July 13, 2009
Meet The New Fetish, Same As The Old Fetish
James Wolcott laments the loss of personalized conspicuous consumption that goes with putting down a paperback and picking up a Kindle:
How can I impress strangers with the gem-like flame of my literary passion if it’s a digital slate I’m carrying around, trying not to get it all thumbprinty?
Books not only furnish a room, to paraphrase the title of an Anthony Powell novel, but also accessorize our outfits. They help brand our identities. At the rate technology is progressing, however, we may eventually be traipsing around culturally nude in an urban rain forest, androids seamlessly integrated with our devices…
The Barnes & Noble bookstore, with its coffee bar and authors’ readings, could go the way of Blockbuster as an iconic institution, depriving readers of the opportunity to mingle with their own kind and paw through magazines for free. Book-jacket design may become a lost art, like album-cover design, without which late-20th-century iconography would have been pauperized. (Try imagining the rock era without the gold lamé bravura of 50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong or the modernist graveyard of the Sgt. Pepper cover or Andy Warhol’s zippered jeans for the Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers—impossible.)
It’s half tongue-in-cheek, sure, but Rex chops it at the root:
Argh! It’s not that this form of nostalgia is unworthy of some passing historical fascination, because I’m sure digitization actually does represent a drastic change in how we perceive cultural objects. Rather, the obvious annoyance in this sentimental prose is its complete lack of awareness of just how silly the fetishized cultural object was in the first place. Shouldn’t we be suspicious of anyone who thinks that showing off your CD collection was ever really the point?
I am all about passing historical fascination, so I’ll stick around and dig a little bit. The first and maybe obvious answer is that the cool factor will transfer to the device rather than the book. If you’re reading a Kindle DX, and I’m reading on my iPhone, and somebody else is furiously typing on a Blackberry - actually, in real life, I’d be that last guy - we’ve all effectively announced our identities. If that’s not enough variety for you, give it time: capitalism will fill your need for an individualized brand. It’s not perfect, but it is really good at that.
The second and maybe even more obvious answer is that you can still bring books on the train. This is Walter Benjamin 101: the outmoded technology gets its aura back. People still collect, and record companies still produce, vinyl records. (Some of them are actually really awesomely designed.) Actually - this may be news to Wolcott, who seems to be stuck on CDs — people consider collecting vinyl to be kind of cool. As a friend of mine recently reported, “if you’re like, a 6, collecting vinyl automatically makes you a 10.”
In fact, in ten years, schlepping that beat-up paperback — or, please, one of those coffee table books — might make you the coolest guy on the train. It’s like smoking a pipe, or wearing a monocle. Your retro aesthetic will identify you, Mr Wolcott, as exactly what you are.