I have finally, as anyone who cares about art should, read Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” I did not know what to expect, and was surprised by what I found. It is an essay that deals mostly with film and not at all with literature. Despite the author’s political tendencies he had some very remarkable points about the nature of art — remarkable in that they were honest and clear and, well, novel. He examines the implications of technical (not manual) reproduction on the properties and values of traditional art forms, moving to film as an exemplar of an art created in this new environment of reproduction. But he doesn’t mention literature.
This seems to be a major flaw of the work. I understand that perhaps his aim was to emphasis visual arts and the changing modes of perception according to the changing forms. Perhaps literature, and in particular the novel, would lend too much complication to the essay. The more I think about the unique place that the novel inhabits among the arts in the age in which he speaks, as well as in my own, I would say that yes, it would have made things too complicated.
However, this does not excuse why I have not yet seen the ideas in his essay applied to the novel, especially in its current context (read: crisis). I believe that the essay would significantly contribute to a better contemporary understanding of the novel as a work of art, as well as successfully mediate the animous argument of print vs. electronic books.
Now, there is a lot going on here — probably too much for me to synthesize into one post so let me simply leave this post as criticism of Benjamin for not including mention of the novel in his essay and of the contemporary literary community for not adequately utilizing his ideas in the present discourse. I will continue over the next few days to let some concepts and newly planted ideas germinate and will be posting more about the essay soon. In the meantime — read it now.