The essay inquires about the historical condition of representation in our present while invoking the modern experience of the sublime and landscape as the medium of that experience. Can the sublime as the experience of the subject confronted with the very limits of representation be extended to our late capitalist conditions of mediatized representations? What constitutes “a landscape” as the site of the experience of the sublime in late capitalism? The essay addresses these questions through a renewed discussion of Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Technological Reproducibility” (1936) by focusing on the discussion of the aura and the decay of the aura in relation to landscape. In the wake of the failure of a transformative praxis to bring about a new social order, the technologically hyper-mediated engagement of man with nature under the conditions of extreme alienation and reification results in the production of the aesthetics of destruction experienced as “supreme pleasure”. In the age of the atomic bomb and technological hyper-mediation, the singularity of the moment of the experience of the sublime is multiply reproduced. The essay ends with an analysis of Werner Herzog’s 1992 film Lessons of Darkness as an example of rendering cinematically the aura’s survival under the conditions of its decay in the burning oil fields of Kuwait. Capitalism’s “desert of the real”, as the vast desert in Kuwait in Herzog’s film, is precisely the landscape in relation to which the subject attempts to represent that which evades representation (the event, nature, capitalism, and so on).
The question of landscape in and as representation emerged historically within the European Enlightenment and modernity. Since the 18th century, “the Western landscape” has constituted a medium through which a specifically modern inversion of exteriority and interiority has been represented. Landscape in Romantic and post-Romantic art and literature was conceived of as a representation exterior to the subject that is nonetheless endowed with irreducible interiority. In those periods, landscape came to mediate between nature as an organic and undifferentiated unity, on the one hand, and its representation as an environment exterior to the human, on the other, or between first nature (what is a given) and second nature (what is made by humans—technè, or technology in its broader meaning, as a way of doing). Allied with the processes of economic modernization that brought about the exploitation of nature on a hitherto unprecedented scale, and with the advent of modern philosophical idealism (especially in Germany, with Kant, Hegel, and others) that conceived of nature as a sphere of necessity and unfreedom vis-à-vis human freedom, landscape grew to stand for a “nature without people” (even when people are represented in it, they appear as landscape),1 yet also completely framed by man. Whether conceived of as the site of the Romantic and post-Romantic sublime or as orderly beauty, landscape today marks the alienation of man from nature, and it has been constituted as such from the perspective of the emerging urban subject (the bourgeoisie), for whom landscape stands for the authenticity of “first nature” as it is increasingly being replaced by “second nature”—the manmade world of culture and civilization. In this context, landscape is “discovered” as an always already alienated exteriority that marks the subject as an insufferably interior being. In other words, landscape is the medium through which the subject attempts to figurate the alienation of the external world that appears both as the Romanticist “oneness with nature”2, and as that which encapsulates the conception of nature as an external force of domination, on the other. Yet landscape as a medium representing the inversion of interiority and exteriority3 is conventional and manmade, and the corresponding art historical genre is the mode in which this medium appears. As an ambivalent marker of both “authentic nature” and the “loss of nature” (the realization of “nature” in the modern sense, where “nature” appears as the Other of Spirit or Reason), landscape is always already haunted by its double: repetition and reproduction, mimesis or representation. One could say that landscape is always already a double.
