Benjamin: The Decomposition of Aura

“The pillars of nature’s temple are alive
and sometimes yield perplexing messages;
forests of symbols between us and the shrine
remark our passage with accomplished eyes”
(Baudelaire, Flowers of Evil,Correspondences l. 1-4)

“These warm fall nights I breathe, eyes closed, the scent
of your welcoming breasts and thereupon appears
the coast of maybe Malabar – some paradise
besotted by the sun’s monotonous fire;”
(Baudelaire, Flowers of Evil,By Association 1-4)

“It was a splendid beach, almost completely deserted, of a geometrical flatness, with immaculate sand and, surrounded by cliffs with strikingly black vertical faces; a man graced with a real artistic temperament would undoubtedly have been able to make the most of this solitude, this beauty. For my part, I felt myself faced with infinity like a flea on a piece of fly paper. I couldn’t give a fuck about this beauty, this geological transcendence. In fact, I even found it all vaguely menacing.”
(Houellebecq,The Possibility of an Island,pg. 74)

“After a certain age… it’s quite obvious that everything has been said and done. How could a project as intrinsically empty as two men spending some time together lead to anything other than boredom, annoyance and, at the end of the day, outright hostility?”
(Houellebecq,The Possibility of an Island,
pg. 60)

The above excerpts mark the transition and evolution of the modern soul – from Baudelaire’s poems, where nature or a relationship can transport you to other equally sensuous and evocative landscapes, to a sensuality in Houellebecq based on just how little comes back to us from the external world. The pleasure of reading Houellebecq comes not from experiencing the infinite, but from the blunt denial of that halcyon realm; to be knocked out of nature and paradise and stand alone in stark, individuated self-hood. In this regard, we become less and less attuned to the poets and writers of the past and less attuned even to the social apparatus that confounds our daily lives. On occasion, I wonder if we aren’t as remote to the strategies and social institutions we were born into (and therefore had no hand in creating/designing) as we would be to the symbolic and relational modes of Georgian England.

In a previous article on ‘Relationships’, I made brief mention of Walter Benjamin’s concept of ‘aura’ regarding relational decay. For the sake of definition and future articles, a clearer exposition of how I am using this notion of aura will be necessary.

Benjamin and the Aura

In his essay Some Motifs in Baudelaire Benjamin makes a distinction between what he calls ‘experience’ and what we might glibly generalise as ‘information’. The quality of experience he relates both to private and collective life and describes as ‘less the product of facts firmly anchored in memory’ (information) and more of a ‘convergence in memory of accumulated and frequently unconscious data’ (Benjamin,Illuminations,pg.153-154).

To clarify what it is ‘experience’ contains that ‘information’ does not, Benjamin uses Proust’s distinction between voluntary and involuntary memory. It is the character of the information given by voluntary remembrance that it ‘retains no trace’ of the event recalled. However much you try to summon up the atmosphere of the event, it cannot be recalled, whereas with the involuntary memory, say where you eat something that reminds you of a time in childhood, it can happen that the whole ambiance comes flooding back (Benjamin,Illuminations,p. 155). ‘That Christmassy feeling’ might serve as an example of how a cultural event enters collective experience – reflecting on Christmas in the middle of summer will not make you ‘feel Christmassy’; snow on Christmas lights in winter almost certainly will, or would have, prior to its disintegration.

Snow on Christmas lights in winter.

In defining how it is an event is embedded as an ‘experience’ Benjamin looks to Freud’s model of consciousness. In defining consciousness, Freud says that it is its special character that ‘unlike what happens in all other psychical systems, the excitatory process does not leave behind any permanent change in its elements, but expires, as it were, in the phenomenon of becoming conscious’ (Benjamin,Illuminations,p. 157). The meaning therefore is that becoming conscious denies the possibility of any experiential memory trace being left. The data must be allowed to enter unconsciously before it will leave any experiential trace.

Due to its capacity for nullifying permanent effects in the organism, consciousness, for Freud, becomes part of the apparatus that protects the nervous system against external stimuli. This threat to the nervous system comes in the form of shocks and ‘the more readily consciousness registers these shocks, the less likely are they to have a traumatic effect’ (Benjamin,Illuminations,p. 157). It is becoming conscious of an event then that nullifies its capacity to traumatise, but at the same time, it diminishes its capacity to leave experiential memory traces.

