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  • The Aura of Recognition: Walter Benjamin and Kaja Silverman on the Aestheticization of Politics
  • Eric Wilson (bio)

In The Threshold of the Visible World Kaja Silverman gives a reading of Walter Benjamin’s concept of the “aura” designed to provide an account of the filmic aesthetics of subject-positioning that might form the basis of a pluralistic conception of the political. I argue first that the political impulse of her reading is best understood in the light of the current discussion surrounding the “politics of recognition.” Second, I argue that she misconstrues the original political significance of the concept of aura by ignoring or overlooking the specific methodological function of this concept in Benjamin’s “materialistic theory of art,” an approach that is directly opposed to the notion of aesthetics with which she operates.

I wish only to point out that you and I are always-already subjects, and as such constantly practice the rituals of ideological recognition, which guarantee for us that we are indeed concrete, individual, distinguishable and (naturally) irreplaceable subjects.


In 1935 Walter Benjamin ended what has become his best known essay with the following sloganistic pronouncement:

Mankind, which was in the age of Homer an object of contemplation for the Olympian gods, has now become 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. This is how it stands with the aestheticization of politics that Fascism pursues. Communism responds by politicizing art

(“The Work of Art,” 242).[1]

This densely packed formulation has been endlessly cited but perhaps not as often understood. We should begin by noticing that the passage makes several distinct but interrelated claims. First there is the historical claim that now — the age or era (Zeitalter) in which the essay was written — mankind has become an “object of contemplation” for itself. Hitched to this claim is that this particular relation mankind has to itself, in which it sees itself, amounts to its Selbstentfremdung. And, from this point follows the claim that this situation makes it possible for mankind to witness “its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order.” This, in turn, anticipates the next sentence, where Benjamin presents his well-known description of Fascism as the “aestheticization of politics.” As a conclusion we get the claim that Communism directly responds to Fascism by “politicizing art.”

Though the argument this passage from Benjamin summarizes is complex, it should at least be clear that his understanding of these two political forms follows from his initial historical claim. He takes both forms to be responses to a particular historical situation, which is defined in terms of the way in which human beings “see themselves.” For this reason it seems wise to get clear about the stakes of the first claim. With the following essay I would like to try and provide what I take to be the proper framework for doing so. To this end, I shall explore the link between this claim (that mankind has become an object of contemplation for itself) and Benjamin’s theory of the “aura” through a critical reading of Kaja Silverman’s recent interpretation of the latter concept.[2] Let me bring this into sharper focus by citing the passage that makes the link between Benjamin’s historical claim and his theory of aura clear. In a footnote to the “work of art” essay, he writes: “Mass reproduction is aided especially by the reproduction of the masses. In big parades and monster rallies, in sports events, and in war, all of which nowadays are captured by camera and sound recording, the masses are brought face to face with themselves” (251). I take this to be Benjamin’s most explicit formulation of the notion that twentieth century mass politics (“reproduction of the masses”) must be understood in its relation to the development of artistic technology (“mass reproduction”). To summarize his argument crudely, the reason why is that modern forms of political organization rely in part on their ability to legitimate their claims to serve the interests of the populace. And among the mechanisms for doing so are those which...

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