Aura in the Anthropocene
“The Anthropocene” has been proposed as the name for the geological epoch in which collective human action alters the course of Earth history. It is a neologism that responds primarily to climate change, but also addresses ongoing interventions in the nitrogen and phosphorous cycles, the sixth mass extinction event, and other environmental dynamics of contemporary global society. In the words of some of its most notable scientific proponents, the Anthropocene is “a new phase in the history of both humankind and the Earth, when natural forces and human forces become intertwined, so that the fate of one determines the fate of the other” (Zalasiewicz et al. 2010, 2231).
As this formulation suggests, the Anthropocene is an essentially dialectical concept, requiring us to think together what have usually been understood as distinct orders of being. The Anthropocene’s unprecedented conflations of natural process and human history challenge existing forms of historical understanding, and also the sense of a relatively unassailable natural order underlying those forms. The Anthropocene requires historians, for instance, “to mix together the immiscible chronologies of capital and species history” (Chakrabarty 2009, 220), and to posit an agency operating at the universal level of the human species as a whole—a super-subject beyond all possible subjective experience. For geologists, on the other hand, it requires cross-comparison of the fossil record with the present day, in an effort to read the unceasing flux of our current moment as a petrified past to come (Zalasiewicz et al. 2010, 2230). The Anthropocene deconstructs traditional divisions between timescales (geological and existential), between temporal frames (the deep past and the living present), between objects of knowledge (natural and cultural), and between notions of force, cause and agency (geophysical and political). It calls into question the gulf between the intersubjective world, organized through discursive and technological media—through memory, language, experience and historical action—and the objective order of the natural cosmos.
While the Anthropocene may collapse traditional oppositions, none of these oppositions seemed undeconstructable after poststructuralism, and indeed many appeared philosophically unreliable well before the Anthropocene concept was first introduced in 2000. Nonetheless, knowledge of climate change makes a difference. If theory interpreted the world [End Page 65] differently, the Anthropocene acknowledges that practice changed it. It names a moment when discrepant temporal scales suddenly intersect, and distinct ways of telling time are folded, concretely, into each other. Once familiar notions of historical sequence, of one thing regularly following another of a like order, grow uncertain. In such circumstances, it becomes possible, if only in a speculative spirit, to consider whether the theory of climate change—or, at least, some elements of this theory—may have preceded the event. The case I examine here is Walter Benjamin’s philosophy of history, and in particular its relationship with atmosphere. Benjamin’s concept of aura, I will argue, names a radical ambiguity in historical experience, atmosphere, and practices of reading and citation. This ambiguity or radical doubleness becomes fleetingly perceptible in moments of crisis or emergency, like our own, when breath suddenly intervenes in the reading of history.
In his theses On the Concept of History, Walter Benjamin argues that the past becomes newly legible in moments of historical danger, in what he calls elsewhere “the now of recognizability” (1996-2003, 4:390-91, 183). These critical moments potentially disrupt temporal homogeneity and break with the terms of sequential development, instead blasting an image of the past “out of the continuum of history” (1996-2003, 4:395). The past becomes momentarily available to historical knowledge, and also to radical social change—to revolution. But Benjamin notes the operation of another form of temporal disjunction which, although very similar, must be rigorously distinguished from this revolutionary present that comes charged with the deliverance of the past. Fashion, for example, involves similar short-circuits between past and present: Benjamin remarks that fashion cites bygone modes of dress in much the same way as the French Revolution once cited ancient Rome. What is fashionably new is inevitably a citation of what is archaic and outdated; in fashion, newness itself becomes recurrent and citational, so that fashion is unchanging precisely in its incessant novelty.
The paradoxical temporal structure of fashion leads Benjamin to align fashion in his Arcades Project with Nietzsche’s eternal return of the same, both of which he sees as corresponding to a form of historical experience specific to modernity. In Central Park, he writes that “the idea of eternal recurrence transforms the historical event itself into a mass-produced article” (Benjamin 1996-2003, 4:167). Modern techniques of repetition, citation and reproduction change the shape of time, in a transformation with ambiguous benefits. Citational repetition offers new types of legibility and knowledge of the future. Eternal return, Benjamin notes, was “a dream of the immense discoveries imminent on the field of reproduction technology” (1996-2003, 4:182). The mass-produced citations of fashion, like those of the eternal return, similarly promise “extraordinary anticipations” and “precise contact with the [End Page 66] coming thing” (Benjamin, 1999, B1a, 1).1 But these premonitory gains remain drawn, Benjamin also states, “from the misery of the times” (1996-2003, 4:184). Together, eternal return and fashion frame what Benjamin calls the phantasmagoric “temporality of hell” (1999, B2, 4). Fashion literally mortifies: “every fashion couples the living body to the inorganic,” representing “the rights of the corpse” (B9, 1). By staging a form of novelty in which there is nothing genuinely new, fashion also provides ideological “camouflage for quite specific interests of the ruling class” (B4a, 1). In capitalism, the linear and sequential time of human history becomes indistinguishable for Benjamin from time as cyclical, recurrent, and inorganic. Fashion provides one site where this dialectical identity of seemingly opposed forms of time can be read. Another can be found in Nietzschean eternal return, which Benjamin understands, following Karl Löwith, as a contradictory conflation of human agency and natural fatality.
