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Distraction as Reception/ Perception

Discussing the manner in which spectators “absorb� film into themselves, their seemingly passive reception of film, Benjamin invokes architecture. “Buildings� he tells us in “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Reproducibility,� “are received in a twofold manner: by use and by perception. Or, better: tactilely and optically� (120). B proceeds to privilege tactile reception, which he links to habit, indicating that tactile perception (and therefore habit) “largely determines� how we see buildings, how we understand their place in our world. Film, B argues, functions like architecture. The spectator, though distracted, forms habits as a result of her engagement with film. This shapes both how the spectator sees film and how the spectator understands film’s role. But more than this, film trains the spectator in a particular manner of seeing. Film helps make the spectator receptive in distraction. Thus, film opens itself up to distinctly political uses.

Kracauer pursues a similar train of thought, laying out its political implications, in his (earlier) essay “Cult of Distraction.� He claims that in distraction “the audience encounters itself; its own reality is revealed in the fragmented sequence of splendid sense impressions. Were this reality to remain hidden from the viewers, they could neither attack nor change it; its disclosure in distraction is therefore of moral significance� (326). But, he goes on to say, “this is only the case if distraction is not an end in itself� (326). Distraction, K suggests, can either mask disintegration, which distraction through film is particularly likely to do when it presents a false unity, when film aspires to be like theater, or it can expose disintegration. Now, if aiming for unity masks disintegration, aiming for something more openly fragmentary may well serve to expose that disintegration. Enter montage?

Howard Eiland suggests just that, in his essay “Reception in Distraction�: “Kracauer does not himself use the term montage in connection with the revue form that occasions a positive idea of distraction. But we have only to recall the references to "music hall and circus" in Sergei Eisenstein's discussion of the "montage of attractions" to grasp the pertinence of the term here� (58). Montage, for Eisenstein, presents a means of mobilizing the masses; montage operates as a political tool. If we can read in montage the realization of Benjamin and Kracauer’s theorizations of distraction, then distraction, for B and K, is not properly opposed to attention. Rather, as Eiland points out, “The opposition now would seem to be between mere distraction and, shall we say, productive distraction—between distraction as a skewing of attention, or as abandonment to diversion, and distraction as a spur to new ways of perceiving� (60).