The Culture of the Copy: Striking Likenesses, Unreasonable Facsimiles 
by Hillel Schwartz.
Zone, 565 pp., £22.50, January 1997, 0 942299 35 3
Show More
Show More

By 1945, a quarter of the aeroplanes visible on Japanese military airfields were dummies. Despite a Goon Show suggestion to the contrary, the Allied air forces did not respond by dropping dummy bombs on them, although the energy of Hillel Schwartz’s argument almost persuades you that they might have done. We belong, his thesis runs, to a ‘culture of the copy’ in which an overt admiration for originality, authenticity, the unique, the one-off finds itself systematically undermined by a covert commitment to reproduction, duplication, the simulated and the subsequent.

The condition puts an exemplary spin on the curriculum vitae of one pseudonymous American boxer: ‘convict, social lion, saloon porter, hero of a short story classic, dish-washer, owner of a New York jewellery store and night club, a bankrupt, film actor, auto racer, confidant of Maurice Maeterlinck and, in recent years, a Ford employee’. From its beginning in 1873, in the duplicitously named Moscow, Indiana, Kid McCoy’s career finally brought him eponymous status and ourselves a paradox to relish. For our pursuit of what we still call the ‘real McCoy’ is both generated and confounded by the Kid’s own engagement with masquerade, bluff, repetition, forgery, camouflage and illusion. Fittingly, the melody played at his funeral was his friend Victor Herbert’s ‘Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life’.

The same song could serve no less appropriately perhaps to inaugurate Sam Wanamaker’s replica of the Globe Theatre on the South Bank. As Schwartz concludes, we may profess to admire the unique, but our first response is usually to try to reproduce it. Why? Identical twins offer an initial clue. Their doubleness sets an ideal of warm mutual sympathy against the icy individualism urged on us by contemporary economics and politics. They hint at a submerged but retrievable reciprocity, whose absence haunts each one of us at some level, even prompting fantasies of the self as a surviving twin. The possibility, however fragile, of such an intense and benign duplicity remains a fundamental component of the modern imagination: ‘for some, its very definition’, according to Schwartz.

In this charged atmosphere, even World War Two starts to seem ‘true to its numeral’. Its wholesale deployment of replicas, fakes, camouflage – even the development by British Intelligence of a ‘Double Cross’ system for second-guessing enemy agents – finally confirms its modernity. Schwartz follows it up with a coruscating account of simulacra, Doppelgängers, Siamese twins, dressmakers’ dummies, sex-dolls, waxworks, forgers (the ultimate copyists), doubles, decoys, clones, counterfeits, stand-ins and puppets. The persistence of our obsessions – with apes that reproduce our movements, parrots that reproduce our speech, photocopying machines that reproduce our documents (and, for my money, the ersatz Globe itself) – confirms the diagnosis.

Yet beneath all the copies, so Schwartz affirms, there must lurk ‘the messy world we are born into, a world we neglect to our peril’. Of course, replications and simulations don’t altogether deny this. To the extent that a ‘copy’ presupposes an ‘original’, or a ‘simulacrum’ a ‘genuine article’, they seem to acknowledge the existence of a primary sphere precedent to the secondary world of recorded and replayable sound and vision. In the continuing culture wars, such notions serve to bolster a lingering nostalgia for a lost Eden of singularity, of unified and coherent ‘self-presence’. Copies refer beyond themselves, they underwrite and are underwritten by the materiality which they claim to bring to mind. But that’s also part of the problem. They disable as well as enable: ‘Boon and bane, they steal from us that for which they are the guarantors: insight, integrity, inheritance.’

Another level of anxiety develops, argues Schwartz, because an excessive involvement with copying undermines a sure sense of ourselves and of our experience as primary or original. Paradoxically, the more we copy, the more we value uniqueness. What finally withers in Walter Benjamin’s age of mechanical reproduction turns out to be less the ‘aura’ of works of art, than the sense of our own liveliness, which they ought to endorse, and which then becomes what we mistakenly seek in them: ‘we look misguidedly to our creations to find our animation and learn our fortune. Only in a culture of the copy do we assign such motive force to the Original.’ In short, we demand that ‘originality’ speak directly and intimately to us, in reparation for a multitude of other losses.