The Anthropocene concept names a similar dialectic of discrepant temporalities. It too stages a paradoxical identity of divergent ways of organizing and experiencing time, natural and human-historical. In The Arcades Project, Benjamin even describes weather, alongside architecture and fashion, as,
in the interior of the collective, what the sensoria of the organs, the feeling of sickness or health, are inside the individual. And so long as they preserve this unconscious, amorphous dream configuration, they are as much natural processes as digestion, breathing, and the like. They stand in the cycle of the eternally selfsame, until the collective seizes upon them in politics and history emerges.(1999, K1, 5)
Climate change, this passage suggests, potentially marks an epochal threshold in history—a revolutionary opening onto a political history of weather. To date, however, the era of climate change has unmistakably been a period of ideological business as usual. In this sense, as Sven Lütticken has noted, Benjamin’s theory of capitalist time has remained applicable in the Anthropocene, in which
social disasters are naturalized and “natural” disasters are seen as man-made but not open to intervention—society in turn being perceived as subject to quasi-natural fatality. In this context the time of capitalist modernity unfolds as a dialectic of cataclysmic repetitions and a linearity whose apparent inevitability is itself mythical, as Benjamin saw very clearly. If the culture industry’s repetitions can register and suggest change, then change itself becomes another form of mythical fate.(Lütticken 2007, 122) [End Page 67]
In this deadlocked historical sleep-state, climate change appears as permanent catastrophe. No adequate temporal categories can be found for framing what Lütticken calls a “fundamental alternative to the suggestion that the course taken by nature due to human activities is as inevitable and unchangeable as the trajectory of society itself” (122).
For Benjamin, Baudelaire is the exemplary poet of modernity because he reinvents poetry from within this condition of historical standstill, lyricizing the erosion of lyric particularity. Benjamin identifies a similarly paradoxical logic involved in thinking eternal return within modernity, so that Nietzsche’s conception of it “breaks the cycle of eternal return by confirming it” (1996-2003, 4:97). And while the temporal structure of capitalism is for Benjamin citational, recurrent, and inorganic, the practice of historical citation can nonetheless anticipate and fracture the fatal return of this alienated, dead time, as is suggested by Benjamin’s own critical techniques of citation and montage. The “tiger’s leap into the past” that is taken by fashion, Benjamin writes, can also be undertaken dialectically; this occurs when it is staged in what he calls “the open air of history” (unter den freien Himmel der Geschichte) (1996-2003, 4:395). Through such aerial leaps, the past can be brought to intervene in the current historical moment, because what is at stake in the present includes the redemption of the past. This imbues the present with what Benjamin famously identifies as a “weak messianic power” (emphasis in original):
The past carries with it a secret index by which it is referred to redemption. Doesn’t a breath of the air that pervaded earlier days caress us as well? In the voices we hear, isn’t there an echo of now silent ones? … If so, then there is a secret agreement between past generations and the present one.(1996-2003, 4:390)
The aerial terminology Benjamin uses to describe this index from the past to the present links Benjamin’s philosophy of history to his analysis of aesthetic aura. For aura, as many commentators have noted, is atmospheric, something that is breathed. In his essay on “The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility,” Benjamin even remarks that, with gas warfare, society “has found a new means of abolishing the aura” (1996-2003, 4:270)—a statement anticipated in a 1925 essay when he writes that “the coming war… that of gaswar from the air, will be a truly ‘breathtaking’ gamble in an unprecedented sense of the word” (1972-1989, 4:473). In what follows, I examine how Benjamin’s aerial language of aura and history reworks Nietzsche’s atmospheric register in his essay on The Use and Abuse of History for Life, and also draws on the atmospheric Romanticism which stands behind that text. In particular, Benjamin appropriates Nietzsche’s articulation of an “unhistorical atmosphere” that abridges the illusory continuities of historicism, and instead allows for the emergence of the new under the sign of a return to—or breath from—the past (Nietzsche 1990, 92). My aim here is to open aura to the Anthropocene by returning philologically [End Page 68] to these atmospheric sources. Aura, I will suggest, is an atmospheric medium of transhistorical communication. Aura introduces cuts, discontinuities, into the air we breathe. As aura, atmosphere becomes citable; the air specific to distant times and places becomes breathable here and now. Aura reformulates atmosphere in temporal terms, as a disjunctive and heterogeneous period of air.
If our moment of danger is named the Anthropocene, what has become newly recognizable in the past might well appear to be atmosphere itself. In recent years, Peter Sloterdijk, Gernot Böhme, Jan Golinski, Vladimir Janković, Alan Bewell, Steven Connor, Mary Favret, Jayne Lewis, and others have refocused attention on the philosophical and cultural history of atmosphere, rolling back what Luce Irigaray could once condemn as philosophy’s “forgetting of air.” Collectively, these writers have provided a history of atmosphere and atmospheric thinking in modernity—indeed, of atmosphere as a central medium through which modernity has both understood itself and come into being. They have repositioned atmosphere historically as an aesthetic dimension, a space of sensuous cognition, an agency of cultural mediation, a material body of thought.
