W is for Walter Benjamin

| February 18, 2014

On the first day of class, I brought up Walter Benjamin’s essay “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire,” which is a lot about aesthetic experiences (and the loss thereof). In the introduction to Performing Live, Shusterman brings up Benjamin, too. I checked the citations in the back of the book, and it looks like he’s referencing different essays, but the themes are mostly the same. Shusterman says, pretty much, that Benjamin’s “end of art” narrative goes that felt experience has degenerated into information, and so the aesthetic “aura” quality of art (Benjamin’s term) is lost. This is essentially true of Benjamin’s arguments in “Baudelaire” as well.

But there are a lot more implications in the Baudelaire essay, and more connections to our class, too. Shusterman is only giving a quick summary for the purposes of his introduction, but I can go a little more in-depth—I dug up my college copy of the essay with all my marginal notes and whatnot.

A large part of Benjamin’s argument in Baudelaire depends on his distinction between memoire volontaire and memoire involontaire (voluntary and involuntary memory). Voluntary memory involves the conscious preservation of information—like you’d find in a newspaper article—giving an event the quality of “something lived through” (erlebnis). Involuntary memory involves the sub- or unconscious feelings attached to an experience (erfahrung), or more specifically, I think, an aesthetic experience.

In the modern age of the crowd, mechanization, and especially the city, Benjamin argues (and Baudelaire’s lyric poetry is symptomatic of this), people are constantly exposed to sensory “shocks.” As such, their lives have become governed by the prevention of shock. This is the purpose of the conscious, voluntary memory—to make an event something lived through, to protect you from the potential shock of experience, of involuntary memory.

This, Benjamin goes on, destroys the ability to perceive the aura of an object—the ability to step back and gaze upon something, almost endowing it with the ability to gaze back. This is aesthetic experience. In the city, in the crowd, with the eye preoccupied with the prevention of shock, the two essential qualities of aesthetic experience—distance and the ability to “look back”—have become impossible.

I’ll try to briefly connect this to education. A lot of the purpose of education now seems to be this same avoidance of shock. The rigid lines of a school eliminate risk, they make things safe, they protect investment (we talked about this last week). They avoid danger, in another word, prevent shock. And so, as such, they eliminate aesthetic experience. They also, as Sir Ken Robinson points out in this TED talk (below), kill creativity.

Robinson argues that schools make children afraid to be wrong—this is prevention of shock, the shock of being wrong—which stifles their creativity. And really, this implies that bringing aesthetic experience back to schools might, in fact, resurrect creativity.

W is for Walter Benjamin
On the first day of class, I brought up Walter Benjamin’s essay “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire,” which is a lot about aesthetic experiences (and the loss thereof). In the introduction to Performing Live, Shusterman brings up Benjamin, too. I checked the citations in the back of the book, and it looks like he’s referencing different essays, but the themes are mostly the same. Shusterman says, pretty much, that Benjamin’s “end of art” narrative goes that felt experience has degenerated into information, and so the aesthetic “aura” quality of art (Benjamin’s term) is lost. This is essentially true of Benjamin’s arguments in “Baudelaire” as well.
But there are a lot more implications in the Baudelaire essay, and more connections to our class, too. Shusterman is only giving a quick summary for the purposes of his introduction, but I can go a little more in-depth—I dug up my college copy of the essay with all my marginal notes and whatnot.
A large part of Benjamin’s argument in Baudelaire depends on his distinction between memoire volontaire and memoire involontaire (voluntary and involuntary memory). Voluntary memory involves the conscious preservation of information—like you’d find in a newspaper article—giving an event the quality of “something lived through” (erlebnis). Involuntary memory involves the sub- or unconscious feelings attached to an experience (erfahrung), or more specifically, I think, an aesthetic experience.
In the modern age of the crowd, mechanization, and especially the city, Benjamin argues (and Baudelaire’s lyric poetry is symptomatic of this), people are constantly exposed to sensory “shocks.” As such, their lives have become governed by the prevention of shock. This is the purpose of the conscious, voluntary memory—to make an event something lived through, to protect you from the potential shock of experience, of involuntary memory.
This, Benjamin goes on, destroys the ability to perceive the aura of an object—the ability to step back and gaze upon something, almost endowing it with the ability to gaze back. This is aesthetic experience. In the city, in the crowd, with the eye preoccupied with the prevention of shock, the two essential qualities of aesthetic experience—distance and the ability to “look back”—have become impossible.
I’ll try to briefly connect this to education. A lot of the purpose of education now seems to be this same avoidance of shock. The rigid lines of a school eliminate risk, they make things safe, they protect investment (we talked about this last week). They avoid danger, in another word, prevent shock. And so, as such, they eliminate aesthetic experience. They also, as Sir Ken Robinson points out in this TED talk, kill creativity. Robinson argues that schools make children afraid to be wrong—this is prevention of shock, the shock of being wrong—which stifles their creativity. And really, this implies that bringing aesthetic experience back to schools might, in fact, resurrect creativity.