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.