Benjamin J. Robertson is instructor of English at the University of Colorado Boulder, where he teaches classes on contemporary literature, media studies, baseball, and elves. He is working on two book projects: The Age of the World Playlist and Here at the End of All Things: Genre and the Horizon of History.

Commonplace for the age of the world playlist

The commonplace collects texts in a sort of playlist, a shuffle, a remix out of and away from history.

listen to your present time tapes and you will begin to see who you are and what you are

doing here mix yesterday with today and hear tomorrow your

future rising out of old recordings you are a programmed tape recorder set

to record and play back

who programs you

who decides what tapes to play back in present time

who plays back old humiliations and defeats holding you in

prerecorded set time

The commonplace may develop a direction or imply a magnitude, but it does not reify either.

When I was 13, in 1961, I surreptitiously purchased an anthology of Beat

writing―sensing, correctly, that my mother wouldn’t approve.

Immediately, and to my very great excitement, I discovered Allen

Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and one William S. Burroughs―author of

something called Naked Lunch, excerpted there in all its coruscating


Burroughs was then as radical a literary man as the world had to

offer, and in my opinion, he still holds the title. Nothing, in all my

experience of literature since, has ever been quite as remarkable for me, and

nothing has ever had as strong an effect on my sense of the sheer

possibilities of writing.

Later, attempting to understand this impact, I discovered that

Burroughs had incorporated snippets of other writers’ texts into his work, an

action I knew my teachers would have called plagiarism.

The commonplace is like the “we”, and the “we” the commonplace.

When I was thirteen I purchased an anthology of Beat writing. Immediately,

and to my very great excitement, I discovered one William S. Burroughs,

author of something called Naked Lunch, excerpted there in all its

coruscating brilliance. Burroughs was then as radical a literary man as the

world had to offer. Nothing, in all my experience of literature since, has ever

had as strong an effect on my sense of the sheer possibilities of writing.

Later, attempting to understand this impact, I discovered that Burroughs had

incorporated snippets of other writers’ texts into his work, an action I knew

my teachers would have called plagiarism.

The commonplace and the “we” only take on meaning when an I or a we fills them with

some kind of meaning, flattens their spaces with representation to make them amenable to

critique and interpretation.

We may say of [anxiety] that it is a reaction to the perception of an external

danger―that is, of an injury which is expected and foreseen. It is connected

with the flight reflex and it may be regarded as a manifestation of the self-

preservative instinct. On what occasions anxiety appears―that is to say, in

the face of what objects and in what situations―will of course depend to a

large extent on the state of a person’s knowledge and on his sense of power

vis-à-vis the external world.

The commonplace and the “we” become something else when their components are made

part something larger, when these components are separated from one another by the tools

of meaning which fill in space with representation: a commons.

To the oral man the literal is inclusive, contains all possible meanings and

levels. So it was for Aquinas. But the visual man of the sixteenth century is

impelled to separate level from level, and function from function, in a

process of specialist exclusion. The auditory field is simultaneous, the visual

mode successive. Of course, the very notion of “levels of exegesis,”

whether literal, figurative, topological, or anagogic, is strongly visual, a

clumsy sort of metaphor.

The commonplace and the “we’s” components, left unseparated, mingle and find the space

they are in not as a separate thing―as a container to be filled, that is, a commons―but

rather the common itself.

[W]hen we speak of a work of art, our Western aesthetic tradition forces us

to take “work” in the sense of a personal production which may well vary in

the ways it can be received but which always maintains a coherent identity

of its own and which displays the personal imprint that makes it a specific,

vital, and significant act of communication.

The commonplace and the “we,” as the common, are not a commons.

We’re in a delirium of saturation. We’re never going to remember anything

exactly the way it happened. Memories become ever more fragmented and

subjective. Do you want to have a bored delirium or a more exciting one?

The archive fever of open system architecture returns us, as I noted earlier,

to the era of live jazz and blues sessions, where everyone had access to the

same songs, but where they flipped things until they made their own


The commonplace and the “we,” insofar as they are the common, are not resources, do not

stand in reserve for an I or a we who might use them for individual (or collective-of-

individual) purposes.

It is clear that ever since Homo sapiens first appeared, there have been

apparatuses; but we could say that today there is not even a single instance

in which the life of individuals is not modeled, contaminated, or controlled

by some apparatus. [. . .] At the root of each apparatus lies an all-too-human

desire for happiness. The capture and subjectification of this desire in a

separate sphere constitutes the specific power of the apparatus.

A commons is for the I and the we.

In every apparatus, we have to distinguish between what we are (what we

already no longer are) and what we are becoming: the part of history, the

part of currentness. History is the archive, the design of what we are and

cease being while the current is the sketch of what we will become. Thus

history or the archive is also what separates us from ourselves, while the

current is the Other with which we already coincide.

A commons is that which must have value, must mean, must be exchanged.

