The original, the copy and the ontological distance of fidelity

“There is an unbroken chain from the sound in the living room to the original sound as recorded.” In other words, analog recording technologies have an authentic relation with the “original” behind the recording because…sound bears a causal relation to the analog recording.  Digital recording, meanwhile, converts sound into a series of zeros and ones to be reconstructed as sound at the moment of reproduction.  For Rothenbuhler and Peters, digital recording is, therefore, more ontologically distant from live performance than analog recording.  While their thesis that phonography is ontologically different than digital sound recording is certainly a fascinating proposition, their definition of phonography assumes that recording captures sounds as they exist out in the world.  In essence, they argue that mediation is an ontological problem brought about by the technology of sound reproduction itself.  In contrast, this chapter argues that mediation is a cultural problem and only one possible way of describing sound reproduction…the “original” sound embedded in the recording – regardless of whether the process is “continuous” – certainly bears a causal relationship with the reproduction, but onlybecause the original is itself an artifact of the process of reproduction.  Without the technology of reproduction, the copies do not exist, but, then, neither would the originals.  A philosophy of mediation ontologizes sound reproduction too quickly.  Therefore, a notion of sound fidelity based on a fundamental distinction between original and copy will most likely bracket the question of what constitutes the originality itself.  In emphasizing the products of reproduction, it effaces the process.  (Sterne, Jonathan. 2003. The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Production. Durham: Duke University Press. Chapter 5, “The Social Genesis of Sound Fidelity.” 218-19)

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