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The Work of Art in the Age of Electronic (Re)Production

  • Douglass H. Thomson

…plus d’informations

  • Douglass H. Thomson
    Georgia Southern University

Corps de l’article

"I can no longer think what I want to think. My thoughts have been replaced by moving images."

Georges Duhamel, Scenes de la vie future (1930)

"The human mind . . . operates by association. With one item in its grasp, it snaps instantly to the next that is suggested by the association of thoughts, in accordance with some intricate web of trails carried by the cells of the brain."

Vannevar Bush, As We May Think (1945)

Benjamin: The technique of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the domain of tradition. By making many reproductions it substitutes a plurality of copies for a unique existence. And in permitting the reproduction to meet the beholder or listener in his own particular situation, it reactivates the object reproduced.  [1]

Reader: What does he mean by "reactivating" the object reproduced? (The beginning of literary theory)

Any Web User: Now we know. (The continuing of hypertextual praxis)

Introduction: Benjamin as Prognostic of Hypertextuality

To the growing list of modern and postmodern critics seen as prognostic of hypertextuality and the paradigm shifts it entails  [2], one should add the name of Walter Benjamin. His "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" not only uncannily anticipates many of the new theoretical formulations about art and discourse in the age of electronic reproduction and production; it also can mediate recent debates about the aesthetic and political character of the changes now taking place.

Writing in 1936 and taking photography and the cinema as primary indications of a media revolution, Benjamin pinpoints the changes that will take place in traditional understandings of art as it enters the age of replication and mass commodification. His definitions of these changes (see below) provide a helpful context in which to place our contemporary revolution in media: the transition from print to electronic culture. But Benjamin's essay is valuable in another important way. Although one would expect Benjamin, as a socialist, to applaud the "proletarianization" of art, he actually expresses considerable nostalgia for the loss of art's "aura" as it becomes a medium for mass audiences. That crucial ambiguity in his essay echoes concerns raised today about the artistic and ethical value of electronic media, even as we continue to discover its great potential for education, scholarship, and communication of various kinds. After all, one finds even among the most ardent of e-enthusiasts in academia a degree of nostalgia for book culture. It is an interesting question to ask alongside celebration of what is undeniably gained through hypertextuality: is there some aura lost as we move to the electronic text? Or are we supplying an entirely new meaning for such a ritualistic and cultic term? Does the web have an aura of its own?

One, of course, can only raise such questions. And the web will supply not an answer but many answers as it recasts the questions. But, with Benjamin's help, I want to turn in the fourth section of this document to address an exemplary instance where issues of art, aura, politics, and audience converge: the canon debate in literary studies.

A Table of Paradigm Shifts: From the Authentic to the Reproducible

Perhaps it is best to begin with a table organizing Benjamin's main contentions in an easily intuitable form:




1.the authentic

the reproducible

2. permanence


3. uniqueness

mass distribution and ownership; commodification

4. distance, the unapproachable (enables historical narratives)

proximity, the manipulable (rewrites history)

5. aura based on cult value and ritual

exhibition based on and reflecting market forces

6. autonomy

interdependence (interaction)

7. specialized training (initiation)

polytechnic training (testing)

8. entering a work of art through concentration

absorbing (consuming) a work of art through distraction

9. aestheticization of the political

the politicization of the aesthetic

Discussion of Terms and Implications of the Shift


[These theses] brush aside a number of outmoded concepts, such as creativity and genius, eternal value and mystery . . .


And, even more so, "authenticity," "uniqueness," and "permanence": Benjamin sees this triad of privileged (and privileging) terms in the aesthetic tradition as radically displaced by the onset of mechanical reproduction. What was once authentic can now be replicated and placed in a variety of new contexts that alter meaning; what was once valued as unique loses its function as it becomes the common property and experience of many; what was once permanent and irreversible becomes transitory and reversible, even disposable. Nevertheless, the residual force (or "aura") of these terms continues to play its role in debates about the efficacy of the hypertext. One obvious example: when we cite a URL as part of a scholarly article, can we be sure it will still be there as a "permanent" reference point in the near and distant future? Another: how can we be sure our students draw material from "authentic" academic sites as opposed to their often wayward and idiosyncratic (but as technically sophisticated) clones? If web projects are increasingly viewed as collaborative efforts, what happens to the private, "unique" view of discourse that still forms the basis for evaluation in most academic systems? Should, say, a teacher of writing evaluate a team of page-builders based on the fluidity and malleability rather than upon the originality (not to mention correctness) of their written expression?

