Tuesday, March 10, 2009

It is not a case of “either or” but of “and, and”.

But it’s not the original, it’s just a facsimile!”. How often have we heard such a retort when confronted with an otherwise perfect reproduction of a painting? No question about it, the obsession of the age is for the original version. Only the original possesses an aura, this mysterious and mystical quality that no second hand version will ever get. But paradoxically, this obsession for pinpointing originality increases proportionally with the availability and accessibility of more and more copies of better and better quality.

In discussing “The Migration of the Aura – Exploring the Original through Its Facsimiles” (2008) Latour explores an area that is patently contentious.
Bruno Latour says unequivocally the existence of something precedes its essence; the question is, does it? While I disagree with Kvond who appears to argue against this proposition with reference to art, yet his argument to my mind demonstrates exactly what Latour says. The minutae of detail, the pressure of the paint on the page, the texture of brushstrokes and the variability in paint pigmentation...are all 'things' preceding essence. Essence came in the aggrargation of such things in a time and place and viewed in a context, or so I understand Latour. But what then of other 'things'?
I find myself comparing these arguments of authentic art to the stories I have heard when talking of the shift of phone counselling to text. And am also reminded of the historic stories captured on moving conversation to phones. But to stay with counselling for the moment, is its 'essence' lost when the medium changes? The logic from Latours argument, is that it cant be as essence is always preceded by existence.
And now i get tangled up in knots, for what of the photo vs the painting? The reproduction has no pressure on the page, the pigmentation and colour 'enhancement' alters the rendition, the size becomes immaterial, the context within which it is shifts...how many have commented on the smallness and darkness of the Mona Lisa. The original compared with a multiple hord of facsimilies is altere and sometimes rendered a dissapointment. Klimt's mother and child becomes more known than its original source, the three ages of women C.1905. Edited enhancement for popular release? If essence is in the existence, what is loved by the masses becomes a projection.

Latour takes the argument further from photography to plastic surgery. I would anticipate the argument to be its not better or worse but different, that translation creates a new entity.
Hidden behind the commonsense distinction between original and mere copies, lies a totally different process that has to do with the technical equipment, the amount of care, the intensity of the search for the originality that goes from one version to the next. Before being able to defend itself for re-enacting the original well or badly, a facsimile is discredited beforehand because it is associated with a gap in techniques of reproduction. A gap based on a misunderstanding of photography as an index for reality.

Instead of arguing a better or worse, there is space for arguing not the either or, but the "and,and". The photo is different. "Photographs of paintings are not respected as aura entrenched primarily because the change in recording surface and technique is understood to present a change in marked causal histories" responds Kvond. The photograph brings with it, its own aggragations, one of which is multiplicity for popular demand, which is noted by Latour as contributing to the originals own value.
In counselling then, is there an essence? Is being there in the moment an essence? One that cannot be replicated in the absence of synchronised connectivity? Is texting a poor facsimilie? The line of argument explored would suggest the answer is no. Instead it is different. The essence is in it's existence, not an antecedent event, but in it's being performed. Does the reproduction in another form lessen its value? Perhaps. The processes of translation from one medium to another may fail to capture the 'things' of importance , what then can be added or removed? Is it essential to counselling that it be 'in the moment' that it be synchronised not asynchronised? Far from becoming “sterile” counselling so reconstructed becomes more accessible. So where does the crime lie? I suggest it lies in the gap where the index for reality is misunderstood. Text counselling far from being barren or sterile is serving a purpose attested to by those who continue to make use of it.
It provides an option, the value of which is evident in its being used and in its ongoing development and ongoing translations.


  1. Hi ailsa,

    I appreciate your reading of my criticism of Latour, but I am not quite sure what you find objectionable in my objection. What I very much wanted to focus on, and perhaps I did not do a good enough job of it, is that there is a disparity between Latour's critique of the "photographic" reconstruction of Holbein's The Ambassadors (which may have induced just so many more copies of the paiting), and his celebration of digital-aid reproduction of Veronese's Nozze di Cana.

    What I wanted to point out was that Latour's framework of "original means productive of progeny (copies)" his devaluation of the reconstruction of the Holbein paiting makes no sense.

    Because I come from a Spinozist reading of "essence", it seems to me that the reason why essence must precede existence is that it is only by being able to read the essence of something as productively lying immanently within the causes that produced it (that is, the "original" Holbein painting, the one that was not reconstructed via photographic asthetic guides, maintained the traces of its causal effects, the things that brought it into existence). The only way to decry the effacement of the Holbein reconstruction is for some reason to value the original causal history, the gateway to the forces that preceded the existence of the original.

    In this sense, the essence of something has being, before it has come into existence, a kind of placeholder structure that gives topological ground for all the preceding effects to bring the painting, or the person, etc. So yes, it is and, and, and, but there is a very real sense that a particular "and" gains importance, not only because it is perceived as giving birth to all kind of "ands" in the furture, directing them as copies as Latour rightfully says, but also because it is perceived as being a bottleneck for so many other "ands" that preceded it.

    To take Latour's example of the Iliad, the copies of which press down to create the impressional image of a "Homer". It is because we have an aura'd sense of the original, that we look to read the historical effects, the sociological, anthropological, linguistic effects that prior to our Homer, helped determine it.

    Latour simply cannot mourn (as he seems to do) the reconstruction of The Ambassadors, unless he is to privilege one of the "ands" in the series.

  2. I really enjoyed your writing, i was provoked by it to consider the claims made against my own area of interest, text counselling. The objection (not that i named it this) is in our different conceptualisation of essence; mine is increasingly Latourian - always in the thing and not a pre-existing entity. This is a major revelation for me, i had previously considered being in the moment to be an antecedent condition for (good) counselling and yet had witnessed text asynchronised counselling being effective. When I discussed such counselling with psychotherapists they (on the whole) were totally incredulous. There is something present of value, but its present, performed, rather than 'in essence'.

  3. Ah, this makes very good sense, and I make solid connections here. I suppose that if I were to bring my observations on Latour and the concept of the "original" to your subject, we would have to assess just what role the concept of the "original" would have in counseling, either the original trauma, the original self, etc. Where there was such a concept, it is there that we would find its value not only in its procreative capacity to express itself in copies of itself, but also for what it would reveal of the forces that created it.

    I'd also have to say that I really have no problem with the forward (or horizontal looking) dimension of Latour's thought, the way that we are constructed through our networked effects. This is how I read it was well. It is simply that for me that Latour's flat ontology misses something of a dimension, and therefore misses something of a path to freedom, the way that we construct our freedoms through the understanding of our causes of what we are.

    I appreciate all your thoughts though, and your post got me to think deeper on these issues. Thank you.