Of a large and powerful class we might ask with confidence, What is the

event they most desire? what gift? What but the book that shall come, which

they have sought through all libraries, through all languages, that shall be to

their mature eyes what many a tinseled-covered toy pamphlet was to their

childhood, and shall speak to the imagination? Our high respect for a well-

read man is praise enough of literature. If we encountered a man of rare

intellect, we should ask him what books he read.

A commons is a place where an I may meet another I as a we, but this meeting only

happens in a commons and never as the common.

What you want to do is give these students ways of constructing meaning.

If all you give them is text, they’re not going to do it. Because they can’t. You

know, you’ve got Johnny who can look at a video, he can play a video

game, he can do graffiti all over your walls, he can take your car apart, and

he can do all sorts of other things. He just can’t read your text. So Johnny

comes to school and you say, “Johnny, you’re illiterate. Nothing you can do

matters.” Well Johnny then has two choices: He can dismiss you or he [can]

dismiss himself. If his ego is healthy at all, he’s going to dismiss you.

A commons may represent a new content of the property form, but the form itself remains

unchallenged: by granting legitimacy it partakes of that which subtends legitimacy.

In metaphysics reflection is accomplished concerning the essence of what is

and a decision takes place regarding the essence of truth. Metaphysics

grounds an age, in that through a specific interpretation of what is and

through a specific comprehension of truth it gives to that age the basis upon

which it is essentially formed. This basis holds complete dominion over all

the phenomena that distinguish the age.

The common does not require legitimacy or legitimation because it is always already here.

Yet if the only form of tradition, of handing down, consisted in following

the ways of the immediate generation before us in a blind or timid adherence

to its successes, “tradition” should positively be discouraged. We have seen

many such simple currents soon lost in the sand; and novelty is better than

repetition. Tradition is a matter of much wider significance. It cannot be

inherited, and if you want it you must obtain it by great labour. It involves,

in the first place, the historical sense, which we may call nearly

indispensable to anyone who would continue to be a poet beyond his

twenty-fifth year; and the historical sense involves a perception, not only of

the pastness of the past, but of its presence; the historical sense compels a

man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a

feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it

the whole of the literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence

and composes a simultaneous order. This historical sense, which is a sense

of the timeless as well as of the temporal and of the timeless and of the

temporal together, is what makes a writer traditional. And it is at the same

time what makes a writer most acutely conscious of his place in time, of his


The common does not destroy the the commons, does not destroy history, meaning, or

value in whatever new form they take.

Articulating the past historically does not mean recognizing it “the way it

really was.” It means appropriating a memory as it flashes up in a moment

of danger. Historical materialism wishes to hold fast that image of the past

which unexpectedly appears to the historical subject in a moment of danger.

The danger threatens both the context of the tradition and those who inherit

it. For both, it is one and the same thing: the danger of becoming a tool of

the ruling classes. Every age must strive anew to wrest tradition away from

the conformism that is working to overpower it. The Messiah comes not

only as the redeemer; he comes as the victor over the Antichrist. The only

historian capable of fanning the spark of hope in the past is the one who is

firmly convinced that even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he is

victorious. And this enemy has never ceased to be victorious.

The common reveals that which already exists: the non-human, the non-historical, the

valueless, the meaningless.

I am unpacking my library. Yes, I am. The books are not yet on the shelves,

not yet touched by the mild boredom of order. I cannot march up and down

their ranks to pass them in review before a friendly audience. You need not

fear any of that. Instead, I must ask you to join me in the disorder of crates

that have been wrenched open, the air saturated with wood-dust, the floor

covered with torn paper, to join me among the piles of volumes that are

seeing daylight again after two years of darkness, so that you may be ready

to share with me a bit of the mood―certainly not an elegiac mood, but

rather, one of anticipation―which these books arouse in the genuine


The common cannot be legitimate nor legitimized because legitimacy requires forms and

meaning and history: value.

I am unpacking my CD collection. Yes, I am. Not the way Benjamin

famously unpacked his book collection, seven decades ago, amid “the

disorder of crates that have been wrenched open, the air saturated with the

dust of wood, the floor covered with torn paper.” Not hardly. I’m unpacking

my music the way we generally unpack information these days: by setting it

free entirely from dust and paper and crates of any kind. By making it


The common is fraught with political, social, cultural, and other problems—problems that

may only be the vestiges of a form of thought thought by an anxious I or we in the face of


Cultural insiders and curators have been creating lists of books and art for

centuries. From the 1970s Music Savants and Enthusiast fans used the new

cassette format to produce mix tapes of their favorite songs, which they

passed around (sometimes with hand-drawn cover art and extensive sleeve

notes) in order to turn friends on to their latest discoveries. Sometimes I

used to edit multiple fragments of a few seconds between songs to create an

aural collage; making a 90-minute mix tape of this kind with analog

technology could be a day’s work. Using the drag-and-drop technology of

Apple’s iTunes software, I can compile a 90-minute digital playlist in about a

minute. I can then upload that list to one of many playlist-sharing websites

to get feedback and ratings from friends and fellow fans. Thus playlists

come within reach of Casual, or even Indifferent, music listeners.

“We” must avoid such representations. The problem is that we cannot.