Packing my library, or the impossibility of precarious feeling

1. Packing my library

Twelve or fifteen standardized brown boxes of books, covered in dollar store tarps and dust from lizard corpses and asbestos toxins — I’m lining them all up, three by four, three by five. Each box is stamped identically with bar codes, and green icons certify that they are all made from recycled paper, but nothing says where the recycled paper came from, so you wonder, does it come from dead books? Obsolete books? All those textbooks that your students don’t really read — do their carcasses get recycled into your moving boxes?

I’m leaving all the boxes in a dirty garage with bad air in Whittier, California, where my precarious postdoc contract is coming to an end. And a week later the movers will come for them, but I won’t watch as they stack them up in a trailer. The books will traverse the desert flats and the desert mountains, sit indifferently through a long series of desolate towns, and cross the Mississippi driven by some unknown driver. Each day the books will get slightly more crushed by the furniture stacked on top of them. One moving company estimates that my family’s belongings collectively weigh about 8,400 pounds. I start to fantasize that the moving trailer will fall in the sea or off a cliff, and so free us from the immense weight of our household goods. But would we do anything but buy them again? What are we if not agents of our metastasized objects and objectified needs?

Even the books, for those of us working in bookish fields, become fetish objects whose inhuman spirits impel us to adopt false needs as our own — such as the need for academic work in a dehumanized world, where labor equals docility, pliability, and migration. In a rigid system whose parts don’t fit together, gnashing like mismatched gears, the individual is always asked to grease the gears with their flesh or to crush the self down into some malformed space misnamed “opportunity.” That’s why my books are en route to Cleveland, where my partner is starting a postdoc, and it’s also why I won’t be staying in Cleveland, because I’m going a few weeks later to another teaching job 8,200 miles farther away. Separation has become the condition of our continued academic labor, and we have to believe that this separation is a condition of future togetherness, a step towards solving the misnamed “two body problem.” But even my books won’t be coming on the transatlantic flight. I’ll miss them, too.

2. Ideologizing your library

In Walter Benjamin’s tragicomic essay “Unpacking my Library,” he portrayed his book collection as a mournful space of freedom. His books, he said, got more free in his private hands than they could in a public library, since in his hands each book summoned up a specific history and memory: the memory of its acquisition, the history of its writing. The book collector, for Benjamin, was quintessentially someone who knew how to take books beyond their mere use-value. For a collector, the books were not necessarily for reading, and certainly not for reselling at a profit. Instead, they constituted a world that was curiously authentic and “intimate,” a world that the collector could “disappear inside.” In this dreamy world, “he” — always he — could come to “live in” objects.

It is perhaps not coincidental that this essay dates from 1931, the year after Benjamin’s brutal divorce and his parents’ death. What would be more logical than retreating into a fetishized object world after the collapse of one’s human relationships? For Benjamin, and probably for everybody who hauls their books around, unpacking a library is an ideological compensation. The question is: a compensation for what?

3. The class character of Walter Benjamin

When Benjamin announced that his library had a non-instrumental character, this was only a half truth. In fact, Benjamin was economically dependent on his library. It constituted one of his only economic assets: he had to sell part of it to pay his divorce settlement. Later, he saved much of it from the Nazis in Germany only to see it seized by the Gestapo in Paris. Hannah Arendt suggests that the seizure of Benjamin’s library was among the reasons for his famous suicide on the Spanish border: “How was he to live without a library, how could he earn a living without the extensive collection of quotations and excerpts among his manuscripts?” (Illuminations 17). No doubt Benjamin felt magical while unpacking his library, as he proclaimed. But the books were also a prime tool of his trade — writing — and he couldn’t not need them. Far from escaping the forces of instrumentalism, Benjamin depended on his books’ use value as much as on their exchange value.

A little materialism is in order, even in the face of someone who likened a certain historical materialism to a “Turkish puppet.” The fact is that Benjamin grew up a rich kid, culturally encouraged to disregard material concerns. Arendt calls him “typical of an entire generation of German-Jewish intellectuals”: the progeny of “successful businessmen who did not think too highly of their own achievements and whose dream it was that their sons were destined for higher things” (26). Thus Benjamin’s dad subsidized him into his thirties; he lived at home because he would not get a job; and he mooched his wife’s journalistic income. Arendt, who also grew up in a wealthy German Jewish household, excuses Benjamin’s behavior by alluding to his class habitus: “It is reasonable to assume that it is just as hard for rich people grown poor to believe in their poverty as it is for poor people turned rich to believe in their wealth” (25-26). Everyone is a prisoner of their habitus, it’s true. But the important point about Benjamin is less the rich kid origins per se than the life trajectory that it facilitated. A general trajectory of precarious downward mobility was Benjamin’s lot in life, culminating ultimately in his suicide.

