Fidelity is firstly defined in the OED as “the quality of being faithful; faithfulness, loyalty, unswerving allegiance to a person, party, bond, etc.” It comes from the French word fidélité, which is an adaptation of the Latin fidelitatem, itself a construction of the words fidelis, meaning “faithful,” and fides, meaning “faith.” In more recent use, fidelity is defined as “strict conformity to truth or fact” in terms “of a description, translation, etc.: correspondence with the original; exactness.” This definition of fidelity, then, implies a relation between two objects, the second serving as a translation or copy of an original, which is the true object or idea. In being exact, the copy intends to be immediate, to be indistinguishable from the original, yet it cannot, by its very nature as second. That the original is synonymous with truth in this definition recalls the Platonic idea or form in his allegory of the cave, whereby those in the dark den see mere shadows and it is only through their ascension into the light that they may see the sun, “…the immediate source of reason and truth in the intellectual.”1 Since for Plato the visible world is composed only of poor copies of the intellectual realm of ideas, it can never have fidelity as it never attains the status of truth.
Related to this concept of truth is Benjamin’s aura. When he writes, “that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art, ”2 he is referring to that element which is eliminated in the production of the copy, an element that might be called the truth of the original. Though the original in Benjamin’s example is not a metaphysical form, but rather a tangible object such as a painting, it still follows that the copy cannot be exact as it will never contain the original’s aura, and so, will never have fidelity as such. Further implied in this statement is Benjamin’s claim that the copy works to diminish the aura of the original, thereby causing it to be viewed with suspicion by some such as Adorno, who believes that through reproduction, works of art can quickly become commodity-fetishes in a capitalist system, used as “advertisement[s] for commodities which one must acquire…”3 Thus, in the sense that the copy damages the truth of the original, the latter might be said to lose fidelity with itself, with what it was. For Adorno, this means art is diminished; for Benjamin, as this fidelity represents a faithfulness to elitist ideals, its diminution opens up new political possibilities for the masses.
Further related to this concept of fidelity as being truth of representation is the belief that some forms of mediation may inherently represent certain manners of seeing the world, certain originals, better than others. In his essay, Laocoön, Lessing states, “[i]t remains true that succession of time is the province of the poet just as space is that of the painter.”4 Though one may not wish to draw such distinct boundaries (even the author says that both sides “on their extreme frontiers practice a mutual forbearance”5), Lessing helpfully notes that generally speaking, words may more facilely describe events in time than a painting, while the latter may be better at depicting spatial relationships or images than the former. For Lessing, when one manner of representation intrudes too far into another’s realm, the results are unfaithful to the original, such as when Mazuoli attempts to show two distinct time frames in one painting, or when Virgil attempts to describe Aeneas’s shield. Since, for Lessing, fidelity of the representation toward the original is dependent upon what he perceives to be the very nature of each, better fidelity is achieved when the strengths of the representing medium mirror those of the original.
As above, fidelity in the age of mass media reproduction might be better understood (and more usefully employed) as a quality of degrees rather than either/or. As such, this OED sub-definition becomes more useful: “the degree to which a sound or picture reproduced or transmitted by any device resembles the original.” A more technical definition, since fidelity is often used today in its association with electronics, might also be helpful: “in transmission of speech, audio, or video information, the object is high fidelity—that is, the best possible reproduction of the original message without the degradations imposed by signal distortion and noise.”6 In both definitions, a copy may represent an original to a greater or lesser degree of exactness. A closer degree of exactness equals higher fidelity; a lower degree of exactness means lower fidelity. Another way of stating this is that a higher fidelity reproduction attains more immediacy and transparency; a lower fidelity reproduction points towards its own distance from the original, whose message it obfuscates. Also inherent in these definitions is the need to differentiate between the reproduction aspect of the copy and its transmission aspect—with what degree of fidelity does the copy mimic the original versus how faithful does it appear to the receiver? In other words, the criteria of fidelity may change depending on the perspective from which the copy is viewed. Finally, since fidelity here is in terms of degrees, rather than either/or, it becomes possible that a copy may be faithful to the original in some ways but not others.
