The Proliferation of Marginalia

In “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” Walter Benjamin argued that technologies of reproduction enable the masses to assume a “progressive” orientation toward art, which he described as “characterized by the direct, intimate fusion of visual and emotional enjoyment with the orientation of the expert.” 

The Internet age slogan “information must be free” is in the same spirit as Benjamin’s essay. Here are two bulletins from the first medium that had to deal with the changes brought about by digital reproduction, and the last one. The BBC’s Ian Youngs profiles the American band Fleet Foxes, the members of which are musical autodidacts of the post-Napster era. Lead singer Robin Pecknold says that file sharing exposes listeners to an unprecedented variety of music. “I think we’re seeing that now with tons of new bands that are amazing, and are doing way better music now than was being made pre-Napster,” Pecknold says. 

While digitally reproduced music has had a positive impact on musical creativity, if not profitability, the future for the last medium to digitize, book publishing, is less certain. Clive Thompson considers the state of digital publishing and urges us, first of all, to separate the act of buying a physical book from the act of reading, but he gives the position a techie, Wired spin, suggesting that interactive online reading technologies, like if:Book’s Golden Notebook Project, will create a class of “professional readers” who are “people so insightful that you’d pay to download their footnotes.” 

This class of people used to be called literary critics and literature professors. What’s to prevent them from becoming as narrow and as pedantic as their academic predecessors? Is the mass reproduction of marginalia a sustainable discussion of books? Literature? Culture? Walter Benjamin warned that simply making a work of art accessible to everyone won’t necessarily lead to change. Without a means to adequate organize reception, “the same public which responds in a progressive manner to a grotesque film is bound to respond in a reactionary manner to surrealism.”

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