Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Explain what Walter Benjamin means when he writes that the film camera introduces us to “unconscious optics.”

(Again, I've written a lot on Benjamin. But this is a little bit different than my other posts, also from the same midterm.)

Section XIII of Walter Benjamin’s essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” could easily be titled Revelations Of The Camera as it spends much time addressing the nature of the camera to more easily focus on detailed aspects of a performance and an event (this is in comparison to the stage play). According to Benjamin: “by means of this apparatus [of the camera], man can represent his environment” (30) to a more explicit, usually unseen extent through the use of the close-up, slow motion and other technical manipulations of the film, the camera and the lens. Benjamin believes that these manipulations cause a “deepening of apperception” since “behavior items shown in a movie can be analyzed much more precisely…than those presented on paintings or on the stage” (30) through the use of a close-up of extended duration on an object, for example.

For Benjamin, the close-up on any object functions twofold. Not only does the close-up “extend our comprehension of the necessities which rule our lives” (30), it also allows us to acknowledge how truly limited is our field of vision. While the close-up “reveals entirely new structural formations of the subject” (31), the use of slow motion displays certain elements of movement that are not prevalent in the day-to-day routine. Think about Edward Muybridge’s experiment (that ultimately lead to the development of the moving picture) of a horse running on a track: how would one be able to visualize, or even capture, the moment that all four of the legs of the horse leave the ground? (See Figure 1 below)

The nature of the camera to display these unconscious optics exemplifies how mechanical apparatuses allow for the combination of art and science. With devices such as the microscope and the telescope human beings were allowed to peer into different aspects of the human body and the expansive universe respectively and thus became privy to aspects of our selves and our relationship in the cosmos that were before unavailable to the normal human perspective. Much is the same with the film camera: a close-up on a portion of the human body can act much like a microscope in that it reveals details unavailable to the naked eye.

It now becomes a merger of two interests, whereas before the devices for magnified sight were simply used in the scientific field: if one were to focus on the example of one’s calf muscle, for example, Benjamin makes the argument that “it is difficult to say which is more fascinating, its artistic value or its value for science” (30). Now that the muscle is being viewed on screen or in a photographic print, its aesthetic qualities are able to shine. This new purpose of representational art is much like the Renaissance painters that Benjamin mentions (see endnote 23) such as da Vinci who used anatomy as a subject in his work, thus merging the fields of science and art. That these two realms have now collided in the media of photography and film represents a major shift in the singularity and isolation of each field of study, a major technological advancement that can be used not just for art’s sake but also for methodical research and experimentation. For Benjamin, the ability of the camera to reveal “unconscious optics” represents “one of the revolutionary functions of the film” (30).

Figure 1: An example of the unconscious optics that photography and film can capture that might otherwise remain unseen.

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