Friday, April 5, 2013

Pop Culture Writing Task

A few notes on this that I'm aware of:
- I think I've used too many quotes
- I used the word 'media' far too many times
- I'm not sure if I clearly triangulated an argument
- I referred to extra sources outside the two stated in the task
- I wrote too much! 

This essay aims to investigate Walter Benjamin's theory as written in his essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Production (1936) in relation to contemporary video games in an increasingly transmedia and digitised post-modern world, looking in particular at the technologically-produced figure of Lara Croft. The digital icon's immense popularity has coincided with a shift in understandings of how consumers experience modern media, raising the question of whether or not she possesses the 'aura' that Benjamin describes.

The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Production (1936) remains to be a major inspiration for critics assessing the history of modern aesthetics and politics. At a point in time where new modes of artistic expression - namely photography and film - were coming to the fore, the elusive world of fine art saw significant shifts in both the manner in which art was presented and how it was received by audiences. Benjamin particularly focuses on the concept of the authority and 'aura' of an artwork; this can generally be defined as an artwork's autonomous 'hold' on its viewer, a certain kind of transcendent beauty that is supported by its history, or as Benjamin describes: “... 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.” This 'authenticity' is depreciated when the work is reproduced as it is lacking its unique, original quality: "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, 1936)

Benjamin writes of art's original purpose as being rooted in cultist and ritualistic traditions, whether magical, religious or secularised. This reverence of art in it's 'pure' form, free from any social relevance, prevailed throughout the Renaissance and culminated in the Aesthetic Movement of 1860-1900 - the Cult of Beauty - and the belief of 'art for art's sake'. (Dorment, 2011) This mode of art faced a crisis when "the first truly revolutionary means of reproduction, photography" gained popularity along with the rise of socialism. Art was associated with the elite and bourgeois, but now that there rose a means of mechanical reproduction, the 'aura' and authenticity of art was at risk: "for the first time in world history, mechanical reproduction emancipates the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual." (Benjamin, 1936)

Art, in photographic and film form, began to be designed for reproducibility and mass consumption, which went against all established traditions. This was the basis for two main points: that art could be detached from its authoritative associations and be more widely appreciated by audiences.

"These two processes lead to a tremendous shattering of tradition which is the obverse of the contemporary crisis and renewal of mankind. Both processes are intimately connected with the contemporary mass movements. Their most powerful agent is the film. Its social significance, particularly in its most positive form, is inconceivable without its destructive, cathartic aspect, that is, the liquidation of the traditional value of the cultural heritage." (Benjamin, 1936)

As the lower-classes began to attempt to break the clear class divides of capitalism for a more democratic society, similar proceedings began to take shape in culture, with the most controversial new form of media being cinema. These milestones, along with the development of technology, have evolved into a form 'new media' that has become particularly prevalent from the 20th century onwards:

"New media can provisionally be described as a global network of communication technologies and information flow whose material backbone is the digital computer and whose aesthetics and formal properties are heavily shaped by digital processes." (Rehak, 2000)

Digital-based media allows work to be created, experienced and shared at an ever-increasing pace. Video games, which are entirely digital in nature, have become an integral part of this, and have surpassed even film in popularity. (Chatfield, 2009) But they are just one part of a mediascape which is now completely interlinked and translatable, and which has not only broken down barriers between different forms but also between producer and consumer.

Lara Croft, digital star of the Tomb Raider series of video games, the first of which was released in 1996, is a prime example of the convergence of modern media. As well as appearing in an immensely popular series of games, her polygonal form has starred in comics, magazines, music videos, calendars, action figures and cinema. She is "a software-generated character without human referent" (Rehak, 2000) and acts solely as an avatar through which the player experiences the game world, and therefore lacks the traditional sense of 'authenticity' that Benjamin described; yet fans have come to idolise and revere her similarly to how one would a celebrity, or even a piece of artwork.

Croft's image manifests and resignifies in whichever form of media the audience desires; many of these forms are created by the fans themselves through fan-created art and fiction. Rehak writes of how fans perceive her "simultaneously concrete and open ended nature" and desire for a sense of ownership; they are faced with the blank facets of Croft's avatar nature and respond to it by creating their own meaning, one that relates to their experience and identity.

"One glimpses the emergence of a novel formation in media reception, in which the fragmentation, multiplicity and overload of contemporary media are met (and tamed) by an audience hungry to bring order to chaos." (Rehak, 2000)

The concept of 'fandom' is relatively new, and offers invaluable insights into the evolved, speculative manner in which audiences interact with media. As opposed to the producer of the media holding authority over the piece's content and meaning - and it's aura - and it therefore being entirely 'complete' upon interaction with it's audience, Lara Croft's persona becomes more substantial the more her fans contribute to her metanarrative. Her intertextuality is generated by fans, for fans, although always in a way that fits with the producer's canon. (Rehak, 2000)

It is complex to consider how the concept of 'aura' relates to Lara Croft and digital-based media in general, as Benjamin's definition isn't precise and is open to many interpretations. Robins considers this in his article
Theory in Studio: Walter Benjamin and the Concept of Aura (2011) in which he writes of how aura is something that is applicable to the mode of perception in general, as opposed to narrowly being associated with technological advancement. Many aspects of a piece - whether it be a photograph, painting, film or game - can influence how it is perceived in a detached manner.

He gives the example of one of John Wayne's cowboy hats which sold for over $119,000 at auction; although without Wayne it is just an ordinary hat, it's value is placed in the "immaterial aspects of celebrity and fandom that influence the perception of the hat". These "immaterial aspects" are what could be described as it's aura. 

In Lara's case, her iconic image, evocative of her entire background narrative - constructed by designers and fans alike - could be considered her aura

Fans are in control of her story as much as they are in control of her body, and begin to view her as a living, breathing being. By 'fleshing out' her character, they become more emotionally attached, which "provides ontological coherence and helps enhance immersion" - it makes her seem more human.

"...When you jumped off that cliff edge hoping to catch the broken bridge, your heart pounded as Lara's hands stretched out. In many ways it was an experience, an adventure, not just a game." (O'Rourke, 2002)

Because of Lara's unanchored quality, and her "transitory and ongoing identification", players participate in her evolution. You experience her personal journey with her, and are reminded of it each time you see her image outside of the context of the game. As opposed to her having the quality of Benjamin's authenticity which stems from historical testimony, Lara's testimony could be said to be written by, and reflect, her fans and the era of the mediascape, as is shown through the continuous evolution and maturation of her graphical incarnations: 

Benjamin's definition of the aura as "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" could seem to apply to Lara, despite her non-physical existence. She could be said to bear the marks of a continuous evolution in relation to the technology of the era; a testimony to the history of the time, as well as her own fanmade history. 

Postmodern media is shifting from the traditional polarities of production and consumption to something "more complex, cooporative, circulatory". All who experience it - creators and consumers - construct and redefine traditions and methods of interacting with it as a means of coping with the drastic changes technology is undergoing. (Rehak, 2000) Benjamin's theories are not necessarily negated by the arguments written here of Lara Croft's 'aura'; rather it possibly needs to be reconsidered to fit our contemporary, largely virtual mediascape, and to take into account to vast number of ways we are now able to interact with and contribute to art, entertainment and culture. 


Rehak, B. 'Mapping the Bit Girl: Lara Croft and the new media fandom', in Bell, D. and Kennedy, B.M (eds.) (2000) The Cybercultures Reader, London and New York, Routledge, pages 159 - 173

Benjamin, W. (1936), 'The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction', in Harrison, C. and Wood, P. (eds.) (2003), Art in Theory 1900 - 2000, Oxford: Blackwell, pages 520 - 527

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