Walter Benjamin Explains How Fascism Uses Mass Media to Turn Politics Into Spectacle (1935)

Image via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

In his 1935 essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechan­i­cal Repro­ducibil­i­ty,” influ­en­tial Ger­man-Jew­ish crit­ic Wal­ter Ben­jamin intro­duced the term “aura” to describe an authen­tic expe­ri­ence of art. Aura relates to the phys­i­cal prox­im­i­ty between objects and their view­ers. Its loss, Ben­jamin argued, was a dis­tinct­ly 20th-cen­tu­ry phe­nom­e­non caused by mass media’s impo­si­tion of dis­tance between object and view­er, though it appears to bring art clos­er through a sim­u­la­tion of inti­ma­cy.

The essay makes for potent read­ing today. Mass media — which for Ben­jamin meant radio, pho­tog­ra­phy, and film — turns us all into poten­tial actors, crit­ics, experts, he wrote, and takes art out of the realm of the sacred and into the realm of the spec­ta­cle. Yet it retains the pre­tense of rit­u­al. We make offer­ings to cults of per­son­al­i­ty, expand­ed in our time to include influ­encers and revered and reviled bil­lion­aires and polit­i­cal fig­ures who joust in the head­lines like pro­fes­sion­al wrestlers, led around by the chief of all heels. As Ben­jamin writes:

The film responds to the shriv­el­ing of the aura with an arti­fi­cial build-up of the “per­son­al­i­ty” out­side the stu­dio. The cult of the movie star,  fos­tered by the mon­ey of the film indus­try, pre­serves not the unique aura of the per­son but the “spell of the per­son­al­i­ty,” the pho­ny spell of a com­mod­i­ty.

Benjamin’s focus on the medi­um as not only expres­sive but con­sti­tu­tive of mean­ing has made his essay a sta­ple on com­mu­ni­ca­tions and media the­o­ry course syl­labi, next to the work of Mar­shall McLuhan. Many read­ings tend to leave aside the pol­i­tics of its epi­logue, like­ly since “his rem­e­dy,” writes Michael Jay — “the politi­ciza­tion of art by Com­mu­nism — was for­got­ten by all but his most mil­i­tant Marx­ist inter­preters,” and hard­ly seemed like much of a rem­e­dy dur­ing the Cold War, when Ben­jamin became more wide­ly avail­able in trans­la­tion.

Ben­jam­in’s own idio­syn­crat­ic pol­i­tics aside, his essay antic­i­pates a cri­sis of author­ship and author­i­ty cur­rent­ly sur­fac­ing in the inves­ti­ga­tion of a failed coup that includes Twit­ter replies as key evi­dence — and in the use of social media more gen­er­al­ly as a dom­i­nant form of polit­i­cal spec­ta­cle.

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.

Benjamin’s analy­sis of con­ven­tion­al film, espe­cial­ly, leads him to con­clude that its recep­tion required so lit­tle of view­ers that they eas­i­ly become dis­tract­ed. Everyone’s a crit­ic, but “at the movies this posi­tion requires no atten­tion. The pub­lic is an exam­in­er, but an absent-mind­ed one.” Pas­sive con­sump­tion and habit­u­al dis­trac­tion does not make for con­sid­ered, informed opin­ion or a healthy sense of pro­por­tion.

What Ben­jamin referred to (in trans­la­tion) as mechan­i­cal repro­ducibil­i­ty we might now just call The Inter­net (and the coter­ies of “things” it haunts pol­ter­geist-like). Lat­er the­o­rists influ­enced by Ben­jamin fore­saw our age of dig­i­tal repro­ducibil­i­ty doing away with the need for authen­tic objects, and real peo­ple, alto­geth­er. Ben­jamin him­self might char­ac­ter­ize a medi­um that can ful­ly detach from the phys­i­cal world and the mate­r­i­al con­di­tions of its users — a medi­um in which every­one gets a col­umn, pub­lic pho­to gallery, and video pro­duc­tion stu­dio — as ide­al­ly suit­ed to the aims of fas­cism.

Fas­cism attempts to orga­nize the new­ly cre­at­ed pro­le­tar­i­an mass­es with­out affect­ing the prop­er­ty struc­ture which the mass­es strive to elim­i­nate. Fas­cism sees its sal­va­tion in giv­ing these mass­es not their right, but instead a chance to express them­selves. The mass­es have a right to change prop­er­ty rela­tions; Fas­cism seeks to give them an expres­sion while pre­serv­ing prop­er­ty. The log­i­cal result of Fas­cism is the intro­duc­tion of aes­thet­ics into polit­i­cal life.

The log­i­cal result of turn­ing pol­i­tics into spec­ta­cle for the sake of pre­serv­ing inequal­i­ty, writes Ben­jamin, is the roman­ti­ciza­tion of war and slaugh­ter, glo­ri­fied plain­ly in the Ital­ian Futur­ist man­i­festo of Fil­ip­po Marinet­ti and the lit­er­ary work of Nazi intel­lec­tu­als like Ernst Junger. Ben­jamin ends the essay with a dis­cus­sion of how fas­cism aes­theti­cizes pol­i­tics to one end: the anni­hi­la­tion of aura by more per­ma­nent means.

Under the rise of fas­cism in Europe, Ben­jamin saw that human “self-alien­ation has reached such a degree that it can expe­ri­ence its own destruc­tion as an aes­thet­ic plea­sure of the first order. This is the sit­u­a­tion of pol­i­tics which Fas­cism is ren­der­ing aes­thet­ic.” Those who par­tic­i­pate in this spec­ta­cle seek mass vio­lence “to sup­ply the artis­tic grat­i­fi­ca­tion of a sense per­cep­tion that has been changed by tech­nol­o­gy.” Dis­tract­ed and desen­si­tized, they seek, that is, to com­pen­sate for pro­found dis­em­bod­i­ment and the loss of mean­ing­ful, authen­tic expe­ri­ence.

You can read Ben­jam­in’s essay here, or find it in this col­lect­ed vol­ume.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

Umber­to Eco Makes a List of the 14 Com­mon Fea­tures of Fas­cism

Toni Mor­ri­son Lists the 10 Steps That Lead Coun­tries to Fas­cism (1995)

Are You a Fas­cist?: Take Theodor Adorno’s Author­i­tar­i­an Per­son­al­i­ty Test Cre­at­ed to Com­bat Fas­cism (1947)

The Sto­ry of Fas­cism: Rick Steves’ Doc­u­men­tary Helps Us Learn from the Hard Lessons of the 20th Cen­tu­ry

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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