Those are just some questions that can be asked as we straddle the line between print and electronic culture. Coming primarily from a bookish understanding of authenticity, permanence, and uniqueness, however, they miss or underestimate the ability of the web to evolve and address such issues. To return to the examples:

  • As for the "permanence" of electronic citation, there is only a problem if the referring article is a print one. One of the central arguments for moving projects of literary scholarship to the web is precisely the capability of e-documents to evolve and receive—indeed encourage—revision. In this sense "transitoriness" is not a bad thing but instead a truer indication of the always developing, always open to discussion state of scholarly knowledge.

  • As for sifting "authentic" from "pop" authorities, the web of course, asks that we seriously (and, at other times, playfully) reconsider that distinction (although I suppose many of us rely on the shorthand method of "edu" in the URL). One of the most gigantic and valuable potentials of the web is an opening up of academic resources to the general public. This democratizing of knowledge will ask the scholar constructing his or her e-libraries and projects to look not only to a peer, university audience but to a wider one as well—and that can't be a bad thing.

  • As for the private vs. public, original vs. shared—name your favorite—dialectic, the cosmopolis of hypertext substitutes a chiasmus: Page-builders love and (maybe prematurely) exalt in the originality of their own creations, yet they share in a world-wide protocol of conventions traditionally opposed to ideas of the "unique." They steal left and write, but page-builders do write and control their own e-spaces. What could be better than the hypertext to engage the too long either-or of writing as personal expression vs. writing as public discourse? Writing as process? What else is HTML?

This calling into question of concepts that print culture relies upon as authority recalls the terms of an earlier, massive paradigm shift: the movement from orality to literacy, most memorably expressed in Plato's Phaedrus and most memorably, for postmodernism, critiqued by Derrida in his Disseminations. In the Phaedrus, Socrates ("he who does not write") makes the case that alphabetic literacy is not the great boon that most take it to be; the written word will weaken rather than augment men's memories; it will divorce discourse from its authenticating origin in the spoken voice; it, in fact, stands as a poor family relation or bastard to the true son of consciousness, "the living word engraved in the soul of a listener." Derrida pounces on just this distinction, arguing that the phonocentric bias of the Phaedrus translates into a logocentrism that suppresses the disseminating play of writing. Although Derridean concepts are often invoked as a useful descriptor for the hypertext and its disseminating character, I think it's important to note that the electronic text actually does more than point out the inadequacy of Plato's position; instead, the e-text responds to his concerns. Yes, it would be easy to see the vast proliferation of web-texts with their blurring of origins and dizzying cross-referencing as the nightmare of Socratic thought.  [3] But don't e-texts restore the speaking voice to discourse? One can send e-mail to the sites, interrogate them, and engage in dialogue (Socratic or otherwise).

And this case really underscores the position and value of the hypertext in relation to the paradigm shift under discussion. The hypertext on only one level can be said to displace terms from column A in favor of those under Column B (the "authentic" to the "reproducible," the "unique" to the ordinary and so forth). But it is actually more valuable to see the hypertext as mediating the conflict between those terms. We need not dispense with the authentic, the unique, the permanent, and the phoneme in favor of the reproducible, the generic, the transitory, and the lexical. Hypertextuality asks us to re-examine and redefine our understandings of such terms.


Unapproachability is a major quality of the cult image. True to its nature, it remains 'distant, however close it may be'.

Note 7

Since historical testimony rests on authenticity, [it] is jeopardized by reproduction when substantive duration ceases to matter. And what is really jeopardized when the historical testimony is affected is the authority of the object.