Climate change has impelled much of this research into atmosphere and modernity. But cultural theory’s atmospheric turn has also been an attempt to come to terms with the fate of art in the age of aesthetic ubiquity. Böhme presents his ecological aesthetics of atmosphere, for instance, as a response to what he calls “the progressive aestheticization of reality” (1993, 125), a phenomenon in which the aesthetic spills out of the artworld into all spheres of life from everyday social practices to the natural environment. The French philosopher Yves Michaud has similarly diagnosed our situation as one in which art has entered a “gaseous state” (l’état gazeux), melting into air. In Michaud’s analysis, contemporary interest has shifted from the individual work of art, with its intrinsic material properties, history, and determinate form, to dematerialized aesthetic experiences. This account of contemporary art as increasingly engaged in the production of immersive atmospheres seems at least plausible, borne out by such spectacular instances as Olafur Eliasson’s The Weather Project and the Diller & Scofidio Blur Pavilion, but equally by such vogues as that of large-format, massively enlarged, lightboxed photography. For Böhme and Michaud, as the aesthetic vaporizes, becoming fluid, ethereal, and atmospheric, it also becomes ever-present. No longer tethered to the particularity of any given art-object, aestheticization instead pervades social life through design, marketing, decoration, cosmetics and so on—in short, as the inescapable and ever-expanding phantasmagoria of fashion.
Böhme attributes the earliest theory of this atmospheric aestheticization of reality to Benjamin, who describes it in his “Work of Art” essay under the [End Page 69] formula of the “aestheticization of politics” (Böhme, 1993, 116). In that essay, Benjamin identifies aura as the numinous presence traditionally associated with the work of art—a complex of the artwork’s unique material location and its elusive surplus of meaning—which is eroded in modernity. The fascist aestheticization of politics involves the fabrication or staging of aura after the fact of aura’s disintegration. This distinction between decaying aura and simulated aura is first articulated in Benjamin’s writings on photography. In his “Little History of Photography” essay, Benjamin describes aura as a quality of early photographs that incites the
irresistible urge to search a picture for the tiny spark of contingency, of the here and now, with which reality has (so to speak) seared the subject, to find the inconspicuous spot where in the immediacy of that long-forgotten moment the future nests so eloquently that we, looking back, may rediscover it(1996-2003, 2:510).
Aura is what mediates this backward photographic glance into the future, this return to the immediacy of a long-forgotten moment. And despite Benjamin’s focus in this essay on the photographic image and on vision more generally, Benjamin’s visual vocabulary is supplemented throughout by an atmospheric register whenever he turns to aura. He writes, for instance, of the “breathy halo” (1996-2003, 2:517) sometimes captured on old plates, or of the “air of permanence” (1996-2003, 2:514) that has seeped auratically into the folds of the philosopher’s jacket in a photographic portrait of Schelling. Aura even appears to involve some commerce between image and atmosphere, an interchange between eye and lung. “What is aura?” Benjamin asks:
While at rest on a summer’s noon, to trace a range of mountains on the horizon, or a branch that throws its shadow on the observer, until the moment or the hour become part of their appearance—this is what it means to breathe the aura of those mountains, that branch.(1996-2003, 2:518-9)
Benjamin argues that, almost from its first photographic mediation, this auratic atmosphere begins to be banished both from the photographic image and also from reality itself. Aura’s decay is impelled by technical developments that include the growing cultural power of technological reproducibility, and by changes in class relations—in short, by the emergence of mass society. Faced with aura’s decline amidst “the deepening degeneration of the imperialist bourgeoisie,” commercial photographers begin to simulate aura around 1880 (1996-2003, 2:517). Avant-garde photographers conversely undertake the active liquidation of aura, so that the photographs of Eugene Atget, Benjamin writes, “suck the aura out of reality like water from a sinking ship” (1996-2003, 2:518). For Miriam Hansen, this distinction between aura and its simulation remains crucial for the interpretation of Benjamin’s subsequent writings on history, technology, and aesthetics. It is a distinction, [End Page 70] she argued, that needs to be suspected and indeed hypothetically posited even where it is apparently absent or effaced in Benjamin’s writings. For Hansen, “the historical and political dilemma that Benjamin sought to confront” involved
the extent to which “genuine” aura was compromised by the industrial and totalitarian simulation of auratic effects and yet, at the same time, contained structural elements indispensable to reimagining experience in a secularized, collective, and technologically mediated form.
Benjamin’s texts can then be read as strategic attempts to retrieve and uphold the critical potentiality of aura against its simulations. It becomes possible, for example, to recognize how Benjamin’s distinction between aura on the one hand as the recovered “immediacy of that long-forgotten moment,” and on the other as the commodified and simulated atmospherics of the retouched photograph, returns in his later distinction between the redemptive citation of the past that takes place in the open air of history, and the eternally recursive forms of historical citation undertaken by fashion.
