“Through Which We Can Enter”
This two-part piece was initially written for my MA Writing the Modern World. It is a reflection on decay, photocopying, and William Basinski’s The Disintegration Loops. Part 1 takes an essay I wrote on Basinski, and puts it through a photocopying process intended to imitate the gradual decay of his music. Each page is photocopied one more time than the last, with increasing tears, crumples and marks. Part 2 is a reflection on photocopying, and the idea of ‘the bad photocopy’ as an academic phenomenon.
Part 1 – ‘Silence Plays the Melody’
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Part 2 – ‘The Bad Photocopy’
In this essay I want to explore the idea that the photocopy is a form of critical interpretation in and of itself, and that like all criticism it is a process that decays and distorts the original work. To photocopy something is to interpret it. Both the photocopy and the critical essay are, I will argue, acts of partial destruction, and it is in this destruction that their creative potential lies. I particularly want to look at the idea of ‘the bad photocopy’, a phenomenon surely common to every English department in the country: that is, the photocopy with cut-off edges, unclear words, noise and distortion from the copying machine. For students, a small part of any taught degree programme inevitably involves time spent attempting to decipher poor-quality photocopies – it seems almost a prerequisite for the job of English professor that one is not able to work a photocopying machine properly. I do not mention this as a criticism, but as an observation that the decay and distortion produced by ‘the bad photocopy’ might be perceived as itself an act of criticism, or at least analogous to one.
The word ‘Xerox’ comes from the Greek xeros meaning ‘dry’, as unlike prior reproduction techniques such as cyanotype, the Xeroxing process used no liquid chemicals. Instead it used toner, powdered ink, and was subsequently cleaner, cheaper and more efficient (Thompson). Its success lies in dryness: it is a dry copy. A dry reading (as opposed to a ‘wet reading’, one where the reader ‘immerses’ themselves in the text) is surely a critical one: it suggests distance and remove from the original. When critical writing is perceived of as ‘dry’, it is seen to be dull and distant. Like a photocopy, a ‘dry’ essay merely rearticulates the original (what it ‘is’, what it ‘means’) but with less lustre, less ‘aura’ to use a word of Benjamin’s. It is mere reproduction. ‘The technique of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the domain of tradition’; that is, it divorces it from context and history, replacing its unique existence with a ‘plurality of copies’ (Benjamin, 221). Thus the aura of the work ‘withers’; like the text on a photocopy, it grows fainter with each reproduction. The ‘perfect’ photocopy reproduces the original document but with no aura, no smell, no marks, no owner, no publication history, no soul; the ‘perfect’ critical essay explains away its source text, vanishing it.
But the bad photocopy – marked with noise, smudged with fingerprints and underlinings – is liberated from this dryness, this lustrelessness. If, as Benjamin maintains, it is impossible for the reproduction to capture the aura of the original, then the bad photocopy compensates for this by inscribing new aura into the work.
It does this by adding what we might call traces to the original, not dissimilar to what Derrida calls a ‘presence-absence’ (71). There is a ghostliness to the photocopying machine, with its beams of white light, its glassy depths, and this extends to the photocopy itself, marked by traces of now-absent human presences: coffee rings, underlinings, annotations, even the occasional finger or hand that is trapped, disembodied, in the machine, and finds its way into the copy. Artists like Pati Hill have been attracted to this phantom quality of the copier: she describes becoming first enamoured with the machine when she ‘noticed her own fingertips copied in the margins of her texts’ (Sellers). The bad photocopy does not reproduce the original perfectly but is contaminated by these additional marks and traces; the good photocopy, by contrast, reproduces the original with perfect fidelity. The critic’s role is to leave, like the bad photocopy, new traces on the work. After reading the critical essay, we are haunted by its insights, which linger over the original text.
We might also think of these traces as ‘noise’. In a photographic sense, ‘noise’ is merely ‘spurious and extraneous information’, ‘unwanted signals’ (Stroebel, 507). It is also a disturbance, and has roots in the Old French noise (‘din, uproar, brawl’) and the Latin nausea (‘disgust, annoyance, discomfort’). Noise, like criticism, disturbs the original work. In the photocopy, noise is produced by additional resin sticking to additional charge on the selenium coating (Owen, 11) – it is the extra or surplus charge of the document, like the electric charge of it in the mind, like thoughts running away from the words on the page. In disturbing the work, the critic increases its charge, keeps it alive. This partial destruction is, counterintuitively, a form of preservation, of keeping its source material relevant, of re-inscribing its importance. We preserve things by partially decaying them: think of pickling foods for example. In Korea, people say ‘kimchi’ when having their photo taken; in England, we say ‘cheese’. The language of fermented food is ‘cross-culturally inseparable from preparing an idealized image of ourselves for preservation’ (Gibson, 21). Noise, too, acts as a kind of fermentation process.
