Em oi! #412: Foucault’s Elf

I was surprised, but also not surprised when B told me about this conversation. After all, about a month and a half after we met, I went on vacation to Philly and sent him a postcard from the Eastern State Penitentiary, a panopticon prison based on Bentham’s ideas. And he decided not to dump me. Yay. I should have guessed that after all these years, my madness has rubbed off on him.


To be fair, that employer was kind of surveiller et punir. Click to embiggen.

It still kind of shocks me that the “elf on a shelf” thing has become, well, a thing that people do. I find it kind of creepy. But then I’ve always found Santa creepy too, even when I was a kid and desperate to have Xmas so that I wouldn’t be different from all the other kids in my class. I look forward to having children so I can forbid them from celebrating Christmas.

We’ll file this week’s comic under GT4991 L86 2015, for Manners and customs (General)–Customs related to public and social life–Festivals. Holidays–Special days and periods of time–Christmas–Special customs–Elf on a shelf. This isn’t explicitly listed, but it fits into the categorization right between “Pistol shooting” [GT4990] and “Santa Claus” [GT4992]. If you are about to say, “Em, what the hell is up with pistol shooting being listed under special Christmas customs?,” well, I want to commend you for asking the right (tough) questions.

Here are a few other Foucault comics for your reading pleasure. I would guess there are others, but I can’t lay hands on all of them right now.

There is some sort of philosopher threesome joke to be made here, but I ain't doin' it.

This was drawn three days before we got married! My hair has changed a lot since then. Bryan’s hasn’t. He can bench press a lot more now though.


I think this one is B’s favorite. It’s based more on The Birth of the Clinic.


My favorite comic ever. Also more Birth of the Clinic.


I don’t remember what happened here. Also, I drew this on notebook paper and tried to turn up the contrast to get rid of the lines. Good job, Em of eight years past.


Philosophers love cake because they understand the true meaning of life.

Em oi! #408: Kierkegaarding


You will probably have to click to embiggen, I’m afraid.

I am forced to begin this week’s lengthy and possibly unreadable commentary on the comic with an apology: I am somewhat misconstruing Kierkegaard here.

Here’s the deal: Kierkegaard wrote a book called The Concept of Anxiety, which is the basis for the ideas that form the underlying framework here, but in the book, Kierkegaard is actually not talking about how difficult your problems are. Instead, he was talking about the responses of different religions to the idea of original sin.[1] That is, he seems to be making an argument like this: 1) Original sin happened, but there were/are people who don’t know about it because they’re not Christian (pagans) or they’re Jewish (??). 2) These groups experience anxiety in different forms (turning outward, in the case of the pagans; turning inward, in the case of the Jews, which is more correct but still unable to come to any resolution, which can only be reached by Christians because Jesus. 3) The angst as freedom of choice is still in there.

If all this sounds a little weird, well–Kierkegaard was kind of a strange guy and his philosophy is a little bit aphoristic. And this is one of his most difficult books.

These anxiety-to-outside/inside relations were distilled by another fellow, Stephen Dunning[2], into the framework that underlies the first three panels (anxiety-in-itself, anxiety-for-itself, and anxiety-in-and-for-itself), and then further distilled by another writer (whose book I cannot name yet, since it hasn’t been published) into yet another form that I’ve adapted here.

In other words, this is based on some secondary materials that somewhat (in my mind) misconstrued the original argument. Le sigh.

Also, I hadn’t used these markers with this type of paper before, and I am disappointed by how it absorbed them. It doesn’t look really as nice in person; I had to do a lot of fixing, some of which is sadly visible. Tch.

I’m currently trying to taper for the Twin Cities Marathon, which is coming up in just over a week. But B is having knee surgery on Monday, so we’ll see how well that goes. My training has been pretty average, but consistent, including consistent speed work, and my ankles are holding up really well (knock on whatever), so I’m guardedly optimistic. If I can get a good taper and decent weather, I hope to hit sub-4. I’ve been running sub-2 hour half marathons in practice, so I have a feeling I can do it. If I don’t get a good taper, I’ll see what I can do. The goal is 3:55:xx, which requires an average somewhere between 8:50 and 9:00 minutes/mile (okay, 8:58 to be precise); of course, the fact that I can sustain that for 13.1 miles is rather meaningless when we’re looking at twice that distance.

Until then, I’m sort of swamped with work, but I will still try to have a new comic up next week as well.

