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The last thirty years have seen a great deal of scholarship on Benjamin’s optical unconscious, yet much of this work expands well beyond photography, the actual subject of Benjamin’s formulation. This chapter places the medium and its historically specific conditions at the center of renewed inquiry into this topic. It focuses on the multifaceted concern around 1931 that photography had broken its modernist and populist promise to reveal unseen worlds for the good, teach rational modes of perception, and operate as a straightforward means of enlightenment. Instead, photographic images in these years seemed fundamentally flawed by their great profusion, the commercial and political conditions that generated this flood, and the very contingency of any one image. The chapter proposes that Benjamin acknowledged these shortcomings and responded by assigning the medium’s revelatory agency to the subjective realm of the unconscious, where contingency played the most important role in perception.

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