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Digital fetishes

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Friday, May 8, 2009

This is not a post about online pornography (though I expect it will attract a lot of comment spam). Rather it’s about this essay by Llewellyn Hinkes, which wonders about the status of fetish objects—he seems to have in mind the phenomenon of being seduced by the tangibility of an object for reasons above and beyond its usefulness—when digitization is making culture more and more virtual.


Having something like this stored digitally, where a single hard drive failure can destroy years of hoarding in an instant, is frightening. It’s as if mother-destroyer can enter your house at any moment, chop off the super-ego, and then throw it in the garbage. For a time, I hoarded gobs and gobs of mp3s of obscure psychedelic music: Japanese-Brazilian lounge albums, avant-garde noise compositions, anything by Gary Wilson. Then one day, I saw it all disappear. I made a stupid mistake when moving files from an external hard drive that cost me my entire music collection. And what frightened me was that it didn’t really mean that much.


I completely relate to this and not because I am also a fan of Gary Wilson. Still, I am trying hard not to be frightened by this new intangibility but to instead revel in it, experience it as liberation, or at least a step toward freeing myself of the hoarding impulses.
  
I know it is probably futile to resist the way emotions get bound up in objects, the way we see our history or traces of our former dreams in the things we’ve carried with us: I have lots of things similar to what Hinkes describes here:


I have an old paperback copy of Douglas Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach sitting on my bookshelf that’s torn to bits. It’s missing its cover and the spine is falling apart. When the spine finally disintegrates, I’ll probably just use a rubber band to hold it together. Trying to read the book in this state would be impossible, yet it’s one of my prized possessions because of its connection to a point in my life, like a tattoo made of wood pulp. Even if the whole thing dissolves into a small corner of paper, I’d still treasure it and prominently display the remaining nub in the same location on the shelf.


I have a box of cassettes from the 1980s under my bed, though I don’t even have a cassette player anymore. They just seem inexplicably like important documents of my life, necessary to the never-to-be-written biography of me. Objects like that seem to earn their place in our lives, but it’s hard to deal with all the objects that are competing for that honor—the pathos can get overwhelming once we’ve projected emotion on all the things competing for it, and once we sort through all the marketing claims trying to imbue objects with prefab emotionality from outside our lives.


Rather than jeopardize fetishes, digitization seems to be intensifying that pathos for physical objects; it’s creating an opportunity for a more intensive fetishization of the material objects that remain. Recently I saw a copy of the Beatles’ Revolver in a thrift store, a record I already own in several different formats. But I couldn’t resist the impulse to buy it again, simply because the opportunity presented itself, and it seemed to me that owning it on vinyl would somehow better convey to myself my love of the pre-Pepper Beatles. Even though I knew how weird it was that I would find myself needing convincing of that, I went through with the purchase anyway, in a weird act of quasi-historical preservation. That copy of Revolver deserved a better fate than languishing in a Maryland thrift store.


My persistent fear is that little drama I experienced in the thrift store gets played out over and over again, and itself becomes an addictive experience. We rescue objects from their doom the way the sentimental heroes in late-18th century novels rescued orphans and fallen women.


In the past week’s Consumed column, Rob Walker looked at the inverse of this—the rise of “digital collectibles” and a new “immaterialism” that retains the ideology of a materialistic society, only without the stuff. An example:


Alamofire’s new project is called Gowalla. This time, the product is more tied to mobile devices like the iPhone and involves “collecting” digital icons by (nondigitally) visiting certain spots in various cities. Really, he figures, it’s not so different from what inspired earlier generations to collect postcards or other gewgaws. But, Williams adds, without “all the physical crap.”


If conspicuous consumerism is all about scoring points, all you really need is the scoreboard, and networked iPhones seem designed precisely for that function. The depressing conclusion is that digitalization can be used to reinforce the ideology of consumerism just as readily as it can be used to dismantle it—in fact, it is already pretty far along in the reinforcements. Walker’s final anecdote is about a digital birthday gift he received through Facebook, an otter that cost someone a dollar: “It was a pretty effective gift, just like a traditional, physical birthday card, which expresses a sentiment but really has no other utility.” What I don’t understand is why we tend to regard a simple acknowlegdment—a happy birthday email, say—as inferior to the purchased thing, digital or otherwise. It seems to me that a person has paid a dollar to avoid having to write that email, with the expense serving to legitimize the evasion. I often end up paying $2 for a birthday card whose doggerel, mortifyingly embarrassing as it always turns out to be, seems more convenient than writing a few sentences of my own. But the card’s status as a professionally made good stands in for my failure and redeems it. This seems to be one of consumerism’s great triumphs; turning the expenditure on junk into a substitute currency for the hard work of generating spontaneous and convincing emotion.

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