Coming to (Digital) Terms: The Work of Art in the Age of Non-Mechanical Reproduction | The Socjournal

Author: Robert S. Dornsife, PhD Creighton University

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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.

–Walter Benjamin

I wish I could say that this paper results from the scholarship I have read since I first entered the fully computerized composition classroom 17 years ago. And that influence is certainly present here. But the real impetus occurred in the less lofty confines of my parents’ garage. There I found a copy of my dad’s Master’s thesis, from 1959, and it looked just like the thesis I had signed off on in 2005. That the means have changed so much and the ends so little struck me as indicative of a crisis.

I contend that nowhere is the manifestation of this crisis more pressing than regarding authorship and its relations to digitalness. And to explicate this relationship, I rely on the material conditions themselves that give rise to their own implications and metaphors.
Of greatest import regarding analog and digital technologies, both as technologies and as resulting metaphors, is the analog concept of “generation.” Imagine a series of analogue cassette recorders. The tape in the first machine is recorded by the second machine, the tape recorded by the second machine is then re-recorded by the third machine, and so forth. Even by the second generation recording, the status of “copy” is marked by a degradation in quality. By, say, the millionth such generation, the analog copy would contain none of the text of the first, offering either silence or generic static instead.

The implications of this analog degradation of quality with each generation are as large as any such implication. Past generations of concert bootleggers offer us, among other resources, a telling account of the foundations of such implication. Analog recordings were valued according to their generational status. Although seldom were the original masters ever offered for sale, the first generation renditions—that is, those renditions that were recorded directly from the masters, always commanded the highest price. Indeed, the generational status was as large a determinant of value as any: every tape was labeled both in terms of the quality of the performance per se and the sonic quality of the reproduction. “Great concert—fifth generation—die hards only” would be valued less than “great concert—second generation.” Although the fifth generation of the “great show” might be worth as much as the fourth generation of the “good show,” generation was always present, asserting itself inseparably into the value of the art.

Within an analog world, the copy was marked by a degradation when compared to the original, a comparison itself made possible by this very marking. Thus, the copy was as a result of its relation to an original, just as the original was as a result of its relation to a copy. Further, such potential was as much at play as any actual manifestation of original to copy. The original need not have been copied to achieve its status as original. The very possibility that the original might be copied, and if it were to be copied, that the copy would be marked by a degradation of quality, marked each accordingly.

If we replace the series of audio cassette machines, above, with a series of digital recorders, the results are not the same. Assuming that the digital data remains in the digital domain, just as the analog text had remained in the analog domain in the earlier example, and again assuming that text four had been recorded from text three which itself had been recorded from text two, and so forth, the difference that analog technologies had conditioned us to expect, or even require, is gone. In this digital series of text, “generation” becomes imperceptible, immeasurable. Generation, in the analog sense—which is the sense that defined the term–ceases to be, as must any sense of “reproduction.” Indeed, in the absence of generation, all terms that depended on generation itself at the very least are fundamentally reconfigured, or they die.

In the absence of a successive, generational loss of quality, the term “copy” within a digital metaphor can only exist in way that was relatively, and qualitatively, insignificant in analog terms, which is by way of what might called the passing of time, that is, history, or chronology.

Our series of digital recorders does allow for one difference between the second recording that took place in sequence and the millionth that took place in the same sequence. As a result of the necessary logistics of the example, the millionth was created at a later time than was the second. This difference is a real difference. Because in analog terms such time was all the proof we needed of the resulting qualitative degradation, this very presence of chronological difference works to indict itself. At the same time, the implications of this presence perhaps gave rise to the “aura” from which an “original” acquired its “authenticity” (Benjamin 222-3). We need not be surprised that the reality of this difference is not a neutral one, technologically, critically, or otherwise.

In order to save time, we need only appeal to the otherwise identicalness of the digital texts. Just as the successive degradation of the text in the analog domain had marked time as destructive, so might we rely on the qualitative identicalness of our series of digital texts to recover time as marking no analogous degradation. Eventually, as time allows us to ignore time, the identicalness of the digital texts at play would manifest itself unencumbered. Although at this point, I can still borrow enough from the analog paradigm to refer to a second or a millionth in a digital paradigm, eventually any such distinction will be so unnoticeable as to be impossible, and we will, as we encounter text, ignore changes in “time and space” the same way that we ignore other inconsequential changes, such as changes in humidity.

Once the role of time is revised as a result of its having no bearing on successive digital quality, other concepts will follow. Simultaneously, the terms “original” and “copy” will either need to be reconsidered or, it seems more probably to me, left for dead. If, again borrowing from the analog lexicon, the digital millionth is identical to the digital first, the binary pair “copy/original” is no longer in opposition. The qualitative contrast is no more. Without a copy, there is no original, and vice-versa. The copy is not only no longer subordinated to and by its master, but is free to rename itself in a way that does not even take into account any degradation in quality. It is free, as copy per se, to become extinct. The would-be original will no doubt have a harder time surrendering its privilege.
However, given the ease with which “copy” will surrender its subordinate status, “original” may have no choice to surrender. In the absence of its opposite, it may find itself of use only to a cult of the nostalgic. Such a cult has already been too easy to find, and in composition pedagogy.

