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I had a troubling realization about my artist and creator friends the other day - I rarely consume any of the art they create but, instead, voraciously consume their identity as an artist. Not that they are bad at what they do. Occasionally, I will read the odd short story or poem or watch a movie and marvel at their genius while being slightly envious. However, their identity as an artist, which they expertly perform, is inescapable and is part of my every day on social platforms. Since the physical world is mostly a sandbox for creating content these days, this identity performance also extends into real life. I don't think any of them would be angry at me for saying this because this newsletter is my contribution to the same phenomenon.
In the early part of the 20th century, Walter Benjamin wrote about art losing its "aura" in an era of mechanical reproduction. For Benjamin, the "aura" of art defined the distance of the artist from their audience. This distance was achieved by the location and context that the art was made and consumed in. This was hard to replicate prior to mechanical reproduction. For example, you must go to the Louvre to experience the Mona Lisa, an Opera house, to truly enjoy an opera. He also gestures at how the techniques of high art were unattainable for an average but buries the lede on this in his essay. According to him, with the mechanical reproduction of photography and film, you could experience art outside the traditional context in which it should be experienced. The result was that the audience could now be both enjoyer and critique at the same time because the "aura" and unattainability of the art had disappeared.
Art, to Benjamin, attained its aura when the feedback loops were slower. If the art was not easily reproducible, individuals had to put time and effort into recreating it or recreating the same style. New forms of art and distribution took more time. Mechanical reproducibility, first with photography and film, then later with the internet, accelerated the feedback loops of making and reproducing art that made the aura of all art more diminished. Artists seem to have a tumultuous relationship with mechanical reproduction. On the one hand, the faster feedback loops of technology have created new forms such as advanced forms of sampling music, blogging, crowdfunding etc. On the other, the aura of art diminishes as feedback loops of technology become faster and faster.
The dominance of identity as art, which likely has its root in Pynchon-esque meta-fiction and TV, can be seen as a reaction to the loss of the aura of art. In the essay, Benjamin sees the rise of the phenomenon of the movie star as the anxious response of the actor who has no direct control or influence on the audience. He writes:
The film responds to the shriveling of the aura with an artificial build-up of the "personality" outside the studio. The cult of the movie star, fostered by the money of the film industry, preserves not the unique aura of the person but the "spell of the personality”.
The spell of personality is where artists seek refuge in reaction to the ever-faster feedback loops of technology. Instead of being the unique aura of the person, the spell of personality simulates being a unique phenomenon at a distance. The unique phenomenon at a distance effect can be achieved by having quirky opinions, niche tastes, being in opposition to anything considered "mainstream" etc. Instead of Hollywood money and manufactured consent, you have social platforms with zero marginal costs and easy distribution.
The less popular the art form, the harder the reliance on a spell of personality. This can be seen in the inwardness and self-absorption of autofiction novels in the last decade and a half. Autofiction is not quite unlike TV sitcoms in that the problems of the author never get resolved. If they get resolved, the author would have to reinvent their spell of personality from scratch. So they keep writing the same story over and over again, performing the same identity.
The era of a spell of personality is now facing its biggest challenge yet in Large Language Models and Artificial Intelligence. LLMs such as ChatGPT have revealed the conceit of spell of personality. The conceit all along was that it requires some special aura to be the type of person who can convert their lived experience into dense words and pictures. However, the mechanical reproducibility enabled by large language models shows that this is not true anymore. This likely signals the start of another era, one that moves away from a spell of personality and identity performance to something else. As for what it is, I do not know but would be content as long as it’s interesting.
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I'm guessing he buried the lede cause he was writing this post-World War 1 and constantly expressed fear about the rise of fascism
The slow disintegration of social networks also probably deserves a mention and analysis here.