Introductions, Collecting

Hello. This is my first post since mk was gracious enough to allow me to contribute.

A few loosely connected thoughts on collecting…

Walter Benjamin writes in “Unpacking my Library” that the true mark of an inveterate book collector is the failure to read those books that she collects. One does not purchase a book with the intention of reading it… rather the collector seeks to save the book as an object, to care for it and protect it, for “the true freedom of all books is on his shelves.” By collecting, one gives the book a new life, one redeems and renews the weary object: “to renew the old world — that is the collector’s deepest desire when he is driven to acquire new things.”

Though I understand and share this collector’s streak, I unfortunately do not have the fiscal resources to hunt down the rare books and records of my dreams (i am not fanatical enough to go hungry for records). Yet today, while packing up my library (i am in the middle of moving) i was struck by a collector’s remorse — perhaps a guilt — seemingly absent in Benjamin. After picking up a copy of Being and Time, I was overwhelmed with memories of the books I had read in college, books whose thoughts seem so distant and buried in the past to me now. When will I ever have the time to reread Heidegger when there are so many other books to read now, so many other philosophers and artists and musicians to discover? Unfortunately, the absorption of philosophy and art is not akin to collecting… when is it one is truly finished with a thinker on the level of Heidegger? When can one lock up his corpus in one’s memory as in a glass case, content that his thought is secure from the passage of time?

One of my greatest anxieties as a student has always been that there is too much still to read, too much left to be discovered. Clearly, this can be a blessing, the thought that one will never exhaust the storehouse of history and culture — the wonders truly never cease — yet it is also overwhelming and frightening; when can one finally rest, comfortable that one finally “cultured,” “educated” or, at the very least conversant? Now I am starting to worry more about the endless list of things i have forgotten, relics of culture and thought indeed safe and sound on my shelves, quantitatively and objectively there in my collection, yet never again to be recalled in thought.