For the nonce, let’s file this one under B4377 L86 2015, for (deep breath) Philosophy(General)–Modern (1450/1600-)–By region or country–Scandinavia–Denmark–By period–19th century–Individual philosophers–Kierkegaard, Søren, 1813-1855–Criticism and interpretation.

[1] Side note: He says, among other things, “Jewish anxiety is over the possibility of guilt, rather than ‘the positing of an actual [guilty] relation'” (Dunning, 153). This is clearly false; Jewish anxiety is over many things, but most of them involve the possibility of disappointing your mother and whether or not this tickle in the back of your throat is going to turn into pneumonia or not.

[2] See Stephen Northrup Dunning. Kierkegaard’s Dialectic of Inwardness: A Structural Analysis of the Theory of Stages. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1985. Retrieved from Google Books: Link

Em oi! #405: Philosophy Ruins Films


Well hello. It has been a while since we had one of these little chats, hasn’t it? I’ve been reading a lot, but not blogging too much beyond book reviews. So you’re probably asking, “Hey Em, how’s it going?”

It has been all right. Not great, not amazing, but also it’s going much better than it was in January. I went through a rough patch between seasonal affective disorder and a leg injury. The first was solved with phototherapy, the second with PT, which is just about finished. PT has been a strange collection of triggerpoint dry needling (which is not super pleasant, and the alcohol wipes are giving me a rash) and various exercises and stretches designed to 1) make you feel inadequate when you realize how many of them you keep forgetting to do and 2) fix whatever imbalance exists in my hip that is hurting my ankle. In the meantime I spent a lot of time swimming in January when I was totally off running, and then running only on the dreadmill and elliptical in February—I’ve been doing about 24 miles on the dreadmill and close to that on the elliptical as well. I’ve also been lifting weights a lot; since early September, B and I have switched to a 5×5 program which is a lot more intense than our previous 3×10-type program. My lifts have gone up a lot, which is very satisfying, but I’ve also put on some pounds of muscle and so my bra no longer fits right.* The best news is that as of tomorrow I am encouraged to try running outside again; if everything goes well, I may be able to show up to race the 50-Furlong World Championship in Paoli on Saturday. I doubt I am in condition to defend my title as 8th fastest woman in the world at that distance, but it would be really nice to race again.

What else have I been doing? Learning to code. As in write computer programs. So far if you want a program that spits out a triangle (right or equilateral) in ASCII or that curses at you in a variable way based on your input, I am your programmer. Actually, I have to admit that this is my second attempt at learning to code. When I was an undergraduate, I took the introduction to programming course the UW offered (which is taught in Java). Now I am learning Caché ObjectScript, which is a much less well-known language, but it is easier in part because B is teaching me, and it turns out that he is a much better teacher than the grad student (who may have been a forestry major?) they had teaching the intro class when I took it. B is a good teacher; it’s also convenient to have my professor on site rather than inaccessible except by email sometimes. I may also be a better student now.

Well let’s not go overboard on that.

I’ve also been learning indexing. And Chinese. And editing a bunch of books (I did three full-length manuscripts, on ancient Athens, moral philosophy, and sociology, from the first week of February until last Friday the 7th of March). In other words I have been busy, not sleeping enough, unable to find time to do the things I enjoy or see my friends much, and basically acting like I’ve not developed any coping skills since college. But things will get better now.

A note on podcasts and the like. A bunch of people gave me recommendations, many of which have been very satisfying. The Hound Tall Podcast (formally The Hound Tall Discussion Series with Moshe Kasher) is very funny and a lot more Jew-y than Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me (I recommend the George Clinton interview if you haven’t heard it yet). Of course the Ultrarunner Podcast is a good way to keep up with a sport that no one follows but me; my new goal is to get interviewed on there, since I’ll probably never get on Fresh Air. Also, the Moth Radio Hour has some very good stories–also some gutting ones, so do be careful. Finally, John Harris’s excellent podcast/audiobook of The Epic of Gilgamesh was both exciting and intellectually stimulating. I may or may not have time to do a whole review, but in the meantime, it’s highly recommended.

I’m filing this comic under PN1995.9 S695 L86 2015, for Drama–Motion pictures–Other special topics, A-Z–Star Wars films.

*If you are reading this and saying, “Wait, you only own one?”, I will tell you: You obviously don’t know me. Ninety percent of the shirts I now own came from races. I am not an enthusiastic shopper.

