[This is a long but scholarly piece on what collecting says about people in general…if the psychologists are correct, I’ll leave it to you all to decide whom to blame for my fascination with gathering up VDO-related ephemera :) ]
What is this thing we have about things? Is collecting a peculiarly postmodern pastime? Or is collecting simply the madness that makes humans human?
THE HAND-LETTER SIGN outside the white clapboard shop reads, “Antiques and Collectibles,” and this is the late Friday afternoon when you take the time to wonder both “just what is a ‘collectible’?” and “what isn’t collectible?” A collectible, after all, is anything that merits being bought and brought home, doted upon, arranged and rearranged: not just the souvenir plate from the 1933 World’s Fair, the Eisenhower pin, or the lava lamp, but also (apparently) the yellow rockers rusting outside the shop, old fishing lures, a plastic cup from Arby’s. One person’s junk is another person’s prize-this is the familiar and irrevocable law that enables the human species to perform one of its most ambitious and least conscious modes of recycling. That law itself depends, of course, on people’s passion for collecting things and on the creativity with which they confer value on the myriad world of images and objects.
On that same Friday you might sigh-who hasn’t?-as you wonder about the insanity with which people collect almost anything, almost everything, these days: teeny Beanie Babies, beer bottles, Pasadena postcards. The insanity may seem to be one mark of our postmodern condition-in which even the immediate past becomes the object of intense nostalgia, and in which the most banal acquisition can get touted as a wise speculation. Collecting has become relentlessly marketed: we’re summoned and seduced by manufacturers (including the U.S. Mint) to purchase figurines, commemorative plates, and special-edition coins.
But acts of collecting that cannot be reduced to the act of subscription-and most cannot-comprise a more hardy and hybrid activity. On the one hand, they generally depend on a form of consumption, but a form in which the product is carefully preserved, not used or used up; on the other, they are clearly acts of production, the making of the collection per se, the creation of a certain order. In an era when it is difficult to manifest one’s individualism through fashion (consumerism-as-usual) and when few Americans are satisfied to define who they are through the daily work they perform, collecting may serve as an especially satisfying mode of self-definition. The “miracle of collecting,” after all, as Jean Baudrillard put in Le système des objets (1968), is that “what you really collect is always yourself.” Whether your collection serves as a public display or as a private preserve, it’s a form of expression where you materialize that abstract thing called the self, where you can thus see and handle yourself, even talk to yourself, taking comfort in the way objects stabilize you as a subject.
The intensity of the collecting phenomenon, though, is hardly recent. More than a century ago people were perplexed by what they termed the “collecting mania,” and that mania became an object of serious censure, amused scrutiny, and scientific study. In his Confessions of a Collector (1897), William Carew Hazlitt (grandson of the literary critic), wrote of “that strange, inexplicable cacoëthes” which “leads so many to gather together objects of art and curiosities on no definite principle or plea throughout their lives, to be scattered again when they depart.” Describing the hardships he endured to support his book-buying habit, and imitating Thomas de Quincey’s “public exposure” of private “infirmity” in the Confessions of an Opium Eater (1821), Hazlitt tells the story of his augmenting bibliomania. Recognizing himself as an addict, he considers collecting an addiction. But he also considers it “an inborn and indestructible human trait.” Call it the madness that makes humans human.
Queen Victoria, more human than most on this score, bestowed many of her voluminous collections upon what became known (in 1899) as the Victoria and Albert Museum, even as her name was bestowed on a sensibility that we’ve come to associate with excessive ornamentation and obsessive accumulation-a sensibility determined to line the mantel with bric-a-brac and to fill display cabinets with paperweights and shells. By now, any student of U.S. history has confronted the fact that even conscientious historians refer to the late-19th century as “Victorian America”: despite its political freedom from England, the U.S. remained culturally at one with the mother country-caught up, at least, in the same accumulating passions, caught by the same fanaticism.
Indeed, it was New York and not London that witnessed the birth of The Curio in 1887, a new journal, richly illustrated, devoted exclusively to collectors. The inaugural volume declared that, “like all fanatics, whose life has but one object,” the collector “deserves careful study” as well as “sound advice.” But the collector was not an easy character to bring into focus, “for in truth, there is nothing that collectors will not collect,” and the collector had become less a recognizable type than the population at large: “New York is now a city of collectors, from Mr. Brayton Ives, who collects the first classics, to the ‘Doctor’ who is a collector of pipes.”