Inevitably, it can’t. But then, nor can a copy, any more than it can ever offer unmediated access to its predecessor. In fact, copying involves a sophisticated form of mediation in which self-concealment plays a crucial role. Whatever its pretensions to authenticity, the ‘new’ Globe Theatre can hardly hope to conjure a pristine Shakespeare from the ‘dark backward and abysm of time’. Déjà vu will always hold centre-stage there: a spectacle that students of the thoroughly modern (or even Post-Modern) should clasp firmly to their bosom.

The copy’s threat to transcend the original is nowadays no idle one, and the prospect provokes a number of radical reconsiderations. If our habits of repetition and simulation are what make existence real for us, then, at the very least, this requires their revaluation as ways of reaching the truth. Football fans, savants of the slow-motion television replay, know how readily it can come up with narratives quite different from those sworn to by eye-witnesses or confirmed by officials. Weekend subscribers to the principle that you can’t tell the same story twice, they share a radical perception with Borges’s Pierre Menard, author of Don Quixote. Supposedly the midwife of sameness, repetition ultimately tends the subtle womb of difference. One solution to such myseries, at least in their modern form, may lie in a reconstruction of the notion of authenticity itself. In our ‘second’ nature, our making-equals-taking, copy-cat ‘parrotdise’, this can no longer be rooted in singularity.

Re-jigging at this fundamental level might well seem to promote a headlong rush into the arms of the Post-Modernism it seeks to avoid, for the notion of complementary ‘authenticities’ courts self-contradiction and seems unlikely to dispel Schwartz’s unease. There’s also a further paradox that needs confronting. The apparently inviolable circularity at the heart of the process of repetition and copying effectively breaks free in practice from its commitment to similitude. Kierkegaard puts the case bluntly: ‘The dialectic of repetition is easy, for that which is repeated has been – otherwise it could not have been repeated – but the very fact that it has been makes the repetition into something new.’ Not only is a ‘copy’ always and everywhere different from that which has been copied, but repetition, copying, or the generation of more of the same become the basis for change and the construction of difference. Indeed, the stratagems which aim to repeat or create the identical could be said to form part of the project whose end is the construction of meaning. Kierkegaard again: ‘If one does not have the category of recollection, or of repetition, all life dissolves into an empty, meaningless noise.’ We are not born into a ‘messy world’ but into intricate cultures and complex ways of life. These, and the languages with which they are coterminous, spin a highly patterned, subtly repetitious web of order and meaning from the world. They don’t neglect the mess: patterns and ‘copyings’ are the means by which they process it.

The trouble with the pursuit of sameness is that it leaves difference out in the cold. As Gilles Deleuze has pointed out, our culture posits the recognition of sameness as the dominant mode and purpose of our thinking. A strategy dedicated to establishing that this is the same as that ruthlessly subordinates difference to identity, which then ‘defines the world of representation’. The same strategy also presupposes unity and coherence in the perceiver and this serves to validate the prejudices that finally crystallise in the cogito. In a culture of the copy, identity and its cohorts, similarity, resemblance, likeness, not only rule, they make the rules. But if we turn this prejudice on its head and, as Deleuze urges, ‘think difference’, everything changes. Since there can be no immaculate ‘sameness’, there can be no absolute repetition. Whatever returns affirms, by returning, its difference. However carefully crafted, copies only gesture towards an ‘identity’ they cannot possibly realise, and thus silently reinforce the very distinctiveness and disparity which they overtly deny. If there is no absolute repetition, there exist only degrees of difference, and, seen thus, difference becomes central to experience.

Clearly, a lot depends on how we choose to ‘read’ whatever confronts us. Our culture’s preference may well be to read for sameness, and Schwartz’s spirited study charts – in the end, exhaustingly – just how extensive an undertaking this is. We suppress differences in order to underwrite ‘repetition’, we abhor contradiction and endorse ‘likeness’ as a fundamental indicator of ‘truth’. At an unsophisticated level we even like to think this is how language works in relation to the world, that words somehow ‘equal’ what they refer to; that ‘tree’, say, has a tree-like quality which encourages and validates the connection. But linguistic meaning can more certainly be said to derive, whether we like it or not, from an inward-looking system which proposes no such equations with anything beyond itself, and in which the differences between words operate as a central, determining feature. In the event, you can never finally iron difference out. It skulks, disconcertingly, at the heart of the most punctilious copy, much as, in Freud’s perception, the scary, uncanny Unheimliche lurks at the centre of the domesticated, reassuring Heimliche, coming to light, through repetition, as ‘something repressed which recurs’.

