Walter Benjamin and journalism in the age of electronic reproduction
Structurally, the printed press is a medium that operates as a monologue, isolating producer and the reader. Feedback and interaction are extremely limited, demand elaborate procedures, and only in the rarest cases lead to corrections. Once an edition has been printed it cannot be corrected; at best it can be pulped. The control circuit in the case of literary criticism is extremely cumbersome and elitist. It excludes the public on principle.
Technological developments, however, have initiated journalists to operate more as a dialogue, involving the reader to participate and co-create an article. Currently weblogs are shifting the grounds of journalism in fundamental ways. To be a journalist one had to acquire particular theoretical and practical skills and work within an elite framework contained by a heritage that goes back centuries. New media transforms this tradition and therewith raises important questions concerning authenticity, reproduction and the liquidation of the traditional cultural heritage. Seventy years ago Walter Benjamin, at a time when the media industry was relatively undeveloped, subjected these questions to a penetrating dialectical-materialst analysis.
One might generalize by saying: the technique of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the domain of tradition. By making many reproductions it substitutes a plurality of copies for a unique existence. And in permitting the reproduction to meet the beholder or listener in his own particular situation, it reactivates the object reproduced. These two processes lead to a tremendous shattering of tradition which is the observe of the contemporary crisis and renewal of mankind. Their most powerful agent, Benjamin writes, is the film. Its social significance, particularly in its most positive form, is inconceivable without its destructive, cathartic aspect, that is, the liquidation of the traditional value of the cultural heritage.
“For the first time in world history, mechanical reproduction emancipates the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual. To an ever greater degree the work of art reproduced becomes the work of art designed for reproducibility…. But the instant the criterion of authenticity ceases to be applicable to artistic production, the total function of art is reversed. Instead of being based on ritual, it begins to be based on another practice-politics… Today, by the absolute emphasis on its exhibition value, the work of art becomes a creation with entirely new functions, among which the one we are conscious of, the artistic function, later may be recognized as incidental.”
(Benjamin, The work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction)
The trend which Benjamin recognized in his day in the film and the true film and the true import of which he grasped theoretically, have become patent today with the rapid development of the blogosphere. What used to be called journalism, has now, in the strict Hegelian sense, been dialectically surpassed by and in the new media. The quarrel about the end of journalism is otiose so long as this end is not understood dialectially.
Wherever the professional producers make a virtue out of the necessity of their specialist skills and even derive a privileged status from them, their experience and knowledge have become useless. This means that as far as a journalistic theory is concerned, a radical change in perspectives is needed. Instead of looking at the productions of the new media from the point of view of the older modes of production we must, on the contrary, analyze the products of the traditional “printed” media from the standpoint of modern conditions of production.