(I’m going to be moderately obnoxious and center my response on a footnote from an edition of the essay other than the one assigned for class. I’ll try to give enough of the footnote to clarify. I think this is worth doing because of the unique density of recurrent Hegelian-Marxian terms.)
In the version of this essay that Benjamin first intended for publication, from May 1936, there is a note that follows the description of film’s ability to take advantage of a frightened actor’s genuine response (our sections IX and X). At this point in the essay, Benjamin is exploring the particular ways in which the technical possibilities of film can alter perception (the development of this technology is an expression of changes in the mode of production). His footnote, however, moves from the specifics of film to the more philosophical, general mechanisms of social change. On such manipulation of actor’s real reactions for artistic purposes (I remember reading that Ridley Scott did this for the famous chestbursting scene in Alien) Benjamin writes: “Nothing shows more graphically that art has escaped the realm of “beautiful semblance” which for so long was regarded as the only sphere in which it could survive.”
In his footnote to this sentence, he seeks explain that "beautiful semblance" by unfolding several concepts which are “as tightly interfolded as cotyledons”. He writes:
In mimesis…slumber the two aspects of art: semblance and play. Of course, this polarity can interest the dialectician only if it has a historical role. And that, in fact, is the case. This role is determined by world-historical conflict between the first and second technologies…what is lost in the withering of semblance and the decay of the aura in works of art is matched by a huge gain in the scope for play. This space is widest in film.
Less interesting, I think, than whether or not this has been born out by the intervening use of film, is looking at how Benjamin’s use of dialectics and materialism/economism are on display here. He takes the practices of film making (not viewing, in this section) and looks for fundamental changes in what is possible—what can be done (very Marxian). He does this by unpacking the polarities and contradictions within the object (very Hegelian and Marxian). By doing so, he sees a new type of art in the methods now possible via reproducing/recording—an art that is no longer “auratic”. This doesn’t mean that art doesn’t have aura—rather that new art doesn’t have aura. I think of a music group like Animal Collective. What is an Animal Collective song? What semblance is there? none to a musical score, or a composers ideal. Rather there is a pastiche, a democratized (Adorno would say degraded and commoditized) experience of play. The music industry is the most extreme example of this—people often complain that there is no “new” music, we just recycle. The same is true of internet memes and new media in general. New technologies have enabled new, less auratic, types of art.
Benjamin, in the 30s, sees film as providing more scope for play and moving away from semblance. To him it signals a revolution into a new era. And maybe this is even more true in the age of technological access to the point where were don’t even need reproductions anymore. We have The Cloud. Of course, while the digital age certainly feels revolutionary, and engenders a change in human perception, I don’t know that it’s necessarily liberating the proletariat or fighting fascism--much as we wanted the Arab Spring to be the Twitter Revolution. But that is really a question of content—I think the process that Benjamin is describing, and his really genius methods of doing so, are useful. Now maybe if I can perform some semblance of it, I’ll be able to start making more sense of the world.