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A thought on Benjamin’s Aura

The Benjamininan concept of Aura is problematic. Not least because Adorno criticizes him as of lacking in dialectical thoroughness. Benjamin’s “messianic” politics is a fundamental critique of the systemic violence of capitalism on the one hand, but on the other hand, its logical ground seems to be weak to me. Perhaps the best way to understand and utilize his messianic politics is not that of Agamben but the Jamesonian one in which the transition to the mythic violence (suspension of legal edifice itself, rather than the correction of violence in the hands of legal justice system) is understood as a dialectical movement rather than an endtime discourse (as is the case of Agamben).

The concept of Aura, like other Benjaminian concepts such as “the mythic violence”, can be understood as influenced by theology and especially by that of Gershom Scholem. That is, aura can mean something spiritual and ritual that an original artwork is supposed to have and that the mechanical reproduction cannot reproduce in their copies. However, the obverse side of Aura is the materiality. It is because the spirituality of an original artwork is embodied in the artwork’s singular materiality which cannot be copied. The materiality is a point where dialectics is captured in an image-like still moment. In an artwork such as Van Gogh’s “A Pair of Shoes”, the meaning of the artwork cannot be fully grasped without actually looking at it–not only the color and shape (copiable) but also texture, frame, and traces of color and shape (non-copiable). In this sense, when Benjamin says “The eternal is in any case far more the ruffle on a dress than some idea” (66) in explaining his concept of “dialectics image” in Arcades Project we can easily see that the Auratic spirituality is nothing like the idea. Rather, it is much closer to the materiality and texture of a thing that can be grasped in a flash-like face-to-face situation and that cannot be understood only in a theological sense.

Perhaps Marx’s description of commodity as a “theological nicety” is pertinent here. But what is a singular materiality here? It is that which a copy cannot transfer. If we can expand this idea, then we can define Aura as that which cannot be represented through a transfer and even through a translation. (In Benjamin, translation has a completely different status.) In other words, the aura of a thing is that which cannot be represented otherwise than the means of the ontology of the thing itself. Can then we call it an unrepresentable in an artwork? Yes and No. It is unrepresentable, but at the same time, it is an absolute representation of the thing or artwork. In this precise sense, Aura is a material representation of the unrepresentable materiality of an artwork which itself is a representation. And in this sense, and in this sense only, Benjaminian singularity has to be differentiated from the postmodern singularity in which everything is singular. Of course, everything is singular. However, postmodern singularity functions in a way in which any sort of representational movement is dismissed and dismantled at least theoretically. As if as opposed to the postmodern singularity, Benjaminian singularity is a representational movement where a singular representation comes out of the representational impasse. This is why we should always go back to what is represented in the artwork’s unrepresentability–that is to say, we need to try to grasp what the artwork tries to represent through its unrepresentibility. The postmodern resignation of representation and its methodological legitimation of the resignation are, in fact, degenerate. The meaning of an artwork lies in the artwork’s ability to fail to represent because the failure itself is the expression of the artist’s creative impulse to embody what the already reified representation cannot represent, say, in a hollywood production.

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공터의 사랑

=================

없더라, 없더라,

아무것도 없더라. 바람이 속삭이는

내 옛 사랑의 공터.

한 때 내 발목을 움켜쥐었던, 한 때 내 가슴을 으스러지게 붙들었던,

내 공터의 사랑, 내

공터에 남겨진 사랑.

. . .

마흔이 넘어 우연히 찾아간 내 젊음의 변두리엔

기억속에 반짝거리며 기대어 서 있던 전봇대도

그 위에서 나를 보아주던 가로등도 그리고

주전부리를 팔던 조그마한 구멍가게도 없고

빈 공터에 바람만 불고 있네.

. . .

머리가 희끗해진 지금은 그 빛나던 기억들이

정말 있었던 일인지 아니면

숨죽인 울음들이 있을 때마다 내가 슬그머니 꺼내보던

거울같은 것이었는지도 가물가물하고

차라리 없었으면 하는 생각이 들기도 하는

. . .