What underlies the distinction between genuine and simulated aura is the phenomenon of auratic distance. Aura, Benjamin writes, is “the unique appearance or semblance of distance, no matter how close it may be” (1996-2003, 2:518). Moving away from auratic distance and towards the simulation of aura, as Robert Kaufman describes it, is then
a movement away from experiences of formal suspension or negation (away from experiences of a provisional, enabling distance from the reigning concepts of presently existing society) and toward affirmation, positivity and—especially in terms of art and aesthetic experience—immediacy vis-à-vis ruling concepts and the social status quo.(Kaufman 2002, 66n.3; emphasis in original)
Crucially, auratic distance is as much temporal as spatial. Aura, in Benjamin’s words, is “a strange weave of space and time”—that is to say, it is atmospheric (1996-2003, 2:518). Because temporality is an inherent dimension of auratic distance, aura can be understood in part as an atmosphere standing at a distance from itself in terms of time. Aura, that is, is atmosphere seized in historical citation, as the buried linguistic correspondence between Benjamin’s word “weave” (Gespinst) and textuality, and its echoes of ghost (Gespenst), might suggest. Aura, available in natural beauty as in artworks, is for Benjamin an aesthetic phenomenon; it is a sensory, embodied experience of reflective perception made available through breathing. But the aesthetic possibilities aura offers—which for Hansen include “temporal disjunction” and “the shocklike confrontation with an alien self” (2012, 113), and which are encoded in atmospheric citability—remain keyed to the possibility of reality’s internal distance from itself. Aura cracks open the seamless totality [End Page 71] of the present, interpolating disjunctive gusts of inspiration from other historical moments.
Simulated aura operates in the same atmospheric and aesthetic space as aura itself. The thesis of the progressive aestheticization of reality—which interprets our present as a global becoming-atmosphere—plays out the endgame of Benjamin’s decay of aura. As everyday reality, aesthetic experience, and atmosphere converge, all three of these fields become increasingly illegible in terms of temporality, and increasingly resistant to temporal fracture. Perhaps in consequence, space has formed the primary dimension for the cultural analysis of atmosphere to date. Sloterdijk’s Spheres trilogy, for example, is a work inscribed under the sign of geometry, and is positioned as a Being and Space to counterbalance Heidegger’s Being and Time (1999a, 13, 345). For Sloterdijk, “the primary production of any and every society” is “the symbolic climatisation of common space” (Die symbolische Klimatisierung des gemeinsamen Raumes ist die Urproduktion jeder Gesellschaft) (1999a, 47-48). Viewed in these terms, Benjamin appears relevant to climate change primarily as an architectural historian of the Crystal Palace (Sloterdijk, 2004, 344-46). For Böhme, atmosphere is similarly spatial: it is “the space of emotions, the space of moods” (2010, 67); on this basis poetry can be interpreted as “a spatial art” (2010, 64) and music as a “spatial phenomenon” (raumliches Phänomen) (1995, 9). But as Timothy Morton has suggested, what is overlooked by such spatialized conceptions of atmosphere is différance—atmosphere’s citational capacity to enact internal temporal disjunctions and self-distantiations. Atmosphere, Morton writes:
is inevitably not only spatial but also temporal. A shower of rain is atmospherically different if you stand in it for two hours, as opposed to five minutes. The “same” atmosphere is never the “same” as itself… atmosphere is subject to the same paradox as identity—it does for weather what identity does for the idea of the self.(2007, 166)
Benjamin’s concept of aura reinvests atmosphere with time and disjunctive historicity. His entwining of atmosphere and temporality draws on many sources: on the mystical thinking of Ludwig Klages and Karl Wolfskehl, for example, but also on the modernist atmospherics of Kafka; on kabbalistic theories, but also on Goethe and other canonical German Romantics. Nietzsche provides a further, critical source for the notion that aura atmospherically enacts a temporal distance, that it enshrines an inherent and irreversible historicity. What often seems absent in contemporary ambient or immersive aesthetic atmospheres, and overlooked in current atmospheric theories, is precisely this apprehension of an irreducible temporal distance. [End Page 72]
For Foucault, the Nietzschean method of effective history “studies what is closest, but in an abrupt dispossession, so as to seize it at a distance” (1980, 156). Nietzsche thereby inverts “the relationship that traditional history, in its dependence on metaphysics, establishes between proximity and distance” (155). Nietzsche’s paradoxical entanglement of near and far, identified here by Foucault, was a critical source for Benjamin’s rethinking of the forms of historical experience. Indeed, it was partly via Nietzsche that Benjamin’s concept of aura reached back to draw inspiration from Romantic notions of distance. Novalis provides perhaps the best-known expression: “in the distance, everything becomes poetry. Actio in distans. Distant mountains, distant human beings, distant events etc. all become romantic” (2007, 51-52). Distance was Romantic for Novalis and his contemporaries not least because it brought air into view as a medium of perception and communication. If the distances of distant mountains were atmospheric—for Wordsworth, say, or Keats, or Caspar David Friedrich—so too were the interior distances of conceptual self-reflection and aesthetic defamiliarization for these same artists. Novalis agreed, writing that philosophy “begins with a breath” (250, n.247) and that “the theory of thought corresponds to meteorology” (20). Breath brought distance into the interior of the body; atmosphere conveyed thought’s nonconceptuality into the interior of thought. In works such as Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind,” Ludwig Tieck’s Journey into the Blue Distance, and many, many others, atmospheric mediation even came to figure as the exemplary object of Romantic desire.