Such an argument counters received wisdom that noise is bad for thought, for clarity; that ‘to find signals in data, we must learn to reduce the noise’ (Few, 13). But as Jacques Attali contests, noise carries its own meanings: the mere ‘presence of noise makes meaning’. Part of this has to do with how it ‘frees the listener’s imagination’ by interrupting their habitual listening. Though Attali refers to auditory noise, his point applies equally to the noisy disturbances of the bad photocopy: though they partially destroy the meaning of the original, their mere presence opens up spaces for other meanings to enter. ‘Despite the death it contains, noise carries [new] order within itself; it carries new information’ (Attali, 33). It is the destructive quality of noise, and of the bad photocopy, and of criticism, in which creative potential lies. The point of the critical essay is neither to duplicate nor destroy but to resonate, that is, to re-sound the text, to re-noise it.
Good academic writing, like the grain and noise on the bad photocopy, complicates its source material, makes it not clearer but less clear. Writing, by its very nature, arrests the movement of speech and fixes it, excluding noise, body, soul: it simplifies. Writing is language with all the noise squashed out of it. Criticism, though itself writing, is the attempt to restore this noise, its complexity: to re-ensoul language. ‘In a standardized text,’ writes Kittler, ‘paper and body, writing and soul fall apart’ (14). In good criticism, and in bad photocopies, body re-intrudes on paper, and soul re-intrudes on writing.
Running counter to this, there is an idea that the critic must be ‘faithful’ to the original work, that critical analysis must be grounded in actual texts, that the critic owes a debt to these texts and that the nature of this debt is to do with what we might call fidelity. The word is tangled up with ideas of both devotion and authenticity, adherence to truth: its roots go back ultimately to Latin fides or ‘faith’. I have argued already that fidelity is a quality of the good photocopy, not the bad. The defining quality of the bad photocopy is surely poor fidelity. A low-fidelity reproduction, by definition, lacks authenticity: the ‘whole sphere of authenticity is outside technical reproducibility’, writes Benjamin (220). If, then, we are to argue for noisy, trace-marked criticism, are we to argue for inauthentic criticism?
In fact, it is the very lack of fidelity that makes the bad photocopy feel somehow more authentic, as when music is described as ‘lo-fi’ to suggest a certain rawness and closeness to reality. There is an aesthetic appeal to such music similar to that of the photocopier. Thompson describes how artists in the 1960s ‘flocked to the device, thrilled by the high-contrast, low-fi prints it produced – so unlike either photography or traditional printing’. But there is also political dimension to it. The cheapness and ease of the machine made it a way of ‘seizing the means of production, circulating ideas that would previously have been difficult to get past censors and editors’, and thus transforming the pathways through which knowledge flowed in a corporation (Thompson). As it abandons image fidelity, so too does the Xerox abandon the idea of fidelity (that is faithfulness) to an original source, to authority. It challenges copyrights, a word which reminds us of the alternate meaning of ‘copy’: that is, a single item, a unit, an original. David Shields has argued passionately against this idea of the unique ‘copy’:
Copies have been dethroned; the economic model built on them is collapsing. In a regime of superabundant free copies, copies are no longer the basis of wealth… Value has shifted away from a copy toward the many ways to recall, annotate, personalize, edit, authenticate, display, mark, transfer, and engage a work. (27)
Shields suggests we need to move past the idea of originality, of fidelity, to a place where we can copy and steal freely from other sources. He dismantles the opposition between an original ‘copy’ and its copy, dethroning the former meaning of the word in favour of the latter. In the slippage between ‘the copy’ and ‘the original’ – in the mangled copy, in the bad copy – there is fertile ground for new thoughts, annotations, personalisations. This is a manifesto for art: for art’s right to steal freely from other works, and to mutilate and distort them. But criticism, I want to argue, should be given the same freedoms. We need a lo-fi criticism: one that abandons the debt of fidelity owed to the original text, that is free to copy it, distort it, erase it, re-trace it.
