Collector’s Item

I am in the process of moving, which entails packing up my record collection, and confronting some awkward questions about why I even have one. The collection is not about the music: I don’t own a single record that I don’t also have in digital form on an array of hard drives and triple-redundant backups. And though I am as prone as anyone to fetishize the “warm” sound of real vinyl, I’m also self-aware enough to be skeptical of my own ears. Plus, down that road leads to things like obsessive fretting about which plants the records were manufactured at and the need to get “hot pressings” to hear how the recording should “really” sound. For me, MP3s are basically fine.

Beyond that, the collection’s bulk makes it incredibly inconvenient, though therein may lie its actual appeal. The inconvenience enchants the act of listening, enchants my labor in assembling the collection. Inconvenience triggers nostalgia, particularly since “progress” tends to be understood in terms of efficiency. The cumbersome nature of putting on a record and then flipping it over conjures all sorts of other lost experiences — dialing rotary phones, looking things up in books, etc. Listening then becomes a journey into a romanticized, half-remembered past from which tedium, frustration, and disappointment have been edited out. And if the record skips, I can always play the song on my phone.

But is that nostalgia enough to justify all the moving boxes? All the packing and unpacking? The collection has become a physical manifestation of sunk costs; it makes me feel like I have come too far to stop now.

Walter Benjamin’s “Unpacking My Library” is sort of the canonical account of collector-hood, but I am put off a bit by his talk of “real libraries” and being a “genuine collector.” Much of what he says about collecting books is echoed by Jean Baudrillard in The System of Objects, only Baudrillard makes it all pejorative. Collectors “invariably have something impoverished and inhuman about them,” he writes. They “never … get beyond a certain poverty and infantilism.” (Benjamin, by contrast, rhapsodizes that “to a true collector the acquisition of an old book is its rebirth. This is the childlike element which in a collector mingles with the element of old age.”) Benjamin celebrates the “harmonious whole” of a collection; Baudrillard sees this harmony as pathological escapism.

No matter how open a collection is, it will always harbor an irreducible element of non-relationship to the world. Because he feels alienated and abolished by a social discourse whose rules escape him, the collector strives to reconstitute a discourse that is transparent to him, a discourse whose signifiers he controls and whose referent par excellence is himself.

If this holds for gestures of digital appropriation, it may shed light on Pinterest and Tumblr usage. Although it may seem a bit counterintuitive to view social media this way, posting images and linking them to your profile can be seen as an effort to transcend social judgment, flying in the face of the metrics that want to make it inescapable. On your own Tumblr, you get to be a taste tyrant; each new post supports the fantasy that you can dictate the rules of style for yourself by fiat, beyond the encroachment of cultural-capital anxieties. The mere process of adding another image (rather than the judicious choice of some specific content) can be the means by which you push aside the fear that your choices may be governed by a social logic beyond your control. Any specific item, evaluated on its own, immediately calls forth social standards of evaluation, but the process of accumulation itself is beyond judgment — particularly under capitalism, where only accumulation can be for its own sake.

The metrics, from this point of view, are there to prompt you to try negate them with additional content. Alternatively, one could treat low numbers as proof that one has successfully checked out of the numbers game, regarding objective nonpopularity as a sign of one’s indifference to it.

For Baudrillard, collecting is a way to sustain desire in the face of inevitable death, a way to escape time. “What man gets from objects is not a guarantee of life after death but the possibility, from the present moment onwards, of continually experiencing the unfolding of his existence in a controlled, cyclical mode, symbolically transcending a real existence the irreversibility of whose progression he is powerless to affect.” Collecting allows collectors to turn lost time to cyclical time, subordinating serial acquisition to spatial ordering. And because the collection signifies the collector, it lets collectors “recite themselves, as it were, outside time.”

Baudrillard claims that “what you really collect is always yourself.” Thus he, like Benjamin, argues that possessing objects stands in opposition to actually using them. Any collection tends toward forbidding actual use: think the comic-book collector whose items are rated and sealed in plastic, or the record collector who is afraid to ruin the vinyl by playing it. One collects objects to purge them of their usefulness, subordinate that use value to the curatorial logic that the collector applies so that any collected object signifies only the collector.

But once you start signifying yourself with what you collect, you are consigned to always be collecting:

An object no longer specified by its function is defined by the subject, but in the passionate abstractness of possession all objects are equivalent. And just one object no longer suffices: the fulfillment of the project of possession always means a succession or even a complete series of objects. This is why owning absolutely any object is always so satisfying and so disappointing at the same time: a whole series lies behind any single object, and makes it into a source of anxiety.

I don’t like to admit to myself that I collect records to stabilize my sense of my own identity, and I try to resist the seductive idea that my taste is autonomous, that it makes me unique. Despite how real that feels — no one else has this same weird collection of records as me! — I try to counter that tendency, resocialize my understanding of my taste. I want to demystify my own sense of individuality, collect my way out of the impulse to keep collecting. I want to exempt myself from the problem of being authentic, being unique — a losing proposition, self-hypocratizing. I want to defy individuality only because it seems like a nonconformist thing to do.

