Saturday, 25 August 2007

Serial Desire: The Culture of the Copy

Finally found a companion piece to Jon Stratton's piece "The Desirable Body", an excerpt from which I included in my previous "Man Made Woman" posting. In keeping with the theme I here copy directly from an overview of another piece I'm interested in chasing up. The images chosen are also intended to prove a theoretical point. Many years ago Raymond Williams argued that an invention becomes an available technology through means of mass serial production. This will usually involve a playing it "safe" by showcasing a previously available cultural form, with a pre-established audience. For example, television initially imitated vaudeville stage productions, while compact disc concentrated on classical music (little outgoing expense in the form of artist royalties, technically suited to showing off high fidelity to convince sceptical consumers to invest in the technology). Little wonder then that pornography exploded on the internet, and how much discussion of imitation of "lifelikeness" concentrates on its possible sexual applications. To be fair, this was hardly the intention of Duane Hanson's beefcake sculpture that I've chosen, concerned as he was instead to imbue everyday people with a quiet dignity, but who could reasonably argue that such work is not open to misconstrual by those more interested in precursors to the future realisation of their own desires?

The Culture of the Copy Striking Likenesses, Unreasonable Facsimilies

The Culture of the Copy is an unprecedented attempt to make sense of our Western fascination with replicas, duplicates, and twins. In a work that is breathtaking in both its synthetic and critical achievements, Hillel Schwartz charts the repercussions of our entanglement with copies of all kinds, whose presence alternately sustains and overwhelms us.Through intriguing, and at times humorous, historical analysis and case studies in contemporary culture, Schwartz investigates most varieties of simulacra, including counterfeits, decoys, mannequins, ditto marks, portraits, genetic cloning, war games, camouflage, instant replays, digital imaging, parrots, photocopies, wax museums, apes, art forgeries, not to mention the very notion of the Real McCoy.At the same time Schwartz works through a range of modernist, feminist, and postmodern theories about copies and mechanical reproduction, posing the following compelling question: How is it that the ethical dilemmas at the heart of so many fields of endeavor have become inseparable from our pursuit of copies -- of the natural world, or our own creations, indeed our very selves?The Culture of the Copy is a stunning, innovative blend of microsociology, cultural history, and philosophical reflection that will fascinate anyone concerned with problems of authenticity, identity, and originality.

July/August 1997 Contents
ExcerptSincerest Flatteries
Schwartz is the author of, among other books, Century's End: A Cultural History of the Fin de Siecle from the 990s through the 1900s.
The first American book on photography re-touched an English book, Photographic Manipulation. Sermons on honesty were read out from the pulpit by Victorian ministers who had handcopied them from printed books so as to seem to have an original text at hand. A Boston Globe story on the swiping of a commencement address in 1991 was allegedly swiped by The New York Times. Lexicographers responsible for defining plagiarism have been accused of plagiarizing definitions. A University of Oregon booklet plagiarized its section on plagiarism.
Given this compulsion to repeat that which bears on repeating, plagiarism in our culture of the copy appears inevitable. Inevitable, as one famous estimate had it, because the number of different ideas the human mind is capable of is 3,655,760,000, and while there may be a slight hope that all the ideas have not yet been bespoken, there is a high probability of coincidence of unconscious repetition. "As if there was much of anything in any human utterance, oral or written, except plagiarism!" wrote Mark Twain. "The kernel, the soul -- let us go further and say the substance, the bulk, the actual and valuable material of all human utterances -- is plagiarism." He was writing to Helen Keller, who herself at the age of twelve had unconsciously (re)written and published as her own a story read aloud to her years before.

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