Ch. 5 of Michael Sandel’s What Money Can’t Buy discussed the markets pushed into public spaces. With the increasing social stratification of skyboxes and purchasable privileges in sports arenas, Sandel regrets the loss of a flatter, more egalitarian sense in the audiences of his youth and its “civic teaching—that we are all in this together, … we share a sense of place and civic pride” (p. 173.)
The reading recalled a 1935 paper by Walter Benjamin. Per Benjamin, works of art, originally linked with ritual cultic activity, have a unique history, transcendence, and presence, or “aura;” even when their value is more in exhibition than cult, the work is never fully separated from ritual. The ability to precisely reproduce art works, though they may look identical, destroys that aura. One need not see the original work to experience it; it comes to the viewer in reproduction, but devoid of aura. Writing before television, Benjamin focused on film as decoupling the viewer from stage presence. With live television an event—e.g., a baseball game—allows instant replays, tight zooms, and other views unavailable to those in the bleachers, but the viewer is much farther removed from the presence of the event. A video recording is even further removed from presence.
One can understand Sandel’s description of fetishizing baseball memorabilia as restoring the “aura” lost with televised reproduction: Mickey Mantle signed this bat; Luis Gonzales chewed this gum. The aura is particularly fulgent for singular events, such as owning the baseball Mark Maguire hit, or a scoop of the dirt on which Derek Jeter stood, when they broke records. Owning the things is a mediated presence of the player: he hit it, or signed it, and something of the presence of the player transfers to the owner with the item. Sacralizing ritual is restored as well: authenticators verify items with holographic stickers—the priestly blessing—and owners carefully display items with awe—as were relics. The aura and its sacralization create economic value for many, banal though it may be for others.
In difference with Sandel, I find the situation more complex than simply the invasion of markets. The memorabilia market has pushed deeply into games, but only to the extent there are buyers, and that may be partly an attempt to overcome the removal of presence by the media. I might agree that compared to a few decades ago a shared sense of public place has been lost, but that pervades far beyond the arena. Skyboxes seem more symptom than cause of social stratification; as Sandel noted, citing Jonathan Cohn, they reflect “the elite’s eagerness, even desperation, to separate itself from the rest of the crowd” (p. 174.)
1 “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction;” see also Erik Larsen’s commentary for analysis and critique.
* This is adapted from a series of one page papers I wrote for an independent study in micro- and macroeconomics; the material included the excellent text The Economic Way of Thinking by Heyne, Boettke, and Prychitko, as well as several texts I brought in from communitarian, market anarchy, and experimental economic perspectives.