Photo: Sapta Chakra 1899, The British Library
Yoga In The Age Of Mechanical Reproduction
Do photographs of postures change their meaning?
BY MAGAZINE EDITOR SUSAN MAIER-MOUL
Photographs of asanas are more widespread cultural artifacts than photographs of paintings by Picasso. Instruction manuals show photographs of postures, scholarly texts show photographs of pre-modern paintings of yogis. Magazine covers and ads in subway stations display radiantly smiling women in yoga poses, and television characters have conversations in yoga classes.
Many people who have never been art students can identify a work by Picasso if for no other reason than college dorm posters and New Yorker cartoons. Millions more who’ve never set foot in a yoga studio will readily identify someone standing with their hands raised and a foot propped against a thigh in vrksasana as “doing yoga.”
In 1935, philosopher and cultural theorist Walter Benjamin asked questions about what happens to the meaning of art when it is photographed. He wanted to understand how the effect and function of art changed when it was readily copied and distributed by technology.
His essay, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, reflects the general anxiety of the industrial age and a prescience about the power of reproductive arts such as photography and film.
His concerns – and anxiety – are relevant to 21st century yoga, especially insofar as yoga practice is extensively disseminated by yoga videos and books.
Benjamin was asking about the individual experience as well as the effect on the cultural meaning of art. When a caveman painted on a wall, Benjamin says, he didn’t do it with the purpose of displaying it as art.
Works of art are received and valued on different planes. Two polar types stand out; with one, the accent is on the cult value; with the other, on the exhibition value of the work.
Artistic production begins with ceremonial objects destined to serve in a cult. One may assume that what mattered was their existence, not their being on view.
The elk portrayed by the man of the Stone Age on the walls of his cave was an instrument of magic.
Considering yoga in the age of mechanical reproduction, we might likewise benefit from similar questions, not for the purposes of judging what is good or bad, but in order to understand how the age in which we live changes the experience of yoga.
When I was studying for my Kripalu teaching certificate, this performative aspect of asana had a central place in what our directors impressed upon us as the role of teachers. As important as alignment was for the safety of the practitioner, the energy of the posture was its highest value, and we as teachers were responsible to dedicate ourselves to the practice of yoga in order to reveal its energetic nature with our own bodies as we taught.
Instruction about the body as a “vehicle” was not intended to denigrate our physical nature as an obstacle to awakening, but rather to respect the body as “an instrument of magic” as Benjamin puts it.
Embodiment of the ritual is the path itself, and not a preparation for the path.
As teachers we are meant, in other words, to demonstrate by embodying it, something that cannot be shown in any way other than being in the presence of it, certainly not from a photograph. A photograph isn’t bad, but as Benjamin points out, it’s missing something essential, and especially critical to asana.
What some cultures have called “soul”, Benajmin named the “aura” of a work or action.
Aura and meaning
Using technology such as photography and video to replicate images is different than copying something by hand or with our bodies, Benjamin says.
First, making a copy by hand is either done as a learning exercise or as a forgery: in both of these senses, copying is viewed as lacking the “aura” and therefore the value or vitality of an original. The aura is literally the reality of what is shown, and without it, we are looking at an empty thing.
One might subsume the eliminated element in the term “aura” and go on to say: that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art.
One might generalize by saying: the technique of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the domain of tradition.
Its social significance, particularly in its most positive form, is inconceivable without its destructive, cathartic aspect, that is, the liquidation of the traditional value of the cultural heritage.
Benjamin says that while photographs bring art – or asana – to people who could not otherwise ever receive it, reproduction diminishes its value by the very fact of severing the tie between something real and actual and the receiver of the art/ asana, substituting a representation of the art/ asana instead.
He makes the problem clear: the extremely welcome and positive aspect of disseminating the art or practice by these technological means is inseparable from the loss of some, or indeed all, of its power.
The observer or the camera
One of the most significant problems with looking at asana photographs rather than being in the presence of the ritual of asana is that we do not see the performance of asana but rather, according to Benjamin, by force, we see the camera’s view of the asana. We see a fragment.
To explain, Benjamin compares the camera’s constructed view to watching a play or watching a movie. In watching a play, we are able to choose our gaze, look at what we deem important to observe, and we are involved in the production of the play in the sense that we are physically involved in responding to cues which the actors embody, cues as to where to look, what to deem significant.
When we watch a movie, on the other hand, the camera tells us what to look at – indeed it does so implacably and mutely: we are not able to see anything we choose, or to be involved in producing the effect of what we look at.
In this sense, what we receive is not less of everything, but a fragment of something, without the freedom to find out what it is a fragment of.
The camera that presents the performance of the film actor to the public need not respect the performance as an integral whole.
Guided by the cameraman, the camera continually changes its position with respect to the performance. The sequence of positional views which the editor composes from the material supplied him constitutes the completed film. It comprises certain factors of movement which are in reality those of the camera -
The audience’s identification with the actor is really an identification with the camera.
Representation or performance
It’s no secret the most flexible and photogenic people are generally presented in reproductions of postures in order to facilitate the expression of a certain effortlessness or clarity. In his essay, Benjamin cites Rudolf Arnheim for his acknowledgment of “the latest trend. . . in treating the actor as a stage prop chosen for its characteristics.”
In our case these characteristics might be laxity and muscle, or even gender, ethnicity, age and demographic characteristics that communicate “yoga is for everyone;” or by this demonstration, we sense the yoga actor is chosen to show yoga is only for adepts or other, quite particular kinds of people. It causes us to identify with the photo as we do with characters in movies, or to feel “that could never be me.”
And just as an actor in a film must play to the camera – cut off from the audience – so a teacher or practitioner photographed in a posture has little choice but to attend to the shot, which asks not for embodied asana but for neutrality: i.e. a mythical body, a body that does not exist.
The asana model must assemble a pose as instructed by the director of the shoot. The ability to maintain the posture during the long minutes of focusing lighting and adjusting clothing, the ability to drop a shoulder a little more, or open a hip for the benefit of the angle of the camera: there are the primary attributes of the asana model.
What gets reproduced therefore is the value of the neutral, impossible body; what is imitated, in response, is this representation, which is in fact disembodied, not embodied. Benjamin quotes Pirandello, who wrote, the actor (or practitioner in a photograph)
feels as if in exile—exiled not only from the stage but also from himself. With a vague sense of discomfort he feels inexplicable emptiness: his body loses its corporeality, it evaporates, it is deprived of reality, life, voice, and the noises caused by his moving about, in order to be changed into a mute image, flickering an instant on the screen, then vanishing -
There is no asana without the life of the body, without the history of a specifically lived body, without its needs, pleasures, demands, geometries, physiologies, meanings and processes. Yet these are the very things that are erased by practice videos and posture photographs.
Walter Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction is a signal inquiry into the problems of creating equal access to the practice of yoga while ensuring and cultivating its continued value.
The art of embodying the energy of practice goes to the heart of instantiating contemporary authenticity: freeing the practice of yoga from nostalgia and the imitation of fragments, while conserving it from the loss of its power and empowerment.
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© 2011, The Magazine of Yoga, LLC.