From Mail Order Catalog to Amazon-Prime: or, Walter Benjamin’s Loss of Aura All Over Again

Gold Marilyn Monroe 1962

When Andy Warhol silkscreened Marilyn Monroe off-register onto a stretched canvas, he did two things: he called attention to the distance between the mythical and the real, (the iconic and the ordinary) and, at the same time, with the same action, he closed that very same distance.  The gesture’s the thing with Warhol; his art found in the “placing upon” while engaging in the ironic erasing of.

Mythic proportion (a distance from – in both time and space) is throughout the centuries unraveled for us by human progress.  Ancient Greece (Western Art’s primum mobile) gives us evidence of mythic distances closed in their art’s evolving anthropomorphism: gods and goddesses becoming more and more human in character (sculptural) depiction.  Distance is lessened further during the 15th century Italian Renaissance:  paintings applying manmade formulae to otherworldly spaces (utilizing Brunelleschi’s linear perspective) in the disavowal of spatial translations of  the heavenly with the earthly. In result, we arrive at yet another shattering of mythical distance.  The shifting from heavenly to earthly and back again (specifically, for our purposes here, in Western Art before Modernism) is a constant throughout the intervening centuries. 

By the time we greet Modernism in the early 20th century, American culture had, [was actively in the process of] creating its own version of gods and goddesses in the form of film stars, sports idols and other larger-than-life figures which would become for Warhol, the ideal subject matter for his art.  His art’s meaning would, in turn, depend upon this reality of the mythical, the sacred, the distanced.

Warhol’s art evinces itself in the mechanical reproduction of popular culture icons, offering us the disillusion he sought (the truth he wished to reveal) as he blurred the line between the iconic and the everyday real.  Warhol’s Marilyn, his Jackie O. his Elvis fall from their pedestal as he places them silkscreened-smudged and mass-produced onto canvases, and, as the ink itself runs its mechanical course simultaneously upon it. Image is blurred; literally, smudged, and made everyday by the process and, maybe, more significantly, by the quantity produced. Twenty Mona Lisas placed off-register in deliberate mass reproduction removes the mystery by engaging the process. With every image reproduced, repeated, enumerated, the place of aura, the line between the iconic and the real diminishes.

The point to note here, though, is that there [was] a line there for Warhol to blur; the distinction existed; the fall from the distant and the sacred, real. This is what accounts for the disillusionment we, [as a generation living through it] experienced.  We see the metaphorical in changing our Marilyn Monroe from iconic pedestal to many-numbered reproduction, no longer able to maintain mythic distance.  Postmodernism simply ensures for us the finality of the loss of the mythic, the illusion we once had the opportunity to momentarily believe in.

“Shelf Life”, linoleum block print, 2006

Today, though, is quite different.

Today, we are not given the distance needed to note any such fall. We are as close to our Beyoncés and our Lady Gagas as we can be, just in terms of sheer mediated enumeration and our immediate access to it.  There is no mythological goddess in the distance for us to worship – for the form in image that these icons take, and, the one they took from the start – [one of enumeration and accessibility] makes this no longer applicable. Lady Gaga was never mythic, sacred. She was never that far away from us.

The use of the tally mark eventually morphs into numerals to signify ‘all of those many marks’. A threshold reached; the realizing of an amount unmanageable results in a change in form. Degree influences kind.

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We are no longer a society of manageable quantities: _the Sears, Roebuck Catalogue, Life Magazine and The National Geographic Magazine, only three broadcasting networks on our television sets, the tangible vinyl records of the music of the ‘70’s taking up only one aisle in a Caldor Dept. store, and, a handful of books found on high school required reading lists, and these lists fairly standard: manageable, finite. We all read Animal Farm in the 8th grade; Lord of the Flies in 9th; The Great Gatsby in 10th; Our Town in 11th, and The Grapes of Wrath in 12th.

Today – there is no end to the amount of books, musicians, writers, bloggers, magazines, publications, artists, news cycles, references, television entities [and, options for viewing], videos, movies, images, data, tweets, memes, texts, opinions, information, margins, status, standards, trends, and, more importantly, those which we have access to: our access to it making all the difference.

“Google estimated in 2010 that there were 300 exabytes (that’s 300 followed by 18 zeros) of human-created information in the world, and that more information was created every two days than had existed in the entire world from the dawn of time to 2003.” 1

We are not only living in more of what we used to have, but, by this very fact, are experiencing it in a new way. This translates to a change in the way we read things; our act of reading influenced by the enumeration of the readable (sheer amount available) and the form in which the ‘enumerated readable’ takes.

For those of us who grew up in an age when the amount of media access was limited in comparison; limited in amount of options, we were more assured of a knowledge base (whether  accurate or biased or mythical itself) we could manage, and, given the limited sources, far more willing to trust without the built-in skepticism needed for today’s source-sifting.  

