Distance and Aura 
by Lev Manovich
This essay will focus on one of the common themes shared by Walter
Benjamin and Paul Virilio: the disruption caused by a cultural artifact,
specifically, new communication technology (film in the case of Benjamin,
telecommunication in the case of Virilio) in the familiar patterns of
human perception; in short, intervention of technology into human
nature. This theme features prominently in Benjamin's celebrated "The
Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" (1936) ; half a
century later, Virilio returns to it in an essay which presents one of the
most interesting critiques of cyberculture to date -- "Big Optics" (1992).
What is human nature and what is technology? How does one
draw the boundary between the two in the twentieth century? Both
Benjamin and Virilio solve this problem in the same way. They equate
nature with spatial distance between the observer and the observed; and
they see technologies as destroying this distance. As we will see, these
two assumptions lead them to interpret the prominent new
technologies of their times in a very similar way.
Benjamin starts with his now famous concept of aura: the
unique presence of a work of art, of a historical or of a natural object.
We may think that an object has to be close by if we are to experience its
aura but, paradoxically, Benjamin defines aura "as the unique
phenomenon of a distance"(224). "If, while resting on a summer
afternoon, you follow with your eyes a mountain range on the horizon
or a branch which casts its shadow over you, you experience the aura of
those mountains, of that branch" (225). Similarly, writes Benjamin,
"painter maintains in his work a natural distance from reality" (235).
This respect for distance common to both natural perception and
painting is overturned by the new technologies of mass reproduction,
particularly photography and film. The cameraman, whom Benjamin
compares to a surgeon, "penetrates deeply into its [reality] web" (237);
his camera zooms in in order to "pray an object from its shell" (225).
With its new mobility, glorified in such films as Dziga Vertov's "A
Man with the Movie Camera," the camera can be anywhere, and, with
its superhuman vision, it can obtain a close-up of any object. These
close-ups, writes Benjamin, satisfy the desires of the masses "to bring
things 'closer' spatially and humanly," "to get hold of an object at very
close range" (225). Along with disregarding the scale, the unique
locations of the objects are discarded as well as their photographs
brought together within a single picture magazine or a film newsreel,
the forms which fit in with the demand of mass democratic society for
"the universal equality of things."
Writing about telecommunication and telepresence, Virilio
similarly uses the concept of distance to understand their effect. In
Virilio's reading, these technologies collapse the physical distances,
uprooting the familiar patterns of perception which grounded our
culture and politics.
Virilio introduces the terms Small Optics and Big Optics to
underline the dramatic nature of this change. Small Optics are based on
geometric perspective and shared by human vision, painting and film.
It involves the distinctions between near and far, between an object and
a horizon against which the object stands out. Big Optics is real-time
electronic transmission of information, "the active optics of time
passing at the speed of light."
As Small Optics are being replaced by Big Optics, the distinctions
characteristic of the former are erased. If information from any point
can be transmitted with the same speed, the concepts of near and far,
horizon, distance and space itself no longer have any meaning. (So, if
for Benjamin the industrial age displaced every object from its
original setting, for Virilio post-industrial age eliminates the dimension
of space altogether.) At least in principle, every point on Earth is now
instantly accessible from any other point on Earth. As a consequence,
Big Optics locks us in a claustrophobic world without any depth or
horizon; the Earth becomes our prison.
Virilio asks us to notice "the progressive derealization of the
terrestrial horizon,...resulting in an impending primacy of real time
perspective of undulatory optics over real space of the linear
geometrical optics of the Quattrocento." He mourns the destruction of
distance, geographic grandeur, the vastness of natural space, the
vastness which guaranteed time delay between events and our
reactions, giving us time for critical reflection necessary to arrive at a
correct decision. The regime of Big Optics inevitably leads to real time
politics, the politics which requires instant reactions to the events
transmitted with the speed of light, and which ultimately can only be
efficiently handled by computers responding to each other.
Given the surprising similarity of Benjamin's and Virilio's
accounts of new technologies, it is telling how differently they draw the
boundaries between natural and cultural, between what is already
assimilated within the human nature and what is still new and
threatening. Writing in 1936, Benjamin uses the real landscape and a
painting as examples of what is natural for human perception. This
natural state is invaded by film which collapses distances, bringing
everything equally close and destroys aura.
Virilio, writing half a century later, draws lines quite differently..
For Benjamin film still represented an alien presence; for Virilio, it
became part of our human nature, the continuation of our natural
sight. Virilio considers human vision, the Renaissance perspective,
painting and film as all belonging to Small Optics of geometric
perspective in contrast to the Big Optics of instant electronic
Virilio postulates a historical break between film and
telecommunication, between Small Optics and Big Optics. It is also
possible to read the movement from the first to the second in terms of
continuity -- if we are to use the concept of modernization.
Modernization is accompanied by the process of disruption of
physical space and matter, the process which privileges interchangeable
and mobile signs over the original objects and relations. In the words of
Jonathan Crary (who draws on Deleuze and Guattari's ANTI-OEDIPUS
and on Marx's GRANDRISSE) "Modernization is the process by which
capitalism uproots and makes mobile that which is grounded, clears
away or obliterates that which impedes circulation, and makes
exchangeable what is singular." This definition fits equally well
Benjamin's account of film and Virilio's account of
telecommunication, the latter just being a more advanced
stage in this continual process of turning objects into mobile signs.
