Aura & Film, Ritual & Technology (Walter Benjamin)

(Rosalind Nashishibi & Lucy Skaer, Flash in the Metropolitan, 2006, 16mm film, 3min 25sec)

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The Metropolitan Museum of Art plays host to Plato’s cave. I stumbled on this one the other day walking through the small gallery dedicated to showing contemporary photography. The artists were given permission to set up camera tracks in the Museum at night in, I guess, parts of the Greco-Roman, African, medieval galleries. As the camera tracked though the dark galleries, the images were illuminated by a strobe flash. You view them in a darkened room. Trying to get these photos for the slideshow forced me to sit through many loops of the short film. I found it mesmerizing.

Nashishibi and Skaer restore, or attempt to restore the cult value back to these objects. There is a distinct ritual feel to the entire thing that has a lot to do with the images and also with the looped character of the work’s temporal constitution. In the dark, the images have completely lost their “exhibition value.” They are not meant to be seen. They are no longer close or at hand. They are secreted away in distant, dark recesses. They sit there quietly, saturated by aura. And then, suddenly the flash of the strobe light reveals the images, figures, or objects, just for a moment, revealed by the photographer-priest. The images, figures, and objects appear quickly out of the dark and then sink just as suddenly back into darkness.

Aura has always depended upon technology, assuming that ritual is a kind of techne.

It’s amazing how near sighted even a genius like Walter Benjamin can be. I never particularly liked his remarks about “the liquidation” of aura in the age of mechanical reproduction. Neither did Adorno, by the way. He found the essay un-dialectical. Maybe part of the problem is that photography in Benjamin’s era was a medium dependent upon light. Sounding very much like Novalis (“Hymns to the Night”), Benjamin mentions in “The Short History of Photography” as to how new optical technologies destroy the aura of darkness. In fact, there are a lot of inky, dark spaces in many of Alfred Stieglitz’s pictures. I guess Benjamin was unable to imagine how to go about photographing darkness or images in the dark.

Too bad for Benjamin. I just don’t see why today, after so much water has passed under his bridge, we need to take every word by Benjamin as if it was holy writ. I find it always very important to note where someone like Benjamin gets things wrong, even terribly wrong, and in the worst political interests, namely the politicization of aesthetics, which he thought, naively, he could sequester from the aestheticization of politics.

(Nashishibi, by the way, is of Palestinian descent, a scion of the famous family by that name, whose leading figures were a staunch opponents of Haj Amin al-Husseini, the Mufti of Jerusalem, during the British Mandate. The Nashishibis were politically moderate and inclined to cut a deal with the Zionists in Palestine prior to 1948.Along time further back, the family was given guardianship over the Al Aqsa Mosque and Ibrahimi Mosque, known by Jews as the Cave of the Patriarchs, in Hebron, which completes rather nicely this post about art, technology, and ritual. )

(I tried to set up a slideshow but WordPress wasn’t cooperating so I settled for the gallery. Will try to fix later.)

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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