That which cannot be possessed (not by you, anyway)

Dan Cohen’s “review” of the Wu Tang Clan’s Once Upon a Time in Shaolin (HT: Alan Jacobs) is primarily a meditation on the nature of art and ephemerality, but I have trouble getting past the story that sparked it.

This is what we know: On November 24, 2015, the Wu-Tang Clan sold its latest album, Once Upon a Time in Shaolin, through an online auction house. As one of the most innovative rap groups, the Wu-Tang Clan had used concepts for their recordings before, but the latest album would be their highest concept: it would exist as only one copy—as an LP, that physical, authentic format for music—encased in an artisanally crafted box. This album would have only one owner, and thus, perhaps, only one listener. By legal agreement, the owner would not be allowed to distribute it commercially until 88 years from now.

Once—note the singularity at the beginning of the album’s title—was purchased for $2 million by Martin Shkreli, a young man who was an unsuccessful hedge fund manager and then an unscrupulous drug company executive. This career arc was more than enough to make him filthy rich by age 30.

Then, in one of 2015’s greatest moments of schadenfreude, especially for those who care about the widespread availability of quality healthcare and hip hop, Shkreli was arrested by the FBI for fraud. Alas, the FBI left Once Upon a Time in Shaolin in Shkreli’s New York apartment.

Presumably, the album continues to sit there, in the shadows, unplayed. It may very well gather dust for some time.

This has made many people unhappy, and some have hatched schemes to retrieve Once, ideally using the martial arts the Shaolin monks are known for. But our obsession with possessing the album has prevented us from contemplating the nature of the album—its existence—which is what the Buddhists of Shaolin would, after all, prefer us to do.

Setting aside the matter of what the Buddhists of Shaolin would prefer us to do, I think Cohen is giving the Wu-Tang Clan a little too much credit.

  1. WTC made, after auction fees, at least a cool million off of their album, which is pretty good money for doing what you (presumably) love. They got more publicity selling it this way than they would have by releasing it traditionally. What they did is indistinguishable from a publicity stunt, and from good business.
  2. Their method of selling their work doesn’t demonstrate ephemerality; the album still exists, it’s just that no one is listening to it. It has not, unlike some of the other art Cohen mentions, ceased to exist, nor is it expected to, except in the sense that all digital work will someday become unreadable (which is, given Cohen’s work, surely in the back of his mind—but that’s no reason to single out this album).
  3. It is, on the contrary, all about possession. Someone paid $2 million for a unique recording precisely so that he could possess it, and so that no one else could. This isn’t about non-possession; it’s about exclusivity of possession, and specifically about exclusivity of possession by the rich. It is, in that regard, less a statement of Buddhist philosophy than an expression of America’s Second Gilded Age.
  4. The tendency to cloak activities that are fundamentally about making money in the language of Buddhism (see also: tech companies teaching meditation to make their employees more productive) ought to trouble American Buddhists, as the tendency to cloak activities that are fundamentally about making money in the language of Christianity (see: much of U.S. history) ought to trouble American Christians. Likely it too seldom will, as it too seldom has. But it’s becoming increasingly clear that the defect isn’t with Christianity.

While I was writing this a sparrow perched on the rail of a chair outside my window and sang. I took no photograph and made no recording; his song was unheard by anyone but me and himself. It was a gift, unexpected and unearned, and now it is memory. And nobody made any money off of it. I am not an expert on Buddhist philosophy, but I’ll take the sparrow as my emblem of ephemerality over a hip hop album any day.

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