Em oi! #395: I Kant Believe It


This started as more notes to myself on the noumenon, because I have been reading The Parallax View and had to look it up. I dragged through A Critique of Pure Reason in college and also parts of Critique of Judgement and (if I’m recalling correctly) The Metaphysics of Mortals, but I can’t say Kant’s theories ever really resonated with me. Yet since reading First as Tragedy, I’ve had a new respect for him. In particular, I was struck by this passage:

The recent Revolution of a people which is rich in spirit, may well either fail or succeed, accumulate misery and atrocity, it nevertheless arouses in the heart of all spectators (who are not themselves caught up in it) a taking of sides according to desires which borders on enthusiasm and which, since its very expression was not without danger, can only have been caused by a moral disposition within the human race.

Which is to say, while “actual history is confused” on the question of whether or not true [i.e. ethical] progress is possible, spectators across Europe were remarkably sympathetic to the French revolution (Zizek, First as Tragedy, then as Farce, 106).

I think now that this quote is less affecting out of context. Anyway, the remarkable thing was for me that I looked up the noumenon, made my notes, and then suddenly understood exactly the point Zizek was making and sailed on through another several pages. (Then he came to some argument rooted in Hegel and I got bogged down again.)

Anyway I should add that according to Wikipedia, the conflation of the noumenon and the ding-an-sich is not quite so straightforward as the Ziz makes it seem. But you probably already suspected as much.

At any rate, having read my comic, perhaps you are now in a position to appreciate this one by Zach Weiner.

Ok, I have now somehow passed an hour looking at pictures of cats on imagur. Probably time to call it a night.

We’ll file this one under B2799.N68 L86 2014, for Philosophy (General)–Modern (1450/1600-)–By region or country–Germany. Austria (German)–By period–Later 18th and early 19th centuries–Individual philosophers–Kant, Immanuel, 1724-1804–Special topics, A-Z–Noumenon. Before you say “Don’t hurt yourself on that topic heading there,” I just want to let you know that PT2100.K3 is German literature–Individual authors or works–1700-ca. 1860/70–Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von, 1749-1832–Biography and criticism–Biography–Personal relations–Relations to friends and contemporaries–Individual friends and contemporaries–Other friends and contemporaries, A-Z–Kant, Immanuel. So just be careful what you wish for.

By the way, I posted two reviews lately that you might have missed: this one of the play Red and this one of First as Tragedy. More reviews soon!

Okay, wait, I just remembered something I have to tell you about Kant. It’s a story my father told me when I was a kid: (and just to ruin it, I have forgotten the setup but) there is a guy in a neighborhood in Germany (well, Prussia). Every day he goes out for a walk at the same time. Every day he comes back at the same time. One day, his neighbor is raking leaves in the front yard and sees this guy walk past, and he has one foot on the sidewalk and one in the gutter. And half an hour later, sure as clockwork, back he comes, one foot on the sidewalk, one in the gutter. And that was Immanuel Kant. Later on, Dad told me that Kant broke philosophy, because he thought of it all. I don’t know if that is exactly true (philosophy has certainly continued after Kant, and gone down a lot of new and interesting alleys), but it perhaps explains to you what a huge and insurmountable obstacle he is in the study of philosophy. You Kant get there from here without going through him.

. . .

Ok, now I’m really going to bed.

Em oi! #381: First as Farce

First as farce, then as farce again.

“Philosophy does not solve problems. The duty of philosophy is not to solve problems but to ridify problems–to show how what we experience as a problem is a false problem.” –Slavoj Žižek, Zizek! (dir. Astra Taylor, 2005)

I have been busy getting to know Slavoj Žižek. He is an interesting guy–looks like someone’s weird uncle, keeps his socks in his kitchen, talks about popular culture, and is extremely funny. It seems as though American intellectuals are in love with him because he hates Americans and he is very well spoken. Also he once wrote the text for an Abercrombie and Fitch catalog (NSFW).

The thing is, I’d guess, none of them read his actual philosophy, which tends to be very concerned with Hegel and Lacan. Which leads me to the question: Why is everyone in Continental Philosophy so obsessed with Hegel?

I will file this under N84.L86 2013, for Visual arts–Theory. Philosophy. Aesthetics of the visual arts–Theory. Philosophy. Apparently Žižek is not yet famous enough to have his own LCC number. (I just checked–Chomsky has one, but it’s Z8168.18, a bibliography heading).

