The Aura of Analog: Reckoning with Our Past
By Chris Pasion
A THIEF IN THE STACKS
In my hands I hold a book stolen by the most successful book thief in the world. It is a rare, historic copy of a captivity narrative titled A Short Biography of John Leith, With a Brief Account of His Life Among the Indians. This book, printed in Cincinnati in 1883 in a run of only 143 copies, details an early American settler’s experience with being captured by Native Americans. The preface touts Leith’s “brief account” as “unusually accurate” despite the many years that elapsed between his capture and retelling of the events. Any inaccuracies in his words are addressed in footnotes—footnotes that are extensive and laced liberally throughout the book. Oftentimes there is more footnote than original text on any given page, which suggests that his account is perhaps not as accurate as he had originally indicated. John Leith’s story fits the mold of early Americana; the intrigue of a compelling story outweighs the need for a faithful retelling of the true events. Still, I am not interested in this book because of its story. Rather, I find myself drawn to its tangible presence as an artifact of our history. Dusty old books give off a mystique that is only afforded to a rare and archaic relic of the past; to flip through their pages is to experience something foreign and alluring.
But this is not all that draws my attention. Despite this mystique, I am interested in the Short Biography for reasons other than the fact that it is old. I find myself studying this book because of the added mystique that comes with its status as a book treasured, handled, and defaced by the book thief Stephen Blumberg.
Starting in the 1960s, Stephen Blumberg embarked on a twenty-year quest to steal back the world’s history from the cold, clammy hands of the villainous librarians who had locked it away. Nicholas Basbanes’ A Gentle Madness: Bibliophiles, Bibliomanes, and the Eternal Passion for Books explores the phenomenon of bibliophilia – the love of books – through case studies of eccentric characters. The Blumberg Collection provides a bizarre bookend to its dense, 600-page story, acting as an effective exclamation to a long-winded tale of book fetishism. Basbanes recognizes Blumberg’s case as the most absurd of any book-lover in recorded history.
Blumberg’s story first sparked my interest when Kevin Grace, the head archivist at the University of Cincinnati’s Archives and Rare Books Library, spoke about a heist that had taken place at the university. He shared stories of a book thief who, in the late 1960s, had stolen over two-hundred volumes from the archives at Carl Blegen Library. The thief removed all traces of past ownership from the books by taking a razor blade to anything that indicated a library had previously possessed them. The ex libris bookplates were unglued from their covers in a calculated process involving healthy amounts of saliva, the outcome of which can be seen in the faded area at the center of a book cover. Blumberg would obsessively lick the bookplate until it began to lift from its cover, and then remove it with a wire or string. Defacing the books of their ownership allowed Blumberg to change their provenance; they belonged to him now.
Blumberg’s plunder of rare books, resulting in a collection of “23,600 books from 268 libraries in forty-five states, two Canadian Provinces, and the District of Columbia,” was estimated to be valued at no less than twenty-million dollars (Basbanes, 467). Blumberg filled the seventeen rooms of his Victorian-era home with stacks of stolen volumes and other pilfered memorabilia. Federal agents who raided his home in 1990 found “stained glass windows, paintings, and more than 50,000 brass doorknobs. As it turned out, Stephen Blumberg not only ‘collected’ books, he collected anything old, especially from the 19th century. He was obsessed with all things Victorian, down to the antique underwear he occasionally wore” (Grace 18). Blumberg was released from prison in 1996, at age 48, after being penalized only $56,000 and held for a six-year sentence.
At the Archives and Rare Books Library I have examined the recovered texts that are housed on site, which includes only three books. The rest of the two-hundred-some volumes recovered from Blumberg’s home are housed away from the archives in an off-campus facility, perhaps as a precaution in the off-chance that Blumberg would choose to uptake his old career or enlist a protégé to continue his life’s work. I also examined the records that detail which books had been taken from the stacks, a collection of manila folders that fills eleven boxes. Flipping through these three books and the records was eerie; the book thief’s markings were all over them, his presence felt in their pages. Studying an old book from centuries past is an experience in itself, but when the rare book you are thumbing through was stolen and defaced by the world’s most successful bibliokleptomaniac… the book transcends its own history.