4. The very center of a misfortune

Whether or not Benjamin was the first precarious intellectual to commit suicide, it is certain he was not the last. The newspapers are full of them, like the unknown adjunct teacher whose body was “found at the bottom of a cliff in the Blue Mountains” last year in Australia, or the American adjunct at Temple University who recently declared: “Suicide is my retirement plan.” Benjamin precociously sabotaged his possible academic career by criticizing the wrong people, and never got paid much for his own journalism. As Arendt put it: “Like Proust, he was wholly incapable of changing ‘his life’s conditions even when they were about to crush him.’” And she added: “With a precision suggesting a sleepwalker his clumsiness invariably guided him to the very center of a misfortune” (7). Benjamin was destined for an immense solitude. “No one was more isolated than Benjamin, so utterly alone” (9).

Precarious intellectual work is often misunderstood as the exception to a rule, and never more than in our fantasies. Maybe I can still get a tenured job. Maybe I can cross the border. Maybe I can escape my lot. But to twist an Arendtian phrase, precarious life is always the very center of a misfortune. And centers (like margins) are places of collective experience; thus Benjamin’s misfortunes are less singular than they appear. He was far from the only German Jew to commit suicide: someone in my family did the same thing when the Gestapo arrived at her door. And I doubt that Benjamin’s loneliness was really so much greater than that of the melancholy old adjunct who worked last year at the desk next to mine, barely speaking to anyone, even less being spoken to, and dousing himself repeatedly with cigarette smoke. I would not say my colleague was more isolated than Benjamin — only that he was not less.

Still, I understand why Arendt describes Benjamin’s experience with superlatives. Strategic quintessentialism, if that’s the word for it, becomes a useful strategy for representing precarious experiences that usually aren’t allowed to matter. In a world indifferent to loneliness, for example, one has to say something hyperbolic, like “no one is more isolated than X,” to make any impression. Benjamin himself suggested enigmatically in 1931 that “solitude is a privilege of the rich, or, at least, of economically secure beings.”

What’s superlative about Benjamin is just that he illuminates the center of precarious misfortune. And if we want to leave our misfortune, before we can leave it practically, we must first leave it ideologically.

5. Walter Benjamin is the problem, not the solution

Somehow Walter Benjamin has acquired a special place in the intellectual landscape. The fetishists love him, consciously or unconsciously; as with Nietzsche, the marriage of cryptic writing and ambiguous politics lends itself to all sorts of reappropriations. Benjamin’s prose is fungible today because it is so evocative. Its imagistic, essentializing, dialogical, magical character makes it exceptionally functional as an accent in high-end prose spaces. If you need an argument from magical authority, Benjamin’s prose is pre-organized into deployable aphorisms. If you want to edge towards “radical” (perhaps post-Marxist) politics without being dirtied by political realities, the imaginary angel of history always loves to hover over your shoulder.

Even my friends at the Modern Language Association, radical critics of the academic status quo, seem to idealize Benjamin a little in their marvelous recent parody, Feces on the philosophy of history. They comment, at one point, that “Hope for the future, as Benjamin reminds us, requires a belief in the failure of the present” (388). It would be more exact to say that hope for the future requires a belief in the failures of Walter Benjamin, and an analysis of their causes. I cannot agree that Benjamin reminds us of how to believe in a future without precarity. Rather Benjamin suffered precarity. He was precarity — to the death. He fell headlong through precarity like a dream world from which books offered an imaginary waking. And this falling, this precarious trajectory, is perfectly understandable. Benjamin’s failure, though, was his belief that unpacking one’s library is possible.

6. Precariousness within and without

To make sense of packing and unpacking, we need some account of precarious subjects and their object worlds. With only a slight effort of overinterpretation, we can extract one from Benjamin’s own comments about precariousness in a little-known passage of “Unpacking my library.”

Every passion borders on the chaotic, but the collector’s passion borders on the chaos of memories. More than that: the chance, the fate, that suffuse the past before my eyes are conspicuously present in the accustomed confusion of these books. For what else is this collection but a disorder to which habit has accommodated itself to such an extent that it can appear as order? You have all heard of people whom the loss of their books has turned into invalids, or of those who in order to acquire them became criminals. These are the very areas in which any order is a balancing act of extreme precariousness.

Let us read this as an allegory about precarious intellectual labor. As such, it is above all a tale of bad options — psychosis or criminality — that are always lurking as a set of calamitous last resorts for precarious workers, who end up organized, like Benjamin’s collector, by a dialectic of passion and chaos. Passion leads them on, these précaires, and chaos keeps them down. At any moment, their “attachment to books” — itself a stand-in for the internalized will to work, for habitual epistemophilia, for libidinal investments in academic objects and fantasies — at any moment, says Benjamin, this attachment may break down into a loss that makes you sick or gets you locked up. Whether by loss of your books or loss of your job, you are always at risk of getting shattered in an event that emerges suddenly from beneath the cloak of habits that otherwise veil your inner disorders, making them “appear as order.” Precariousness describes the order of our things, our books, because it describes the balancing act of our work: it is inside us because first it was outside us; it is outside us because first it was within us. And this balancing act, insists Benjamin, is not something you can depend on. It might get you killed.

