Walter Benjamin, in his essay “The Work of Art in its Age of Technological Reproducibility”, states that a person’s “aura is bound to his presence in the here and now” (Benjamin 31). When artists create a work of art, they establish their own reality, an extension of themselves on canvas to be interpreted, hopefully by one person or a few. However, with “the desire of the present masses to ‘get closer’ to things” while simultaneously trying to overcome “each thing’s uniqueness”, the “aura” Benjamin defines has been changed completely. People now digitally reproduce works of art, separating them from their original form and in effect, their true aura. There just isn’t the desire to search for the reality that the artist created in a painting when movies and photography are easier to interpret. People want that instant connection with something without all of the work, that is why communication methods have grown so rapidly with the advancement of modern technologies. Today, people can use telephones, Text messages, e-mails, webcams, social networking sites, and various other means of communicating rather than face-to-face interactions. This has created quite the dissonance of reality and the auras that people can identify themselves with. Overcoming the “uniqueness” of face-to-face communication has transformed the “here and now” of the aura, but the increasing popularity of technological communication proves that these new representations of reality make the versatility of communication priceless.
With increasing use of the Internet to mediate personal relationships, more and more people are finding ways to create new identities online, dismissing their aura. Social networking sites such as Facebook allow for this to take place in a variety of ways. Members can post statuses about their lives to make them seem a certain way, or pictures of themselves that appeal to a certain audience. Walter Benjamin might liken this to artwork that goes public on a large scale. The audience that scans someone’s Facebook for updates “are criticized for seeking distraction… the artwork is seen as a means of entertainment” (Benjamin 39). This gives the Facebook member a new identity and title to withhold, allowing them to distance themselves from their real aura. The two-dimensional persona derived from a social network provides a barrier to safeguard people from showing too much of who they truly are and potentially embarrassing themselves. In the case of flirting, sites like Facebook, or online dating networks give people more two-dimensional confidence than they would have face to face. An example of this lies in the reconstruction of the body over the Internet: “rather than make an effort to look good, individuals can create a lasting first impression by describing how attractive they look” (Whitty 345). “Cyberspace allows us, through text, to create new attractive bodies” and with these new bodies, we can form alternatives to body language and emotion (345). Since “flirting behavior consists mainly of non-verbal signals”, cyber-flirters have to find ways to make up for the lack of the here and now (343). Smiley faces, punctuation, and capitalization can only go so far in replicating body language and yet people strive to make even the most non-personal medium, intimate.
Walter Benjamin writes that “every day, the need to possess the object, from the closest proximity…becomes more imperative” (285). Human relations, much like “the object”, are constantly struggling to remain closely connected. This unending process of connectivity is exemplified through the different methods of instant communication available in the world today. Text messages sent between phones are simple and fast, and they provide quick insight into the respondent’s here and now. However, thanks to this indirect medium, the text message sender can create a whole new aura depending on the recipient. Walter Benjamin states that the film actor must perform in front of the camera in the way that “those who are not visible” will want and it is “this invisibility [that] heightens the authority of their control” (33). In the two-dimensional world of text messaging, the sender must anticipate any direction that their words could be interpreted, and this creates a personal communication that is many times bereft of mood. This loss of mood in daily communication is evidence that people are constantly striving to overcome the “uniqueness” of face to face conversation so that they can “get closer” to people through other mediums such as text messaging. Even the intimacy of sex has been condemned to the detached world of technology. Monica T. Whitty, in her essay regarding cyber-flirting, states that “In their discussions of cybersex, theorists often emphasize the idea that participants can engage in virtual sex without the real presence of bodies” (344). And it is precisely this detachment that blurs the respect for person-to-person contact in an intimate light.
Telephones are seen as a more personal form of communication. Although the body language still cannot be read, the listener can hear changes in tone that can be matched with specific moods. Just as Walter Benjamin argues that in radio broadcasts, “it is the voice, the diction, and the language…that so frequently make the most desirable programs unbearable for the listener”, telephone conversations can be analyzed more critically because they are more relatable and offer more information than words on a screen. Since there is no backspace button for our mouths, communicating over the telephone is a little more risky because there is a constant gamble between “what the listener will be grateful for or will find unforgiveable” (Benjamin 392). However even over the phone people have the opportunity to create new identities and false auras because the important language of the body is still left unseen. This cannot be said for the new form of talking on the phone with the use of a webcam where communicating goes a step further than just what’s audible. Programs such as Skype or Oovoo were introduced to the masses as a way to communicate with those far away in front of a camera, imitating much closer the feeling of actual intimacy with simulated face time. Whitty argues that in front of people, signals and hints of flirting can be picked up more through bodily cues than anything else (342). Communicating in front of a camera, though still two-dimensional, creates the closest representation of real life body language. The person may act a different way in front of the camera than they would in person, but generally, this method of communication does a good job of replicating a person’s true aura. Walter Benjamin says that movies are more well-received than art forms such as paintings because they try to imitate reality in a way that leaves no room for interpretation, just relatability (31). Text messaging, e-mails, and phone calls leave the mystery of trying to piece together the here and now, whereas video chatting and real-life conversing document reality more closely and give people little chance to redefine their aura.
Although modern day communication methods oftentimes lack the reality that can so easily be found with face-to-face communication, the virtual reality they create is still valuable in personal relationships today. The confidence that comes from hiding behind a computer screen or telephone in communicating is not as readily available with in-person conversations and it is “this ambiguity [that] protects people from humiliation” (342). Online or over the phone, a person can present themselves in ways that they normally wouldn’t dare to venture, thus opening up a new world of opportunities. Online dating sites were invented so that people could avoid the risk of rejection that so often threatens the search for love. People feel more comfortable letting their true aura hang in the air for awhile while they take some time to get to know each other’s more safe and edited cyber-aura. The instant-connectivity of the internet makes it possible for people to sift through those “other fish in the sea” without the hassle of meeting them face-to-face first. Just as a “painter maintains in his work a natural distance from reality”, people can use technological reproductions of intimacy to simulate reality until they are ready to get the full effect in person (Benjamin 35).
The discord between a person’s virtual aura created through technological communication and their real aura shown in face-to-face communication offers a range of consequences. Forgoing your “unique existence in a particular place” as through a telephone or the Internet shatters your real-life aura, but it also creates a new, more safe and confident one (Benjamin 23). Walter Benjamin explains that “film…provides the equipment-free aspect of reality that [people] are entitled to demand from a work of art” (35). Film is closely linked to reality because it captures the movements and essence of real life, leaving no room for filling in the blanks. This is the preferred method of interpretation because it is easier, but the artist has a chance to be creative and stay distant from their audience by creating a mere extension of their aura on the canvas. This analysis can easily be related to the technological communications versus real-life connections today. Non-personal communicating methods like the Internet, though they strive to be as intimate as possible, lack the here and now that is established by film or face-to-face conversations. The idea of connecting virtually is appealing to a lot of people because they can be as intimate as they want while still maintaining a safe distance. This proves that although people are trying to overcome the uniqueness established with real-life interactions, they also wish to maintain a close proximity with others and find new ways to establish intimacy.
Benjamin, Walter. The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility, and OtherWritings on Media. Ed. Michael W. Jennings, Brigid Doherty, and Thomas Y. Levin.Trans. E. F. N. Jephcott. Cambridge, MA: Belknap of Harvard UP, 2008. Print.
Whitty, Monica T. "Cyber-Flirting: Playing at Love on the Internet." Theory & Psychology13.339 (2003): 340-57. Print.
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