Casey Lange

Tricky Matter: The Work of Art in the Age of Digital Reproduction


Toni Pecoraro, Three-Color Aquatint, 1985, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International, via Wikimedia Commons

Consuming without eating: the dream of the compulsive eater and the guilty glutton. The promise of any number of miracle diets: “Have all your favorite foods and don’t gain a pound!”

* * *

In the present age of digital reproduction and transmission, it is less and less the case that we have to eat in order to consume: that we have to acquire objects, get materially fatter and bigger, in order to absorb information and meaning (Grooveshark instead of CDs, Wikipedia instead of encyclopedias, e-books, etc.). Indeed, works of art (which I will conceive broadly to include meaning-carrying works of varying form and size–essays, blog posts, news articles, videos, tweets) are less and less like material products that we consume like a loaf of bread or a cigarette, to the point where the concept of “consumption” hardly applies to them. We can see what is new about digital reproduction by examining three aspects of it:

1. Reproduction. Once an object exists, it may be copied and transmitted (reproduced) virtually effortlessly, costlessly. This itself causes a change in how we as users treat the object. The object has no aura; there is no distance between us and it; we do not need to treat it with reverence.

2. The act of consumption. Nor does consumption cost anything in either of the traditional ways. On one hand, the user does not have to pay anything for use of the object, does not have to give up anything of him/herself. And on the other hand, the user does not take anything out of the world by using the object.

3. The result of consumption. Since in consuming the object we do not take anything out of it, it is only logical that nothing is added to us. Consumption does not fill us or satisfy our hunger. On the contrary, it stimulates hunger.

1. Digital Reproduction

In 1936, Walter Benjamin predicted that mechanical reproduction of artworks would lead to the destruction of their “aura,” the phenomenon of distance between the viewer and the unique artwork.1 It is connected with the cult value of the object, its religious or magical power. Contrast internet memes: we sense a particular quality or power in them, but it must consist somehow in the memes’ reproducedness, their effortless spread/sprawl. Rather than being unique and distant they turn up everywhere, right in front of us. What amazes us is their closeness and ubiquity; we don’t even need to seek them out.

Mechanical reproduction is like the mating of livestock. Cattle are a mass commodity; one is replaceable with another. So in the conception and birth of a calf there is not the unique creative act, no intention of some genius to admire, that is present in even in the simplest sketch or worst poem: “Someone imagined this and made it real.” But there is still what is called a miracle of life, a creation of life out of the struggle of other life. Living matter combines and expends some of itself in order to put another piece of matter into the motion that is life.

Digital reproduction of a file is like (how perceptive our terminology!) the reproduction of a virus. It is an active question whether viruses qualify as biological life. Viruses hardly have bodies: they are an envelope of information, instructions. It requires a separate living cell with its own organelles and nutrients to read those instructions and reproduce the virus. New viruses are not even made out of the bodies of other viruses. The virus is not a continuity of substance but only of a pattern or configuration.

Thus the digital reproduction of an artwork comes closer to the direct spread of an idea or a thought. Works of art more and more resemble directly the weightless immaterial thought. We can only logically tolerate that they don’t (in concept) obey physical laws if (in concept) they are not physical.

We talk of the “spread of ideas” through the spread of books, as if we could tune out the physical dimension and see only the movement of mental entities between minds. We would see only thoughts moving from mind to mind, no nasty fingers and eyes to obstruct and complicate the view. But in reality an idea could only travel by hitching a ride on some pile of wood pulp and pigments, and could only enter into another mind through the service entrance that is the nervous system. Now they have been granted a terrain of their own on which to walk freely.

2. Consumption

When we eat a steak and say a prayer to the cow’s spirit, there is still a certain respect for the sacred, a distance maintained even up to the moment of ingestion, in contrast to the complete elimination of distance by the surgeon. In these cases our body is a temple, and a creature that is sacrificed in it must receive its proper rites. Contrast to things we think of as mass-produced, faceless, unlimited: fish sticks, Cheetos, popcorn. Nothing, as far as we’re usually concerned, had to die in order for us to enjoy these things, no persistent object led a long independent life whose fate ends with us. The difference in quality or prestige between a steak and a Cheeto is not the point, as we could well consider a contrived pop song on LP vs. a genius and innovative musical piece on YouTube. The point is that except for a few cents worth of electricity, which surely does not cross our mind, it does not cost anyone anywhere anything for us to listen to that BitTorrented Helmut Walcha rendition of Bach’s Trio Sonatas. It is a free thing in the universe.2

There are other things that we don’t respect as food yet expect to nourish us. Multivitamins; energy drinks; meal-replacement bars or shakes. All presume in some way to produce health and continued life without the ritual of eating, without the bodily work that demands respect of both the object and our own consuming body.

