This piece is a roundtable discussion on the Walter Benjamin’s 1935 essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproducibility” examining its relevance today in our ongoing condition of media change in which attention and distraction are at the forefront of current concerns. The discussion was between Mike Jennings, Professor in the German Department at Princeton University and author of Walter Benjamin: A Critical Life; Michael Wood, Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Princeton University and author of Habits of Distraction; and Thomas Levin, Professor in the German Department at Princeton University and curator and co-author of CTRL [SPACE]: Rhetorics of Surveillance from Bentham to Big Brother. The discussion was moderated by Daniela Fabricius, Adjunct Assistant Professor at Pratt Institute.

  • “Perhaps we can begin by discussing the historical context of the essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility” and talk a little bit about Benjamin’s biography and what was going on at the time that he wrote the essay.”

  • “We come to understand our own age by inscribing a prior age with which it’s synchronous. And so it’s important to see his reflections on media, on film, on architecture […] in its relation to his understanding of the art of the 19th century.”

  • “The interesting thing about Benjamin is he’s interested in montage as an effect of the cutting room. Krakouer’s point, instead, is that film has the potential to break through and reveal the structure of the apparently seamless ideological construction of the world in the very artificiality and partiality of the set, which is then recorded. […] Krakauer had a certain faith that the viewer could see that through, somehow, the illusions of what we’ll call ‘traditional film,’ and Benjamin was wary of that.”

  • “So the point is not, necessarily, to differentiate between good and bad objects, but rather to look at the explosive potential that a certain type of cultural production […] might have at a particular juncture. And it’s this capacity to transform, enshrine modes of perceptive, to force an encounter with a certain sensorial regime and its historicity, that is the potential of a certain kind of cinema.”

  • “As a stylistic device, then, the essay approximates its own object by being a montage essay of theses that do not follow in any easily comprehensible order. One has to reconstellate this essay again and again so that it becomes more kaleidoscopic than any kind of through argumentation could help us understand.”

  • “We should remember that Benjamin explicitly invokes a theory of aesthetics not as a theory of art but, as he says, in the Greek sense of aesthetics as a theory of perception. And here’s, to use another marvelous term that he invokes in describing the potential that media, per se, can offer, in that context of this field, the history of perception, new media […] can offer a kind of inoculation. They can inoculate us against these worn-out habits and therein lies a certain kind of deeply political transformative potential.”

  • “I read him as saying distraction is actually a form of attention, that’s why a distracted person can form habits. […] What he says is the movie audience is free of these things, he says he has no attention, they’re not paying attention. Something’s going on in their minds, but it’s about evaluating things, which actually does not include […] attention.”

  • “Distraction […] is the precondition for a habituated unconscious mimesis of certain aspects that one is encountering in certain kinds of technologically produced artworks.”

  • “What would be a way to reread Benjamin today in relation to the contemporary arts?”

  • “Theorists have come and gone; why does Benjamin persist? […] Because he’s not primarily a theorist, but a writer. […] This essay is a kind of paradigm for the waves of reception.”



Griffin Ofiesh

Issue Editor

Joseph Bedford

Senior Editor

Joseph Bedford


Alistair Stokes


Daniela Fabricius


Mike Jennings, Michael Wood, and Thomas Levin.