Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the age of Its Technological Reproducibility, and Other Writings on Media, The Belknap Press of Harvard UP, 2008.
What made the working class not only progressive in accepting new technological reproducibility of the artwork but also distracted or alienated from their lives by the same apparatus of mass production? How was this paradoxical experience of reproduction technology, especially in the form of film, related with modern entertainment industry (capitalism) as well as mass manipulation and mobilization by totalitarian regime (fascism)? Benjamin’s idea of distraction (and absorption) is linking those two problems of the masses in the modern society: mass consumer and mass politics.
First of all, “Mass reproduction is especially favored by the reproduction of the masses”(54, n. 36). New technological reproduction is indeed the formation of the new mass in the modern times. If we are recalling Foucault’s thesis here, the formation (creation) of modern proletariat as masses coincides with the exercise of biopolitical power which put an entire population into a subject – thus, an object – of modern institutions. Thus technological development in mass reproduction is one of the most important tasks of modern political project in reproducing the masses. The problem, for the power, was not how to invent the population who would produce commodities and nourish industries, but how to redirect the masses – who would be the menace to the fixed society and idealized exploitation structure, if they had been differently organized – into consumers, flâneurs, and the distracted masses.
There was the “increasing proletarianization of modern man”(41) in which the working class have been turned into the mass consumers. There were arcades, which were the original form of department stores, as well as world exhibitions which glorified “the exchange value of the commodity” and opened “a phantasmagoria which a person enters in order to be distracted”(101). Most of all, there was films in which the masses were seeking distraction. But, distraction from what? From their everyday lives or the weight of politics? It is not so simple as it seems if we reread Benjamin’s enigmatic words more carefully: “A person who concentrates before a work of art is absorbed by it; he enters into the work,” while “the distracted masses absorb the work of art into themselves”(40). By concentrating on the artwork, he is absorbed by it; on the contrary, he absorbs the artwork by distracting from it. How is it possible? I am not sure if my confusion is due to the cultural or temporal difference between Benjamin and me in understanding the concept.
My assumption was that through the distraction, which had to function as lure to the mass consumption, individuals in the masses would experience subjectively alienated from the reality (of politics). In other words, I thought distraction is something imposed by capital or power to lead the mass to the commodification of enjoyment. Maybe I wanted to see the depoliticizing effect from the concept of distraction. For Benjamin, however, does the problem of distraction function in a positive way to the masses in the power relation? By ingesting the artwork (or film), can the masses be freed from the power and capital’s intention to collect them as uncritical and indiscriminate consumers? That might be related with the other problem that I mentioned above.
That is about how the distracted masses were called by the totalitarian power such as fascism. Totalitarian regimes could manipulate the mass by aestheticizing politics. In this process of aestheticization, what they referred to was nothing but the mass culture industry such as radio and film. If the masses were distracted and dispersed in nature, how could the fascism manipulate them? Totalitarian politics seems to require deep immersion (absorption) from the masses, not distraction. Here I was confronted with confusion once more. If the masses have the potential to be distracted by or distract whatever the power provides to them, how could the historical evidences of the mass destruction of modern wars be explained? On the contrary, since the distraction is the only potential that the masses (the demos, in Rancièrian sense) have, is there permanent struggle against the unifying and totalizing power to manipulate them? That is the dilemma that I am stuck on.