The ongoing revolution in textual criticism afforded by the hypertext provides the best application of Benjamin's remarks on unapproachability and historical narrative. A perfect example of the unapproachable that still enchants editors of literary texts is the "text as most perfectly in accord with the artist's best intentions or original design." Of course, Jerome McGann and other theorists of textual study have argued that such an enchantment with an ur-text betrays a peculiarly Romantic fallacy, privileging the private moment of conception over the public life of the text. Still, a quick glance at the divergent editorial policies of the recent Romantic anthologies—or mere invocation of debate concerning the mighty Cornell Wordsworth—shows that even if textual practice has retreated from the idea of the most "authentic" text, the issue of which is the best or most representative is far from settled (and never will be).

Textual editors were one of the first groups of literary scholars to realize the potential of the hypertext, which provides an uncanny exegesis and extension of McGann's The Principles of Textual Criticism (another print-culture text prophetic of the e-texts). Now instead of cultic devotion to the singular text, we have multiple texts; now, instead of copy-texts, we have decentered texts; now, instead of the canonical text, residing unapproachably in its authority, we have versions of texts (nodes) that situate themselves in a myriad of relations to other texts, to the reading publics of their historical conditions, and to ours; now, instead of the completed text, we have the open-ended one, encouraging interaction as part of its own continuing structure.

For a lucid introduction to the new paradigm of textual editing, see McGann's "The Rationale of HyperText." [4]

The following provide links to some of the hypertextual projects in Romantic and related studies that are revolutionizing our understanding of textual criticism  [5]:

The following are links to some other exemplary hypertextual projects in Romantic studies  [6]:

All these projects (but especially and pointedly WORP) provide practical and practicing realization of the New Historical view of "literary texts as a agents as well as effects of cultural change, as participating in a cultural conversation rather than merely re-presenting the conclusion reached in that conversation"  [7]. Benjamin is right in suggesting that received "historical testimony . . . rest[ing] on authenticity is jeopardized" when we locate works of art within such a variety of cultural and material practices and open them to new scrutiny. But the "authority" of a text has always been involved with its intertextuality, and the hypertext deftly underscores that fact by allowing us to approach it from a number of perspectives, one text opening to another. In place of the "unapproachable," it provides rapproachement.


For the first time in world history, mechanical reproduction emancipates the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual.


That which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art.


In a recent article in The New York Times, "Internet Art: Turning the Web Into a Maze," Michael Kimmelman evokes Benjamin's idea of the lost aura to characterize what he sees as the shabby state of affairs regarding internet "art," both in its content and presentation:

Benjamin, prescient in many respects, . . . predicted that mechanical reproduction would eradicate the aura of the original art object for the masses, who are ardent in their "bent toward overcoming the uniqueness of every reality by accepting its reproduction." . . . [He] died decades before personal computers and MTV, but if he were alive he just might make the connection between surfing and MTV's rambling, distracted one-thing-then-another culture.  [8]

Ignoring (as Kimmelan surely does) the fact that at least one side of Benjamin saw the withering of the aura as a positive thing, one can easily see how Benjamin's terms could be used with a vengeance to characterize web culture. Everywhere it seems to invite participation and manipulation, undercutting that grand aloofness and distance that Benjamin associates with the aura of a great work of art; constantly, the web underscores its own transitoriness and contemporaneity, eroding that sense of permanence and autonomy—that essential sense of pastness—which comprises for Benjamin the basis of a ritualistic, even cultic appreciation of art. It's as if those frozen figures on Keats's urn have been re-animated through java script: art on the web does not "tease us out of thought / As doth eternity" but encourages us to jump from one thought to another.

Laments like Kimmelman's stem from a perceived loss of the aura as defined in terms of book culture. Keep and McLaughlin have ably summarized the cognitive basis of the book's aura:

. . . a book, with its front and back cover, its first page and last, is a model of our desire for completion, wholeness, and closure. The very physical organization of a book, with pages bound to a center spine, invites us to proceed through a text in linear, pre-determined manner, moving first from left to right across the page, then from page to page and chapter to chapter. The Book thus upholds our mutual fascinations with etiology and teleology, with beginnings and endings.