In reflecting on the book thief, I find myself wondering why he so valued these volumes. What drew him to them? Basbanes got Blumberg to speak on this in an interview that took place in Blumberg’s home before his sentencing. Blumberg remarked that he stole the books because they offered “a form of security in that they were knowledge, or a form of art, to be enjoyed” (Bisbanes 480). This answer does not entirely explain why he filled every crevice of his home with what some would consider old, irrelevant junk. In the absence of a more compelling answer, I posit that the book thief stole archival books and historical artifacts because he was drawn to their aura.
RECKONING WITH THE AURA
In his 1936 essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Walter Benjamin establishes the aura as an intangible energy or presence emanated by original works of art. Benjamin uses religious idolatry and fine art as examples of items that hold legitimacy afforded only to something that is the sole, authentic, original piece. Standing in their presence, basking in their atmosphere, one can feel their aura. Benjamin highlights the practice of reproducing works of art, arguing that doing so pries the object from its aural shell. Reproductions, while fulfilling the desires of a consumer society, do not retain inherent value as their original does. Reproductions cannot exhibit aura. In “The Work of Art” Benjamin argues that “that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art… By making many reproductions it substitutes a plurality of copies for a unique existence” (4).
Benjamin’s position on aura in his 1936 essay has been famously debated, with scholars divided on how the philosopher truly felt about the subject. Is the degradation of aura a positive thing; does it give rise to something new? Is the definition of aura simply changing? Nearly eighty years now separate “The Work of Art” essay from the present day. Even in Benjamin’s day, aura was beginning to deteriorate in the face of technological advancement. Moreover, societal values were changing as well. Aura was in need of expansion in order to accommodate the new media through which art could be created and appreciated. Rather than develop a new way of defining aura that works in the changing world, it is just as effective to look back. Though “The Work of Art” is Benjamin’s most seminal work, he first explored the concept of aura in some of his earlier writing.
Benjamin scholar Miriam Bratu Hansen scoured his earlier, unpublished writings from 1930 – a time when Benjamin was famously conducting hashish experiments to supplement his thoughts – and came upon a definition of aura with a better universal applicability. Benjamin writes, “First, genuine aura appears in all things, not just certain kinds of things, as people imagine” (qtd. in Hansen 336). This definition starkly contrasts the strictly aesthetic constraints he would later establish. Using this idea of aura allows for a more open interpretation of what art is and how it should be regarded; it lifts the need for an object to retain authenticity or to be an original work of art. Defining aura in this way allows for reproductions of a work of art to retain the aura that their existence would have rendered obsolete under the confinements Benjamin would later apply. Hansen posits that the “genuine” definition of aura “contained structural elements that were indispensable to reimagining experience in a collective, secularized, and technologically mediated form” (357). This concept of aura is malleable, able to bend and conform to the changing forms that art can manifest.
In reflecting on her essay, Hansen writes, “I’ve traced some of these impulses to show aura’s complex role for [Benjamin’s] efforts to reimagine the possibility of experience in mass-mediated modernity; I hope to have also elucidated the stakes of his experimental mode of theorizing— a mode of theorizing that I consider still, and in more than one sense, ‘open to the future’” (375). Benjamin wrote himself into a corner with “The Work of Art,” creating a definition for aura that confined the value of art at a time when the ways art could be defined was expanding. Art cannot be confined. Benjamin’s lesser recognized, “genuine” aura, on the other hand, is one that can persist through the years into the 21st century and beyond. It is upon this foundation that I will analyze ways in which aura has come to play in modern times and in my personal experience.
My grandfather passed away before I was born. He was a Filipino who immigrated to the United States in the 1960s, bringing with him an enthusiasm for art and medicine. He would attend art auctions in Chicago with my grandmother, obtaining signed, original prints of work by artists such as John Lennon. Photography was a passion of his; my family argues that he was selectively competent at it, often forgetting to remove the lens cap from the camera as he shot. Despite the fact that I never met my grandfather, I have come to know him through his photographs and the stories that accompany them. With his photography, my grandfather has given me a visual timeline for many important events in his life, and the lives of my family members. Digging through the slides and negatives that comprise his photo archive, I have come across pictures of him and my grandmother freshly engaged; my father being born and growing up alongside his three brothers; other Filipino men and women who I can only assume are my extended family. My grandfather’s practice of always keeping a camera on him has allowed me to appreciate a time that would otherwise have only been documented in stories—stories that would eventually cease to be told.