그 공터. 아무 것도 없고

그 아무 것도 없는 것이 이젠

너무나 서럽고 먹먹한

바람 부는 공터

이창동의 밀양, 시

우선 작가가 여기서 묻는 가장 기본적인 질문은 “일상에서 영화/예술이 무엇을 할 수 있는가?”라는 고전적인 질문이다. 이에 걸맞게 고전적인 리얼리즘의 방법론을 사용하는 것은 일견 타당하게 보인다. 그러나 조금만 더 생각해보면 “리얼리즘”이 이 영화들에 사용되었다는 사실은 더 큰 의문으로 이어진다. 왜냐하면 19세기나 20세기 초반, 그리고 아직도 우리 곁에서 끈질기게 살아남은 “리얼리즘”이라는 형식이 역사적으로 예술의 역할이라는 질문에 대답하는 방식은 이창동의 영화에서 직접적으로 드러나지 않기 때문이다. 고전적인 리얼리즘이 현실세계의 영화적/예술적인 재현을 통해 현실의 “진실”을 독자에게 드러내고자 했다면, 이러한 방법/대답은 우리가 사는 포스트모던의 시대에 있어서는 하나의 “진실”을 구축하려는 리얼리즘의 시도는 무산되거나 혹은 기껏해야 지엽적인 가치를 가질 수 밖에 없기 때문이다. 부연하자면, 리얼리즘이 그 가치를 잃어버린 것이 아니라 (사실은 그 반대다. 숨겨진 진실을 드러내고 알리는 것은 언제라도 가치있는 일이고, 예술의 본질에 속하는 사회적인 기능을 다시한번 확인하는 것에 다름 아니다.) 리얼리즘이 드러내는 가치 자체도 포스트모던 정치학의 “다양성” 안에서 기능할 수 밖에 없다는 것이다. 예컨대, 우리는 모두가 하나의 사건이 몇 가지의 서로다른 “진실”의 옷을 입을 수 있다는 것을 알고 있고, 이런 “정치적 해석”들이 거의 언제나, 다양하게, 그리고 논리적으로는 대척점에 속하면서도 공존한다는 것을 알고 있다. 아도르노가 이야기한 것 처럼 예술이 정치적인 메세지로 변질한다면 (그 예술의 정치성은 물론 올바로 평가되어야 하지만) 그 예술은 주관적인 메세지로 받아들여 질 수 밖에 없다는 것이다. 물론 “모든 것이 주관적이다” 또는 모든 것이 “관점에 달려있다”라는 식의 포스트모던 잣대를 가지고 이를 판단할 수 도 있지만, 이러한 잣대역시 포스트모던의 정치학 안에서 기생, 기능한다는 점을 상기해야 한다. 더불어 “진실을 드러내고자 하는” 리얼리즘이 정치적인 예술로서 뚜렷한 한계를 가진다는 할 때, 그 근본적인 면에서 루카치식의 19세기 리얼리즘의 본령과도 괘를 달리한다. 루카치가 이론화하고 그 안에서 예술과 정치의 화해 가능성을 보았던 19세기의 리얼리즘, 더 정확하게는 역사적 리얼리즘에서는 물론 진실의 재현이라는 명제가 바탕이 되었지만, 그 재현의 방법에 있어서 “한 사회의 통합적 재현”이라는 보다 커다란 변증법적 총체성의 개념이 자리잡고 있었다. 쉽게 이야기하면 지엽적인 진실은 언제나 왜곡의 위험성을 (이를 아도르노식으로 표현한다면 “주관적인 정치성”이라고 할 수 있겠다.) 가지고 있고 유일하게 진실을 이야기할 수 있는 방식은 한 사회의 총체성을 모순을 통해서 끊임없이 접근해 나갈 수 있다는 것이다.

다시 이창동으로 돌아와서, 만약 리얼리즘이 우리시대에 가지는 한계가 뚜렷하다면 이창동은 왜 리얼리즘을 사용하고 있으며 리얼리즘을 통해서 무엇을 말하려고 하는가가 우리가 대답해야 할 질문일 것이다. 사실 여기에서 몊가지 복잡한 질문들이 선행되어 있다. 우선 작가의 역할은 무엇인가라는 질문도 같이 주어져 있고, 영화가 자주 사용하는 비리얼리즘적인 방식들(예턴대 미장센과 그 상징들)에 대한 분석도 주어져야 한다. 하지만 리얼리즘에 국한하여 좀 단순화시켜서 이야기하자면, 이창동의 대답은 일종의 다면적인 현실을 가진 소우주의 건설이라고 할 수 있을 것 같다. 이를테면 영화적인 미니멀리즘이 리얼리즘과 만나서 일종의 복잡한 조그만 사회를 영화적으로 건설하는 것인데, 이는 설치미술의 영화적인 재현이라고도 부를 수 있을 것이다. 알려진 바, 설치미술은 포스트모던의 대표적인 예술양식이다. 주류로서의 설치미술이 작가의 죽음을 선언하고 독자의 손에 예술을 맡기는 방식으로 예술이 구성된다면, 이창동의 영화는 비슷한 모티브를 가져왔으면서도 포스트모던의 설치미술 (예컨대, 앤디 워홀이나 라우센버그, 또는 토니 스미스 등의)과는 근본적으로 다르다고 봐야 한다. 왜냐면 이창동의 영화는, 독자의 주관적 해석에 단순하게 열려있어서 결국은 독자의 “정치적 해석”에 의존하게 되는 (여기서 포스트모던의 “열려있는” 재현은 필연적으로 추상성을 띠게 된다는 점도 지적하자.. 여러가지 해석의 가능성만을 추구한다면 필연적으로 다양한 해석을 담지하기 위해서 “추상적인” 구성으로 갈 수 밖에 없다.) 것과는 다르게, 영화적으로 구현된 사회가 가지는 “모순”을 끊임없이 환기시키고 있기 때문이다. 이를 달리 이야기하면 이창동은 예술에 있어서 작가의 역할을 미니멀리즘적인 사회의 구성으로 놓지만 그 사회의 정치성과 모순을 드러내고 문제화하는 데 그 작가적 역량을 동원한다고 볼 수 있다.

