To the already-existing Enlightenment narcotic forms of coffee, tobacco, tea, and spirits, there was added a vast arsenal of drugs and therapeutic practices, from opium, ether, and cocaine to hypnosis, hydrotherapy, and electric shock. Anaesthetics were prescribed as sleeping aids for insomniacs and tranquilizers for the insane. The use of anaesthetics in medical surgery dates, not accidentally, 9 from this same period of manipulative experimentation with the elements of the synaesthetic system. It was not until mid-century that the practical implications for surgery were developed.
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And rightly so. Benjamin praises the cognitive, hence political, potential of technologically mediated cultural experience film is particularly privileged. It sounds a warning. It was the Futurists who, just before World War I, first articulated the cult of warfare as a form of aesthetics. Benjamin cites their manifesto: War is beautiful because it establishes human domination over the subjugated machinery, thanks to the gas masks, the terror-producing megaphones, the flame-throwers, the small tanks.
War is beautiful because it initiates the dream of metalization of the human body. War is beautiful because it enriches a flowering meadow with the fiery orchids of machine guns. War is beautiful because it fuses gunfire, cannonades, cease-fires, the scents and stench of putrefaction into a symphony.
War is beautiful because it creates the new architectural form of big tanks, geometrical flight formations, smoke spirals from burning villages… 6 Benjamin concludes: Fiat ars — pereat mundus [create art — destroy the world], 7 says Fascism, and expects war to supply, just as Marinetti confesses that it does, the artistic gratification of a sense perception that has been altered by technology.
Humanity that, according to Homer, was once an object of spectacle for the Olympian gods, now is one for itself. Its self-alienation has reached such a degree that it is capable of experiencing its own destruction as an aesthetic enjoyment of the highest order. So it is with the aestheticization of politics, which is being managed by fascism. Communism responds with the politicization of art. We are to assume that both alienation and aestheticized politics as the sensual conditions of modernity outlive fascism — and thus so does the enjoyment taken in viewing our own destruction.
Surely Benjamin must mean more than to make culture a vehicle for Communist propaganda. This point may seem trivial, or unnecessarily sophistic. But if it is allowed to develop, it changes the entire conceptual order of modernity. That is my claim. This original field of aesthetics is not art but reality — corporeal, material nature. The terminae of all of these — nose, eyes, ears, mouth, some of the most sensitive areas of skin — are located at the surface of the body, the mediating boundary between inner and outer.
The senses maintain an uncivilized and uncivilizable trace, a core of resistance to cultural domestication. III So little does aesthetics have to do intrinsically with the philosophical trinity of Art, Beauty, and Truth that one might rather place it within the field of animal instincts. It demands a critical, exoteric explanation of the socioeconomic and political context in which the discourse of the aesthetic was deployed, as Terry Eagleton has recently demonstrated in The Ideology of the Aesthetic.
It is the motif of autogenesis, surely one of the most persistent myths in the whole history of modernity and of Western political thought before then, one might add. The fact that one can imagine something that is not, is extrapolated in the fantasy that one can re create the world according to plan a degree of control impossible, for example, in the creation of a living, breathing child. It must be admitted that this myth of creative imagination has had salutary effects, as it is intimately entwined with the idea of freedom in Western history.
For that reason an excellent reason , it has been staunchly defended and highly praised. If it has any body at all, it must be one impervious to the senses, hence safe from external control. Its potency is in its lack of corporeal response. In abandoning its senses, it, of course, gives up sex. Curiously, it is precisely in this castrated form that the being is gendered male — as if, having nothing so embarrassingly unpredictable or rationally uncontrollable as the sense-sensitive penis, it can then confidently claim to be the phallus.
Such an asensual, anaesthetic protruberance is this artifact: modern man. Consider Kant on the sublime. He writes that, faced with a threatening and menacing nature — towering cliffs, a fiery volcano, a raging sea — our first impulse, connected not unreasonably to self-preservation, 23 is to be afraid. The moral being is sense-dead from the start. The moral will, cleansed of any contamination by the senses which, in the First Critique, are the source of all cognition , sets up its own rule as a universal norm.
It affirmed the aesthetic beauty, first and foremost, of the male body. Indeed, homoerotic sensuality may have been even more threatening to the emerging modernist psyche than the reproductive sexuality of women.
It is in this sense, in fact, that he came to be understood…. At the end of the century, with Nietzsche, there is a new affirmation of the body, but it remains self-contained, taking the highest pleasure in its own biophysical emanations.
One could go on documenting this solipsistic — and often truly silly — fantasy of the phallus, this tale of all-male reproduction, the magic art of creation ex nihilo. And that is to trace the development, not of the meaning of terms, but of the human sensorium itself. IV The senses are effects of the nervous system, composed of hundreds of billions of neurons extending from the body surfaces through the spinal cord, to the brain.
