Preservation as Iconoclasm

This post is a brief departure from our usual more philosophical posts.  Rather than masterfully tackling Spinoza or Deleuze as previous contributors have done, this is post attempts to engage with my current digital humanities project.  Working with Art historians and art theorists, I’ve been working toward digitizing Greenville College’s Richard W. Bock Sculpture museum.  However, in this pursuit a few interesting theoretical questions have emerged.  What’s the state of the aura of a piece when it is captured digitally.   Moving from this practical experience I began thinking about the importance of religious art and iconography and the digital reproduction of these pieces.


So much of western culture is based on the notion of preservation.  Exceedingly, the museum, the library and all of the auxiliary media apparatuses function toward the end of preservation.  Preservation, overall, is a slippery topic.  What does it mean to preserve, maintain, keep or protect an artifact?  There’s something paradoxical or aporetic about in the relationship between preservation and destruction.  I think we can see this aporia most clearly when we turn to the trajectory of the Christian art of the east: the icon.  The preservation and reproduction of the religious icon has been a practice throughout the history of the church as well as in the humanities.  Though, changes in technique and new possibilities introduced through different technologies make it necessary to consider the reproduction, and in turn preservation, of the icon.  The critical theorist, Walter Benjamin, offers up a helpful thesis concerning the mechanical reproduction of art.  This thesis holds some helpful insight concerning iconography and will help work out my thesis on aporia inherent in preservation.

In eastern Christianity, the icon functions as an organ of worship as a signifier of the divine.  Very simply, the icon is a visual analogy of the divine: an attempt at reflecting the divine through artifice.  The icon has a specific function and context in liturgy.  The veneration of the icon in eastern Christianity is apart of the array of bodily discipline inlayed into what it means to worship.  The icon is, perhaps, a component of interface with the divine.  The notion of the icon has its roots in Christian notion of embodiment and is a testament to the bodily life of Christ.

The traditional reproduction of the icon is very much inline with Benjamin’s observation in the opening lines of his The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.  Benjamin says, “art has always been reproducible. Man-made artifacts could always be imitated by men. Replicas were made by pupils in practice of their craft, by masters for diffusing their works, and, finally, by third parties in the pursuit of gain.”  Essentially, icons have been reproduced with a fidelity toward the original.  This results in only incremental changes and differences between reproductions.

Though, following Benjamin’s analysis on reproduction, the 19th and 20th century’s method of reproduction orients toward the mechanical.  When a piece can be reproduced mechanically something is necessarily left out.  Benjamin notes the differences photography brings to reproduction.  The lens of the camera may capture qualities of a piece that are beyond the capacity of the human eye, therefore the reproduction, while faithful to the original, is substantially different.  Even more, the camera introduces the possibility of the transmission of an image.  The photograph introduces a new vector in the reproduction of a piece, however within this new vector we see the exclusion of what Benjamin calls the aura.

On the aura, Benjamin says, “One might generalize by saying: the technique of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the domain of tradition.”  The technical reproduction of a piece removes a piece from its context and history.  The piece loses something when reproduced mechanically.  Mechanical reproduction is a method of mass culture, it brings a piece to the masses while excluding the so-called aura.

Benjamin’s orientation in his essay creates a helpful mode of criticism when approaching mechanical reproduction.  While taking what Benjamin offers, mechanical reproduction has largely been subsumed within the digital.  Digital reproduction offers more possibility and ease in the reproduction of images.  Digital reproduction is inherent in the production of digital images.  The digital image is always already reproducible.  However, when it comes to the meeting of the physical and the digital, things become more complicated.

The digital reproduction of the physical piece has largely become the project of a discourse called “digital humanities.”  When the physical piece is reproduced digitally it is often done so for its preservation.  Digital preservation is inseparable from digital reproduction.  Even more, digital reproduction perfects the ability to extract a piece from its tradition or context.  The digital acts like a sieve, the mathematical properties of a piece can pass through to the digital, but the aura is necessarily left behind.

Then, turning back to the icon, we see the problematic nature of the digital reproduction of such an embodied aesthetic work.  To preserve a piece digitally, as is so common, has an aporetic relationship to the destruction of that same piece.  When we, as digital humanists, strike out to preserve a piece digitally for future generations we inevitably destroy or kill the piece: we transmute the piece into a ghost of its former self.  To reproduce the icon digitally is to put the piece in stasis, to remove it from tradition and context.  Reproduction, in this sense, pins down a living piece.  The digital mediation of religious imagery disconnects it from the bodily discipline and liturgy it is apart of.  The reproduction of the icon destroys the aura or the signifying power the icon has in liturgy.  How do we move forward with preserving historical liturgical artifacts while not destroying them?

