Before discussing Walter Benjamin’s concept of aura it is necessary to say a few words about Digital Humanities. This blog post assumes Digital Humanities to be umbrella term for a set of tools, methodologies and content that humanists use in the digital age to present their findings. With that being said, how do humanists separate form and content in the digital world? When digitising material a series of decisions are required to make the most of the material presented and how best to represent that material on a new, dynamic and rapidly changing platform.
Digital preservation delivers both exciting prospects and peculiar risks to digital humanists. The virtually limitless capacity of the web is unquestionably fortuitous yet with the constant evolution of web technologies (browsers, operating systems etc.) technology becomes obsolete quickly. As a result digital archives may end up in a form of limbo where they exist online but remain inaccessible to the public due to changes in web infrastructure. Both analogue and digital archives possess radically different advantages. Digital for example offers a wealth of opportunities not commonly available with a physical copy, be it through audience interactivity (a la Bentham Project) and the ability to perform distant readings that can identify patterns throughout thousands of texts. The physical edition however possesses something far more intriguing labelled Aura by Frankfurt School theorist Walter Benjamin in his essay The Work of Art in the Era of Mechanical Reproduction.
To Benjamin “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.” (1936) This unique existence is the aura of the object. Michael Frisch notes this trend as he describes the public viewing moon rocks as “an intimate, charged encounter with another world, although the objects looked and felt like just about any other rocks. But stand on line they did, by the many thousands.” (The Promise of Digital History) The aura appears to be at once a social construct and a deeply personal one. For instance, the value that one places on a particular work of art may not be shared by another yet that other person can clearly see the effect that said piece of art has on the individual. While aura may not be shared, it is most definitely experienced.
Digitally the audience is one step removed from the item in question, Benjamin is correct when he states that “The greatly increased mass of participants has produced a change in the mode of participation.” (Benjamin, 1936) Viewing a piece of art from a screen desensitises the audience to the work in question, they are detached – viewing a replication of the original without its aura. To quote Benjamin “A man who concentrates before a work of art is absorbed by it… In contrast, the distracted mass absorbs the work of art.” While digital collections may not be able to conjure up the aura of seeing the analogue equivalent, digital collections can imbue aura onto their physical counterparts.
This blog post assumes the examples of eBay and the Google Art Project. With the decade of centenaries in full commemoration it is unsurprising that memorabilia is in such high demand on sites such as eBay. A quick search for World War One reveals countless Great War artefacts for purchase, the bids made on these items and even their presence highlights the demand for such material. The audience is given in essence a replica to view before they purchase the analogue equivalent. The digital creates the allure of an aura, it provides context – it highlights the tangibility of possessing an item with its own unique presence in time and space.
Compare this commercial example with the Google Art Project that claims “we are building tools that allow the cultural sector to display more of its diverse heritage online, making it accessible to all.” (Cultural Institute) This description falls within the realms of public history as it allows the audience to form their own galleries, thus allowing them to act as their own digital curators. Possessing such a collection acts akin to a wish list or collecting post cards – they conjure the beauty, the intensity of the image but fails to portray the aura; “…everytime a copy is made of the original, some unpredictable and incorrigible error is introduced, meaning that the original preserves a unique status by virtue of its priority.” (Can Measurement standards be measured?) Somewhat similar to the eBay example, the Google Art Project acts akin to an advertisement, a taste for the analogue equivalent. While the digital proves more audience friendly than the physical, allowing the audience to zoom into each individual brush stroke, to create their own collection, to feel as though this art belongs to them; it cannot replicate the intimate act of visiting the painting in its natural environment.
Aura is akin to desire, the desire to see a work in its original and “perfected” form gives the work its place in time and space. As Benjamin alludes to in the Arcades Project (2002), the luxury of desire is bestowed on one not laboring under exhaustiveness. Benjamin’s writings suggest that aura then stems from an individual’s appreciation of the work presented to them. Such a mindset highlights the aura building capabilities of digital collections, be they Google, eBay or other.
In conclusion, is aura important to Digital Humanities? Yes, as this blog post has established digital representations of analogue copies may not possess the aura of the latter but they can and do influence it. The vast size and potential of the web enables these works to reach much wider audiences who are then drawn to the item itself. This relationship between digital and physical is somewhat cyclical, that the digital needs the physical to exist in the first place, yet the physical receives an elongated lifespan due to the success and saturation of the digital copy. To summarise, Digital Humanities hasn’t replicated or changed the importance of the aura largely because the audience reads and digests material in a largely analogue manner, thus there is no correct methodology or manner in producing an aura for born digital items, we simply have not developed the syntax and semantics to understand such a drastic new field yet.
Benjamin, Walter. The Arcades Project. Ed. Rolf Tiedemann, Harvard University Press, Cambridge (2002).
Benjamin, Walter. The Work of Art in the Age of Reproduction (1936). Web, Accessed on 20/10/14
Cohen, Daniel J. et al. “Interchange: The Promise of Digital History.” The Journal of American History 95.2 (2008). Web, Accessed on 20/10/14
Google.com. Cultural Institute (2013). Web, Accessed on 20/10/14.
Maguire, Phil, Maguire, Rebecca. “Can measurement standards be measured” (Unknown Year). Web, Accessed on 20/10/14.