Antonio Somaini, born 1968, has been Professor for Film, Media and Visual Culture Studies at Université Paris 3 since 2012. Having studied philosophy at Università degli Studi di Milano, Somaini received his doctorate at Università degli Studi di Firenze in 2002. From 2006 to 2011, he was a lecturer at Università degli Studi di Genova. In 2011, Somaini was appointed Professor for Film Studies at Università IUAV di Venezia. Furthermore, he was awarded a fellowship at Zentrum für Literatur- und Kulturforschung, Berlin in 2013. Somaini has published several Italian editions of pertinent writings by authors such as Walter Benjamin, László Moholy-Nagy or Sergei Eisenstein. In consonance with his editorial work, he has elaborated on theories of montage from the 1920s to the 1930s as well as on the conceptual history of the medium, the dispositive or the apparatus. Somaini currently traces a research project on Benjamin’s media theory that promises to benefit from recent German media theory and philosophy, as pursued by the IKKM.
The concept of Medium and the polarity Medium/Apparat in Walter Benjamin’s writings: ontology, genealogy, aesthetics
During my fellowship at the IKKM I will tackle the topic of the 2014-18 IKKM Research Program (“Operative ontologies”) and the 2014-15 annual topic (“How to do things by framing and sewing”) from the vantage point of a study of the concept of Medium and of the polarity Medium/Apparat in Walter Benjamin’s writings. The goal will be that of analysing the ontological, genealogical and aesthetic dimension of such concepts, in order to then examine their relevance for contemporary media theory and philosophy. Benjamin used the term Medium throughout his writings – from the early writings on color in the 1910s to the preparatory texts for the theses On the Concept of History (1940) – but he never used it to indicate photography, film, gramophone, radio, telephone, the typing machine… All these were for him Apparate (or Apparatur, if taken together as a collective singular), while Medium indicated in his writings a constellation of entities which included “color” [Farbe] (The Rainbow: A Conversation About Imagination, 1915), “language” [Sprache] (On Language as Such and on the Language of Man, 1917), the “mark” [Mal] as opposed to the “sign” [Zeichen] (Painting, or Signs and Marks, 1917), “art criticism” as a “medium of reflection” [Reflexionsmedium] (The Concept of Criticism in German Romanticism, 1919), “the medium through which works of art continue to influence later ages” (in a fragment dated 1920), the “aura” [Aura] surrounding the individuals portrayed in early photographs (Little History of Photography, 1931), “memory” [Gedächtnis] as “the medium of that which is experienced, just as the earth is the medium in which ancient cities lie buried” (Excavation and Memory, 1932), “language” as “the highest application of the mimetic faculty […] the medium in which objects encounter and come into relation with one another” (Doctrine of the Similar, 1933), “clouds” (The Soaked Magic Wand, 1934), “time” as a “medium” which is not “empty and homogeneous” but rather “filled with ‘now-time’ [Jetztzeit]” (preparatory materials for the theses On the Concept of History, 1940), and finally, and most importantly, the “Medium of perception” [Medium der Wahrnehmung] which Benjamin mentions in the different versions of his artwork essay: the spatially extended, ‘environmental’ Medium – the Umwelt, the milieu – in which human sensory perception “occurs” and “is organized”. This is a “plastic” Medium which changes in time according to the different ways in which the technical Apparate configure and organize it, giving it different degrees of density and consistency, transparency and opaqueness, making it more or less perceivable as such. Located within such a historically changing Medium, sensory perception, according to Benjamin, is itself historically determined: the visible and the audible are constantly transformed by the Apparate, and the modern Apparatur, in particular, subjects the sensorium to a constant series of “shocks” which demand in turn some form of “test” and “training”. Benjamin believed that the role of “aesthetics” [Ästhetik] was that of analysing the historical interplay between the “Medium of perception” and the evolving world of the Apparate. According to such a perspective, not only modern, optical Apparate such as photography and cinema (with their capacity of revealing, through close-up and slow motion, framing and editing, an “optical unconscious” otherwise inaccessible), but also materials and chemical substances such as glass and hashish played an essential role: the first, glass, as an Apparat capable (in the 19th century glass architecture of the Parisian passages, and later in Scheerbart’s and Taut’s utopian visions, as well as in the modern glass architecture of Gropius and Le Corbusier) of changing our perception of light and space, having an impact on the density of the Aura which was comparable to that of cinema and photography (see Experience and Poverty, 1933); the second, hashish, as a Präparat capable of enhancing – as we read in the hashish protocols and in texts such as Hashish in Marseille (1929) and the Crock Notes (1932) – our perception of the Aura as an “ornamental halo” [ornamentale Umzirkung] surrounding all existing things with different densities, making us aware of all those floating entities, such as “colors”, “curtains” and “lace” that, as “interpreters of the language of wind”, “intermediaries or go-betweens in the realms of matter”, could be considered as revealing the different densities and the different ‘folds’ of the Medium.