In “Benjamin’s Aura”, Hansen discusses a concept that can easily be applied to my relationship to these photographs. She writes, “The perceiving subject engages in a form of Belehnung or endowment of the natural object with ‘the ability to look back at us.’ True to the etymological connotation of the word aura (Greek and Latin for ‘breath,’ ‘breeze,’ a subtle, fleeting waft of air, an atmospheric substance), the gazing subject is breathing, not just seeing” (351). [INSERT RIGHT JUSTIFIED IMAGE PASION 3 HERE WITH CAPTION “Dad learns to ride”]This passage suggests that the aura of an object is captivating because it does not cement it in the past, but rather, it brings it into the present. My grandfather’s photo archive is a documentation of my family history, yet it gives me context for how my family became what it is today. He was my only direct connection to my Filipino heritage—a heritage I have come to know on a surface level through his archive. These documents’ ability to look back at me contributes to their aura. In them, I see my father as a young child, learning how to ride his bike, beaming a grin at the camera as he zooms past; my grandmother as a young woman, coyly smiling for a photo before leaving for work, clearly not prepared to have find a camera pointed her direction so early; even my grandfather, proudly posing with his three young sons, fruitlessly attempting to contain their wild energy long enough to snap a photo. Some of my favorite photos are the ones where my grandfather passes the camera off to another and allows for his own picture to be taken. In these shots, I am afforded a look at my grandfather’s face. I am able to look into the eyes through which I am seeing this archive. He is looking at the camera-wielder – likely my grandmother – but in a way, we are having some contact in this exchange as well.
While the aura these photos exude is mostly projected with heavy personal bias, I believe there are aspects of them that would interest others. This archive is a time-capsule back to the 1970s. There are beautiful cars that really stand out compared to those of the present day; the fashion and furnishings are comprised of bold patterns and striking colors. What connects these photos to present day is the traditions that are portrayed in many them, such as the family gathering around the table for Thanksgiving or the kids excitedly opening presents on Christmas morning. Depicting these events helps to show the cyclical nature of time; the aesthetics of the decades may change, but people remain the same.
In addition to the photo archive, I have also inherited my grandfather’s two film cameras: a Leica M4 and a Nikon FE. His name and city – the one in which I was born and raised – is engraved on the back of his cameras. They read:
N G PASION JR
I cannot help but feel his presence when I use them; it is the only way of connecting with him that I have been afforded. Every time I press the shutter, I am channeling him. These cameras tie me to my ancestor.
The cameras take on a double aura as I tinker with them. They are old technology, harkening back to the 1960s, which substantiates them even without the added sentimental value they hold for me. Reflecting on them reminds me of leafing through the Short Biography; both the cameras and the book are relics of bygone times, giving them one layer of aura, but a second one arises due to the people who have handled them. In the case of the cameras and archive, I have the chance to contribute to their provenance. Using the cameras marks me as a new owner in their chronology, adding to the archive that my grandfather began and extending my family’s timeline in a visual manner that will allow future generations to regard it through the same lens that I have come to appreciate it.
So far, I have touched on ways in which aura works in my own life. This has been a primarily selfish endeavor, but I see aura working in other, broader ways in the present makeup of our world. Aura – at least in the current sense of the word – is rooted in the idea that the object is a tangible thing. With the rise of digital technology, the need for concrete, physical media is becoming obsolete. Due to this drastic change in the methods through which we consume media, I see a shift in people – especially the younger generation – becoming interested in the older ways of the world. Physical media formats that existed before the digital era are experiencing new life as people try to detach from their screens in favor of something more tangible.
AS TIME PRESSES FORWARD, WE LOOK BACK
In 2012, Kodak, the leading corporation in film photography, filed for bankruptcy. Coming just nine years after the global market for film had peaked, Kodak was felled by the rise of digital cameras and mobile phones; everyone with a smart phone has the ability to take high quality pictures—quality that rises with each passing year. The convenience of digital makes the world work at a much faster pace than it ever has before; the rate at which we produce and consume media is at an all-time high. As revolutionary as this may be, it comes at a cost: there are no tangible qualities to a jpeg file; no matter how many pixels can be fit onto a screen, there is no aura to accompany them. Humans may be inventing technology that allows us to exist without the aura, but that does not mean we have lost our craving for it. I would argue that existing in a post-digital revolution world makes us crave the aura even more.
