Benjamin, the televisual and the “fascistic subject”

Uploaded 15 September 1998

The 1936 Berlin Olympics, as well as providing the sets for Leni Riefenstahl’s masterpiece of Nazi propaganda Olympia, served as the site of the first “live” television broadcast. Among the crowds attending this global sports event, that simultaneously appeared on screens in several reception halls in Berlin, was the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, who had only the day before delivered an early version of his paper “The mirror stage” at Marienbad. In the 1949 version of that now famous essay Lacan would write that “the formation of the I is symbolised in dreams by a fortress, or a stadium.” [1]

After its translation into English in the late 1960s, Lacan’s paper on the mirror stage played a substantial part in the formulation of what has since become known in media studies as Screen theory. The positioning of the subject in the cinematic text has been analysed with reference to Lacan’s account of the narcissistic misrecognition of the self as a unified entity or gestalt. More recently, this analysis of the ideological functions of electronic media has been returned, particularly in the work of the group of scholars contributing to the North American journal October, to the historical emergence of fascism and the modern technological apparatus. Research by Hal Foster, Susan Buck-Morss, Jonathan Crary, Denis Hollier and others suggests that the critique of media embedded in the intellectual culture of the 1930s remains highly pertinent today. The following discussion draws substantially from this latter research in order to re-examine this legacy – principally the writings of Walter Benjamin and several of his French contemporaries – for contemporary media studies.

Benjamin’s influential essay “The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction” was also first published in 1936. In the final note appended to that essay Benjamin commented: “In big parades and monster rallies, in sports events, and in war, all of which nowadays are captured by camera and sound recording, the masses are brought face to face with themselves.” [2]  What this conjunction of historical/technological event and theoretical commentary suggests to Hal Foster is that the proliferation of televisual technologies – TV, video, computers – has supported, through the fetishization of mechanisms of control, a “fascistic subject.” [3] TV positions us as subjects of a technological imaginary and, in the televised sports game and rock concert, as virtual participants in what modernist theorists once called “mass culture.”

For Foster, fascism is “the most extreme symptom” of an age of “world war and military mutilation, of industrial discipline and machinic fragmentation, of mercenary murder and political terror.” [4]  The fascistic subject is “armoured” in response to the trauma induced by these historical conditions. So Foster reads in Lacan and Benjamin an implicit critique of the fascism of the ’30s that must be renewed in response to the televisual spectacle of the Gulf War. The “thrill of technomastery” [5] offered to the domestic public by CNN coverage of Desert Storm also returns us to the televisual mode of infotainment as central to the question of the fascistic subject.

Foster’s discussion is focused on three historical moments: the mid-1930s of Lacan and Benjamin; the “death of the subject” in 1960s French poststructuralism; and the contemporary scene of technological media – satellite TV, cyberspace, virtual reality etc. While Foster does not address the televisual as a central concern of his discussion, I want to insist that the development of televisual media provides an important point of reference for understanding what is at stake in the formation of the fascistic subject. Foster’s three periods, however, can be useful also in outlining a certain history of the televisual which I intend to pursue here: from the mass spectacles of the 1930s to the domestic installation of television in the post-war period and on to the contemporary globalisation of electronic information.

In pursuing this history of the televisual I want to distinguish my approach from Eduardo Cadava’s Words of Light. I do not accept Cadava’s blanket assertion that “Politics and history are now to be understood as secondary derivative forms of telecommunications.” [6]  Such a claim on Cadava’s part is presumably intended to justify his deconstructive reading of the trope of photography that runs through Benjamin’s various writings–writings which for Cadava insofar as they are “directed against the logic of . . . immanence and revelation” are “eminently political.” [7]  Such an approach, positioning photography (or, implicitly, the televisual) as logocentric would appear to support a limitless practice of close readings that unravel the metaphysical construction of technical media and thereby validate such a critical displacement also as “eminently political.” Rather, my intention here is to read certain texts of Benjamin and his contemporaries for a critical articulation of the fascistic subject. Tracking the different formations of this subject from Nazi Germany through post-war consumer societies into the so-called “New World Order” allows a certain constellation of politics, history and telecommunications to become legible and, hopefully, open to new critical interventions. My approach, then, does not position media as “primary” but nevertheless as taking a crucial role in the formation of cultural and political identity in our century.

Televisual mobility

In his landmark study, Television: Technology and Cultural Form, Raymond Williams argued that the term “mass communications” is misleading in its application to the broadcast media of radio and television insofar as the public reception of the new media was actually primarily based in private individual homes. [8]  In the context of Williams’s argument the use of radio and television by the Nazi regime – for example, the public viewings organised around the televising of the 1936 Olympics – proved to be unrepresentative of the subsequent institutionalisation of those media.

