Updating Benjamin

Bill Nichols: "The Work of Culture in the Age of Cybernetic Systems" (1988)
Henning Ritter: "Toward the Artwork Essay, Second Version"
Antoine Hennion & Bruno Latour: "How to Make Mistakes on So Many Things at Once -and Become Famous for It"


HEAVY RAIN: http://www.heavyrainps3.com/ (official web site)


Heavy Rain is a recently released video game for Playstation 3. It is not a usual game but a sort of fusion of movie and traditional video game. There isn’t a linear gameplay or a set of missions you are supposed to clear to get further into the game like in traditional games. The game is created more like a movie than a computer game.
As you can check out on the official web site there are four characters you can play. If one of your characters dies, you don’t start over from the top or at some checkpoint, you just move on to the next character and the death of the other is integrated into the gamestory. This opens the possibility of multiple endings and interaction, and also a feeling of a more serious consequence if a character dies. In that way the game is a story that you can interact with (of course within predefined limits).

BILL NICHOLS: “The work of culture in the age of cybernetic systems”

Nichols’ text is not as much a critique of Benjamin as an update of some of Benjamin’s key points expressed in his essay: The work of Art in the Age of Mechanical reproduction (1936).
There is a shift from film (discussed in Benjamin’s theory) to video games and other simulation medias (new media) which are discussed by Nichols. Thereby we experience a shift from a fetishization of the object (film) to a fetishization of the process of interactivity and simulation (exemplified in our case, Heavy Rain).
Nichols high lights one of Benjamin’s points: Mechanical reproduction transformed the conception of and relation to self and reality (p 627). Benjamin claims that the reality sense in his time was adjusted by the shock effect of montage (reordering of the physical world and its meanings). The montage was meant to shock an audience into insight, a new way of seeing.
Today Nichols claims that cybernetic systems (symbolized by the computer) transform our conception of self and reality, and that this change is of the same magnitude as the transformation of self and reality caused by mechanical reproduction in Benjamin’s time. So our sense of reality is now adjusted by means of electronic computation and digital communication. Hence Nichols asks if montage today have its equivalent in interactive simulations. Could cybernetic systems and digital communication shock us into new ways of seeing, does it have liberating potential?
In his text Bill Nichols points out 3 periods of capitalism. According to him, now we are living in a Multinational or Postmodern one. It is computer-based and that means great differences (transformations in perception of our reality, environment, models of thinking and experiencing world) in comparison to previous ones. If Walter Benjamin talks about mechanical reproduction, today´s situation has transformed (and therefore the subject of discussion has changed). and now we are talking about electronic simulation - the computer chip has replaced the copy that was one of the object of interest of W. Benjamin. If the copy reproduces the world and reality, the chip simulates it.

We find a computer game (in this specific case the Heavy Rain) as an example of this new form of perceiving reality and operating with it.
This interactive process can be seen as an object of fetishization that has its own fascination as it provides the involved person – a player – with, for example, an illusion of control (and partly that is true – you can control developments and make choices as far as the borders/possibilities of the game allow you to do) a feeling of power, interactivity and dialogic-ness. (In Heavy Rain players are able to bring up a selection of their character's current thoughts to say or do what they're thinking and so on – actually you can be quite creative). It also allows a person to experience another story, world, kind of action etc. that is not available or allowed for him/her in the real world (all the imaginary storylines and fantasies in a game – you are able to kill, fly, earn millions, buy whatever you want etc.). Bill Nichols compares this idea to that of a zoo or botanical garden: ”The zoo brings back alive evidence of a world we could not otherwise know, now under apparent control. It offers experience at a remove that is fundamentally different as a result of having been uprooted from its original context.” (Bill Nichols, p. 634).

Henning Ritter: "Toward the Artwork Essay, Second Version"

The basic mistakes Benjamin makes in trying to differentiate film and new media from traditional art:
• A photo of an artwork is not a reproduction and it does not make the original reproducible. Ritter states that the more copies are made of a piece of art the more authenticity gets linked to the original piece of art.
• The ”Here and now” effect of the artwork isn’t tied to the artworks location. Aura connected to the here and now is within the object itself like with a sculpture of a cathedral.
• Editing and montage are not more or less auratic than other technical measures; it is a series of artistic performances. All artworks are actually made up of a series of artistic performances for example a painting: the stroke of a brush.
• There is also no difference in the aura surrounding the stage player and the aura surrounding an actor on film. The performance in both film and theatre is determined/influenced by technical measures/equipment and there is therefore the same loss of aura.
• And no difference in the case of the audiences’ expert stance. Audiences view films differently than elitist art because the subject is including the audience but this is no different than what we see in folktales and other narratives

The text:
Ritter analyses Benjamin’s essay. Benjamin is very much a product of his time. He is influenced by what Ritter calls ”a negative ideology” which arises partly from the avant-garde movement that also wanted to do away with the aura of the artwork, and partly from the society that he lived in i.e. fascism.
Ritter shows us how today we can see that Benjamin was mistaken in his very stern definition of modern art and the art of the past. He was caught up in ideals and failed to see that all new art seems revolutionary to the contemporary audience because of the ”newness” i.e. Dadaism which Benjamin sees as revolutionary and powerful because of the absence of aura but later on we actually did begin to find meaning in Dadaism and it became auratic.
The main problem of Benjamin’s thesis according to Ritter is that Benjamin focuses on the material, the artwork, where instead he ought to focus on the human beings in front of the artwork. It is really the behaviour of the person that determines how the artwork is perceived and contemplated. Just like it is Benjamin’s behaviour, created by the time he lived in, that determined how he contemplated film.

If we relate Ritters text to our case “Heavy Rain” the meaning of Ritter's “newness” is interesting. In the 80’s computergames and especially violent computergames caused a shockeffect which has lessened as we have become used to the medium of the game. Today a computergame needs something more to have a Shockeffect and “Heavyrain” is pursuing this: The game puts the viewer in a new situation where the player is no longer crucial to the game. The narrative goes on if your character dies and you are actually able to die in the virtual universe. The game simulates the real world and confronts us with our own mortality, the story continues without us.
The change in how we have received computer games throughout the last thirty years is an example of what Ritter says: It isn’t actually the content of the work that scares us but the “newness” and therefore it is the human beings (and their perception) that “constitute” the auratic effect and not the content of the work of art.

Antoine Hennion & Bruno Latour: 'How to Make Mistakes on So Many Things at Once - and Become Famous for It'

There are a number of mistakes made througout Benjamin’s artwork essay, according to Hennion and Latour.
Benjamin’s first mistake: he uses religion to denounce modernity and modernity to denounce religion, simultaneously. He mistakes the fetish value for the cult value and therefore blurs fetishism with religion.
In general it is the confusion between ritual and cult. Benjamin doesn’t make the distinction between the “sacral” ritual that has cult value and the profane rituals, cult of beauty having exhibition value. Both of them can be seen as cultic, but still belonging to different realms.
Benjamin’s second mistake: that the main function of technique is to reproduce mechanically an original. The conception of technique as reproduction is what is mainly being critized.

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