uncut version of column published in Der Tagesspiegel, March 2019
by Simon Reynolds
Almost a quarter-century ago, the French philosopher Jacques Derrida published a slim, dense book titled Mal d’Archive. I would be lying if I said I understood every bit of his typically abstruse argument, but what struck me immediately and has stayed with me is the brilliance and beauty of Derrida’s title phrase as rendered in English: archive fever. It sounds and looks even better in German, I should imagine, because of the way you guys smush words together: Archivfieber.
Whether two words or a single word, Derrida’s coinage impacts me like a miniature poem: it’s a cogent and potent distillation of how so many of us live our lives these days. Since the launch of broadband internet and the invention of social media, a mania for cataloging, collecting, list-making, documentation and commemoration has enveloped our culture. The total recall and instant recall enabled by search engines and wi-fi means that we live in a proximity with the cultural past that our ancestors would have found inconceivable. If things like Spotify and Netflix weren’t sprawling enough, open-access archives like YouTube, Soundcloud, Mixcloud, and Discogs tend towards entropy: an infinitely recessive profusion and confusion. Somewhere between a library and a maze, you could get lost in any one of these for a lifetime.
“Retromania” and Archivfieber are almost interchangeable as concepts. One of the symptoms of the retro-virus is coming down with archivfieber. Personally, the malady has made me a sickly, wilted being, whose memory is shot, whose arms and fingers ache from daily races back and forth across the internet’s spatialization of history. I get temporal whiplash as I oscillate between different pockets of the past. In any given day, I visit many eras and sample many treasures, but like a practitioner of “check list tourism” I barely retain any after-images from the musical museums and sonic monuments I’ve seen. I’ve tried to cram too much in. I don’t want to miss out anything, so I end up just barely experiencing everything.
Archivfieber is a transitional affliction, to some extent: it’s particularly chronic among those who grew up in analogue-era of cultural scarcity and have only partially adapted to the digital abundance. Embedded deep in the bones and the nerves of our listening selves is a matrix of consumer desire shaped by growing up with never being able to get hold of enough music. So we have poorly adjusted to an inside-out world where where’s too much. People – such as my children – who are digital natives don’t have the same compulsion to keep and collect: they might bookmark favorite things or otherwise sensibly organise their listening, but they feel no need to own the MP3s. They live in the certainty (and the confidence is not necessarily well-placed - things do disappear from the internet, get taken down) that these songs, mixes, and video-clips will always be out there should they want them.
People from my generation are still wired for a world of non-availability and inaccessibility. We grew up inside that gnawing need for more music than you could afford to buy or to copy (given that blank cassettes cost money too). We remember the sensation of boredom as emptiness and lack of choice, as opposed to the new forms of boredom that have emerged with distracted overload and surfeit of choices. So we cannot completely exit the psychology of accumulation and ownership. That’s how come an individual with my particular mix of curiosity, wide taste and sheer simple greed ends up with thousands and thousands of hours of music stockpiled in an external hard drive, vastly more than I could hope to listen to even once during the remainder of my time on earth, let alone do justice to any of it through dedicated repeat immersion.
It’s not just music, of course: they are so many forms of cultural data and digitized entertainment out there to forage and hoard. A recent obsession of mine that got a little out of hand is experimental animation of the pre-digital era, particularly from Eastern Europe: within a matter of weeks, I harvested 1200 short films from YouTube, Vimeo and other online resources, out of which I have to date watched perhaps forty. The drive to seek and gather displaces the desire to experience. The buzz is the momentary thrill of acquisition as the file downloads into your computer, even as you are already searching for the next obscure discovery.
People predisposed to obsessive-compulsive disorders could get just as out of hand in the analogue era, of course – trawling into their homes unmanageable quantities of vinyl recordings or books. But the digitization of culture – through its removal of the limitations of storage space and the disincentives of cost – causes the mania to balloon to grotesque degrees. The fact that it is out of sight, compressed into the minuscule cubic space of a computer, laptop, or even phone, conceals the disgrace from other’s eyes, but it does not alleviate the squalor of the soul. But even if you keep it all in the cloud, or don’t “keep” it in any form beyond bookmarks in your browser, the internet’s sprawl has a way of invading your inner world. It clutters your mind and eats your time. Many are the days in which, as the end approaches, I look back on the hours of journeying across the internet and can barely remember where I “went”, what I read or watched or heard, nor indeed what I saved for later – a “later” that will never come.