Any critical questioning of landscape in and as representation today has to come to terms with the conditions of historical representation (in the sense of Darstellung)—that is, with the way in which the subject represents the world or empirical reality to itself. Arguably, in today's condition of historical Darstellung, “second nature” is reified to a degree that it appears as “first nature” (wherein this manmade historical world appears as if it is a given natural and immutable fact). In modernity, landscape is constituted at the border between “authentic” nature and its representation as a “picture,” between alienated exteriority and absolute interiority, or between empirical reality and its representation. In postmodernity, meanwhile, with the supposed loss of the referent and the sign, these antinomies have collapsed: what has instead come to replace the latter is a mise-en-abîme of representation. But does this mean that the experience of the sublime has also collapsed? If we can still conceptualize the sublime, does that mean that landscape will continue to appear as the medium of the experience of the sublime? In other words, if in modernity landscape has been figured as the medium of the sublime in the Kantian sense (as opposed to beauty, which according to Kant finds its ideal representation in the human form), as arising from the inadequacy of the imagination to represent a concept or an idea,4 does landscape still appear as the medium of the experience of the sublime? In our hyper-technologized world, can we speak of a singularity of the experience of the sublime, but one that is multiply reproduced? This essay attempts to address these questions through a renewed discussion of Walter Benjamin's Kunstwerk essay of 1936, and specifically with reference to its discussion of the aura and the decay of the aura in relation to landscape.5
“Humankind, which once, in Homer, was an object of contemplation for the Olympian gods, has now become one for itself. Its self-alienation has reached the point where it can experience its own annihilation as a supreme aesthetic pleasure,” wrote Walter Benjamin in his ominous Kunstwerk essay.6 Three years later, the increasingly perfected Nazi war machine would invade Czechoslovakia and Poland, and the latest products of military technologies and scientific reason would be unleashed on the populations of Central Europe. A few years on, the Allies would turn entire German cities into wastelands through technological warfare, trying out their latest tactics of destruction (such as day-and-night air bombardment). And on August 6 and 9, 1945, Harry Truman, the US president, gave the order to drop “Little Boy” and “Fat Man” (the fruits of the Third Reich's scientific and technological accomplishments), unleashing atomic bombs on the civilian populations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and bringing modern warfare to a new level. Thick orange and red columns of smoke, debris, and ash shot upward from those blasts, forming mushroom clouds above the Japanese cities. Initially hovering with their downward-curling edges, those clouds formed internally dynamic vortices and then collapsed downward, returning debris to the ground along with deathly gasses and radiation. Even the airplanes that had released the bombs could not fly above this “sea of fog,” only parallel to it.
The mushroom cloud is an effect of destruction produced as “a supreme aesthetic pleasure,” an example of how the Benjaminian aura is destroyed and yet preserved in the post-auratic conditions of technological reproducibility. For Benjamin, the auratic mode of existence of the premodern artwork corresponds to a mode of perception that characterizes a preindustrial age and is conditioned by uniqueness and by the distance between the object and its receiver. In the post-auratic age of technological reproducibility, the medium of perception is the decay of the aura. The artwork is now reproducible—copied, replicated, multiplied—and its aesthetics have the possibility of being repurposed and deployed for political or other ends. What is transformed in the process is the outmoded “aestheticist” conception of aesthetics as art for art's sake, characterized by the auratic mode of reception. One could say that, by extension, aesthetic pleasure (which Benjamin doesn't explicitly address in the essay) ceases to be the contemplative enjoyment of the detached individual (the bourgeois, for whom art is a means of withdrawing from the exploitative production of social reality) but is repurposed as a democratic politics of sense-perception grounded in modernist mass movements.
Technologies of reproducibility bring atomic war—indeed any war, including the “war on terror”—close to “home” through film, photography, video, television, and now the World Wide Web. In this way, our “inter-” or “post-media” condition abolishes distance as a precondition for the existence of the aura. Yet this abolishing of distance, with its promise of immediate gratification for the senses, is hyper-mediated by technology. In other words, the sublime as the unique moment of experience is multiply reproduced and distributed. This technological hyper-mediation allows us to refer to the technological sublime. In the case of the atomic bomb, the technological production of the unrepeatable moment takes place repeatedly through filmic and photographic reproductions of the nuclear landscape. What is beyond representation (Vorstellung) (can photographs, pictures, or our imagination capture the magnitude of the atomic bomb?) is, in a Kantian sense, opened up by presentability (Darstellung).7
