The Scratch in the Record – White Noise
“…Still, even with my eyes closed, the music didn't sweep me away. A thin curtain stood between myself and the pianist, and no matter how much I might try, I couldn't get to the other side…
"But what was wrong with the performance?" she asked. "I thought it was wonderful."
"Don't you remember?" I said. "The record we used to listen to, at the end of the second movement there was this tiny scratch you could hear. Putchi! Putchi! Somehow, without that scratch, I can't get into the music!"
Shimamoto laughed. "I wouldn't exactly call that art appreciation."
(Haruki Murakami. South of the Border, West of the Sun)
On second thought it begs the question, why does Shimamoto laugh? What is that artistic appraisal that Murakami’s protagonist fails to create? It seems that in order to answer this question, even in this day and age, we are required to Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” of 1936.
Benjamin gives in this essay great significant to the role of the means of reproduction and duplication of his day in the appraisal of the work of art. However, when Benjamin took on him to analyze the implications of the mechanical reproduction, this technical mean was still in its infancy. The film cameras, gramophone and cinema – that had just entered its talkie days, and had not yet adulted its monochrome youth – were all still cumbersome and certainly outdated techniques when compared to the digital reproduction age we live today.
Benjamin’s basic move draws the work of art out of the abstract notion of “aura”, which has to do with the physical substance of experience. For Benjamin the essence of art is derived from the singleness of the aura. This aura emerges from the “here and now of the work of art” – the moment of artistic creation. However the reproduction lacks “here and now”, for reproduction is distanced from its origin. Hence, according Benjamin, reproduction does not create an aura and cannot enable true art.
Already here it is problematic to ignore the difficulties Benjamin’s ideas arise: “The presence of the original is the prerequisite to the concept of authenticity”. We must ask, can a work of art exist without presence? Benjamin would assert that it is only the artistic original that contains this elusive aura. So, according to Benjamin, in the history of the work of art its aura is embodied, deriving its artistic and collectable value.
The originals hanging in the Louvre museum are valued not necessarily by a plastic or visual quality, but by their being in a certain location (the museum) and maintaining somehow the history from their creation to the moment of our coming to view them. The canvas is the same one the artist touched, the colors are the ones he mixed, and the ‘Mona Lisa’ seems to us as the same lady posing so many years ago.
But what about book collecting? Record collecting? Surely the Beatles never lay their own hand on the old records in our parents drawers – as surely as that first edition of White Fang lying around had nothing to do with Jack London in person. For printed books too are somewhat primitive copies of an unknown handwritten original – and in our day even a home-printed one? Perhaps the aura is not just that physical presence, but its commonness as well, or more precisely, its rarity. But Benjamin surely understood that the aura is not merely the physical presence. He himself conditions this, saying that even in the reproduction “the aura emanates … in the ﬂeeting expression of a human face”, as is evident, it seems, in Andy Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe prints. Indeed, Marilyn Monroe is truly present in these colored copies, even more perhaps than she was in life. These copies rebuild the glory and myth she was in the same manner these were built in her reproduction onto the cinematic film.
Still, it seems certain that not all reproductions are equal: An original Warhol is worth more than a Warhol reproduction, as if there is some mysterious original where the aura begins and from which it fades. So it seems that a vinyl record attains value a compact disc recording will never attain, let alone a poorly ripped CD, or even worse, a digital media player. So too a chemical photograph film will always maintain an excess compared to the sensor array of the digital camera as it seems that forever high definition movies will lack something to their ancestors, the 32 millimeter films – something beyond the relative differences of chemical sensitivity and digital resolution. What is this excess, what is that unbridgeable sensitivity gap? Why is the analogue original always preferable to the digital reproduction? Could we not imagine software that would return a digital copy to its “original” analogue state? Software that emulates vinyl, inserting into the music analogue noises of wear dirt and warping? Pretending to make the music sound more “real” by making it sound older, less clean? Will we be surprised to discover such software exists? This is true fetish! We are witnessing here the fetishisation of the remembering surface: the chemical film and vinyl records seem a reliable witness to some artistic original. They are tied to the original and mark it as a fetish: they are not-fetish, but with-aura. By replacing the analogue surface by a digital one the fetish is cracked. The rustles of analogue noise are traded for the screeches of digital noise. The fluttering film litter is replaced with digital blocking, the soft blurs with rough pixelization. When reproducing the work of art, while the content seemingly remains, the noise changes and the noise is the embodiment of the fetish.
Indeed, finally, it is this gap that Murakami’s protagonist discovers. The experience of art is inseparably bound with the physical defect of the record, that same scratch, the same noise. The white noise of the record, binding content and surface – that physical substance – embodies the memory of the experience of art and is its fetish. With the disappearance of the scratch from the record, the physical surface separated from its content, and the music from the musical experience of its origin. So stands the protagonist in front of that “thin curtain”, trying in vain to break through to the experience of art to “get into the music”, as throughout the entire book (as in all of Murakami’s books) all characters try and pass an impassable barrier that is “South of the Border West of the Sun”.
And where is the art experience of the digital work of art? What is its surface? For the book too is the fetish of its writing. Is the disconnection of literature from paper and its transference to the digital realm a final disconnection of the act of writing from the bed of writing? Is this a disconnection of printed literature from the experience of literature? Will we never again break through the thin veil towards the artistic original, through the handkerchief standing between us and it?
Surely the work of art is still present in the digital, small online letters. Surely the spacing between words and lines, although no longer paper, still holds the same poetics of text.
What is the presence of the digital work of art? What is it for online art? Is the presence of online art not greater than it is of a “physical” one? Is it not richer? For it is wider, dispersed and decentralized almost endlessly. Are the multiplication of bedding and surface, the multiplication of presence not themselves the aura of the digital age?
For the aura of the digital work of art is experienced, like communal music in the peer-to-peer communities and myspace, as literature on online bedding, woven by a multitude of hyperlinks, forming the true presence, at present.