Is the Aura the Same as Affect? A Response to a Lingering Question

I have a friend who has been asking Benjamin scholars, for a few years now, if affect and the aura are the same thing. It is a fair question, and there isn’t a hard answer to it, but I am going to attempt to put my answer down here.

The aura as concept is developed by Walter Benjamin in his seminal “The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility” or “Mechanical Reproduction,” depending on your translation. Here is the link to the essay, which is close the translation that I am working from.

To begin, I am going to set up a few points that Benjamin makes clear about the aura and how it functions.

1. The aura is attached to a historical and material presence of a work of art. The original art object (lets call it ART223) stands in opposition to its reproduction because ART223 has a particular physical presence that attaches it to times and spaces, whereas the reproduction does not. ART223 survived burning at Agincourt; Tom the Freshman’s mother trashed his poster of ART223 during winter break because it smelled funny. She would never do that to ART223 because it is precious, has meaning, etc. That is the aura.

2. “The unique value of the work of the “authentic” work of art always has its basis in ritual.” Benjamin claims that reproducibility means that art is removed from its “parasitic” relationship with ritual, which is true; the religious iconic nature of art goes away.

3. The aura is always attached to time and place, and if that time and place is attached to the eternal, all the better. The reason that ritual icons work the way they do is that the viewer is able to enter a spacial relationship with ART223, a masterful painting passed down through years of struggle, pain, and creation. The aura is an envelopment of the viewer in history.

Benjamin turns to material reality to explain the destruction of the aura. The physicality of the film camera as an apparatus that contains an “eye” (lens) and the photographic machine mean that what is captured is really merely being reproduced at 24 frames per second. Thousands of tiny portraits arranged in time.

This is where the prime difference between aura and affect comes into play. The aura depends of history, and the film camera necessarily destroys history. Benjamin claims that time is constructed in a camera through a process of montage, of combining disparate time together into a cohesive narrative that displaces the physical reality it reproduced. He is clear on this point:

For the aura is bound to the presence in the here and now. There is no facsimile of the aura. The aura surrounding Macbeth on the stage cannot be divorced from the aura which, for the living spectators, surrounds the actor who plays him. What distinguishes the shot in the film studio, however, is that the camera is substituted for the audience. As a result, the aura surrounding the actor is dispelled–and, with it, the aura of the figure he portrays.

The aura is destroyed when the organic space of audience/art relations is disrupted. Affect and aura cannot be the same, because affect needs none of these local or organic attachments in order to survive and thrive; in fact, I would go so far as to say that the aura has to die in order to affect to thrive.

The aura’s attachment to a ritualistic sense, and the religions that go with those religions, means that the aura only appears to a select group of people. Iconoclasm becomes possible in a world in which the aura has tentacles that grab the select few.

Affective connections thrive in the post-aura world because they use aesthetics as a method for creating assemblages out of films, posters, people, placards, volcanoes, and anything else. The aura creates hierarchic relationships between the people who view the art, ART223, and the keepers of the art. Affect ignores all of that, though that isn’t to say that it isn’t attached to the ebb and flow of capitalism (and also Ranciere’s “distribution of the sensible”).

So the aura and affect are not the same thing.

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