Benjamin is wrong, though, when he likens our ambient chaos to “chance” or “fate.” Today we still invest in such a misidentification every time we talk about jobs as a matter of luck (“I’m lucky to have a job”) or fate (“this job is a perfect fit for me,” “the job gods aligned in your favor”). This mythological discourse — where magical thinking pretends to resolve structural nightmares — only blinds us to the relentless incompatibility between a diabolical machine and its damaged inhabitants. Worse still, it makes us forget that the ambient chaos is not a space of good and bad luck, but just a banal tool for managing the reserve army of intellectual labor. It’s hard to bargain collectively when you’re packing your library yet again, when you can’t find your shoes because they’re lost in the moving boxes. You stick to the script when your whole world is so unsteady that a mythological order is better than none. And on the other side of the table, the people who are buying labor never complain too much about the buyer’s market.

But I digress. Benjamin gives us a marvelous image of a precarity whose “accustomed confusion” is as much within as without, a structural instability which at any moment could erupt into calamity, crime, psychosis or suicide. This precarious life then gets re-organized by compensatory investments in objects (like books) motivated (at least partly) by an inner desperation which mainly appears in silhouette, under threat of loss.

7. Books and the experience of dislocation

All that got a bit abstruse. Let us ask again: Just why was Benjamin unpacking his library?

It’s simple: he had to unpack his library because he had to move. Frequently. After his divorce, Benjamin had to get his own apartment, where he promptly found himself faced with a “ridiculous variety of projects… undertaken simultaneously.” But even as he felt a certain pleasure in his new home, his correspondence shows that he was vocally dissatisfied with the experience of living there, complaining about the rent, the neighbors’ piano, and the “constriction of the space in which I live and write.” When here is anywhere, nowhere or wherever, it makes sense to flee into the books, so that the stability of fantasy can buffer the cacophony of rented rooms.

So we can answer our earlier question. Book collecting is a compensation for the experience of dislocation. But it is not only compensation; it is also a projection of the order of life into the order of things. By hauling the books from one unstable dwelling to the next, the forced march of the books is made to mirror the forced dislocation of the self. “If I have to go, the books have to go too!” The books’ presence thus becomes deeply ambiguous. They index the disorder of precarious existence. But they also index the persistence of a self who cares for something (the books) and who can discover tenderness in the memory banks. They reveal a marvelous capacity for self-reenchantment in the face of loss. They reflect the desolation of a past and the promise of a utopian future of writing. “Of all the ways to acquire books,” Benjamin maintained, “writing them oneself is regarded as the most praiseworthy method.”

8. Packing and unpacking

One time I saw an ancient tenured professor, George Stocking, getting rid of his library. He had been retired for years and finally was moving out of his office, which was a warren of ancient books, a comprehensive collection of Cold War social science. For him, packing up and giving away his library was a singular event, almost a deliberate prequel to his death, which followed only a few years later. But for itinerants like me, packing is a way of living through a world suffused with malicious structure: not an event but a practice of ongoingness.

After a few years, you are always packed, no matter where you go or what percent of your books are in boxes. Unpacking, contra Benjamin, is not possible. At best you can do a simulation of unpacking, a silly theatre where you go through the motions of inhabiting a place knowing full well the imminence of future ejection. Contract ended, no more rent money! No more health insurance, no more desk in the adjunct office! And so, knowing that at any time you could be sent packing, you always have to be ready to go: pre-packed.

So there is no unpacking, only packing. An unbalanced system of precarious self-management. You get offered something (a job, a degree, a free trip); it ends; maybe you’re hurt; you pack; you go on. Packing and unpacking are inadequate words for the emotional work of dislocating, of being torn apart from yourself and asked to act whole, of pretending that every other morning you don’t wake up with nightmares and then feel so tired.

9. The impossibility of precarious feeling

Because you’re always packed, you cannot feel. Or rather: all the feelings become provisional, harried, almost distant, like lurkers in online chat. You can’t feel what’s good because of the nearness of the bad, and you can’t feel what’s bad because at any moment something good might spring out. You can’t live in the present because it’s a precarious present, but you can’t live in the future either because you know it’s a lure that mainly keeps you invested in a bad institution. Ambivalence is too good for you. You can’t muster up either of its terms, the good or the bad. You’re ambivalent, perhaps, about the impossibility of ambivalence. Like Benjamin said, any order is a balancing act of extreme precariousness.

We’re all Walter Benjamin. It’s better to identify with him than to idealize him. And if identifying with Benjamin helps us see the false exits from the center of a misfortune — the retreat from relationships, the suicides, the fantasy overinvestments in books — then the question remains: what would be a true one?

One thought on “Packing my library, or the impossibility of precarious feeling

  1. This is a gripping and painful essay that does not reflect my life experience in which precarity was only a few momentary episodes. That world is GONE including what was good about it and what was awful.

    My immediate reflection on this essay is that this kind of precarity is precisely what the free market requires. There is no permanence, little unpacking makes any sense. You are whatever you are worth at this moment, the future is uncertain, and the past is a chain of data about what you used to be worth.

    So elegantly articulated in the blog, I wonder it if it does not help us to understand what has happened to the White working class in the US. In the face of enduring precarity and given a desire to believe that bad things don’t happen to good people for no reason, perhaps feverishly latching on to pseudo system-destroyer finds an explanation. Better to believe in something than in nothing.

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