In his famous essay, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction", Walter Benjamin argues that the mass reproduction of art as a result of technological advancements diminishes its authenticity for no longer uniquely existing in one space. He claims that  by changing the context of a piece of art, something is taken away from the original, he calls this its "aura". He goes on to illuminate the way in which he sees the rising fascists and futurists of the time rendering aesthetic the realm of politics and calls instead for a "politicizing of art".

It really is a great essay and I recommend giving it a read if you have a few minutes to spare, but I decided to post it not for its politics, but because it addresses some of the issues we discussed in 170 Monday morning on whether or not film should be considered literature.

When it comes to drama, Benjamin seems to think that the highly mediated and reproduced nature of film takes away from the "aura" or essence of the stage actor, therefore the performance as a whole and he addresses the points prof. Schacht and Eric made about the role of the camera in film: “The audience’s identification with the actor is really an identification with the camera.” I don't think that this excludes film from literary criticism, however. It seems to me to be merely a shift of perspective, which is not a decrease in its amount of artistic merit or authenticity. He also contends in the favor of film being able to be criticized as literature when he points out that, "In comparison with the stage scene, the filmed behavior item lends itself more readily to analysis because it can be isolated more easily."

Benjamin goes on about the essence of art and how if something is mass produced it loses its essence, but I don't buy it. Excluding big Hollywood movies clearly made for mass distribution and profit, I think that a movie can contain an essence of its own through mediums other than which traditional art is used to.

Any thoughts?


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  1. Unknown User (ebw1)

    Dustin, I don't think the film-viewer as camera dilutes the artistic validity of film at all. If anything, it is only one reason the medium is unique and lends itself to more invention than maybe any other medium (besides, as Benjamin suggests, architecture.) That uniqueness, though, is not comparable to anything literary. The reader isn't the ink on the page, you know? Nor is the reader the language being used. Film is able to do things literature is not and vise versa. Sure, the mediums share things like narrative, character, dialect, language, a particular stylistic aesthetic, but the mediums do something radically different, which Benjamin also brings up. "Reception in a state of distraction, which is increasing noticeably in all fields of art and is symptomatic of profound changes in apperception, finds in the film its true means of exercise. The film with its shock effect meets this mode of reception halfway. The film makes the cult value recede into the background not only by putting the public in the position of the critic, but also by the fact that at the movies this position requires no attention. The public is an examiner, but an absent-minded one." I have always agreed with this position. Unlike reading, which requires all of the reader's attention, watching a film is much less demanding on the viewer. This isn't saying that pursuing lit is more admirable than film or something, but that the way we engage with the mediums ends up being pretty different. I would think the criticism for the mediums would then have to be approached in different ways. That said, all art kind of lends itself to comparative judgement–reading a narrative as a scene in a film or constructing a photograph out of a poem–but at the end of the day the engagement with the material and the way the material is presented are radically different from medium to medium.

    So, I agree with you, a film does contain it's own essence as a film, but the way we critique/analyze the material of films and books are like a priori gonna be different.


    1. Unknown User (djd10) AUTHOR

      Eric, thanks for your insights on the post and Benjamin's essay. I completely agree with you about different mediums requiring different forms of critique and Benjamin's claim that film    can call for less attention from the audience, but I think the latter statement depends on who is viewing the film and with what motives. Watching a film can easily become a passive activity if the audience member is allowing it to be so, but one can also view the film, I would argue, as actively as a book if he or she so chooses. It may not be as enjoyable as simply watching, but one can put on a movie and take notes, ask questions, find symbols, find themes, analyze characters, go back to specific scenes like pages, pause at crucial moments to look deeper or read the screenplay. Of course, a critic can also discuss the cinematic elements unique to film, which can be paralleled with Sontag's ideas on form. 

      I guess I just wouldn't be so quick to say that film can't fall under the umbrella term of 'literature' for its necessitating different methods of critique when, even in 'literature', different genres (poetry, fiction, drama) require different methods of criticism as well. 

  2. Unknown User (ebw1)

    I can't seem to edit my last post so here is my appendum:

    One interesting thought, one that has plagued me, is what film/television has done to the ability to receive literature in a way that isn't either decidedly boring or hellaciously un-fun. If I lived in the 50's and wanted to write a piece of fiction about a drug rehabilitation center basically anything I could write about the place would be somewhat fresh and interesting. Now, since there are films like One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest and television shows like Intervention, the reader/mass audience is going to pick up my piece on drug rehab and have the film/programs in their heads as they read through. It is then up the writer to find new ways to present drug rehab in fiction (shameless Infinite Jest plug.) Film/T.V. is a really seductive medium probably because of the accessibility of it. You sit down, don't do very much, and just receive images, usually bright and totally fascinating, for hours and hours and hours.

    All I'm trying to do is distinguish film stuff from literary stuff. I think we can use tools of criticism to analyze what's going on in the films but ultimately our relation to the material and how it affects us is just too different to assume film can be lent to literary criticism. Further, I think film is just too different to be considered literature. I think the written word/language on a page is much more subtle, quiet, demanding (length wise), and entirely dependent on the reader's ability to maneuver narrative, which is hard to do well.

    That said, good literature is as seductive as the moving image.

  3. Unknown User (djd10) AUTHOR

    "That said, good literature is as seductive as the moving image": I love that and I would say in contrast that a good film is as subtle as the written word.