>Reception in Distraction, or the Habitual Aesthetic

>Walter Benjamin is extremely interested in the phenomenon he calls “reception in distraction” (The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproduciblity and Other Writings on Media, Harvard University Press, 2008, p. 40). He sees this sort of experience as central to our understanding of architecture. While we may stand at a distance and look at a building, admiring it on some visual, contemplative level, the majority of our experiences with architecture are primarily tactile and distracted. There seems, in fact, to be something about the entire sensory apparatus involved in touch that demands a certain distraction. Dr. Rasula made the point by an example: it seems perfectly natural for someone to say, “look at this,” or even “listen to that,” but it strikes us as odd to be told to “touch” something. Our tactile experience is not attuned to focused attention.

Benjamin sees in film this capacity for reception through distraction, for learning not by way of direct contemplation, but through the development of a sort of habit. In On the Aesthetic Education of Man, Schiller also seems to place the ideal receptive environment for Art in the realm of distracted attention. When meeting your audience, he advises the Artist:

The seriousness of your principles will frighten them away, but in the play of your semblance they will be prepared to tolerate them; for their taste is purer than their heart, and it is here that you must lay hold of the timorous fugitive. In vain will you assail their precepts, in vain condemn their practice; but on their leisure hours you can try your shaping hand. Banish from their pleasures caprice, frivolity, and coarseness, and imperceptibly you will banish these from their actions and, eventually, from their inclinations too (The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 2nd Edition, p. 492).

Schiller here is still interested in preserving the concept of high Art, which Benjamin largely rejects in his attempt to reframe the debate around a consideration of all those things which are considered outside the realm of Art and thus are ignored by the critical eye. However, the similarity between their suggestions for ideal audience reception cannot be denied; both have something to do with entertainment.

The passage from Schiller also contains an undercurrent of the propagandistic, as if the artist must be quite sneaky in the insertion of his “principles.” Even Schiller’s phrasing smacks of the manifesto. He paints the audience as a “timorous fugitive” which the artist must “lay hold of,” and the current customs of the audience (his frivolity) the artist must “banish.”

Benjamin saw in film’s capacity for “reception in distraction” the possibility of a great boon to the proletariat, who might be educated by film of man’s relationship to the apparatus. Schiller, too, saw in this receptive mode the capacity for positive social change. History, unfortunately, has played out quite differently. The film medium was hugely successful in spreading the propaganda of the Nazi regime, and continues to be dominated by those interested in personal economic and political gain. So too are many of the media forms that represented Benjamin’s great hope for the proletariat’s recognition of itself as a class – the television, the radio, the newspaper. And the type of Artist which Schiller was interested in developing remains designated largely to obscurity: in art schools, in English departments, in Music programs, in theaters, Schiller’s Artist is still largely studied only in contemplation, rather than in distraction.

Wordsworth seems to recognize (and to some extent embody) this continuing contradiction. He at once recognizes the dilapidated state of the High Arts, which are “driven into neglect by frantic novels, sickly and stupid German Tragedies, and deluges of idle and extravagant stories in verse” while he at the same time attests to the “indestructible qualities of the human mind” (Norton, p. 564). The eventual triumph of art (which in his mind is not too far off) he places in the hands of “men of great power” who will oppose the “degrading thirst” of popular culture “with far more distinguished success” than he himself can offer (564). How ironic, though, that Wordsworth insists on the employment in high poetry of the language and of the common man while simultaneously turning his nose up at the types of diversion that same common man seems to enjoy best. And he makes no attempt to explain how his “men of great power” might draw the major portion of humanity away from the “gross and violent stimulants” of popular entertainment (563).

It is part of Benjamin’s interest to rectify this imbalance. If we are to make this transition toward the Good or True, he seems to say, it will not be by shifting the interests of the larger population to align with our ideas about Art, but rather by realigning our interest in the aesthetic to include those forms that interest the larger population to begin with. This idea in the hands of those who seek power, however, can have some very negative implications. Benjamin closes the Artwork Essay by attributing to the National Socialist movement the motto “fiat ars–pereat mundus” (Artwork, p. 42). And this condemnation of Nazi political aestheticism mirrors perfectly the words with which Schiller closes his Aesthetic Education:

Surround them, wherever you meet them, with the great and noble forms of genius, and encompass them about with the symbols of perfection, until Semblance conquer Reality, and Art triumph over Nature (Norton, p. 492).

This charge, minus the last 5 words which identify the Ideal in the outcome, suggests what all the greatest propagandists in history have realized. Namely, that if you can surround them “wherever you meet them” you can eventually reach the point when your Semblance, whatever it might be, will conquer Reality, will indeed become Reality. The Third Reich surely recognized in this charge a very specific opportunity, that very opportunity which Benjamin identifies as the “aestheticizing of politics” (Artwork, p. 42). By realigning the Ideal that is Art with their own political motivations, they could lay claim to that same Ideal.

These dangers (inevitabilities?) are latent also in Kant. I have already explored the difficulties which I see as arising from Kant’s concept of a disinterested aesthetic, but that same disinterest quickly becomes dangerous when taken up as the ideology of a despotic political regime. Kant anticipates as much:

…however much debate there may be about whether it is the statesman or the general who deserves the greater respect in comparison to the other, aesthetic judgment decides in favor of the latter. Even war, if it is conducted with order and reverence for the rights of civilians, has something sublime about it, and at the same time makes the mentality of the people who conduct it in this way all the more sublime, the more dangers it has been exposed to and before which it has been able to assert its courage; whereas a long peace causes the spirit of mere commerce to predominate, along with base selfishness, cowardice and weakness… (Norton, p. 439)

Compare this with Benjamin’s assertion that

All efforts to aestheticize politics culminate in one point. That one point is war. War, and only war, makes it possible to set a goal for mass movements of the grandest scale while preserving traditional property relations (Artwork, p. 41).

Both Benjamin and Schiller have high hopes for the ability of art (variously defined) to move people toward the morally good, but they both fall short of defining the method by which this movement should best be accomplished. They differ from Wordsworth, who still looks forward to a return to more concentrated study of Art. Benjamin and Schiller both hope to locate the work of Art before an audience who is distracted, who is not interested in “learning” or “contemplating”, who is entertained and thus can be influenced on an level analogous with Freud’s unconscious. However, they (and we) continually run up against a public whose distracted attention seems more naturally attuned to the influence of powerbrokers.

Or, is there something about the mediums of mass that make them more useful to the propagandist than the artist?

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About Noah Brewer

I am an English teacher and Debate coach living in Carrollton, GA. I like gardening and critical theory. I like teaching and learning. I like language and technology.
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