Frames /sing


The Facsimile and the Stolen Aura of the Original

The Latourian Migration

[Bruno Latour offers this citation correction for the article discussed below: Latour and Adam Lowe and here is the exact reference to the soon to be published version: « The Migration of the Aura – Exploring the Original Through Its Facsimiles », a chapter prepared for Thomas Bartscherer (editor) Switching Codes, University of Chicago Press (2010).]

Bruno Latour has as wonderful article on the philosophical and aesthetic consequences in an Age of extremely accurate and realized digital reproduction, “The Migration of the Aura – Exploring the Original through Its Facsimiles” (2008), here at his website. He takes as his principle focus the remarkable reproduction of  Veronese’s Nozze di Cana, a huge framed painting that has the unfortunate favor of being hung (and so dwarfed) opposite the tiny Mona Lisain the Louvre. He traces the digital and pigmented reproduction of this painting, a process so exact that the question of where the original is has to be raised, in particular when the “copy” is hung returned to where it was stolen, placed in a refectory in San Giorgio, very much like the one where it originally hung. There something of the original lighting, spatial presentation, atmosphere even is given with the re-production, enough to convince some art critics that THIS is the original, finally restored. Reminding us that the word “copy” merely comes from the word meaning “copious”, he  makes the wonderful point that the very notion of the original, our sense that there is an original, is dependent upon the great pressure exerted by the multiplicity of its copies. Mixing metaphors, originality is only seen as an Urspring in the aftermath of a rich and diverse progeny, like the Delta of the Nile:

But it’s not the original, it’s just a facsimile!”. How often have we heard such a retort when confronted with an otherwise perfect reproduction of a painting? No question about it, the obsession of the age is for the original version. Only the original possesses an aura, this mysterious and mystical quality that no second hand version will ever get. But paradoxically, this obsession for pinpointing originality increases proportionally with the availability and accessibility of more and more copies of better and better quality. If so much energy is devoted to the search for the original – for archeological and marketing reasons- it is because the possibility of making copies has never been so open-ended. If no copies of the Mona Lisa existed would we pursue it with such energy – and would we devise so many conspiracy theories to decide whether or not the version held under glass and protected by sophisticated alarms is the original surface painted by Leonardo’s hand or not. In other words, the intensity of the search for the original depends on the amount of passion and the number of interests triggered by its copies. No copies, no original. In order to stamp a piece with the mark of originality you need to apply to its surface the huge pressure that only a great number of reproductions can provide.

So, in spite of the knee-jerk reaction -“But this is just a facsimile”-, we should refuse to decide too quickly when considering the value of either the original or its reproduction. Thus, the real phenomenon to be accounted for, is not the punctual delineation of one version divorced from the rest of its copies, but the whole assemblage made up of one -or several- original(s) together with the retinue of its continually re-written biography. It is not a case of “either or” but of “and, and”. Is it not because the Nile ends up in such a huge delta that the century-old search for its sources had been so thrilling? To pursue the metaphor, we want, in this paper, to behave like hydrographers intent in deploying the whole catchment area of a river -not only focusing on an original spring. A given work of art should be compared not to any isolated locus but to a river’s catchment, complete with its estuaries, its many tributaries, its dramatic rapids, its many meanders and of course also with its several hidden sources.

Latour, makes the Benjamin-friendly point that it is the change of intensity of labor, and the gap in techniques or processes, that renders a copy as only a mere copy, and he has some interesting comments on the effects of a cut-and-paste realm of web communications. There is odd point in the essay where he is exacting some sort of criticism of the restoration processes that have made the Holbein “The Ambassadors” actually look flattened like so many of its many postered reproductions, as if the pressure of the copies themselves have worked to undo the original. He calls the photographs which were actually used as a guide “the most barren” of reproduction techniques, though this appeal runs counter to the very defintions of originality already submitted.

Actually, a terribly revealing documentary shows the culprits restoring the Holbein by using as their model photographs of the original and subjectively deciding what is original, what has decayed, what has been added and imagining the painting as a series of discrete layers that can be added or removed at will. A process that resembles plastic surgery more than an open forensic investigation.

If indeed “The Ambassadors” has been made to look like its photographs, this “plastic surgery” very well have added to the fecundity of the image in museum, and isn’t barren at all, as the confirmed similarity to mere copies may drive even more visitors to witness the enshrined aura of the original, and admire its efficacy of reproduction (willing to buy photographs in the bookshop, for how closely they mimic what they just saw). How many movie star faces employ just this sort of photographic “fecundity” wherein the original becomes nearly photographic? (And even more striking as a truth, the botched surgeries of Mickey Rourke’s face may have given him the generative edge of an Academy Award nominated role, ensuring more duplications.) 

Latour does not address this seeming contradiction or the problematic of originality as defined by the numericity of progeny, and it is a contradiction probably due to his lasting connoisseur sensibilities for the lost minutia of detail in the hallowed first, a feeling that details should not be erased no matter the productive value of erasure. And I think that there is something to this, though I can’t see how it is captured by Latour’s analysis. All the same, a wonderful essay that changes one’s view about what makes a copy a copy, and even a type a type. It allows us to conceive of “original” in the Medieval sense of how types were read, as powerful manifestations that were strong enough to force imitations and reproductions. The Christ type. The Achilles type, etc.

And it is interesting to think along with Latour on the movability of the “aura” of the original, how it can seem to move from one material manifestation to another, almost atavistically. I think that there is one sense of the “original” which is underdeveloped by Latour perhaps due to his appeal for the flat ontology but I cannot be sure, is the sense in which the original to all those copies, itself as a thing value, bears the traces, the marks of the forces that gave rise it it. We want to see the pressure of Holbein’s hand in brush strokes, the crease of repetitious grimaces in the face. The original, even our most sacred isolation of it, is not monolithic, but rather maintains its value through the fingerprints of causation that trail behind it, in the way that we can feel the forces which nexused themselves at this point, to create such progeny. In a sense, to change the original is to change the direction that those winds had blown, often making our histories more recursive and therefore possibly starved of potential resources of productivity and self-examination.

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