Copying is in our DNA: the double-helix is a code to make copies of us. This ability to copy separates us from inanimate objects; it is the basis for life, and for culture, which is based on acts and systems of copying, of duplicating others’ behaviour. Language, too, is a copying machine: we copy each other’s words so we can communicate and understand each other. With the invention of writing, the ability to copy the copies down, the system was refined. As David Owen writes, writing ‘freed copying from the chain of living contact’ and made thinking ‘permanent, portable, and endlessly reproducible’ (1). To disseminate ideas, copying is necessary. Elaine Scarry writes of how:
Beauty brings copies of itself into being. It makes us draw it, take photographs of it, or describe it to other people. Sometimes it gives rise to exact replication and other times to resemblances and still other times to things whose connection to the original site of inspiration is unrecognizable. (3)
The critic responds to this call to copy beauty, to recopy it, and sometimes this copying takes us far from the ‘original site of inspiration’. But we retain this idea of ‘an original’, even though it makes little sense in modern society, where the rampant blossoming of the copy is such that the original is lost. We live in the age of the copy, of the copy of the copy, of the copia of copies (the Latin root of the word, meaning ‘plenty, means’), of copiousness: a profusion, a proliferation of writing. When the modern student writes a paper, ‘his paper, between the moment he begins writing it and the moment his teacher gives him a grade, simply exists in a fluid succession of related states’ (Owen, 8). Continual revisions on the computer screen, documents emailed or uploaded to the cloud: the idea of the ‘original’ has no real content here. Yet we retain it as an idea, to make sense of the copies: the photocopy at least suggests an original. Indeed, when a photocopy is photocopied, it becomes the new original. This is closer to how literature, and criticism, work. Originals become copies; copies become originals. As criticism adds the noise back into writing, it requires, as writing itself, further criticism to add more noise to it, to re-sound and resound off of it. It proliferates, copiously. The concept of ‘continual revision’ suggests a chain of imperfect copies, of mutations. If the perfect copy is meaningless, then the meaning of the bad photocopy lies in its mutations, its mistakes, its errors – just as mutations in DNA are necessary for the evolution of species.
As we cling to the idea of the ‘original’, so to do we cling to the idea of paper:
The ultimate goal of all technological development seems to be a paper-like device on which information can not only be accessed, sent and read, but also marked up in a paper-like way. Paper remains the ghost in our machines. We are, simply, paper fanatics and paper fundamentalists: even when it is not there… we continue to imagine it. (Sansom, 16)
We need paper, for we need its imperfections. This is not just an affective need: it may serve neurological functions too, in terms of how we actually read. Studies have shown how paper books have more obvious topography than on-screen text, allowing us to map them easier than when read on a screen (Jabr). We attach to certain physical elements on the page, as loci to help process the words. The unique disturbances of each bad photocopy, then, may actually make it easier for our brains to remember, make us read the text deeper. Every good photocopy is alike; every bad one is unique.
But it is undeniably an affective need, too. Perhaps the primary appeal of the bad photocopy is the same as the appeal of an old book: sunlight-faded, stained and torn, spine cracked open, a book that feels lived in, engaged with, open to new ideas and interpretations. Pencil marks litter its margins: the text is read and written simultaneously. This is surely how we should approach critical material too: intimately yet irreverently. The bad photocopy simultaneously brings us closer to the text, through its affective qualities and the increased attention it requires to decipher the half-destroyed words, while allowing us increased distance from it, in that it drags parts of the text away – into noise or into silence. Words disappearing into the margins, obscured under smudgy thumbprints on the copier machine, lost in the black gutter: these are the holes in the text through which we can enter.
Attali, Jacques. Noise: The Political Economy of Music. Trans. Brian Massumi. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1985.
Benjamin, Walter. ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’. Illuminations. Ed. Hannah Arendt. Trans. Harry Zorn. London: The Bodley Head, 2015.
Derrida, Jacques. Of Grammatology. Trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1976.
Few, Stephen. Signal: Understanding What Matters in a World of Noise. Burlingame: Analytics Press, 2015.
Gibson, Dobby. ‘Decomposition as a Spiritual Value in Poetry’. The American Poetry Review. Vol. 44, Issue 6. 2015. p 21.
Harper, Douglas A. ‘Online Etymology Dictionary’. Etymonline. Web. Accessed 7th May 2016.
Jabr, Ferris. ‘Why the Brain Prefers Paper’. Scientific American. Vol. 309, Issue 5. 2013. pp 48-53.
Kittler, Friedrich. Gramophone, Film, Typewriter. Trans. Geoffrey Winthrop-Young and Michael Wutz. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999.
Owen, David. Copies in Seconds: Chester Carlson and the Birth of the Xerox Machine. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004.
Sansom, Ian. Paper: An Elegy. London: Fourth Estate, 2012.
Scarry, Elaine. On Beauty and Being Just. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001.
Sellers, Meredith. ‘The Personal and Poetic Prints of a Female Pioneer of Copier Art’. Hyper Allergic. 20th April 2016. Web. Accessed 7th May 2016.
Shields, David. Reality Hunger: A Manifesto. London: Penguin, 2011.
Stroebel, Leslie and Richard Zakia. The Focal Encyclopedia of Photography. Third Edition. London: Focal Press, 1995. p 507
Thompson, Clive. ‘How the Photocopier Changed the Way We Worked and Played’. Smithsonian. March 2015. Web. Accessed 7th May 2016.