There is nothing necessarily unwholesome about an overdeveloped musical libido: rather than a debilitating disease, we might think of the “fieber” in Archivfieber as a fan’s enthusiasm or shared excitement (Saturday Night Fever) or even the erotic fire of Peggy Lee’s “you give me fever.” Music-desire is a form of sensualism, it can involve a hungry curiosity about new sensations and stimulations, and in that sense belongs to the kingdom of Eros. Still, as mediated through the internet, music consumption habits can take on an automatized quality that Freud would classify under the sign of “the repetition-complex”, a regressive drive he linked to the death instinct. Archivfieber, in this dark light, would be a literally morbid impulse. In yet another sense, the archival drive is a denial of mortality. “We buy books because we believe we're buying the time to read them,” said Warren Zevon, adapting a maxim of Schopenhauer’s. The same applies to records and MP3s.
So far, I have only discussed the anal-retentive aspects of music consumption in the age of overabundance: the residual impulse to collect, a refusal to let go. What about, to coin a quasi-Freudian phrase, the “anal-expulsive” – the people who are compelled to share and upload, to build and maintain discographic websites or unofficial archives like UbuWeb? Is there not something slightly deranged about their manic sprees of generosity (an artists’s entire discography laid out on a blog for the feasting - a gift to complete strangers, from a complete stranger). Is there perhaps something suspect and even disturbing about the sheer amount of time and unstinting care that goes into these contributions to a commons of creativity (other people’s creativity - expropriated, unrecompensed). Although I’m vastly more a taker than a giver, I too have felt this archivist-sharer impulse to digitize rare things in my unique possession – cassette recordings of pirate radio broadcasts from early Nineties London that may be, I fondly imagine, the only document of this one particular show – or to add the public listening library things that no one has yet bothered to put on YouTube, like the 12-inch B-side instrumental by a postpunk or Eighties ‘new pop’ group. There is a vague feeling of virtue attached to these acts. But there is also the neurosis of completism at work: you are rectifying sins of omission, filling in gaps in the historical record, for the benefit of the public or posterity.
How does the monstrous growth of music archiving affect music itself? There’s two areas: the listening experience of fans, and the mentality of musicians. Giving that time is finite and we all have other things to busy ourselves with, fans confronted with a surfeit of choice - unlimited listening both in the present and in terms of all prior recorded music– must listen faster, or listen while doing other things. In effect, they now consume music much more like critics and deejays (back when they were the only people, apart from the very wealthy, who listened to such absurdly largely amounts of music, and to such a wide range of music - simply because they were sent it for free). So, like critics and deejays, ordinary people make snap judgments, listening once and never returning (something you would almost certainly never do if you’d paid hard-earned money for the record). They listen while doing other things: the sort of multitasking that computers and phones not so much make possible as enforce. They listen thinly - skimming and skating across the surface of sound at top speed.
Jacques Attali in his famous book of 1977, Noise: A Political Economy of Music, wrote about the era of recordings and collecting as a terminal stage for music as meaningful activity: the solipsistic stockpiling of sound in the home combined with a privatisation of the listening experience, separating it from the aspects of social ritual or spiritual function that used to surround music But Attali couldn’t have imagined a stage beyond this, where the collection became infinite, at once freed of the exchange-economy's commodification and ownership, yet devalued even further to the point where patterned sounds literally stream into our lives like electricity or water: a mere utility.
Listeners respond to the overload by various tactics. I have seen bloggers set themselves tasks (or ordeals?) where they listen to just one album for a whole week and nothing else, or attempt to digest an entire artist’s oeuvre in a one giant bloc of listening. While many allow Spotify’s algorithms to guide them on drifting meanders through sameness, others like myself use it in more purposeful ways that vainly strive to master the flux: building enormous playlists of genres or clustered artists that would take a day or two to listen through. These playlists are almost always - in my experience, anyway – promptly forgotten about and never returned to. Like the downloading, they are residual spasms of the collector impulse, failed adaptions to a medium where music is free (well, apart from the annoying adverts). They are last-ditch stands against streaming's numbing logic of instilling in listeners a mind-state of barely-attentive disengagement, in which all music becomes ambient (or even Ambien).
You can turn the internet into a sort of sedentary, stay-at-home substitute for the record shop, “browsing” its virtual racks (album-sharing blogs, YouTube) and discovering things you never knew existed. Or you can recreate the thrills of scarcity by fetishizing the impossibly obscure, pursuing either the absolutely (and deservedly) forgotten, or the exotically parochial. There are blogs dedicated to the state record company releases of folk music from various Soviet republics, to African dance pop of the 1970s and 1980s that was only ever released on cassette and never reached the West, or – in an exoticism of time rather than space – you can push back through history to pre-WW2 gospel and blues, British music hall, and so forth. Retromania and xenomania merge as we hungry souls explore the heritage of other countries and continents. For me a whole new frontier of sickness – a way of recreating the thrills of digging through the crates in record stores – was when I realized you could strip the audio off YouTube and Vimeo clips. In animations and obscure experimental films, I found electronic and avant-garde sounds – sometimes synth scores made by unknown composers as a favour to the film-maker, sometimes electronic sound-effects and noises – that had never been released on vinyl in the first place. A new frontier for my Archivfieber to rampage across!