No "distracted one-thing-then-another culture"—the book represents sequential order and promises a sense of an ending. And then there is the ontotheological dimension of the book, constantly attacked by postmodern writers but still with its powerful allure:

The Book . . . harkens back to the time before the confounding of language at Babel (Gen. 11), to the unity of sign and referent: in it the world is still encoded, written-over by the pen of the divine Author, but meaning exists prior to and transcendent of the instabilities, the deceptions and ruses of language.  [9]

On one level, Benjamin would welcome the end of the aura of the book: as a keen interrogator of ideological imposture who witnessed the devastations of Fascist propaganda and myth-making, he is consummately wary of the uncritically received truth. But the lover of art in him worries that something will be lost, some magic, some standard of excellence, some place of agreement where we find a lasting fascination and comfort with the great work of art and the enduring book of God and Nature. With web culture so clearly re-writing both the cognitive and the ontotheological dimensions of book culture (or so clearly reinforcing poststructuralism's assault on those terms), it would seem the aura is (again) dead and gone. Yet, might the hypertext on its own terms—not those of book culture—be said to possess some aura of its own? I think it does and does so, moreover, in a way that can precisely address the ambivalence of Benjamin's suspicion of and nostalgia for the aura.

If anyone has emerged as the elegist of the aura, it has to be Sven Birkerts, with his unembarrassed and loving tribute to book culture. But strange as it may seem, I find in his poetic fear of the hypertext a good, starting definition of what may comprise its own distinctive aura:

When we trust to the unseen, we confer power. Deities . . . and silicon pathways webbed into microchips—all of these we invest with a potency that we do not always grant to more objectively verifiable phenomena. . . . [T]he words on the screen seem to arrive from some collective elsewhere that seems more profound, deeper than a mere writer's subjectivity. . . . The site [sic] of veneration shifts; in the reader's subliminal perception some measure of the power belonging to the writer is handed over to the machine. The words on the screen . . . are felt to issue from a void deeper than language, and this, not the maker of language, claims any remnant impulse to belief.  [10]

For students of literary criticism taught to be suspicious of author-ities and, sadly, reveries, Birkert's logic is all too easy to dismantle—and therein lies part of the problem. Yes, it's easy to find fault with his preferred veneration for the poein, the "maker of language," and not many of us would be comfortable with the idea of the written word as an "objectively verifiable phenomenon"—verifying requires more words, calling into question the act of verification—we know how the story goes. But looking back at his definition of the danger of hypertext, one immediately see he's right on one score: the web does offer "a collective elsewhere more profound, deeper than a mere writer's subjectivity." From Birkert's bookish perspective, this is a bad thing, a relinquishing of the personal contract between reader and author, an uncritical conferral of power to the anonymous machine. But for the hypertextualist, that "collective elsewhere" surely comprises an essential feature of what is exciting about web culture and may let us think about the aura in some new and productive ways.

The very idea of an "elsewhere" is fundamental to all mythic systems: "The soul that rises with us, our life's star, / Hath had elsewhere its setting / And cometh from afar." The mythic elsewhere is most always a never, never land, on one level representing a transcendence of temporal and personal limitations, on another a desire that reveals the particular historical condition of those limitations. The "collective elsewhere" of the web for Birkert, however, is a demythologizer, a destroyer of "any remnant impulse to belief." But it needn't be. Instead of a depersonalizing force that undermines authority, the web offers a scene of intersubjectivity and a vital meeting place of various points of view. We get not just to imagine but to occupy and to help constitute the "elsewhere." The open-ended and participatory nature of web-production does unravel the cognitive basis of the Book, with its aura of closure and wholeness. But Proteus is just as much a mythic figure as Apollo: the ever-changing nature of web production, with its seemingly limitless capacity for expansion, has its own mythic dimensions. They are dimensions we imagine, we structure, we produce. Benjamin wanted to "emancipate the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual"—from the bookish notion that aesthetic excellence exists prior to and always just beyond our possession of it. The web offers such an emancipation at the same time it conjures a new and exciting possibility of the aura. We may be witnessing, as Benjamin wished for, the end of a "cultic" appreciation of art. But what could be more mythic, even millennial, than the promise of a "world-wide" community to replace it?


