I am currently editing a special issue, and as one of the essays in the issue discusses the non-auratic in Benjaminian terms, I have been thinking a lot about Benjamin and the aura of late. It’s like the best part of grad school all over again, but with fewer spontaneous Wordsworthian hiking trips.
The thing is, the mechanical reproduction essay has always bothered me. This is because I like the aura. I am a Victorianist, after all, but more than that, I am a collector of Victoriana. No matter how troublingly bourgeois/elitist it may have been and still is to fetishize art objects, I covet them all the same. And my most auratic object is one that has been mass-produced, to the tune of 34,000 copies.
Take these books, for instance. How wonderful it would be, I begin to fantasize while reading the article, to discover an errant first edition of Wuthering Heights at a garage sale. The most desirable book on this list of “the most valuable rare books in existence” (a problematic list: where is the Dickens?) is really a toss-up for me between the Gutenberg Bible and the copy of Frankenstein, signed by Mary Shelley to Byron. The first book is the first book, and it’s kind of hard to argue with that, but the signed copy has the added bonus of combining the aura of the first edition with the celebrity mystique of authors in the plural.
The list makes me ruminate on my own fledgling collection, which consists of several old but not first editions that once belonged to my grandmother; several daguerreotypes, tintypes, cartes de visite, and stereoviews; a penny from 1853 that cost $20 in 2010; an original illustration from Bleak House that must have been cut out of the novel and that consequently makes me feel guilty every time I look at it; and a first edition of Bleak House. I will admit to treating the first edition with all the auratic esteem of a holy relic on occasion, and without much reason. The book was clearly read multiple times, it is sturdy in its binding, and it was clearly meant–like all of Dickens’s novels–to be read. I suppose if everyone had treated Dickens’s novels like auratic objects, we would never know what he had written about; it is, after all, difficult to read small typeset at a distance.
My first edition has been mechanically reproduced in various ways, of course–the text and illustrations clearly use print technology, and according to the Glasgow University Library Special Collections Department, approximately 34,000 complete first editions editions of the text were sold in the form of monthly parts (from which my copy is bound). How can I feel the aura from a book that was 1 in 34,000?
I think the aura inheres in the word “first.” While intellectually I understand that there were many other “firsts,” in practice I don’t think about those other copies–I consider my first edition the first. My book takes on an added auratic charge when I consider its differences–its particular foxing, its unique binding. These things diminish the value of the book, but in the process increases its auratic power.
Is the process of rendering auratic a mechanically reproduced art object a depoliticizing, fascist process? Or does it possibly indicate an acceptance of mechanical reproduction into more facets of psychic life? Can the aura be politicized?