The famous last section of Benjamin's Kunstwerk essay attributes the abolition of the aura as well as its post-auratic survival to an intensification of the changes made to the apparatus of perception by technology. The technologically altered modern sense-perception finds gratification in the post-auratic return of vita contemplativa, or passivity and spectacle, in the wake of the failure of a transformative praxis to bring about a new social order. In the technologically hyper-mediated engagement of man with nature under the conditions of extreme alienation and reification brought about by the reign of commodities, the latter's excess of production demands expenditure, while the changed sense-perception awaits gratification. “Imperialist war is an uprising on the part of technology, which demands repayment in ‘human material’ for the natural material society has denied it.”8
Benjamin's conception of the regressive reconstitution of the aura through technologies—while denying them their historical role of servicing human needs—appears in the earlier, 1930 essay “Theories of German Fascism.” Here Benjamin confronts the militarism of right-wing writers such as Ernst Jünger and Ernst von Salomon, who defend the “landscape of the front” (Salomon's formulation) in times of supposed peace. Benjamin claims that this landscape is not a material reality but one that is produced by German Idealism:
in the face of this “landscape of total mobilization” the German feeling for nature has had an undreamed-of upsurge…. [A]nd as far as anyone could see over the edge of the trench, the surroundings [had] become a problem, every wire entanglement an antinomy, every barb a definition, every explosion a thesis; and by day the sky was the cosmic interior of the steel helmet and at night the moral law above. Etching the landscape with flaming banners and trenches, technology wanted to recreate the heroic features of German Idealism…. Deeply imbued with its own depravity, technology gave shape to the apocalyptic face of nature and reduced nature to silence—even though this technology had the power to give nature its voice.9
Benjamin's examples of landscapes on which technologies are spent “unnaturally”—whether in war or in peaceful construction—are situated both on the ground and above it. Atomic war, in contrast, would seem not to belong to this topography of rivers, trenches, and even air traffic, and the application of the Benjaminian destruction of the aura might seem anachronistic here. However, whether sense-perception receives gratification through the war fought on the ground, above the ground, or in the sky is secondary compared to the militaristic deployment of technology and the condition of war as a prerequisite for the gratification of sense-perception. At the same time, through technological reproduction, the bomb's aesthetic effect (whether we actually see it or not) reaches “the recipient in his or her own situation.”10 In this way “the aura is destroyed anew,” but not in an emancipatory sense.
For Benjamin, the fate of mankind depends on the political repurposing of the decay of the aura. What happens to the rubble produced by this decay? Communism, as Benjamin sees it, leaves behind the decaying auratic art and formulates a new political aesthetics, while fascism puts the pieces of this rubble back together—in their state of decay—to reconstitute the aura and advance an aestheticized politics. Technological reproducibility brings about rapid transformations to the mode of perception, and any attempt to enforce a false auratic unity in the post-auratic moment results in the fascist aestheticization of politics. As Sami Khatib claims in his reading of Benjamin's Kunstwerk essay, the Zertrümmerung der Aura (destruction of the aura) “leaves Trümmer (ruins or rubble) of the aura—its dismembered form and content. Any attempt to produce a new artificial unity of these fragments is doomed to fail and is reactionary by definition before its otherwise reactionary or even emancipatory reception can come into focus.”11
In Benjamin's essay, landscape features prominently, both in his descriptions of the production of the aura as the eye follows “a mountain range on the horizon or a branch that casts its shadow on the beholder”12 and in the renewed destruction of the aura in imperialist warfare. While the singularity of the perceptual experience of landscape in the auratic mode of perception (as well as its verticality—contemplating the world from the heights of the Olympian gods, a positioning shared today by the airplane pilot or passenger) relies on distance, for the production of the sublime, the post-auratic mode of perception shrinks that distance through technologies of reproducibility. Thus, “the landscape moving past the spectator in a film” devalues the authenticity and singularity of the landscape experienced in a unique moment. In a sense, Benjamin's essay follows the Romanticist tradition of conceiving of landscape as the primary medium for the production of the experience of the sublime (and World War I precisely encapsulates the shock of technological warfare and its unrepresentability). In Kant's definition, the sublime arises at the limits of the subject's ability of figuration and representation, or “the inadequacy of … imagination for presenting the ideas of a whole.”13 Thus, the sublime is the experience of the subject confronted with the very limits of representation. Can this notion of the sublime be extended to our late capitalist conditions of mediatized representations? What constitutes “a landscape” as the site of the experience of the sublime in late capitalism?