Benjamin said that for the film there is no aura, no distance. At least with films you have to set up, have some sort of ritual, buy admission. With digital reproduction there is no cost at all. And if we do not have to put labor into obtaining the product, then to us it is much less a mass of congealed labor. Besides, would not whatever labor value is in the article be divided among every copy and so be effectively zero? These are silly questions though, as most internet content is profitable on a quite different model, namely through the sale of advertisements (there are other models including subscription and outright purchase, but the advertisement model is paradigmatic). The website providing content is paid by advertisers to stimulate desire and subsequent consumption of the advertiser’s product (or, recursively, the advertiser may be another advertisement-funded website, paying the first site to divert traffic to it so that its advertisements may be viewed). Benjamin distinguished between the cult value3 and the exhibition value of an artwork, and saw that a mechanically reproduced artwork retains no cult value and all of its value must be exhibition value. Digitally reproduced content also must depend exclusively on exhibition value.

3. Still Hungry

Benjamin noted, “The film is the first art form capable of demonstrating how matter plays tricks on man.” Digital “un”matter has its own tricks.

It’s generally true of miracle diets that in the end they don’t work, they are no substitute for real food. (If they do achieve their intended effects, it’s likely that they take their toll on the dieter’s health in other ways.) When we listen to a song on Grooveshark, are we less satisfied, less nourished than we would be by a live performance or a physical recording? One thing that is said about the music industry in the internet age is that the most successful, well-adapted artists are those who can give away their music for free and actively tour, so that the reproductions generate desire for the cult value of the live performance.

So we can say this: digital objects no longer fill us, but rather make us hungry. Another way to put this is that digital content is more an advertisement than a product. Is this unqualifiedly true of all digital content? Don’t the dozens of articles we read online satisfy the desire for entertainment or up-to-date knowledge that brings us to them? But the satisfaction of an appetite is not the same thing as nourishment. Knowing what is going on in the world is at most a preparation for going into the world and doing things there. We read about political events in order to later take informed political action; even when that action is little more than having a conversation about it or making different purchases, that action is where the consummation takes place. This was true of mass-produced print material too, but not nearly to the same extent. The internet comes substantially closer to being a mirror of the world, a second version of it. The more this is the case, the easier it can be to confuse watching the world with living in it.

This is in a way a trick, though there is no need to think of it as devious as long as the things we get hungry for are good things to eat, and we eat them. We have unparalleled resources with which to craft our hunger. But we would be complicit in a terrible trick on ourselves if we didn’t recognize what we were really hungry for, or if we thought that the things making us hungrier were in fact feeding us. This happens sometimes, and we begin to starve.

1 Benjamin describes an object’s aura as “the quality of its presence…a most sensitive nucleus—namely, its authenticity…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 which it has experienced.” He later defines the aura as “the unique phenomenon of distance, however close it may be.”

2 We might occasionally think things like “The creators of YouTube were brilliant,” or “Thank God someone recorded this so that we have it today.” But note the “we”–we are thankful on behalf of humanity, which now holds this artwork in common. In essence we are glad that this artwork survived the long dark ages to our civilized times in which anything once produced is available to everyone forever.

3 “The uniqueness of a work of art is inseparable from its being imbedded in the fabric of tradition…Originally the contextual integration of art in tradition found its expression in the cult. We know that the earliest art works originated in the service of a ritual—first the magical, then the religious kind. It is significant that the existence of a work of art with reference to its aura is never entirely separated from its ritual function…One may assume that what mattered [for objects used in ritual] was their existence, not their being on view.” Exhibition value, on the other hand, is the value connected with an object's public presentability. When a painting is placed in a museum, its exhibition value is emphasized. A newspaper photograph has no value apart from the fact that it is seen.

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