Aura and Punctum
(Benjamin’s Aura through Barthes’ Punctum)
Walter Benjamin and Roland Barthes both wrote extensively about the medium of photography. Arguably, Walter Benjamin’s two most well-known essays on the subject are Little History of Photography (1931) and The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1936). In both of these papers he appears to frame two very different arguments using the term aura. I will compare these two essays to Roland Barthes’ book Camera Lucida, published in 1980, in which he structures his discussion of photography using the terms studium and punctum. By reviewing these three essays, it is clear that the common understanding of Benjamin’s aura is incorrect; it is simply not a of concern aesthetics in regards to the opposition of technology, but in fact is a far more complex discourse on the medium of perception.
Walter Benjamin begins 1936 paper The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction by acknowledging, “In principle a work of art has always been reproducible. Man-made artifacts could always be imitated by men.” Benjamin is referring to the pre-mechanical means of reproduction. In practice, these methods were casting of coins and the ceramic arts and were the techniques that man had to make items in quantity. Benjamin states, “Mechanical reproduction of a work of art, however, represents something new. Historically, it advanced intermittently and in leaps at long intervals, but with accelerated intensity.” The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction is a critique of the ways in which the printing press, lithography, and later photography and film, revolutionized the way humans reproduce, communicate, and interact with images.
In the 1936 essay, Benjamin presents definitions of aura and authenticity. He states, “The presence of the original is the prerequisite to the concept of authenticity. […] The authenticity of a thing is the essence of all that is transmissible from its beginning, ranging from its substantive duration to its testimony to the history which it has experienced.” He goes on, “Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be.” Benjamin uses authenticity to define aura, and the aura of an object is intrinsically linked a unique objects, to its presence in both a space and time. Aura is defined as site-specific and thus cannot be reproduced through means of mechanical reproduction such as photography. Roland Barthes echos this sentiment, however not in regards to a unique object. In it his book Camera Lucida he wrote, “What the Photograph reproduced to infinity has occurred only once: the Photograph mechanically repeats what could never be repeated existentially.” For Benjamin, in The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, aura is a unique quality that the original only possesses at its location. The authenticity of the aura cannot be reproduced.
Miriam Hansen notes over his career of writing, Benjamin had many definitions of aura that varied greatly and even contradicted each other. In 1930 he wrote: “Everything I said on the subject [the nature of aura] was directed polemically against the theosophists, whose inexperience and ignorance I find highly repugnant. . . . First, genuine aura appears in all things, not just in certain kinds of things, as people imagine.” Hansen states,
This assertion contrasts sharply with the common understanding of Benjamin’s aura as a primarily aesthetic category—as shorthand for the particular qualities of traditional art that he observed waning in modernity, associated with the singular status of the artwork, its authority, authenticity, and unattainability, epitomized
by the idea of beautiful semblance.
In another essay preceding The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, titled Little History of Photography, which was written in 1931, Benjamin wrote: (1) Aura is understood as “a strange weave of space and time: the unique appearance [apparition, semblance] of a distance, however near it may be” and (2) aura understood as a form of perception that “invests” or endows a phenomenon with the “ability to look back at us,” to open its eyes or “lift its gaze.” These definitions differ slightly from the definition of aura in The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. Hansen wrote in her essay Benjamin’s Aura, “aura is not an inherent property of persons or objects but pertains to the medium of perception, naming a particular structure of vision (though one not limited to the visual). More precisely, aura is itself a medium that defines the gaze of the human beings portrayed.” Hansen goes on, quoting from Benjamin’s Little History of Photography,
Experience of the aura . . . arises from the transposition of a response characteristic of human society to the relationship of the inanimate or nature with human beings. The person we look at, or who feels he is being looked at, looks at us in turn. To experience the aura of a phenomenon we look at means to invest it with the ability to look back at us.”
