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The Flatness of Latour’s Concept of Origin and Holbein’s The Ambassadors

[Bruno Latour offers this citation correction for the article discussed below: the paper and the theory is Bruno 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).]

These are expanded thoughts on Bruno Latour’s excellent and inspiring article on the digital-aided reproduction of Veronese’s Nozze di Cana, “The Migration of the Aura – Exploring the Original through Its Facsimiles” (2008), here at his website. I reread the article more closely and I found that I had maybe been too generous on some counts in my first assessment. An aspect that I called “underdeveloped” was actually absent from the discussion. In particular, as Latour sought to define and bring to life the conditions that make up our sense of the “original” of something, though he did bring out very significant factors he was utterly silent on perhaps our most salient connection to the concept: the idea that the original of something that has been copied is that which retains the effects of its own history. It holds the imprint of what brought it into being. And while Latour does a fine job of making even more clear the point put forward in Walter Benjamin’s criticism of Art in a mechanical age, that it is the differential gap in processes that often guides our assessment of the difference between the copy and the original, he makes no connection at all to the substantive aspects of an original that bring about the very importance of this “gap” in process. It is specifically that gaps, or leaps in process, can change the recording surface (if we can be both somewhat analogous, somewhat literal) such that the history of causes and effects that make up the original, themselves become lost, or reconfigured.

The Copy as “Copious”

But to trace this aporia in Latour’s description we must start with his very helpful framing of the concept of the original. He tells us with some illumination that an original only becomes importantly so due to the very variety and numericity (and quality?) of the copies that it produces, for our word “copy” comes out of the very concept of “copious”. A true original carries within it the “aura” of a fecudity which produced its copies which flow from it like branches from a trunk and root, but in a retroactive sense the aura of the “original” is actually produced by the very weight of its copies, as these copies become the evidence of its originary profusion:

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….

…let us remember that the word “copy” does not need to be so derogative, since it comes from the same etymology as “copious”, and thus designates a source of abundance. There is nothing inferior in the notion of a copy, simply a proof of fecundity….Actually, this connection between the idea of copies and that of the original should come as no surprise since for a work of art to be original means nothing but to be the origin of a long descendance. Something which has no progeny, no reproduction, no inheritors, is not called original but rather sterile or barren (8)

So we are given an account of originality which works in two ways, backwards from the plethora of copies which in a way retroactively create the original as a place of origin, and then forwards as we are able to trace out the flowing line of copious progeny.

Plastic Surgery on Holbein’s “The Ambassadors”

This conceptual bookend serves us well, but we run into some difficulty when applying it to the half-subject of his essay, the saddening failure of conservators to restore Holbein’s “The Ambassadors” well. Instead of a nice fatherly line wherein a profound original propels copies into the future, horrifically, the photographic copies of the original have turned upon their father and remade it in their more sterile image:

Something odd has happened to Holbein’s Ambassadors at the National Gallery in London. The visitor does not immediately know how to describe her malaise. The painting is completely flat, its colors bright but somewhat garish; the shape of every object is still there but slightly exaggerated; she wonders what has happened to this favorite painting of hers. “That’s it”, she mutters, “the painting has lost its depth, the fluid dynamics of the paint has gone. It is just a surface now.” But what does this surface look like? The visitor looks around, puzzled, and then the answer dawns on her: it resembles almost exactly the poster she has bought several years ago at the Gallery bookshop and that still hangs in her study at home. Only the dimension differs.

