Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The Relationship Between the "Real" and the Digitized

“Beyond the Cult of the Replicant: Museums and Historical Digital Objects – Traditional Concerns, New Discourses” by Fiona Cameron in Theorizing Digital Cultural Heritage: A Critical Discourse. Edited by Fiona Cameron and Sarah Kenderline, Cambridge, MA : The MIT Press, 2007.

I read an interesting book chapter the other day. It was another example of reading something that was both far enough from, and close enough to the library/book context to both be different from the library experience, but also be relevant to the library experience. One of the biggest differences is the difference between the museum object and the book, and how these two objects function and derive their authority.

On a very simple, and perhaps so superficial level as to be not helpful, the value of a museum object lies in what the object is, and the value of the library object lies in what the object says. Honestly exploring the differences between the museum and library object would take many pages, and probably many books. Let’s just accept that there are differences in their functions.

Two things to note: She is writing out of/into the museum context, and when referring to “historical digital objects” she is referring to digital captures/reproductions of physical objects (she does not discuss “born-digital” objects.)

She discusses the different functions of original objects and their digital reproductions and how we approach them. “The value of the digital heritage object is derived from the viewer’s acceptance of the real object as authentic.” P. 56

She states that the meaning of objects is not simply resident within the object, but ascribed by the communities that encounter it. “The ‘real’ object’s enchantment, its aura, for example is its physical presence, but most important, it derives from ascribed social meanings.” P. 57 (This sentence seems to be missing a word or two, but it still seems to express a meaning.)

In newer “post-modern” thinking “the concept of real, original authenticity becomes a social construct, as exemplifies of western knowledge and taste, and systems of object value becomes mutable.” P. 54

Similarly, in creating digital reproductions of objects, those who have a role in this process have a role in shaping the meaning of the both the original and digital objects. “By virtue of its selection, the digital surrogate illustrates, reiterates, and passes on a set of social relations constructed for the ‘real’, while endorsing their ascribed value as the best aesthetic, historically, and technologically significant items in the collection.” P. 57

She brings in discussion of the history and role of photography as an analogue to the role of digitized objects, and points out that early understandings of photography were of the photograph simply as a pointer to, or representation of the thing photographed. Later, understandings shifted to recognizing the photograph as a distinct creative object in itself with a less certain relationship to the object photographed. Likewise, the digitized object is an entirely new object. “In creating new definitions for the digital historical object as an object in its own right separate from any referrant, and as an entirely new creative project the materiality argument can no longer be given pre-eminence. Rather, user behavior and experience becomes key defining principles which acknowledges the particular characteristics of digital medium. (Witcomb, 2007)” p. 68

“Like the analog they [digital historical objects] are cultural constructs and have the power to shape cultural identities, engage emotions, perceptions, and values, and to influence the way we think.” P. 69

She has some interesting discussion of Western society’s concepts of “original” objects as authentic and true. “Western concepts of object-centerdness, historical material authenticity, and aura play a central role in upholding this differential relationship” of the digital copy being seen as inferior to its non-digital original. P. 50

“Moreover, this focus on materiality, theorist Jonathan Crary argues is inseparable from the deployment of vision as an object source of knowledge and rational though in the nineteenth century thus leading to the subsequent repression of other more experiential forms of knowledge production.” P. 52

 “The digital historical object has been undervalued and subject to suspicion because its labor of production has been concealed and therefore bears less evidence of authorship, provenance, originality, and other commonly accepted [characteristics] attributed to analog objects. For these reasons the digital object’s materiality is not well understood.” P. 70

It would seem to me that some of the reasons the original/digital distinctions are not as strong within the library/book world are that as objects books from the last century also “bear less evidence of authorship, provenance, originality.” Unlike the often unique and hand crafted museum object, the vast majority of the books we deal with are mass produced and bear little evidence of human involvement. Little of the authenticity of a book is derived from its qualities as an object. Therefore, the issues of creating digital surrogates are often not as striking as they are for museum objects.

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