In contrast to the 1936 Olympics the first television service broadcast in London later the same year was far more successful both at the level of the quality of image transmitted and the enthusiasm of audience responses. [9]  As far as Britain went, then, Williams was no doubt correct to place broadcast television in the larger context of an historical process of “mobile privatisation,” [10]  a term that usefully describes a way of living “at once mobile and home-centred” typical of post-war consumer societies. For example, Roland Barthes was able to write in Mythologies of “The new Citroen” that car design had become “more homely” and that the “dashboard looks more like the working surface of a modern kitchen than the control-room of a factory.” [11] The privatised style and mode of post-war consumer culture offered an interesting gloss on Benjamin’s rather visionary pronouncements in the Artwork essay that film had burst asunder the “prison-world” of both private and public spaces, reducing them to “ruins and debris” amid which “we calmly and adventurously go travelling.” [12]

Echoing Williams’s notion of mobile privatisation, Anne Friedberg in Window Shopping has formulated the phrase “mobilised ‘virtual’ gaze[13]  to describe a simulation of movement and visibility that she traces back to the dioramas and panoramas of the nineteenth century, through the emerging consumer culture of the first arcades and department stores, and on into the twentieth century mobilisation of the consumer through the imaginary landscapes of cinema, tourism, television, shopping malls, the internet, etc. For Friedberg, Williams’s emphasis on privatisation foregrounds the distinction between broadcast television and the more diverse origins of the cinema. [14]  However, she goes on to point out that “the contextual changes in spectatorship” of the last decade, especially with mass consumer use of VCRs, make the distinctive development of television and cinema less determining. Indeed I follow Friedberg and use the term “televisual” here to encompass the contemporary conditions of the spectator positioned in the visual spaces produced by cinema, VCR, TV, PC and shopping mall.

So while the historical development of the televisual quickly departed from its origins as “mass media,” there was a continuity at another level in the virtual mobility of the subject. Friedberg’s theory of the mobilised virtual gaze usefully traces a line of flight from Benjamin’s account of technological mobility in the Artwork essay through the post-war installation of television and into contemporary electronic culture. Jean Baudrillard likewise updates Barthes’s description of the 1950s Citroen to describe the contemporary motor vehicle as “a kind of capsule, its dashboard the brain, the surrounding landscape unfolds like a televised screen.” [15]  In this account of “mastery, control and command” the subject collapses into screen and network terminal, returning us to Foster’s image of the contemporary fascistic subject wired to the “live” coverage of catastrophic events like the pilot of a privatised tele-vehicle.

Benjamin and the televisual

Although he never commented directly on the coming of television, Benjamin’s writings register with a singular sensitivity the impact of the technological and political changes experienced in his lifetime. Benjamin was born in 1892 into the Berlin middle-class at a time when that city had recently become the high-tech industrial centre of the world: the “Electropolis.” [16]   In Paris, the Lumiere brothers held their first public showing of motion pictures in 1895. Jonathan Crary notes that Benjamin began the famous Arcades Project, his study of the emerging consumer culture of nineteenth-century Paris, in 1927, the same year as the technological realisation of television. [17]  The first period of experimental television broadcasting was contemporary with Benjamin’s experimental historiography and drew directly from the aesthetics of photo- and filmic montage. The incorporation of the new media in Benjamin’s critical writings at this moment of historical emergence has given them an enduring fascination for the subsequent media age.

Miriam Hansen has pointed out that while Benjamin aligned himself in the 1920s with avant-garde and “primitive” uses of photography and cinema, by the mid-1930s the revolutionary struggle over the media apparatus was “all but lost . . . in the fascist restoration of myth through mass spectacle and newsreels, but also in the liberal-capitalist marketplace and in Stalinist cultural politics.” [18]  The Third Reich, which presented itself to Benjamin as the historical successor to the Second Empire, set out to install through television “the image of the Fuhrer in the hearts of the German people.” [19]  Both projects -television and Benjamin’s Arcades–were put on hold by the arrival of World War II. In the USA, broadcasting was interrupted by the bombing of Pearl Harbour, and televisual technology was placed in the service of developing new military technologies, particularly guided missiles. [20]  By the time Benjamin’s collected writings were first made available for post-war general release in Germany in 1955, Elvis was appearing on The Ed Sullivan Show. California, home of Hollywood and soon Silicon Valley, now supported a significant German émigré culture, but Benjamin had become another victim of fascism and it was left to his colleagues Arnold Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno to supply a first-hand critique of the American “culture industry.” [21]

