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Cinema and Telecommunication / Distance and Aura


If Walter Benjamin had one true intellectual descendant who extended his inquiries into the second half of the twentieth century, this must be Paul Virilio. Indeed, Benjamin and Virilio share a number of crucial affinities both in terms of their method and the themes they explore.

The method: both are able to practice the most difficult
philosophical method of all - that of induction - inferring general laws of culture and history from the minute details of everyday life. (This sets them apart from most critics who are predisposed to see such details through the filters of already existing theoretical paradigms.) Both also abandon the conventional method of theoretical exposition which requires the writer to first clearly state general arguments and then support them by particular examples in favor of another method, borrowed from cinema: montage of images. Benjamin, writing about the Arcades Project: "Method of this work is literary montage. I need say nothing. Only show." Virilio, in a recent interview: "I always write with images."

The themes: both Benjamin and Virilio repeatedly address
themselves to the same ones - the city, the relations between human senses and technology, the effect of forms of perception on forms of politics. This essay will focus on one of these common themes: the disruption caused by a cultural artifact, specifically, new communication technology (film in the case of Benjamin, telecommunication in the case of Virilio) in the familiar patterns of human perception; in short, in intervention of technology into human nature. This theme features prominently in Benjamin's celebrated "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" (1936); half a century later, Virilio returns to it in an essay which presents one of the most interesting critiques of cyberculture to date - "Big Optics" (1992).

What is human nature and what is technology? How does one
draws the boundary between the two in the twentieth century? Both
Benjamin and Virilio solve this problem in the same way. They equate nature with spatial distance between the observer and the observed; and they see technologies as destroying this distance. As we will see, these two assumptions lead them to interpret the prominent new technologies of their times in a very similar way.

Article  1996