Monday, April 1, 2019

ArchivFieber (death by data)

Here's a piece I wrote -  for the German newspaper Der Tagesspiegel - tagged to the Find the File symposium   that I participated in last week in Berlin. 

I boldly, even rashly, tried (using internet translation machines in the absence of any knowledge of the language) to come up with a bunch of German-wordplay headlines myself. Among them were "Delirium von Dateien" and "Dasein und Dateien" (yes I'm afraid that is an attempt at a Heidegger joke). The newspaper came up with their own headline and I'm sure that was the correct decision. 

There is a longer version - about three times as long - of this piece which I may well post here at some point.


In 1975, the French philosopher Jacques Derrida published a slim, dense book titled Mal d’Archive. It would be lying to say I understand all of his typically abstruse argument, but what struck me immediately and stayed with me is the brilliance of the title phrase as rendered in English: archive fever.   I imagine it looks and sounds even better in German: ArchivFieber.  

The word impacts me like a miniature poem, distilling the essence of how many of us live our lives nowadays. Since the launch of broadband internet, a mania for cataloging, list-making, documentation  and commemoration has enveloped our culture – particularly affecting music fandom and consumption, but not limited to that region by any means. The total recall and instant recall enabled by search engines means that we live in a proximity with the cultural past that our ancestors would have found inconceivable. Open-access archives like YouTube, Soundcloud, Mixcloud, and Discogs are somewhere between a library and a labyrinth: you could get lost in any one of these for a lifetime.

ArchivFieber and “retromania” are interchangeable concepts really: you might say that one of the main symptoms of catching the retro-virus is coming down with ArchivFieber.  And the malady has made me a sickly being, whose memory is tattered, whose arms and fingers ache from daily races back and forth across the internet. I get temporal whiplash oscillating between different pockets of the past.  Like a practitioner of “check list tourism” I can barely retain any after-images from the musical museums and sonic monuments I’ve visited.  I’ve tried to cram too much in. I don’t want to miss out on anything, so I end up just barely experiencing everything.

Archivfieber is a transitional affliction: it’s particularly chronic among those who grew up in analogue-era conditions of cultural scarcity and have only partially adapted to the digital abundance. People – such as my children – who are digital natives don’t have the same compulsion to keep and collect: they might bookmark favorite things but they feel no need to own the MP3s. People from my generation grew up inside that gnawing need for more music than you could then afford to buy or to copy (given that blank cassettes also cost money). That’s how come an individual with my particular mix of curiosity, wide taste and sheer 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.

People predisposed to obsessive-compulsive disorder could get just as out of hand in the analogue era, of course – trawling into their homes unmanageable quantities of vinyl recordings, books, etc. 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 miniscule cubic space of a computer, laptop, or phone, conceals the disgrace from other’s eyes, but it does not alleviate the squalor of the cluttered soul. 

For sure, rampant music-libido is a form of curiosity and pleasure-seeking, and in that sense belongs to the category of life-affirming Eros. But something about the internet’s effects on music consumption habits pushes into the morbid zone of repetitious and near-automatic behavior.  There is a neurotic aspect to archival drive: 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.  What about the “anal-expulsive” – the people who are compelled to share and upload? In some ways, this is more mystifying, the motivation for these manic sprees of generosity (an artists’s entire discography laid out on a blog for the feasting - a gift to complete strangers). Although I’m vastly more a taker than a giver, I too have felt this archivist-sharer impulse to digitize rare things– cassette recordings of pirate radio broadcasts from early Nineties London, B-side 12 inch instrumentals that no one else has yet thought to upload to YouTube.  There is a vague feeling of virtue attached to these acts of unofficial archiving. But also a neurotic completism: you are correcting sins of omission, filling in gaps in the historical record

How does the metastasis of online amateur archiving affect music itself? In two areas: the listening experience of fans, the mentality of musicians. Giving that time is finite and we all have other things to do, fans confronted with a surfeit of choice -  unlimited listening both in terms of current music and the history of recorded sound– must listen faster, or listen while doing other things. Nowadays, anybody with access to wi-fi is in the same position as only music critics and deejays - who were sent things for free – used to be. So they listen like critics and deejays: playing something once and never returning, making snap judgments after partial listens.  They give things partial attention: listening while doing the kind of multitasking that computers and phones not so much make possible as enforce.

