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Terrible Beauties: Messianic Time and the Image of Social Redemption in James Cameron's Titanic
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© 1999
PMC 10.1

Mankind, which in Homer's time was an object of contemplation of the Olympian gods, now is one for itself. Its self-alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order. --Walter Benjamin, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction"

The epigraph above comes from the last paragraph of Benjamin's celebrated essay on the movies. Writing on the culture industry some years later, Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno implied that movies could not be true works of art because the latter "are ascetic and unashamed" while "the culture industry is pornographic and prudish" (Dialectic 140). Benjamin took the more radical stand that the term "work of art" has no essential meaning; and concerning the "futile thought" that "had been devoted to the question of whether photography [or film] is an art," he observed that the more significant question had to do with whether such inventions "had not transformed the entire nature of art" (Illuminations 227). He suggested that the work of art has only historical meaning and then proceeded to describe what constitutes the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction. Still, when he described "the shriveling of the aura" in the traditional work of art, he also recognized "the phony smell of the commodity" produced by the money of the film industry. He concluded that "[s]o long as the movie-makers' capital sets the fashion, as a rule no other revolutionary merit can be accredited to today's film than the promotion of a revolutionary criticism of traditional concepts of art." Benjamin was particularly disgusted by the "cult of the movie star," which remains central to Hollywood's promotional strategies. Nonetheless, Benjamin recognized that "in some cases today's films can also promote revolutionary criticism of social conditions, even of the distribution of property" (Illuminations 231). One would like to know exactly which films Benjamin had in mind, but I think it is necessary to grasp the implications of his theory of aesthetic history beyond what may have been his own aesthetic preferences in the field of cinematic art. If traditional concepts of the work of art have been called into question by the movies, then it follows that we cannot prejudge what constitutes "aesthetic value" or a "revolutionary criticism of social conditions" in the cinema. Though we should examine the function of capital in the production of cinematic art, it may also be necessary to see capital as one of the historical conditions of the age of mechanical reproduction that makes revolutionary criticism in the cinema possible. Benjamin developed the concept of the dialectical image to explain the revolutionary potential of the commodity in historical time and used this concept to analyze the revolutionary effect of a historical perception of the Paris arcades. This essay attempts to explore contemporary mass-cultural work from a similar perspective.

When in the epigraph Benjamin refers to the aesthetic pleasure that the masses take from witnessing their own destruction, however, he is not talking about the movies per se but about politics, which by the 1930s in Germany and elsewhere had become almost as spectacular, almost as much of a show, as the movies. In particular, he addresses the most brutal form of politics and yet the form that lends itself most readily to the investments of aesthetic techniques and values -- war. The "property system," as Benjamin names the social arrangements of capitalist society, has impeded "the natural utilization of productive forces" that have been released by technology in the modern world; and, as a result, these forces press for an "unnatural utilization." For example, the futurist Marinetti, one of Mussolini's backers, expected a new art "to supply the artistic gratification of a sense of perception that has been changed by technology" (Illuminations 242). These are the material conditions not only of fascism but of the more general society of the spectacle that has been said to characterize virtually all societies in which "modern conditions of production prevail" (Debord 12). In response to the fascism that he saw aestheticizing politics in the thirties, Benjamin wanted a form of...

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