Contemporary Collecting: Objects, Practices, and the Fate of Things
US: May 2013
Excerpted from Contemporary Collecting: Objects, Practices, and the Fate of Things (footnotes omitted), Kevin M. Moist and David Banash (editors). Published by © Scarecrow Press. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or printed without permission in writing from the publisher.
Meditations in an Emergency: On the Apparent Destruction of My MP3 Collection
For it is an irretrievable image of the past which threatens to disappear in any present that does not recognize itself as intimated in that image.
—Walter Benjamin, “Edouard Fuchs: Collector”
THE ANGEL OF HISTORY AS A COLLECTOR
Walter Benjamin ironically celebrated the figure of the collector, noting that such figures only become intelligible at the moment of their extinction. He didn’t exactly say why the collector should have been on the verge of extinction in the early 1930s, but given the emphasis on ownership in the essay, it’s not difficult to connect it to Benjamin’s thoughts on mechanical reproduction, because if private ownership sustains the object as a set of historical traces that travel, in commodity form, from bookstore to bookshelf to auction block and back to bookshelf, mass reproduction destroys the aura of the object, an aura that is not entirely separate from the “set of historical traces” that Benjamin described. If the collector is nourished not by generic books but by particular “copies of books,” the very technology of mass reproduction that makes these copies also inundates and finally dissolves the aura that makes them collectible. Benjamin’s texts on collecting were written during a period (1931–1937) when the lingering possibility of socialist revolution radicalized this split within the collectible object: Benjamin would reluctantly give up the pleasures of private ownership of his collection for the liberation of the masses.
Benjamin’s meditations on book collecting, and his study of collector/archivist Edouard Fuchs are well known. But the figure of the collector has significance in his work beyond these specific texts. The Passagenwerke is itself a collection the purpose of which, through its particular mode of arrangement, was to intervene in the understanding of history and reconfigure it through a set of juxtapositions that illuminated the present. Beyond this, the much-celebrated figure of the angel of history in “On the Concept of History” can be understood as a collector also. If in “Unpacking My Library” Benjamin already wrote about the end of the epoch of the collector, the angel of history is a figure of the apocalypse of the collector—one who is no longer able to collect the objects or signs of history, who watches the debris of history pile up before him or her, who would like to gather and save all that debris, but who is driven back in the very attempt to save things. Benjamin argued that things take on their deepest significance at the moment that they disappear. I consider this statement, and some of Benjamin’s other remarks about collecting, in the light of digital collections, unknown twenty years ago, but now pretty much ubiquitous. In particular, I want to discuss what it means to lose a digital collection.
The topic is on my mind because last Saturday I accidentally deleted most of my iTunes library, while trying to remove duplicate tags for more than 20,000 sound files that somehow appeared when I migrated all my data to a new computer. I thought I was just removing the extra tags, but inadvertently also removed the actual sound files and sent them to the trash, where they sat for weeks, until one day, in a moment of bored New Year’s resolution, I absentmindedly emptied the trash and its surprisingly vast contents. Consider these meditations in an emergency, written as I try to deal with the situation.
The first, frankly instrumental question that you are likely to ask, in an attempt to dismiss the validity of what follows, is: Why didn’t I make a backup? Well, I did make one last summer, but that back up is on an old external hard drive locked in my office five hundred miles away. Couldn’t I just rip the files off of my iPod? Good idea, but my iPod is relatively old and contains only a relatively small but significant subset of the files that I own. The contingency of my collection, its uniqueness, is situated somewhere beyond these other two collections. This chapter is very much concerned with contingency.
My MP3 collection is probably the single thing that I own that I care the most about—which should be enough to establish my credentials as a collector. I too have my memories: of a summer weekend in upstate New York when K shared his hard drive with me. Of the moment when I discovered that there were La Monte Young recordings on Napster. And so on. But the event of erasing my collection left me oddly unmoved, in a way that, say, a fire that destroyed the 3,000 plus vinyl LPs that I own would not. Why? For a couple of reasons, at least. First is the issue of the materiality of the collection. As has been established in recent years, computer files do have their materiality, rendered as a series of electrical charges on microchips. But my MP3 collection did not occupy visible space in the same way that my vinyl collection does, and it does not have the same quality of finitude that the vinyl does. Although I could conceivably replace the entirety of my vinyl collection (though who can actually remember everything he owns!), it would be an enormous work of reconstruction, perhaps impossible. In all likelihood, I would have to face the fact of my loss, especially if confronted with the burnt remains of the collection, which would likely be rendered not as total disappearance but as an extreme form of defacement, as some of the photographs of destroyed collections or libraries that can be found on the Internet suggest. Anyone whose house has caught fire knows the feeling of surveying the remains afterward: objects still recognizable yet deformed, a book cover burnt at the edges, saturated with water; a broken record; a photograph whose paper has bubbled and warped. The disappearance of an MP3 collection leaves no smell, no charred remains. What it does leave is something more ambiguous.
I am in the process of getting a data recovery person to recover the files. When I tried to do it myself using an app called Desk Drill, I managed to recover a third of the collection, in a folder of anonymous numerically sequenced files that hopefully can be read by iTunes and relabeled. As I await the news from the file recovery team, the memory of the files on the hard drive, even after deletion, may amount to a real and almost painless possibility of the total resuscitation of those files. The object here is almost identical to its memory; in fact, it “is” memory.
