Guide Seeing Double: Baudelaires Modernity

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You could not be signed in. Yet these aesthetic techniques were also available in the nineteenth century due to the invention of new media technology and the emergence of a new media culture: newspapers presenting disconnected prose pieces on the pages, precinematic toys producing effects of motion and 3-D vision, photographs offering a new perception of the world, as well as numerous other media phenomena.

Charles Baudelaire —67 experienced this media culture more intensely than any other writer of his day. Although he maintained ambivalence with respect to the new media, he was fascinated by their techniques and sensitive to the ways in which they changed our perception. It explores not merely the forms of art, but also the forms of media technology, considering the way they shape and guide our perception of the world.

It is thus a book that deals with literature, perception, and the configuration of the senses in the first phase of modernity. The book takes as its point of departure the observation that there is a gap between literary and visual approaches to Baudelaire. Yet, in cinema and media studies, Baudelaire is also a prominent figure. Here we are facing a curious situation.

Baudelaire’s Modernity

Baudelaire should be examined in his own right—with an interdisciplinary approach embracing all these perspectives. The aim of this study is to bridge the gap between literary and visual approaches to Baudelaire by introducing perspectives from cinema, visual, and media studies in the reading of his works. Such an approach would actually show that he was truly skeptical of the new media. Rather, my undertaking is to explore to what degree and in what ways his writing and his aesthetics can be seen as responding to the new media situation of the nineteenth century.

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Francoise Meltzer. Seeing Double: Baudelaire's Modernity

Benjamin was undoubtedly an insightful reader of Baudelaire and a shrewd critic of nineteenth-century media. Yet, he does not, to any extent, relate his writing on Baudelaire to his writing on the new media. In his essays on Baudelaire, he focuses mainly on the commodity, whereas the references to the new media are in fact quite scarce, and they describe the new media rather negatively. By contrast, other writings by Benjamin offer much more progressive perspectives on the new media. By situating Baudelaire in a media context, I hope to bring to light a body of writing that speaks vigorously to us today.


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Although Baudelaire has already been canonized as a modernist pioneer, there is every reason to highlight the way he interacted with nineteenth-century 3 media technology. What were these changes all about? Among the world cities of the nineteenth century, Paris became the cultural capital.

It is within this context that Charles Fourier, Auguste Blanqui, and Karl Marx wrote their social theories, inspiring socialist, republican, and communist movements. To promote the glory of the empire and to assure economic and social progress, Napoleon III aimed to replace the old with the new.

His main tool in this regard was urban planning, and in , he handed the city over to Baron Haussmann, who started a large-scale renovation of Paris. Haussmannization meant that the old city structure was disappearing and that a new structure was emerging; during a short period of time, narrow streets and semisecluded arcades were removed to give way to wide avenues and huge department stores. The new city structure not only facilitated governmental control, but also assured the free circulation of commodities and people. The Second Empire can be seen as an adjustment to capitalist forces; its aim was to liberate capitalist circulation from its previous constraints.

The city was designed for public life and public consumption, inviting people to spend time in the streets. Accordingly, the boundaries between private and public, between interior and exterior, became fluid. Numerous researchers have been interested in the new intimacy characterizing urban life. Such intimacy was different from the intimacy of family life, because it concerned strangers—people whose faces and 5 names one did not know.

Close but distant was the new and oxymoronic structure of human relations. Strolling about in streets, one could slide into an anonymous crowd of people, come in very close contact, but still remain a stranger to them. In this manner, urban life engendered a new kind of experience, which came to characterize modernity—the experience of the crowd. However, he has two avatars who correspond to the new perceptual environments: the amateur detective the distant and rational observer and the gaper the perplexed observer. The first is that a change in the perceptual apparatus can be detected in this historical figure.

This means that the allegorical gaze endows things with new meaning and in this manner 6 creates new constellations. For Benjamin, this is the disruptive force of allegory.

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Before dealing more substantially with the question of mediation, however, I will introduce the nineteenth-century media that will be discussed in this book newspapers, photography, and optical toys , indicating the processes of mediation they encompassed and the way in which Baudelaire responded to them. A few passages from his essays and diaries make it clear that he despised the commerce of newspapers and the industry of photography. However, the myth that he simply rejected the new media is based on very little evidence, and the rhetorical context of the passages in question is often overlooked.

It was above all the vulgarity inspired by the new media that caused his fury. Yet Baudelaire was fascinated with everything that was new, and we may suspect that his attitude toward the new media is more complex than it may seem. This is the period when the first mass medium was born in the form of the newspaper and the time when the first modern visual media were invented, such as photographic apparatuses, stereoscopes, and phenakistiscopes. In this respect, the rise of the commercial newspaper is of great interest. A shift in the newspaper industry was prepared in , when the newspaper La Presse made room for roman-feuilletons and advertisements.

What had been a respectable and serious medium up to that point was transformed into a popular product sold for profit. According to Pierre Bourdieu, the antagonism between literature and vulgar newspapers was decisive for the constitution of literature as an autonomous field in the nineteenth century. Although he despised its commercial grounding, Baudelaire was indeed familiar with the newspaper medium.