We took our time, because we had the opportunity to, and, because we were dealing with a fairly manageable amount. Most of what we knew was determined by what was within our own tangible reach. Library aisles were walked; reference book sections arrived at; their physical spaces experienced in sound, smell, sight and touch. Screens were limited to one small box in the corner of one room in our house. This was our limited-in-perspective access to (a) much larger world.  

For the pre-digital world generation, the purchase of an LP record closed a sacred distance that truly existed, brought us nearer to the music artist we cherished as much as the photographs we clipped from magazines and posted on our (real) walls. These were larger-than-life images held up by scotch-tape — significant in a way not quite possible today.

Today, iPods hold our music — but not in tangible “cherishable” form, (a record album cover’s physical wear relative to its degree of “cherishedness”) but in an un-felt invisible digital code. Even the act of purchasing a record album has lost its recollected significance. It would be difficult to do this, I think, with an electronic purchase download onto a replaceable-when-it-breaks device –:  we probably won’t recall our favorite iPod, our favorite Kindle.

–The tactile objects of the past will remain just that, (becoming even more of a museum treasure) while the scanning and processing of our cultural products (literature & art) turns what used to be individual hand-held objects into a field of digital code. 2

The way we seem to be viewing our present is in an overlapping of distance and myth with closeness and real; the experienced disillusionment now a perceived “something cherished”. In a way, this “Before Digital” generation views things with the advantage of a luxury of loss.

The Warhol mass-reproduced image can now be read as our Marilyn Monroe before she was silkscreened; that very gesture in demystifying as our latest version of “hand-held treasure” — as we hold onto not the myth which was lost, but rather, the memory of our personal experience of losing it. 

This is not unlike Keats in his choice to reject both nightingale and urn for “being too happy in thy happiness”, far preferring –[like those of us experiencing now], (with our aim to see the 2016 Star Wars installment simply for the anticipated reunion of Fisher and Ford) a charged sentimental nostalgia as cherished experience.

At the least, with our worn-out record collections and recollected awe—– [when Lucas first gave to us ‘special effects’ (BCGI), that, at the time, were thought to be the size of galaxies ]- we have something to weigh against the present – and, with this, our experience not only varies in degree, but in kind.

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1 In the Age of Information, Specializing to Survive By J. PEDER ZANE   MARCH 19, 2015    

2 L. Szpak – “Some Thoughts On Language and Its Evolution in the Advancing of a Digital Technology” 2010

2 thoughts on “From Mail Order Catalog to Amazon-Prime: or, Walter Benjamin’s Loss of Aura All Over Again

  1. “The use of archetype, by which our heroes and idols are categorized, is revealed as a frail and hollow impression of imagination or deception, concealed within which lies the real.” Here is the crux of the piece – yes, and where the experiencing of a mythical distance from the real (which we now see far more readily than we once did [- due to the “constant march of progress and relentless growth of human understanding” – i.e.: technology ] is what makes all the difference.

    My having grown up in a time of “hollow impression” changes the way I view things today. My experiencing of aura creates for me an eventual “fall”: happier in the place of disillusionment, but burdened with nostalgia. I don’t think this is any different for any generation, it is simply the manner (with digital, so quickly) in which the shifting (knowledge-gaining) occurs.

    I know you study film, and might consider the “time and space” aura that Walter Benjamin discusses with regard to the authentic, (the real) and then, the distanced, or, as you put it, the dissected in the losing of the authentic. Benjamin’s stage actor is yes, the most real, because the stage actor is closest. The camera for Benjamin is that which dissects the actor until no longer whole. No longer containing “aura.” How is it then, that our film stars of yesteryear ended up on sacred pedestals for the inevitability of a Warhol to then respond to? It’s as if the theory were flipped on its head.

    Where are the idols of today? I don’t think there are any. And, this is a good thing. The place of Postmodernism shatters any possibility. We’ve moved from hollow impression to default-setting skepticism in less than fifty years. Digital is doing what film did; another new form to change the way we see things.

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  2. As we change our way of thinking, so to does the world change. Myth fades as fact takes its place. As knowledge grows, our ability (and, sometimes, our desire) to wash away the complexities of our world with convenient anecdote or fabrication diminishes. The use of archetype, by which our heroes and idols are categorized, is revealed as a frail and hollow impression of imagination or deception, concealed within which lies the real. The pain inflicted upon this revelation is the same pain which visits on every occasion when it is discovered that reality is not as we would have it be, or believed that it was. It is a vital transition to a new understanding of our world.
    As complexity, or rather our understanding of the complexity, increases, so to does the quantity of our interpretations. Indeed, degree influences kind: the modern discourse cannot be contained by the medium of the past, as thus new inventions are required to store, sort, and display the current state of public (collective) thought.
    The aura is not lost, but rather dissected. Broken down into innumerable truths and mysteries still yet to be discovered. These new mysteries become aura until they too are dissected. Thus is the constant march of progress and the relentless growth of human understanding.

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