“shock, adopted from the French word choquer”*

Will Slocombe, writing on the website of the Chicago School of Media Theory:

*”…Perhaps the most loaded definition of shock for the purposes of a study of media, is a medical one which presents shock as “a sudden debilitating effect produced by over-stimulation of nerves.” This definition is underscored by a later one that describes shock as “a momentary stimulation of a nerve. Also a stimulation of nerves with resulting contraction of muscles and feeling of concussion.; spec. = electric shock.” When in a condition of shock, the body is literally over-stimulated, is taking in too much information.

In his analysis of both Baudelaire and the cinema, Walter Benjamin employs this final definition of shock as over-stimulation within the context of psychoanalysis. In his essay, “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire,” Benjamin quotes Freud as writing “‘for a living organism, protection against stimuli is an almost more important function than the reception of stimuli'”. According to Freud, the human “‘protective shield,'” which has its own energy, guards the nervous system against “‘the excessive energies of the outside world'”. For Benjamin reading Freud, “the threat of these energies is one of shocks” and “the more readily consciousness registers these shocks, the less likely they are to have a traumatic effect”. Freud through Benjamin is contending that the external world is constantly threatening to over-stimulate us and that, instead of requiring more means of accessing the world, the body needs protectors, shields, to help block it out. The principle shield is consciousness, which protects the subconscious from suffering the after-effects of shock. Much of this language recalls Marshall McLuhan’s definition of media as “extensions of man”. Here the extension, consciousness, is most decidedly a shield, and not a spear.

In his reading of Baudelaire, Benjamin employs shock both in the context of the creative process and in the context of the modern city. According to Benjamin, Baudelaire “speaks of a duel” between consciousness and the shocks of the external world. Consciousness is behaving here as a kind of combative and active shield, constantly parrying the shocking blows from the environment. Crucially, Benjamin contends that for Baudelaire, “this duel is the creative process itself,” and thus he “placed the shock experience at the very center of his artistic work”. The highly sensitized artist is constantly being shocked, over-stimulated, by the world around him and must enlist his consciousness to aid him in the battle. Benjamin introduces “Le Soleil” by arguing that Baudelaire “has pictured himself engaged in a fantastic combat” in a poem “that shows the poet at work”. The poem itself reads, in part, “When the cruel sun’s redoubled beams/ Are lashing city and field, roofs and grain,/I go alone, to practice my curious fencing/In every corner smelling out the dodges of rhyme”. There is a violence, a conflict, in the poem which recalls the first OED definition of shock, that of a military confrontation. More specifically, though, the artist’s consciousness is behaving as a combative shielding medium to protect his subconscious from the shock of the outside world.

For Benjamin, part of this external shock is inherent to the crowded modern city. He directs our attention towards the “the close connection in Baudelaire between the figure of shock and contact with the metropolitan masses”. Because the city, with its “traffic signals” and “technology” provides so much external stimulation, so much opportunity for shock, its population has collectively trained its consciousness to always be alert, to always be parrying those shocks. Put differently, the inhabitants of the modern city constantly have their mediating shields raised, to the shocking environment that surrounds them. Thus, Benjamin explains, “Baudelaire speaks of a man who plunges into the crowd as into a reservoir of electric energy. Circumscribing the experience of the shock, he calls this man ‘a kaleidoscope equipped with consciousness'”. Here we get the explicit use of electricity as a conduit for shock. But, more broadly, we get the sense that crowds acclimated to the over-stimulation of the modern city, with its multiplicity of potentially shocking elements, are nothing less than fast-moving packs of excited shielding mediation. They are a kinetic bundle, equipped with the shield of consciousness and ready to do battle with modernity…”

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