Jimmy's Reviews > The Culture of the Copy: Striking Likenesses, Unreasonable Facsimiles

The Culture of the Copy by Hillel Schwartz
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Oct 31, 08

bookshelves: cultural-studies
Read in October, 2008

The unavoidable influence of Walter Benjamin's essay "Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" is openly admitted at the end of chapter three entitled "Self-Portraits".

"Walter Benjamin, a theorist who for some readers must have been lurking behind each of these pages, did not say it best when he said that through replication the original has lost its aura...What withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is not the aura, the Happen-Stance, of works of art but the assurance of our own liveliness".

Having read Benjamin's fabulous essay, after reading the works of William Gaddis, another man who had a sort of lifelong obsession with artistic authenticity and the paradoxical effects that industrial reproduction has had on it, I felt compelled to read a more updated account of this ceaselessly fascinating cultural concept. The question obviously is; does Culture of the Copy offer any new insights? Well, yes and no.

For starters, Schwartz's book reads like a lot of contemporary cultural studies texts in that it can do one of two things as an academic discipline; offer theoretical connections of some of the most trivial aspects of culture, or make an overriding theory concerning some of the most trivial aspects of culture seem even more trivial than its relative examples. This sounds confusing, but I believe that it is intended to be to some extent. Schwartz seems to do a little of both here. Culture of the Copy is divided into about eight chapters, seven of which have their specific category of reproduction. Vanishing Twins, deals with actual biological copies. After this, they seem to biologically descend into more synthetic non-human examples of copy. What follows is an encyclopedic account of reproduction; daggeurotypes, mimeographs, film, photography, parrots and monkeys (apparently metaphors for our second nature), prosthetic limbs, theatre, camoflage, virtual reality, war simulation, etc. You get the idea. There is very little in the way of historical anecdote/example that Schwartz leaves out.

Of course, this vast scope, coupled with almost psychotic erudition was, ironically enough, what made this book seem like large pile of unrealized potential. Scwartz's ideas are intriguing, and he is ultimately making a point here. It's just that reading Culture of the Copy can seem forgetable due to the fact that the occasional theoretical commentary that he offers is consistently inundated by anecdote after anecdote (the bibliographical references top out at around 180 pages!). It's an impressive range of supporting references, but it seems like he just didn't want to edit out anything inessential here. Then again, thinking about that makes me think twice, I mean isn't this endless cutting and pasting of information, in itself, an example of the Culture of the Copy? Is Schwartz's book essentially mimicking it's own subject matter through its structural aura? Well, even if it is, I find it mildly annoying. This sort of postmodern trickery just doesn't make for a focused study. As historical sketch, it functions a little more efficiently, which is why Schwartz should have avoided offering too much commentary. He certainly should have avoided refuting Benjamin's ideas. It just sounds embarassing. It hardly even makes much sense because he almost seems to agree that when people desperately strive to remain close to the essence of a work of art by reproducing it, they become distanced from the uniqueness of a reproduction. Benjamin clearly states that time and space influence originals and copies to the point where they are almost just as unique as each other. Schwartz claims that we should be wholly aware of these cultural metaphors. So, in a way his study of reproduction is just an elaboration of Benjamin's idea.

I hate to think that I'm just being obtuse here, and essentially not reading in between the lines. However, on the last page Schwartz seem to reassure me that I was not alone in thinking that his book was a rather drawn out series of contradictory theorizing

"This book has never been intended for the congregation of either/or. It is rather for the congregation of and/also, and it bristles with contradiction".

Ok. So this basically permits you to write an aimless study? There just isn't any closing argument here. It seems like a book that he should have never stopped writing, and very well could have if he wanted to.

For any reader with an interest in the theme of copy/reproduction, I suggest Benjamin's essay, or even the Recognitions by Gaddis. This book will frustrate to no end.

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10/02/2008 page 170
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Comments (showing 1-3 of 3) (3 new)

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Joshua Nomen-Mutatio Yeah, contradiction that "bristles" is still contradiction. Sounds like an exhausting read.

Is the basic thrust a Marxist one, superimposing the concepts of labor alienation onto the overlapping worlds of artwork and commerce? If so, I'd probably be yawning my way through this book like it seems you may have as well.


message 2: by Jimmy (last edited Jan 12, 2009 10:49PM) (new) - rated it 2 stars

Jimmy I wish that there had been a basic thrust (ideologically speaking) to this book. The ideological perspective is as scatterbrained as the anecdotes were. When he explored the Marxist dynamic it worked well enough (i.e. Carpal Tunnel Syndrome from factory work, the manipulation of the twin angle by advertising firms), but this would always give way to some example that seemed to detract in terms of ideological theme.

It's too bad. I'm really interested in this concept/theme. Have you ever read any Benjamin?


Joshua Nomen-Mutatio I read "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" a while back and would need a refresher at this point to get into the specifics again. I do remember it being a good conversation starter at the very least. Maybe I'll give it another go soon.


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