The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word replica as something that is “A copy, duplicate, or reproduction” of either an object or of a work of art. The word is rooted in the verb “to replicate” which is defined as: “To repeat, reproduce (an action)…b. To make a replica of (a picture, etc)…e. To imitate; to make or be a model or replica of f. To copy exactly.” The same definition applies within the context of art history.
Replicate bears a common stem with the words duplicate, multiplicate, triplicate, etc. It seems that a replica can be defined as “a repeat”, “copy”, and “facsimile”. Here there is a common theme of the process of replication as, firstly, the reproduction of an original, the constraints of this reproduction to be elaborated on later. This replica of the original is one in which the ultimate product has a direct line of material descent from the original in so far as their forms and appearances are allied.
To begin to identify what exactly a replica is, one has to be able to identify the qualities that we perceive a replica as having. These qualities allow us distinguish one similar object from another as “original” and “replica”. Charles Sanders Peirce describes the Icon in Logic as Semiotic as follows: “An Icon is a Representamen whose Representative Quality is a Firstness of it as a First. That is, a quality that it has qua thing renders it fit to be a representamen. Thus, anything is fit to be a Substitute for anything that it is like. (The conception of “substitute involves that of a purpose, and thus of genuine thirdness.)…A Representamen by Firstness alone can only have a similar Object.” The qualities of the replica are those not too dissimilar from the qualities of the Icon as described here by Peirce. However, the replica has a relationship to its original perhaps even more constrained then that of merely the Icon. The replica, like the Icon demands an association by firstness alone, its representative quality is a firstness of a first. The original is demanded by the replica.
If this is true, what is the difference between the replica and the original? Is the replica the original itself? No, the replica is a pointer to the first object, but it is not the first object itself. The replica is the same thing as the original with the exception that it does not posses the same spatiotemporal qualities. That is to say, the “perfect” or “true” replica possesses all of the same qualities as the original–except that it is removed from the specific placement in space and time of the original (if it possessed even this it would be the original). The replica could be absolutely identical to the original except for the fact that it isn’t the original. This concept is one exemplified in Benjamin’s notion of the Aura as seen in The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. Benjamin writes that “Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be. This unique existence of the work of art determined the history to which it was subject throughout the time of its existence.”  The replica loses the fundamental firstness of the original and it is this firstness from which stems the original’s authenticity. Benjamin writes “The situations into which the product of mechanical reproduction can be brought may not touch the actual work of art yet the quality of its presence is always depreciated.”
The replica must be a replication of an original. The manner in which this replication can take place is important; forms that this replication can take seem to be almost unlimited, but some examples might include: the sending of an email, the repetition of a quotation, the display of an image on a computer screen, etc. The ability for a true replica to be made is bound to its process of replication. Considering the manner in which we say that objects are “replicated” we immediately encounter the term “reproduction”. These two terms clearly need to be distinguished from on other.
The replica, then, is the original itself, with the subtle loss of aura. If we are to differentiate a replica from a reproduction, in a reproduction we can speak of something being a “bad” reproduction. To call a replica of something a “bad” replica is oxymoronic, for anything that is not a complete copy (with the exception of the original’s aura), is not a true replica. Reproducing can then be clarified as “recasting”, while replicating is “copying”.
The terms simulacra and representation can also be distinguished from replica in their implications for the relationship between the object that is in fact the subject of the word (what can be called the second object) and the related, distinct object (the first object). Looking at a replica, one is presented with a certain degree of fidelity that makes one think immediately of the original in a direct manner. The qualities of the original are displayed as close as possible (with the exemption of the aura) in the replica. The replica denotes the original. Simulacrum and representations merely suggest the original, one perhaps identifies them with the original, but one does not see them as possibly being the original. They instead only imply the original.
Another use of the world replica is to refer to a miniaturized version of an original object. The miniature approximates the qualities of the original but on a smaller scale. A “1/14th scale model” of the Eiffel tower does not propose to be an “exact replica” (or true replica) of the Eiffel tower, but still qualifies itself as a replica. The fact that the miniature is said to be 1/14th scale demands the notion that the miniaturized version of the Eiffel tower is not a true replica and raises the question whether or not we should call it a replica at all. Perhaps instead it should be called a reproduction.
The word replicant, which can be found in science fiction (probably originating from Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner), is often used as a term suggesting the “replica” of a human being (see cyborg). These replicas are usually indistinguishable in appearance from the real humans they mimic, except that they are engineered and computers drive their brains. When we think of what makes human beings human, we think of ourselves situated in certain times and spaces, and how the progression of these events creates our character. Replicants do not possess this progression except through mechanically installed computerized memory. Their memories do not take the same form as true human memories. The replicant is the human being removed from its aura. The replicant is not a human being at all as a result of this; it does not even approach the reality of the original with the exception of embodying its form.
It seems that the process of an ideal replication is fundamentally an objective and exact one. André Bazin writes in The Ontology of the Photographic Image that “In spite of any objections our critical spirit may offer, we are forced to accept as real the existence of the object reproduced, actually re-presented, set before us, that is to say, in time and space.” Here Bazin qualifies the photograph as an objectively reliable source as he states that the process of the reproduction of an image into a photographis an objective one (we know, however, that even physical photographs are easily manipulated). It would seem, then, that the more objectivity a process of replication has the closer to being a replica a reproduction becomes.
It’s interesting to think about a digital photograph and indeed to think of what Benjamin would think of the photograph in the age of digital reproduction. Looking to Bazin, prior to digital photography there was always a negative which is pointed to as an original, now the original has been replaced with a digital image. The digital image is distinguished only from its “replicas” by its time-stamp, which is itself meta-data, not on the image itself. This meta-data is the data that places the image temporally, proclaiming one image the original. But this distinction between the first image and the replica of the first image is so minute and indistinct that the distinction between original and replica is almost irrelevant. The question is raised, then, that as technology advances, what will become of the term replica? If an original becomes completely indistinguishable from its replicas, will the term replica still have any use?
1. “Replica” The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989. OED Online.
2. Peirce, Charles S. The Philosophy of Peirce: Selected Writings. Ed. Justus Buchler. New York: Routledge, 2001. 104.
3. Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Illuminations. Ed. Hannah Arendt. New York: Schocken Books, 1968: 220
4. Benjamin, Walter. 221
5. Bazin, André. “The Ontology of the Photographic Image.” Ed. Hugh Gray. Film Quarterly os 13: 8.
Bazin, André. “The Ontology of the Photographic Image.” Ed. Hugh Gray. Film Quarterly 13: 8.
Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Illuminations. Ed. Hannah Arendt. New York: Schocken Books, 1968.
Peirce, Charles S. The Philosophy of Peirce: Selected Writings. Ed. Justus Buchler. New York: Routledge, 2001. 104.
“Replica” The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989. OED Online.