Marit Grøtta, Baudelaire’s Media Aesthetics: The Gaze of the Flâneur and Nineteenth-Century Media

Marit Grøtta, Baudelaire's Media Aesthetics: The Gaze of the Flâneur and Nineteenth-Century Media (London: Bloomsbury 2015) 216 pp. £27.09 EPUB, PDF, £31.09 Pb, £88.09 Hb. ISBN: 9781628924404

Much has been made, over the years, of the nineteenth-century French poet Charles Baudelaire’s criticism of photography, especially in his review of the Salon of 1859. On the one hand he was overtly contemptuous of what he saw as reductive mechanical incursions into the expansive realm of the visual imagination. On the other hand, he was deeply invested in images: ‘to glorify the cult of images’ was, he claimed in a journal entry, ‘my great, my unique, my primitive passion’ (48). Baudelaire’s apparent distinction between mechanical and imagined images was deeply involved in his conceptions of art and his relationship with realism. In fact, as one of the discussions in Baudelaire’s Media Aesthetics demonstrates, Baudelaire was not single-mindedly damning of photography at all – he posed for his friend, the famous photographer Nadar, for example, as well as Etienne Carjat and Charles Neyt. Grøtta even finds a letter Baudelaire wrote to his mother in 1864 in which he not only begged her to have her photograph taken but insisted that he must be present to ensure it would be taken to meet his exacting requirements.

Such archival detail is one of the key strengths of this book which seeks to unravel Baudelaire’s connections to the emerging visual media around him – not just photography, but newspapers, kaleidoscopes, stereoscopes, and the many optical toys and devices that littered the mid-nineteenth-century market place. Grøtta’s aim overall is to combine both ‘literary and visual approaches to Baudelaire’ (2) to make the point that Baudelaire was not simply opposed to new visual media but ‘was capable of coming to terms with the new media technology and used it productively in his writings’ (21). In combining these approaches, Grøtta’s study does not develop any radically new ground in its theoretical framework but offers a worthwhile grounding in historical and literary detail.1 It is not always clear that the ‘literary and visual approaches’ which the book critiques are not themselves based on similar historical and literary reference points, since they are often not engaged with in much detail. For example, in discussing Baudelaire’s 1859 critique of photography and then his letter to his mother, for instance, Grøtta claims, without giving examples, that ‘often, Baudelaire’s views on photography are simply dismissed as reaction and considered a part of his defense of “pure” art’, before noting (with examples), that ‘several critics have contributed to a more nuanced picture’ (51). In this movement, Grøtta’s own contribution (as I understand it, the detail offered by the letter) gets somewhat waylaid and the reader is left unsure what new understanding is being uncovered. Such gripes are relatively minor but they significantly mar some sections. It is clear that new readings and understandings are being offered but they could sometimes be more clearly examined, perhaps with more willingness to engage in a debate with current research.

The book’s first half is organised around Baudelaire’s relations with specific media and chapters one to three focus on newspapers, photographs, and ‘precinematic devices’ respectively (Grøtta suggests that Baudelaire’s writings are ‘characterised by a precinematic sensibility’ [72]). The book then changes tack in Chapter Four, entitled ‘Corporeality’, which centres on the flâneur as a ‘body in motion’ (103). This is potentially slightly disorientating but makes sense since, as Grøtta points out, Baudelaire’s prose poems ‘focus on an experiencing subject’ (a corporeal observer) rather than on a centralised plot (104). Here Grøtta makes an intriguing argument that the primary experiences of these observers is ‘dizziness’, a ‘distorted form of perception derived from a loss of coordinates’ (104), caused by the crowdedness and multitudinous media landscape of the urban environment. Chapter Five then follows by examining Baudelaire’s fascination with the role of toys in imaginative perception, building on Grøtta’s ongoing theme of ‘play’ (conceptualised as a disruptive and liberating act against disciplinary processes). The book concludes, in Chapter Six, by moving away from Baudelaire to discuss the influence of Baudelaire’s views about nineteenth-century media (and those media themselves) on ‘modernity’ – in particular, on the ideas of Marx, Freud, and Benjamin.

This approach makes for interesting reading and some valuable insights are given along the way, for example, the argument that ‘rather than bluntly opposing photography’, Baudelaire’s prose poems ‘played’ with the forms of photography and ‘deprived it of its disciplinary power’ (71). Yet I was sometimes left wishing for a greater critical development of ideas and perhaps more extended engagements with current scholarship in the ‘visual and literary approaches’ the book is combining. Grøtta draws heavily on Giorgio Agamben’s work to generate theoretical frameworks for understanding media. In outlining the overall approach, for instance, Grotta borrows the concept of ‘dispositives’ to denote the media effect of shaping and guiding ‘the way the world is seen’ (15) – media thus are ‘frames of perception’ or ‘tools of interaction’ (17). This draws on a Foucauldian sense that ‘free but docile citizens’ are disciplined by media (16) along with Agamben’s argument that capitalist society ‘lays claim to certain things and practices [namely media technologies or ‘dispositives’], captures them within a certain logic, and […] precludes their free use’ (17).

Counterbalancing this disciplinary emphasis the argument concludes (again drawing on Agamben) that ‘even if this media technology is at the outset part of a commercial and technological enterprise, then it also has […] a potential for play and free use’ (17). It is this potential for ‘play’ which tends to be emphasized in the ensuing discussions of Baudelaire’s relation with media – the poet finding ways to disrupt the disciplinary effect of media. However, without a more detailed explanation or critical interpretation, Grøtta’s rehearsal of these arguments seems at times to overcomplicate a relation between mediation and artistic freedom and the theory occasionally feels imposed rather than usefully applied. There is also an underlying assumption about the alienating effect of capitalist media in this period, with the term ‘precinematic devices’, borrowed uncritically from film studies, similarly bringing with it a host of historically problematic assumptions that are left largely unexamined.

Grøtta clearly knows Baudelaire’s personal and literary writings very well and skilfully reads the interactions between media and literature – the examination of Baudelaire’s relationship with newspaper genres, for instance, offers intriguing and valuable insights. To this end, Baudelaire’s Media Aesthetics will be of particular value for anyone who is interested in Baudelaire as a writer and also, perhaps not that surprisingly, for those interested in Walter Benjamin, who becomes increasingly important as the book progresses.

Jonathan Potter, Coventry University


1 Readers may also be interested in Shelly Jarenski’s exploration of visual-literary relations in American literature, which has a broadly comparable approach. See Shelly Jarenski, Immersive Words: Mass Media, Visuality, and American Literature, 1839–1893 (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2015).