Temple site at Mahabalipuram, India

Many of us have been discussing James Gleick’s recent piece in the New York Times, Books and Other Fetish Objects which addresses the digitization projects that will move historical documents into the cloud, available anywhere and by anyone. Gleick is a bit impatient with the sentimental attachment that some have for “the thing itself.” For him, it is content that matters as exemplified by this anecdote:

In a Sotheby’s auction three years ago, Magna Carta fetched a record $21 million. To be exact, the venerable item was a copy of Magna Carta, made 82 years after the first version was written and sealed at Runnymede. Why is this tattered parchment valuable? Magical thinking. It is a talisman. The precious item is a trick of the eye. The real Magna Carta, the great charter of human rights and liberty, is available free online, where it is safely preserved. It cannot be lost or destroyed.

And this contemplation on what happens when we move beyond the thing itself:

It’s a mistake to deprecate digital images just because they are suddenly everywhere, reproduced so effortlessly. We’re in the habit of associating value with scarcity, but the digital world unlinks them. You can be the sole owner of a Jackson Pollock or a Blue Mauritius but not of a piece of information — not for long, anyway. Nor is obscurity a virtue. A hidden parchment page enters the light when it molts into a digital simulacrum. It was never the parchment that mattered.

I am not in your camp, Gleick. It seems that there are two tracks here—content, and the thing itself. Call me a fetishist, a misaligned magical thinker. But my experience is that these objects take on a power of their own and have a unique relationship with us. (That evocativeness—the power of things—is the subject of the documentary Mana: Beyond Belief which I wrote about here.) We feel a sense of that power with touch or just being physically present, and that experience cannot be captured in words, photographs or 3D renderings. A high resolution image of one of my paintings will never be the same as the artifact itself.

I keep coming back to how it felt at the ancient temples in Southern India, pilgrimage sites for so many years. Whether those places were built on sacred ground or just acquired their power from the millions of pilgrims who came and gave their energy over time, these places have an aura that is tangible, physically experienced and unforgettable. Digitizing content is one thing, the experiential is another. Oft quoted but still useful is Wallace Stevens’ stanza from Thirteen Ways of Looking at A Blackbird:

I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.

I’m for the both/and.

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