Repetition’s (concealed) investment in difference can be neglected but not neutralised, and that automatically makes possible those disturbing ‘leaps’ beyond the straight and narrow paths of logic at which ‘Das Unheimliche’ so penetratingly glances. Perceptible only out of the corner of the cultural eye, repetition’s inherent capacity for sudden, unnerving derailment shares a covert, ‘unofficial’ status with matters such as gesture, or ‘tone of voice’, those inevitable concomitants of speech which, although necessary, nevertheless embody a scandalous potential for undermining – or ironising – the overt ‘meaning’ of any utterance. The difference festering unappeased at the copy’s centre enables it to tap into a similar resource: a cache of ‘uncanny’ energy capable of projecting it into a realm of implication beyond the reach of words.

What would a differently constituted culture, which took that dimension into account, be like? One of its major readjustments might well involve the promotion of a range of apparently second-order forms of communication, such as gesture, posture, dress, style, tone of voice, accent, manner, to a parity with logic, licensing them to challenge the orthodoxies words draw on to sustain a narrow notion of ‘sense’. These aspects of language would no longer appear accidental, mere decorations or lapses. On the contrary, they would inherit an ancient relevance, as elements of a world in which the non-discursive claims as much attention as the discursive, and from which the structures of thought encoded in superstition, contradiction, customs, riddles, jokes and foolishness have not yet been banished, but remain to challenge the logical, rationally codified equivalencies we enshrine in law.

Shakespeare stands as the major exponent of that art in English. His plays derive from, and address themselves to, a way of life still largely unshaped by the pressures at work in our own. Transitional in nature, it seems to juggle with two contradictory modes, weighing an old allegiance to inherited social structures and functions against a new and competing commitment to individualism, to ‘getting on’, to progressive, iconoclastic ‘career’-building. What Marshall McLuhan called a clash between the demands of ‘roles’, on the one hand, and those of ‘goals’, on the other, made the issue of ‘playing a part’ a central concern and, in the process, guaranteed the plays the sort of critical purchase on their culture that (whatever luvvie lobbies may claim) they have not enjoyed since. Kingship and acting – handy symbols of important political and social issues – consequently bulk large in Shakespearian drama. Each focuses attention on the ways in which some things can concurrently claim to be both ‘the same’ and ‘different’. A defunct or deposed monarch will always remain the same: the King is dead, long live the King. Similarly, an actor is always both the same as, and different from, the character whose part he takes: ‘This is and is not Cressid,’ says Troilus – of a male player – at that astonishing moment in the play when the overt pulse of the story seems to falter and role-playing bursts through as its leading subject. In short, Shakespeare’s drama engages intimately with a way of life in which the polarities of repetition (or the same) and change (or difference) operate, not as mutually exclusive opposites, but in creative, inclusive and fruitfully disturbing tension. Does their shifting relationship also provide an index, or even a reflection, of overriding political and economic tendencies? Schwartz is well-equipped to take up questions of that sort and it might have strengthened his hand had he done so. But it would also have required a deeper, more stringent historical analysis than this series of brilliant snapshots offers. The Culture of the Copy remains a sprightly and disconcerting piece of cultural history in which a lively breadth of reference and a fizzy anecdotal style eventually triumph over a monocular intensity of purpose. The possibility that to some degree every culture may be a ‘culture of the copy’ tends to defuse its urgency and muffle the tocsin it is anxious to sound.

The words inscribed over the entrance to the ‘original’ Globe Theatre, Totus Mundus Agit Histrionem, represent a forthright endorsement of secondariness. Pretending, counterfeiting, acting, this suggests, is ineluctable. Copying makes us human as it makes the world go round. We live in a non-primary universe of actors and audiences, spectators and players. ‘All the world’s a stage’ is its real McCoy, ‘Here’s looking at you, Kid’ its point of view. Can a corresponding inscription over the entrance to the latest Globe on the South Bank afford to be less positive?

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences