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Facsimile: A Love Letter

The etymology of the word facsimile holds no surprises, but only reminds us that it carries the word simile—a word you learned in elementary school—preceded by the Latin imperative make: “make like.” There is, however, this seductive note following the etymology: “The form factum simile, occurring in quote 1782 sense 2a, is often stated to be the original; but of this we find no evidence.”

Facsimile has been around as a technique and term since the seventeenth century. The facsimile that I refer to here is digital facsimile reproduction, descendant of the lithograph— the invention of which, according to Walter Benjamin, heralded a new age of reproduction in the nineteenth century (216). In the span of time since, there has been a lot of critical anxiety about the facsimile—its deceptions, its proliferation. Either this, or the facsimile is transparent, unremarkable. For example: In Walter Benjamin’s Archive: Images, Texts, Signs—a book compiled of full color facsimile reproductions of postcards, lists, notebook pages, diagrams, manuscript drafts, and other items from the remains of Benjamin’s archive—not one of the essays around which these images are organized comments upon the potentially sensuous experience of lingering over the facsimiles of these things. There is some observation, it is true, of the type of labor involved in deciphering Benjamin’s tiny handwriting: “It bars the reader from direct access to what is written, and initially it can only be experienced sensuously, through the expressive power of the writing’s image; only once it has been deciphered can its contents unfurl” (52). But this is a comment with a different object—and a different excitement—than a comment attuned to the sensuousness of the facsimile, itself, of Benjamin’s open notebook (156-157), a sensuousness that resides not in the fact that this is Benjamin’s notebook, but in the curling layers of tissue-thin pages, on which the undersides of cramped, dark handwriting rise up through the surfaces of verso and recto.

The facsimile is a shallows, a place of perceived surface and undersurface.

There are other texts that do hinge on the readerly encounter with facsimile; Anne Carson’s Nox and Marta Werner and Jen Bervin’s presentation of Emily Dickinson’s envelope poems, The Gorgeous Nothings (both published by New Directions), are two works that approach the book as a gallery space where one might experience the object. But, generally, the facsimile is a tool, a means of conveying the original; it should not disturb, it should not seduce in its own right, but be an inconspicuous substitute.

I, of course, am not one who finds the facsimile unremarkable, nor inconspicuous. Instead, I’ve been waiting for the day to write about its seductions because they are so much a part of my work with memory objects, archives, and digital compositions. Some words, then, on the allure of the facsimile, with some facsimiles from my own archive that I find particularly alluring.

Loss is a process between mediums; this is what the facsimile shows so well. In the material loss that is the rendering of the original object as a facsimile reproduction, something else is gained, some threshold for a different kind of sensuous experience. The facsimile exceeds itself—it has depth; it bears the traces of history, of use and care and decay—and yet it remains veiled by a sensory unattainability. It is resistant, distant. It is never the touchable original, never the real, handleable thing—but thingness it does have, evoking tactility, textures perceived contrary to the smoothness of the page or screen. “The authority of written documents,” Johanna Drucker writes, “does not depend upon their pristine and unaltered condition. Quite the contrary—it is the capacity of material documents to record change which makes them such believable witnesses” (227). As a thing other than its original, the facsimile nonetheless remains powerful evidence, powerful witness—but in its iteration as facsimile, it has also lost that capacity to record change forevermore. There will be no more accrual of the material traces of history. There will be no more decay. Yet instead of being pristine or inert, the facsimile feels processual. That is, similar to the way Barthes looks at a photograph and shudders to think, “This will be and this has been” (96), the facsimile evokes both the accrual of decay and its ongoingness, and these processes overwhelm the perpetually sustained moment of decay that is the facsimile’s material truth. But perhaps—and I don’t know—this says more about the momentum of decay than the nature of the facsimile.

Translation theory might actually be the lens through which I understand what the facsimile does best. This seems fitting; in avoiding Benjamin’s notion of aura, I turn to his equally shape-shifting thoughts on translation. “The task of the translator,” writes Benjamin, “consists in finding that intended effect [Intention] upon the language into which he is translating which produces in it the echo of the original” (76). The translation, the impossible translation that is yet to come, “must lovingly and in detail incorporate the original’s mode of signification, thus making both the original and the translation recognizable as fragments of a greater language, just as fragments are part of a vessel” (78). The facsimile not only reproduces the image of the object; in an act of sensory co-creation with its viewer, it (attempts to) reproduce an experience of what it would be like to handle that object. And, perhaps, to care for that object. Yes: an experience of handling, reproduced in tandem with a past of handlings, of embedded traces, of modification through touch: this is what marks the facsimile as something more than a photocopy. But like all translation, it is imperfect. The original is finally, impossibly, withdrawn in the reproduction, ungraspable therein.

In “Video Haptics and Erotics,” Laura Marks describes the haptic image as emerging out of an erotic tension between the whole and the fragment: “Rather than making the object fully available to view, haptic cinema puts the object into question, calling on the viewer to engage in its imaginative reconstruction. Haptic images pull the viewer close, too close to see properly, and this itself is erotic” (16). Earlier in the essay, she writes, “Haptic looking tends to rest on the surface of its object rather than to plunge into its depth, not to distinguish form so much as to discern texture. It is a labile, plastic sort of look, more inclined to move than to focus…a look that moves on the surface plane of the screen for some time before the viewer realizes what it is she is beholding” (8). Unlike Marks’ haptic images, the facsimile’s sensuousness lies in its wholeness: to be perceived wholly, in a single glance, is a kind of visual alternative to holding with one’s hands. Facsimiles are most often presented in a white surround, sometimes accompanied by text, as on this screen, and sometimes (and this is the preferred method) on the page alone, the only object to be beheld, as in The Gorgeous Nothings. This blank surround is important, for one of the facsimile’s vital sources of allure springs from its unhinging from context—the context of the accumulated archive, collection, tabletop, room. It carries all the context it can in its (reproduced) bodily form, and perhaps for this reason, the materiality it conveys feels so much like a testimony, stark, poignant, and enigmatic with the processes (and potential narratives) of loss and decay. The facsimile is most erotic at its edge: its most vulnerable site of decay, its most well-worn and hand-held.


Works Cited

Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. Trans. Richard Howard. New York: Hill & Wang, 2010. Print.

Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations: Essays and Reflections. Ed. Hannah Arendt. Trans. Harry Zohn. New York: Schocken Books, 2007. Print.

Drucker, Johanna. Figuring the Word: Essays on Books, Writing, and Visual Poetics. New York: Granary Books, 1998. Print.

Marks, Laura U. Touch: Sensuous Theory and Multisensory Media. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002. Print.

Marx, Ursula, Gudrun Schwarz, Michael Schwarz, and Erdmut Wizisla. Walter Benjamin’s Archive: Images, Texts, Signs. London: Verso, 2007. Print.