Archiving the Future: Unpacking Benjamin's Collection

by Pil and Galia Kollectiv

Walter Benjamin’s essay on collecting, published in 1931 under the title “Unpacking my Library”, treads a treacherous path for a Marxist. In presenting a thesis on the fetishistic engagement of the collector with artifacts of material culture, which is an almost exclusively bourgeois domain, Benjamin seems to reject a certain puritan ethos prevalent in Marxist thought, while at the same time introducing a sphere of material historicity removed from the fluid swiftness of capitalist practice. He is unique in celebrating the constructive, creative and even critical value of mass consumer culture, as distinct from Capitalism per se. If from a Marxist perspective, the joys of shopping belong to the realm of false consciousness, a form of mass deception, contemporary corporate discourse is equally moralizing in its justification of consumerism via green ethics, fair trade and other mitigating circumstances against an almost universally abhorred materialism. There is therefore something almost transgressive about Benjamin’s positive account of the possession of objects. However, with the increasing dematerialization of consumer products in the current creative economy, does collecting retain the complex relation to consumerism outlined by Benjamin? How does one unpack a virtual library?

Benjamin presents collecting, this particular mode of consumption and ownership of material goods, as a quasi-mythical process of attachment to the world of objects, similar to the way children become invested in their environment or the way they “accomplish the renewal of existence [through] the whole range of childlike modes of acquisition, from touching things to giving them names”[1]. From a stricter Marxist point of view, it is of course easy to criticize this position as deliberately naïve and irresponsible, and this is to an extent the tone that Hannah Arendt adopts in her biographical introduction to Illuminations, the collection of Benjamin’s writings in which “Unpacking my Library” was included. In Arendt’s sympathetic portrait, Benjamin is typical of a generation of middle class Jewish intellectuals at the beginning of the last century who refused to become part of the bourgeois Capitalist order and yet would not commit to a life of impoverishment outside of it. Arendt finds it “striking that despite [Benjamin’s] permanent financial trouble he managed throughout these years constantly to enlarge his library”[2] . As a man who did not manage to hold down a single job in his entire life, Arendt’s Benjamin is certainly not a conformist, but, depending on a monthly stipend from his father, the successful art dealer and business man, for his sustenance, nor does he live up to the ideal of the uncompromising rebel. Arendt presents Benjamin as a relic of the 19th century hommes de lettres, a man whose passionate dislike for the bourgeois work ethos is equaled by his love of the vast network of fictions and histories that sustain the middle class city. This obvious paradox is also why Benjamin’s writing on collecting is still interesting: it is a reminder that critique should not only be a one sided resistance to an existing order that in any case precludes such attacks from the outside, but could also be a more subtle process of breaking down such dichotomies of for and against.

In his defense of collecting, Benjamin traces a different kind of engagement with objects than the one permitted by bourgeois reason. The collector, he claims, has “a relationship to objects that does not emphasize their functional, utilitarian value – that is their usefulness”[3]. So far, this is obviously in line with the classic Marxist analysis of the difference between a simple mode of economic exchange, where money is only a mediator between two commodities – e.g. linen sold in order to buy vegetables – and the capitalist mode of exchange in which “Money begets Money” and objects only transitorily assist the multiplication of capital. But collecting is only interested in the final object: it is neither a way of obtaining use value (like food or shelter) nor a way of earning more. This special way of dealing with commodities, adds Benjamin, is the joy of “the locking of individual items within a magic circle in which they are fixed as the final thrill, the thrill of acquisition, passes over them.” If this sounds similar to a type of narrative still dominant in advertising – the transformation of ordinary matter to a Disney-esque magical item via capitalist ownership or the elevation of an anonymous mass produced object into a particular one containing a special meaning specifically for its unique owner – Benjamin is quick to take the opposite view. Whereas in Capitalist discourse the object is transformed from the common (the market) to the particular and personal (my home), for Benjamin the interest lies in the object’s history, in the opposite movement from the private to the common. The object is valuable only because it is a receptacle for privately owned moments that have accumulated in it as a socio-historical entity. The story told by the object is never the story of negotiating individuality in a mass market; rather it is rescued from the anonymity and loneliness of private taste and reintroduced into the social through contact with the knowledge of previous owners and other objects in the collection. According to Benjamin, the collector is a link in a chain of events, owners and histories that make up the biography of the object. A collected book is therefore the synthesis of a dialectical relationship between two modes of social history: the more private “chaos of memories” and the impersonal “the order of its catalogue”[4]. This insight leads to a curious dilemma. Although invested in the socio-political benefit of democratic display, Benjamin ends up siding with the private collection against the public museum: “Even though public collections may be less objectionable socially and more useful academically than private collections, the objects get their due only in the latter”[5]. The collector considers himself an heir, one responsible for the transmissibility of the collection to the future, and the kind of care invested in this relationship to the object transcends that of a duty to a present public represented by the state’s role as guardian of an archive.