Renewing the critique of the “fascistic subject” in this different context, Adorno’s awkward encounter with Paul Lazarsfeld’s mass communications research resulted in the uneasy attempt to synthesise critical theory and empirical procedures in The Authoritarian Personality[22]  It was not until the pre-war and wartime writings of Benjamin, Bertolt Brecht and Adorno were rediscovered in the 1960s that new theoretical and practical interventions based in ideology critique would regain some of their pre-war currency. The French film journals, Cahiers du cinema and Cinéthique, that theorised radical film practice and critique in response to the events of May ’68, returned to Benjamin, Brecht, Sergei Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov as precursors. [23] Discussing the use of the new video technology to create “guerrilla television” in America in the 70s, Patricia Mellencamp notes the decisive influence of Benjamin’s Illuminations[24]

The first collection of Benjamin translations in Illuminations(1968) made Benjamin a contemporary of French film theory and made possible his subsequent incorporation into the synthesis of Brecht, Lacan, and Althusser in the British journal Screen. As Hansen explains:

Benjamin’s reputation in contemporary film theory and criticism rests to a large extent upon his 1935/36 essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” probably the single most often cited text by Benjamin or any other German writer on film. . . . The particular blend of Marxism and modernism that determined the reception of Benjamin’s work, however, tended to obscure the more incongruous and ambivalent features of the Artwork Essay, not to mention its problematic status in relation to Benjamin’s other writings. [25]

The “more incongruous and ambivalent features” that Hansen seeks to rediscover in Benjamin’s famous essay pertain partly to the question of the mimetic, which – following Hansen’s lead – I will discuss further in relation to Lacan’s notion of the mirror stage and the writings of several of Benjamin’s contemporaries in the College of Sociology. The College, a group of intellectuals who met in Paris from late 1937 to mid 1939, developed an important critique of fascism that I will read in terms of its convergences with Benjamin’s discussion of mimicry and in the more general context of the televisual.

The principal theoretical synthesis undertaken in the pages of Screen can be given a cursory summary in the comment by Colin MacCabe that “the breaking of the imaginary relation between text and viewer is the first pre-requisite of political questions in art,” a strategic rupture which has “been evident since Brecht.” [26]  Challenging this assumption, Hansen argues that the historical urgency that prompted Benjamin’s critical response to the fascist aestheticisation of politics led him into contradiction with important themes in his other writings regarding the decline of experience (Erfahrung) in industrial urban society. [27] Benjamin’s writings on the mimetic open a number of issues regarding experience and subjectivity that cannot easily be subsumed by Screen‘s Brechtian critique of realist representation.

In a subtle and attentive re-reading, Hansen “distinguishes Benjamin’s notion of ‘distraction’ from a Brechtian concept of distanciation”:

distraction still contains the possibility of losing oneself, albeit intermittently, of abandoning one’s waking self to the dreamlike, discontinuous sequence of sense impressions that Benjamin sought in his own experiments with hashish or drifting through the Paris Arcades. [28]

Rather than the Brechtian A-effect, Hansen argues, we have in Benjamin a more complex dialectical notion of a “distortion of distortion” through which the mimetic is re-engaged in order to disrupt reified experience. It would, however, be a mistake to use such a reading of Benjamin to reject the Brechtian influence altogether. Rather, one can trace in Hansen’s reading a certain oscillation on Benjamin’s part between critical distance and participatory immersion.


From mass rally to video game or computer simulation, the privatisation of the fascistic subject challenges us to invent new modes of critical and practical interventions in electronic media. The “dominant ideology” of realist representation under attack in Screen theory needs to be reconsidered with respect to the new technologies of cyberspace and virtual reality. In this context Benjamin’s inquiry into the mimetic may present the beginnings of an alternative critical response to the contemporary technological dominant. Hansen has argued that Benjamin’s writings contain an alternative aesthetic/political strategy to the Brechtian ones that they have often been assumed to endorse. I want to position this question of mimicry in relation to a history of the televisual.

