Buck-Morss, Susan. "Aesthetics and Anaesthetics: Walter Benjamin's Artwork Essay Reconsidered," October 62 (Fall 1992): 3-41
annotation by Laurel Harris (Theories of Media, Winter 2003)

In this essay, Buck-Morss unpacks the final line of Benjamin’s essay “A Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility”: “So it is with the aestheticization of politics, which is being managed by fascism. Communism responds with the politicization of art.” She argues that through Benjamin’s rhetorical construction, “aesthetics” is returned to its original meaning as the instinctual mediation of inside and outside through human sense perception. Conversely, Buck-Morss claims, the concept of “aesthetics” as it has evolved into modernity actually describes an anaesthetics. or the sensory negotiation of overwhelming stimulation and the defensive mechanism of numbness in the modern environment that Benjamin describes in his essay “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire”. Benjamin’s return points towards the renewal of experience itself, or of what Buck-Morss refers to as the “synaesthic system” of perceptual response connecting the human nervous system to the outside world in an integrated circuit, a concept denied since “aesthetics” was taken from its original meaning to define instead a Western Enlightenment myth of the asexual, self-generating, hermetically sealed (male) body.

Buck-Morss links the necessary protective “numbing” and over-stimulation that Benjamin posits as lived experience in modernity in “On Some Motifs on Baudelaire” to the medical condition of neurasthenia, which was treated by mollifying drugs such as opium in the nineteenth century. Widespread drug use in modernity led to the discovery of medical anesthetics, which greatly transformed the perception of surgeon and patient in that now the patient was an inert body to be fixed rather than an active being capable of experiencing great pain. The operating room was thus turned into a theater. Furthermore, Buck-Morss states that, “Beginning in the nineteenth century, a narcotic was made out of reality itself” (22). “Phantasmagoria” produced “natural” responses in the human senses through the complete control of stimuli. Buck-Morss uses the examples of the gym, the mall, theme parks, and video arcades to claim that “phantasmagoria” produce a shared social hallucination through the manipulation of the human synaesthetic system. As the subject became increasingly fragmented, “phantasmagoria” attempted to produce a surface illusion of wholeness exemplified by Wagner’s fantasy of a “total work of art.” Buck-Morss quotes the writer Ernst Jünger to suggest that the affect of “phantasmagoria” is to create an illusory world without pain. This is the perception of the world in which fascism was germinated; it is “the crisis of cognitive experience caused by the alienation of the senses that makes it possible for humanity to view its own destruction with enjoyment” (37). The anaesthetized crowd to be formed as a self-generating aesthetic at the hands of the fascist leader is thus able to observe its formation with “disinterested pleasure” (38). However, the mirror of the fragmented individual body, Buck-Morss points out using Lacan’s “mirror stage,” reveals fear and sorrow incapable of being experienced. Using Darwin’s The Expression of Emotion in Man and Animals, she demonstrates how Hitler’s expressions aren’t those of anger but rather those of fright and sobbing. What Charles Bell described as physiological mimesis on the face continues to exist in a subliminal form.

Buck-Morss’ essay places changing perceptions through apparatuses of social mediation. She links experience to the original terms of “aesthetics” as sense perception not only to explain Benjamin’s cryptic final line from the “Artwork” essay but to up the stakes in his argument. If the “phantasmagoria” are the all-encompassing environmental media that shape lived perception and experience, they are a dream from which we need to wake lest we live with the continued threat of fascism, Buck-Morss suggests. These are media which rob our senses of experiential connection and instead drug us into a blank “aesthetic” enjoyment of self-destruction. While Buck-Morss’ argument may sometimes sound dangerously like a dichotomy of “natural” and “artificial,” the quality and conception of human experience in lived, mediated space is nevertheless politically crucial. As Buck-Morss points out, our senses are being mediated outside of ourselves. Our bodies are no longer the locus of environmental media they once were and need to again become. A synonym for “to experience" is “to suffer.” To feel pain is to return again to the original aesthetic experience of the world through the body.