It is not a simple future, however, that Benjamin sees in the collector’s attachment to the object. The collected item becomes distinct from Capitalist accumulation precisely because of the different temporal direction of its movement in and beyond history. Financial markets exist in a constant flux, in which rapid ‘real time’ approximations pave a fictional way towards an unstable speculative future. Objects are often unable to re-materialize after their breakdown into tradable pieces of data, liquidized assets discarded and forgotten in the future oriented frenzy of trade. Benjamin’s objects, on the other hand, exist in a different time. They live in the rift between the stale present and the speculative past which projects forwards, between the unfulfilled promises of the past and the historian’s re-writing of the object’s chronology and origin. This is similar to his analysis of the architecture of the Parisian arcade:

Being past, being no more, is passionately at work in things. To this the historian trusts for his subject matter. He depends on this force, and knows things as they are at the moment of their ceasing to be. Arcades are such monuments of being-no-more… the dialectic takes its way through the arcades, ransacking them, revolutionizing them, turns them upside down and inside out, converting them, since they no longer remain what they are […] And nothing in them lasts except the name: passages[6].

In a chapter on Benjamin’s collector, Kevin McLaughlin, writes that the desire to preserve is not merely an attempt to overcome the commodity or a response to the decontextualization imposed on objects by industrial culture with its anxiety inducing abundance of gratuitous consumption. Preservation is in fact more of a mirror image of commodification, actually relying on this decontextualization. The collector’s collection, as Benjamin asserts in the Arcades Project, is never complete – there is always a piece missing, which feeds the drive to collect further, in the knowledge that the whole can never be owned:

[…] the collector, for Benjamin, knows that what he collects are such empty forms – mere pieces or patches that can be invested with meaning or value only because they are decontextualized (like labor products in exchange, which, we recall, no longer speak of themselves but of social relations). The collector may try to “decipher” or “get behind” the objects he collects (in the way we might try to “decipher” or “get behind” commodities to uncover the social relations that hide in their “hieroglyphic” character). But with regard to what they once were, the collected objects are empty (as the commodity is empty with regard to the labor product)[7].

This is why collecting is also a creative project, an emptiness to be filled. For Benjamin, the writer is the collector who cannot find the book that will complete the collection: “Writers are really people who write books not because they are poor”, and so cannot afford them, “but because they are dissatisfied with the books which they could buy but do not like”[8]. In this way, the collector’s emotional investment in objects is transformed into a productive activity. Here, the collector steps out of the shadow of the auction house and the ‘secondary market’, in which the dealing is made, and brings the Marxist analysis of commodity relations to its logical conclusion. Replacing the financial drive to create fiction as a form of wealth on the back of an impoverished and repressed material reality, the collector cum writer fictionalizes objective reality in order to reinforce it. Fiction is not the shaky bond holding together an unstable and depressing material reality (as is the common narrative found not only in the financial markets but also in a strand of neo-Marxist writing from the Situationists to Baudrillard), but an anthological big bang moment. The writer doesn’t simply create something out of nothing, but from a potentially extant future archive which would include the work, predating a point of origin that has not yet occurred in time.

