Vijay Mishra


Tor the first time in world history, mechanical reproduction emancipates the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual'.^ So wrote Walter Benjamin in his brilliant essay entitled 'The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction'. The question of the primacy of an original fades into insignificance as a wholly new concept of 'reproducibility' comes into existence. The question is no longer one of're-presentation' but essentially one of're-production'. With a deft shift in emphasis Benjamin suggests that mechanical reproduction now irrevocably replaces ritual by politics. Reformulated, the mystery surrounding the original, which is traditionally conceived as shrouded, removed, in short an Other, is replaced by an involvement in the processes of reproduction and response. Where the reproduction of a painting is read through an original, perceived or absent, the filmic text is the origin of its meaning, for it represents nothing other than its own self: there is no image beyond the filmic shot, no 'real' (the authentic, ritualistic presence), no godhead or ultimate source of meaning, a perceptual signified, behind the image. It is constructed through the lens, and exists only because of it. Not surprisingly, it was seen as a travesty of art, a subversion, essentially, of the mimetic principle which gave art a point of reference and even a legitimacy. The sort of studied, carefiil response that art demanded is replaced now, as Benjamin argues, by an ever-changing movement. He quotes Duhamel's reactions to film as being typical of high culture's barely concealed uneasiness on the subject. Instead of that difference which marks art, the difierence, that is, of historical 'placement' and detachment, the film now makes it possible for art to enter popular culture and collapse its dichotomies. Its real antecedents are not painting but architecture and the epic poem, forms which have a participatory fiinction in culture. Their aesthetic qualities are, in short, fiinctional. Benjamin cites Duhamel again:



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