5 thoughts on “Introductions, Collecting

  1. 0. On the occasion of noble’s inaugural post, one would like to offer welcome and thanks, but as D&G (whom we both admire) have pointed out, we are, each, already many. But “we”, being many, means that we have always already been opened by and to the other and that the one has been present in the other. That this post should especially consist of its particular question is an honor; so too it is to leave the first commentary.1. The myth of the given: It is said that nature, that world of necessity, is precisely on that basis most purely free. The bare existence of objects consists in a duration according to which the One and the All are perfectly coincident. Nature, in other words, has no history. The greatest aspiration of the human being is, in this conception, the imitation of eternity by means of the story, the shamanic ritual, meditation, or death.Nature, so it is said, is the world of objects (or things). The book is, certainly an artifact (one might speak simply of the “idea” instead of the “book”) and, yes, the book is written. But does not the “bare existence” of the book (i.e., its very objectivity) consist in the conflation of what would in the world of living things be the distinction between bios and zoe? If the human being (the self, the ego) is one that is constantly, consistently assembled, repeated (etc), is not the same true for the book?1a. The world of objects: Can there be a world of objects if such a world is to be a world of objects? Certainly we cannot return to a realism according to which the world of objects can be arbitrarily projected into its “twin” (Putnam) such that the apple ceases to be red when I close my eyes (Locke) or that the duration of river stone is indifferent to the water flowing around it or that anyone will ever have to worry about the heat death of the universe. Neither, however, can we return merely to idealism. Instead, what metaphysics, according to Bergson (and, arguably, Spinoza), has shown us, is that there is no “world” of objects (or, as Baudrillard would have it, only under the logic of capital can there be a “system” of objects). There are bodies of composition and division (which is to say that each of these consists of a singular duration). There is no indifference in a stone: the duration (one might also say “life”) of the stone consists of its becoming- (becoming-sand or even becoming-love). This is neither nominalism nor a brute anti-essentialism. Essence is not becoming; rather, essence is the signifier of a particular mode of becoming under the aspect of a specified genus. Nature is never a “bare existence” unless, as Heidegger points out, there is some violence done unto it.1b. Virtual knowledge: What sort of an object is a book? The ideology of the bookstore-intellectual (much like the bookstore-philosopher) would have us believe that books “contain” ideas—that I can learn how to find the best mutual fund by reading a book on mutual funds or that I can learn what Aristotle has to say about politics by reading the <>Politics.<> Rather, books signify ideas. The library does not “contain” knowledge but <>makes knowledge possible.<> (I basically assert this as a corollary to Foucault’s—and Deleuze’s—concept of the author-function.) One does some amount of violence, I think, to Benjamin to say this, but is not the freedom of the guarded, unread book nothing other than the virtuality of its knowledge which, paradoxically, demands both that it be read and also that it not be read. (In other words, meaning and knowledge can never escape violence, contra Gadamer, Habermas, et al.)2. The life of a text: The ideas signified by a book are “singular plural”. If the error of analytic/generative/compositional theories of language and meaning is the failure to acknowledge the systematicity of meaning, analogously one can say the same thing about a text (or, if we wish to remain specific, “book”). The singularity of a book does not exclude the plurality of its meaning. I do not simply mean that meaning is relative or “individual” but that the “pure recollection” of a text is neither possible nor desirable. Consider Bergson’s image of the cone: the life of a (read) text consists in the possibilities of its contraction into the present and the real activity of thought. One is never, therefore, “finished” with an author (at least a good author); rather, it is the author that exhausts his own life (at least within this particular duration). This is why, for example, reading Plato as a graduate student is a different experience than reading the <>Apology<> as a freshman. (Incidentally, this is also the biggest difference between the ideas of “progress” in science and the humanities—and why so many people fail to see that, unlike the sciences, in the humanities the greatest progress is made by doing the same thing or reading the same text again and again and that we still read Aristotle in the humanities while no one reads him in the sciences.)2a. Normative criteria: At the risk of a little heathenism, I cannot resist mentioning that Rand did have some interesting insights. Among these is the idea that the measure of a book’s value is its longevity (one could easily translate this into the terms I’ve been suggesting). Music is a better example: when one can listen to a piece written by Chopin in 1836 and find something new in it even today or, better, when someone like Pletnev can perform the scherzi in Carneige Hall and reveal things that hadn’t been heard in them before, we have a valuable text. When the acceptable forms of repetition of “Sweet Home Alabama” are solely the original recording or when the most appropriate form of repetition of “Don’t Stop Believing” is a drunken karaoke night, we have nothing other than textbook ideology or, worse, something for which no proper theoretical name has yet been given (neither schlock nor kitsch, for example).2b. The ethics of reading: One consequence of this way of looking at things, however, is that there is a certain ethics involved in reading that acknowledges the violence inherent in the reading of a text and that the reader must come to his own terms with this violence. But this is a similar violence to that of the sexual act (cf. Deleuze’s “monstrous children”) … and we don’t often hear anyone complain about <>that!<>3. An ideology of reading: Neither do we really hear any complaint—at least not in the form of protest—particularly in the humanities against an ideology that manifests itself in the form of the “comprehensive exam” (note I am not indicting any particular exam but the very term itself). There are two presuppositions here. The first is that there is a non-arbitrary criterion for literacy (Hirsch is probably the most egregious popularizer of this notion). This presupposition itself is predicated on certain assumptions about what such literacy (e.g., in philosophy) is <>for<> (so-called “scholarly” research, for example). I have little to add to this phenomenon that Derrida has described as “archive fever” which, as art historians like Root have pointed out, is nothing other than the equation of the museum to a mausoleum. It is only under similar auspices that one can be expected to believe that performing a Schenkerian analysis on a Beethoven sonata (or, analogously, to expound the difference between the A and B deductions in the first Critique) provides any meaningful knowledge about it.The second presupposition is that knowledge (or, better: “thinking”) is a matter of discourse; discourse requires a sense of overlapping norms of conventions and meanings (Habermas, Grice, Searle, ad nauseam).3a. A practice of reading: Since analogies seem to be useful, let me end with a final one. When I was trained in the Taoist arts, the mark of mastery was not a recitation, an examination, or anything of the like; mastery was determined by what one could <>do<> with what one had learned (something like Wittgenstein’s “Aha! Now I can go on!”). The distinction between master and student, then, was not one of rank: it was the ability of the master to take up a tradition of knowledge, continue it, and make it his own—hence Chen became Yang and Yang became Sun and so on; the student’s task, qua student, was merely to continue the tradition. But, nota bene, neither does the master cease to learn (or, what is a better term, cease to change in his knowledge—one might say it grows quantitatively but not qualitatively). In Aristotle’s terms, mastery is an activity and not a movement.According to this conception of knowledge, there is neither “too much” nor “enough” to know (perhaps there can be “too little” in some sense). The image of thought that Bergson gives us, for example, is one of a creative repetition. Thinking, then, is a form of recollection. But as Bergson has shown, recollection is always oriented toward the future; thus the present, the activity of thought, is essentially creative. Generalizing Arendt’s term, one can say that the activity of thought is nothing other than a “miracle”.3b. An intellectual virtue: A final thought. Aristotle had said that courage is a moral virtue. It is also, in a sense, an intellectual virtue. Any number of writers have expressed this insight (Nietzsche, Cioran, Cervantes, etc): the new life of the future requires the courage to face it—not only to create it but also to falter, to stumble, to slip, and even to be destroyed by it. The difference between courage and blithe stupidity or good fortune is the decision to will one’s own destruction by that which one has set forth into the world.

  2. mk —thanks very much for you post, especially in that it certainly makes me feel better about myself. I think that you are right when you say that the mark of learning is to be able to take up the tradition yourself and repeat it creatively, as opposed to rotely. However, I think it will take some time for me to really grow into such an attitude myself — its too bad but the ability to know that, say at A50 of the 1st critique Kant says this about the imagination, while at B 65 he says that, seems to be a rather clear and immediate index of philosophical erudition. (hence when i realize i can no longer do that vis-a-vis a particular text i once thought i knew well, it comes as a bit of a letdown). As I said, this is one of my anxieties, and i will fully admit that this model of the scholar/collector i am falling victim too is a consequence of my own neuroses. I think in large part though — and this is perhaps the reason i picked up the Benjamin — was that I feel very guilty about buying alot of music and books (more than i should) and then not devoting the time to them that i should. in short, i have not yet passed the point of no return after which i no longer care and just buy buy buy. On my reading of the essay, it seems the Benjamin the collector had long ago passed that point. I find the image of thought you propose very attractive. However, there remains way way too much out there and way way too little time… this cultural bwo we are has surely reached its breaking point — for proof let me direct you to this article, which i confess was the secret inspiration of my post:

  3. Well, I don’t really have anything against erudition and I don’t really want to counterpose creativity with erudition, since I think the two are obverses. I’m just rebelling against the tendency to consider erudition the sufficient mark of a thinker. Or, put yet another way, I tend to find that what counts for “thought” is little more than the practice of a <>history<> of thought. What I’m trying to do now is articulate what I think is the first step toward something else: i.e., what needs first to be done is to articulate the “names” of history (ideologies).I still maintain, and I think Benjamin is right to point this out, that the collector of books (or music or any kind of art for that matter) is somehow different from the collector of, say, stamps or basecall cards. Is this what you mean when you speak of the collector’s “guilt”?Could you send me the link to the article by e-mail? It didn’t post fully here.As long as we’re confessing things, a lot of my own conception of historicity, tradition, erudition, etc, is a response to Simmel’s “tragedy of culture” or even Lyotard’s notion of the “sublime”. The question, I think, is basically: what does one do under the shadow of an unrepresentable excess? What I want to avoid is the retreat into the “inner citadel”, which is why I think these questions are all inherently political (or, put briefly, that ontology is politics).But none of this is to say I really have an answer to the questions you raise–questions I would assume hang over all our (“our”) heads…