After filing for bankruptcy, Kodak experienced incremental growth with each passing year. There was precedent for this; other analog industries – namely, vinyl records – that took a hit from the digital explosion had also begun to see growth after bottoming out. In his article for The Guardian, Robin Strummer writes “film was not doomed. Sales remain a fraction of the high point, with sales of about 20 million annually. But, as with vinyl, the market sank, stabilised, then began to rise.” Interest in these old forms of technology has come from all types of people, but interestingly, the millennials seems to be leading the charge in their revival. Film photography and vinyl records are artifacts from their parents’ generation and before. Millennials only know a world of screens; the more tied to screens we become, the more we are fatigued by them. Analog culture offers a welcoming alternative that is a physical, aural experience. Strummer details how this shows itself in photography, writing photographers, “professional and amateur alike, are turning their backs on digital technology in favour of images with “soul,” conjured by exposing gelatin-coated strips of thin plastic to light – a process that can now seem as remote and exotic as the methods of medieval alchemy” (Strummer). I believe that this “soul” that Strummer writes of is the aura. The processes of shooting a roll of film or flipping a record to Side B and laying the stylus to the groove all bring us closer to the media we consume, involving us in the action. This is what is lost in the age of megapixels and streaming; this is why analog practices persist.
In his book The Real Thing: Imitation and Authenticity in American Culture, 1880-1940, Miles Orville explores the idea of recovering older media in the digital world. He writes, “it is the object found and rescued, reclaimed, reworked, reintegrated, the thing with a history, the mass-produced object become individualized, the object to be collected” (Orville 326). This passage illustrates the draw of analog culture for someone discovering it for the first time. Analog objects allow us to have dialogue with our past while still bringing them with us into the future. Paul Winters cites Marxist theorist Raymond Williams to commentate on the idea of incorporating analog technology into the cultural process, even as the world moves past it into the digital era. He writes, “If the current digital revolution might be seen as ‘emergent,’ then perhaps authenticity as a value grounded in analog technologies that could be seen as ‘residual,’ meaning it ‘has been effectively formed in the past, but is still active in the cultural process, not only and often not at all as an element of the past, but as an effective element of the present’” (qtd. in Winters 57). As the world moves past analog culture and into a future informed by digital media, there is a communal longing for the palpable aspects of previous eras. This longing can be seen in the TV shows that drip with nostalgia; in the music genres that recall former styles; in the cyclical nature of fashion. Luckily, due to the fact that analog technology is comprised of tangible things, we have the ability to bring them with us. Kodak’s resurrection of old, long-dead film stocks allows for people to continue the legacy of shooting film; no new technology is being created, but old cameras are being revitalized and allowed to functionally exist in a world that has evolved past them. Analog culture is not going to disappear. Rather, I believe that it will greatly inform how we mold our future. Our present time is one that carries the promise of an exciting future that is built upon a rich, substantive past. As the book thief Stephen Blumberg reasoned, he valued his plunder not for its inherent, monetary value, but for the fact that it allowed him to reckon with a past that he greatly wanted to preserve. This is what analog technology has come to represent in our present day. We value it not for its innovation, but for what it tells us about our past and for how it ties us to our humanity.
Basbanes, Nicholas. A Gentle Madness: Bibliophiles Bibliomanes, and the Eternal Passion for Books. New York, Henry Holt and Company, 1995.
Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Illuminations. New York, Schocken Books, 1969.
Hansen, Miriam Bratu. “Benjamin’s Aura.” Critical Inquiry 34 (2008): 336-75.
Grace, Kevin. “A Thief in the Stacks.” Horizons. Cincinnati, 1994.
Leith, John. A Short Biography of John Leith, With a Brief Account of His Life Among the Indians. Cincinnati, R. Clarke & Co., 1883.
Orville, Miles. The Real Thing: Imitation and Authenticity in American Culture, 1880-1940. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014.
Strummer, Robin. “Back to the Darkroom: Young Fans Reject Digital to Revive Classic Film Camera.” The Guardian, 2018.
Winters, Paul. Vinyl Records and Analog Culture in the Digital Age. Lexington Books, 2016.
Chris is a recent graduate of the English Department at the University of Cincinnati. He is a future professor who will be seeking his Masters in Professional Writing starting in fall 2019.