At a very basic level, the term reproduction refers to the processes or actions through which something is presented or brought into existence again. The term may also be used to refer to the objects or ideas brought forth or produced as a result of certain processes or actions.
When we use the term reproduction we may take it for granted that we actually have a sense of what is being or has been produced or presented. But in the context of media studies, reproducibility shows itself to be a slippery concept. Therefore, even as this article attempts to provide a basic definition of reproduction, it also seeks to show that media theorists often find it necessary to challenge, expand, and redefine this term in order to keep up with the ever-changing and interconnected nature of media.
The etymology of the word reveals that it has expanded considerably over time. We learn from The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) that the term is derived from reproductio, a post-classical Latin word, which was first used in reference to the action through which living things perpetuate their species. In the late eighteenth century, the term was expanded to include both natural and artificial means of propagating plants, and by the nineteenth century, to the action of republishing, or copying a work of art. Today, the term reproduction can refer to human action, mechanical, technological, or biological processes, as well as to the material or immaterial result of these processes.
The OED provides three primary definitions for reproduction, the first coincides with the definition stated above: “The action or process of forming, creating, or bringing into existence again.” In context of law, for example, reproduction can refer to the action of bringing evidence into the courtroom for a second time. In biology, it can refer to the formation of biological tissue (regeneration).
Reproduction also refers to the mechanical process of producing a copy of a text or image (especially in print and sound production); the biological processes through which living organisms produce offspring and perpetuate the species; and even the “recreating or bringing forth” of that which is immaterial, i.e. mental representations or ideas. The term may be used to describe something that is an exact equivalent or copy of an original, or, more broadly, to that which represents or expresses the essential features of a “quality, mood, or other non-material thing” (OED). This is where things begin to get complicated.
When we speak of reproducing something and creating a copy, it is easy to imagine material objects and images. In part, this is because material objects exist in space and time and, in principle, should exhibit identifiable features that allow us to determine whether or not an object is a reproduction of an original. But when we move to the immaterial realm and attempt to define the essential features of a given object, we immediately run into problems. What does it mean to speak of immaterial reproduction? How is reproduction to be distinguished from production in the context of moods or qualities?
Art historian and critic, Terry Smith’s definition of “production” in Critical Terms for Art History may be helpful here. Smith defines production as the “action of producing, bringing forth, making, or causing.” To produce something, he claims, “is to give rise to, to bring into being, to effect cause, make something—an action, condition, or object.” But Smith also insists that this basic definition should be broken down into two further categories. On the one hand, production can mean to bring something into existence from its raw materials or elements, or is the results of a process. In this respect, to re-produce something means to bring some form or substance into existence again through biological, mechanical, or technological means. On the other hand, production can mean to bring something into view or to present or exhibit something.
Smith relates the first definition with a Marxist understanding of production, and the second with Jean Baudrillard and “postmodernity.” On Smith’s account, Baudrillard sees all production as occurring within a system of signs. “We might call this the ‘Learning to Love Las Vegas’ move: conjecturing the world as consisting of concentrated intensities of appearances occurring arbitrarily in empty deserts.” Production in this sense does not mean recreating or bringing something new into existence. Rather, it means to present or exhibit new variations on what is already there. Therefore, when we apply this understanding of production to reproduction, we can say that to reproduce means to present or bring something into view again. This may help to explain why reproduction and representation are sometimes used interchangeably.
Now that we have a clearer sense of what we mean when we use the term reproduction, we will now consider the term in the context of media theory. Specifically, we will turn to two media theorists who have expanded our understanding of reproduction and reproducibility.
If reproduction means to bring something into existence again through biological, mechanical, or technological processes, then it is easy to see why the term is sometimes used interchangeably with copy and, perhaps as a result, associated with a complex set of theoretical issues regarding originality and authenticity.