리얼리즘과 미니멀리즘은 사실 서로다른 두 개의 화합하기 힘든 양식이다. 이를 변증법적인 지양을 통해서 극복함으로서 이창동은 포스트모던 시대에 있어서 예술의 역할은 무엇인가라는 질문에 대답하고 있다. 아래는 내가 이창동 영화해석에 있어서 가지고 가는 도식이다.

1. We live in the age of postmodernity where the possibility of “political art” is throughly suspected.

2. “Postmodern” authors (the concept of which has been theorized by Barthes, Foucault, Derrida) declared “the death of the author”.

3. As a result, we have two polarized phenomena: the liberation of art from the “tyranny of author and her intention” to the hands of spectators/readers, and the gulf between art and society (along with the death of political art)

4. “Multiplicity” or diversity is the value that has been praised throughout the postmodern age. Our political area has become diversified to the extent to which we don’t have social consensus as to what is “politically relevant” in our society. Too many “political agendas depending on the identities. The political realm has become marketized.

1. The function of the author is to construct a microcosmic society where a contradiction is provided to the readers.

2. Though the author does not have a “politically overt” message, the ontological construction of the filmic society itself contains the author’s diagnose of our society.

3. The method of minimalism and realism itself is a response to our age. This dialectical approach tries to negotiate the limit of our age (minimalism, the necessarily fragmented view of society) and the impulse towards totality (the construction of a society as a whole–here “whole” is equivalent to “contradiction”).

4. In order to avoid conventional minimalism and conventional realism, the author inevitably imports events from our real life experience. However, there is no logical tie between the filmic reality and the societal reality. The relationship is only that of (Adornian) mimesis.

5. The function of the author lies in the art’s ontological possibility to construct/represent an artistic society the whole of which is rendered possible through the grammars of film, other artistic elements, and the social contradiction.

6. The author doesn’t necessarily have to sacrifice his “intention”. Still, the art is political.

7. Lee’s film does not try to be political by dealing with a “political” agenda. Instead, he “defamiliarize” our everyday life reality, where the contradiction emerges as a kind of consensus (which postmodern politics is incapable of formulating).

8. Finally, the contradiction in Lee’s film is not one, but one and the many, which is possible only through the construction of a whole society. In other words, the contradiction is not an event but structural principle that is crisscrossed with other contradictions.

Nominalism, or absolute Presentism

It is not very clear what Jameson means by the terms such as “nominalism” and “absolute presentism”. Though the term appears in his book Postmodernism, or the cultural logic of late capitalism (when he addresses “theory” where Michaels and Derrida are extensively discussed), here in Late Marxism: Adorno or the persistence of the Dialectic I found a bit more detailed and convincing argument/explanation.

The book’s last chapter titled “Adorno in the Postmodern” is where you might want to read for “nominalism”. Especially the very last section of the chapter is absolutely relevant. Here’s a passage that tells a lot to me.

“Positivism [which Adorno critiques throughout his entire philosophical career] becomes postmodernism when it has, like philosophy on the older paradigm, fulfilled and thereby abolished itself. Adorno insists on one side of its mission, thereby giving us one useful description: it wants to abolish the subjective, as that takes the form of thoughts, interpretations and opinions (perhaps it also wants to abolish the language that corresponds to those things: poetic, emotive, rhetorical). This is to say that it is a nominalism, and as such wants to reduce us to the empirical present (or to use the empirical present as the sole pattern for imagining other situations and other temporal moments). It wishes to abolish value as such, and any thinking that raises the issue of ends (the formulation of the so-called ‘critique of instrumental reason’), not excluding the dialectic itself, but very much including all the other visionary ideologies of which it equally also promises the ‘end’.