I wanted to write a bit about the Syttende Mai 20-miler and the Ice Age 50k–my last two races. But it’s already 22:30 and I’m pretty tired and I have to get up early tomorrow. So for now, enjoy this awesome panorama Bryan took of me finishing the Syttende Mai. I’ll write something up later in the week.

Bryan took this awesome series of me finishing the race.

Bryan took this awesome series of me finishing the race.

Em oi! #377: Sene-can

Who's that man who isn't getting angry? Seneca!

So I came across Seneca (founder of the Stoics) the other day and immediately realized I was dealing with a kindred spirit. Seneca actually did advocate spending some time every day meditating on what could potentially go wrong in your life, because then if it did go wrong, you’d be psychologically prepared for it. Alain de Botton implies that this philosophy grew out of the fact that Seneca lived among the Roman elites, who were a fairly angry and unstable group from the emperor on down. And I actually do this quite a lot, though I refer to it as “reining in my expectations.” For example, if I had a job interview that went really well, I tell myself that they are not only not going to give me the job, but they will probably come and burn down my house for wasting their time. Then if they actually give me the job (please give me the job–you know who you are), I am surprised and happy, and if they reject me, I am less sad.

Anyway, despite all that, I couldn’t resist making fun of him a little. It could be worse, I guess–Schopenhauer advised his readers to swallow a toad every morning, so that would be the worst thing that happened to them all day…

We’ll file this under B618.L86 2013, for Philosophy (General)—Ancient (600 B.C.-430 A.D.)—Occident—Greco-Roman philosophy—Individual philosophers—Seneca, Lucius Annaeus, ca. 4 B.C.-65 A.D.—Biography and memoirs. Criticism and interpretation—General Works.

I should point out that in the time between when I drew this and when I inked it, my hair streak was dyed over (so I could look respectable for job interviews). You can check it out in the below photo, in which I failed to do it and maybe I didn’t even brush it this morning? And also I look a little cranky. (Hah. Take that, Cameron Russell?)

Dog photobombed me.

Dog photobombed me.

There have been so many good, philosophical articles in the news lately, from the issues of justice and punishment versus rehabilitation raised by the conviction and sentencing of Malik Richmond and Trent Mays, to the question of deciding when someone becomes a person raised by the North Dakota Personhood amendment to all sorts of interesting problems raised by SCOTUS hearing arguments on Proposition 8 and DOMA. But then Bryan posed me a fascinating problem about epistemology and free will, so I’m going to write about that. Actually, I’m going to write down the problem as posed to me now, and then next week I’m going to write about my thoughts on the issue.

Here we go: Bryan doesn’t believe in free will. His proof for this goes thusly:

  1. Bryan is a materialist, which means he believes that there is no mind/brain dichotomy–the mind is just our perception of the workings of the brain. The brain is controlled by various chemicals.
  2. Because the brain is made up of particles, if we really understood the brain (and quantum physics), we could build a computer that could predict what someone is thinking.
  3. So now that we know what someone is thinking, given a set of initial conditions, we can predict someone’s behavior.
  4. Since all choices can be accurately predicted, there is no free will. We are essentially controlled by chemicals. Free will is just an illusion we have because we ourselves don’t entirely understand the workings of our brains. But we might as well live with this illusion, because we can’t build a computer that can predict things like that.

(Bryan, you will have to let me know if I have misconstrued your argument.)

So I have been reading and thinking about quantum physics, Gödel’s incompleteness theorem, Newcomb’s problem and meta-Newcomb’s problem (even rereading my senior philosophy thesis), and  also looking into the works of a lot of theorists from about 1950-present. It has been quite a knotty problem, I will tell you. If you have any comments on it, please feel free to post them in the comments section here, on FB or G+, or email them to me at ehlupton(at)gmail(dot)com. I will try to address any worthwhile opinions I receive.

Em oi! #375: Another Terrible Thing Done in Nietzsche’s Name

The age of specialization is over.

Have you heard of a madman who on a bright morning lighted a lantern and ran to the market place and cried incessantly, “I seek God! I seek God!”

Writing a thesis is simultaneously the best and most terrible thing I have ever done.