Lacan’s theory of the subject and Benjamin’s analysis of art and industrialism, both to have such a strong influence on later studies of mass media (in particular of cinema), also appeared in the same year as this first televisual spectacle. Several commentators have taken note of Lacan’s reference to his attendance at the 1936 Olympics. [29] Benjamin’s Artwork essay also includes what could be interpreted as a reference to the 1936 games. Both Hal Foster and Susan Buck-Morss have speculated on this point of connection between the Lacan and Benjamin texts. Foster claims that Lacan provides us with “a theory of the modern subject as a fascistic subject” [30]  – the fascist imagines a massive, unified self armoured against a threatening otherness that must be ruthlessly repressed. Buck-Morss shows that this unified self was visualised in spectacles of industrialised order imposed on the natural and human world. [31]  Benjamin, who embodied many facets of the otherness feared and hated by the fascist – as Jewish, leftist intellectual – saw the modern Olympics in the context of the mechanisation and reification of human labour in the industrial science of Taylorism: the athletes in Berlin competed not so much with each other as against an electronic clock. [32]

In his 1949 version of “The mirror stage” Lacan cites Roger Callois’s essay “Mimicry and legendary psychaesthenia,” explaining how the formation of the ego has its origin in a process of what Caillois called “depersonalisation by assimilation to space.” [33]  Caillois based his theory of mimicry on insect behaviour as a kind of “sculpture-photography.” [34]  Lacan extrapolated from Caillois’s writings to explain how the autonomous self is produced as an optical effect as a body attempts to conform to an encoded visual surface and to inhabit a landscape constituted as the field of the other’s gaze (one of Lacan’s examples is camouflage in warfare, whereby the imagined gaze may be an enemy plane). Thus, writes Lacan, the subject, “caught up in a lure of spatial identification”, assumes “an alienating identity, which will mark with its rigid structure the subject’s entire mental development.” [35]

Already in Lacan’s theory of the subject, following Caillois’ investigation of mimicry, the self image has begun to take the detour of the photographic technology that will increasingly recode the surface of the urban environment and the military field of vision. Trying to “blend in,” afraid of going to pieces, consciousness shuts down the messages its own body would alert it to under less routinely terrorising conditions: fear motivates rigidity of performance. For Caillois mimicry tends toward a becoming-inanimate: “a sort of instinct of renunciation that orients it toward a mode of reduced existence, which in the end would no longer know either consciousness or feeling.” [36]

Benjamin developed his theory of the modern subject as fundamentally shaped by the trauma of war in the 1936 essay “The storyteller.” Those who had returned from the battlefields of World War I were so traumatised by the forces of industrial technology that they were unable to communicate their experiences. [37]  Ernst Junger, who published his account of the war in Steel Storms in 1920 wrote: “In this war where fire already attacked space more than men, I felt completely alien to my own purpose, as if I had been looking at myself through binoculars.” [38]

What more can be said about this particular historical conjunction? In Laurence Rickels’ reading of the reciprocity of psychoanalysis and the developing technical media apparatus, the television screen presents a surface of perverse resistance to Oedipalization or a blockage to mourning, suspending the subject in a dream-state of regressive narcissism. Rickels returns to a media analogy, left aside by Freud, for primary narcissism as “a blank screen.” [39]  Rickels offers us an extension of this observation in psychoanalytic-televisual terms: “The ‘live’ participation of the entire population in total war fulfils a phantasmatic wish (of the ego): to fast forward beyond the aloneness of one’s own death to the death of all at the same time.” [40]  The television viewer disavows absence and death through the “live” action on the screen that extends his own imagined being by displacing the death drive onto the mass death provided by the militarised/consumer spectacle.

Paul Virilio’s proposition that “cinema is war” also applies to the increased extension of audio-visual technology into the domestic space through television. The Nazis had wielded the new cinema apparatus (and to some degree television also) to devastating effect, mobilising their population through propaganda into a state of total war. Today television can serve the same purpose; but as Virilio points out, with videos and walk-mans (and we should add personal computers) we are increasingly “directors of our own reality.” [41] The increasing mobility of audio-visual technology makes the entire world a potential screen.

Perpetual Adolescence

The transformations of the televisual apparatus and of Friedberg’s ” mobilized virtual gaze” return us to the theory of a fascistic subject articulated at the moment of its emergence. This subject only becomes legible when positioned in terms of changing historical constellations. The moment of the televisual which Raymond Williams described with the phrase “mobile privatisation” was also that of the Cold War. Patricia Mellencamp writes of this era as one of collective disavowal of the terror of nuclear war supported by television and consumerism: “The US imaginary appears to be arrested at that adolescent moment which refuses passage into the symbolic and resists ageing (with the necrophiliac resuscitation and sightings of the real Elvis and the photographed nude Marilyn as rituals of this arrested process).” [42]

Drawing similar conclusions from a somewhat different set of assumptions, conservative cultural critic Neil Postman argues that the passive reception of electronic images corrodes both the active engagement in play characteristic of oral cultures as well as the gradual acquiring of knowledge achieved through the technologies of print literacy. The notion of childhood as embodying innocence, privacy, and dependency that is the invention of the middle class in the age of print is shattered by the intrusion of televisual information into the home. According to Postman, television makes us all adolescent because (despite the minimal provision of programming directed at children) 1. television makes all its information available to anyone with access to the screen; and 2. the image, as opposed to the written text, is almost instantly legible (requires no apprenticeship in reading). [43] Television breaks down the control of information in the bourgeois home and school and subverts its autonomy through broadcasts of corporate capitalist and militarist images of the world.