The postmodern is in that sense the fulfillment and abolition of liberalism as well, which, no longer tenable as an ideology and a value any more than traditional conservatism, can function more effectively after its own death as an ideology, realizing itself in its most traditional form as a commitment to the market system that has become sheer commonsense and no longer a political program. All the critiques of such positivism are true and useless at the same time, because they can mobilize only antiquated representations and dated ideologies. At that point even talking about the not-being of thinking ceases to be effective, which was what was desired in the first place. What no longer is is as absent as what never was, or what is not yet or is not to be; only being is left, only we don’t call it that any more since the word itself is meaningless without its opposite, nothingness, which has been withdrawn from circulation.” (248-9)

On Deconstruction 1

The interpretive mode of deconstruction makes it evade the questions related to telos, concepts, representation, historical contents, dichotomy, and finally narrative. It is precisely because deconstruction doesn’t have something like an essential content–other than that of “parasitic” deconstructive mode of writing (ecriture) which helps a targeted text unfold its own oppositional premise against its own claimed “essence” or idea. Or, to put it slightly differently, deconstruction is a mode which forces a text to reveal and accept that it has to repress or re-press the marginal workings of difference, spacing, dissemination as opposed to identity, telos, and meaning. Surely this “method” or mode of writing has the merit of avoiding the kind of trap that almost all philosophical and non-philosophical texts are contaminated to have under the legacy and influence of what he calls western “metaphysics”. Or, we can also call “metaphysics” reification following Lukacs and Adorno. The point of reification or metaphysics (or “concept” following Adorno) is, of course, that a certain system of thought has been generating a particular historical trajectory which, in fact, leads to our contemporary capitalist world where the long enlightenment belief in or prioritization of reason/logos/phallos/speaking/identity fulfilled its mission, but with a vengeance. The result is the bad universalism. This false and deadly universality not only dominates the “metaphysical” thought but also our “ontic” world (here Derrida is merely conceptual and philosophical; but the example of this can be easily found in our culture–such as K-pop where a universality generates its own life course with its own cultural ideology.) The idea is that once something is produced and institutionalized then the determination and effect of the concept produces and reproduces our reality. Here the targeted “concept” is, of course, the western metaphysics or the enlightenment tradition through which our capitalist civilization emerged and consolidated throughout the modern history.

If the merit of deconstruction lies in its supplementary mode where, while avoiding being essentialized or falling into prey of ideology due to its lack of content, it can produce necessary critique of our societal edifice, then this particular force seems to be effective especially in the age of postmodernism where everything is ideological (or, metaphysical). However, deconstruction, from a slightly different perspective, is an apocalyptic formal principle which announces the death of philosophy–philosophy as a system (which cannot think a radical break from the western tradition) and as a way of thinking (whose mission is to develop “concepts” that will be eventually essentialized or reified). This formal principle, or we should say the formal minimalism itself, is a spectral parasite that neither produce philosophical propositions nor pivots on a material reality. In fact, while what is vexing us is the second characteristic of deconstruction, the first of parasitism of deconstruction is also problematic because the Derridean non-narrative form is foregrounded by the “post-modern” grand narrative of the End of grand narrative after French 68. The grand narrative can be simply summarized as a declaration of death of all kinds of modern grand-narratives. This post modern grand narrative of the end of grand narratives is postmodern it the word’s bad sense–that there is no social consensus possible and there is only co-existence of multiple, diverse, and variously different approaches/identities. This grand narrative is easily translated into the endorsement of neoliberalism’s free market ideology or of the seemingly benevolent multiculturalism. Perhaps the exclusion of modern grand narrative such as Marxism would perfectly make sense only if what we are dealing with was cultural or philosophical “texts”. But can the exclusive inclusion of grand narrative (the death sentence of modern grand narrative by way of the spectral postmodern grand narrative) be effective in dealing with our material reality? Or put differently, can deconstruction be a critical weapon to carve out a new material alternative? We cannot avoid asking this question precisely because the postmodern/contemporary politics is that of displacement where the transformation of political arena into a sort of market of political agendas (where one is displaced by another in every minute and thus where a “relevant” issue is hard to locate within a community) largely results in the primacy of the economic (not in Marx’s or Adorno’s sense, but in the neoliberal sense).