Transmission in Motion


“Art, Technē, and the Question of Aura” – Dennis Jansen

During his recent TiM lecture, philosopher Jason Tuckwell argues that Walter Benjamin’s Marxist analysis of material production in “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility” ([1936] 2008) is symptomatic of a more general tendency to reduce art solely to its mode of production, and thereby foregoes the question of how art actually becomes art. For Tuckwell, art is not a mode of production (poiesis) like any other but is rather the result of a creative deviation of the production process. The skill that underlies this deviation he terms technē: a reasoned, systematic technique to exploit the accidents that intervene in an object’s natural becoming—its telos—in order to change that telos. Rather than it being production itself, creativity (technē) is a process that works upon and modulates production.

Benjamin’s materialist historicism in “The Work of Art” sees various modes of poiesis as inherently political, and posits that the value of an artwork is directly related to its production process. This is why a painting is fundamentally different from a photograph—their modes of (re)production are different, and therefore they are valued differently: the “cult value” ascribed to a painting emphasizes its traditional uniqueness and authentic presence, while the “exhibition value” of a photograph lies in its lack of an original version and its purpose of being exposed to as many audiences as possible (2008, 25). Benjamin famously argues that the mechanically reproducible work of art loses its “aura,” which he calls “[a] strange tissue of space and time: the unique apparition of a distance, however near it may be” (23). In this decay of aura, the spatiotemporal manifestation of cult value, he sees “a space for political action” (Hansen 2004, 24); that is, for proletarian emancipation in the face of the rising fascism of his time. It can thus be said that Benjamin was, by and large, rather positive about this development.

The same cannot be said for some of the media scholars who engage with Benjamin nowadays. Especially writings on emerging and digital media appear more concerned with finding ways to ascribe or even ‘revive aura’, while remaining ever vague about its definition (e.g. de Mul 2009) or further muddying the waters by adopting a highly reductive and seemingly quantified understanding of the concept (e.g. Bolter et al. 2006). Such endeavors are not only missing the point of Benjamin’s explicitly Marxist discussion of the properties of cult value and exhibition value. They are also missing a key critique of aura that is hidden in Tuckwell’s humanist conception of technē, namely that seeing art as an intentional creative modulation of material production liberates the value of art from bourgeois conceptions of authenticity and unapproachability. The specifics of the material production itself do not matter as much as the artist’s skillful deviation from ‘ordinary’ production processes—and subsequently the audience’s creative interpretation of that deviation (cf. Tuckwell 2018, 163–65). In this view, there was never a ‘decay of aura’ to begin with, nor was there ever an ‘aura’ at all; there is only the misrecognition of technē.


  • Benjamin, Walter. 2008. “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility: Second Version.” In The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility, and Other Writings on Media, edited by Michael W. Jennings, Brigid Doherty, and Thomas Y. Levin. London and Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
  • Bolter, Jay David, Blair MacIntyre, Maribeth Gandy, and Petra Schweitzer. 2006. “New Media and the Permanent Crisis of Aura.” Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies 12 (1): 21–39.
  • Hansen, Miriam Bratu. 2004. “Room-for-Play: Benjamin’s Gamble with Cinema.” October 109: 3–45.
  • Mul, Jos de. 2009. “The Work of Art in the Age of Digital Recombination.” In Digital Material: Tracing New Media in Everyday Life and Technology, edited by Marianne van den Boomen, Sybille Lammes, Ann-Sophie Lehmann, Joost Raessens, and Mirko Tobias Schäfer, 95–106.