While Postman’s concerns are with the preservation of middle class literacy, Susan Buck-Morss’s reading of Benjamin has reminded us of the important role that the child plays in his writings as a force for social change. The institutionalisation of book literacy, while maintaining a state of childhood through separation and a developmental model of learning, also led to a decline in the mimetic faculty so prominent in cultures more directly based in face-to-face communication. “Children’s literature” – fairy tales, imaginative fiction – and the Arts provided the marginalized forms for the release of mimetic impulses in industrial bourgeois society. Nevertheless, the simultaneous advent of cinema and the modern rediscovery of the “primitive” – in non-European ethnicities, popular forms like jazz, folk art, etc., – provided the opportunity for a resurgence of the mimetic into everyday culture. [44]

Buck-Morss’s emphasis on the mimetic in Benjamin is closely related to her interest in his encounter with Asja Lacis, the practitioner of experimental theatre in post-Revolutionary Russia. Lacis’s proletarian origins and her political activism lead to her exile from Stalin’s Soviet Union but also inspired a revival of her methods by radical theatre groups in West Germany in the late 1960s [45]  Lacis worked with gangs of streetkids – vagabonds, thieves, and runaways. Attempting to awaken, through play, the consciousness of orphans traumatised by war, Lacis constructed situations for theatre improvised and performed by children. Her pedagogy aimed to prepare the young for radical democracy. Allowing a spontaneous alliance to form between these war orphans and street gangs, rehearsals led to a children’s festival in the public domain of the city. [46]  In the “Program for a proletarian theatre” that he wrote for Lacis, Benjamin attacked bourgeois education and called for a pedagogy that would affect the total life of the child. The collective of children would challenge the boundaries imposed by middle-class separation and isolation and the educators would learn by observation from the children’s gestural and mimetic behaviours that were usually stifled in the classroom by adult authority.

In the mimetic improvisations of children Benjamin saw a revolutionary possibility: children approach objects as alive and changeable entities, continually reinventing them, animating them, directing them toward new purposes. In this way the child becomes free of the living death that haunts the adult’s encounter with the commodity; that is, the reification of experience in industrial society which leaves the subject unable to challenge the false appearance of social relations that have come to seem inevitable or “the natural order.” In the case of the Proletarian Children’s Theatre, the adult would learn by observing the child, keeping a correct distance to avoid unwelcome interference in the “radical release of play.” [47]  Indeed it is the child in such a radicalised context who has “burst asunder” the bourgeois separation of public and private domains and allows for the new social freedoms which Benjamin had also associated with the power of film.

But there is another side to Benjamin’s interest in the mimetic that is not explored by Buck-Morss. The pertinence of the College of Sociology, whose meetings in Paris Benjamin attended briefly in the late 1930s, to the question of the mimetic in Benjamin’s writings appears to have been generally neglected. In a paper by Michel Leiris presented to the College, “The sacred in everyday life,” the world of childhood is explored for the cultic value ascribed to ordinary objects and spaces that, as Leiris comments, “Had we been older and more erudite, we doubtless would not have hesitated to consider these things directly in touch with the gods of the underworld.” [48]

It was with the same conjunction of childhood and archaic religion that Benjamin had written that Proletarian Children’s Theatre “is in the realm of children what the Carnival was to the ancient cults.” [49]  As yet unintegrated into the reified social relations that define adult behaviour, children are able to bring dead things to life. This magical ability makes them the true teachers of the historian, who must learn to make the past live for new generations.

The College of Sociology investigated the origins of community in violent sacrifice. In this they can be seen to have been responding to a new age in which, as Virilio suggests, cinema palaces had come to function as cenotaphs [50] conjuring the ghosts of total war (a striking example is D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation). Community would henceforth be symbolised through the cinematic spectacle of the return of the dead. In a parody of what Bataille and his colleagues saw as the principle of expenditure in the ancient festivals, film becomes the primary mediator with the spirit world. With television, mourning becomes electronic at new global levels.

