Contemporary Collecting: Objects, Practices, and the Fate of Things

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

— Marcus Boon

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”


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.


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.