The preservation/destruction of a piece removes the aura from the work and disembodies it.  As the digital creates a disembodiment of its users through tele-presence, it also creates a disembodiment of artifacts, the humanity is strained out and representation becomes empty.  In this aporia we see that to preserve something is also to destroy it, though this observation should not produce any reactionary ethics or romanticism in the dignity of simply letting a piece die.  Despite these problems with preservation, the prospect of preservation calls for a fidelity to the future of humanity.  Though, we are betrayed by our attempts at preservation, we still preserve.

Digital means of reproduction introduce new avenues for consideration in the preservation of aesthetic and historical artifacts.  The digital humanities is perhaps too utopian about the digital piece of the equation.  Preservation of an artifact is never guaranteed and often eludes the act of preservation all together.  However, some of us feel the need to remain true to the future of the humanities and future generations.  History and art are seemingly important and to reproduce these artifacts is a necessary, but problematic task we must face.


6 thoughts on “Preservation as Iconoclasm

  1. My problem with such notions as the digital reproduction of an artifact is along these lines: the digital process itself is a matter of encoding/decoding (i.e., a matter of transforming, translating, one medium into information – binary code that can be decoded, etc.). Anytime something is turned into information and reproduced the very reproduction exposes it as non-information (Luciano Floridi, Theodore Adorno, Niklas Luhmann). Information can never be reproduced, only non-information – or its stored reproducible memory effect. Non-information itself once reproduced loses information so is slowly degraded into noise even as it is translated back into code or decoded.

    The notion that something is reproducible takes on the notion that what is being re produced is ‘universal’ and unchanging both for itself and for those it is being reproduced. But the very idea of reproducibility or translatability of an artifact as universal copy is itself erroneous since what is being reproduced is never the actual artifact but its copy which is a stored memory of the artifact in question rather than the actual artifact. Therefore one is always reproducing a fake, a false replica of the artifact, a pirated copy that floats above the original artifact like its bad twin reproducing itself to infinity. Obviously this is a political notion rather than aesthetic, since yes we can all agree that the copy as far as the receiver of the message who looks upon it sees the resemblance, but what one sees is the commoditized presence of its trace for consumption rather than the aesthetic presence of the object itself. This is what Benjamin was actually getting at in his essay on the Mechanical reproduction, etc.

    So to be clear we’re not talking about the obviously common sense notion that one can digitalize and reproduce an image of an object and then reproduce that to oblivion, what we are doing is realizing its reproducibility is bound to its production as a commodity or fetish rather than the artifact as artifact. The artifact itself can never be reproduced, it can only be translated into its mirror image much like our system of capital based not on solid gold – which can never be reproduced but only copied in its reproduced image in money.

    • Yeah, that’s what I’m getting at. Within the (markedly false) translation from physical to digital, reproduction, or to preservation is essentially impossible, like you’ve said “one is always reproducing a fake, a false replica of the artifact.”

      You’re identifying that aporetic relationship that I’ve defined between preservation and destruction. Though, your nuance is helpful: saying reproduction or preservation might already be saying too much.

        • Well, I appreciate your comments. Any specific texts from the theorists you’d suggest I look to. I’m looking to make this a larger project. So far, I’m looking to Derrida and Benjamin…but I’m definitely looking to expand my bibliography.

          • Maybe a couple offhand:

            David Savat, Uncoding the Digital: Technology, Subjectivity and Action in the Control Society. Palgrave Macmillan.

            David brings forward the political aspects of digitalization of artifacts and further expands Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of the ‘dividual’, etc. Excellent work on how the different technologies express different social forms and a different politics.

            Jussi Parikka, Insect Media: An Archaeology of Animals and Technology University of Minnesota Press.

            Jussi deals with many of the current themes surrounding the decentering or deanthropoligization of the humanties, etc. He does it in a lively way bringing in most of the current philosophical notions prevalent within this crossover territory in a way that sheds new light on it and gives some new paths forward.

            * added note: the new biography of Benjamin is excellent by Howard Eiland, Walter Benjamin: A Critical Life but only if you are a Benjamin advocate… I mention only in that you made mention of Benjamin in the above post…

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