Five and a half decades after Benjamin's Kunstwerk essay, Werner Herzog's 1992 film Lessons of Darkness (Lektionen in Finsternis) attempts to render cinematically the aura's survival under the conditions of its decay. Herzog's film opens with a panning shot of an alien landscape: “A planet in another solar system,” the director's notoriously monotonous voiceover intervenes as the camera transitions from conically shaped monumental structures to a classically Romantic image of the sublime, the sea of fog, before panning to a “sea of fire.” An unidentified creature tries to communicate something, most likely the fate of the world that it inhabits. This is the future that is to come; the present, meanwhile, is silence. The camera hovers above the supposed “capital” of this alien planet and visually envelops it: the extended temporality of the present is pregnant with the inevitability of a catastrophe. But this “alien” planet, and the looming event to come, is our own—more precisely, the deserts of Kuwait before and after the 1990–91 Gulf War and Operation “Desert Storm.” The event itself cannot be represented, only reconstituted through what comes after it, as indexed on the desert landscape of Kuwait. In the war's aftermath, frozen time is spatialized on this landscape where prehistory meets post-history. The event itself—the war—is sandwiched between these pre- and post-historical temporalities. On the ground, life goes on, but it is a muted life, for subjects who have experienced catastrophe are mute: they have lost the ability to speak, or if they haven't, their speech is incomprehensible. When they “garden,” or attend to the landscape around them, they clean the burnt oil fields; when they “cook,” they put to fire remnants of explosives. In their world, when it rains, it rains mud, acid, and toxins; rivers flow, but they are of dark gold; plants are petrified and covered with the sedimented remnants of the detritus of war; and there are clouds, but they are of smog.
Lessons of Darkness is a compelling visual essay that overwhelms the viewer with its overproduction of affect, achieved through the juxtaposition of long and chiasmic aerial shots of landscapes, with music by Wagner, Prokofiev, Mahler, and Arvo Pärt, as well as Herzog's owns austere voiceover. Yet the distance the film establishes between “the historical event” rendered fictional and its cinematic documentation, by making the landscape strange, allows the viewer to re-enter the film with a critical recognition of his or her own perceptual apparatus of fascination. The film constructs the singularity of the event (that is, the sublime) as a reproducible singularity: nature or landscape as such is no longer what points to the limits of the human faculty of representation and figuration. Rather, the landscape rendered through reproducible technologies is what marks the unrepresentability of the event under the conditions of its hyper-mediatization and representation. This runs counter to the mass media's promise to supply the event in an unmediated and transparent fashion. Lessons of Darkness intervenes at the heart of the production of the event as a media spectacle during the Gulf War. It is in the Gulf War that Jean Baudrillard diagnoses the increasingly large gap between the simulacrum of media representation and what really might have taken place on the ground.14
Werner Herzog. Lessons of Darkness, 1992. Film still. © Stiftung Deutsche Kinemathek.
While making reference to the media convention of serving up wartorn landscapes for passive consumption, Herzog's film critiques this convention through a détournement that refuses both the readymade and found footage. What is at stake is not simply the cinematic reproduction of the sublime—that moment of unrepresentable singularity—but its cinematic (re)construction.
Werner Herzog. Lessons of Darkness, 1992. Film still. © Stiftung Deutsche Kinemathek.
The distance between the actual event and the “documentation” of its aftermath produced by the collaboration between the camera and the director's voiceover does not simply render the real event fictional, nor does it situate the historical occurrence in the desert of post-history (something many art and pseudo-documentary practices do); rather, this distance brings the event back as a profoundly historical one. The memory of the future as inscribed in the past and extracted in the present shares the temporality of Chris Marker's La Jetée (1962), where the mnemonic journey to the past takes place in the future in order to foretell the historical conditions of the present. Meanwhile, the spatial distance (the event will take place, and it has taken place on “another planet”) generates the possibility of cognition through estrangement. It does so by endowing depth to the media aesthetics of the surface. But this is not a depth that lies beneath the surface as a beyond (promising some fast-food transcendentalism) but one that is the condition of the very surface of representation.
Werner Herzog. Lessons of Darkness, 1992. Film still. © Stiftung Deutsche Kinemathek.