When the age of mechanical reproduction separated art from its basis in cult, the semblance of its autonomy disappeared forever.


The distinction between author and public is about to lose its basic character. . . . At any moment the reader is ready to turn into a writer.


I remember some years ago being disturbed by a Professor of English Education at my college who recommended to his student-teachers that they show film versions of "difficult" literary works to highschoolers before having them read the works (apparently so that the works would be more accessible). This was an invasion of a holy place—an individual reader's First Reading of the Book—that would profane the ritual. Instead of having to create the landscape and action of the book, the students could merely substitute a ready-made version. Instead of working to produce their own interpretations (no matter how sketchy or errant, a valuable process in itself), they could simply invoke the one supplied by the film. Such a pedagogical prefurnishing (or prefabricating) simply destroys the autonomy of both the artistic and the reading process.

One potential complaint about hypertextual editions of literary works is that they provide the same threat to "close reading." Instead of the initiate reader's due respect for the verbal icon and her unaided attempt to wrest from the book its secrets, we have the interactive reader of an electronic "version" of the text, with its links to background material, critical interpretations of given passages, concordances, illustrations, etc.—all which can lead the reader away from the Primary Text. But (again) I think this contrast—productive as it has been for the composition of Elegies for the Book—is drawn too boldly. As teachers of literature, we should defend the primary scene of reading as vigorously as possible. And (again) the hypertext should be seen as a supplement to (not a replacement of) first-reading. For the student who has read a book and wants to learn more about it, what could be a better educational tool than the hypertext? As opposed to the Cliff's Notes approach, the hypertext allows the student to interact and participate with the text and its critical resources. As the student develops her own reading path, the hypertext helps her produce her own understanding of the text, aided and enriched (and impeded) by the sources she confronts along that path of her own plotting. She doesn't get a ready-made text but help in the creation of her own understanding of it.

In twitting the "pitiless divorce which the literary institution makes between the producer of a text and its user,"  [11] Roland Barthes termed such an institutionalized or "readerly" text a "classic," allegedly because in its canonical autonomy it could resist or exceed any given interpretation, any attempt to produce or "write" it. As teachers of literature, many of us still have what Benjamin would call that "cultic" attachment to the idea of a classic. Such a view legitimizes our role as the high priests of literature, who interpret the oracle for the masses. But surely we all want our students to learn to produce texts, to experience what Barthes simply calls "the pleasure of writing," to become their own interpreters. The hypertext not only facilitates this process but will make us rethink many of our notions of the teacher-student relationship based on print culture.


Literary license is now founded on polytechnic rather than specialized training and thus becomes common property.


The decline of "specialization"—or our rewriting of what that term means—in literary studies has been for many a distressing trend in the last twenty years or so. We coin difficult terms such as "periodicity" and "canonicity" to problematize the issue; traditional literary fields are renamed, collapsed into one another, or lengthened, uneasily underscoring the arbitrary limits of such institutional constructions. Even the "scholar" who would continue to define himself as a "specialist" in a given field must confront constantly changing critical approaches—poststructuralism, social constructivism, new historicism, cultural materialism, various feminisms and psychologisms—that every five years or so redefine the nature of his subject. With such constant revisions, we arguably hurt our ability to make the efforts of our research accessible and appealing to a broader public. History "specialists" frequently appear on their "own" cable channel to spin narratives that invite great public interest; many fields of science have done fantastic jobs of capturing the public imagination for their research projects. Literary critics? We spend time questioning the efficacy of the popular term "Romantic" at the very time its 200th anniversary passes before us.