Anyway. Nietzsche! Has there ever been a philosopher with a cooler mustache? I think not. Other things Nietzsche had: Syphilis. But that’s not to say we should write him off. He grew up next door to a church–his father was a Lutheran pastor (who died when young Friedrich was four). That he later went on to propose some revolutionary ideas about man’s relationship to religion in the 19th and 20th centuries is not entirely surprising. He lived a quiet life in the mountains, because of health issues, and so he knew what he was talking about when he said that happiness comes from overcoming obstacles. That’s an older idea than him, actually; I believe it goes back to Aristotle. At any rate, Nietzsche is quite cagey and doesn’t say what he thinks the new morals he’s calling for should be like. He is pretty clear that he thinks hanging on to Christian morality is stupid and outdated. You can check out the famous passage on the death of God from The Gay Science here. (He talks about the death of God again in Thus Spoke Zarathustra.) He has a marvelous mode of writing, it’s very readable. What else? Philosophy Now magazine did a marvelous podcast about our fellow that you can listen to here. And philosopher Alain de Botton did a 24-minute episode of a longer series for the BBC about Nietzsche, and you can check that out here. It’s awesome both because the US would never air something like that (not enough desperate housewives) and because de Botton is very good at explaining the essence of Nietzsche’s philosophy.

Is that enough links? Can you tell I’ve been doing some research? I’m having an affair with Nietzsche; don’t tell M. Foucault, I fear he would sulk.

I wrote an article on running for a local running blog called Technically Running. You can read it here if you’re interested. You can check out the last comic I did with Nietzsche in it here.

This comic will be filed under B3317.L86 2013, for Philosophy (General)—Modern (1450/1600- )—By region or country—Germany. Austria (German)—By period—Later 19th and 20th centuries—Individual philosophers—Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm, 1844-1900—Criticism and interpretation.

Em oi! #373: What We Talk About on Long Drives

Conversation omitted: "Quick, grab a baggie before the dog drops a vom!"

This was drawn from a conversation we had on our drive back to Madison on Xmas Day. I had the comic 80% done before we left for Thailand, but I didn’t manage to get the last two panels colored and the whole thing scanned until just now. I should add that I know Berkeley was really refuting Locke more than Descartes, but I understand the objections to Descartes much better, so I drew him.

This is hardly the first time I’ve touched on Berkeley’s philosophy in the comic. He has long been an obsession of mine, given that immaterialism (also called idealism) is so damn weird.

The Rumble in the Library

The gentleman with the wig there is Samuel Johnson. According to legend (and Boswell), Johnson had this to say about Berkeley:

After we came out of the church, we stood talking for some time together of Bishop Berkeley’s ingenious sophistry to prove the non-existence of matter, and that every thing in the universe is merely ideal. I observed, that though we are satisfied his doctrine is not true, it is impossible to refute it. I never shall forget the alacrity with which Johnson answered, striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it, ‘I refute it THUS.’1

Of course, Berkeley would not have accepted this as a refutation, because both the stone and Johnson’s foot exist in Johnson’s mind.
I belieeeeve...in the Czech Republic's existence...

Finally a comic dating from Ly’s tenure in the Czech Republic. If you happen to be an atheist or agnostic, Berkeley’s philosophy becomes very strange, because whose intellect is watching the entire world? It’s troubling. Having just come from Thailand, I suppose I’m pretty sure that it still exists, or at least I’ve got friends there who might tell me if it ceased to exist. But I can’t be sure.

For simplicity’s sake, we’ll file these under B1348 .L86 2013B1348 .L86 2007, and B1348 .L86 2007b, for Philosophy (General)—Modern (1450/1600-)—By region or country—England. Ireland. Scotland. Wales—18th century—Individual philosophers—Berkeley, George, 1685-1753—Criticism and interpretation.

Yesterday we came back from Thailand. Yesterday was Friday, but we actually got on a plane in Chiang Mai at 17:30 on Thursday to fly to Bangkok. From Bangkok, at 23:30 we got on another plane and flew to Incheon airport in South Korea (a very nice but intensely baffling place). We’d all been up since about 7:00 on Thursday (although we dozed on the plane, it was that weird fugue sleep you slip into on an airplane), so when that plane landed we were a bit loopy.

We got breakfast. I took some photos:

B's strawberry cream cheese waffle

B’s strawberry cream cheese waffle

Sara's blueberry bagel. I think the other available flavors were "garlic" and "plane."

Sara’s blueberry bagel. I think the other available flavors were “garlic” and “plane.” When I saw the flavor list is when I began to suspect that something about Korea is a giant joke being played (on me, I guess?).

This was called "stick pie." It was crispy.

This was called “stick pie.” It was crispy.

