A spectre is haunting Digital Humanites – the spectre of the aura. All the currents and undercurrents of DH have entered into a holy alliance to exercise this concept: Archivist and librarians, sociology and cultural studies, introduction courses and thesis. Where is the paper that has not referred back to Walter Benjamin? Where is the argument that does not have to take this first hurdle to get to the juicy bits?
Two things result from this fact:
The concept of the aura has been acknowledged by the DH field to be of central importance.
It is high time that DH scholars should openly, in the face of the whole world, publish their views, their aims, their tendencies, and meet this nursery tale of the spectre of the aura with a definition of this concept, its history and application itself.
To briefly summarize Benjamin’s influential thesis of the aura, he argues that
Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be. This unique existence of the work of art determined the history to which it was subject throughout the time of its existence. This includes the changes which it may have suffered in physical condition over the years as well as the various changes in its ownership. The traces of the first can be revealed only by chemical or physical analyses which it is impossible to perform on a reproduction; changes of ownership are subject to a tradition which must be traced from the situation of the original. (Benjamin, sec.2)
It has to be said here that Benjamin talks about all kinds of art, staring from sculptures and busts (and his theory can well be applied here) to printed texts and even performance. The second pair I do not see as the art itself, but as realizations/manifestation of it. There is a very insightful comment by Kris Rasmussen that alone bans the spectre of the aura from entering the realm of text:
The text is not a homogenous entity. Rather, it exists on several partly independent levels. One can differentiate between three levels: ideal text, real text and material text. The ideal text is an abstraction constructed on the basis of the real text, to which we have direct access through a material text, which is the materialisation of a text on a printed page or a screen. Thus the material text is not, strictly speaking, a text itself; it is a physical substrate attached to a material document.
In printed texts, for example, the material text is the combination of ink and paper. (Rasmussen 121)
The material text is not the work, is not even the content a reader might see in it, it is a technology used to transmit information. As the technology changes, so will the representation and usability (image a bad print on flimsy paper vs an ebook vs a luxurious print) It is through those changes that difference in technology is perceived. Stuart Jeffrey argues that this is destructive to the aura:
It is the translation of the record of the object from the analogue to the digital, with all the changes in material quality that this entails, that has the biggest impact on the aura. In effect, the weirdness of the digital medium somehow breaks the chain of proximity. The digital representation is no longer part of the same chain as a chemical photograph or sketch drawing might be. It has been sanitised and its intangibility, its infinite reproducibility and its imperviousness to the ravages of time all conspire to eliminate the aura. (Jeffrey 147)
In his view, the difference (he calls it weirdness) destroys the chain of evidence that linked physical reproductions to the golden cow of the aura, the original. While I agree that difference exists and that this difference has been shown to be useful for increasing awareness and engagement (Butcher et al.), I disagree with the idea of the aura being applied to virtual objects mainly for the reason that virtual objects existed long before the advent of electricity. Text itself is a system through which language can be recorded, abstracted, stored and accessed. I will keep on recommending Marshall McLuhan’s Gutenberg Galaxy as the ultimate ghost buster for our spectre. Thus when we think we are talking about aura applied to text, we are talking about technological nostalgia, difference in usability etc. All this is valuable to discuss, but it is not about the text.
Benjamin’s contribution to the debate about reproducibility and representation must not be underestimated. His text did not become one of go to works without reason. Yet more is to be gained from engaging with the text and understanding the ideas of production and reproduction that it is based on. The “weirdness of the digital” is not the destruction of the aura, the weirdness is difference of medium we can and should use to foster engagement.
Benjamin, Walter. The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. Schocken Books, 1936, https://www.marxists.org/reference/subject/philosophy/works/ge/benjamin.htm.
Butcher, Kirsten, et al. “Using Digitized Objects to Promote Critical Thinking and Engagement in Classrooms.” Library Hi Tech News, vol. 34, no. 7, Sept. 2017, pp. 12–15. CrossRef, doi:10.1108/LHTN-06-2017-0039.
Jeffrey, Stuart. “Challenging Heritage Visualisation: Beauty, Aura and Democratisation.” Open Archaeology, vol. 1, no. 1, Jan. 2015. CrossRef, doi:10.1515/opar-2015-0008.
Rasmussen, Krista Stinne Greve. “Reading or Using a Digital Edition?” Digital Scholarly Editing, 1st ed., vol. 4, Open Book Publishers, 2016, pp. 119–34, http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt1fzhh6v.11.