It is as if air were a common element of British and German Romanticism: in the traditions of both languages, the intertwining of atmosphere and distance is everywhere to be found. And atmospheric distance was central not only to Romantic art and aesthetics, but also to the philosophical understandings of matter that were being articulated in this period, as the modern disciplines of atmospheric science emerged from natural philosophy. Herder’s aerology, for example, was primarily based on the principles of British atmospheric philosophy, while Goethe’s later enthusiastic reception of Luke Howard’s cloud theory speaks to a continuing cultural exchange. Lichtenberg, whose lectures were attended by Novalis, drew support from English pneumatic medicine to argue that the body is surrounded by an atmospheric zone of metabolic exchange, an environing aura in which “pure, dephlogisticated air is transformed in much same manner as by in- and exhalation” (1974, 265)—a theory, he added, that, like French revolutionary politics, promised the imminent return of Paradise. The chemist Michael Faraday represented a late or culminating figure in this school of thought: Faraday notably appealed to atmospheric thinking to address the problem of action at a distance, arguing in 1844 that the atom, rather than being a solid nugget of matter, impenetrable and of definite extension, may in fact be “an atmosphere of force” (1844, 290). Still detectable in Faraday’s atmospheric language here is [End Page 73] the influence of “pneumatic chemistry,” a late eighteenth-century conjunction of natural philosophy, dissenting theology and radical political materialism in which the natural-physical and social-communicative dimensions of distance remained inextricably interlinked—as is suggested by the contemporary range of meanings of the word “pneumatics” itself, which referred both to the study of the physical atmosphere and to the study of souls and other spiritual substances. Faraday’s “atmosphere of force” recalls, for instance, the atmospheric materialism of Joseph Priestley’s Disquisitions on Matter and Spirit of 1777, and the later investigations of atmospheric psychology at the Bristol Pneumatic Institution undertaken by Thomas Beddoes and Humphry Davy, the mentor of Faraday’s early career.
In scholastic thought, action at a distance had been considered impossible for all beings with the sole exception of God. Newtonian gravitation, which involved bodies interacting across an interstellar void, secularized this divine power, inaugurating a series of eighteenth-century metaphysical and theological disputes. So Newton was criticized by Leibniz, for instance, for introducing a crypto-Catholic natural supernaturalism into the understanding of nature, seeing Newtonian gravitation as in effect the doctrine of transubstantiation extended to cover all matter (1951, 85-86). To put this crudely, Newtonian action at a distance and the Leibnizian principle of continuity formed the two parts of the problem to which atmospheric thinking provided Faraday, following Priestley and others, with a solution. Newtonian action at a distance presumes that forces are communicated without there being anything to communicate them. It represents the impossible attempt to understand the world in the absence of all mediation—an attempt which is impossible not least because it falls victim to a performative contradiction. The alternative position, that of cosmic plenitude, requires a neutral universal medium, such as “the ether,” that transmits forces and yet is independent of the forces it transmits and entirely independent of the material bodies for which it provides the medium. By definition, no evidence of the existence of such a wholly immanent and indifferent medium would be possible.
The problem is that of how to hold together discontinuity and communication together in a single thought: of how to overcode the continuum of relations with the disjunctions that allow for discrete periods and identities. Faraday and Priestley accomplished this by replacing substance with a notion of atmosphere as the ultimate physical substrate of materiality. Here the action of one body is not communicated across a distance to another body, nor is it conveyed by some intangible and wholly independent ether. Rather, a body is seen as a regional and temporal condensation of its own medium. Causation must be reimagined not as one thing bumping into another—as collisions taking place on a cosmic billiard table—but as the disjunctive interaction of atmospheric microclimates. So atmospheric distance is discovered at work within every identity, even down to the atomic foundations of matter. Equally, because for Faraday the atom is in itself nothing but atmospheric distance, its potential influence extends to [End Page 74] the limits of the universe. Atmosphere can act over any distance because it contains distance, because it acts as the primary medium of distance. Parallel conjunctions of singularity and universal communicability are easy to find within Romantic atmospheric conceptions of poetic meaning, of aesthetic experience, and of critical interpretation, as M. H. Abrams demonstrated in the British case, and as more recent scholarship has suggested in the case of German Romanticism.2
Nietzsche recovers the temporal ramifications of this Romantic-period rethinking of atmospheric distance for his critique of historicism. By correlating the notions of cut and contact, of disjunction and communication, atmospheric action at a distance establishes the structural preconditions necessary for historical citability. So against those historical traditions that, in Foucault’s words, aim at “dissolving the singular event into an ideal continuity” (1980, 139)—whether that continuity is understood as a linear teleological movement or as a cyclical, natural process—contrary to both of these, Nietzsche invokes action at a distance to communicate “the singularity of events outside of any monotonous finality” (Foucault 1980, 154).
