The Aura of Materiality: Digitization as Preservation

Guest Post by Jasmine Burns

When I started my MLIS degree in Spring 2014, it was immediately apparent that my research interests were much more theory-based than those of my colleagues. The practical nature of LIS can sometimes make it challenging for me to engage with my professors and peers in a meaningful way. For this reason, I was very excited when I was approached to write this post for ArLiSNAP, in which I will highlight some of the recent research and work that I have been conducting in the area of digitization and the digital surrogacy of visual materials. I whole-heartedly encourage any feedback and invite further conversations on the topics that are discussed here.

My research on this topic began with the thesis for my MA in Art History, which focused on the nature of digital surrogacy in relation to medieval manuscripts (a version of which was published in the most recent issue of Art Documentation). Here, I look into issues of materiality, virtuality, and the consequences of the digital reformatting of cultural heritage objects. This thesis was from the perspective of a researcher, rather than that of an Information Professional. Once I started my MLIS coursework, and the limitations of my arguments became clear, I started thinking about how issues of digital surrogacy translate to practical librarianship. This led me to start researching the topic of digitization as a method of preservation.

By Photo d'identité sans auteur, 1928 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By Photo d’identité sans auteur, 1928 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I decided to frame the argument around Walter Benjamin’s often-cited text “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” and limit the scope of the overall work to archival photographs in particular. Benjamin states that the aura of an object is tied to its unique existence in time and space, and that this is essentially lost in reproductions because it breaks the object from ritual. This argument is widely applied to technology and digital media (via Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation), especially in discussions of photographs. In utilizing this particular lens to discuss the question of whether or not digitization is a viable method of preservation, there are two popular outlooks: 1) as long as the content is fully captured then the photo is adequately preserved; or 2) photographs are three-dimensional objects and photographic meaning is derived not from content alone, but also from the material evidence of its manufacture and use (i.e. aura) and if those elements are lost through digitization, then the object is not fully preserved.

My work in Digital Collections allows me to confront these issues on both a practical and theoretical level. I entered this investigation fully convinced that digital reformatting could never preserve the full scope of material and visual information contained in photographs because of the elimination of the material vessel. Therefore, the digital surrogate was merely a placeholder, or a reference to the original, and had little to no value outside of its ability to disseminate photographic content. However, as I dove deeper into theories of reproduction and representation, I discovered that these notions of value are socially constructed and derive from the dichotomy of copy versus original that is so deeply ingrained into our society, particularly through museum culture. Such notions are exacerbated by our object-centered culture, whose focus is on tactility, tangibility, and originality as authenticity. By perpetuating these ideas, as well as the argument that a reproduction does not carry value outside of its connection to the original, we are limiting any potential uses and values of digital media.

Ultimately, I have ended up flipping Benjamin’s argument on itself in favor of digital surrogacy. Without the tangibility of a photograph, the lack of materiality becomes the defining feature of the surrogate. It sounds strange, but hear me out: instead of viewing the elimination of the material vessel as a limitation to the uses and value of a surrogate, the creation and dissemination of digital representations of physical photographs constructs a framework for preserving these very qualities. Through the surrogate’s inseparable relationship with the socially constructed centrality of the original, and its inherently material existence, the digital object is both referring to the original, and existing as a unique object to be valued, maintained, and used. Therefore, although the material elements of the photograph are “lost” during digitization, the surrogate itself takes the place of the aura, as the more a work is reproduced, the more significant it becomes. The best way I can describe this is through the Mona Lisa. How many times have you seen reproductions of the image of that mysterious woman? How many of you have seen the actual painting? Do you remember any of the paintings in the room with her? I certainly don’t. Because you have encountered the reproduction on such a large scale, the act of viewing the original painting is greatly enhanced, and almost ritualized. The material qualities are so apparent in this encounter that it hardly matters that you have studied its content hundreds of times before.

So, is it good to have a healthy dose of skepticism, and follow Jean Baudrillard’s idea that technology will only create a self-referential society, devoid of actual meaning? Or do we need to move forward and embrace new theories of digital cultural heritage that promote new contexts for understanding digital surrogates through connections with their physical counterparts? What are some of your thoughts or experiences with digital surrogates, either as a researcher or practitioner?

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One Comment on “The Aura of Materiality: Digitization as Preservation”

  1. […] on term papers. One of those was the Gerd Muehsam Award, run by ARLIS/NA. I didn’t win (Jasmine Burns won [by submitting her MA thesis, which is another thing you can totally do]!) but the award […]

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