Autosign in the age of mechanical reproduction

Was anybody really surprised to learn that the 600-dollar hand signed editions of Bob Dylan’s Philosophy of Modern Song were in fact signed by a robot?

(The only surprise for me so far is that someone hasn’t discovered that whole passages of the text have been lifted from somewhere else.)

Walter Benjamin’s 1935 essay on The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction ought to be required reading for music fans in general and Bob Dylan’s followers in particular. I think if Dylan’s project over the past 60 years has been about anything, then it has been about repeatedly pulling the authenticity rug out from underneath his fans.

Early Dylan’s fantastical stories about his early life were authentically inauthentic. His nicked melodies and lyrics doubly so. While other folk singers were worrying about being more real than real, Dylan was using their hair shirts to polish his Stratocaster. He was putting people on, yanking their chains, preparing to send some feedback down their ear canals.

How anybody in 2022 believes in the aura of a signed book or a limited edition art print is beyond me. It’s one thing to queue at a bookshop or conference and get an authentic signature from a living breathing author. It’s quite another to just buy something online.

The really interesting thing about this story is not that Dylan pulled another fast one. It’s that the publishers colluded with the scheme to the point of supplying a letter of authenticity with each autosigned copy. This seems as if it might be fraud on a vast scale. And possibly the merest tip of an iceberg of signature scams. I’m reminded that the fiction begins with that “Based on a true story” page. Congratulations, you’ve been authentically scammed by the real Bob Dylan. Join the club.

Of course, signature fakery goes back hundreds of years. How many classic works of art have dubious provenance? Painted by an apprentice, but “signed” by the master? How about that Salvator Mundi? How many Beatles signatures were actually by Mal Evans?

My daughter bought the (regular priced) book. She offered to get it for my birthday but I turned her down. I think I’ll wait for the film.


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