Reply To: Theorizing the Digital Humanities

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Daniel Fawcett

Katlin made an interesting point, writing, “Yes, having the privilege to hold a Civil War letter is way more enriching than seeing a scanned copy of it, but it is enriching nonetheless.” This returns me to Walter Benjamin. (But, really, what doesn’t?) In his “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Benjamin writes quite a bit about this “enriching” experience, calling it the “aura” of a work of art. For those who haven’t read it (I don’t know if anyone in class hasn’t read it, but just in case…) this loss of “aura” is something that happened when art stopped being the province of individual craftspeople and became something industrialized.

But where most people get Benjamin dead wrong is in thinking that he was lamenting the loss of the aura. In fact, it is something to celebrate. After all, when art loses its “aura,” we can understand the role that politics, modes of production, and class struggle (among other things) play in the production of art. We can see art in a context when we aren’t concerned with its “aura.”

That’s not to say that we shouldn’t worry about how art does or doesn’t serve as an “enriching” force on our lives. But we can see the way what we call “enriching” aspects of an artifact are enmeshed in social, productive, political, environmental, and geographic realities. What we see as “enriching” is very much an aspect of our social place and our relative positions within social structures.

We, as DHers, are perhaps in a new and important position relative to Benjamin’s “aura” and Katlin’s “enriching.” We can examine the technical forces that exist that bring the art to the public, and we can help interrogate the objects that consumers of media actually use in a way that always exposes the matrices of power, technology, etc. in which they are enmeshed.

Huh. Maybe the digital humanities are all about “resistance,” after all.