The reversal in time fits in with Benjamin’s conception of historical materialism as opposed to historicism. Foucault describes the museum as an expression of “the idea of accumulating everything, of establishing a sort of general archive, the will to enclose in one place all times, all epochs, all forms, all tastes, the idea of constituting a place of all times that is itself outside of time and inaccessible to its ravages, the project of organizing in this way a sort of perpetual and indefinite accumulation of time in an immobile place”[9] (a heterotopia – not unlike Benjamin’s description of the 19th century museum as a “dream house”). Benjamin’s historical materialist, a type analogous in his writing to the collector, has no such desire to set himself or a body of knowledge outside time. The “irretrievable image of the past which threatens to disappear in any present which does not recognize its common relation to that image” is exploded by the historical materialist out of its reified continuity: “For him, history becomes the object of a construct (Konstruktion) which is not located in empty time but is constituted in a specific epoch, in a specific life, in a specific work”[10]. Just as the historical materialist constructs a narrative of the past that does not stand outside time in contemplation, so the collector finds an ultimate realization of his passion in the production of the material for his archive.

Benjamin’s collector must therefore not be confused either with the museum curator or with the contemporary art collector, whose highest aim is to preserve the art in an appropriate context, to care for the work, understanding and conserving the artist’s intentions. In caring for the preservation of the authentic art object, the art collector develops an ethical position towards the collected artist. Art funds, for instance, carefully select appropriate works to be purchased for big public collections and force their cash strapped partners to display the object as authentically and with the utmost respect to the artist’s vision. In this way Capital is re-invested in a project of civilization and self-critique and artistic authenticity is preserved as an ethical instrument, even though, as Benjamin points out, it has long lost its referent in socio-economic terms. This attitude is in part a critical development from earlier forms of the museum display, like the Wunderkammer, in which objects acquired at random were displayed with little consideration for their context mainly to produce a sensationalistic effect. Later curatorial discourses attempted to impose the ordering narratives described by Foucault. But perhaps the collectors of the curiosity cabinets were right all along: the theatricality of their disrespectful colonialism seems far more contemporary than any care invested in artistic intention. Someone like Jim Shaw exhibiting paintings bought in yard sales in an exotic freak show of weirdness is more interesting as a collector than the philanthropic art investors increasingly supplanting public funding for the arts. And indeed the slippage between artist, curator and collector is far from exclusive to Shaw – there are few art practices left around that do not share it to some extent, be it in the collection of images used by painters who transcribe them to canvas or the careful assemblage of objects so beloved of art students venturing into installation. The balance Benjamin strives for between objective classification and the subjective production of meaning has nothing to do with an attempt to uncover the historical truth of any specific item in the collection. His investment in mass-produced objects means that the genius of the author is taken out of the equation: “The historical object removed from pure facticity does not need any ‘appreciation’’”[11]. Instead, it is the history of the objects reception that makes it worthy of attention, allowing for the invention of a lost meaning that never was in place of the preservation of a sacred intent.