Could it be true? She wonders. Could they have replaced the Ambassadors by a fac simile? May be it’s on loan to some other museums and they did not want to disappoint the visitors, so they put up with this copy. Or may be they did not want to trick us and it is a projection, it is so flat and bright that it could almost be a slide projected on a screen… Fortunately, she composes herself enough not to ask the stern guard in the room whether this most famous painting is the original or not. What a shock it would have been. Unfortunately, she knows enough about the strange customs of restorers and curators to bow to the fact that this is indeed the original although only in name, that the real original has been irreversibly lost and that it has been substituted by what most people like in a copy: bright colors, shining surface, and above all a perfect resemblance with the slides sold at the bookshop that are shown in art classes all over the world by art teachers most often interested only in the shape and theme of a painting but not by any other marks registered in the thick surface of a work. She leaves the room suppressing a tear: the original has been turned into a copy of itself looking like a cheap copy, and no one seems to complain or even to notice the substitution. They seem happy to have visited in London the original poster of Holbein’s Ambassadors!…(8)

…If the Ambassadors have been irreversibly erased, it is not out of negligence, but, on the contrary, because of an excessive zeal in “reproducing” it. What the curators did was to confuse the obvious general feature of all works of art -to survive they have to be somehow reproduced- with the narrow notion of reproduction provided by photographic posters while ignoring many other ways for a painting to be reproduced….

…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 (14-15).

Here is the apparent contradiction. If originality comes out of the pressure of numerous copies, and expresses itself in its very capacity to generate copies of every sort, there seems to be no reason at all why the “plastic surgery reconstruction of the painting does not make it all the more original. For while it may have put off this particular art critic who decries the photographization of the wonderful canvas, the flattening of its surface, the brightening of its colors, it seems quite unlikely that this change would drop it from its canonical position within the history of Western Art, and its rightful place in endless compendiums. Further though as Latour admits, its perfect resemblance to its copies in the bookstore creates a certain connection between it and they, most certainly a connection we can conceive of as furthering its very fecundity for copy generation. Far from becoming “sterile” the painting so reconstructed actually has become proliferate. So where does the crime lie?

The Weightless Weight of the Original

First we must briefly follow Bruno Latour’s reworking of Benjamin’s 1936, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” which sought to decode why the modern rapidity of mechanistic reproductive means had unseated the location of an “aura” of the original, freeing it from its ritualistic encampments in a singular object. Latour tells us that what Benjamin tried to reveal in his notion of “mechanistic reproduction” was actually “the differential of resistance among all segments of the trajectory”. When the differential is low, that is when processes and expense, perhaps the particularized intensity is very much the same in the making of the copy as with the proposed original, there is no real “aura” of the original to speak of. It becomes diffused. It is for this reason that a contemporary production of King Lear does not suffer too greatly the disparagement of being a mere “copy” when compared to the original production of the play so many centuries ago. There is very little “differential of resistance among” the segments. For this reason as well, all the lithographs in a first run series are equally original. Whereas in the case of paintings, reproductions are not only assumed to be easier, but also there is a potentially a great disparity in process (whether it be a human imitator with brush in hand, or a snap-shooting tourist). Latour sums it up this way:

In other words, it is not because of some inherent quality of painting that we tend to create such a yawning gap between originals and copies -it is not because they are more “materials” (an opera or a play are just as “material” as pigments on canvas)-, but because of the differences in the techniques used for each segment of the trajectory. While in performance art they are grossly homogeneous (each replay relying on the same gamut of techniques) the career of a painting or a sculpture relies on segments which are vastly heterogeneous and which vary greatly in the intensity of the efforts deployed along its path (12)

Yet problematically, just as Latour has spoken only of homogeneity and heterogeneity of techniques, he also will informs us that photography itself is not only heterogeneous, but also the most barren of reproductive forms (14), despite its capacity to spawn numerous  copies, the very power of reproduction that denies barrenness, (how many copies of Ansel Adams prints are there?). Photography has a bad reputation as being an index for reality, it transfers a stigma of a gap in technique between what is photograph and the photograph itself :

Hidden behind the commonsense distinction between original and mere copies, lies a totally different process that has to do with the technical equipment, the amount of care, the intensity of the search for the originality that goes from one version to the next. Before being able to defend itself for re-enacting the original well or badly, a facsimile is discredited beforehand because it is associated with a gap in techniques of reproduction. A gap based on a misunderstanding of photography as an index for reality (12)

