The Franklin Mint recently manufactured and put on sale copies of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis' faux pearl necklace that went for $211,500 at auction. Selling copies of a copy--this is the sort of happening to end up on an index card of Hillel Schwartz, idiosyncratic cultural historian. He sees copies everywhere.
"Copying," he writes in "The Culture of the Copy," "is what we are now about." That "now" is a long now, centuries long, what we have come to call "modernity," a period that prides itself on originality, novelty, "new and improved" and "never before." Yet modernity, Schwartz insists at great and obsessive length, is haunted by the fear of been-there-done-that. Haunted and obsessed, both. "Doubleness has become an inescapable element of modernity; yea, for some, its very definition."
Modernity, Schwartz thinks, is the story of doubles. To demonstrate the case, he places end-to-end extensive descriptions of an amazing range of fascinations, collectibles and technologies across several centuries: twins (Siamese and otherwise), puppets, robots, photographs, plagiarism, camouflage, movie stand-ins, forgery, scribes, typewriters, dubbing, lip-syncing, automatons, clones, models, look-alikes, sampling, parrots, war toys, dude ranches, the double helix, dolls, mannequins, folk museums, pageants, historical preservation and reenactment, naming a son after his father, virtual reality, artificial intelligence, Japanese cultural knockoffs, the return of the repressed and enough other like phenomena (as well as some not so like; for example, plastic surgery) that this review could consist of nothing but Schwartz's topic list. (Reading along, you want to play the game. What about fingerprints, copycat crimes and serial murders? But then Schwartz is more interested in life than in death.)
All have in common that they presume the value of repeating something that already exists. Originality, as Mark Twain said--in one of the few quotes on this subject that Schwartz has not collected--is only another term for faulty memory. Boredom expresses the fear that what you see is what you've already got.
As the above list suggests, this singular book is a compendium of oddities--a veritable flea market of curiosities--more than an argument. Twenty-two pages on mannequins or 14 on couvade (men aping the look of pregnant women) don't so much establish that we live in a culture of copies as that there is a lot of copying in the culture. There certainly are a lot of odd histories in the modern world, and the devoted Schwartz has unearthed a tremendous heap of family resemblances. Again and again, he cuts from the chase to the chaser. He writes at one point that what we are reading in "The Culture of the Copy" is the transcription of 16,000 note cards, and often the book reads that way, though playfully.
Fortunately, Schwartz is no stranger to gags. There is even an in joke in the index--the first ever to cross this reviewer's horizon--where the reader who goes looking to see what Schwartz has to say about the French writer Jean Baudrillard's much over-touted observations about "simulacra" will find this entry: "Baudrillard, Jean, vanished from text." "Had we paper enough and time," Schwartz writes in one of many wisecracks that enliven his book, he could go on and on and on. He does go on, and much of his material is fascinating.
But such a book may begin as lyrical mystery and end as doggerel. Not content to establish how many obsessions with doubleness fill our days, he goes so far as to see scientific replication, repetitive stress syndrome, stuttering, Tourette's syndrome, lying, casuistry, malingering, sex change, plastic surgery and genetic engineering, or our interest in all of the above, as nothing more than instances of the master plot: the culture of the copy. Such phenomena are not themselves with their own roots and meanings, in Schwartz's book; they (or their reputations) amount to, well, copies of the Ur-phenomenon: copying. There is presumably a sort of DNA in modern life that inexorably, wearisomely, stamps out cultural clones of this central organizing principle of modern life.
In other words, by casting his net so far and wide, Schwartz overreaches. You can see copies, near-copies, rip-offs and doubles just about anyplace you choose to see them. In nature, you can see blades of grass, heaps of gravel, cows in herds, trees in forests, people waiting in line. You can see prints of movies, zeros and ones endlessly combined and recombined to make up all the bits that ever passed through every computer that ever failed to live.
That little weasel phrase "for some"--see the last sentence in the second paragraph of this review--covers a multitude of overreaching, for some other cultural histories could plausibly maintain that the essential textural feature of modernity is self-transformation or speed or the projection of deadly force at a distance.
The author with whom Schwartz is playing and arguing is the late German-Jewish genius Walter Benjamin, whose foundational 1936 essay, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," is probably the most widely cited text of any sort circulating around the academy of the last generation. Benjamin argued in brilliant and original melancholia that in an age of easy copies, the unique work of art had lost its aura of specialness. But Schwartz makes a good case that Benjamin got it wrong, or "sidewise." "What withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is not the aura, the Happen-Stance, of works of art but the assurance of our own liveliness," Schwartz writes. "Only in a culture of the copy do we assign such motive force to the Original." In other words, we live in "a culture that reveres originals yet trusts that copies will more than do them justice." For all the talk about how Postmodernism has pulled out the mass-produced rug from under the creative act, the culture of the copy is a culture that worships authenticity.
As Americans in the age of the TV and VCR like to say these days, Schwartz is, like, very unique. In the culture of the copy, he has written the perfect book: original and repetitive at once.