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I Am Unpacking My Digital Library. Yes, I am.
In answer to my own call for a pro-consumerist poetry, I was reminded that writers have long been the ultimate consumers. This has been true in analog times — the relationship between library and writer is a paragon of consumerism — and is even more pronounced in our digital environment. In navigating the enormous field of available textual material in our collective networked digital dispensaries, the craft of writing lies in the acquisition, collecting, organization and archiving of existing texts rather than in the creation of new ones. In doing so, our traditional relationship to textuality, where the struggle for meaning trumps all, is inverted; the acquisition of text becomes more valuable than the content of the acquired texts: quantity trumps quality. How I navigate — rather than how I create — is what distinguishes me from another writer. I am an intelligent agent carving a unique path through the this thicket of language; what distinguishes my practice from yours is the particular swath I carve.
The analog precedent of networked consumerist writing is Walter Benjamin’s “The Arcades Project.” Benjamin achieved this by embodying its subject –consumerism — in its methodological construction (browsing, hoarding, organizing & archiving the corpus of texts written about Paris in the nineteenth century). He articulated this methodology in his essay “Unpacking My Library” (1931) where he cast himself as a collector and consumer, whilst in the midst of gathering material for the Arcades. Throughout the essay he lays groundwork for the justification of his writing practice by channeling the voice of the collector: “I am not exaggerating when I say that to a true collector, the acquisition of an old book is its rebirth,” and “To renew the old world — that is the collector’s deepest desire when he is driven to acquire new things.” What makes Benjamin’s Arcades unique is the particular swath he carved through a specified textual field. Another writer could have read through and notated the canon of historical texts about nineteenth century Paris and the end result would have been entirely different.
Composers have been working this way for some time. The contemporary musician is a consumer, carefully acquiring, organizing and archiving their library of samples to create new works. The best composers possess the best samples; the best composers have the best taste. No one expects the musician to be in the studio creating new works from scratch, rather the practice has moved towards recombinance, stitching together existing material into new works. With the rise of digital music we all are, or easily have the potential to be, musicians (filmmakers, writers, artists, etc.). Our collecting methodology mirrors the contemporary composer’s (or filmmaker’s, writer’s, artist’s, etc.): what’s important is how much music I have on my hard drive and how I organize this music, more so than the content of this music. By databasing comments fields and ID3 tags, I label music for future archival organization. There is too much music for me to ever consume, in fact most of the time I will never hear the music. Nonetheless, like a devoted consumer, I crave more.
The relationship between the writer and his library is co-dependent in the consumerist dance. One must consume in order to create, but one always acquires more than one can ever use: the overflowing bookshelves, the stacks of maxed out hard drives. The culture of surplus. Benjamin points us to the philistine admitted into Anatole France’s library, who asks the standard question: “And you have read all these books, Monsieur France?” To which France responds, “Not one-tenth of them. I don’t suppose you use your Sevres china every day?”