Saturday, January 10, 2009


Gloria Origgi recently wrapped up the old year with a series of bests: GLORIA'S RANKING 2008. She lists food she's enjoyed, cultural events that pleased her, and favorite internet experiences. Among philosophic papers and meetings, she singles out a best academic talk: "Steven Shapin on science as a vocation given at the Jean Nicod Institute in Paris on June 2nd. Perfect voice, timing, rhetoric, facial mimicry, a piece of performance art, sadly neglected by a distracted audience." She also tells us the best day and the best place, the best friend and the best culninary invention. Her best "discovered etymology" is for the word desire, "which comes from desiderium in Latin, which, itself, is made by the prefix de and sidera, star. Desiderium is thus a deprivation of stars, a feeling of absence of light, a craving for aura."

What caught my attention was her use of the word auratic in the entry for best friend: "Best friend of the year: Catherine Legallais, a discrete and auratic Paris-based poet and critic, with an outstanding capacity of listening and understanding. I think she's the only person who really understood my way of looking at my childhood in my Italian book, La Figlia della Gallina Nera."

I hadn't encountered the word before. I didn't know its meaning but I liked the associations and overtones it suggested: golden and radiant, glowing, having a halo. I couldn't find the word in a dictionary, but cognates suggest that it can be used to mean authentic and unique, having the quality of visual light and of lightness, airy, or having properties of sound as well as of light.

Uses I found are mostly academic and mostly in connection with the fine arts. I thought it safe to conclude that it's a bit of arty jargon and wondered about its origin. A bit of searching turned up this paper: Walter Benjamin's Concept of Art as Auratic: the Nexus between Modern Art and Technology. It turns out Benjamin did not coin the word himself but rather his use of the word aura in a manifesto he published (in German) in 1935 led to the coining of the adjective. The manifesto is The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. A thoroughgoing Marxist, Benjamin argued that in a communist society that which is unique (a work of art or the experience of a dramatic work) must be abolished to make way for a new, mass-oriented, aesthetic of lens-based replication (mainly photographs and movies). For him the word aura conveyed uniqueness, authenticity, and a primitive power to evoke feelings of awe or of reverence. He associated it with magic, deception, feudal values, and bourgeois sensibilities. He said that photographs and movies free art from its specific place and time. Mass production of copies permits simultaneous collective experience. "Mechanical reproduction of art changes the reaction of the masses toward art. The reactionary attitude toward a Picasso painting changes into the progressive reaction toward a Chaplin movie... For the first time in world history, mechanical reproduction emancipates the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual."

From what I've read, it seems that in transmuting Benjamin's noun aura to the newly-coined adjective auratic, art historians adopted the concept but inverted the attitude from negative (a condemnation of elitist values) to positive (an appreciation of certain aesthetic values). Do a web search for "auratic art" and see if you agree.

{Walter Benjamin from the tirado.files blog}

{A photo by Capa on}

{Another photo from the same source}

Wikipedia's article on Walter Benjamin is pretty good. His life intersected with Hannah Arendt's. I may write about that separately.

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