Those are the only photos I took in the airport. I took lots of photos in Thailand, though (about 300 I guess). Here are a few:

Various Thai Fruits!

Various Thai Fruits!

ผัดพักบุงไฟแดง, or stir-fried morning glory. In Vietnamese, the plant is called "rau mung." (Please excuse my lack of diacritics.)

ผัดพักบุงไฟแดง, or stir-fried morning glory. In Vietnamese, the plant is called “rau mung.” (Please excuse my lack of diacritics.)

Sara makes a friend at the place we studied cooking.

Sara makes a friend at the place we studied cooking.

Cooking the morning glory with Maew's instruction.

Cooking the morning glory with Maew’s instruction.

I also took photos of wats, monks, that sort of thing. I’ll upload those later.

Anyway, I started training for my upcoming 50 km races this morning after I got up. The first is April 30th and it’s about 14 weeks away, which also means I have about 14 weeks until my birthday and until my THESIS has to be done and and and. So the 50k is really what I am focused on, since it is a lot less frightening. I thought running was going to be terrible because it is cold out (about 46 degrees colder than Chiang Mai was). But in fact I had a great run. I hit my planned tempo for the majority of the miles, had a runner’s high all day, and felt very strong. I stopped at 14.4 miles, but I could have gone much farther, I think. The only way it could have been better is if I’d remembered to bring water. Whoops.

Well this entry is already treatise-length, so I’ll leave off here. Hope you are all having a good winter/January!

1 Boswell, James. Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson. Abridged and edited, with an introduction by Charles Grosvenor Osgood. Project Gutenberg, 2006. Retrieved from http://www.gutenberg.org/files/1564/1564-h/1564-h.htm. 12 January 2013.

Karl Marx Sketch

I found this on the bottom of a piece of paper I’d been taking notes on about Walter Benjamin, and I thought it might prove entertaining. I didn’t bother to ink it, just scanned it, darkened it slightly to make it more readable (the original was in pencil) and uploaded it. Therefore I will transcribe the dialogue below:

Em: Say Karl, do you really believe artists have no free will?

Karl Marx: No, I just see profit as an overwhelming motive.

Em: Well I mean, does that make something “not art”? Can’t art have a lot of reasons for its creation?

KM: My point is more that because of substructural problems, photography and film cause superstructural problems.

So there you go.

Karl Heinrich Marx was really the beardiest philosopher ever. I don’t think I really did him justice. But then, I was drawing him from memory.

When Marx says “substructure” he means “economy,” and when he says “superstructure” he means “culture.” And when he says, “You Bet Your Life,” it means you have to say a special word to win a hundred dollars from a duck.

Marx died in 1883 and the first movie camera was invented in 1888, so he probably didn’t have much opinion about film. But this is how I think through things sometimes.

Well, this romp has been a bit more shallow than it appeared to be on the surface. That’s okay. I’m leaving for Thailand in a few days, so I’m taking a little time to relax. I’ve been trying to come up with New Years resolutions, but mostly I’m glad that 2012 is ending. It has been I think the most stressful year of my life.

Every time I sign onto WordPress I see I have more spam comments. Anyone want to leave a real one? Let me know: What’s your New Years resolution? Did you make one? Or are you perfect just the way you are?

Em oi! #372: But is it Art?

I'm very popular on the internets in my head.

Comic to be filed under: B3209.B583W6 L86 2012, for Philosophy (General)—Modern(1450/1600-)—By region or country—Germany, Austria (German)—By period—Later 19th and 20th centuries—Individual philosophers—Avenarius – Brauer—Benjamin, Walter, 1892-1940—Separate works, A-Z. What a mouthful.

I have been trying to find a good summary of Walter Benjamin’s (say it like an academic: Ben-ya-mean) “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (or, alternatively, “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility”) essay. Because it is the most oft-quoted essay of the 20th century (maybe), there are a few available. Wikipedia has a very bare-bones, straightforward summation. Yale’s Modernism Lab (perhaps unsurprisingly) has a much better, more detailed explanation. Finally the (much beloved?) Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy offers some critical notes, not just on that piece (or rather the two pieces, since he wrote two versions of the essay) but on the themes of art and aura in Benjamin’s work.