Well, of course, that's too harsh. If, as Benjamin suggests, literary license is moving from the specialized to the polytechnic—from a given field to Bakhtin's carnival—literary critics are especially well positioned to understand and realize the potential of the new electronic technologies. Think of Alan Liu, in one role a Wordsworthian (or anti-Wordsworthian)—now the weaver of the most valuable web resource for the humanities. Or, take George Landow, a distinguished Victorian scholar, now nimbly negotiating the space between literary and computer theory. The list could go on and on. Our "field" has always been more interdisciplinary than most academic disciplines; we remember that Rorty in writing against the too "specialized," discipline-bound vocabulary of philosophy saw in the languages of literary criticism a corrective model. As bricoleurs, literary critics are especially well adapted to utilize the multivocal, multilinear qualities of the hypertext. And in acting upon this gift from science, maybe we can finally build that bridge from the humanities to the sciences and industry,  [12] a bridge long foretold but still under construction, an opposition long realized as limiting and which perhaps now can be repositioned.


A man who concentrates before a work of art is absorbed by it. In contrast, the distracted mass absorbs the work of art.


Perhaps nowhere is Benjamin's lingering attachment to the aura more evident than in his distinction between the concentrating man who helps produce the work of art and the "distracted mass" who merely consumes it. As an example, Benjamin offers a contrast between the imaginative demands of theater-going and the lazy allure of the cinema; today, we'd readily offer reading vs. T.V. watching or listening to music vs. watching a music video (which sometimes seems consciously designed to distract one from listening to the music!). And, of course, many serious thinkers have lodged complaints about the mind-numbing tendencies of the web, with its narcotic array of games, toys, whistles, bells, chat, and all that.

While there's no denying that many web sites exist merely to distract and to titillate (and to be consumed and to make money), the hypertext provides a supplement to the two opposed terms ("concentrated" vs. "distracted"): the "tractable" or "tractile." One meaning of "tractable" ("being easily lead, taught, managed") accords well with the position of those who voice moral and aesthetic concerns about the questionable allure of the web: it can displace thinking with "docile" consumption. But a related meaning of "tractable" points more to the positive intellectual potential of the hypertext: "easily worked or wrought." As McGann has pointed out, the hypertext is "ordered to disperse attention as broadly as possible" (Rationale"). To the serious thinker who would through pointed concentration master the nuances of a supposedly discreet work of art, this dispersal of attention must seem the opposite of genuine intellectual work. But to the participant in hypertextuality, such tractability forms the essence of its intellectual charm and utility: because the hypertext is easily wrought, we can dart here and there, to and fro on the developing narrative of our own reading path. Far from docile, we delight in the text's ductility and our ability to follow thought where it may lead. The hypertext reminds us that some of the most productive thinking can be playful. To see such explorations only as "distraction" simply misunderstands the enormously positive intellectual potential of the tractile web.


The instant the criterion for the 'authentic' ceases to be applicable to artistic production, the total function of art is reversed: instead of being based on ritual, it begins to be based on another practice—politics.


The logical result of Fascism is the introduction of aesthetics into political life. . . . . Communism responds by politicizing art.


A neo-Marxist friend of mine once countered my enthusiasm for the democratic workings of the web by remarking that "Democracy merely means we can all say what we like, and it won't matter to anyone. Its very essence is granting the bottom the illusion that they are freely choosing the dictates of the top." Does the web contribute to this illusion or, instead, can it lead to Benjamin's desired politicization of discourse and art? As Landow has pointed out, the idea of the "network" in most contemporary Marxist thought is used "chiefly to characterize error."  [13] For thinkers like Macherey and Jameson, the "network" functions as a sublimating feature of the superstructure, as a system of signs "which replaces the complexity of real relations by which a world is effectively constituted"  [14]. For the neo-Marxist, the network masks the "reality of social life, which lies in the labor process itself"  [15]. It remains to be debated whether or not the world wide web is just the latest and most fantastical of such superstructural networks. Surely it is a product of capitalism and everywhere partakes of its ideology. Yet, as with so many other aspects of web culture, electronic production compels us to rethink the terms of this traditional dialectic (the reality of material existence vs. the controlling network of power) .