It is tempting to use this account of collecting as propaganda for material objects as subject to decay over time and against the immaculate immortality of virtual data. Thus, we find Benjamin cropping up in accounts of record collecting that celebrate the independent record shop and bemoan the thrill-less immediacy of online music accessibility. But the ways in which information is stored, lost, rediscovered and organized suggest it is too early to eulogize the collector type posited by Benjamin. Buying records on eBay, for example, may seem to be an impersonal experience, lacking interaction with the shop assistant and fellow consumers, but in fact the website offers new ways of tracking and identifying music through mutual interest that can be too easily dismissed. Even the downloading of music as mp3 files from peer to peer sites involves looking through other people’s record collections and deciphering their cataloguing systems. Just as the age of mechanical reproduction proposed new ways of thinking about visual culture in Benjamin’s best known essay, so too does the information age generate virtual cultural economies that have yet to be theorized in their own right. If the transition from painting to photograph and moving image increased the object’s exhibition value (distribution) at the expense of its cult value (rarity), the accumulation of online data is driving cultural production even further from the notion of authorship as something from which these values emanate. Something of the object’s ‘life-story’ survives through online auctions, for example: bits of information about the item in the description, seller location, other items from the same seller and from competing bidders and the physical markings on the objects when it finally arrives all tell something of its past ownership and situate it in a continuum with others like it. But the ability to make spurious connections between unrelated bits and bobs and bytes in the hybrid space formed by digital information and physical objects is greatly enhanced by search functions online, and by software providing more tools than ever to use this raw material as a starting point for that missing item in the series that turns the collector into an author. Ironically, it is the fact that data is so susceptible to mutation and corruption, distancing it from a point of origin or producer, that encourages the transformation of the collector into an author more than ever. We don’t know who shot that archive footage appropriated in a given YouTube clip, but we know that we can easily make one of our own to add to our favourites.

Despite its supposed unbearable lightness, data is never entirely immaterial, and the clogging up of space, whether in a living room library that overflows with books like Benjamin’s or on a hard drive, is an essential aspect of collecting. The obligation to the object implicit in purchase or even download, however temporary, does not comply with the simplistic idea that consumerism is merely the production of infinite desire in which the object itself is discarded in favour of ever-newer models. In fact, collecting can be as much an obstacle to the flow of information and currency as it is a form of participation in its boundless thrust, from stamps and coins extracted from normal usage to spam email archived for its aesthetic and poetic qualities. The collected archive in these cases is a visible testimony that undermines the fantasy of Capitalist modernity as transparency. The collection is always contingent, a specific, unique arrangement of objects marked by their individual path in history which has somehow escaped the banality of the accumulation of dead moments. It does not share the transcendental aspirations of the Capitalist project to replace matter with the pure energy of monetary circulation. In this respect, the deepest fear of the collector is that of stepping out of time, moving one pace ahead of the pure circulation that he reifies. This is the source of the horror of Tove Jansson’s Hemulen, from her children’s novel series about the Moomin family, who becomes hopelessly depressed when he manages to purchase all the stamps in the world and has nothing left to collect. The collector avoids being carried away by the currents of Capitalism’s flow and prefers to slowly follow their course, picking up and throwing back in the discarded detritus from which to construct an identity at once individual and rooted in a deeply social experience of a history yet to be written.

1 Benjamin, Walter, "Unpacking My Library", Illuminations [Harry Zohn- tr.], Fontana: London, 1973, p. 63.

2 Arendt, Hannah, "Introduction", Illuminations , p. 30.

3 Benjamin, Ibid. p.62.

4 Ibid, pp. 61-2.

5 Ibid., p. 68.

6 Benjamin, Walter, The Arcades Project [Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin - trs.], Harvard: Cambridge, MA, 1999, p. 833

7 McLaughlin, Kevin, "On Benjamin's Collector, Writing in Parts: Imitation and Exchange in Nineteenth-century Literature, Stanford University Press: Stanford, CA, 1995, p. 82.

8 Benjamin, Walter, "Unpacking My Library", p. 63.

9 Foucault, Michel, "Of Other Spaces: Heterotopias" [Jay Miskowiec - tr.], 1967 in: Repository of texts written by Michel Foucault at: [accessed 21.7.08].

10 Benjamin, Walter, "Edward Fuchs: Collector and Historian", The Essential Frankfurt School Reader [Andrew Arato, Eike Gebhardt - eds.], Continuum: NY, 2005, p. 227.

11 Benjamin, Walter, "Edward Fuchs: Collector and Historian", p. 235.