Andrew Benjamin – Art, Mimesis and the Avant-Garde (1991)

Benjamin uses art, mimesis and the avant-garde to reconceptualize the task of philosophy out of a ontology of “ontological difference,” which is a constituent component of “existence.” He transforms Heidegger’s division between Being and beings into a division or difference between various modes of being. “This shift has occurred because difference is henceforth differential rather simply marking a negation or non-relation” (3). Adorno lurks in the background. If the history of philosophy is of constantly falling prey to the trap of identification (between concepts and objects, Being and facts, etc.), then Benjamin wants to claim there is always already “plural ontologico-temporal” existing in the primacy of the already present. This temporally produced differential is crucial for Benjamin’s particular take on mimesis. For him, the artwork bears this internal temporal fracture and therefore participates, through its mimetic function, both in the “here and now” and in the past and future that exceed its context.

In chapter 9 “The Decline of Art: Benjamin’s Aura,” he uses Barthes’ theory of “significance” in “Le troisième sens” to explain his peculiar take on Benjamin’s aura. Significance refers to that which exceeds “pure information” and “symbolism.” The former is confined to the semiotics of the message, while the latter is more complex, but solely dependent on context–whose “temporality is therefore inscribed within its contextual existence.’ The third sense manifests itself in the moment that Barthes realizes, “I cannot detach myself from this image.” This “obtuse” meaning “sterilizes metalanuage (critique),” because it is indifferent to history and to the obvious meaning, and facilitates a distance from the referent” (145).  In A. Benjamin’s words, “Significance is a primordial presence occasioning, if not grounding, the possibility of the continuity of interpretation and hence of reinterpretation. Furthermore, it is a presence that can never be included within the temporality of he instance and therefore ontology of place, both of which involve the conceptions of time and being proper to context.” Therefore, “Significance is linked to survival and the capacity of the object of interpretation to live on” (146). Basically, this is what makes the photograph a work of art.

Benjamin’s reproducibility essay claims that experience is in a state of decay. He is ambiguous as to the loss of aura’s negative and positive effects. Importantly, it is not only our ability to experience, but the object of experience’s ability to “look back” that is decaying. A. Benjamin latches onto this intersubjective modality in order to claim that the primordial (which characterizes Barthes third sense) is “an otherness within presence which is part of presence itself” (149), thereby guaranteeing semiotic survival outside of the regimes of history and information.  He argues,

If the aura can be related to the primordial then the experience of aura needs to be understood beyond the melancholy interplay of nostalgia, loss and redemption. (151).

Yes! This adequately accounts for Benjamin’s point: “We define the aura of the latter [natural objects] as the unique phenomenon of distance however close it may be.” This “differential” marks the inherence of the primordial–the guarantee of semiotic survival: “The idea of life and after life in works of art should be regarded with an entirely unmetaphorical objectivity” (from Task of Translator). Which is to say, that metaphor no longer acts as the semiotic structure for understanding the enduring power of art (link to Levinas, de Man, et al). Thus the “truth content of the work of art…becomes its capacity to live on” (153). We need to better understand what this unmetaphorical living is….


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