Date of Degree
PhD (Doctor of Philosophy)
A key term in the cultural criticism of Walter Benjamin is his notion of "reception in distraction" as an antidote to ideology's domination over the mass society in the modern age. This dissertation attempts to illuminate this idea by offering case studies of three projects that summon into existence a new kind of reader, one capable of a trained apperception we may describe as "distracted."; One objective of the mass society according to a Frankfurt model of culture is the erasure of the subject; reception in distraction serves at once to create a space for the social dream and to re-inscribe the subject at the moment of reception through an insistence on its unruly, embodied presence. "Reception in Distraction" creates a cognitive space for disengagement from ideology, modeling what Michael Denning called the "dream work of the social."
Critical theory is thus available to the mass public in the form of the "dream of history" that is solely accessible to a distracted apperception and whose subject is the faint possibility that the crisis of the present may be redeemed and repaired in the future. This project attempts to locate this dream of history in the autobiographical writings of Gertrude Stein, the detective fiction of Kenneth Fearing and the late silent cinema of Charlie Chaplin, each of which illustrates clearly the manner in which "distraction" functions to generate contradiction in the face of ideology's mass cultural form. Stein's experiments with the autobiographical form call for exactly this manner of reception, for which "Alice B. Toklas" becomes a key model. Similarly, Kenneth Fearing's Marxist detective novel The Big Clock and Modern Times , Charlie Chaplin's final silent film, reflect on the possibility of a productive reception-in-distraction that may co-opt the social forms of capitalism into a project of resistance and counter-discourse. "Distraction" is therefore more than merely an attitude of reception: it occasions a cognitive distance from ideology that is a key form of critical theory in the modern period.
Copyright 2010 Gunnar Benediktsson
Benediktsson, Gunnar. "Angels of history: reception, distraction and resistance." dissertation, University of Iowa, 2010.