I’m not sure what Latour means by “a misunderstanding of photography as an index for reality”. In some very strict senses, photography indeed is an index for reality as anyone who has been convicted of a crime due to surveillance tapes would attest, but photography also is understood to be quite malleable and capable of forgery. I do not want to focus to much upon the nature of Latour’s problem with photography, but rather want to keep track of just what it is about this “differential or resistance” that matters in question of the importance of an original. And I think Latour has the wrong, or least incomplete factor when he speaks of  “the amount of care, the intensity of the search for the originality that goes from one version to the next”  for the Holbein conservators no doubt worked sincerely, searching for the originality (no matter what you think of their results). One certainly could imagine that the Nozze di Cana  duplication, if accomplished by some future molecular duplicating machine with very little “intensity of the search,” would produce equally satisfying “aura” transfer results. Photographs of paintings are not respected as aura entrenched primarily because the change in recording surface and technique is understood to present a change in marked causal histories, the great train of the “original” object).

What really is at stake in the Holbein reconstruction is the very real way that originality has to do with something much more than the number of copies one produces, or even their quality. The reason why an original is sought, why one might want to hold the pen used to sign a historic treaty more than its reproduction, or look closely at canvas from which endless photographs have been taken, is that an original, having given birth to so many copies, is understood to retain within its internal differences the traces of so many causes that have exerted their pressure upon that moment, that little piece of space and time, which then in turn worked to produce so many copies. What the copies do, besides attesting to the historical power of the original, is efface or change something of that record, the enfolded of information that speaks to the conditions of the world that gave birth to that birthing center. There is ever the sense that whatever we thought was important and thus captured in our copies (perhaps in the case of Holbein the clarity of form, the uniqueness of that anamorphic skull), might turn out to be less important than we thought under different questions. The original is not only pregnant in a forwards sense, but also recordedly, in a backwards sense – it captures countless invisibles that helped bring it into being. And thus when there is, what Latour would like to emphasize as, a process gap between the techniques and efforts used to produce the original (and all their recording surfaces for its causes), and those used to copy it, is that the new techniques, the change in registry obscures that connection to the past, the capacity to read the forces that actually were the cause of all those copies (having come to the nexus point of the “original”).

“Existence Precedes Essence” No?

Even though the experience of originality, the aura of it even may have migrated to Italy in the digitally aided copy of the Nozze di Cana (see the discussion of this in the Latour article), which is to say that in its presented condition aspects of the history that lead to the production of the painting might come into better relief than with the original when it was hung opposite the Mona Lisa, the reason why we would chose the save the real original (historically) instead of the excellent facsimile, is obviously that despite the precision of “copying” there are innumerable differences within the first which simply are not present in the latter: an underpainting on the canvas, a chemical composition trace in the oil, the hand-weight on a brush stroke, perhaps a buried fingerprint, all of which are differences uncaptured and uncopied in the new original.

For distinct reasons positional Latour does not claim this backwards leaning importance of the original. He wants to emphasize that any fact or actor in the world gains its substantive weight from the threads of causes that all trace to its present condition. He wants to see each actor as flat, created and suspended in the lateral relations to its position, its network to other actors. He wants originality to be essentially a condition of the present, and a reactive effect of a future, I believe. He wants originality to be something of a constructed illusion. And I do think there are very good reasons to incorporate this constructed sense of the original into one’s view. But restricted to such Latour undercuts something of his own despair over the rather copious reconstruction of “The Ambassadors”. Why indeed should this photographic reconstruction be “bad” (with the implicit judgment that cosmetic plastic surgery of human faces is bad).