As music streams into our lives like a mere utility such as electricity or water, people come up with tactics to “re-enchant the commodity” (which of course is no longer a commodity, but price-less and therefore increasingly value-less). Bloggers set themselves tasks where they listen to just one album for a whole week, or attempt to digest an entire artist’s oeuvre in a one giant bloc of listening. You can turn the internet into a sort of sedentary, stay-at-home substitute for the record shop, “browsing” its virtual racks and discovering things you never knew existed. You can recreate the thrills of scarcity by fetishizing the impossibly obscure, pursuing either the absolutely (and deservedly) forgotten, or the exotically remote. 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…

As for the musicians, stuffing their sonic guts with an overly rich and various audio diet, well, inevitably they excrete a maximalist music whose aesthetic I term “glutted and clotted”.  In these overloaded circumstances, it takes tremendous spiritual strength and aesthetic rigor to fend off the inundation of influences and create any kind of distinctive sound-identity.

This stubborn mettle is also essential for critics and historians, not just of music but in any field.  The archival overload makes over-research irresistible. To be a historian or a writer of a non-fiction book today involves an inverted version of Hercules versus the Augean stables: a gathering in of masses of shit which must then be cleared away almost entirely. Researchers  have to summon the ruthless will to consign details, incidents and characters to historical oblivion, forcibly imposing a shape on the material.  We see a version of this steely will to narrativize 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.  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 historians.  The dark side version of this drive to create narratives amid chaos is conspiracy theory, those secular demonologies of causation. Indeed paranoid schizophrenia has often expressed itself through a mania for archives, esoteric knowledge, and grandiose system-building. 

If we’re adapting poorly to the vast and immaterial info-world we’ve built, it’s because for millennia the human sensorium was oriented around immediate surroundings and the present tense. It’s really only been a little more a century in which recordings (phonographic, photographic, cine-video, etc) have existed. In just a couple of decades, individual access to archives has become freakily enlarged even as the archives themselves have expanded astronomically, while the scope for personal self-documentation and self-broadcast has likewise swelled to be almost limitless. Yet we still have the haptic and present-tense orientation bequeathed us by evolution. Is it any wonder that our nerves are shredded, our sense of ego boundaries and memory grow blurry and tenuous, that personality disorders proliferate? 

As we say in England, you can have too much of a good thing.


  1. I don't get the guilt over musical abundance as expressed in this confession of an article, unless it's some kind of misplaced Puritan atavism. Gluttony is only a sin if excessive desire causes something to be withheld from the needy, such as in the case of food. This doesn't apply to music.

  2. it's not guilt, really - it's self-disgust and an awareness that an excess of supply (simple economics of the psyche / libido, this) cause demand to wither to nearly nothing. That music fandom defeats itself.

    If a truly profound art of listening could find an infinity in a single piece of music listened to for the rest of one's life and nothing else ... the inverse seems to imply a logical outcome in the other direction. A near-infinity of listening (both in amount and variety) available to you as individual, without any impediments of cost or effort, will lead to the ultimate form of shallow listening... already pre-fatigued ears whizz through everything in a futile attempt to take it all in.

    Pelle Snickars, at the Find the File conference, an expert on streaming and Spotify, round about the kind of imploded clutter of downloading mania - and how you "lose track of your tracks". Kenneth Goldsmith of UbuWeb has written about becoming addicted to the act of acquisition, which replaces the experience of actually listening. These aren't complaints rooted in puritanism - it's really the opposite: an anxiety about the loss of pleasure, the dulling of aural sensuality, through excess of access and overload.

  3. Also, gluttony may or may not be a sin - but it is unhealthy, physiologically. There are reasons not to do the audio equivalent of stuffing 18 chocolate eclairs down your gullet.