Regardless of the principles by which this theory is argued, the main points appear to resonate: that there is a qualitative and sensual ‘aura’ that marks ‘experience’ as distinct from ‘information’. It is this experiential quality that we find in the above lines by Baudelaire in the way one situation sensually evokes the dreamy fantasies of other situations or in the way nature contains quasi-mystical signs within itself that may be decoded into other signs, underlying spiritual truths or other ‘correspondences’. Secondly, these experiential traces do seem incompatible with consciousness. We cannot wilfully summon the evocative aspect of a memory, but that memory must come naturally with its trace; one cannot choose to ‘feel Christmassy’; one cannot choose to invest landscapes or images with their evocative aspect – it comes, or it does not.

In Houellebecq however, we see precisely the end of this sort of transcendence through nature or relationships. Faced with infinity, he is a flea on fly paper; he recognises the vastness of nature and doesn’t give a fuck; without the instantaneous pleasures of sex and attraction, friendship with other men becomes an empty annoyance – devoid of tradition, community and mutual experiential reference points, there can be nothing between them. It is thus ‘spending some time together’ gets italicized. ‘Spending time together’ is conceptual, an object; it is purely structural, a functional necessity that pays homage to the relationship as an abstract duty rather than something that is engaged in. There is nothing between the characters for them to share. Everything has been said and done.

Benjamin cites many reasons for this – increased consciousness through the constant awareness of traffic and crowds; increasing anomie in the anonymous city and a divorce from actual experience in favour of information. In distinguishing between the story-teller and the news story he writes: ‘Few readers [of newspapers] can boast of any information which another reader may require of him… It is not the object of the story to convey a happening per se, which is the purpose of information; rather, it embeds it in the life of the storyteller in order to pass it on as experience to those listening’ (Benjamin,Illuminations,pg. 155-156). Increased isolation from experience in favour of information and sensation are leading to a decomposition in experiential aura and thus in our capacity to negotiate and value interaction more generally.

    • Mr. Divine
    • April 27th, 2011

    I live in the garden of eden. Five acres in a mansion backing on to a reserve in a small country town. The pace of life is slower in some ways. There is less traffic and people greet each other. From about 9 to 19 I lived backing onto the Formby National Trust land.. you must know that coming from Lancashire. i would spend hours down there by myself and my dog, playing golf, running, walking. It was my place and I still think it is mine.

    There are back country roads in Japan where I used to ride my push bike around Matsue in Western Japan. They were like paradise some mornings. Those roads somehow belong to me. People don’t think of Japan as being beautiful but it is, the most beautiful place on earth in some ways. I really miss Japan.

    Houellebecq .. must be a city slicker.

    • Certainly, this blog is writing from the city.

      Houellebecq too is indeed a writer of the city and Baudelaire is most definitely seen as one of the major architects of city aesthetics.

      Houellebecq for a few years now has been living though out in the irish countryside – we’ll see what his next book yields. Living in Lanzerote prior to that only seems to have made things worse 😉

    • Mr. Divine
    • April 27th, 2011

    You’re probably from Manchester. I lived in Moss Side. I lived in other cities but I find it difficult to relax when I’m surrounded by concrete. I need to look at nature, and I need to be removed from man’s noise. I spent a lot of time walking on the moors outside of Halifax. Have you been up there? You probably spend your time reading naval gazing books. Do you go out much?

  1. I’ve been up on the moors, aye. ‘Tis pleasant enough, particularly at night.

    • Mr. Divine
    • April 28th, 2011

    The Moors at night. Walking at night isn’t that great but there can be great skies at dusk. I walked the Pennine Way and camped all nights usually for free. Camped up at the top of Kinder Scout in one of those gullies with a uni mate. I had some hash oil and it was hidden in my camera case. Anyway we had our photos taken at the start of the Way and unbeknown to me the oil came out. I was thinking of walking back in the dark but in some places there is no track and its boggy. It’s OK walking when you know the track.

    Perhaps you were thinking of spending a night up in the moors with me? We could go to one of those pub hotels right up at the top. The Pack Horse. Have a few drinks, look at the beautiful stars and … The ‘and’ will depend upon who you are.

    I like your slick blog site. Very Impersonal. But also really well designed.

    Is that someone’s famous quote about the moors?

  1. July 11th, 2014

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