Voluntary Slavery

Collectors are fanatics, often sacrificing their lives for their collections. The average serious record collector owns somewhere between 10,000 100,000 disks. Owning this much vinyl necessitates devoting an enormous amount of time, money, and personal space to inert, toxic objects. In an extreme collector's home, records fill the cabinets, block the refrigerator, stack in the bath room and pile along the stairs. One Long Island collector named Clarence A. Browne boasted an almost unimaginable selection of approximately three quarters of a million records measuring in at somewhere around seven thousand, eight hundred cubic feet of vinyl. Clarence allowed his obsession with records to reach life threatening levels. Once owning a fourteen room mansion and sizable assets, he squandered everything in order to maintain his collection, an obsession that he would put before everything else including heat, a working kitchen, and personal comfort.

Clarence's devotion to his record collection did not come from the value of the information recorded on the discs. On the contrary, Clarence would collect almost any record. Neither did it come from a sense of nostalgia for the mu sic on the disks Clarence owned far more records than he could have actually played or experienced during his lifetime. Nor was it out of a need to construct a hermetically sealed world of order into which he could escape Clarence often gifted his most prized pieces to friends and strangers alike. Instead, Clarence's desire for records and his urge to over collect came from a drive to give himself up to the world of objects.

Jean Baudrillard helps us understand that collecting is the product of the way that consumer goods operate as a language ordering contemporary society. Baudrillard observes that in the system of objects we have constructed, objects no longer need to communicate with us or serve us, they simply relate to each other, and in so doing instruct us as to how they should be handled. Like all other consumer goods, records no longer need us. They form a self contained world that can only be sorted and organized over and over again.

But why possess? According to Sigmund Freud, the passion to possess is the product of toilet training. As parents first teach their children to use the toilet, they force them to move from a world ordered by the timing and plea sure of their own bodily functions, to one of abstract time and scheduled labor. If bodily waste, a gift to the child s parents, is removed before the child is ready, the child may feel not only that the object of their labor is disgusting and in appropriate to enjoy, he or she may be lead to believe that their life has no real purpose, that it is only an abstract system by which meaningless labor is produced. Freud believed that some individuals, thoroughly traumatized by this process, derive their primary sensual pleasure from retaining objects. The association this relentless collecting has with feces forces them into a simultaneous sense of pride and guilt over their collections. Collectors understand that with out the need to labor, life itself can have no authentic purpose and, running up against the relative ease of life in an affluent society, comfort themselves by la boring for an objectal Other. By devoting their lives to collections, the collector makes themselves important. Only by suffering for the object do collectors be come human.

Like Job (or Ayub in the Qur'an), the record collector endures great adversity, endlessly laboring and suffering to prove himself worthy to his collection. It is this determination to believe in and devote yourself to something with no intrinsic value that unites religion and consumerism alike. Like religions, re cords are outmoded and outdated. Moreover, with the spread of telecommunicational networks, even the concept of the collection is ludicrous. As mass produced consumer goods openly traded on eBay or GEMM.com, only a select few disks are not readily available from some distributor given minimal searching. MP3s and other digital audio formats undo scarcity, allowing the rarest track to be reproduced exactly and infinitely. The most collectible records are often rare pressings that can be identified not by any distinguishing marks on the cover or any sonic characteristics, but rather by cryptic notes inscribed on the vinyl matrix next to the label.

Collectors submit themselves to voluntary slavery, an action not innocent but rather of staggering consequence at a time in which some twenty seven million people are actually enslaved in places across the world such as Africa, India, and Southeast Asia, as well as in the United States and Europe. These individuals are subject to complete deprivation of freedom either through violence or through indentured servitude. Never before have so many been enslaved and never before has slavery been so forgotten. But without making light of this monstrous situation, is it not possible to suggest that the tacit acceptance of slavery today is due to a broader condition of enslavement spreading through out culture as a consequence of Empire?