Before, different physical locations met within a single magazine
spread or a film newsreel; now, they meet within a single electronic
screen. Of course, the signs now themselves exist as digital data which
makes their transmission and manipulation even easier. Also, in
contrast to photographs, which remain fixed once they are printed,
digital representation makes every image inherently mutable --
creating signs which are no longer just mobile but also forever
modifiable. Yet, significant as they are, these are ultimately quantitative
rather than qualitative differences -- with one exception.
What may be radically new in electronic telecommunication, in
contrast to film, is that it can function as two-way communication.
Not only can user immediately obtain images of various locations,
bringing them together within a single electronic screen, but, via
telepresence, she can also be "present" in these locations. In other
words, she can affect change on material reality over physical distance
in real time. In this way, electronic communication makes
instantaneous not only the process by which objects are turned into
signs but also the reverse process -- manipulation of objects through
Film, telecommunication, telepresence. Benjamin's and
Virilio's analyses make it possible for us to understand the historical
effect of these technologies in terms of progressive diminishing and
finally complete elimination of something which both writers see as a
fundamental condition of human perception -- spatial distance, the
distance between the subject who is seeing and the object being seen.
This reading of distance involved in (perspectival) vision as something
positive, as a necessary ingredient of human culture provides an
important alternative for a much more dominant tendency in modern
thought to read distance negatively. This negative reading is then used
to attack the visual sense as a whole. Distance becomes responsible for
creating the gap between the spectator and spectacle, for separating
subject and object, for putting the first in the position of transcendental
mastery and rendering the second inert. Distance allows the subject to
treat the Other as object; in short, it makes objectification possible. Or, as
French fisherman have summarized this critique to young Lacan who
was looking at a sardine can floating on the surface of the sea: "You see
the can? Do you see it? Well, it doesn't see you!"
In Western thought, vision has always been understood and
discussed in opposition to touch; so, inevitably, the denigration of
vision (to use Martin Jay's term) leads to the elevation of touch (for
instance, witness the recent interest in the idea of the haptic). For instance,
we may be tempted to read the lack of distance characteristic of the act of
touching as allowing for a different relationship between subject and
object. Benjamin and Virilio block this seemingly logical line of
argument as they both stress the aggression potentially present in this act.
Rather than understanding touch as a respectful and careful contact or
as a caress, they present it as unceremonious and aggressive disruption
Thus, the standard connotations of vision and touch become
reversed. For Benjamin and Virilio, distance guaranteed by vision
preserves the aura of an object, its position in the world, while the
desire "to brings things 'closer' " destroys objects' relations to each
other, ultimately obliterating the material order altogether and
rendering the notions of distance and space meaningless. So even if we
are to disagree with their arguments about new technologies and to
question their equitation of natural order and distance, the
critique of vision -- touch opposition is something we should retain.
 An earlier version of this text first appeared in Telepolis - das
Magazin der Netzkultur (www.ix.de/tp). This version was published in
 Walter Benjamin, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical
Reproduction," in ILLUMINATIONS, ed. Hannah Arendt (New York:
Schochen Books, 1969).
 Paul Virilio, "Big Optics," in ON JUSTIFYING
THE HYPOTHETICAL NATURE OF ART AND THE NON-IDENTICALITY
WITHIN THE OBJECT WORLD, ed. Peter Weibel (Kšln, 1992). Virilio's
argument can also be found in his other recent essays. See, for instance,
"InterCommunication Celebration Symposium: Media and
Communication in the Computer Age," ed. Asuda Akira, Edmond Couchot,
Jonathan Crary and Paul Virilio," in ANNUAL INTERCOMMUNICATION
'94 (Tokyo: 1994); "Speed and Information: Cyberspace Alarm!" in CTHEORY
 Virilio, "Big Optics," 90.
 Jonathan Crary, TECHNIQUES OF THE OBSERVER: ON VISION
AND MODERNITY IN THE NINETEENTH CENTURY (Cambridge: The MIT
Press, 1990), 10.
 This point is argued in William Mitchell, THE RECONFIGURED
EYE: VISUAL TRUTH IN THE POST-PHOTOGRAPHIC ERA (Cambridge,
Mass.: The MIT Press, 1992).
 I analyze the semiotics of telepresence in more detail in "To Lie and
to Act: Potemkin's Villages, Cinema and Telepresence," in ARS
ELECTRONICA '95 (Linz, Austria, 1995).
 Jacques Lacan, THE FOUR FUNDAMENTAL CONCEPTS OF
PSYCHO-ANALYSIS, ed. Jacques-Alain Miller (New York and London:
W.W.Norton, 1978), 95.
 Martin Jay, DOWNCAST EYES: THE DENIGRATION OF VISION IN
TWENTIETH-CENTURY FRENCH THOUGHT (Berkeley: University of
California Press, 1993).
Dr. Lev Manovich
Visual Arts Department, 0327
University of California, San Diego
9500 Gilman Drive
La Jolla, CA 92093-0327
phone (studio): 619-822-1012
fax (department): 619-534-8651