A devoted newspaper reader from early childhood and a contributor to newspapers throughout his career, he was very familiar with the language and forms of journalism. These prose pieces were in fact first published in various newspapers and magazines, and they share many features with newspaper genres such as le tableau and le fait divers. Most importantly, I will argue that Baudelaire played with the forms of the newspaper, conscious that the newspaper shapes the way we see reality. Accordingly, it could be argued that Baudelaire did not merely experience modern life by strolling about in the streets; he was also influenced by the daily reports in the newspaper.

Whereas the modern newspaper grew out of an older tradition, photography was a novelty in the nineteenth-century media landscape. As both Baudelaire and Benjamin have shown, this was the beginning of the age of mechanical reproduction in the domain of art. From now on, works of art could be reproduced infinitely by technological means, and their status as unique objects embedded in a tradition was seriously threatened.

First, it served as an opposition in his theory of the imagination, making the wonders of the imagination stand out more clearly. Third, and most importantly, the new medium inspired shrewd reflections on the act of seeing, framing, and interpreting images. The newspaper and photography were not the only media technologies transforming the visual culture of the nineteenth century.

A number of optical devices that were originally invented for scientific purposes ended up as toys for the masses, and simple optical experiments thus became a matter of concern for everyone. The attraction of the optical toys was that they changed the perception of the world, creating effects of montage, movement, and 3-D vision. Thus, both in scientific circles and in popular culture, vision as such was being drastically reconsidered, and a new field of vision was opened—one rich in possibilities. In cinema and visual studies, the period in question is considered the precinematic age, and the art of cinema is considered the culmination of the changes in visual culture that occurred during the nineteenth century.

There is thus a close connection between this new field of vision and the invention of cinema in When he describes the experience of the crowd and accounts for a specifically modern perception, he resorts to the aesthetics of optical toys. Finally, in several passages, Baudelaire adopts the optics of the kaleidoscope, describing modern life in terms of the kaleidoscope. It could thus be argued that Baudelaire was deeply immersed in the new visual culture of the nineteenth century, and that his aesthetics partly stem from his precinematic sensibility.

Among these, the panorama belonged to the field of painting but offered a completely new view to the spectators. The circular, painted canvas would allow them to feel immersed in a landscape, a military battle, or a historical scene.

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Such canvases were installed in rotundas built particularly for this purpose, and they were viewed from a centrally placed platform, upon which the spectators could walk around. Soon the diorama , invented by Daguerre in , started to compete with the panorama, but both remained popular throughout the nineteenth century. The diorama, to a larger extent, resembled a theatrical experience; remaining seated and immobile, the spectators witnessed a landscape painting that would change its appearance dramatically.

This was made possible by means of multilayered, semitransparent panels and the manipulation of light, allowing the diorama to develop in a temporal sequence. As Benjamin has pointed out, the diorama can be seen as a precursor to the cinema. The phantasmagoria pretended to present ghosts on stage, and in this manner caused thrill and fear among the spectators.

Contrary to standard magic lantern projections, where the projector was placed among the spectators, the apparatus was hidden behind stage or made invisible in the dark theater. In this manner, the projected images appeared to be without a rational explanation; they appeared supernatural. It should come as no surprise that this 10 was also a theater genre with which Baudelaire was familiar.

With his acute aesthetic sensibility, he was a privileged witness to the new visual environment taking shape in mid-nineteenth-century Paris. The media technology described above—newspapers, photography, and optical devices—are well known in studies of modernity.

Often, however, this technology has been considered from the perspective of ideology criticism, as part of a capitalist regime that deeply changed the conditions of life in the second half of the nineteenth century. According to Marx, the commodity created an abstract relationship to things and removed them from the human sphere. The status of this illusion is a paradox, for it is true and false simultaneously. It is true insofar as it is effective and has truly imposed its power, but false insofar as it is the product of an ideology.

In this situation, art is in constant danger of being infected by capitalist ideology; aesthetic semblance risks adopting the semblance produced by capitalism—without any critical distance. Thus, the question that comes to the fore is what relationship art should or could bear with the new media technology.

Theodor W. This would be achieved through a critical use of forms. For Adorno, modernist art was thus characterized by a profound ambiguity, since it both negated and reflected the capitalist regime. Still, he makes an observation that bears witness to his profound insight into these processes. In this manner, he outlined a theory of perception, which accounted for the process of mediation to a certain degree. Some essays are marked by techno-utopianism, some are marked by techno-pessimism, and some play these positions against one another.

Although a number of books and articles on modernism have discussed the relationship between modernist literature and media technology, they have given priority to twentieth-century literature, whereas nineteenth-century literature remains, to a larger degree, to be explored. In cinema studies and visual studies, the situation is somewhat different; here the question of mediation is a main focus, and the influence of technological, social, and popular forces has long been acknowledged.

Even if this trajectory is not usually described directly, it seems to underlie discussions of the phenomenon where the question of mediation is not addressed and the processes of influence remain unclear. Obviously, this is a complex question that cannot be easily answered. Presumably, the issue may be illuminated through the use of theoretical frameworks that describe the relationship between perception, media technology, and art in a satisfactory manner. Omitting, for obvious reasons, simple deterministic and mimetic approaches, we may outline four theories of mediation that seem particularly relevant to our purposes.