Contemporary Collecting

Objects, Practices, and the Fate of Things

by Kevin M. Moist, David Banash (eds.)

1 August 2013



Next morning. At first it looks as though my library has been restored. This is because the iTunes library directory itself is identical to the way it was before I deleted the files. It is only when I click on a track that an exclamation mark appears, indicating that there is no audio file linked to the track. There are duplicates of almost all the tracks. Some of the duplicates connect to a file; some don’t. Sometimes I can locate the lost file, sometimes I can’t. Nearly everything is there. But sometimes a track is missing from a particular record. Or sometimes a five-minute track now appears to be forty-six seconds long and cuts off short. My Dam Funk record is gone! I know it exists just a click or two away in the iTunes store, but finally, I experience a feeling of loss and grief.

The feeling doesn’t last. Part of me feels relief, like a burden has been removed. I understand the burden of carrying an amassed horde of physical objects around from apartment to apartment: those sixteen boxes of vinyl that now sit in my basement waiting for the day when I live somewhere big enough that I can display them. Benjamin doesn’t say much about the labor of transporting or even coexisting with a collection, but there’s a sense he knows the work of “unpacking.” In his lovely early rumination on his MP3s, Julian Dibbell writes:

I AM UNPACKING my CD collection. Yes, I am. Not the way Benjamin famously unpacked his book collection, seven decades ago, amid “the disorder of crates that have been wrenched open, the air saturated with the dust of wood, the floor covered with torn paper.” Not hardly. I’m unpacking my music the way we generally unpack information these days: by setting it free entirely from dust and paper and crates of any kind. By making it immaterial.

But this only points to how puzzling it is that I still experience my collection as a burden. Perhaps the physical labor that Benjamin wrote about, complete with crates that need to be wrenched open, the dust of the wood, has now been replaced by immaterial labor. Didn’t I get into this mess by seeking to “tidy” my collection up? By seeking to remove all the extra copies, inaccurate copies, unnamed copies or inexisting copies that obstructed my easy access to the original copies that I believe my collection should consist of? The plug-in “Super Remove Dead Tracks” and the iTunes tool “Find Duplicates” both promise to alleviate this work. But instead the work has redoubled itself. I finally understand the defiant attitude of Laroche, the orchid collector in the movie Adaptation, who obsessively collects some category of things, only to rigorously and repeatedly abandon them to invent a kind of historical closure for himself that allows him to move on, interminably.

I imagine that my collection could be replaced with another one that is equally interesting. It’s not hard to find collections today. In fact, it’s often easier to get access to a collection than to an individual object. BitTorrent seems to encourage the sharing of vast collections. If I want to replace my copy of Toeachizown by Dam Funk, it’s actually easier to download Dam Funk’s entire discography today. Such collections have the status of a gift, but in a strange way, because we get much more than we asked for, much more than we want. I cannot store all the collections that I have access to. I do not want all the collections that I have. Nor am I even aware of a large part of the collection. At any rate, the resurrection of my collection stands in a curious legal limbo.

Benjamin saw the potential of a mass art, as well as that of a publicly held collection such as that of a museum or library, but it’s unclear that he recognized the possibility of a political class, that is, a mass of collectors, and the struggle between publicly and privately held collections for the attention of the masses. Thus today there’s a modification of capitalism in the direction of the cloud, of services like Spotify, wherein I never own the music; it is always available as a vast privately held collection that I pay for access to. Thinking dialectically, it is impossible that such a service could really be the final word on collections. The idea feels as absurd as Fukuyama proclaiming the Hegelian end of history at the end of the Cold War. But: why? What is it that lies beyond the accumulation of objects, either as private or state property, sold or given to us on loan?


The truth of the matter is that my collection is a mess. Though not fastidiously or obsessive-compulsively clean, I am far from being a stereotypical nerd or geek, every surface covered in stacks of books, moldy paper cups, and dead pieces of computer equipment. But suddenly I do feel like Benjamin’s angel of history, his hands thrown up in horror as the mislabeled, broken MP3 files pile up in front of him. Partly I am kidding. Partly I know that my experience is utterly banal, shared by many many people, although no doubt in different media, as they look at their computer screens at this very moment. But that should also be cause for thought: What if every person at his or her computer screen today was an instance or iteration of the angel of history, the very picture of the crisis of the collector, no longer just a member of a small elite, but the very picture of the modern subject, 2013, a subject who still seeks to define himself or herself in terms of the set of his or her properties or possessions, even in the moment when, as Marx and Engels wrote, “All that is solid melts into air.”

So what is that enormous pile of debris piling up in front of us? Perhaps it’s a commons. And what the angel of history experiences is the collapse of property structures such that the private ownership of collections or histories is no longer possible. This means that password-protected services, with their reasonable monthly fees and intellectual property rights, will also disappear, leaving us with an ever-expanding pile of rubble or garbage that isn’t yet formally available as an organized commons in which lines of access to potential subjects who would organize a society around it would emerge. The reasons for this lack of formal availability are, broadly, legal, sociotechnical, and political. There are laws that prevent unlimited sharing, and they are enacted in the software of my iPod, in legal restrictions on file-sharing, and so forth.