We have been taught by Marx and his followers that no historically situated discourse can transcend the controlling ideological constraints of its ruling power; any critique of its power structure must inevitably participate in its practice. But web production complicates the relationship between base, superstructure, and ideology (or provides a compelling example of how complex Marx actually saw that relationship). Although the web is a child of capitalism, it seems an unruly one. Its dialogic, polyphonic character would seem to resist any one tyrannical voice of political or interpretative authority. And the network of the web does not exactly or necessarily mask "the reality of social life, which lies in the labor process itself" because at many levels web production is a labor process in itself. Unlike book production, which requires its product to pass through established networks of vetting and power, web production places its product in the marketplace with few, if any, mediations or discriminations. It has created not just a network but an economy of its own, and many of its new capitalists take delight in resisting or eluding any attempt at governmental or industry regulation (just think of the continuing lore about the web's rebel and anarchist: the hacker). It is not clear to me at this stage the degree to which web production will lead to Benjamin's desired politicization of art and discourse, but surely it offers a new space for reflection upon the relation of labor to power. As Derrida has written, electronic media

is in the process of transforming the entire public and private space of humanity, starting with the limit between the private, the secret (private or public) and the public or the phenomenal. It is not only a technique, in the common and limited sense of the term: at a brand new rate, almost instantaneously, this instrumental possibility of production, printing, conservation and destruction of the archive cannot fail to have go along with it juridical and therefore political transformations.  [16]

Conserving and destroying the archive; producing as well as subverting the network: these ideas nicely foreground consideration of one network that has long been under attack and scrutiny: the literary canon.

Application of Benjamin's Shift to the Canon Debate

One can fairly quickly see that most of the terms Benjamin associates with the age before mechanical reproduction are closely associated with the idea of (or rationale for) a traditional canon: such a "permanent" corpus of texts would "authentically" embody "the best that is known and thought in the world" (to use Arnold's phrase) and be "unapproachable" in its authority. The aura of such a canon has been so healthfully deconstructed over the past few years that I need not here reprise the arguments.  [17] Indeed, add to those arguments the ongoing and exciting recovery of once neglected authors and the potential of the web to archive them, and we arrive at a completely new stage: the end of the Canon Debate and the advent of building canons. We stand poised to move beyond late modernist deconstruction to a genuinely productive era of postmodern constructions.

As all readers of this e-journal know, Romanticism provides an especially compelling case study of these developments. We have our "Big Six," who despite some rather harsh recent critical reevaluations, still enjoy a canonical authority. Plus, as scholars like Laura Mandell have shown,  [18] the very idea of a canon and the activity of canon-making are closely related to Romantic constructions of poetic excellence. One remembers Wordsworth, in a "Preface" that in many ways attempts to democratize poetry, yet seeking to cultivate a more elect readership in opposition to the popular fascination with "frantic novels" and "deluges of idle and extravagant verse." Or Keats before his Moneta, excluding (in a manner prognostic of that exemplary canon-builder Arnold) those who "labor for mortal good" from the fane of Poesy. Over and against this stable canon of six and its self-perpetuating rationale came the rediscovery of voices marginalized by that rationale: women writers of the age, gothic novelists, domestic and political writers—all the very "polemical and practical" voices Arnold had once insisted we exclude. Surprisingly long overdo new anthologies rushed in to reflect the exciting new events and provide a very practical and polemical demonstration of the dynamics and challenges of canon-formation. Despite the problems and anxieties occasioned by this paradigm shift, these developments reflected an enormously healthy discipline, one whose theoretical reflections had led directly to highly productive scholarly work.

