Early in “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Benjamin claims:
The authenticity of a thing is the essence of all that is transmissible from its beginning, ranging from its substantive duration to its testimony to the history which it has experienced.
Authenticity is thus the name for the historicity the thing, the embedded-ness of the object, its tradition. Benjamin then adds that the aura of authenticity “withers” in the age of mechanical reproduction such that
the technique of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the domain of tradition. By making many reproductions it substitutes a plurality of copies for a unique existence. And in permitting the reproduction to meet the beholder or listener in his own particular situation, it reactivates the object reproduced.
Reactivates it, but presumably without the context that lends the object its traditional weight or aura. The enemy of authenticity is not just reproduction, but transportability.
Having a particular place for the special work—a temple, museum, or concert hall—makes policing the experience of encounters with that object a heck of a lot easier, since context and crowds are controlled by the environment, accessibility, etc. This is as true for listeners as it is for beholders. At a concert, for instance, ticketing and sound checks help to promote a relatively controlled and stable experience for the crowd. In contrast, headphones allow me to listen to music anywhere, with variable technology that can manipulate sounds in radical or nuanced ways for me alone. And digital files let me listen to anything pretty much anytime I want.
We can maybe imagine the encounter with the work in the age of digital reproduction as a move from shared space to (at least the possibility or opportunity of) a solitary encounter under various conditions. This was already true for predigital music. Live (and later prerecorded) radio was and is a synchronous experience that happened for many people in many places. Shellac and then vinyl records allowed a more intimate listening experience in the home that was on-demand. In 1980, there was a small moral panic about the Sony Walkman as parents worried that their kids would become isolated as they took their music with them outside. Right now, it’s unlikely that I could walk across campus without seeing a significant number of headphones and earbuds shuffling down the sidewalk. And, for the most part, people listening to their devices are listening to music and podcast (re)designed for on-demand listening on those devices.
Contemporary digital music streaming is in some ways a return to (non-live) radio, though without the necessary simultaneity that radio insists on and with a buy-in beyond something that plays music; streaming is private, on demand radio and depends on the ability to record a fixed version physically or digitally that can then be distributed.
Physical media are maybe the necessary shambling from the immediacy of live radio to immediate on-demand narrowcast of pristine digital recordings. But regardless of the recording media, once music is made primarily to be distributed, the media that carry music demonstrate that there is no original artifact beyond the copies that reach the store shelves, collector’s basement, or the storage drive of any given device. Even concerts then feature riffs on recorded songs, as fixed versions become authoritative. It’s in the temporal fixity of recording that maybe we find the new version of what survives of the aura of authenticity. But, at least for some of us, that aura still needs a body from which to radiate.
My old vinyl version of Cocteau Twins’s Treasure (1984) was one of many copies made, is one of many copies that have survived the decades, and is valued primarily by how new it looks. In the age of reproduction, authenticity becomes a function of time, not place. Svetlana Boym claims that “nostalgia is a longing for a place, but actually it is a yearning for a different time—the time of our childhood, the slower rhythms of our dreams” (The Future of Nostalgia 2%). Perhaps what imparts the aura of authenticity to mechanically reproduced artifacts is the time we have lost to them, the time they stand for that is excepted from regular time as long as we take care of its artifacts. Mechanical reproduction duplicates objects and sends them far afield such that they lose their places in tradition but can nonetheless find nostalgic purchase. While increasing availability and range even further, digital reproduction strips objects of their moments in time and become commodities only artificial scarce and almost too ubiquitous to matter.
An original pressing of an album is valuable because of the time it was made and the shape it’s in now. This is the economy of music collecting, and of collecting more generally. For those of us of a certain age, collecting originals that were never special means resurrecting the idea of authenticity as a sense of loss, as nostalgia for a youthful encounter that is rendered more or less material by the object. The aura that Benjamin described is, for us, a ghost, a repetition of a loss engendered by the translation of all production into reproduction and the experience of all objects as iterations.
That digital objects don’t seem to have that kind of purchase perhaps indicates that we’re in an analogous situation to what’s describes in “The Work of Art.” Benjamin attributes the loss of the aura of authenticity to copies that go places. For us, digital copies give the lie to the permanence of things in their translation into a cloud that seems as beyond time as it is without a place.