The enigma of the child revealed itself to Benjamin only as it was buried under the debris of technological progress: the invention of television, first used by the Nazis, would threaten, with the advent of the American-style culture industries, the extinction of the private world of book literacy that had nurtured – and tyrannised – the middle-class child. The new logic of the ever replaceable commodity directed at any potential market would intrude directly into the previously separate world of childhood. The suburban family is privatised and yet, at the same time, transformed along the model of the adolescent group: kids grow up fast while adults try to stay young. The cultic dimension of the world of children as it was perceived by Benjamin and Leiris provided a clue to a politics of the coming electronic age. According to the logic of Benjamin’s dialectical method, if mass media liquidated the child as it had been understood until then, a new understanding of the child as embodying archaic mimetic impulses would serve as a challenge to technology in its dominating forms.

Festivals of the electronic body

The research done at the College of Sociology on the mimetic and sacrificial impulses of the subject was to greatly influence Lacan’s later elaboration of psychoanalysis. One can also read in these surviving texts of the College the dark side of Benjamin’s fascination with the mimetic. The resurgence of the mimetic in modernity was both a potentially liberatory social force and also a reification of the subject on a new scale through the further technologizing of human perception. It is this historical contradiction that underlies Benjamin’s enigmatic notion of “dialectics at a standstill.” [51]

Denis Hollier reports Benjamin’s attendance at the College for Caillois’ lecture on festival [52] which, in its emphasis on regeneration through sacred excess and expenditure, would have been of interest to Benjamin. Caillois evoked festival with images of the return of the dead and a temporary economy of play and transgression that banished lack, thrift, and work. In The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Marx had summoned such festive imagery to distinguish between a revolutionary evocation of the past and a reactionary one. [53]

Benjamin pursued a similar distinction to Marx in the various expressions of the myth of the Golden Age – discussed by Caillois as the world ritually returned through festive celebration – that depicted a world without scarcity: deployed in both the utopian visions of Fourier and as their technological realisation in commodity display. [54] While the myth contains the revolutionary hope of social regeneration, it assumes its dominant form in the myth of progress and the forgetting of the exploitation of labour. Anticipating the interest at the College of Sociology in festival, Benjamin had found an authentic image of the Golden Age in the children’s theatre of Asja Lacis: “Everything is turned upside down, and just as master served slave during the Roman Saturnalia, so during the performance, children stand on stage and teach and educate their attentive educators.” [55]  For Benjamin, festival now took on the caste of a revolutionary pedagogy.

Caillois’ conclusion to his 1950 version of the lecture on festival (which forms a chapter in his Man and the Sacred) was that “the old alternation between feast and labour” had been replaced by one between “stable tranquillity, and compulsory violence.” [56]  The contorted faces of the exhausted runners at the end of the marathon in Riefenstahl’s Olympia: The Festival of the People (1936) strangely resemble those survivors who emerged (on camera) at the liberation of the camps in 1945. The violence perpetuated on the victims of Nazism was the catastrophic projection of the self-annihilation demanded by the regime of everyone, including the brutalised indifference that was the mask of the victimisers.

Olympia calls forth the Greek past and presents its renewal in the mass spectacle of the German Reich; but the pagan dead return only as exploited bodies in an age of automation. After all, “Olympia” was also the name of the female automaton in E.T.A Hoffman’s story “The sandman.” Totalitarianism glorifies pain and work (“Work makes you free”) but denies death as expenditure or loss. The crowd of the unmourned who have always threatened to play havoc in the world of the living and were therefore given free reign at predetermined, culturally sanctioned periods of archaic festival, now co-exist in the purgatorial present of television. The solution posed by fascism to this question was to glorify the expendability of the individual at no cost to the collective will channelled ceaselessly into production.

Benjamin’s final meditations, “Theses on the philosophy of history,” attend to questions of community and sacrifice. The redemption of the dead, through the revolutionary coming of the Messiah, takes place only through the cessation of time: so the French revolutionists fired on the clock towers of Paris. This assault on time is presented by Benjamin in terms of the “spirit of sacrifice” of the proletariat. [57] In 1936 the athletes competed against the electronic clock for “live” television. But true festival brings time to a standstill. The ambivalent possibilities of electronic culture require a continual process of reconfiguration in order to provoke a shock of recognition. Subsequent generations have recovered Benjamin’s writings and attempted to short circuit their own historical moment. For Benjamin, every generation is “endowed with a weak Messianic power,” [58]  a power to bring the reified experience of time to a sudden stop: to set off an alarm that will wake the dead.


