The cliché was born in around 1825 in a noisy factory in France. Specifically, cliché was a term in printers’ jargon used to describe the stereotype block or printing plate. Cliché referred to an object, but it was named for the clicking sound made by a mould striking metal.
Cliché was the onomatopoeia of things clicking into place, coined by people made into a group by virtue of their shared labour.
The cliché’s point of origin is the historical moment of text and image becoming perfectly, mechanically reproducible. Cliché is the unofficial byproduct of mechanical reproduction, a sound effect of modernity.
In short, according to Walter Benjamin’s phrasing, cliché began to sound in people’s ears precisely when the aura of the artwork began to wither:
‘Even the most perfect 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. […] One might subsume [this] eliminated element in the term “aura” and go on to say: that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art.’
Following Benjamin, we might understand cliché as synonymous with the loss of aura. Where the aura made an artwork or text unique, unreproducible and authentic, the machinic click of cliché made it crass, multiple, unoriginal, common.
Benjamin famously saw this loss as a virtue:
‘[…] secondary reproduction can put the copy of the original into situations which would be out of reach for the original itself. Above all it enables the original to meet the beholder halfway …’
Like the reproducibility of image and text, the cliché appeared as an apparently democratic medium. It permitted access to a shared sentiment, the authenticity of which remains shaky and elusive.
In her poetry, and in her academic writing, Denise Riley explores cliché as a sociable and outward-facing gesture:
‘A cliché is not to be despised: its automatic comfort is the happy exteriority of a shared language which knows itself perfectly well to be a contentless but sociable turning outward toward the world.’
Following Riley, clichés embrace the notion that authenticity is a myth, that patterns occur. Before clichés we had motifs, allegories, recurring features. We had variations on a theme. Cliché’s familiar—the trope—is an older word, and from the outset referred to oft-used figures of speech. But whereas trope—from the latin tropus, turning—is also linked to troubadours, the wandering poets of lyric and romance, cliché sprung from the demotic song of the factory.
Like the workers whose labours produced stereotype plates and sonic clichés, we perform labours of affect and attunement in producing, recognising and self-organising around cliché. The etymology of the word ‘stereotype’ runs parallel to that of cliché; our idiomatic use of these two words was not common in English until the 1920s.
Linguistically, and perhaps otherwise, we are still in the century of the cliché.
A longer version of this text was presented at Gestures: Writing That Moves Between, a conference at the Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester, February 2019.