Aura is the relationship of the viewer to the image or object, the time, and place, not in the place (location); it is the phenomenon of the gaze. Benjamin continues in Little History of Photography, quoting Dauthenendey on the first daguerreotypes: “We didn’t trust ourselves at first […] to look long at the first pictures we developed. We were abashed by the distinctness of those human images, and believed that the little tiny faces in the pictures could look back at us.” [fig.1] Benjamin mused:
No mater how artful the photographer, no matter how carefully posed his subject, the beholder feels an irresistible compulsion to search such a picture for the tiny spark of contingency, the here and now, with which reality has, so to speak, seared through the image-character of the photograph, to find the inconspicuous place where, within the suchness of that long-past minute, the future nests still today – and so eloquently that we, looking back, may rediscover it.
This recollection of “rediscovering a tiny spark” is similar to Barthes’ writings in Camera Lucida. Barthes discusses the power of photography using the terms studium and punctum, stating “the studium is always coded, the punctum is not […] It is by studium that I am interested in so many photographs…” The studium is, as Barthes describes, a general enthusiasm for photography, which may be related to culture or class, but is general. Many people can share the same relationship to the studium of a photograph. The second element of a photograph, which may not be present in all photographs or in a single photograph for all people, is the punctum. As Benjamin wrote of a ‘tiny spark’, Barthes states this punctum “will break (or punctuate) the studium. This time it is not I who seek it out (as I invest the field of the studium with my sovereign consciousness), it is this element which rises from the scene, shoots out of it like an arrow, and pierces me. […] A photograph’s punctum is that accident which pricks me (but also bruises me), is poignant to me.”
In The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction Benjamin suggests that original images or objects still hold the power of aura even if different cultures ‘read’ them differently: “The uniqueness of a work of art is inseparable from its being imbedded in the fabric of tradition. This tradition itself is thoroughly alive and extremely changeable. An ancient statue of Venus, for example, stood in a different traditional context with the Greeks, who made it an object of veneration, than with the clerics of the Middle Ages, who viewed it as an ominous idol. Both of them, however, were equally confronted with its uniqueness, that is, its aura.” In this passage Benjamin speaks of aura as perception, not as an aesthetic quality or concern of provenance, although he intertwines aura with tradition. There is no specific image referenced, but this passage resonates with Barthes’ statements on studium: there is a general interest that is changeable.
Barthes began to reflect on studium and punctum, and in fact wrote Camera Lucida after the death of his mother and discovering a photograph of her as a child. He calls this photo The Winter Garden Photograph. Although he reproduces many photographs in Camera Lucida, he does not reproduce The Winter Garden Photograph, writing only, “I cannot reproduce the Winter Garden Photograph. It exists only for me. For you, it would be nothing but an indifferent picture, one of the thousand manifestations of the “ordinary.” Barthes cannot reproduce The Winter Garden Photograph for an audience because it would be pure studium.
In Little History of Photography there is a well-referenced passage discussing a photo titled Karl Dauthendey (Father of the Poet), with His Fiancee [fig.2]. Benjamin recalls the story of the photo: The photo was taken by Karl Dauthedney, at the time of his engagement, to the women he would later discover dead after slitting her wrists after the birth her sixth child. Benjamin writes: “The most precise technology can give its products a magical value, such a painted picture can never again possess for us.”
I refer again to Barthes:.
Painting can feign reality without having seen it. […] in photography I can never deny that the thing has been there. There is a superimposition here: of reality and the past. [The photograph] makes me lift my head, allows me to compute life, death, the inexorable extinction of the generations […] I am the reference of every photograph, and this is what generated my astonishment in addressing myself to the fundamental question: why is it that I am alive here and now? […] more than other arts, Photography offers an immediate presence to the world – a co-presence. This punctum, more or less blurred beneath the abundance and the disparity of contemporary photographs is vividly legible in historical photographs: there is always a defeat of Time in them: that is dead and that is going to die […] They have their whole lives before them; but they are dead (today), they are then already dead (yesterday). [fig. 3]
Benjamin writes in Little History of Photography, “What is aura exactly? A strange web of space and time: the unique appearance of a distance, no matter how close it may be.” Barthes continues, and expands: “The photograph then becomes a bizarre medium, a new form of hallucinations: false on the level of perception, true on the level of time: a temporal hallucination, so to speak, a modest, shared hallucination (on the one hand “it is not there,” on the other “but it has indeed been”): a mad image, chafed by reality.” The photograph attests to that which was, that which is, and to existence itself.
