Religion and digital culture:

eBay and the historical imagination

posted by John Lardas Modern

eBay StuffSome seek God in algorithms. Others seek a kind of divinity in the pastness of the past. The former seek to model a metaphysics of calculability. The latter tend to complicate that metaphysics by questioning the very definition of presence.

This was the thought I had while falling slowly asleep in front of the eBay screen. The historian, perhaps to his detriment, has these kinds of thoughts. He senses the flittering screen of the present more acutely than most—the way the past comes in and out of focus, the way it is there and not there, the way it is not even an it save for fleeting moments catalyzed in the materiality of the archive. Wherever that may be, eBay is there.

There is the lot of Max Weber titles on eBay: Basic Concepts in Sociology (1966), The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1958), Makers of Modern Social Science (1970), From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology (1946), Ancient Judaism (1952)—“Light Cover wear to Edges. X-lib marks, The rest is clean. Pages Holding well. No Rips or Folded pages.”1 There are the early printings of Andrew Jackson Davis from the library of Evelyn Carr and a toy train tanker car—greyish green and perfectly emblazoned with “FIRESTONE” in dark green and underneath, in black: “Rubber Latex From Liberia.” There are the spiritualist pamphlets and electroencephalogy manuals, an e-meter from an independent Scientologist from La Crescenta, California, new age therapy records and phrenology self-exams, and religious tracts from the first half of the nineteenth century, battered and torn and worm eaten.

And here I do not want to make claims, although I do think them correct, about the general negligence of analysis, perhaps the impossibility of taking practical account of media/materiality when it comes to doing history (not merely writing, not merely contemplating from a distance). For where is the past encountered? Indeed, where is the past save for right in front of you? Late night all the time, ready to be consumed.

*   *   *

“One has only to watch a collector handle the objects in his glass case. As he holds them in his hands, he seems to be seeing through them into their distant past as though inspired” (Walter Benjamin, “Unpacking My Library,” Illuminations)

When I think of eBay, I think of Walter Benjamin and his recollection of an auction in Berlin in 1930. Benjamin, no stranger to the economy of scholarly acquisition, was anxious about this particular event because of the “number of rare works on occultism and natural philosophy” that were going to be on the block. “I bid for a number of them, but each time I noticed a gentleman in the front row who seemed only to have waited for my bid to counter with his own, evidently prepared to top any offer. After this had been repeated several times, I gave up all hope.” Benjamin’s hope was channeled toward “the rare Fragmente aus dem Nachlass eines jungen Physikers [Posthumous Fragments of a Young Physicist].” This two-volume work printed in 1810 became an object of power in Benjamin’s scheme, something he used to his advantage. For “just as the item came up I had a brain wave. It was simple enough: since my bid was bound to give the item to the other man, I must not bid at all. I controlled myself and remained silent.” Benjamin’s plan worked. He showed no interest, offered no bid and the book went unsold at the auction. A few days later Benjamin reaped his magical reward when he “found the book in the secondhand department.”

There is a gesture in Benjamin’s texts that magical manipulation is the critical task of art. It transforms the world in its potent mediations. Benjamin himself employs a sort of magic to manipulate the outcome of the auction: he takes the kind of objectivity demanded by economic competition and turns it on itself, coming to see clearly how his actions at the auction relate to “the gentleman,” then using the observation to his advantage.

The historian, too, must resist the neo-positivist’s ever-increasing demand for measurable results with sly subversion. To the positivist, much of the world appears with the mark of measurability. Even the unknown is simply yet to be calculated. As the digital demands more precise accountability, as it tracks and coordinates and models, the anxiety over surveillance becomes strangely comforting, perhaps even aspirational at the professional level. This aspiration comes in the form of a boredom that sets into the profession of history, a creeping systematicity in which all recorded signs—visual and acoustic—will have their place in the grand tally of what came before. Magical manipulation becomes a small victory, then, amidst the pervasive sweep of a particular kind of reason and its archival expanse.

The archive, as it is often said, is the space in which the dead speak to the living. One might even go so far as to say that the archive becomes both an altar and a tomb in this religious vision born of the secular imaginary. It unsettles as much as it soothes—it is the site of the struggle to communicate, and the books, pamphlets, photocopies, tracts, and trinkets that comprise the archive are conduits of these communiqués. This much is certain. This is the stable truth of media. The status of the archive, however, is neither certain nor stable. The archive is changing, or more precisely, our relationship to the archive is rapidly changing with the advance of “modern information technology, and the automated data archives that this technology facilitates.”

The aura of precision glows around historical work done after the “appearance of an intercommunicating network of archives” (599). Or so prescribed the article in the Journal of American History in 1967 titled “Computers and Historical Studies.” Intellectual habits change with the introduction of the computer . “Computers facilitate generalization, and historians become increasingly concerned with the common properties of human affairs and less concerned with supposedly unique and transitory occurances, however dramatic they may be.” Sameness lends itself to data points. Systematic methods, in various shapes and forms, proliferate—tracings and correspondences and meta-tracings and meta-correspondences and so on and so forth.

There is a danger to all of this genealogical pleasure, of course, in the imagined encounter with data. This is not because more texts are being read and written about alongside one another. This is a good thing. And it’s not because search engines can tally and specify (however imperfectly) when and where a word or phrase has been uttered, how often and by whom. The danger is about your imagination of how and why you are writing history. There is a temptation to the genealogical surface, a horizon of pure relationality in which connectiveness can be defined by its capacity to be coded.

“Indeed, it is even possible that a segment of the literate public, increasingly accustomed and attuned to a world of scientific achievement and explanation, may find history conceived and written in scientific ways more appealing than historical writings of a more traditional sort” (607).

