Big Bang Theory

This morning, I woke up thinking about “code” and its relationship to “aura.” Successive technological leaps, big bangs of a sort, have a direct relationship with the nature of the codes used to solve the problems of space and of time.

Writing, I think, was a technology developed to fight the evanescence of time. Memory is imperfect, and it becomes important to have some means to preserve information beyond human limits. Languages are already a compressed shorthand used to relate information about the physical world—we “decode” them based on an uncontrollable social code almost entirely determined by context rather than technological or physical limits. The severance of text and situation is both a feature and a flaw when speech is marked upon a surface.

By disembodying speech, we transcend the physical limits of time, and to a lesser extent, space. Early writing upon stone, as inscriptions on buildings, sculptures and temples seem timeless but they are not portable. “Sense” of these intentional marks is tied to the (cult)ural value of physical objects. But this is a “big bang” which marks an expansion of human cultures—the birth of cultural objects that synthesize both a coded time-conquering function and an uncoded spatial function and the creation of an aura that exists beyond code.

To conquer space requires a collapse of these structures into a transportable form—the papyrus. The “aura” of the physical object is severed from the “message” conveyed by the text. It is a matter of convenience— code is compressed into a medium with lower bandwidth, fewer dimensions to contact the senses of the audience that confronts it. The contraction of the universe of experience is not stable; illustration and embellishment of texts with illustrations that are not necessarily code in the sense that language is a code, quickly follows. I do think of ornate illuminated manuscripts as a second “big bang” which fights against the limitations of two-dimensional media. Aura reasserts itself as a sort of “make believe” where objects marked in the text mimic three dimensional surfaces—not because they are realistic, but because they “project” in some meaningful way a world outside the code of the text.

Not all uncoded marks are “projections” of this sort. Some serve more mundane border marking purposes. Some are marks of authorship, or seals of authority. Some are merely accidental. However, to view all the marks which we place on surfaces as “code” is to miss the complexity of communicating across space and time. Many aspects of a text created by human agency are merely things we “sense” in the same way we “sense” an aura—though different modes of coding mark the texts we encounter, the text is not reducible to code.

It seems to me that each collapse and compression created by code is marked by a backlash against the reduction of aura, a burst of creativity—a cultural “big bang.” This creativity is often focused on restoring the “physicality” of experience. I think the pattern repeats with reasonable precision.

The telegraph reduced all “messages” to dots and dashes. Eventually, devices like the telautograph reproduced drawings across telephone wires—and the telephone modulated the raw electricity to produce sound. Code initiates the change, and then ways are developed to circumvent its compression—to restore the physicality of the human signature in the former invention, and the uncoded inflection of the human voice in the latter. It wasn’t merely a matter of convenience—though it does take longer to “code” a message than to perform it—it was a matter of resistance to the limits of the medium.

But the success of the telegraph has another more important feature—it moved both the “code” and the “aura” of human presence into the realm of the “imponderable.” Because the message no longer need occupy physical space, space was finally conquered to the same extent that writing and art had conquered the problem of time. Simultaneously, photography freed depiction from its necessary dependence on cultural convention as a tool for imagining. Though photography played on the same “codebase” as other forms of visual art, it was not limited by it—for the first time only modes of projection governed its depiction of physical surfaces. The transcendence of time was not limited by human codes, but rather by technologies.

Each move to reconstruct the experience of physicality through an “imponderable,” nonphysical medium has moved human creativity a new direction. I look around at the podcasts and video blogs, and realize that each of them attempts to expand the potential of coded transmission into media with a greater “aura”— an explosion with code at its center, but not in its soul.

Declarations of the “death of aura” seem hopelessly premature. Though the media we traverse are essentially “code,” and though code is immanent, we cannot claim that code is essential. It seems more likely that “aura” is essential, though we cannot objectively prove it to be immanent.