  4. i was going to preface my first comment here with an apology for my lack of erudition, but to do so would seem to be embarrassingly missing the point, would it not? so instead i’ll simply say that it’s late and i can’t sleep and this is my first comment so be gentle with me! please?noble: <>When is it one is truly finished with a thinker on the level of Heidegger? When can one lock up his corpus in one’s memory as in a glass case, content that his thought is secure from the passage of time?<>first of all this is beautifully phrased. (the simple phrase “as in a glass case” strikes me as bizarrely-exceedingly beautiful.) the answer is, of course, as mk more or less said, never. which is, equally obviously, absolutely terrifying. though i’m working hard to overcome it, i am definitely a sufferer of (forgive the butchering/borrowing) “erudition fever”–which i actually think, though i may merely be flattering myself, springs from a (misguided) groping towards exactly the “creative repetition” mk points to in his analogy to the taoist arts. our kind of erudition-seeker does not, despite appearances, want merely to archive the past, to salvage it from forgetting; she is terrified of mere repetition. she wants to move thought <>forward<>, to take it further than it’s already been–but to be sure she is doing so, she has to <>know<> where it’s already been! and so she obsessively devours the (seemingly? actually?) limitless history of thought, slave to a compulsive desire to “catch up” with all who have thought before her. then, and only then, it seems, will she be able to make her contribution, to press on.but such catching-up is of course impossible, and quite possibly (though i’m still only about 99% convinced of this) in any case undesirable. in thought (i.e., the activity of thought) there is no such thing as exact repetition; even if one succeeds merely in re-producing the ideas or conclusions of thinkers past, <>that one produced them<> at all counts, i think, as thought. the collecting of books–of ideas, of virtual knowledge–is unlike the collecting of stamps or baseball cards for precisely this reason. it is not actuality that one collects–the untouchable past, dead data–but rather potentiality, uncountable avenues of learning, thinking, creating meaning. one seeks not to safeguard the past except inasmuch as it helps opens the way to the <>The library does not “contain” knowledge but makes knowledge possible. […] is not the freedom of the guarded, unread book nothing other than the virtuality of its knowledge which, paradoxically, demands both that it be read and also that it not be read.<>yes!mk: <>[…] unlike the sciences, in the humanities the greatest progress is made by doing the same thing or reading the same text again and again […]<>again, yes!mk: <> [T]here is a certain ethics involved in reading that acknowledges the violence inherent in the reading of a text and that the reader must come to his own terms with this violence. But this is a similar violence to that of the sexual act […] and we don’t often hear anyone complain about that!<>i can’t pretend to know exactly what is meant by this passage (oh irony!), but i think i agree. the very existence of a text invites such violence, but perhaps we should say that makes it no less violence. is this different from the way in which every mind’s encounter with another mind could be described as violence? i think so, but i’m not sure i could say how.

  5. Whether insomnia or, as threatened, alcohol are responsible, it is encouraging to see that a bit of flirtatious exploration takes less cajoling than might have been expected. 🙂Sometimes I feel like I’m underplaying the imperative (which manifests itself as “erudition-fever”) of tradition that constrains practice for the sake of an image of repetition that can come perilously close to the ideology of amateurism against which I continuously inveigh. Perhaps it is simply a matter of precision, which I have yet to be able to articulate. Again, let me fall back to a world more comfortable to me: is not what separates the repetition of someone like Schönberg from the high school garage band nothing other than erudition? Of course, there’s all kinds of middle ground, but there must be a criterion or measure by which we can on the one hand speak of a genuinely creative repetition while not falling into the kind of philistinism that thinks Yanni is a “genius” because he never had a music lesson in his life. And yet, perhaps, as is so often the case when dealing with history, we will always be beholden to a retrospective glance.The “erudition-seeker” is “terrified of mere repetition. She wants to move thought forward, to take it further than it’s already been—but to be sure she is doing so, she has to know where it’s already been!” Yes! So perhaps:1. Can there ever be, in thought, “mere” repetition? I think this is actually one of Bergson’s examples, but I’m going to steal it anyway: if I read Hamlet and you read Hamlet, are either of these readings “mere” repetitions of Hamlet? Are not each of these events (of reading) singular? I.e., this is more than merely being “individual” (since you and I occupy two different durations), but each of these readings is singular to the extent to which they refer to the virtuality of each reading.2. Hence: courage. The repetition is a wager. It can fail; it can turn out merely to be “mere” repetition or, perhaps more precisely, a “lesser” repetition. 3. Yes, thought must move forward; but <>for whom?<> (Again, I fear a retreat to the inner citadel.)noble was precisely on the mark: when is the point at which one can say “now I can go on?”Again, I want, perhaps crudely, to oppose the notions of progress in the sciences and the humanities. In the sciences, one can reach the endpoint of accumulated knowledge and “move it forward”. Is the very picture of an “endpoint” of even of “accumulation” appropriate for the humanities? If this were so, Plato would have been exhausted long ago and someone like JB could not be doing what he is doing.

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