In Benjamin's text and his references to power stations across the land (and, in the 1935 version of the essay, to trenches, rivers, and cities), as well as in Herzog's film, landscape is the medium through which the confrontation between idea and imagination takes place. As such, landscape produces the experience of the sublime—a landscape scarred with wars and conflicts, and with humans' constant struggle with both nature and our own historical nature. If we were to ask what constitutes the experience of the sublime today, in late capitalism, we can no longer simply refer to nature as an unrepresentable “beyond.” As Fredric Jameson tells us, the abyss opened up by the failure of representation in late capitalism, in its globalized stage, is a failure to cognitively map the new and vast space of the expansion of global capitalism.15 It is instructive that one of Jameson's later essays, “The Aesthetics of Singularity,” an exercise of sorts in cognitive mapping, like Herzog's film, opens with a cosmonaut landing on another planet, in a world “which does not require a Brechtian V-effect since it is already objectively estranged.”16 Only after discovering that the planet is the later stage of his own planet's socioeconomic formation, i.e. capitalism, and thus discovering dialectics, can the cosmonaut write his report. Jameson's “ontology of the present” as “a science fiction operation” relies on the possibility of cognition through distancing or estrangement, in spite of and in opposition to late capitalism's promise of immediacy. Capitalism's “desert of the real,” like the vast desert of Kuwait in Herzog's film, is precisely the landscape in relation to which the subject attempts to represent that which evades representation (the event, nature, capitalism, and so on). Thus, might the landscape—that good old medium of the sublime experience—once it is rethought historically and in relation to the problematic of representation, still be able to provide glimpses into the unmappable and the uncognizable?
If the history of landscape painting is a history of the gradual removal of the human being from the landscape, corresponding as such to alienation from the external world, then contemporary landscape—whether we mean the vast deserts of Kuwait in Herzog's film or Jameson's landscapes of capitalism—indexes the return of the human, but as a trace that marks the failure of de-alienation and the promise of immediacy brought about by modern technologies. Moreover, landscape here becomes a material support that acts as an index for histories of violence, barbarism, expansion, and intrusion, but also as a form of regeneration when narratives no longer recall these histories. If it were re-historicized, could the landscape both destabilize the viewer's secure position in relation to history and representation and still provide a ground under our feet, even temporarily, to enable us to pause and reflect upon a world dominated by landslides, avalanches, and earthquakes? As with all ghosts and doubles, the doubled landscape in and as representation reminds the living dead of the privilege of being alive.
Kojin Karatani calls this “people-as-landscapes.” Kojin Karatani, Origins of Modern Japanese Literature (Durham, NC: Duke University Press), 24.
The Alps figure prominently in Romantic and post-Romantic art, literature, and music, from Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Confessions, where he recounts his walks in the Alps in 1728, to Caspar David Friedrich's famous painting Wanderer above the Sea of Fog (1818), to Richard Strauss's Alpine Symphony of 1911–15. Among more recent works is Olivier Assayas's 2014 film Clouds of Sils Maria. These are but a few references featuring the Alps as a site for the experience of the sublime.
Karatani, Origins of Modern Japanese Literature.
This moment of the experience of the sublime is also afflicted with the awe of the discovery of the landscape as a colonial enterprise and with the projection of capitalist exploitation and primitive accumulation.
All the references to Benjamin's essay are to its second version, “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility” (1936), in The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility, and Other Writings on Media, ed. Michael W. Jennings, Brigid Doherty, and Thomas Y. Levin (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008).
George Hartley, Marxism and the Postmodern Sublime (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003).
Benjamin, “Work of Art,” 42, emphasis original.
Walter Benjamin, “Theories of German Fascism,” in The Weimar Republic Sourcebook, ed. Anton Kaes, Martin Jay, and Edward Dimendberg (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), 163.
Benjamin, “Work of Art,” 22.
Sami Khatib, “This Is the Reproducibility of Singular Time,” in This Is the Time. This Is the Record of the Time, ed. Angela Harutyunyan and Nat Muller (Beirut: American University of Beirut Press, 2016), 44.
Walter Benjamin, “Work of Art,” 22. It is interesting that this description echoes Kant's discussion of the sublime in the Critique of Judgment, where Kant asks: “And who would want to call sublime shapeless mountain masses towering above one another in wild disorder with their pyramids of ice, or the dark and raging sea, etc.?” Immanuel Kant, Critique of the Power of Judgment, ed. Paul Guyer, trans. Paul Guyer and Eric Matthews (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 139.
Kant, Critique of the Power of Judgment, 136.
Jean Baudrillard, The Gulf War Did Not Take Place (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995).
Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1992).
Fredric Jameson, “The Aesthetics of Singularity,” New Left Review 92 (March-April 2015): 101.