During my stay at the IKKM I will study Benjamin’s concept of Medium and the polarity Medium/Apparat in relation to the idea of “operative ontologies”:
- a.) first, I will show how the different technical Apparate studied by Benjamin can be considered as performing a series of operations such as lighting and shading, framing and connecting, filtering and projecting, recording and transmitting, slowing down and accelerating, which have as a result the production of different configurations of the Medium.
- b.) then, I will try to reconstruct the long genealogy within which Benjamin’s notion of the “Medium of perception” needs to be contextualized: a genealogy which begins with the Aristotelian notions of diaphanes and metaxy, and continues with the theory of the media diaphana in medieval and modern optics, the various meanings of the terms Medium and Vermittlung in German Romantic literature and Idealist philosophy, the French notions of milieu and ambiance, the occultist tradition of the second half of the 19th century, all the way up to the use of the term Medium in authors writing in German in the 1920s such as Béla Balázs (Der sichtbare Mensch, 1924), László Moholy-Nagy (Malerei Fotografie Film, 1925-27) and Fritz Heider (Ding und Medium, 1926). The use of the German term “Medium” by these authors, as we will see, differs significantly from the meaning of the English term “medium” in the writings of Rudolf Arnheim (the English translation of Film as Art, 1933), John Dewey (Art as Experience, 1934), and Clement Greenberg (“Avant-Garde and Kitsch”, 1939; “Towards a Newer Laocoon”, 1940). The way in which these authors consider “the medium of cinema” or “the medium of painting” as the combination of a set of techniques and practices which acquire the status of “art” if they focus on their own “specificity” differs significantly from the ontological, “atmospheric” notion of Medium that one finds in German authors writing in the same years.
- c.) finally, I will discuss the contemporary relevance of Benjamin’s understanding of the “Medium of perception” and of the polarity Medium/Apparat in relation to other attempts, within the domain of contemporary film and media theory, to reevaluate the aesthetic, “atmospheric”, “metereological” line that runs through the history of the concept of “medium”.
Les possibilités du montage. Balázs, Benjamin, Eisenstein. Paris: Mimesis France, forthcoming 2014.
Ejzenštejn. Il cinema, le arti, il montaggio. Torino: Einaudi 2011.
Rappresentazione prospettica e punto di vista. Milano: CUEM 2004.
with Naum Kleiman: S.M. Eisenstein, Notes pour une ‘Histoire générale du cinéma’. Paris: Éditions de l’AFRHC 2013.
with Andrea Pinotti: W. Benjamin, Aura e choc. Saggi sulla teoria dei media. Torino: Einaudi 2012.
with Roberto Diodato: Estetica dei media e della comunicazione. Bologna: Il Mulino 2011.
with Andrea Pinotti: Teorie dell’immagine. Il dibattito contemporaneo. Milano: Cortina 2009.
Esperienza e rappresentazione dello spazio architettonico. Milano: CUEM 2006.
“Le cinéma blockbuster entre haute et basse définition”. In: Laura Odello (ed.): Blockbuster. Philosophie et cinéma. Paris: Les Prairies Ordinaires 2013, pp. 65-84.
with Francesco Casetti: “The conflict between high definition and low definition in contemporary cinema”. In: Convergence. The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies, 19/4, 2013, pp. 415-422.
“Cinématisme. Cinema and the Search for the Pre-Cinematographic Canon”. In: Pietro Bianchi, Giulio Bursi, Simone Venturini (eds.): Il canone cinematografico / The Cinematographic Canon. Udine: Forum 2011, pp. 99-106.
“Kino als Mumifizierung und Geschichte als Montage”. In: Zeitschrift für Medienwissenschaft, 4/1, 2011, pp. 138-157.
“The Concept of Visual Culture and the Historicity of the Eye”. In: Alice Autelitano (ed.): The Cinematic Experience. Film, Contemporary Art, Museum. Udine: Campanotto 2010, pp. 32-50.
“Montaggio e anacronismo”. In: Georges Didi-Huberman. Un’etica delle immagini. Milano: Il Saggiatore 2010, pp. 84-100.