Performative Limits of Digitization
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When I first received The Secret Museum, the image of the “different types of female breasts and nipple formations” made me laugh, not because it was funny, but because it made me say “of course”. The display of these breasts was the sole purpose of this book. Once I confirmed the source of the photographs, Ferdinand Freiherr von Reitzenstein, and looked up his books only to find that Primitiven frau, the book that contained these photographs originally was digitized, I was shocked. I saw flesh and bones and words instead of just flesh and crude drawings of flesh. In fact, there are more pages of words in Primitiven frau than there are of photographs and x-rays. The drawing included in The Secret Museum, appears on page 61 of Primitiven frau in a section that is 17 pages of analysis where breasts are discussed.
Entwicklung und Grundformen der weiblichen Brust
Entwicklung und Grundformen der weiblichen Brust (Development and basic forms of the female breast.), Primitiven frau, p. 61
Instead of seeing this drawing as a numbered series that reduces the women in the book to only the drawings themselves, they exist in a larger context. While the context is problematic, at best, we are able to see the intent of Ferdinand Freiherr von Reitzenstein. Rather than simply creating a book of pornographic imagery, he did attempt to create an anthropological work on “primitive women”. Furthermore, though they are few, in addition to the photographs of nude and partially nude women Primitiven frau contains drawings of jewelry and women participating various acts, and other cultural items, such as songs with music and lyrics. There is even a photograph with fully clothed women. Additionally, the book contains an index. The Secret Museum renders the women anonymous in a way that they can never be confronted as though they existed. The index in Primitiven frau prevents this from happening, because at the very least, we know where the women we are seeing existed. Despite the problematic nature of the book, it has a wealth of information to offer us, even as we look to day in the post-post colonial age.
If The Secret Museum were to be digitized, we would lose the covertness of its creation. For me, that is the most important thing the book has to offer. The seediness of its production and purpose would be lost if the book was publicly and freely accessible. The act of having to search for the book, and find a “deal” on it, or having the book presented with the caveat that it is rare and was never published for a wide audience, the ability to touch and feel the book, to smell and see the pages and random ink colors, creates a performative experience with the book that digitization does not have. Making the book digital would erase so much of what this book does. It would allow us to lose the idea that the original audience that this book was designed for will remain forever hidden. Further, the ability to see the physical product against the digital version of what it was pirated from, on a screen where we can see page upon page of text, creates an interesting conversation around what happens when we lose text. I think seeing the physical book coupled with the digital text truly illustrates some of the issues digitization causes for certain artifacts.
It isn’t that I don’t want people to see The Secret Museum. To the contrary, the more people who can experience the book, the better we can understand, especially in the academy, whose bodies our disciplines were built upon and to what ends. It’s just that I want people to do more than see the book. I want them to experience the book. When looking through the screen at a digital version of a book, or a photo, I find it is too easy to forget that we are seeing something real that existed in a larger context that affected and affects different people differently. To lose the bodies first through a photograph and then through the digitization of a book we lose too much. The material experience of a book that can be taken out of a little bag, the method I choose to unveil the book in my installation performance, takes away the ability to show and remember how easily books like this were, and continue to be, hidden. I fear that in this digital culture of openness and access we forget that even today, there is so much that remains out of reach.
I would like to stress that I do not think the limits of digitization are a bad thing. In fact, I think they are wonderful things that open up new possibilities. The Digital’s tendency to reduce the experience of certain things is the space where I like to play. It is the space that is inherently made of breaks and new paths, breaks and paths that I am exploring in my own dissertation work. Because this is the space of my work though, I think it is important to realize and remember that there are places where digitization cannot translate, where the losses created by access and openess are too great.