I have been thinking lately about the nature of the work of art in the age of what I will call digital replication. This thinking has led me in some disparate directions that I cannot possibly follow all at once, so this post will probably be the first of several that follow a loosely related set of ideas. I have no real conclusion in mind, not yet, so consider this the textual corollary of thinking aloud.
As my title suggests, I have been thinking this question of digital replication through Walter Benjamin’s famous essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”. I first read this essay in a university theory class, then read it again some time later in order to better understand a friend’s article, and then read it again just recently as I was preparing to write this post. It is a marvelous essay, and I will return to it in a moment, but I think that I should probably begin where so much of my thinking seems to begin, over a cup of coffee with Dave Humphrey.
Actually, on the night in question, I think I was drinking an oatmeal stout rather than a coffee, and I was listening to Dave theorize about why I prefer to search out books in yardsales and thriftstores rather than just to buy them online. It suddenly occurred to me that I had already begun to answer this question some time ago in a post on dying texts, where I made a distinction between the physical book, which was falling apart as I was reading it, and the work of writing, which was embodied in many such physical books and in other forms as well. I began to wonder whether my fascination with rescuing discarded books was an expression of a kind of fetish for the physical book, not in and of itself, because I am reader rather than a collector of books, but as the singular place where my own story intersects the story of the work of writing. In other words, perhaps my fetish is with the book as the physical marker of a literary experience, as one of the elements that produces this experience, as a tangible synecdoche for this experience. It is not that I am confusing the literary work with the form in which it happens to be embodied, but that my experience of the literary work is so dependent on it being embodied in one form or another that this form itself becomes an inextricable part of my experience.
This explains, I think, at least in part, why I love used bookstores and yardsales and thriftstores, because the books that I find there have stories that began far before I found them, so the intersection of their stories and mine is far more interesting. They have inscriptions on their titlepages, and makeshift bookmarks, and notes in their margins, and coffee stains, and the pricetags of long forgotten booksellers. They also have the story of where and when I happened to stumble upon them, the story of how their stories and mine happened to become entangled. I love these stories about books. I love them as much as the stories that the books contain. I love them because they inform my reading of the literary work that they share with me, because they help make that reading and that experience what it is. My fetish, in other words, is for story of the physical book as an element in the production of my literary experience.
Of course, every book, whether bought new from the mass bookseller or used online or digitized for my electronic reader, every book will have such a story, but some of these stories will be more interesting than others. If a friend and I both place an order for copies of the same book online, their stories, at least for us, are practically indistinguishable from each other, and they are also practically indistinguishable from any number of other such orders placed by people around the world. We will all have had our different reasons for placing that order, of course, but each copy of that book will have been published in the same place, shipped in the same ways, ordered from the same forms. There is a story here, certainly, because there is always a story, but it is a story that is hardly worth telling, at least not without stomach churning levels of irony or boredom or both.
As I was thinking these things with Dave, sipping on my stout, I found myself recalling the opening section of “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”, where Benjamin analyzes how the ability to reproduce the work of art has altered our relation to the work of art as such, so I dug out the essay when I returned home. It is, as I have already said, a marvelous bit of thinking, and I would like to spend a great more time on it than this present space will allow me. The central ideas for my own purposes, however are these:
Benjamin argues that the age of mechanical reproduction and it ability to produce innumerable physical copies of an original work of art “withers the aura of the work of art.” By this he means that reproduction undermines the work of art’s authenticity and jeopardizes its authority as an object, because “it substitutes a plurality of copies for a unique existence.” He still maintains the idea of the original, arguing that “even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art” lacks the original’s “presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be,” but he argues that the aura, the authenticity, and the authority of this original is undermined by mass reproduction.
His reasons for this are fairly simple. He first argues that “the presence of the original is the prerequisite to the concept of authenticity,” and that “the uniqueness of a work of art is inseparable from its being embedded in the fabric of tradition.” He then suggests that “the technique of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the domain of tradition” and therefore distances is also from the original work of art. This distance, obscuring the singular history of the work of art, also withers its authority and authenticity, its aura.
One interesting implication of this line of reasoning is that it opens the possibility for reproductions to take on the kinds of authority and authenticity that were once reserved for the original. If, as Benjamin says, “the authenticity of a thing is the essence of all that is transmissible from its beginning, ranging from its substantive duration to its testimony to the history that it has experienced,” then a reproduction certainly obscures the authenticity of its original through the distance that it imposes between itself and the historical singularity of its original, but it also becomes a historical singularity in and of itself and becomes capable of founding its own authority and its own authenticity. In other words, the ability to produce copies of the work of art makes possible the kind of fetishism that I was describing earlier. It reduces the value of the original, because this original is no longer the only place where the work of art finds a form, but it opens the possibility that the copies will become originals of a sort as they take on their own history, and this history may actually increase their authenticity beyond that of their original, if they are signed by the author, for example, or owned by a celebrity. Mechanical reproduction, therefore, devalues but does not eliminate the original, and produces many physical copies that can themselves obtain value as they take on a singular history.
All of this brings me to a possibility that first occurred to me as I was sitting there with Dave over my pint, though I did not then have the benefit of Benjamin’s terminology to articulate it: if the age of mechanical reproduction introduces the possibility that a copy might take on its own authority and authenticity, the age of digital replication ends this possibility definitively. The reason for this is that the digitized replication is always entirely identical to its original and to every other copy. These replications are always indistinguishable. They always substitute for one another perfectly. There is, in other words, no original, or perhaps there are only originals, and none of these originals are subject to history in a way that can mark them as singular and therefore authoritative or authentic. History leaves them untouched, unmarked, so they are incapable of taking on the aura of authority or authenticity.
This means that the digitized replication can never become a fetishized object in the way of the mechanical reproduction, because it will never be possible for its story to become singular and to intersect with the story of the reader. I will never find notes in the margin of an etext or a signature on the cover of an mp3 file. I will never find their stories in a thriftstore or a garage sale. In the mode of their physical existence, they are as different from the book as the book is from the oral recitation. This new mode of existence, I think, needs to be the subject of some serious reflection, and I hope to do some of this reflection in future posts.
For the moment, though, I will close with a confession of sorts. While I am not certain whether digital replication is essentially better or worse than mechanical reproduction, I must admit an intense nostalgia for the stories and the histories that mechanical reproduction enables. My own understanding of the literary experience is so entirely wrapped up in the physicality of the book and in the history that produces it as an authentic and authoritative object, even if for no one but myself, that I cannot imagine reading apart from these things, and I can only see the digital replication as a kind of loss, whatever benefits it might also have. Perhaps these are the questions that I will need to explore next.