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The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

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Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

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William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

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Thursday, January 28, 2010

Original Aura

Posted by Aaron Bady on 01/28/10 at 02:48 PM

This isn’t a particularly deep point. But I was struck, looking at this image of the only original manuscript copy of Paradise Lost (h/t), at how much more it affects me precisely because I’m seeing a digital reproduction of The Original:

Mainly, of course, I just wanted to share this image. But it’s a strange inversion on the vulgar Benjaminism of clearly dividing between Art and mechanical reproduction, between the initial distinction I want to draw between aura and no aura. Somehow this thing has the aura that it has (at least for me) precisely because it’s been digitally reproduced. But then, I guess Benjamin would never have written that essay before mechanical reproduction, would he? 


Could you explain why the digital reproduction of the image brings out the aura? Do you feel awe for the art itself or for the capabilities of technology?

For me, the awe comes from the remnants of the original that are captured in the digital reproduction. I admit that, as a photograph is still only a representation of what it represents, this digital reproduction is even further removed from the original. My faith in the reproduction comes from a bias I acknowledge. Since a majority of my encounters with art are mediated by the computer screen, I find that a digital image of the manuscript feels original within the arena of the copy.

I think you are partly saying that the image undermines, perverts, or deconstructs Benjamin’s art vs. reproduction dichotomy. When I try to think about this rationally, I don’t agree; the image is just a digital reproduction of a photograph of an original work. The same is true of a googled image of the Mona Lisa. But, within the context of cyberspace, the image seems to frustrate Benjaminism. It gives me almost the same feeling that an old photograph does when viewed on the internet. It seems that, in the information age, authenticity is a distinct style or flavor, and this particular image is brimming with it.

By on 01/29/10 at 05:45 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I admit it has been a while since I read Benjamin, but a thought.

Where is literature in all this? It seems to me that reverence for a manuscript is about archaeology or antiquarianism more than art. Because that original, or the digital reproduction of it, is no more Paradise Lost than my Norton Critical Edition or the $2 Dover Thrift edition or the unannotated copy that’s free on the internet.

Nobody treasures an artifact like this as a work of art. Literature, unlike the material arts, can’t be fixed in space and time the way a statue can. If I take a picture of The Mona Lisa, it’s worth nothing. If I copy all the words of Paradise Lost and have it published, and it’s...Paradise Lost.

By on 01/29/10 at 09:12 AM | Permanent link to this comment

That’s John Milton’s handwriting, dude. It affects me even in reproduction.

As I mentioned in another thread recently, the Norton Critical edition of “L’Morte D’Arthur” with original spelling has a very different feel than an edition with modernized spelling, even though it’s exactly the same words.

I read a lot of Hunter S Thompson before I saw film footage of him and heard the rhythm of his characteristic speaking mutter. After that I heard his voice while reading, and it changed the feel. Handwriting enhances the experience similarly. And spelling.

Shorter Walter Benjamin: Previously a small elite enjoyed fabulously meaningful art, now we have crappy movies and baseball games but huge crowds get to watch them, so the result is the same, algebraically:

(Elite*Art1)=(Quantity of Meaning1)
(Masses*Art2)=(Quantity of Meaning2)
(Quantity of Meaning1)=(Quantity of Meaning2)

Shorter Me: Walter Benjamin was a putz.

Dares, “Original Instruments Baroque”. Discuss.

By on 01/29/10 at 03:01 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The image is thrilling and consequential in various ways, but it is a digital image of a page produced by a professional scribe from a copy written by someone Milton employed to copy what he had dictated. So it isn’t an “original,” whatever that might mean, in any case. It too is a reproduction, just not a mechanically produced one.

By on 01/29/10 at 04:00 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Manuscripts are certainly not just for archeologists or antiquarians.

For people trained to work with them, they are full of information about how the text was composed, used, and received. The study of manuscripts allows us to re-approach something like the work’s original context.

Even more than manuscripts, though, the internet has archived early editions of English-language printed books (EEBO, ECCO, etc).

The differences between classicist Richard Bentley’s aggressive, eccentric, heavily emended 1732 edition of _Paradise Lost_ and Jacob Tonson’s monumental, nearly reverential, massively annotated 1695 complete Milton tell us all kinds of things about how Milton was received, studied, and published during the initial stages of his canonization.

A different example: most of John Donne’s poetry was circulated in manuscript within a coterie of elite readers who altered and wrote back to his poems willy-nilly… of course the MSS are crucial for ‘establishing’ the texts in the first place, but returning to them tells us how readers copied and read Donne’s poetry differently according to their individual contexts.

I think that sensitive academic readers would say that the material form of literature, the edition, the textual condition, make all of the difference in the world.

By on 01/29/10 at 06:38 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The image is thrilling and consequential in various ways, but it is a digital image of a page produced by a professional scribe from a copy written by someone Milton employed to copy what he had dictated

Sorry, you can’t fool me. If as you say John Milton didn’t write that himself, why is he called a “writer”? Eh? And if he had *dictated* it, why then he would be called a *dictator*. But everybody knows Oliver Cromwell was the dictator at that time. This is a basic fact of history. Ha! Got you. Q.E.D.

By on 02/01/10 at 02:42 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Wasn’t Milton blind?

In response to jph: I fully understand the scholarly and academic value of manuscripts and first generation printed editions. I myself spend a lot of time trolling EEBO for my dreadful dissertation.

But the original post was about such non-utilitarian ideas as “aura.” The fact remains that the artistic value of literature is not connected to any particular material locus: Paradise Lost as literature, albeit in slightly different forms, can exist equally in countless editions or in the synapses of the human brain. The same with music, to a certain extent, although performance probably matters more there. Bernsteins Beethoven’s fifth vs. Furtwangler’s is a more important distinction than Arden Shakespeare vs. Oxford.

By on 02/01/10 at 06:17 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Sorry, continuing on here..."all the difference in the world” overstates the matter, to me. Certainly, there are extreme examples, such as, for instance, Q1 Hamlet vs. The First Folio, but the very fact of the matter is most works of literature are remarkably similar in modern edition to their MMS or first generation printing. The very important issues you bring up are important to the academic...but to the general reader? I would go so far as to argue that the professional early modernist is, of course, to a certain extent an antiquarian!

By on 02/01/10 at 06:21 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Dares: I see what you mean.

And, by the way, Milton _was_ completely blind when he began the composition of _Paradise Lost_, and no autograph manuscript exists.

That isn’t his handwriting.

It may still have an ‘aura,’ but it has nothing to do with the physical object and more to do with the reader’s imagination.

By on 02/02/10 at 01:11 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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