What I suggest is that what is disappointing in the Holbein reconstruction is that it effaces exactly what is considered important in the original, the way that it expresses the fullness of causes that brought themselves to bear upon a turning point in history, all of which work to further inform us of the nature of that which has flowed from that originality. To veer somewhat for an analogy, I recently began researching the possible form of the philosopher Baruch Spinoza’s lens-grinding lathe [ Spinoza’s Foci], a physical, mechanical process he applied himself to almost as often as he did to his philosophical writings. I recalled learning that the reproduction or representation of his said lathe at the Spinozahuis museum had very little to do with the device(s) he likely used. The lathe in the museum was just a rough stand in. This inaccuracy retarded any contemporary possible attempt to link the causal relationship between Spinoza’s experiences at the lathe, and his metaphysical concepts. And while I came much closer to the kind of device he likely used (below), the original device if ever found would possibly be a wealth of recorded and influential information (a sketch of it less so). The point being that it is the record of causal relationships that gives us our urge to get close to and preserve the original of something.

But there is an additional reason why the Holbein restoration is potentially dissatisfying, and that is due to its recursive, causal nature. Its structure having changed over time, its copies now reflected back upon the form of its recording surface, now no longer informs us so clearly about the causative effects that produced it. It no longer looks back into the depths of its own historical origin, but rather serves as something more like a mirror, showing back (forward?) what it produced. This recursivity in fact might work to enhance its very capacity to create a profusion of copies, as the similarity in form enhances our experience of the veracity of its copies. They capture to a great degree its apparent original form. Without the anchoring urge to point backwards in time, this recursive lateral generation simply flattens out and spreads, and not invaluably so. Much is still transferred on. But the sense of the original, its weight, is diminished.

This where I differ from Bruno Latour who says unequivocally the existence of something precedes its essence, in that a host of existential factors and networking actors have to all conspire to give the original its weight. If that were only the case the proliferate and enhanced Holbein would be very far from “barren” or “sterile”. It is rather that due to all those existential forces pressing down towards original, we also count the original as revelatory of other forces that were antecedent to it, and immanent to its own production. This is what gives weight to the original, the way that it reveals its prior world. It is this specific “essence” coherence of relations, which necessarily precedes its existence, residing in what was before it, that prevents the current Holbein profusion from being satisfying. Latour evokes this historic power of the original without being able to identity it within his preferred, horizontal/flat frame of reference, and so he is not able to fully expression the discontinuity between the two objects that generated his article: the more-original-than-the-original facsimile of the Nozze di Cana, and the no-longer-the-same original of The Ambassadors.

Now we can add some flesh to the bones of Latour’s implicit slight to cosmetic plastic surgery (if I read his meaning there). Mirrors or recursive generative structures are not bad things, and when celebrities find themselves reconstructing their faces not only to achieve (correct) them towards their supposed youth, but also so that they achieve the photographic sleek by which the have become known through their copies, and even move towards the impressional ideal they leave in the minds of fans, we have to ask, what has been accomplished in this Holbeinian remaking? What is satisfying, and what is dissatisfying in it? It is notable that under Latour’s “originality  spawns multiple copies” definition the transmigration of nose shapes and lip forms to patients, as well as endless photographic portrayals of great variety, the so-constructed celebrity’s face proves more original than ever. It is copious. But what is lost (and we must keep track of these costs, almost like an accountant), is of course the recorded surface history of forces that fell upon that face prior to reconstruction, the way that we want to come in touch with the record of expression (and their emotions), the genetic traces of family lines, the wealth of interpersonal and sub-personal effects that all resulted in this original person of fame. It might very well be that the fecundity of reproduction outweighs this lost aspect, that the rapidity of replications and imitations caught in and thrust through the mirroring effects propels the person beyond the weight of their own personal history, in the way that Michael Jackson has now become a literal child of an industry and an artform (and no longer so much the Jackson family), losing his personal originality for the originality of an entire recursive birthing that only employs him as a reproductive conduit. This can be so, as becomes the case for Pharaohs, one might say. But in the differential between the originality of Michael Jackson now, and Michael Jackson circa 1976, lies the difference between essence and existence. The power of the original, that which speaks as an origin, is two-fold, that of its progeny, but also and with great weight, to the causes that it directs our attention to. It is Janus-faced.

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.