Who ya gonna call?

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.

4 thoughts on “Who ya gonna call?

  1. But wait! Lurking in the paratexts is the spectre of Benjamin, and his aura shimmers on. But perhaps, he is a friendly ghost!

    Rasmussen draws on a distinction made between stationary works, which are material objects occupying space such as painting or sculpture, and sequential works, which unfold in time such as music or literature (121).

    The aura of a stationary work is bound to the original object authenticated through biographical marks and documented connections to humans (Benjamin II). By contrast, the aura of a sequential work is attached to the abstract notion of the work and its reception history. Such a work, in literature created by the ideal text (Rasmussen 122), operates on the principles outlined by Latour and Lowe (5) and is therefore dependent upon reproductions for its survival (7).

    Although the aura may not reside within the real text, which is that part of the work copied for reproduction, it can reside in a specific document of printed material text, such as an autograph, due to a tangible historic connecting to the author. And if the author is dead, in a literal sense as opposed to a Barthian literary sense, then the document’s aura is enhanced due to finality.

    The aura could also reside within the ideal text when a culture invests a work with meaning and significance. Paratexts in digital editions can enrich a work’s significance by expanding interpretation and meaning (Rasmussen, 127). In such a manner digital editions conform to Latour and Lowe’s concept of trajectory (4); creating discourse and engagement in a work as a source of continuing dialogue and inspiration. To reinforce the importance of this fecundity Latour and Lowe employ a quote from Charles Péguy; “if we stop interpreting … if we stop reproducing, the very existence of the original is at stake. It might stop having abundant copies and slowly disappear.” (5, 6) The work would lose its aura for good (7).

    So perhaps Benjamin’s concept of aura is less spectre and more akin to a necessary and friendly benign spirit.

    Works cited:

    Rasmussen, Krista Stinne Greve. “Reading or Using a Digital Edition? Reader Roles in Scholarly Editions.” Digital Scholarly Editing: Theories and Practices, edited by Matthew James Driscoll and Elena Pierazzo, 1st ed., vol. 4, Open Book Publishers, 2016, pp. 119–134.
    JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt1fzhh6v.11

    Benjamin, W. 1936 (1968). The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. Illuminations, 217-51. New York: Schocken Books.

    Latour, Bruno & Lowe, Adam The migration of the aura or how to explore the original through its fac similes*Switching Codes, University of Chicago Press (2010)

  2. Hi Michael, I think the addition of Rasmussen was an insightful one as it allows for the further exploration of Benjamin’s ideas in an alternative context. It’s interesting to think about the aura as it pertains to texts and I would agree with Rasmussen’s assertion that the text is not a homogenous entity. In distinguishing between the physical object and the information that it conveys, we can consider the two independently. This is an important abstraction as the two are not the same at all, although, we often conceive of them as one.

    The information, or “ideal text”, is inaccessible without firstly, the skill to read the “real text”, and secondly, the cultural knowledge necessary to interpret and contextualise it. On the other hand; the physical object, the “material text”, is universally accessible simply through its existence. The “material text”, as you have eloquently stated, “is not the work…it is a technology used to transmit information”.

    As technology changes, so too does the way we transmit information. Digitisation efforts and 3D models are certainly the result of technological change; simply the next rung on the ladder of progress. The debate over the auras of these digital objects (do they have auras at all, do they benefit from an auric migration, do they diminish or extend an original’s aura) is a response to technological change, just as The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction was at its inception. It is a natural reaction to fear change, but what does this reveal about us that we are so distracted by auras? I wholeheartedly agree with your final statements; the digital is not weird, nor is the virtual new. Progress cannot be stopped, so we must embrace it.
    Benjamin, Walter. “The Work Of Art in The Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Illuminations, Edited by Hannah Arendt. Translated by Harry Zohn, 1969, web.mit.edu/allanmc/www/benjamin.pdf. Accessed on 28 October 2017

    Jeffery, Stuart. “Challenging Heritage Visualisation: Beauty, Aura and Democratisation.” Open Archaeology, vol. 2015, no. 1, 2015, pp. 144–152., doi:DOI 10.1515/opar-2015-0008. Accessed on 15 October 2017.

    Latour, Bruno, and Adam Lowe. “The Migration of the Aura or How to Explore the Original through Its Fac Similes*.” Switching Codes, 2010, http://www.bruno-latour.fr/sites/default/files/108-ADAM-FACSIMILES-GB.pdf.

    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.

  3. What is this thing called Aura?
    In reading your article, Michael, where you so clearly indicate that ‘the concept of the aura has been acknowledged by the DH field to be of central importance’ that I am troubled by the notion of aura and the debate about whether it can migrate to reproductions or representations of physical objects.

    The idea itself seems to me to have a quasi- religious flavour akin for me to debates about transubstantiation – interesting to a theologian but much less relevant to those who are not of that religious tradition. Like aura, it may still be useful as a metaphor but to my mind, the debate about a migrating aura is something of a distraction.

    Like many people interested in material culture, the writer, curator and potter, Edmund de Waal is interested in things, both for their materiality and for their ‘stories’. To understand an object, he believes, you have to touch it, experience it and interact with it. For De Waal , the skill and accomplishment of the maker can contribute to the connection he feels with an object but, speaking about a ‘perfect piece of porcelain from Dresden, he says ‘‘It’s hugely valuable. It’s incredibly made. And it’s absolutely horrible” (Anderson). More important, he believes, that ‘objects also need histories’ (De Waal, 15) and we are enriched by the stories objects hold.

    Many of us experience a particular response to tangible places, buildings, collections or individual objects – to things and to what we perceive or know about them. What we feel can be very varied and is related to factors within ourselves as well as external factors. If someone believes that their response is contingent on something that is intrinsic in the thing being experienced, I can respect their belief but I know I don’t share it.

    I don’t think this is aura. For me, it’s all about the response – the thing that happens at the point of interaction between the person experiencing something and the thing itself. The thing itself could be some aspect of tangible heritage but it could equally be intangible heritage and indeed digital heritage. How we interact, respond and make meaning is influenced by our values, beliefs and experiences, and by the ‘story’ that the object itself, whether tangible or intangible, is a representation
    Anderson, Sam. Edmund de Waal and the Strange Alchemy of Porcelain. Nov. 2015, https://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/29/magazine/edmund-de-waal-and-the-strange-
    De Waal, Edmund. The White Road. Chatto & Windus, 2015.
    Jeffrey, Stuart. “Challenging Heritage Visualisation: Beauty, Aura and Democratisation.” Open Archaeology, vol. 1, no. 1, Jan. 2015. CrossRef, doi:10.1515/opar-2015-0008.
    Pearce, Susan M., editor. Interpreting Objects and Collections. Transferred to digital pr, Routledge, 2006.

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