Setting Balance Between the Parts: the Human and the Digital

Reading Walter Benjamin‘s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” for week, I have again had an understanding towards media that makes it a tool towards our control. This literary critic and philosopher takes the cinema as one of the biggest challenges to art since it changed reproductivity of the world. With mechanization came a new form of reproduction. It was no longer something manual that took human exertion. By creating a product generated by the sum of little reproductions, its artistic value moved from an individual devotion to a communal exhibition. As a consequence, a new force was given to art: political function. Let’s see.

The characteristics of film lie not only in the manner in which man presents himself to mechanical equipment but also in the manner in which, by means of this apparatus, man can represent his environment (16).

Here, I understand that one of the main functions of art in terms of its presence in society of art is to set up a balance between the human and the system (the apparatus). This would sound familiar if you read my last post, where I quote Moretti‘s notion that “the substantial function of literature is to secure consent.” Real consentire (together+feel), is attained only by guaranteeing a balance between the parts. But, how can be get balance in this age of technology where the content is so much limited for each individual? Surely, it is impossible to “make of the entire globe, and of the human family, a single consciousness” (61) as McLuhan wonders. 

In an attempt to exemplify the difference between a sculptor, a writer, a photographer, and an actor, Benjamin takes us to literature, as an art. While in the old days there were just a bunch of authors who exhibited their works in front of a rather big audience, thanks to the press those readers were able to become authors. This led to a blurred line between writer and reader, for the later was able to get some knowledge of the craft. Taking into account that literary competence became polytechnic, it was possible for literature to be a “common property.”

And I ask myself…since being able to use media or computers is also a polytechnical competence, is new technology a “common property” that can help us all? Is it building a balance? Each day, a bigger number of people use technology and become writers as they can post, comment on news, chat, show their daily routines, etc. Nonetheless, if “mechanical reproduction of art changes the reaction of the masses toward art” (Benjamin, 15), isn’t media changing the reaction of humans towards art, life, and more importantly, self-consciousness? That’s dangerous, innit?

Internet access is now, in my opinion, overrated. We certainly have access to more information and research, we can text our roommate, who is sitting next door, or video call our family, that is thousands of kilometers away. That’s really nice, because I do both things.

Nevertheless, like cinema – which is not a so much a common property as it has distorted reality with its huge apparatus of publicity,- social media is the goose that laid golden eggs, but not all the glitter is gold. First, in spite of the ability to use Internet as a encyclopedia to learn about basically anything, users tend to focus their attention towards their main interest. It closes the scope of self-consciousness in that we cannot be aware of our position within a whole community (Benjamin posses this idea when arguing that capitalist driven cinema can make audiences oblivious to their social class or position). Moreover, unlike the common perception that we are all being turned into a homogenous and beautiful world, smaller cliques are created. Both set apart, cordoned off from each other in some cases.

Between 1963 and 1968, Pierre Bourdieu carried out a research to demonstrate that personal taste is driven by education and social class, and, thus, exclusion. “Tastes are the practical affirmation of an inevitable difference. It is no accident that, when they have to be justified, they are asserted purely negatively, by the refusal of other tastes” (56). With it a conflict of the legitimacy of culture is created. Thus, since it is the ruling class who has access to knowledge, it is going to govern the tastes. And as distinction is declared, distance between the groups, the classes, the cliques is increased. No homogeneity here.

Finally, I would like to try to connect all the above said with Humanities and Digital Humanities. So, the first is, I guess, the ruling class in this case, for it has centuries of tradition to back up their reasonings. Humanities are a “common property” for they study human knowledge and benefit humanity. DH, on the other hand, use technology as an approach to that human knowledge and, since technology is seen as a force that is changing perception, the DH is disregarded by H. But, if human perception is changing, Humanities should study the new variation, right?. How are they going to do it if they don’t pay attention to computers? As Humanists, there should be an awareness of the danger in making a distinction between one and the other. H has to take into account new media. Only in such a manner it would be able to comprehend self-consciousness of the 21st century on. For that is the only way to gain balance between the human and the apparatus.

Works cited and further reading:

Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” (1936). Web.

Bourdieu, Pierre. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. 1979. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1984.

McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extension of Man. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 1997.

Moretti, Franco. “The Soul and the Harpy.” From Signs Taken for Wonders. 1988. Web.


3 thoughts on “Setting Balance Between the Parts: the Human and the Digital

  1. Great post, Jennifer. I agree with you when you write “As Humanists, there should be an awareness of the danger in making a distinction between one and the other. H has to take into account new media. Only in such a manner it would be able to comprehend self-consciousness of the 21st century on.” It is an imperative. I wonder what DH can do with regard to that redemptive quality described by Benjamin when he writes about the teleology of new (reproducible) art. How can we imagine, and build, new humanistic and technological tools and practices that can have progressive effects on the users? Or, in other words, (how) can we make users become actors?

  2. The idea of taste as a means of distinguishing ourselves from the rest is one of the most intense and challenging that we will probably find in our way. But if when we consume art, we are doing that. What is the reason for production of art? I would say that sometimes it seems clear that art consumption is linked to a social practice, however, what happens with the production of it, what are we trying to achieve by the materialization of art? Would not be also reasonable to argue social prestige and economical success as some of the most powerful engines of creation?

  3. Very thought-provoking. In terms of polytechnical competence, I think your post really points to the problem of the digital divide: leaving class and wealth out of it, the use of a computer, smartphone, or other device to engage the internet is still a fairly complex technical ritual that may not be easy to master when one is older. I think particularly of the linguistic example: children can learn multiple languages easily before a certain age. Once past that age, language adoption becomes much more difficult. I think in the same way, the use of the internet is in its own way a form of language, and a difficult one to come up with. I know from watching my father in particular that it’s not so much that he’s not necessarily interested in what’s on the internet: it’s just that he’s used to the physical language tools of books and newspapers. To get to my point, I’d just suggest that using social media, the internet, etc., is a highly ritualized and technical endeavor, and McCluhan’s “single consciousness” might not be so singular after all.

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