Basically there are two things you probably need to know in order to understand the essay: The first thing is that Benjamin is worried about methods of reproducing art–specifically, methods like photography and film–and how they change the original. For example, when I was in college, I had a poster of the Creation of Man (by Michaelangelo) on my wall:

And G-d said, “Let there be naked people!” And lo…

Philosophically speaking, there are a lot of differences between the poster and the original version on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. I mean, one is a fresco and one is a photograph printed on (high quality) paper, but also, as Benjamin puts it, “reproduction…[places] the copy of the original in situations which the original itself cannot attain” (21). In other words, the Sistine Chapel would never fit in my dorm room, while the poster will. So reproducing the image creates this loss of authenticity, or what Benjamin refers to as “aura.” In his words,

It might be stated as a general formula that the technology of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the sphere of tradition. By replicating the work many times over, it substitutes a mass existence for a unique existence. And in permitting the reproduction to reach the recipient in his or her own situation, it actualizes that which is reproduced. These two processes lead to a massive upheaval in the domain of objects handed down from the past–a shattering of tradition which is the reverse side of the present crisis and renewal of humanity. Both processes are intimately related to the mass movements of our day. (22)

By “the present crisis,” I believe Benjamin means the rise of fascism, specifically in Germany. And by “mass movements” he means both fascism and Marxism. That’s the second thing you have to understand about Benjamin: he was a German Jew who escaped to Paris in the early 1930s, from whence he published this essay; eventually, he committed suicide while trying to escape France to the US via Spain when the situation looked grim [edited to add: or perhaps he was killed by Stalin’s agents in the area!]. He had a brother who was killed in the Camps. Beyond this, he was a Marxist. So while his discussion of aura, as the Stanford Encyclopedia suggests, has been accused of being overly nostalgic, I don’t think that’s really the case–he doesn’t seem nostalgic about the changes he’s describing, more just trying to explain how he thinks art has changed since the advent of (specifically) the moving picture.

So as a good Marxist, Benjamin when confronted by film suggests that it is the masses who essentially control film–more than perhaps any other art, it has a clear economic driver behind it. “While [the screen actor] stands before the apparatus [camera], he knows that in the end he is confronting the masses. It is they who will control him” (33). This changes the relationship between the masses and the art (36). Here he leans heavily on some psychological theory (Freud among others) to suggest that because of the way film acts on the mind (conscious and unconscious), it can act as an “immunization against…mass psychoses” (38). However that means, in a sense, that film can also brainwash people.

Now, fascism (which Benjamin views as Marxism without the dissolution of property/class), is not the first political movement to have used that old lie, “Dolce et decorum est pro patria mori.” Sparta comes to mind, and Rome (that phrase comes from Horace), and the Vikings/Norse all glorified death in battle, to say nothing of the Crusades, the Samurai, WWII-era Kamikaze units (maybe?)… However, fascism’s “logical outcome…is an aestheticizing of political life” (41) which results in war. “War, and only war, makes it possible to set a goal for mass movements on the grandest scale while preserving traditional property relations” (ibid.). In essence, the fascists create an aesthetic glorification of war in order to promote this agenda. If you have ever seen Triumph of the Will, you will know exactly what Benjamin was talking about.

Benjamin concludes, famously:

“Fiat ars–pereat mundis,” [Let art flourish and the world pass away] says fascism, expecting from war…the artistic gratification of a sense perception altered by technology. This is evidently the consummation of l’art pour l’art [art for art’s sake]. Humankind, which once, in Homer, was an object of contemplation for the Olympian gods, has now become one for itself. Its self-alienation has reached the point where it can experience its own annihilation as a supreme aesthetic pleasure. Such is the aestheticizing of politics, as practiced by fascism. Communism replies by politicizing art. (42)

I have occasionally had reason to read Benjamin–his essay “The Task of the Translator” is another classic–and I often have this problem where I will have issues with the particulars of his argument but on the whole, I cannot refute his overall point. After reading this essay, I wondered if I could justify watching films that continue to glorify war.

I’m still going to see Skyfall. But one interesting problem to address in my own writing (as I think the more recent Bond writers have tried to do) will be to examine the non-glorified outcomes of violence.


Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility.” In The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility, and Other Writings on Media, edited by Michael W. Jennings, Brigid Doherty, and Thomas Y. Levin, translated by Edmund Jephcott, Rodney Livingstone, Howard Eiland, et al. (19-55) Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2008. (Also found here.)

Owen, Wilfred. “Dolce et Decorum Est.” The War Poetry Website, edited by David Roberts. Last updated 2011. http://www.warpoetry.co.uk/owen1.html. Retrieved 26 December 2012.