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-
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.