A, perhaps the, primary banner under which this cult gathers is one that engages in analog terms the concept of “plagiarism.” Such a banner is raised with such urgency exactly because it marks the center of the transition between analog and digital. It is not only the front line of such change, but is at once the majority, or the entirety, of the disputed property. Because plagiarism is overtly concerned with the original and with the copy, its pressure to assert itself in the midst of the transition from analog to digital is an urgent pressure. (Outside of academia, one might be tempted to ignore or dismiss an outdated fear or urgency due to “inevitability.” But the example of the paper from 1959 and the paper from 2005 suggests that we should not underestimate the conservative stubbornness of the academy generally and of composition specifically.)

In sum and in short, in a digital world, plagiarism can not exist except as an argument that at least is preoccupied with, and probably is wholly concerned with, the past. But unlike any historical period in literature, composition does not, as part of its engagement as a contemporary act, require or even suggest any obligation toward a “past.” The study of “Early American Literature,” for example, suggests in most cases at least consideration of itself in historical terms, even when these historical terms are read in the most contemporary way. The student concerned with the history of composition will find a rich and valuable and telling such history. But the student concerned with “composition” as an act has no such obligations. Unlike most literary areas, “composition” does not insist on the studied presence of any past. But as its concerns with plagiarism make clear, it does so anyway, rather than taking advantage of any opportunity to do otherwise; or rather than taking responsibility for the fact that it is obliged to do otherwise.

The reasons for this are many, and most of them, for example any prevalence of composition teachers who opt for readily-quantified evaluative mechanisms even when such mechanisms are artistically misguided or destructive, can not be addressed by any explication of digitalness. Many of these sorts of concerns may be addressed by time, and even perhaps by what our students bring to us. (Many of our current students can remember when the first computer entered their houses, although they were quite young. Soon there will be no such history.)

But to wait for time to exert whatever pressure it may exert would be to not fully take advantage of the contemporaneity that composition affords. Instead, we might do well to at least begin to further come to terms with digitalness sooner. And because plagiarism is a keystone of the transition from analog to digital, although mostly thus far in a conservative way, it is also a resource for exploring opportunities for such progress.

Rather than starting from a position that too much privileges the historical forces at play, I will begin to end by returning to my claim that in a digital world, “copy” and “original” are left for dead. Were my claim enough, some of the following would happen, even anyway.

  • Issues of ownership would be replaced by obligations as manifested by stewardship.
  • The composition classroom would then concern itself not with “taking the credit” but with celebrating the synthesis.

All work, then, would be seen as work in progress, along an endless continuum of “borrowed from” then “borrowed by.”

Collaboration, then, would be seamless. It would no longer be optional, but would be inherent in our understanding of composition itself—collaborating at once with those who began a discussion earlier or elsewhere and at once with those who will join later.
But that “plagiarism” continues to exist suggests that these phenomena will not simply “come to pass.” Instead, I conclude by suggesting a few transitional steps, suggestions that are made “off balance” by the vocabulary at play as it is during transition: To use analog terms to describe events that have no digital equivalent is necessary because of this transition. At the same time, doing so only preserves concepts that may be better left to their own (analog) devices.

First, I suggest pushing on the implications of the fact that it is already OK to engage the work of others in our texts. Though we now need “the cite” to make this move officially acceptable, there is, even at it stands, room for the content of others in our own content. Removing the cite is not the same as removing the content, even under analog terms. We have, then, the beginnings of a collage, and need only remove the analog claim toward “separateness” as we strive to see a mosaic as one work rather than as some sort of ill-conceived bastard. We already look toward others. “Their” paragraphs are woven into “our” paragraphs. Their voices are always already in our heads. I suggest we now consider ways to show our respect and appreciation that don’t involve citation.

Second and finally, I suggest we explore the implications of the digital sample, particularly in terms of its having no analog counterpart. That the digital sample is “of a piece with” that from which it is “sampled” may suggest that it is not a “sample” in the diminutive sense at all, but is instead its own text, free to be engaged as such.

And how do we deal with such samples?

We accept them as texts that represent something other than plagiarism; as texts that are neither “originals” nor “copies;” as texts that are not depreciated, as texts that are marked as transitional by our discomfort. And from this discomfort we fashion our new “fabric of tradition” regarding digital composition (Benjamin 225).

Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations. Ed. Hannah Arendt. Trans. Harry Zohn. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1968.