Benjamin, the Record Collector, and Memory

By michaelbeiser

In “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Walter Benjamin outlined the ways in which the technologies of photography and (especially) film had transformed the production and culture of art. Mechanical reproduction of objects lead to the loss of the “aura” of unique objects, art became severed from its ritualized “cult” tradition, and film, with its astounding capacity for camera trickery, was creating a new mass audience of “absent-minded” critics. One area of mechanical reproduction noticeably absent from Benjamin’s discussion, however, is that of sound or musical recording.
Musical records (vinyl) were certainly prevalent in mass culture by the time Benjamin was writing in the 1930s. Like the mediums in discussion, records became an embodiment of what he called “the work of art designed for reproducibility.” He gives the example of the photographic negative, from which an unlimited number of prints could be made. For Benjamin, artistic production in this sense marks the loss of “authenticity” as an applicable criterion; as he says, it would make no sense to ask for the “authentic” print of a photograph. His conclusion is that this loss also signifies a total reversal of the function of art, where “instead of being based on ritual, it begins to be based on another practice – politics.” But to return to the record (and my focus of discussion, the record collector), the terms “authenticity” and “ritual” are striking. In the parlance of the music obsessed of the early 21st century, the reproducible form of the record is equated with “authenticity”, and its modes of use tied to something resembling “ritual.”
In 2013, music as it is commonly experienced by listeners often has no material substance, it is another file to be downloaded from the internet at the click of a button, to be uploaded to an iphone later. Images associated with songs or albums are tiny and inconsequential. And yet there remains a section of the population for whom vinyl (and to a lesser extent other physical forms like tape) remains the most pure and true embodiment of musical transmission.
The UK-based music journalist/blogger Matt Ingram, who wrote online under the Woebot moniker, is a great example of this record collector mentality, at least to a certain crowd. From 2003 to 2008, he blogged about his lifelong journey with music, starting from his time as a teenage postpunk fan, to discovering dance music like early house, UK hardcore, breakbeat jungle, garage, and later grime, while also exploring earlier musics like dub reggae, jazz, krautrock, early electronic music, 60s English folk, prog, and other genres along the way. In all of his blog posts, he would catalog and share his impressions of LPs from disparate genres, lovingly uploading album cover images and information, while also sharing personal recollections of finding albums. He also sought to create an alternate canon, a response to the general popular music taste-making where only certain names make it into the classic rock or hip-hop “Archive.” In 2005 he posted a list of what he considered to be the 100 greatest records ever, using a trite list convention borrowed from magazines to showcase music brilliant and sometimes overlooked, a list of unseen or forgotten music currents.
As a side note, after Ingram stopped blogging, all of the written online content (and a fantastic but short-lived online “TV” show) he had created disappeared from the internet, another casualty of digital resources not being preserved. Finally in January 2013, all of his writing as Woebot was organized as a huge digital archive available for download as an ebook called The Big Book of Woe.
For Ingram records, already material documents of musical expression, became re-inscribed with personal history. The “aura” that Benjamin bemoaned the loss of seemed to be re-instated, both through the process of “digging” to find records, ie the search for unique and rare items, but also through the personal significance these particular items gained (even if they were reproductions). Ingram, for example, swore that his copy of Manuel Goettsching’s 1984 release “E2-E4,” had magical properties other copies didn’t have. As a more practical example, Detroit producer/DJ Theo Parrish had claimed to have records that “smell like 1967,” again drawing a connection between a record’s material being and its historical substance. On his blog, Ingram never uploaded mp3s or streamed music, perhaps both a nod to respecting the rights of musicians to be paid for their work, but also not so subtly suggesting that the true or “authentic” way for enjoying music was to seek it out and have an experience. In the end, one came away with the sense that Woebot wasn’t exactly a music blog, but a blog about a lifetime of living with music.
Might Benjamin have argued against this “aura” of records? He warned against the idea that film actors have auras, saying this had been replaced by the machinery of Hollywood hype and glamour, exterior to movies themselves. But in the case of the type of record collector being discussed here, much of the music was made or found in relative obscurity, or at least by people far from the kind of obsession with celebrity associated with film. A better argument could be made that it is simply another symptom of late capitalism, perhaps a fetishization of the rare or obscure for commodity value. But this overlooks the role record collection can play in personal and collective experience, which is maybe where the role of the idea of the “ritual” comes in.
Theo Parrish (aforementioned producer and DJ) has argued tirelessly in interviews for the superiority of DJing with vinyl, saying that though someone could show up with a laptop or ipod with tens of thousands of songs on them, they are at a disadvantage to someone with a more limited selection of records, who knows those records intimately through amassing them over a period of years and getting to know their ins and outs. This might seem a minor point, but the power of musical connection and identification becomes clearer when he describes a life-changing experience as a 15 year old. He was out at a party to hear underground Chicago House music legend Lil Louis, who unexpectedly play Stevie Wonder’s “As” at the beginning of his set. “I didn’t expect to hear this on the soundsystem with 1000-2000 other black kids… and that experience from my youth just touched me directly…” It was a song Parrish could directly connect to childhood memories of listening to records with his mother; Lil Louis’s record selection tapped into the archive of memory that much of his audience shared. As Parrish says, “I didn’t understand what a party was about… and a party in a lot of senses at that point in Chicago was bridging the gap between where you knew safety was – home- to a communal experience. And this song did it.” Unlike the movie audiences of Benjamin’s movie house, absorbing what they saw on the screen into themselves, this type of group dynamic (created by an individual selecting records from a personal collection) created unrepeatable moments where the audience was both absorbed into the experience and absorbing it. People who were at events like this often ascribed a spiritual or religious quality to their experience, precisely that which Benjamin seemed to think had been lost.
Writing in 1936 as a German Jewish exile, Benjamin was amazingly prescient not just about the state of reproduction leading to the coming war, but to the culture of audience as critics we now live in. Anyone with access to a computer can write or share opinions, no matter how mindless. But hopefully looking through the lens of records and music obsession can show that art can serve as more than just a function of politics, and that archived or collected memories can create new meaningful experiences.

References
Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” trans. Andy Blunden (UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television, 1998).
“Woebot’s ‘The 100 Greatest Records Ever,’” accessed October 23, 2014. http://rateyourmusic.com/list/funks/woebots_the_100_greatest_records_ever__complete_/
“Theo Parrish,” accessed October 24, 2014. http://www.redbullmusicacademy.com/lectures/theo-parrish–3-cheers-for-the-d
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