up and insular? Probably not. No matter how much he tried to shake it, Benjamin’s description of photographic aura retains a power of persuasion in its “strange weave of space and time: the unique appearance or semblance of distance, no matter how close it may be” (p.518). Compared to intergalactic light years, the distance is not all that great between a distant horizon that hedges in the bare optical eye and a blank orange wall one foot from your face. The difference is relative. Whether your eye is drawn to a distant horizon or up close to a more limited set of miniaturized figures on the wall of a cave or to a Zen-like blank wall, they all give way to points of view, each one of which allows you to see things, real and unreal, and not to see others.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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