No one doubted that previous eras-Imperial Rome, Golden Age Holland, 18th-century England-had witnessed remarkable efforts to gather up the riches of the world. But they also sensed a new ubiquity of less remarkable efforts, the simple pleasure of doggedly amassing a world of objects distinctly one’s own. By the turn of the century, an Atlantic article on “The Tyranny of Things” proclaimed that the “passion for accumulation is upon us”: we “make ‘collections,’ we fill our rooms, our walls, our tables, our desks, with things, things, things.” The inevitable result of this passion-the quintessence of so-called Victorian taste-was that society ended up “overwhelmed by the invading host of things.” Americans, it seemed, had become wholly possessed by their possessions.
IN THE CLOSING decades of the 19th century, the most renowned American collectors-among them J. Pierpont Morgan (1837-1913), Isabella Stewart Gardner (1840-1924), and Henry Clay Frick (1849-1919)-brought the treasures of Europe-rare manuscripts and books, Italian and Dutch paintings, French furniture and tapestries-back to the cities of the United States. Just as the Old World had considered the New World a vast geographical field for imperial expansion, so the New World came to consider the Old a vast cultural field for expropriation. Henry James, the expatriated novelist who befriended more than a few well-known collectors, didn’t tire of the theme. In The American (1877), Christopher Newman becomes “conscious of the germ of the mania of the ‘collector'” while in Paris. In The Golden Bowl (1904), the incomparably astute Adam Verver has amassed exquisite treasures with which he means to create a “museum of museums” back in the States and thus to demonstrate “civilization condensed, concrete, consummate.” His taste is hardly confined to inanimate works of art: as his daughter Maggie explains to her fiancé, an Italian prince, “You’re a rarity, an object of beauty, an object of price…. You’re what they call a morceau de musée.”
If the success of collecting depends, first off, on the act of objectification (transforming a book, for instance, from a text into an artifact) then successful collecting can suddenly veer toward thinking of people as things. However scandalized we may be by such excess, the distinction between people and things is inevitably blurred, somewhat, when we collect things in order to conjure up the people who possessed them. The idiosyncratic Henry Chapman Mercer (1856-1930), who devoted much of his life to manufacturing Arts & Crafts tile, turned Anglo-American culture into a source of anthropological fascination by collecting thousands of 19th-century tools and building a museum for them. He helped to inaugurate not just the history of technology but also the study of everyday life.
Democratizing the artifactual world, expanding the notion of what was worth collecting and why, he argued that “these castaways” offered “manifold elucidations of nationality” by “leading us by way of an untrodden path, deeper into the lives of people…until at last the heart is touched.” The utensils weren’t simply objects; they were metonyms for the people who put them to use.
Such a democracy of objects both enabled and mirrored a new democracy of collecting subjects. On the one hand, as Neil Harris has shown (in Cultural Exursions: Marketing Appetites and Cultural Tastes in Modern America, 1990), there was an effort to define the characteristics of the true collector. On the other, even the home of the workman, as the economist Simon Patten put it, was “crowded with tawdry, unmeaning, and useless objects,” and these were “loved” as “the mark of superiority and success,” their “enjoyment energiz[ing] the possessor.” If we’re to believe the commentary of the time, it was above all two world’s fairs, the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia (1876) and the Columbian Exposition in Chicago (1893) that fueled the generalized passion for accumulation and display, just as the Exposition at the Crystal Palace had done in London (1851).
The Curio claimed that the taste for bric-a-brac began with the Centennial Fair, as did the taste for what we now call Americana. One writer noted that “everybody seems to be furbishing up his ancestors and setting them on end, as it were, in company with all the old tea-kettles, queue-ties, rusty muskets, snuff-boxes, and paduasoys.” Whether or not such writers were recording a change in actual practice, they certainly were participating in a change of perception: one need not be collecting the treasures of Europe to have a collection worthy of the name.