And how about the musicians, stuffing their sonic stomachs with an overly rich and riskily varied audio diet? Inevitably they excrete a maximalist sort of music whose aesthetic I call “glutted and clotted”. It reminds me of the Gang of Four song “At Home He Feels Like A Tourist” and in particular the lines “he fills himself with culture / he gives himself an ulcer.” In these conditions, it takes tremendous spiritual strength and aesthetic rigor to fend off the inundation of influences and create any kind of distinctive sound-identity.
This kind of stubborn mettle is also essential for critics and historians, not just of music but in any field. The archival overload makes it irresistible to over-research. I am not exaggerating when I say that there have been times when I’ve embarked on a 500 word record review, having gathered together 50 pages of interviews and earlier reviews of the artist’s work. This is vastly different from when I started out in the late Eighties, when I might respond to a record critically knowing nothing about a band – perhaps a few scraps of data that lodged in my head from reading earlier pieces in music papers, but often not even that (since I barely looked at press releases then). Oblivious to the group’s actual intent or influences, I could project my own critical fancies upon the blank screen of the music, or recruit them to my own critical agenda. Reviewing became a creative act in its own wonderfully irresponsible right, as opposed to a dutiful sorting-through of factual circumstances and avowed rationales. You didn’t necessarily judge the music on its own terms; you invented the terms.
To be historian or a writer of a non-fiction book in this day and age involves a sort of inverted version of Hercules and the Augean stables: the gathering in of shit that then has to be cleared almost entirely away. Having amassed steaming mounds of data, the researcher must summon the will and the ruthlessness to cut through it, to consign details and incidents and characters to historical oblivion, to winnow down nearly everything that’s been laboriously accumulated and forcibly impose a shape on the material. This self-created challenge is not a uniquely digital-era phenomenon: academics and journalists have often got “carried away” and then had to face the day of reckoning. But the limitless of the online archive incites over-research.
We see this need for narrativization in current affairs: the rise of meta-journalists like Seth Abramson, whose role is not to do original reporting on Trump, Russia, Mueller et al, but to process and organize what is already out there in the public domain, constructing timelines and connective threads that rescue events and disclosures that have already slipped out of the public’s short-term memory.
The ultra-forensic detail and rapid-fire turnover of real-time of news coverage means that important information and discoveries get evacuated from popular consciousness within weeks or even days. This archive of the no-longer-news but still highly germane and crucial languishes in a state of chaos – anyone who can construct a through-line is doing a valuable service. Future historians will rely on this kind of pattern-recognition to help them navigate the monstrous excess of documentation and commentary. They used to describe journalism as “the first draft of history”, but figures like Abramson are annotating and abridging what would otherwise likely be illegible and indecipherable to future eyes and brains. The dark side version of this will-to-order is the rise of conspiracy theories and secular demonologies, which piece together delusory links and connective lines through the data overload. Indeed paranoid schizophrenia can often express itself through a mania for the archives and grandiose system-building
Anxieties about data overload and a creeping cultural senescence related to the build-up of archives is not a new phenomenon. Nietzsche’s 1874 polemic “On the Use and Abuse of History for Life” rails against the antiquarian mentality, warning of that “blind mania for collecting, a restless compiling together of everything that ever existed. The man envelops himself in a moldy smell…”. In Jorge Luis Borges's 1949 fable “The Aleph” one character imagines the connected man of the future: “I picture him in his study, as though in the watchtower of a great city, surrounded by telephones, telegraphs, phonographs, the latest in radio-telephone and motion-picture and magic-lantern equipment, and glossaries and calendars and timetables and bulletins.” With his obsessions with libraries and labyrinths, Borges is often seen as a prophet of the internet - but even he might have felt disoriented at the god-like powers granted by things like search engines and the Cloud.
If we’re adapting badly, it’s because for millennia the human sensorium was oriented around immediate surroundings and the present tense. There were orally transmitted myths and legends, but practically speaking, the here-and-now was all there was. Then came a much shorter period, when rulers and the very wealthy and powerful institutions like the Church or the first universities had archives or private museums, but the vast majority of the population owned no books or images (least of all images of themselves) while music could only be heard in the presence of living musicians. It’s really only been a couple of centuries in which personal libraries have become commonplace and a little more a century in which recordings (phonographic, photographic, film / video) have existed. In what feels like a vertiginous acceleration, communicational distance has been abolished, individual access to archives has become freakily enlarged even as the archives themselves have expanded astronomically, and the scope for personal self-documentation and self-broadcast has likewise grown to be almost limitless. Yet we still have the eyes and ears, the haptic and present-tense orientation bequeathed us by millions of years of evolution. Is it any wonder that our nerves are shredded, our sense of ego boundaries grows every more tenuous, that anxiety and depression and narcissistic disorders proliferate?
As we say in English, you can have too much of a good thing.