Dropped in on the 75th Anniversary of the Southern Historical Collection this evening. Dropped in only on the last session of a day and a half long symposium. Sally had been to the whole conference. I did get to drop in on two great talks.
One by John Hope Franklin who talked about his experience as a young African-American historian coming to work in the archives of North Carolina, Louisiana and Alabama during the 1940s.
One by Ed Ayers who talked about digital projects including his famous and wonderful Valley of the Shadow project.
So far not obvious fetishizing or at least not as pertains to the title of this post.
In question time, one concerned audience member spoke of the feel of the paper, the scrawls on the back of a photograph (never mind that the photo had faded so far from the state in which it was seen in the past), the smell of the archive (this the smell of the archive rotting like a slow compost), etc.
This impassioned talk reminded me of Walter Benjamin’s Work of Art in the Age of MechanicalReproduction. An essay in which Benjamin worries that photography will completely replace painting and that the value of the original, the aura, will be lost as seamless reproductions are made generally available.
Of course, we now see that Benjamin was completely wrong. That we rush to see the Mona Lisa because we are familiar with that painting. Our desire to see the “real” Mona Lisa is increased at each viewing of a reproduction, a surrogate.
What painting would we go to see by Grant Wood? Most likely the one we know from surrogates, from parodies, from endless reproductions—American Gothic (it’s at the Art Institute of Chicago).
The ultimate fetishizing of the original resulted in the daring and somewhat bizzare theft of Edvard Munch’s Scream. Desire may have led to destruction of the desired and we will have been left with its many many many surrogates.