What do you smell when you smell a book?
What do you breathe in when accessing bits and bytes? Do you have the aroma of coffee wafting nearby?
Jeffrey T. Schnapp & Matthew Battels
The Library Beyond the Book
The relics of saints were always already multiples whose magic resided less in in their claim to uniqueness than in their ability to catalyze the energies of a community as well as higher forces. Such will be the destiny of digital relics as well.
The mention of relics and the notion of technological mediation brings to mind Walter Benjamin’s essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”. What follows is less a screed about authenticity and reproduction and more of a sniffing about the origins of the term “aura” and its emanations.
On the intellectual origin’s of Benjamin’s aura I offer this extended passage from the Proxemics and Prosthetics chapter of Sense: Orientations, Meanings, Apparatus.
It is perhaps more appropriate to characterize this play of proxemics in terms of unlocking time or cutting time free since in this essay Benjamin in his definition of aura sees time as strangely woven into space to create the appearance of distance. Whatever the characterization, it is movement through space that destroys the timeless aspect of aura. Aura arises out of observer immersion in the phenomenon. Later in the Artwork essay Benjamin will stress the role of cultic practices in maintaining the contemplation necessary to sustain aura. However here in “A Small History of Photography” he accentuates the atmosphere-like quality; aura is breathed in. This quality is related to the factor of enfolded time the moment or hour becoming part of the appearance.
How aura as atmosphere can be related to enfolded time is not at all clear from Benjamin’s text. In later essays, he drops from the discussion all direct mention of these two elements. The correlation between time and atmosphere passes through a mechanism of identification similar to the vessel-symbol of the Jungian soul. Whether Benjamin had read Jung at this point, it is clear that the auratic fusion of viewer and object places his discussion in the orbit of exponents of mythic images like [Ludwig] Klages.
The Artwork essay is marked by the traces of the work on Bachofen and mother-right. Benjamin compares early photography to the cult of remembrance of the dead. As well, although without reference to grave robbing, he refers to the destruction of aura when objects are pried from their shell. These passing references evoke less Bachofen’s narrative of his first experiences upon encountering ancient graves than [Alfred] Schuler‘s story of his own first encounter with unearthed artefacts.
Schuler observing objects lifted from an archaeological excavation notes that as they come to light they loose their aura (der Hauch). It evaporates. Schuler claimed that a fluid, a film of life matter, was possessed not only by relics and cult objects but also by all ancient objects (See Fuld, Werner. “Die Aura Zur Geschicte eines Begriffes bei Benjamin.” Akzente 26 (1979): 352-370. pp. 361-362). Benjamin could not refer to a written source for Schuler’s lectures and fragments were published posthumously by Klages in 1940. However, it is the type of material that would circulate widely as anecdote. The evidence is compelling that Benjamin observed carefully the Munich circle around poet Stefan George of which Alfred Schuler was a celebrated part (Fuld 360). Indeed in the Bachofen essay Benjamin refers to George’s dedication of Porta Nigra to Schuler.
The Schuler story perhaps did not influence Benjamin directly. Its key element, however, the fragility of the aura in the context of unearthing the past anticipates Benjamin’s insistence on displacement in the destruction of aura. It also illuminates the perplexing combination of aura’s source in ritual and in natural phenomena. It is upon the cult of the dead that mythic claims to a people’s belonging to the land are founded. Without symbols such a cult is endangered. It is unable to envelop the departed, those now belonging to nature, and those belonging to history, the living, into one cognitive space. The past is not one with the present.
Following one’s nose… metaphor for digital tracking. Not so much to find relics as to trace the paths of contact. There is a democratic mode to the creation of certain classes of relics in the Catholic tradition:
The 3rd Class Relic consists of something that has been touched to a 1st or 2nd Class Relic. Anyone can make their own 3rd Class relics by touching an object to a 1st or 2nd Class Relic, including the tomb of a Saint.
There are other traditions of relic veneration. What is remarkable here in the Catholic classification is how the question of authenticity and aura is mediated by proxemics and contact. The relic functions as a type of souvenir.
There is one such souvenir in my household. It’s an old chipped brick. It could serve as a door stopper or bookend. A plain object. But it is a reminder of 1992 firebombing of the Morgentaler Clinic in Toronto causing damage so extensive that the building had to be demolished. The brick was salvaged from the rubble. The brick can now disappear in crumbling dust … its story has been told. Digital dust will now help the brick tale disperse.
The only authentication of the brick is found in story. Likewise aura of a relic or any object, digital or otherwise, is held in place by the discursive structures that support its apprehension. All power to the metadata! And the ubiquity of digital dust.
And so for day 1312