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The Culture of the Copy: Striking Likenesses, Unreasonable Facsimiles

by Hillel Schwartz
Zone Books, New York, 2014
Distributed by MIT Press
480 pp., illus. 25 b/w. Paper, $28.95
ISBN: 978-1-935408-45-1.

Reviewed by Brian Reffin Smith

This updated revision of a book first published in 1996, about likeness, facsimile, identity and copy, naturally must deal overwhelmingly with difference if it is to be interesting. The book does and is. In the book’s own copyright notice one is forbidden not only to duplicate it using conventional media but also by means of lip-synching, genetics or telepathy. That’s different.

There are, historically of course but increasingly today, so many different areas where copies, or perhaps ‘copies’, pertain, from twins to piano rolls, from parrots to paraphrase, from plagiarism to placebos, from sex dolls to signatures… telephones, trademarks, audiences, authenticity, Benjamin, Capgras, Derrida (present in the index, absent in the text as a copyright catcher), Eco, Freud, Gulf War, Hyde, hypnosis, imitation, Jekyll, and on via phantom limbs and phonographs to: no not the penultimate zombies but to Pope Zosimus. In short, just about everything except, perhaps oddly, twinned, entangled particles; though more than you might wish to know about conjoined twins.

Remember that this is a book about the culture of the copy. It deals very much with cultural, anthropological, historical and social questions surrounding the idea of replication, similarity and so on. As a book of theory and background, it will be of interest to anyone wanting to make sense of how we perceive our similarities…and hence our differences. But it is also as a source book of metaphors, in their original cultural contexts but available to us for the stimulation of our own ideas around difference, similarity, resemblance or otherness that it is more than useful. The book is full of what Capgras (he of the eponymous Syndrome where people believe that spouses, doctors or others close to them have been replaced by near Doppelgängers) described as “disorders of exactitude”. It has many pages of useful notes and a proper index.

One could wish that the writing were not sometimes quite so odd, replete with self-indulgent puns that don’t quite work for this reviewer and an overly poetic, not to say at times purple, style.

However, if it intrigues you to ponder where souls lie in conjoined twins––and are there two or just one––whether apes believe in private property or if art imitates life, then this is the book for you. It is a more or less charming and certainly learned account of things or more often people or figments of some sort, that are seem as transgressions both to identity and to difference.


Last Updated 6 May 2014

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