Boris Groys, in this passage from On the New, suggests that what’s worse than striving for authenticity is regarding yourself as inherently authentic. 

In many respects, contemporary man is a victim of the theory of original difference. He has been poisoned by the suggestion that, in the absence of all effort, he is already unique, different from all other men at a certain extra-cultural, authentic level of life. That is why he feels a certain frustration attendant upon the inevitable realization of his actual, insurmountable cultural banality.

To escape one’s cultural banality, Groys suggests, one must “work professionally in the cultural field.” Collecting things is a way to pretend to that status, especially if one approaches it not as a connoisseur but as a speculator in cool. I find that when I go to record stores, I get caught up in such games of aesthetic arbitrage. When I go record shopping I tend to only look in bargain bins. These are the records that have been deemed uncollectible, beneath serious notice. Will Straw, in “Exhausted Commodities: The Material Culture of Music,” argues that this built-up sediment of unwanted culture demystifies collectibles in general:

In the ways in which they accumulate, and in the fact that they sit there, unsold, these commodities contradict the definition of the commodity as a signifier of social desire.

The bargain-bin records are, in Groys’s terminology, the “profane,” the cultural material that is the opposite of art, the opposite of what is accepted in the official archive of relevant, memorable, interpretable culture. They are socio-cultural refuse.

To me, these records represent a cultural opportunity to buy low, a chance for me to assert myself in a territory revealed by the receding tide of fashion. By finding “good” records among the refuse, I get to assert a taste I know is highly idiosyncratic (In buying these Linda Ronstadt records, I am choosing something the contemporary market has rejected), and I wager on my own social influence (I will redeem these rejected Linda Ronstadt albums, and when they come back in style, I will have been there all along and can imagine I played some small role in revitalizing them.) And even if what I buy never becomes popular again, I can console myself with the proof of my uniqueness. (Until I remember how banal it is.)

Only in the bargain bins can I shop comfortably, knowing that I am not coattail-riding on someone else’s cultural capital, not following someone else’s fashion. Instead I can pretend both that I am both exercising my sovereign judgment and am indifferent to the whole game of taste, and also fully invested in the game and taking a savvy position within it, letting my taste be wholly guided by tactical positionality within it. When necessary, I can tell myself I have no taste at all — only timely, economically incentivized moves within fashion cycles. I can’t be held responsible for “really” liking anything! I am safely opaque.

Something similar happens, perhaps, in seeking virality in social media. The more apparently it seems that something was posted “just for likes,” the less it says about one’s “true self.” It’s just strategic, and everyone knows and accepts it as such. The more self-promotion you do, the less it seems you are talking about yourself. You’re just talking in the dialect of accumulation, reading from a shared script for the entrepreneurial self.

Curatorial gestures are likewise an amalgam of strategy and self-expression, with one perpetually permitting disavowal of the other. As with the bargain-bin records, If something I reblog on Tumblr gets reblogged a lot later, I can feel partly responsible and enjoy that success; if it doesn’t, I can congratulate myself for my distinctive taste. The pleasure I take in these things in themselves? That’s the most malleable component in the system, so that gets adjusted accordingly, to accommodate the other pressures.

For Groys, such salvage missions are the essence of cultural innovation, the hallmark of the artist’s function since the time of Duchamp’s ready-mades. Art, he argues, stems not from the creative unconscious or from the technical ability to represent objective beauty or truth but from redrawing the boundary between art and not-art. It comes from understanding “cultural-economic logic” and fashion cycles, and having the social wherewithal to affect them. Craft is more or less discarded, and art becomes indistinguishable from curation, collecting. Once the ubiquity of reproduction (mechanical and now digital) makes technical skill superfluous, a kind of mystified ornament, the only significant artistic medium is the cultural archive itself, and the ability to shift things in and out of it.

But there is nothing particularly special about being archived anymore. Digitization has made the cultural archive itself seem massive and amorphous, limitless, even as it becomes easier to search and exhume things from. Rediscovery, revalorization, devalorization, forgetting: all of it happens more quickly, and with lower stakes, since we all know everything is being saved in the cloud anyway. My puny record collection stands against that limitless digital archive; it’s my private attempt to raise the stakes again, even if only at the level of personal fantasy. I will be lugging that fantasy down three flights of stairs, unless I am willing to entrust it to the movers.

Still, it is hard to imagine that anything will ultimately be left out of the millions of petabytes of data being collected and stored. We’re frequently reminded that our little contributions are important enough to register in it — every time an algorithm tries to predict something about us, we know we are in there. We are already unique ID numbers in these databases, we are all inadvertently de facto “professionals in the cultural field.” That makes it all pretty banal from the human point of view. But big data sees the eternal value in all our curating and collecting, and it will save us all.