This vision is in line with other aspects of Benjamin’s thought on history. For example, regarding the dialectical image, “Articulating the past historically means recognizing those elements of the past which come together in the constellation of a single moment.” So the collection is a kind of constellation, but the full power of constellation can only appear when collections are liberated from the grip of ownership. They can only appear when they become truly public, or more tragically, when they become the image of a possible public, one that flashes before us in the moment that it disappears, as the quote with which I began this chapter indicates. This would explain why it is so difficult to see the new digital archives as actual things that exist within a solid property regime, and why, conversely, my own digital collection neither feels like mine nor like a substantial object. It’s only when I lose the collection that an image of a genuine public sphere momentarily appears, a sphere out of which my collection emerged and from which it may in fact be restored. In a radical sense, a constellation as a set of individual inherently existing objects does not exist. It “exists” only insofar as processes of reification pull us into structures in which we performatively enact a belief in ownable, existing objects that form a collection. Liberated from ownership, the full power of constellation is revealed as a kind of actor network in which individual entities appear.

Significantly, such a thought of a new commons after ownership speaks to a significant body of recent post-Benjaminian scholarship, which runs from Agamben’s The Coming Community through Hardt and Negri’s discussions of “the common,” to Esposito’s work on depropriation and communitas. What all these theorists share is a vision of a community that is not identitarian, that is not built around a full coming to presence of any particular universalizable subject or object, but rather is built around the shared recognition of contingency, finitude, and incompleteness. This community is “depropriated” because it is not based on an identification of common properties that would provide the basis of a unification, and recognizes that ultimately property, both in the sense of intellectual property and in the broader philosophical sense of a quality that intrinsically belongs to something, is an unsustainable illusion.

What I find problematic in this tradition is the lack of a clear articulation of what it means to live collectively with incompleteness, beyond a passivity that is often in danger of collapsing into nihilism. Here I find Buddhist tradition more specific in its examination of the ultimate absence of intrinsic essences or properties. The recognition of the ultimate impossibility of property regimes need not be a nihilistic one. Nor does it imply a chaotic free-for-all—as Esposito shows in his brilliant reading of Hobbes’s state of nature. It simply implies other kinds of relationship than that of ownership. This is precisely what we see happening today in debates about a digital commons, and in the practices of online and offline constellation formerly known as collecting. It is not a question of seeking a utopia of total availability, but of recognizing, via the actual shocks that new technologies deliver to the realm of the possible as delineated by law and custom in the age of global capitalism, that the failures of ownership, in which the figure of the collector also is implicated, open up other, hitherto obscured possibilities for a shared world.


I am back home. Time Machine is telling me that it cannot complete the backup of my computer. I have bought new backup drives. I have mapped out a plan. I found the old Firewire drive on which I backed up my MP3 collection in the basement in a stack of boxes. This surprises me because I thought that I had treated the drive with great care, but obviously I was quite indifferent to it, until I needed it. The next surprise is that the backup dates to February 2010, rather than summer 2011, as I had imagined. This means that there is a year and a half of collecting activity that is basically irretrievable. It is possible that the actual files exist, either on my iPod or in the attempt to restore the hard drive.

I end up deleting the files of my entire iTunes library up to the date that I deleted the duplicates, and I also delete the entire block of files that were retrieved from my external hard drive. Then I clear the entire file listing in iTunes. I build up the collection again from the February 2010 back up and then I click “Add to Library.” My collection is, to some degree, restored, with a year and a half gap. It is free of duplicates for the first time in many years. The price that I pay for being rid, at least for now, of the simulacra of my collection, all those irritating and redundant doubles, is a gap, a hole in time. Some of it may be retrievable from my iPod. Some is gone for good. I feel OK about that, except for those moments when I search for a track that I imagined I own, only to find it missing.

I am left wondering whether it is actually possible to collect things today in the sense that Benjamin, Cavell, even Baudrillard have understood collections. My objection to contemporary collection might begin with the problem of ownership. On the one hand, the existential fact of the presence or absence of digital files or code on my computer or drives continues to define what is “mine.” The virtualization of this presence through backups, copies and other iterations still comes down to whether or not those copies can come to hand or not when required. And the retrievability or not of these copies is marked by a specific history in which I did or did not make backups or copies, which did or did not contain certain files. My more or less unconscious activities in moving files around is a history that determines what my collection is. On the other hand, this unconsciousness, my casual indifference to my actions in securing or not securing files, again marks off my situation from that of Benjamin unpacking his book collection. I remember very little about what I got when and how when it comes to MP3s. Only at the moment of its disappearance, to paraphrase Benjamin, does its historicity start to exist for me.

Yet this unconsciousness is not simple carelessness or stupidity (whatever those things are). It may actually be a sign of my confidence in the worldly existence of those things that I care about, the possibility that I do not have to secure them to enjoy them or care for them. This confidence also has its own historicity, related to changing notions of publicness, commons, and so forth. The accessibility of certain rare and therefore desirable music files was different in the age of Napster (1999– 2002), the age of Rapidshare and Megaupload and music blogs (2004–2009), and that of BitTorrent (2008–?). Today, I find myself being forced back into the historical situation of the collector by the aggressive shutdown of various new technosocial forms of publicness through the expansion and enforcement of IP laws. But I do not want to be a collector. I have tasted a better life. The problem remains: How do I create the conditions in which it can flourish?

Marcus Boon is a writer, journalist and Professor of English at York University, Toronto. He’s a member of that university’s Social and Political Thought program.

Kevin M. Moist is associate professor of communications at Pennsylvania State University – Altoona College. He has written for numerous journals, including The Journal of Popular Culture, American Studies, Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, and Studies in Popular Culture.

David Banash is professor of English at Western Illinois University, where he teaches courses in contemporary American literature, film, and popular culture. His essays and reviews have appeared in Postmodern Culture, Reconstruction, Bad Subjects, American Book Review, and PopMatters. His book, Collage Culture: Readymades, Meaning, and the Age of Consumption is forthcoming in 2013.

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