In The Use and Abuse of History, Nietzsche locates this historical singularity in what he terms the “unhistorical atmosphere” (1990, 92) that encompasses an act, text, or artwork. The unhistorical, he states, can be compared with
an enveloping atmosphere; within its confines alone is life engendered, only to disappear again with the annihilation of this atmosphere…What could a man possibly accomplish without first entering that vaporous region of the unhistorical?…This condition—unhistorical, antihistorical through and through—is the womb not only of any unjust act, but of every just act as well.(91)
While unhistorical atmosphere can become intermittently available to historical knowledge, historical readings that preclude the temporal abridgements of the unhistorical fall victim to the interrelated maladies of monumentalism, antiquarianism, and hypercriticism. They multiply “effects without sufficient causes” (98); they view the past as “mere image, form without demonstrable content” (111); they strip actuality and effectivity from historical texts, so that “at no point does the work produce an effect, but always and only another critique; and the critique itself has no effect in turn” (112).
In these and related ways, historicism destroys the power of the text, artwork or deed by dissolving it in pure knowledge, thereby robbing the past of its capacity to act on the present. Historicism remains transfixed by the empirical continuities through which a text or artwork was passed down across historical time. What is occluded in consequence is the singularity [End Page 75] of the unhistorical atmosphere in which that text or artwork first came into being, the hour or moment that marks its presence:
Imagine transporting a few of these modern biographers to the birthplace of Christianity or the Lutheran Reformation; their sober, pragmatic curiosity would just suffice to make any kind of ghostly actio in distans impossible… Every living thing needs an atmosphere, a mysterious aura (Dunstkreis); if this covering is removed, if a religion, an art, a genius is condemned to circle as a star without atmosphere, it is no wonder that they quickly become dried up, hardened, and unfruitful.(Nietzsche, 1990, 121; translation altered.)
Recalling Novalis, Nietzsche writes of unhistorical atmosphere as a necessary condition of any “ghostly action at a distance” (geisterhafte actio in distans). Unhistorical atmosphere installs a temporal distance, even from what appears closest. It instantiates the distance that it bridges, and it acts in the distance it installs. The atmospheric mediation of the past proceeds via such unhistorical distantiations, disjunctions, and negations. Traditional historicism, by contrast, condemns creativity—condemns change—to the repetitive round of “a star without atmosphere.”
Scholars have long acknowledged Nietzsche to be a critical source for Benjamin’s philosophy of history: Benjamin even cites The Use and Abuse of History in his 12th thesis On the Concept of History (Pfotenhauer 1978, 100-126). Less recognized has been the fact that aspects of Benjamin’s concept of aura are likewise inspired by Nietzsche—aura both as the unique breath conveyed by an artwork, and as a breath from the past that becomes perceptible in the present, and is perhaps even capable of being brought into being via citational practices of reading. Indeed, Benjamin employs just such a citational reading in his reworking of Nietzsche, drawing out a critical ambiguity in Nietzsche’s phrase “a star without atmosphere.” And similar strategies can be found at work in the appropriation and repurposing of atmospheric Romanticism by Baudelaire and other lyric poets discussed in terms of “aura.” In such ways, auratic citation, for Benjamin, provides language with the means to fracture the impermeable carapace of the present, opening it to a breath of other times and other forms of time.
The Work of Art in the Anthropocene
In The Use and Abuse of History, Nietzsche speculatively describes a third possible perspective on history, neither that of the historicist, nor that of someone immersed in a singular unhistorical atmosphere. This is the perspective of someone capable of sensing the unhistorical atmosphere of all periods, someone who views history from a “suprahistorical vantage [End Page 76] point” (1990, 92; emphasis in original). For such a person, Nietzsche writes, the world would appear “complete, fully consummated, at every single moment” (93). Past and present would be “archetypically equivalent in all their diversity,” constituted by “omnipresent, imperishable types” that figure “motionless forms of unchanging value and eternally equal meaning” (93). Two years earlier, in his incomplete Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks, Nietzsche had used the phrase “a star without atmosphere” to describe Heraclitus as someone aerially occupying precisely this suprahistorical vantage-point: Heraclitus “does not know where he is to stand if not on the widely spread wings of all time” (1911, 112). Like the suprahistorical observer of Nietzsche’s History essay, Heraclitus, in Nietzsche’s earlier words, “illuminates the entire historical experience of peoples and of individuals from within himself” (93). Later, in Ecce Homo, Nietzsche will write that “the doctrine of the ‘eternal recurrence,’ that is, of the unconditional and infinitely repeated circular course of all things—this doctrine of Zarathustra might in the end have been taught already by Heraclitus” (1989, 273-74). On the one hand, then, a star without atmosphere is for Nietzsche someone asphyxiated by historical knowledge, someone for whom the present time constitutes an inescapable historicist totality that is linearly continuous with past and future developments, leaving no room for innovation, deviation, or creation, no possibility of a swerve into genuine novelty. On the other hand, “a star without atmosphere” is someone Heraclitan, someone who stands above all possible present moments and understands time in terms approaching those of eternal return. So Nietzsche’s phrase “star without atmosphere” is radically ambiguous. Split between these two texts, it describes apparently irreconcilable experiences of time. It corresponds both to a present that is immovably bound to inevitable linear development, and to the timeless frozen churn of cosmic circularity.