This and the above citations, from 1967, do not appear on eBay. At the moment I am writing this sentence The Journal of American History 54:1 does not exist on eBay. All is not lost, however. The previous issue of The Journal of American History [54:2] can be bought (now) for the sum of $7.50 from rebeccas25: “NO RIPS OR TEARS ONLY PERSON WROTE NAME ON FIRST PAGE INSIDE BOOK.

*   *   *

So what is eBay? eBay is history, for lack of a better word. eBay is a material thing apart from the materials things whose circulation it facilitates. But what constitutes its materiality? Element, molecule, thread, node, block, relay, circuit, point, form alone?

A vague yet invasive context, how conditions of possibility come into being and act upon you, unbeknownst and indifferent.

eBay is the ontology of the item, an encounter with a spirit that is undergirded by immense feats of laborious data entry, of servers scattered across the land, of transactions that are digital but signify something earned or lost along the way. There is an effervescence, here, in the encounter, an attribution of meaning, a consent to mystification. I refer here not merely to the make-up of an item, what category it constitutes, or some other abstract rendering. I am talking about the weight of eBay’s weightlessness, the gravitational pull of its screen.

Ontology suggests the rules of the game of being, the material forces that allow for any materiality to be recognized as such, to be felt and imagined and promoted. Such rules are trusted sources of knowledge, dependable blueprints for action. Their authority is premised absolutely on the fact that they have no author.

Incremental bidding

We suggest that you bid the maximum amount that you’re willing to pay for an item, and let our system incrementally increase your bid for you, as necessary. 

As the listing proceeds, we compare your bid to those of other bidders. When you’re outbid, we automatically bid on your behalf up to your maximum bid. We increase your bid by increments only as much as necessary to maintain your position as highest bidder. Your maximum bid reflects the amount you’re willing to pay for an item, but you could end up paying less.

There are strange projections happening here. There is phantasmagoria. Visceral loops between bodies, between bodies and imagined environment and imagined bodies, etc.. There is desire and there is an object and there is the mediation of the bid. Call it itematicity. Digital life, days marked by their online intensities, a space into which everything—even the spirit of the collective—must pass.

Historians, of course, are prone to such elaborate justification and the promise of what lies beyond their immediate purview. For they seek to encounter history at its deeper levels. On eBay, one can live the Benjaminian fantasy. One can swim in the monied sea of purchase histories, among the fraudulent sellers and occult maneuvering.

Consider your buying options

Determine the maximum amount that you’re willing to pay for the item. Take into consideration what the item is worth to you, how difficult it will be for you to find another one, and how soon you need it. Then determine the highest price that you’re willing to pay.

Understand what entering a maximum bid means. Our automatic bidding system means you can enter your maximum bid once and the system will automatically increase your bid only as much as is needed for you to stay the highest bidder without going over your maximum bid.

Make every bid a serious one. Don’t bid on multiple similar items from different sellers if you only want one. If you’re the winning bidder in more than one auction, you’re obligated to purchase all the items you’ve won.

To know history as it actually happened—this is the Rankean dream, a nostalgia for a reality that does not traffic in signs. But what is necessary, perhaps, is a renunciation of the “taxonomic habit” and the confidence that accompanies it. Perhaps what is necessary is a renunciation of meaning altogether with its connotations of stasis and independence. Or in order to address “those moments of being and imagination which the human is graced to repeat and embody,” might Charles Long’s call still beckon—to push “beyond all the specific modern modes and paradigms, whether of language, logic, or writing, to the fullness and poverty of being which is designated by the term sacred”?

During the day, professional and well-respected historians dress the part and speak authoritatively about the human encounter with the reality of the unseen—about Methodist circuit-riders and their sufferings, Dorothy Day and the Berrigan Brothers, ring shouts, spiritualist photography, the merger of Unitarians and Universalists, circuit court decisions about prayer in school, the pathos of Puritan journaling, etc. They portend to offer narrative purchase on the complexities of the past and the ways in which lives played out amidst the competing forces of will, deliberation, and discursive determinings. Such authority, of course, doesn’t just happen nor is it simply the product of good schooling, mentoring, and study. It takes mediation. Continuous incursion, accumulation, and exposure. For at night many of these same historians are eBay junkies, searching incessantly and deliriously for those items that enable their daily doings. They track saved searches and type in new search terms—perhaps a combination of year and key word—1871 and contagion, 1947 and artificial, etc. They watch. They wish. They bid. They buy things now. They are guilty. They love it. Their archive achieves its distinction. The past is captured and assumes a kind of presence that compels them to channel it through Latin letters on the page. This algorithmic density is something close to presence. This is their process. This is how and why they write. This is their mystical calling and they are not ashamed. For when the prospect of mediation ends, so, too, does their history.


  1. One is ever reminded of Weber’s portrait of modernity—the ominous affinity  between social structure and reasoning, being and style imploding in overwhelming commitments to security and the ongoing capacities of science to do its job. Boredom, here, becomes a generalized state of disenchantment in which calculability is always there, as an option, if you want it. Or if you can earn it. See, for example, From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, eds. H.H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills (New York: Oxford University Press, 1958).

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2 Responses to “eBay and the historical imagination”

  1. avatar Stephen Prothero says:

    I once sold nothing on Ebay. It was about 10 years ago. There were about a hundred bids. The winning bidder paid me as promised and thanked me for the chance. The winning bid was about $20.

  2. avatar John Modern says:

    Stephen, I would have paid at least $25. Maybe more, depending.

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