As one example, fidelity in art is sought when a singular object, such as a painting, is reproduced. Though a painting can be duplicated by hand, a reproduction made in the past few centuries also may have been created by any one of a number of methods of mechanical reproduction, including forms of engraving, etching, woodcut, lithography, and photography. In terms of fidelity, each method of reproduction has its own particular advantages and disadvantages depending on the uniqueness of the method, the medium of the artwork being reproduced, and, most importantly, the criteria upon which fidelity is based. Surpassing most other methods of reproduction, in terms of cost and “immediacy and objectivity,“7 photography has become the most often used means of art reproduction since the latter part of the 19th century. But a photographic reproduction is not a perfect substitute for the original:
Early photographs required long exposures and delicate procedures; the prints had to be manufactured by hand and were susceptible to fading; and pre-panchromatic emulsions seriously falsified tonal values. Even when these drawbacks had been overcome, fidelity was still subject to the quality of film and equipment and the sensitivity of the photographer—particularly over lighting and viewpoint.8The fidelity of an artwork’s reproduction by photography even today then depends on the criteria upon which that fidelity is founded. If these criteria are based on a sense of realism, the most striking loss of fidelity in a photographic reproduction of a painting might be said to come in terms of medium and/or scale, as it likely does not use the same materials as its original and/or is often smaller in size—a plate printed in a book, for instance. It could be as well that the photographer’s criteria of fidelity, as the producer of the reproduction, are at odds with those of the receiver(s), that is, each side finds different aspects of the original to be of greater importance or authenticity. Furthermore, it is possible that different criteria of fidelity are inscribed by the camera upon the artwork being photographed. Douglas Crimp writes of postmodern photographers: “[t]he extraordinary presence of their work is effected through absence, through its unbridgeable distance from the original, from even the possibility of an original.”9 Though he is here speaking of photography as art itself, not in its documentary role, it is possible that the significations of these criteria of fidelity, presence through absence, seep over into the camera’s other roles. Thus, the photographic reproduction of a work of art, in its high fidelity to its own standards, functions with a lower fidelity in terms of the original because it fails to properly represent it, and even may deny the very presence of that original, recalling Benjamin’s argument of the loss of aura.
Like reproductions of artworks, musical recordings may hierarchize different criteria of fidelity. For instance, a signal may be altered in certain ways, incurring a loss of fidelity with the real, so that an overall sense of higher fidelity—which likely is tied to its own media–specific ideas of authenticity—may be maintained (the distorted guitar in some genres of music, for example). A studio-produced recording, on the other hand, slides the notion of fidelity to the reception side of the message. Here, the criteria of sound fidelity often refers to how well the copy is reproduced in each instance of its reproduction. (The simple recording of an event, such as a speech, might also demand a fidelity of realism to that event, and so, is more closely related to the artwork—the event being the original—than are the sounds crafted in a studio.) This trend is mirrored in the common desire for high fidelity, or hi-fi, sound equipment in order to reproduce sounds as they are encoded by the medium (the LP, the CD, the mp3), even if these sounds are themselves distortions of otherwise natural sounds or include a high level of noise (once more the distorted guitar signal). Unlike reproductions of artwork, however, a studio-produced recording may be said to function as a simulacrum. Since the sounds recorded and then reproduced often have no basis in one real or live event, fidelity in this sense cannot revolve around the original, as there is none.
With the simulacrum, a copy without an original, the concept of fidelity is greatly troubled. Deleuze, in discussing Plato’s notion of the copy, writes: “Copies are secondary possessors. They are well-founded pretenders, guaranteed by resemblance; simulacra, are like false pretenders, built upon a dissimilarity, implying an essential perversion or a deviation.”10 Whereas the copy may lack fidelity or have low fidelity (depending on the criteria) in regards to the original, the simulacrum has nothing that it looks towards, and so, cannot have fidelity in the normal sense. For Baudrillard, the simulation “…is a deterrence machine set up in order to rejuvenate in reverse the fiction of the real,”11 meaning that it attempts to displace its fidelity to the real somewhere else. But this concept of fidelity is complicated when Baudrillard claims that the real gestured toward is actually less real than the representation that announces itself as false: the simulation of a place like Disneyland actually has greater fidelity to the real than the city it points to, Los Angeles, as being real (see reality/hyperreality). Here, concepts of truth and real are confused in ways such that the distinctions between the original, the copy, and the simulacrum are obscured, thereby severely challenging the usefulness of the term fidelity.