Only the most naïve might think of the contemporary subject as truly free. We are all masters and slaves. The establishment wishes us to think of our selves only as masters of the world. This is literally true for many: the number of individuals owning stocks is at an all time high. The restructuring of pension plans to allow employees direct choice within the stock market, the growth in profit sharing, together with the explosion of choice in individual investment, makes us all capitalists. We are even told to look forward to the privatization of the Social Security program to allow individuals to invest their contributions on Wall Street. The result is that more people than ever before share in the wealth created by exploiting the labor of others. But our role as masters only underscores our role as slaves. It is not merely others who are exploited; after all, they are likely to own stock too. Never have our jobs been less secure. The corporation's responsibility to shareholders who are, after all, people similar to us, or perhaps, through profit sharing, are quite literally ourselves means that layoffs are a constant threat. And never has the workplace been so cutthroat: who does not live in fear that one's superiors or underlings! will decide that this is the day to call one's bluff? Coupled with this vertiginous lack of job certainty is the direct enslavement we suffer to others through debt. Between student loans, mortgages, automobile loans, and credit cards, personal debt is at an all time high. And with the world thoroughly capitalized, there is no refuge to avoid enslavement. Under late capitalism, art, emotion, and sex are first and foremost sources of profit, thereby subject to its inexorable laws.

Neither can we turn to Marxism. Not only has it been colonized for profit wherever possible, the analytic model developed under Marxism runs aground against this new blurring of identities. Marx's analysis depended on clear distinctions between bourgeoisie (slaver) and proletariat (slave). Today, however our complicity in the system is total. We are each other's masters; we enslave ourselves. To that, Marxism's critique has no answer. Yet while Marxism fails us as a means of analysis, the unpredictable swiftness of actually existing Communism s collapse in the East Block a decade ago demonstrates the possibility of self awakening and liberation within individuals. Once the populace under stood they were enslaving themselves and the bleak regimes controlling them were of their own invention, they stopped believing in them. Communism collapsed overnight and the Berlin Wall fell.

To explain, we need to revisit Hegel's dialectic of the master and the slave. In this narrative, two individuals confront each other. In so doing, each comes to an awareness of his or herself by seeing how the other perceives them. As a result of the encounter, one individual becomes dominant, the master, and en slaves the other. The master comes to think of the slave as a mere tool to be used, a deficient self, living only to satisfy the master s needs. In time, however, the master grows dependent on the slave, relying on him or her for every need. Meanwhile the slave, depending only upon his or her own wits and skill, slowly frees himself or herself from any dependency on the master. Even if in shackles, the slave comes to understand that the work he or she does affirms his or her nature as an individual. Lacking that affirmation, the master winds up empty, without identity.

Bono, the world famous recording artist and human rights activist, once stated, Death begins in your record collection. This is not a death sentence, but a warning: If today we are both masters and slaves, it is only through realizing that we simultaneously occupy those dual roles that we free ourselves. Only when we understand that we create not freedom but our own alienation and enslavement can we move forward.

The love that record collectors like Clarence feel for vinyl is not abstract. It is a form of voluntary slavery. Obsessive record collectors understand their disks are the excreta and memory of living beings and as such possess the trace of a soul hidden amongst the warm tones of the disembodied voices in the records grooves this is a promise that is maintained even if a record is never played. The sense of mastery that record collectors find within their collec tions bridges the most apparent aspect of contemporary culture, the absolute ness of quantification, with its most absent quality, an almost incommunicable personal meaning. Records are collected in order to create an ideal catalogue of friends, etymologically they count down the time to an impossibly complete and perfect scale model of the world. The ideal collection literally promises to provide the world itself as a goal, yet remains elusive enough to become impos sible to acquire. This is the seduction of the collection, it offers an obtainable end that cannot ever be met but continues to compel us to move forward. Col lections transform the world of goods into a world of fetish. Stripping any traces of function or practicality from the items in their collections, they desperately try to return the pieces back to a symbolic world of transcendence and meaning through their own self sacrifice and suffering and by constructing their own, personally symbolic order of the system of objects. Ultimately, the more you collect, the more impractical the maintenance and nurturing of the collec tion becomes, and the more it demands of your attention and actively fights your ability to live, the more magical and meaningful it makes your life.