Benjamin cites this phrase of Nietzsche, “a star without atmosphere,” in the final words of his late essay “On some Motifs in Baudelaire.” Baudelaire, Benjamin writes:
named the price for which the sensation of modernity could be had: the disintegration of the aura in immediate shock experience. He paid dearly for consenting to this disintegration—but it is the law of his poetry. This poetry appears in the sky of the Second Empire as “a star without atmosphere.”(1996-2003, 4:343)
It remains uncertain precisely which Nietzsche text Benjamin refers to with this citation, the essay on history or the essay on Heraclitus. He was certainly familiar with both, citing both in writings from this period. The editors of Benjamin’s Selected Writings (1996-2003, 4:344n.96) and of his Gesammlte Schriften (1972-89, 1:653n.94) variously attribute the quotation to the two different Nietzsche texts. But in the context of Benjamin’s reading of Baudelaire, it seems plausible to suggest that Benjamin is in fact citing both of these texts at once in a doubled or split act of citation. The star [End Page 77] without atmosphere would then mark the paradoxical identity of cataclysmic recurrence and mythically inevitable linearity. What is doubly impossible in this compound temporal condition of foreseeable catastrophe, in which time’s cycle is fused with time’s arrow, is the sudden auratic upsurge of unhistorical atmosphere, or what Benjamin calls in this essay the “breath of prehistory” (1996-2003, 4:336). Stripped of its internal distance from itself and rendered temporally homogeneous, the air of the present is sealed off from the operations of atmospheric action at distance. Atmosphere loses its citability. And so the world reverts, Benjamin writes, “to a mere state of nature” (1996-2003, 4:336)—a nature indistinguishable from the human history of the present.
In Walter Benjamin’s Other History, Beatrice Hanssen discusses Benjamin’s concept of “natural history” as one in which singularity and repetition are no longer understood as “mutually exclusive. Thus he suggested that the conventional borders between natural history and world history vanished because the so-called dialectical principle of repetition could be seen to transpire in both realms” (1998, 43). As we have seen, in Benjamin’s writing this naturalized world history—or anthropogenic natural history—acquires a sharply ambiguous edge. On the one hand, it describes the temporal dialectic of commodity production, the dual temporality of the star without atmosphere, which comes to dominate all forms of historical experience within capitalism. Here, “the novelty of products—as stimulus to demand—is accorded an unprecedented importance. At the same time, the eversame is manifest in mass production” (1999, J56a, 10). But on the other hand, as Hanssen writes, this “crossing of boundaries” also corresponds to “the redemption of ahistoric, mythic nature by a Jewish history of revelation” (1998, 43). Such redemption for Benjamin involves a discontinuous leap through the air of history, a cut in atmospheric time that is responsive to the aesthetic mediations of aura. Although his language for the “now of recognisability” is largely cinematic—the “now” is most often understood as an image that flashes up fleetingly in moments of emergency—it remains doubled, like aura, by a persistent and irreducible atmospheric register. And the contrary state, the empty time into which redemption might burst, is also atmospheric for Benjamin. He locates it in weather, architecture, and fashion—in art and life in the airless absence of aura. The analysis of the present-day in terms of the progressive aestheticization of reality describes the everpresence of this simulated aura, this atmosphere of no atmosphere.
Amongst the categories thrown into confusion in the Anthropocene are those of aesthetics. In Hegel’s summary of the post-Kantian aesthetic tradition, artistic beauty provides a means “to dissolve and reduce to unity the…opposition and contradiction between the abstractly self-concentrated spirit and nature” (1975, 1:56). This distinction between natural history and human historicity, this “opposition and contradiction” between nature and spirit, is precisely what is eroded in the Anthropocene. The Anthropocene Earth is one in which subjective human agency and objective natural [End Page 78] process have become newly continuous, ever more incapable of being disentangled. In these terms, the aestheticization of reality takes on a newly concrete menace in the Anthropocene, as if the Earth itself had now acquired the status, not of a work of art, but of the total aestheticized Other of art. Throughout his writings on aura, Benjamin repeatedly focuses attention on art that, in Adorno’s later gloss, has learnt “to incorporate its own decline” (Adorno 1997, 320). Such artworks acknowledge the compulsion to create art despite artistic creation itself having become in some sense impossible. One name for this impossibility is the aestheticization of reality; another, more recent, is the Anthropocene. When everything is aesthetic, nothing can be art. When every cloud betrays the hand of technology, and can be recognised as in part an artificial product, then the contradiction between nature and spirit is always already annulled, leaving no work for the work of art itself. In this sense, Böhme’s refusal to allow any sharp distinction between art and non-art in his ecological theory of atmosphere is entirely logically consistent (1993, 116). In an atmosphere without différance, the atmosphere of art is everywhere, art itself nowhere. For Benjamin and Adorno, however, art’s riposte to the aestheticization of reality involves art internalising its own negation, its own demise. Art, that is, can survive such breathless immediacy only by accelerating the process of its own asphyxiation.