As “distinguished collectors” (Hazlitt’s term) and collecting institutions in America worked to refine their standards, less august individuals seemed to loosen theirs. The Smithsonian-once called the National Cabinet of Curiosities but renamed the U.S. National Museum in 1876 (A NATION OF THINGS)-believed that its new task of developing a “nursery of living thoughts” meant eradicating the “chance assemblage of curiosities” and discarding the “cemetery of bric-à-brac.” But that bric-a-brac, arranged with utmost care atop the upright piano, could itself be a nursery of thought.
Indeed, if there is an overriding principle of private collecting, it is that the collector, establishing a different order of things, enjoys the fact or the fantasy of wresting authority away from institutions and even from that thing we call “culture,” establishing a different system of value and meaning. The collection becomes the source of specialized knowledge-about Venetian glass, or baseball cards, or swords, or Barbie dolls, or stamps. And the collector can claim some mastery, some exhilarating expertise. Collectors collect more than objects; they collect the knowledge (however pedestrian or profound) that empowers them to take pleasure in those objects and to take advantage of someone else’s ignorance. More than any mere consumer, the collector lives for the thrill of the bargain because the bargain is the theatrical mark of a knowledge both superior and secret.
THE BARGAIN (no less, the act of bargaining) is just one manifestation of the power dynamics intrinsic to the practice, however casual or studied it may be. For pocketing the flat circular stones along the beach amounts to dislocating the objects from one environment and installing them in another. Preserving obsolete gadgets disrupts the “law” of technological progress, just as wearing vintage clothes disrupts the “law” of fashion. Pressing leaves combats the natural law of decay. If, as Baudrillard suggests, “the passionate pursuit of possession finds fulfillment” in collecting, transforming the “everyday prose of objects” into “poetry,” this is an aggressive and authoritarian poetry, a private mode of imperialism, a belligerent act of recycling meant to insist that ephemera is not ephemeral.
Actual emperors, of course, have been history’s most famous collectors: when Napoleon amassed his trophies of conquest in the Louvre (temporarily renamed the Musée Napoleon in 1803) it became the world’s foremost museum. (And, as Susan A. Crane, AM’87, PhD’92, argues in Collecting and Historical Consciousness in Early Nineteenth-Century Germany , collecting served as a way of inventing and asserting a nationalist past in the face of the foreign aggressor.) Other collectors flamboyantly behave like emperors. At the close of Citizen Kane (1941), the camera slowly surveys the broken packing crates in the cellar of Xanadu, the castle built by the newspaper tycoon, an “emperor of new strength” who has amassed not just Egyptian statues and Scottish mantels, but also animals from Africa and Asia. In Orson Welles’s fictionalized account of William Randolph Hearst, this collecting mania serves to fill up the emotional emptiness left by the absence of his parents. In other words, the obsessive accumulation of objects strives to compensate for everything he does not have. A manifestation of power, it is nonetheless a symptom of powerlessness.
Welles anticipates the perspective of Werner Muensterberger, who, in Collecting: An Unruly Passion (1995), assumes that the attachment to things always substitutes for an attachment to people: a psychoanalyst, Muensterberger reads Balzac’s craving for objects as the craving for the parental affection he never had. At the very least, collecting can be recognized as a physical attempt to overcome a metaphysical dilemma, and thus a necessarily futile endeavor that can only end up provoking the need for further acquisition. At a more rudimentary level, though, psychologists think of children’s collecting habits as efforts to affirm some control over their material environment. Even before psychology reached that conclusion, when child psychology was just emerging as a field (under the auspices of G. Stanley Hall in the 1880s), collecting was one of its inaugural topics.
Specialists concluded that-because “the mania seizes upon any and practically every outlet imaginable,” and because the activity is more important than the content-one should not “hesitate in calling” collecting “an instinct.” Scientific surveys confirmed Hazlitt’s hunch.
An 1899 survey showed that most children had three or four collections and that the instinct manifests itself in earnest at the age of three, becoming most intense at the age of ten (a chronology that more recent psychology has revised). As for the “question as to what children collect,” it was best “answered by asking what they do not collect.” The most popular items among the many were birds’ eggs, shells, bullets, stamps, marbles, and, above all, cigar tags.