As many Romantics scholars are right now realizing, the web offers the perfect medium to facilitate this variety of new canon formations and to address problems typically associated with such developments when they take place in print culture. Some of these problems include

  • the inherent limitations of any anthology. If anything, the new wave of anthologies of Romantic literature underscored just how difficult it is to accommodate the changes taking place in regards to the canon: how to include the woman poets with a sufficient breadth and critical context to prevent their still appearing marginal; how to supply necessary political backgrounds without making it appear that such backgrounds are only a prelude to understanding poetry; how to choose among various versions of a given text (and how that decision governs the chronological sequencing of texts); how to include the new without slighting the old (e.g. scant Hazlitt in Mellor and Matlack or the continuing saga of what to do with Scott). Now there's a simple solution to these daunting problems: supplement the anthology with web material; design syllabi that require both print readings and web explorations. Wu's decision to release an expanded CD version of his Romanticism: An Anthology seems paradigmatic of the new possibilities, but the web offers even more range and choice of materials.

  • any canon, new or old, as a received or imposed rather than as a created order. The aura will change not simply because the canon changes on the internet, but also because the canon moves to the internet from the book. Instead of the codex canon with its grand illusion of stability and permanence, web production offers a malleable range of choices and routes, arresting new juxtapositions of dominant canons with allegedly lesser ones, and the opportunity to participate in the construction of new orders. Derrida has recently made just this point in his discussion of the way electronic media will revolutionize our thinking about the archive:

    the archive, as impression, writing, prosthesis or hypomnesiac technique in general is not only the place for storing a past archivable content which would in any case exist, such as one still thinks it was or will have been without it. No, the technical structure of the archiving archive also determines the structure of the archivable content in its very emergence and in its relation to the future. Archivation produces as much as it records the event.  [19]

These are exactly the kinds of changes taking place in our understanding of that most privileged of archives, the canon. To paraphrase Benjamin, once the criterion for the "authentic" ceases to be applicable to canon-making, the total function of the canon is reversed: instead of being based on ritual (something received) or on some standard of excellence that resists interrogation, the idea of a canon begins to be based on politics, in both our increased understanding of the historical and material conditions that structure any canon and our greater participation in forming new ones. What seems clear is that we and our students will not only become more aware about the dynamics of canon formation but will become more active in determining the process. For example, my students immediately recognize their own Bookmarks as an example in miniature of canon-building. Many wonderfully innovative syllabi  [20] out there are taking advantage of the new technology; students no longer just attempt to interpret the canonically received text, with its aura of unapproachability and permanence; they interact with and sometimes even help construct the texts. A whole new range of pedagogical understandings is emerging, most all of which have to do with enabling students.

Two possible objections may be raised to such high claims for the scholarly and pedagogical promise of the hypertext. One is that such a proliferation of texts and (especially) non-vetted projects results in just what the defenders of the traditional canon have foretold: an end to the idea of discrimination in literary studies, a relinquishing of the critical responsibility to define what is unique, worthy, and instructive. The other objection comes from an opposite quarter and provides a wonderfully ironic counterpoint to the traditionalist concern: some have complained that most literary web projects still display a lingering bias to authors and works from the traditional canon.  [21] It seems, at least in this nascent stage of development, that the aura still has its allure. To those concerned that many hypertext projects merely replicate resources already available in high print culture, one can answer that we are, in fact, only in the beginning stages of developing new archives and critical strategies. But there's another answer as well to both objections: as Landow reminds us, "although hypertext intertextuality would seem to devalue any historic or other reductionism, it in no way prevents those interested in reading in terms of author and tradition from doing so"  [22]

We end, then, with an irony Benjamin might well have appreciated: right in the midst of a media revolution that would seem to confirm and extend his argument about the "withering" of the aura, we find evidence of its continuing power in our residual attachment to the traditional canon. The web, after all, provides not just a place for new material of all kinds but a better way to organize our understanding of traditional figures and literatures. It does seem to me that the most valuable promise of the Web is contained in such projects as The Bluestocking Archive and the British Romantic Women Poets Project and other archives that present hard to locate primary texts, especially at this time when many university libraries are facing fiscal restraints.  [23] Yet with the web we can better read this exciting new material alongside, within, and against the texts of the traditional canon, rethinking at every stage its composition and achievement. The "work" of art in the age of electronic production is no longer the discreet aesthetic object—the painting on the wall, the book on the library shelf. It is the work of all scholars, teachers, and students as we go on constructing new canons and new understandings of what canon- making means.

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