The brain, it must be said, yields to philosophical reflection a sense of the uncanny. In our most empiricist moments, we would like to take the matter of the brain itself for the mind. What could be more appropriate than the brain studying the brain? But there seems to be such an abyss between us, alive, as we look out on the world, and that gray-white gelatinous mass with its cauliflower-like convolutions that is the brain the biochemistry of which does not differ qualitatively from that of a sea slug that, intuitively, we resist naming them as identical.
Hegel thus has intuition on his side in his attacks against the brain-watchers. If you want to know what the mind is, examine what it does — thus is philosophy turned away from natural science to the study of human culture and human history. The circuit from sense-perception to motor response begins and ends in the world.
The brain is thus not an isolable anatomical body, but part of a system that passes through the person and her or his culturally specific, historically transient environment. As the source of stimuli and the arena for motor response, the external world must be included to complete the sensory circuit. Pollard Birches. Not only is it open to the world through the sensory organs, but the nerve cells within the body form a network that is in itself discontinuous.
They reach out toward other nerve cells at points called synapses, where electrical charges pass through the space between them. The giant, pyramid-like layer of cells in the brain cortex was first described in by the Ukrainian anatomist Vladimir Betz.
Remy, found this form replicated in the external world. The expressive face is, indeed, a wonder of synthesis, as individual as a fingerprint, yet legible by common sense. On it the three aspects of the synaesthetic system — physical sensation, motor reaction, and psychical meaning — converge in signs and gestures comprising a mimetic language. What this language speaks is anything but the concept. Hegel, writing The Phenomenology of Mind in his Jena study in , interpreted the advancing army of Napoleon whose cannons he could hear roaring in the distance as the unwitting realization of Reason.
Sir Charles Bell, who, as a field doctor performing limb amputations, was physically present a decade later at the Battle of Waterloo, had a different interpretation: It is a misfortune to have our sentiments at variance with the universal sentiment.
But there must ever be associated with the honours of Waterloo, in my eyes, the shocking signs of woe: to my ears, accents of intensity, outcry from the manly breast, interrupted, forcible expressions from the dying — and noisome smells. I must show you my note book [with sketches of the wounded], for … it may convey an excuse for this excess of sentiment.
It could not be given meaning. The category of rationality could be applied to these physiological perceptions only in the sense of rationalization. It centers on shock. The more readily consciousness registers these shocks, the less likely they are to have a traumatic effect. Without the depth of memory, experience is impoverished.
In industrial production no less than modern warfare, in street crowds and erotic encounters, in amusement parks and gambling casinos, shock is the very essence of modern experience.
The effect on the synaesthetic system 53 is brutalizing. As a result, the system reverses its role. Its goal is to numb the organism, to deaden the senses, to repress memory: the cognitive system of synaesthetics has become, rather, one of anaesthetics. Bombarded with fragmentary impressions they see too much — and register nothing.
Thus the simultaneity of overstimulation and numbness is characteristic of the new synaesthetic organization as anaesthetics. Continue to Part Two. This is the now-conventional English translation see Harry Zohn, trans. See Walter Benjamin, Gesammelte Schriften, , ed. Rolf Tiedemann and Hermann Schweppenhaeuser Frankfurt a. Once art is drawn into politics Communist politics no less than Fascist politics how could it help but put itself into its service, thus to render up to politics its own artistic powers, i.
It could be argued, for example, that precisely in its most biological aspect reproduction of our species , the privatized family is unsocial. Schweizer claims, against Croce, that Baumgarten was not overly concerned or apologetic, and that the real bias against the aesthetic is a later develop. Similarly, Machiavelli wrote in praise of the Prince who self-creatively founds a new principality, and connects this autogenetic act with the height of manliness. For an excellent discussion of the parameters of the feminist debate, see articles by Seyla Benhabib, Judith Butler, and Nancy Frazer in Praxis International 2 July , pp.
Werner S. Pluhar [Indianapolis: Hackett, ], p. Again, from an ecological perspective, this is not a foolish response. James Haden, intro. Thanks to Alexandra Cook for pointing this out. This included, explicitly, his sensual relationships with beautiful young men. Walter Kaufmann and R. Hollingdale New York: Random House, , p. Recently, however, there has been an interest in reconnecting the discourses.
See, e. For this reason, Freud situation consciousness on the surface of the body, decentered from the brain which he was willing to view as nothing more than large and evolved nerve ganglia. Livingstone, , p. In his enthusiasm for the philosophical implications of his discovery, Bell was careless about the physiological ones, with the result that a French colleague preempted him in scientific publication.
It led to an unpleasant struggle between them as to who made the discovery first. See Pual F.
Aesthetics and Anaesthetics, Part II
Buck-Morss on Anaesthethics
Aesthetics and Anaesthetics, Part I