I began this discussion by following Foster’s focus on three different moments of cultural critique which I suggested also help to outline a certain history of the televisual. The Lacanian theory of the mirror stage, supported (via Althusser) a notion of the spectator positioned in cinematic space. Miriam Hansen argues that these theories of film spectatorship “emerged at the threshold of a paradigmatic transformation of the ways films are disseminated and consumed.” [59] The new conditions of reception, largely shaped by “electronic technologies propped onto television,” mark a further stage in the privatisation of electronic media. The history of the televisual that I have pursued in this discussion traces a gradual displacement of the older notion of “mass culture” and the emergence of what today is commonly called the post-Fordist economy, or postmodern culture.

Hansen’s remarks about the transformations of spectatorship contextualize the notion of a “fascistic subject” which can reconnect us to the urgency of an earlier critique of fascism at the same time as we must reconsider this critique from our own historical vantage point. Raymond Williams’s argument that television needed to be understood in terms of a larger historical process which he called “mobile privatisation” remains a key to effectively counterpointing our own moment with Benjamin’s timely evocations of the “bursting asunder” of social space. Such an apocalyptic vision of the new media needs to be understood, in hindsight, with reference to the paradox that Williams observes: that we have become at once more mobile and more privatised.

The War in the Gulf mobilised in a massive and direct way an imaginary order which had been rehearsed in popular films like Rambo (1982), Terminator (1984) and Top Gun (1986) and which can be understood as the installation of a fascistic subject which should be described not only as post-Fordist or postmodern but also post-Vietnam. Significantly, Colin MacCabe outlined his Brechtian critique of realist cinema in an analysis of American Graffiti (1973), a film also discussed by Frederic Jameson as inaugurating the postmodern nostalgia for 1950s America. [60] In 1973 – a year often noted as the turning point for America’s postwar global hegemony and the beginning-of-the-end of its Fordist economy – a new moment in the perpetual adolescence of televisual culture was born.

The nostalgia for this earlier moment of mobile privatisation remains a defining feature of contemporary media culture. The ideological function of this nostalgia, recognised by both MacCabe and Jameson, is its disavowal of the American humiliation in Vietnam. Such a disavowal is fundamental to the later emergence of Stallone and Schwarznegger as pop icons of the fascistic subject identified by Foster. The body armour of this post-Vietnam adolescent appears as a hyper-inflated re-make of the fascist body glorified in Nazi propaganda. How to resist interpellation by this sinister new form of techno-subject?

I will leave the answer to this question to be sounded as it reverberates in these final comments from Benjamin’s “Conversations with Brecht”:

the recognition that life goes on despite Hitler, that there will always be children. He was thinking of the “epoch without history” . . . A few days later he told me that he thought of the coming of such an epoch more likely than the victory over fascism . . . “We must neglect nothing in our struggle against that lot. What they’re planning is nothing small, make no mistake about it. They’re planning for thirty thousand years ahead. Colossal things. Colossal crimes. They stop at nothing. They’re out to destroy everything. Every living cell contracts under their blows. That is why we too must think of everything. They cripple the baby in the mother’s womb. We must on no account leave out the children.” While he was speaking like this I felt a power being exercised over me which was equal in strength to the power of fascism – I mean a power that sprang from the depths of history no less deep than the power of the fascists.” [61]