Upon closer exanimation of Walter Benjamin’s essays, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction and Little History of Photography, and comparison to Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida, it is clear that stating Benjamin was simply against technology and mechanical reproduction is a reductive understanding of his texts. Benjamin’s concept of aura was much more extensive and elaborate. But one may ask how did this misconception of aura become favored? Miriam Hansen writes that multiple translations of The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction are partly to blame. However, she also notes that it was Benjamin himself that popularized this notion. She writes: “As Benjamin knew well, to corral the meanings of aura into the privileged sphere of aesthetic tradition – and thus to historicize it as a phenomenon in decline – was the only way the term could be introduced into Marxist debates.” Hansen continues, describing Benjamin’s true aura: “[it’s] defining elements [are] disjunctive temporality—its sudden and fleeting disruption of linear time, its uncanny linkage of past and future – rather than [a] mere opposition to technological media.” Aura is a more complex phenomenon dealing with the medium of perception; it is a temporal vertigo.
Barthes, Roland, and Stephen Heath. Image music and text. New York: Hill and Wang, 1978.
Barthes, Roland. Camera lucida: reflections on photography. Pbk. ed. New York: Hill and Wang, 2010.
Benjamin, Walter, Michael William Jennings, Brigid Doherty, Thomas Y. Levin, and E. F. N. Jephcott. “Little History of Photography.” In The work of art in the age of its technological reproducibility, and other writings on media. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2008.
Benjamin, Walter, Michael William Jennings, Brigid Doherty, Thomas Y. Levin, and E. F. N. Jephcott. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” In The work of art in the age of its technological reproducibility, and other writings on media. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2008.
Hansen, Miriam Bratu. “Benjamin’s Aura.” Critical Inquiry 34, no. 2 (2008): 336-375. http://dx.doi.org/10.1086/529060 (accessed September 25, 2014).
Horkheimer, Max, and Theodor W. Adorno. “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception.” In Dialectic of enlightenment. 1944.
Walter Benjamin, Michael William Jennings, Brigid Doherty, Thomas Y. Levin, and E. F. N. Jephcott, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” in The work of art in the age of its technological reproducibility, and other writings on media (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2008)
 Roland Barthes, Camera lucida: reflections on photography, Pbk. ed. (New York: Hill and Wang, 2010) p.4
 Walter Benjamin, Michael William Jennings, Brigid Doherty, Thomas Y. Levin, and E. F. N. Jephcott. “Little History of Photography,” in The work of art in the age of its technological reproducibility, and other writings on media (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2008) p. 279
 Ibid. p 276
 Roland Barthes, Camera lucida: reflections on photography, p.53 & 26
 Roland Barthes, Camera lucida: reflections on photography, p.26-27
 Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”
 Roland Barthes, Camera lucida: reflections on photography, p.73
 Walter Benjamin, “Little History of Photography,” in The work of art in the age of its technological reproducibility, and other writings on media, p. 276
 Roland Barthes, Camera lucida: reflections on photography, p.76
 Ibid, p.84
 Roland Barthes, Camera lucida: reflections on photography, p. 96
 Walter Benjamin, “Little History of Photography,” in The work of art in the age of its technological reproducibility, and other writings on media, p. 285
 Roland Barthes, Camera lucida: reflections on photography, p.115
 Miriam Bratu Hansen, “Benjamin’s Aura.”
 Miriam Bratu Hansen, “Benjamin’s Aura.”