Walter Benjamin and the Optical Unconscious

Rosaline Krauss

  • Art historian, late 20th century
  • Alternate reading of modernism
  • ‘The Optical Unconcious

“It is through photography that we first discover the existence of this optical unconscious, just as we discover the instinctual unconscious through psychoanalysis”
(Benjamin, 1931/2005, pp.511–512).

  • The conscious and unconscious fighting against each other.
  • Unconscious telling us what we actually want to do, say and be.

“Reading this, of course, we are struck by the strangeness of the analogy[…]”

“[…] what can we speak of in the visual field that will be an analogue of the ‘unconscious’ itself, a structure that presupposes first a sentient being within which it operates, and second a structure that only makes sense insofar as it is in conflict with that being’s consciousness? Can the optical field – the world of visual phenomena; clouds, sea, sky, forest – have an unconscious?

“For Freud a sentence like Benjamin’s ‘the camera introduces us to unconscious optics as does psychoanalysis to unconscious impulses,’ from the ‘Work of Art’ essay, would simply be incomprehensible”
(Krauss, 1993, pp.178–179 – cf. Yacavone, 2012, pp.39–40).

  • Krauss doesn’t really discuss Benjamin.
  • Perhaps the camera reveals the unconscious.
  • Larger social structures, camera can reveal own world as it desires.
  • Not optical – political
  • Last analyse Benjamin doesn’t make sense.

August Sander

“Sander starts off with the peasant, the earthbound man, takes the observer through every social stratum and every walk of life up to the highest representatives of civilization, and then goes back down all the way to the idiot”
(Alfred Döblin, quoted in Benjamin, 1931/2005, p.520).

Walter Benjamin

  • Earliest article- News about flower ‘Neues von Blumen’
  • Plant details, archive, wild plants and weeds.
  • Review, transformation of human perception.
  • Philosopher

We can work out ways humans have to be conscious of the world- sensuous relationship.
Suggests we know nothing outside of our consciousness.

Kant in the Critique of Pure Reason:

-Human perception has two necessary forms: space & time. (Specifically, on the standard reading  of Kant, three-dimensional/Euclidean space and one-dimensional time).

  • The human sensory and cognitive ‘equipment’ follows these forms regardless of what the world outside the mind is like

-This holds for all human beings always and everywhere

“whether we accelerate the growth of a plant through time-lapse photography or show its form in forty-fold enlargement, in either case a geyser of new image-worlds hisses up at points in our existence where we would least have thought them possible.”

  • Photography is a potent tool in changing our perception of the world.
  • Strange things can be found- magnification


A little History of Photography

  • Benjamins’s treatment of the subject goes beyond just the history of photography and develops his ideas of the cognitive and political potential of photography.
  • It begins his famous concept of the ‘optical unconscious’
  • Against any attempts to look at photography in the same way as painting.
  • Blasphemy- painting of human being- afraid of new technology, replace older arts.
  • Photography is a new medium, not to be compared to painting.
  • Brings forward how we relate to each other and the world socially and cognitively.
  • Portrait painting artists will portray in some kind of way the artist’s skill.
  • Photography shows people as we are without artist or model wanting to be portrayed- there’s a special relationship.

“[Although] we have some idea of what is involved in the act of walking (if only in general terms), we have no idea at all what happens during the fraction of a second when a person takes a step. Photography, with its devices of slow motion and enlargement, reveals the secret. It is through photography that we first discover the existence of this optical unconscious, just as we discover the instinctual unconscious through psychoanalysis.”

Karl Dauthendey, The Photographer Karl Dauthendey with his betrothed Miss Friedrich (1837-1873) after their first attendance at church on 1st September 1857.

We are looking at the same picture in the future or past, present and future.

“No matter how artful the photographer, no matter how carefully posed his subject, the beholder feels an irresistible urge to search such a picture for the tiny spark of contingency, of the here and now, with which reality has (so to speak) seared the subject, to find the inconspicuous spot where in the immediacy of that long-forgotten moment the future nests so eloquently that we, looking back, may rediscover it. For it is another nature which speaks to the camera rather than to the eye: ‘other’ above all in the sense that a space informed by human consciousness gives way to a space informed by the unconscious.”

“[…] the inconspicuous spot where in the immediacy of that long-forgotten moment the future nests so eloquently that we, looking back, may rediscover it.”

  • Human time, for Benjamin, is not necessarily one-dimensional and sequential, as Kant had tried to establish

-Rather, it is a “complex formation of past, present and future”
(Howard Caygill, Walter Benjamin: The Colour of Experience, p.81)

  • Benjaminian optical unconscious.
  • Beautiful geometric world.

Aura of an object

“the unique appearance or semblance of distance, no matter how close [the object] may be.”

  • Aura is product of a discourse.
  • Cannot be natural: culture and history.
  • Unique objects: temples, mosaics and sculptures have aura’s. Objects that cannot be reproduced.
  • Must be conscious- approachability.
  • In society only certain people can explain and touch.
  • Only historians allowed close to object.

“[T]he earliest art works originated in the service of ritual––first the magical, then the religious kind.” (Section IV, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction)

“[T]he elk portrayed by the man of the Stone Age on the walls of his cave was an instrument of magic.” (section V)

  • The ritualistic function of art persists in religious art and in the secular ‘cult of beauty’

The withering of the aura of art is

“[…] a symptomatic process whose significance points beyond the realm of art. One might generalise by saying: the technique of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the domain of tradition.” (Section II)

  • Photography aura disappears due to reproductability.
  • Art growing equality of society, more people can critique and be a part of it.
  • Doesn’t just mean reproducing works of art.
  • Moved onto era creating works of art that reproduce themselves. Designed to be reproduced.
  • Increasing: works meant to be reproduced, more easily distributed.
  • Gallery, books, not bound to being shown in the wall.
  • Meaning of work lessens (more people seeing it).

Essential reading: ‘Little History of Photography,’ in Benjamin, W. Selected Writings, Volume 2 1927–1934. Transl. by Rodney Livingstone and others, Edited by Michael W. Jennings, Howard Eiland and Gary Smith. Cambridge MA and London: Harvard/Belknap.


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