What I discover from my error is that despite the rhetoric or promise of total recall that surrounds digital collections, my collection is truly an existential one, marked by finitude and contingency at every level. Heidegger devoted some paragraphs of Being and Time to retrieval as an essential part of true historiography. Although retrieval is conventionally thought of as an objective matter, Heidegger pointed out that retrieval always only occurs as a possibility in a particular moment. I, and my collection, have been thrown, and we find or lose each other within the possible modes of enframing that exist in this moment.
Update, three days later. I got my hard drive back this morning from the file recovery service. I stood in the office while the process took place. It took nearly four days to do, partly because the video card on the computer that was scanning my drive fried during the first scan and the scan had to be aborted. The first surprise was that the computer was able to locate more than 400 gigabytes of deleted files on a hard drive that is only 300 GB, of which I had deleted approximately 160 GB of files. This adds a further twist to the notion of the collection as a form of memory, because even when I consciously delete or erase part of my collection, it can still often be recovered. This complicates the notion of the materiality of the digital file, though, as I discovered when I got the drive home. The portion of recovered files that were audio files was roughly equivalent to what I had deleted, so I put the folder of audio files back into my iTunes library and then ran “Add to library.” Most of the files appear as duplicates, but suddenly duplicates don’t seem so bad.
How can it be that by deleting my MP3 library, I actually recovered a quantitatively much larger batch of data than I originally lost? The most obvious response is that the MP3 collection is really a virtual one rather than an actual one, and that when seeking the Real of whatever marks of my collection still exist on my external hard drive, what I encounter is not just the barecode itself, corresponding to the deleted files, but a much larger, chaotic, and ghostlike set of traces that constitute the sum of my activity in using that hard drive. It is a collection of files that is more or less unfamiliar to me, especially since it consists mostly of generically numbered files. As such it’s not a collection that I feel I own. Collection usually presupposes ownership, as Walter Benjamin reminded us while unpacking his book collection, but what is at issue here is not that I have not read or listened to every MP3 file in my collection, but that I actually don’t recognize or remember most of the restored files at all.
One of the curious things about Stanley Cavell’s celebrated essay “The World as Things” (included in this volume) is that although he discusses the problem of description as being foundational for twentieth-century philosophy, whether Heidegger, Wittgenstein, or for that matter Husserl, he doesn’t mention set theory, which is a formal way of describing things as a collection of other things. It is Alain Badiou who pointed out, in Being and Event, that set theory addresses a problem of ontology. Furthermore, as Badiou’s work suggests, the problem of what is collectible in a set is a political one. What Badiou’s work does not address directly is the issue of digitization, and the development of the computer, which can be tracked to issues in set theory, and the problem of a formal logic of description, which Alan Turing for example addressed in his papers on computation. Would digitization stand on the side of Badiou’s truth procedures exposed to the event, or on the side of the situation or spectacle, part of the ideological infrastructure that maintains power in our society without any reference to eventality and its truth? At first the answer seems obvious: digitization as the process of translation into code must stand on the side of the situation, of a “mathematical ontology” that stands opposed to the singularity of the event. However, recent events suggest that matters are more complicated.
We live increasingly in a world of sets, of collections, in which we either have access or do not, in which something is either part of the set or not. Netflix for example, is a collection of files that we can choose from. If we search for a movie and it is not in Netflix’s database, that’s pretty much the end of it. If it is part of the set of films in the Netflix database, then we can watch it. Contrast this with a visit to a video store. Although it’s true that you could ask the video clerk whether the store has such and such a movie, access to movies tends to be partial, based more on browsing the racks, and if a movie I want has already been taken out by someone else, then I can’t watch it. In other words, the question of whether a particular movie is in or out of the set or collection of movies that is available to me is highly contingent, and the sense of there being a collection there is much weaker.
The recent emergence of WikiLeaks’ distribution of government archives, quasi-legal cultural archives such as AAAAARG.ORG or UbuWeb, and file-sharing communities such as The Pirate Bay, points to the way that formal mathematical arguments about belonging form the core of a new kind of explicit politics of collection online. In a recent issue of Radical Philosophy, Finn Brunton points out that in his writings, Julian Assange emphasizes that the goal of WikiLeaks isn’t breaking into archives, but making it easier for someone in a closed community that keeps secrets (he calls this a conspiracy) to leak something. His goal then is to undermine the stability of the group that keeps secrets, and in a formal, almost mathematical way, shift the balance from groups that keep secrets to a public or commons where there are no secrets, as well as to shift from injustice to justice based on the notion that the secrets of unjust groups are more likely to be revealed than those that are based on a just and public practice of engagement. In Assange’s formulation, the question of community comes down to making robust routing decisions. The other side of this situation would be what Cory Doctorow recently called “the coming civil war against general purpose computing.” This is, in other words, the struggle among legal, political, and technical attempts to protect certain definitions of intellectual property and therefore also collections as private, with restricted access, and the acts of hackers, ordinary citizens and some businesses to make use of the basic principles of computation to copy and share things and allow the flourishing of diverse kinds of collections.
All of this suggests that events, in Badiou’s sense, also occur in the coded world of mathematical ontology. Russell’s paradox (“Is there a set of all the sets that don’t contain themselves as elements?”) cannot itself be coded; it can only be presented and decided upon, negatively, affirmatively, or as undecidable. The fact that there is no foundation of mathematics in set theory, that the problem of belonging in set theory has no definitive answer, haunts all phenomena of collecting. It haunts collecting in the form of an inevitable disruption of the collector’s plans for completing a collection.