Publishing in the Age of Infinite Reproducibility

A Q&A session that concluded the panel discussion "FUCKING POSTINTERNET PUBLISHING" at the 2014 New York Art Book Fair began with the question: "What is a publication?"

"Something that is distributed!" — "Something that is promoted!" were some of the responses offered. While distribution and promotion are processes belonging to many publications, a publication is much more simply something that is made public. Distribution and promotion, which relate more specifically to the size of "the public" that a published object reaches, are secondary to this process of making public. The arrival of the Internet has undoubtedly altered all three of these processes. By clicking "Save & Publish" I am making this blog post public. By posting a link on a social media platform or emailing the URL without comment, I am distributing. By disseminating the post through the aforementioned channels and including a note on its merit, I am promoting.

The goal of the panel discussion was to describe the shift that occurred in the publishing world with the advent of the Internet, with a particular emphasis on punk 'zine culture. One of the panelists, Sean Joseph Patrick Carney, who founded the 'zine publishing house Social Malpractice, described his preinternet publishing work as being motivated largely by economy. Photocopied 'zines cost very little to make and could be distributed by hand to friends. As Carney said about the publishing world and the closely related "Art World", "I'm not gonna fucking spend money, rent a studio, and hope someone gives me a chance." Xerox 'zine publishing, and the punk culture that surrounded it, was a way of subverting traditional modes of publishing—of making public—one's work. In this respect, the Internet, as Carney argued, "ruined Xerox 'zines." Xerox publishing is no longer the most economical mode of making one's work public. (The panel that immediately followed, titled "The Piracy Project", claimed that the invention of the Xerox machine was an important event in human history. The arrival of the Internet, I would argue, is an analogously important event.)

If the 'zine is to be treated as a work of art, its publication via Xerox machine can be discussed in terms of Walter Benjamin's "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction". Assuming Xerox 'zines to be ruined by the Internet, as Carney claims, or at least irreversibly altered, it seems the defining characteristic of postinternet publishing is not mechanical reproduction, but infinite reproducibility. Rather than simply being able to reproduce an object by mechanical means, digital publishing—and postinternet publishing by way of extension—involves the ability to reproduce an object ad infinitum. A digital file cannot be used up; it does not expire, though it can be deleted. Its lack of physical extension makes Benjamin's philosophies on reproduction and aura somewhat irrelevant, or at least in need of an update. (It is fitting that one of the books published by Social Malpractice is Carney's tongue-in-cheek colloquial translation "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction: Translated from English to American by Sean Joseph Patrick Carney").

A new project has been taken up by artist-writers such as Carney in sequel to Benjamin's essay. Next in this series: a reading of Benjamin/Carney's "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" in the light of infinite reproducibility.