In 1936 Walter Benjamin famously argued that mechanical reproduction—from the stamping of coins, to woodcutting, to lithography, and the printing press—has had profound effects on what he sees as the traditional purpose and meaning of art. He believed new forms of mechanical reproduction significantly expanded the range of things that could be reproduced and the rate at which they could be made. His claim was that by depreciating the authority and authenticity of the “original” with the production of numerous copies, mechanical reproduction was affecting the traditional process of art, whereby something has a unique existence and serves a specific purpose in ritual. In response, Benjamin attempted to define that which makes an original work of art unique or authentic. It is the aura, he suggested, that escapes technical reproduction: the object or image’s unique spatial and temporal attributes and its relation to a specific tradition. In this way, Benjamin was able to salvage the concept of originality or authenticity in the age of mechanical reproduction.
More recently, W.J.T. Mitchell has contrasted mechanical reproduction with what he calls biocybernetic reproduction. In his view, “Biocybernetic reproduction has replaced Walter Benjamin’s mechanical reproduction as the fundamental technical determinate of our age.” Mitchell claims originality and authenticity hardly make sense at a time when images are infinitely reproduced and open to endless manipulation with digital technology. Even the terms “reproduction” and “reproducibility” take on different meaning in our contemporary setting, where it has become theoretically possible for humans to create intelligent organism through artificial and technological means.
Mitchell defines biocybernetics as the combination of biological science and technology. In using the term, he is not only referring to the products of biocybernetic reproduction, but also to the full range of technical media and political economy that have made these developments possible. He asserts that with biocybernetics, the relation of the copy to the original is completely reversed. An original image may lose its specific place in time and space with mechanical reproduction, but in the age of biocybernetics, the life of the image—its vitality—can be preserved, even enhanced. Modern technology, for example allows us to restore ancient artifacts, texts, and even buildings to their original condition. And with software like Photoshop, images can now be scrubbed of their imperfections. What’s more is that this theme is also carried over into genetic engineering. Cloning should not be understood as the production of an identical copy, but rather the creation of a new, improved copy. Unlike Aristotle’s concept of mimesis, where it is said that human beings delight in imitating nature, humans are now in the position to “beautify” or perfect nature itself at the level of code.
Mitchell’s understanding of biocybernetic reproduction takes human desire for control into account. This becomes clear when he describes his decision to use the term biocybernetics, as opposed to simply cybernetics. Cybernetics comes from a Greek word kubernētēs, meaning “steersman,” and gives the impression that cybernetics is a discipline of control and governance. By using the prefix bios and referencing that which has life of its own, Mitchell claims he is attempting to break the illusion of control.
In the age of mechanical reproduction Walter Benjamin concerned himself with preserving the authenticity and authority of art. In the age of biocybernetic reproduction Mitchell is trying to preserve a space for that which resists control, for that which is incalculable and still mysterious (or as Friedrich Kittler might say, Mitchell is leaving room for the real). In both cases, the word reproduction is defined in relation to developments in media technology that have expanded our conceptions of what can be reproduced.
 Terry Smith, “Production,” Critical Terms for Art History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003), p.1. Online. 22 Feb. 2014.
“Reproduction.” The Oxford English Dictionary. 2013. OED Online. Oxford University Press. 2 Feb. 2014.
“Production.” The Oxford English Dictionary. 2013. OED Online. Oxford University Press. 2 Feb. 2014.
Smith, Terry. “Production.” Critical Terms for Art History. 2003. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, Credo Reference. Online. 22 Feb. 2014.
Aristotle, and Malcolm Heath. Poetics. Penguin Classics. London; New York, N.Y.: Penguin Books, 1996.
Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Illuminations. Ed. Hannah Arendt. New York: Schocken Books, 1968.
Kittler, Friedrich A. Gramophone, Film, Typewriter. Translated by Geoffrey Winthrop-Young and Michael Wutz. Eds. Timothy Lenoir and Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999.
Mitchell, W.J.T. What do Pictures Want: The Lives and Loves of Images. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.