[1] Jacques Lacan, Ecrits: A Selection, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Norton, 1977),5.
[2] Walter Benjamin, Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken,1968), 251.
[3] Hal Foster, “Postmodernism in parallax,” October 63 (1993): 8.
[4] Foster, 8.
[5] Foster, 19.
[6] Eduardo Cadava, Words of Light: Theses on the Photography of History (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1997), xxiii.
[7] Cadava, xxiv.
[8] Raymond Williams, Television: Technology and Cultural Form (New York: Schocken, 1975), 24.
[9] Albert Abramson, “The invention of television”, in Television: An International History, ed. Anthony Smith (Oxford University Press, 1995), 30-31.
[10] Williams, 26.
[11] Roland Barthes, Mythologies, trans. Annette Lavers (New York: Hill and Wang, 1972), 89.
[12] Benjamin, Illuminations, 236
[13] Anne Friedberg, Window Shopping: Cinema and the Postmodern (Berkely: University of California Press, 1993), 2.
[14] Friedberg, 139.
[15] Jean Baudrillard, “The ecstasy of communication”, in The Anti-aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture (Seattle, Washington: Bay Press, 1983), 127.
[16] Peter Hall and Paschal Preston, The Carrier Wave: New Informational Technology and the Geography of Innovation 1846-2003 (London: Unwin Hyman, 1988), 123.
[17] Jonathan Crary, “Spectacle, attention, counter-memory,” October 50 (1989): 103.
[18] Miriam Hansen, “Benjamin, cinema and experience: ‘The blue flower in the land of technology’,”New German Critique 40 (1987): 181.
[19] Crary, 105.
[20] Abramson, 30.
[21] Max Horkeimer & Theodor W. Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment , trans John Cumming (New York: Continuum, 1993).
[22] T.W.Adorno, et al, The Authoritarian Personality (New York: Harper & Bros., 1950).
[23] Sylvia Harvey, May ’68 and Film Culture (London: British Film Institute, 1980), 45.
[24] Patricia Mellencamp, “Video and the counterculture”, in Global Television, eds. Cynthia Schneider and Brian Wallis (New York: Wedge Press; Cambridge Massachusetts: MIT, 1988), 205.
[25] Hansen, “Benjamin”, 179-180.
[26] Colin MacCabe, Theoretical Essays: Film, Linguistics, Literature (Manchester University Press, 1985), 73.
[27] Hansen, “Benjamin”, 182-186.
[28] Hansen, “Benjamin”, 218-219.
[29] Lacan, 239.
[30] Foster, 8.
[31] Susan Buck-Morss, “Aesthetics and anaesthetics: Walter Benjamin’s artwork essay reconsidered,” October 62 (1992): 32-35.
[32] Susan Buck-Morss, The Dialectics of Seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project(Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1989), 326.
[33] Roger Caillois, “Mimicry and legendary pyschaesthenia,” trans. John Shepley, October 31 (1984): 30.
[34] Caillois, 23.
[35] Lacan, 4.
[36] Caillois, 32.
[37] Benjamin, Illuminations, 84.
[38] Cited in Paul Virilio, War and Cinema: The Logistics of Perception, trans. Patrick Camille (London: Verso, 1989), 72.
[39] Laurence A. Rickels, The Case of California (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins, 1991), 93.
[40] Rickels, 101.
[41] Virilio, 66.
[42] Patricia Mellencamp, “TV time and catastrophe, or Beyond the pleasure principle of television”, in Logics of Television: Essays in Cultural Criticism, ed. Patricia Mellencamp (Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1990), 260.
[43] see Neil Postman, The Disappearance of Childhood (New York: Delacorte Press, 1982).
[44] see Michael Taussig, Mimesis and Alterity: A Particular History of the Senses (New York & London: Routledge, 1993).
[45] Jack Zipes, “Building a children’s theatre: 2 Documents,” Performance 1.5 (1973): 22-24.
[46] Asja Lacis, “A memoir,” trans. Jack Zipes, Performance 1.5 (1973): 24-27.
[47] Walter Benjamin, “Program for a proletarian children’s theatre,” trans. Susan Buck-Morss, Performance 1.5. (1973): 31.
[48] cited in Denis Hollier, ed., The College of Sociology 1937-1939, trans. Betsy Wing (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988), 26.
[49] Benjamin, “Program”, 32.
[50] Virilio, 31.
[51] Walter Benjamin, Charles Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism, trans. Harry Zohn (London: Verso, 1983), p.171.
[52] Hollier, xxi.
[53] The Marx-Engels Reader (2nd Ed.), ed. Robert C.Tucker , (New York & Lo, 1978).
[54] Buck-Morss, Dialectics of Seeing, 118-120.
[55] Benjamin, “Program”, 32.
[56] cited in Hollier, College of Sociology, 302-303.
[57] Benjamin, Illuminations, 262.
[58] Benjamin, Illuminations, 254
[59] Miriam Hansen, “Early cinema, late cinema: transformations of the public sphere” in Viewing Positions; Ways of Seeing Film, ed. Linda Williams (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1994), 135.
[60] Frederic Jameson, “Postmodernism and consumer society”, in The Anti-aesthetic, 116
[61] Walter Benjamin,Understanding Brecht, trans. Anna Bostock (London: Verso, 1973), 120.

About the Author

Allen Meek

About the Author

Allen Meek

Allen Meek is a Senior Lecturer in the School of English and Media Studies at Massey University, New Zealand. He is the author of Trauma and Media: Theories, Histories and Images (Routledge 2010). He is currently researching how events such as the Holocaust and the bombing of Hiroshima have lead cultural theorists to develop new narratives about identity and memory, and how these narratives both illuminate and obscure the politicization of biological life.View all posts by Allen Meek →