Personal Essays

Photograph copyright Paul W. Drew, all rights reserved

The Transient, Digital Fetish

As the world goes Kindle and iPhone-mad, paperbacks and mixtapes become worthy of devotion. Watching a music collection disappear and wondering what it meant.

I love my iPhone just fine. I love it like I love a cardboard box. It holds things, lots of things. I have no qualms about reading on a small screen if the world’s library is readily available—but it’s still not a dog-eared copy of Ulysees. It’s not gritty newsprint, or a Doodletown Pipers original-pressing LP. There are no worn edges, no musty smell of yellowing paper, no dated advertisements in the back for Norman Mailer novels or the best of Bread on eight-track tape.

Old formats ooze historical significance; new ones are deleted with a tap. With mp3s, eBooks, and online news, there’s only the bright fluorescent glow of a computer screen, and very little to fetishize except glass-enclosed information. We’ve already lost video stores to Netflix, record stores to iTunes, and bookstores to Amazon. Digitalization isn’t a theoretical future, it’s a foregone conclusion.

Progress is made when fewer Brazilian rainforests are leveled to reprint Lee Iacocca’s autobiography in gilded-leaf, embossed hardcover and subsequently delivered to a landfill. It’s a godforsaken waste how much paper and plastic are wasted on the folly of entertainment when the digital versions can transmit that selfsame information, (ideally) for less money and with less waste. Technology eventually will be able to boil down the formats to simpler and simpler means until one day you will be able to inject “The Myth of Sisyphus” directly into your eyeball. The history of humans and all its output will be accessible via the frontal cortex, and everyone will immediately grok each other’s obscure TV show references and inside jokes. It will be a golden age of reference, and gone will be the fetishistic love of information via inanimate objects.

In Freudian terms, anybody with a large collection of Star Wars figurines is actually collecting unique, replaceable strap-ons for mother. Originally, the term fetish was reserved for inanimate objects deemed to have deeply religious or spiritual powers. Usually associated with West African or voodoo rituals, fetishes tended to be small painted sculptures adorned with various animal parts, but the term could also be applied to any object of adoration from a lucky rabbit’s foot to a headless Barbie doll. In 1887 psychologist Alfred Binet, inventor of the first usable intelligence test, coined the idea of “sexual fetishism” where portions of the human body take “a sexual precedence over the owner”. He considered there to be two types of love, spiritual and plastic. Spiritual love was the love of immaterial things like ideas, attitudes, or social classes, and plastic love was for material objects. Richard Krafft-Ebing popularized Binet’s ideas to the world in a bible of deviant sexuality, Psychopathia Sexualis. In it, Ebing considered fetishism a sign of deviancy since it distracted from the real goal of human sexuality, which, I imagine, was having as many children as humanly possible. Marx thought fetishes were an outcome of capitalist society: a delusion by the workers to give more weight to the marketplace than their own creations. “[In the commodity fetish of the bourgeois marketplace] a definite social relation between men assumes the fantastic form of a relation between things.” That antique locket your grandmother gave you as a child that you hold dear, that’s the capitalistic marketplace manipulating your self-worth.

Freud considered fetishism as a male symbolic replacement for the missing phallus of the mother. It’s like the inverse of his “penis envy” theory, and more of a “penis coveting” theory. “[Fetishism] remains a token of triumph over the threat of castration and a safeguard against it.” In Freudian terms, anybody with a large collection of Star Wars figurines is actually collecting unique, replaceable strap-ons for their mother. I don’t particularly agree with Freud or Marx’s interpretation, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, but there is something very primal in coveting and collecting things. It’s more akin to a low-level obsessive-compulsive desire for memories. Having memories stored in a physical medium, like a book, is immensely satisfying. I have an old paperback copy of Douglas Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach sitting on my bookshelf that’s torn to bits. It’s missing its cover and the spine is falling apart. When the spine finally disintegrates, I’ll probably just use a rubber band to hold it together. Trying to read the book in this state would be impossible, yet it’s one of my prized possessions because of its connection to a point in my life, like a tattoo made of wood pulp. Even if the whole thing dissolves into a small corner of paper, I’d still treasure it and prominently display the remaining nub in the same location on the shelf.

Maybe you can learn to love a desktop widget, and someday they’ll invent a USB keyfob interface made from chicken feathers, mud, and shiny pebbles.Having something like this stored digitally, where a single hard drive failure can destroy years of hoarding in an instant, is frightening. It’s as if mother-destroyer can enter your house at any moment, chop off the super-ego, and then throw it in the garbage. For a time, I hoarded gobs and gobs of mp3s of obscure psychedelic music: Japanese-Brazilian lounge albums, avant-garde noise compositions, anything by Gary Wilson. Then one day, I saw it all disappear. I made a stupid mistake when moving files from an external hard drive that cost me my entire music collection. And what frightened me was that it didn’t really mean that much. These were songs that had a profound affect on me, but somewhere in the back of my mind, I’d known they were fleeting. Why care about anything I couldn’t really see or touch, and could disappear in a moment? In digital formats, there’s little in the way to distinguish that possessive pride that, according to the Children of Compulsive Hoarding support group, separates casual collecting from rampant hoarding. Maybe you can learn to love a desktop widget, and someday they’ll invent a USB keyfob interface made from chicken feathers, mud, and shiny pebbles. Until then, I need something concrete.

The trouble is that maintaining a physical collection is expensive and bulky. There’s just too much out there in the world. Even after pruning the treasury down to only those records and books of great personal importance, you can still be saddled with mountainous stacks to maintain. The convenience of digital deep storage is hard to deny. Fewer people are willing to make the sacrifice of cost and convenience for the impracticality of flipping sides, changing needles, and hauling thousands of pounds of paper and plastic when they move in exchange for better sound quality, musty paper, and gatefold album art. But what if you don’t care about actually owning your fetish? That is, what if true fetishism had little to do with possession, but instead was more of a compulsion to ensure that those things you find precious and holy are preserved and treated with dignity? What if instead of the need for each person to maintain their own sprawling collection, there was a place, an oasis of fetishism, where anyone could meander through shared repositories of text, sound, and film, and then borrow any item for a period of time? Publishing industries could still publish actual books, fetishists could still covet them. Everyone’s jollies would be fulfilled.

These populist museums of ephemera, these interactive art galleries if you will, let’s call them “ephemeral borrowing halls,” would be swimming in dank, archival history. Items would be arranged according to a unique decimal system so that they could be referenced via a digital “card” catalogue. Antiquarian collections would be maintained by wizened curators adept at navigating this decimal system and guiding the unknown through a “reading rainbow” of information. Everybody could share in a collective fetishism without a fear of loss, without the waste, without the burden of storing and carrying our cultures’ juju around with them forever.