critical theory

Walter Benjamin on photography and film

The cover of Benjamin's collection of essays, Illuminations

To wrap up our semester on viz., our staff showcases new static content we've added to our "teaching" and "visual theory" sections.  Below is my discussion of Walter Benjamin's canonical essay on photography, film, and the politics of mass media, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction."  Each day this week, we'll feature a new piece of static content on our blog.  We hope instructors, students, and persons interested in visual rhetoric will browse our archives (linked in the top bar) and find useful material for research, pedagogy, and all forms of intellectual inquiry.

Benjamin, Walter. "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction." Trans. Harry Zohn. Illuminations. 1955. Ed. Hannah Arendt. Reprint ed. New York: Schocken Books, 1986. 217–52. 

By Laura Thain

In this seminal essay, originally published in French in 1936, Benjamin outlines shifts in the way art produces meaning after the advent of the photograph.  His essay takes places in fifteen parts, which explore how film is physically produced, how that production influences the way that audiences interact with film, and how those audiences reconcile film with their pre-existing value structures and beliefs.  Benjamin ultimately suggests a method of reading photography and film that accounts for both their material production and how that material production supersedes or alters prior methods of criticism.  Central to critical practice in the age of mechanical reproduction is the establishment of critical distance between audience and media form, so that the audience can resist pure enjoyment and instead ask how photography and film can help us see differently, even as they attempts to perfectly replicate the way we already perceive the world.  Writing from Paris, Benjamin, a Jewish German expatriate disturbed by the rise of Hitler and the Third Reich, explores the political implications of new, mechanized art forms in a rapidly-changing 20th century.

The Octopus of Antwerp and Other Cold War Maps: Critical Cartographies I

Antwerp, Life Magazine map

Image: Life Magazine via Newberry Library

This is not the post I meant to write.  My graduate research has increasingly involved reference to Charles Booth's Life and Labour of the People in London, a magisterial attempt to combine statistical data and cartography into an analysis of late-nineteenth century urban London experience.  I had intended to post on Booth's groundbreaking "poverty maps", and the updated maps created by the London School of Economics (you can see their side-by-side comparison here).  In my research for the post, though, I came across John Krygier's Making Maps blog, and I've become fascinated (and sidetracked) by the surprising power of cartography.  Inspired to think about how maps and mapmaking critically constructs the world, what follows is a subjective and fairly non-rigorous tour of Western cartography during the Cold War era.

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