The crucial point that emerged from such early studies was the way that collecting enacts both imitation and individuation. By collecting marbles you join a group; by collecting only cat’s eyes, you differentiate yourself within the group. In fact, something of the same dialectic occurs at the level of the object: a new object is acquired because it fits into the series but also because it doesn’t replicate an existing possession. Among both human subjects and inanimate objects, then, the collector is all the while negotiating the balance between generality and specificity, between the singular and the type, the assertion of novelty and the capitulation to the preestablished standard. Should you decide to walk into the antique shop that Friday afternoon, simply following an impulse, you’ll be doing so more logically than you know.
BUT LOGIC ALONE cannot account for this “instinct,” which seems to be driven no less by a kind of magic, by an inexplicable vitality that objects and images assert when they discover us discovering them. Indeed, when you say that a collection really demands this or that addition, you voice not the desire for objects, but the desire of objects. You have begun to appreciate what it is that objects want: they want you to mediate their relation to other objects. You’ve begun to grant the objects something of the status of a subject, with moods of their own, if not quite strange fits of passion. You’ve begun to break down the all-too-reasonable ontological distinction between human beings and the physical world they inhabit.
Within the archive of early child psychology, explanations of passion often explain very little, but they offer impressive portraits of fixation. One psychologist, blissfully unaware of the research Freud had begun to pursue, wrote of one “boy’s passion for bottles, beginning in his first year as a fear and mystery,” as “a fetich-feeling for a particular huge green bottle, and developing into an affection for bottles in general and [the] love of many bottles.” What dangers do we risk when we translate this love of bottles into a story of human relations, or when we think of this intimacy as necessarily standing in for something else? We risk not recognizing how the human enchantment with objects (the enchantment of objects) seeks to transform them, seeks out the thing that is in excess of the object and that can preserve that object from the fate of mere use. Bottles become more than bottles.
In current discussions of collecting, Walter Benjamin (the German theorist who developed the insights of Marx, Georg Simmel, and Freud into a materialist phenomenology) enjoys a privileged status because, as a passionate collector himself, he understood something of this enchantment, and he fully recognized the emotional, historical, and political stakes of the intensely private act of selecting and preserving some object, which, in that moment of selection, attains the status of an artifact. Whether it was the cultural debris the surrealist poets found at flea markets, the hand-crafted toys children played with, or the decorative ironwork of the 19th century, Benjamin sensed in these physical objects the otherwise suppressed longing for some alternative to the fate that history has bestowed upon us.
As for collectors, he thought of them as saving objects from the “tyranny of use,” on the one hand, and, on the other, laboring at “the Sisyphean task of obliterating the commodity-like character of things.” In other words, the collector-or, for Benjamin, the “real collector”-insists on investing the object with a value that has nothing to do with “use value” or “exchange value.” It hardly could, since, as he passionately explains in “Unpacking My Library,” the point of acquiring an object is to renew it, to grant it freedom within the “magic circle” of the collection, enabling it to be something other than it was.
Writing in 1931, Benjamin thought that the era of the private collector had come to a close: public collections were supplanting private ones. However thoroughly his Marxist sympathies made him recognize this transition as social progress, he nonetheless insisted that it is only in private collections “where objects get their due,” where ownership attains the quality of bliss, and where the fate of the object is genuinely cherished. If in fact the “real collector” is hard to find amid the crowd these days, driven as it is by the most recent collecting mania, this hardly means that the mania itself isn’t unconsciously inspired by some desire to give the objects of our world some other life. If, when your eye lingers over the “antiques and collectibles,” you discover an old snow globe and suddenly long to have it-all but ache to arrange it alongside other globes, or other toys, or other scenes of winter-that longing may be provoked by many sources. You may want the snow globe because it reminds you of the one in Citizen Kane or the one you dropped and shattered as a child, or because Benjamin took such delight in snow globes. What may be more important, though, is the way-when you pick up the globe and watch the yellowed snow flurry and settle, flurry and settle-that you see a secret world within objects, a world that you yourself can bring to life.
Bill Brown, the George M. Pullman professor of English language & literature, is also master of the Humanities Collegiate Division and associate dean of Humanities. Author of The Material Unconscious: American Amusement, Stephen Crane, and the Economies of Play (1996), he is coeditor of the journal Critical Inquiry and editor of its Fall 2001 special issue, “Things.” His forthcoming book, A Sense of Things: Literary Objects in America, will be published by the University of Chicago Press in 2002.