Poetics, and specifically the lyric poetry of Baudelaire, provides Benjamin’s most extended study of such anti-aesthetic art. Adorno, writing decades later, identifies Paul Celan as another post-auratic lyric poet, whose poems
imitate a language beneath the helpless language of human beings, indeed beneath all organic language: It is that of the dead speaking of stones and stars… what Benjamin noted in Baudelaire, that his poetry is without aura, comes into its own in Celan’s work.(1997, 322)
And yet, when Celan himself comes to reflect on poetics, he makes clear that this inorganic language can only be mediated atmospherically. In his essay “The Meridian,” Celan draws on Benjamin’s concept of aura to define poetry as a “breathturn” (1978, 35), an aerial folding that produces self-estrangement, “a distance from the I” (33). Reading Adorno and Celan together, modern poetry might then appear as the atmospheric citation of this indifference of atmosphere. Lyric poetry, that is, installs a discontinuity in our atmosphere; it enacts a break in the weather. Poetry for Celan turns breath back in upon itself, in a self-reflexive movement corresponding to the complex atmospheric topology of aura. For aura is perpetually engaged in self-differentiation. It is, as Samuel Weber writes, “always constituted in a process of self-detachment” (1996, 87; emphasis in original). Aura is generated by movements of de-auraticization and re-auraticization that draw and re-draw its citations from the encroaching general aestheticized atmosphere. Perhaps this is why aura first becomes perceptible in the age of its decline. For we can understand this decline as the temporal motor of aura itself, as [End Page 79] if aura were nothing other than the citation of its own disappearance—a disappearance which takes the paradoxical form of its ubiquitous simulation.
For Benjamin, the aspect of aura that Baudelaire most thoroughly eradicates from his poetry involves the humanization of nature. Aura here could be understood as something like a pathetic fallacy: “a response characteristic of human relationships is transposed onto the relations between humans and inanimate or natural objects” (1996-2003, 4:338). When we look at nature, that is, we imagine that nature looks back. Baudelaire dispels this aura, Benjamin argues, thereby refusing any consoling fantasies of an answerable natural world. Instead, his poetry communicates reified, “historyless” time (1996-2003, 4:335). Baudelaire reverses the auratic cliché: in his poetry, the lack of responsiveness that characterizes inanimate or natural objects is transposed onto human relationships. “Words too can have an aura of their own,” Benjamin states (1996-2003, 4:354n.77). But Baudelaire’s poetry handles words as natural objects, so that language is de-auraticized, presented as inanimate, inorganic, and natural. In such ways, Baudelaire’s poetry destroys its own medium, human language. And yet it is precisely through such paradoxical reversals and negations that aura performs its function of fracturing the present, opening it to the mobilization of the breath of other histories.
Baudelaire cites the atmosphere of the present—of the “historyless” present—and thereby re-marks it with temporal discontinuity, that is, with the possibility of history. In Benjamin’s own theory of aura and practice of literary citation, similar strategies of internal division and self-differentiation are at work. Benjamin’s doubled citation of Nietzsche provides only one example, in which he reintroduces a breath between the two senses of “star without atmosphere” in order to disclose their secret identity in the temporal dialectic of capitalism. Such strategies—aesthetic and critical—acquire a new urgency in the Anthropocene. The disjunctive temporalities of aura take on an unexpected atmospheric salience for the cultural history of climate change. Examples of recent weather poetry from such poets as Lisa Robertson and Kenneth Goldsmith suggest that differential citation remains crucial for the lyric communication of our own atmospheric predicament. Whether the Anthropocene will form the stage for a leap into the open air of history is another question.
Aura in the Anthropocene
One of the causes of the photographic decline of aura in the 1880s identified by Benjamin is technical: shorter exposure times. Once their subjects were liberated from enforced composure, portraits began to lose their aura, prompting commercial photography to simulate aura with effects of “penumbral tone” and “artificial highlights” (1996-2003, 2:517). Eugene Atget, by contrast, responded by erasing the human presence from his [End Page 80] frames, focusing instead on empty cityscapes, abandoned street-scenes, and closed-up buildings. “It is no accident that Atget’s photographs have been likened to those of a crime scene”, Benjamin wrote: “isn’t every square inch of our cities a crime scene? Every passer-by a culprit?” (1996-2003, 2:527). In their paradoxical eradication of aura, Atget’s photos foreshadowed later Surrealist images that, in Benjamin’s words, “bring the immense forces of ‘atmosphere’ concealed in these things to the point of explosion” (1996-2003, 2:210).
Although Benjamin does not discuss this, shorter exposure times also made it technically possible to photograph the fleeting atmospheric appearances of clouds, which is why the heroic age of meteorological photography fell precisely in these same years. Like Atget’s cityscapes, the cloud-filled frames of such photographers as Ralph Abercromby and Albert Riggenbach are unoccupied, devoid of human presence. Even the horizon-line often drops away, deterritorialising the atmosphere. After climate change, we can no longer overlook the fact that these cloud photographs of the 1880s and ‘90s likewise depict a crime scene. But perhaps we can now also see them as auratically disjointed, distancing themselves from us even as we identify in them the likeness of our own predicament, in a complex temporal double movement through which the forces of atmospheres past may be summoned into the present. They are images of aura in the Anthropocene.
Thomas H. Ford is a Lecturer in English and Theatre Studies at the University of Melbourne. His current research focuses on the cultural history of atmosphere in the romantic period.