I have long been persuaded by Benjamin’s argument in “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” regarding the diminished aura of a mechanically or technologically reproduced item, that “that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art” (219). If we consider that the aura can be succinctly described as “uniqueness” or “originality,” tied to religious practices and rituals that imbued deep meaning and reverence in art objects, then it seems to logically follow that when art can be reproduced this esoteric characteristic fades into nothing. But due to the examinations of this course over the semester I have begun to doubt the full accuracy of this statement. I am not sure I still believe that the mere intrusion of technology and mechanical mediation destroys the aura of the art object. Besides the propensity for glitches and unique and unpredictable outcomes through mechanical reproduction, the production and availability of an art object does not necessarily dilute its aura. The Gorgeous Nothings of Emily Dickinson’s envelope poems readily proves this idea.
The delicate and fleeting nature of Dickinson’s poems is evident to all readers. Scribbled on scraps of paper and envelopes, never intended for a readership let alone wide publication, the ephemeral quality of her writing permeates even this most masterfully reproduced collection of her hand written poems. Perhaps it is the quality of the reproduction that allows for an aspect of the aura to be maintained (I recall a past reading that claimed the Photoshop was returning photography to the realm of painting, perhaps the high quality scans of these poems allows some semblance of the original “art” to remain). The texture of the poems and the resonating intimacy of the hand written words almost makes me forget that this text only offers me reproductions. The texts also offer unique reading experiences, unreproducible between each experience, as Dickinson played with replacing words and offering alternative navigations of her poem indicated by the + signs etched above or below her lines. Each reading is new, like a chose your own adventure poem. Whether we are meant to read the alternatives simultaneously, in a specific order, as full replacement of the original word, is unknown. But then again, we were never meant to read them at all. How can we determine “the location of its original use value” (Benjamin 220) in order to define these poems as “authentic” art when they were to remain obscured from consumption?
What I cannot do is imagine a different reader experience in terms of the original documents. I would postulate that an even greater aura surrounds the envelope poems themselves, but all is not lost in the reproduction. Or perhaps it is a different kind of aura emerging from the exponentially rising technology and mediation of our time. Benjamin reflects upon the rise of reproduction in accordance to modernity, but this may not translate as literally into the “postmodern” (although I do dislike that term) world we now find ourselves in. Mechanical reproduction may have destroyed the aura, but it may also be the means to bringing it back.