University of Virginia Library


The starting point for thinking about collecting is recognizing the human feeling of wonder that things seem to exist outside the self—the amazement and curiosity aroused by the apparent infinitude of animate and inanimate things that constantly impinge on one's consciousness. And the wonder is not only that these things have an independent existence but also that they seem to have had a pre-existence—that is, to have a history that antedates our awareness of them. The act of reaching out and touching them therefore produces contact both with the environment and with the past. Obviously infants do not consciously have such thoughts, and neither do a great many adults. But philosophers systematically consider the relation of the self to the nonself, and many other people think, and sometimes write, about it in less organized ways. In one fashion or another, at some level of the mind, everyone responds to the puzzle of whether the self is, or can be, connected to what seems to be outside it. The infant grasping and tightly holding a teddy bear, the expert


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in Old Master drawings pursuing and capturing another example for a collection, and all other acquisitors of tangible things are proving to themselves that they can make physical contact with that outside realm and, by seizing something from it, can subjugate one small part of it and to that extent render it more controllable and orderly. The process gives pleasure by conveying the sense that one is in some measure mastering one's environment, that one is less disoriented in the face of confusion. There is an accompanying and insatiable need to repeat the process, both because one seeks continued reassurance and because each instance brings renewed pleasure.

This process can be analyzed into several components, which include creation of order, fascination with chance, curiosity about the past, and desire for understanding. A sense of order is produced by the act of acquiring a tangible thing because that thing has been removed from one context, immense and inexplicable, and set within a different one, familiar and manageable. Each acquisition takes its place in relation to the other items already present within this context. Susan Stewart concisely captures this point in On Longing (1984) when she says that "objects are naturalized into the landscape of the collection" (p. 156). All the relationships among the items may shift somewhat as a result, but the new arrival is not an alien: since the whole is conceptually graspable, the newcomer fits simply by virtue of being there (whereas in the outside world, being there is not enough, for just what an item is fitting into—if it is doing so at all—is not clear). I take it that Benjamin's reference to "the locking of individual items within a magic circle in which they are fixed" is his way of making the same point. Another perceptive writer on collecting, Stephen Jay Gould, uses a similar expression in his absorbing study of eight collectors of fossils (Finders, Keepers, 1992, with photographs by Rosamond Wolff Purcell): he speaks of the urge "to bring part of a limitless diversity into an orbit of personal or public appreciation" (p. 10).[8] The "magic circle," the "orbit," imposes a structure on what is placed within it, and the individual repeatedly finds ways of moving more and more things from the outside to the inside of that space, gaining satisfaction each time from the sense of taming another talisman of wildness.

This drive to create order coexists with a fascination for chance. These two are natural partners because the gathering of tangible things entails a constant engagement with contingency, and one is inevitably


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dazzled by the diverse succession of things that pass one's way. What one gathers is dependent on what one encounters, and one's active seeking is a way of trying to encounter more. But despite one's attempts to increase the odds of finding something, what one actually finds is still a matter of chance. The connection between collecting and gambling has often been made: both involve jousting with fate, an exhilarating activity because it makes one feel unusually engaged with a basic force of life. The desire to find out what will show up next impels the gambler to play one game after another untiringly and drives the collector, with unceasing eagerness, to proceed from one antique shop, or other likely source, to another. Chance fascinates us not only because it produces endless variety but also because we feel that there must be a way to tame it, to pluck from it some reassurances of order. The television program Antiques Roadshow, in which people bring their possessions to experts for evaluation, illustrates the randomness in the distribution of objects—and the fact that such randomness is a significant part of the interest the show holds for its participants and its viewers. A large portion of those who bring items for inspection would not consider themselves "collectors," and what they bring comes from the accumulations they live with, including the residues they have retained from previous generations. An amazement that these items now reside where they do is an unspoken emotion of the owners of the items and of the experts as well, just as for the viewers the miscellaneous succession of items has the same appeal as browsing in a shop, where one cannot predict what will turn up next.

A curiosity about the past is also part of the reason that people's attention is captured by this show, as by other parades of objects. Every object acquires an interest quite separate from whatever significance it may have held for its previous possessors, since it is a tangible survivor from an earlier moment, putting one in touch, literally, with a vanished time. Indeed, because an object was looked at and touched by people in the interval (however long or short) between its origin and the present, it provides a link not merely to one past moment but to a series of them. When one observes a tangible thing in this way, thinking of it as a survivor, one gives close attention to all its sensuous aspects, all its physical features, any of which may proclaim something of the origin and subsequent life of the item. This sort of scrutiny, though it may subsume some understanding of the original function of an item, focuses on as many observable details as possible, whether or not they have a bearing on that function. A pitcher is studied not merely as an efficient utilitarian object but also as a tangible thing of a particular shape, material, decoration, glaze, and so on. Items conveying verbal or musical texts, like books and sheet music, are examined not only for those texts and their graphic


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design but also for other physical elements that mark the objects as products of the workmanship of a given time (such as clues revealing the source and date of the paper or the printing and proofreading procedures followed in the printing shop). Even objects intended solely as visual displays, like paintings and the whole spectrum of objets d'art, can be seen as carrying two kinds of exhibitions (not entirely distinct): an aesthetic construct, in which such materials as paint or crystal or porcelain reflect the visions of creators and inspire various (similar or different) visions in observers; and a technical construct, in which the nature of the materials and their manipulation take center stage, regardless of the fact that many of the details thus examined were not intended to be noticed by observers. A sense of this concentration on objects as objects is what Benjamin captured in one of his most telling and eloquently succinct statements: that a collector "studies and loves" objects "as the scene, the stage, of their fate" (p. 60). The object itself tells the story of its life.

A desire for understanding is the natural next step that follows from curiosity. When one repeatedly investigates objects in the manner just described, one builds up an inventory of details that form the background against which additional objects are looked at, and in this way a body of knowledge develops.[9] A further fascination of Antiques Roadshow is the array of specialists called upon, which not only confirms the fact that no object is too arcane to fall within the expertise of someone but also implicitly teaches a valuable lesson—that all objects, however lowly, deserve to have experts studying them and to be taken seriously as part of the mosaic of the past. Possessing the requisite knowledge for placing an individual item in an historical setting and assessing its quality relative to other similar items is often called connoisseurship—which is simply a form of scholarship. People sometimes think of taste and judgment as the primary traits of a connoisseur, but those qualities must be integrated with solid learning, and that combination is essential for all sound scholarship.

The only way that "facts" become established is through taste and judgment (which could also be called sensitive and balanced evaluation) applied to evidence. The conclusions reached by this procedure stand as facts so long as qualified investigators are not able to find flaws in the arguments, or equally plausible alternatives, or incompatible new evidence: facts are hypotheses that have not been convincingly refuted. Collectors, in one degree or another, all engage in this process, the same one pursued by scientists, social scientists, and scholars of every kind,


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whose search for understanding is a search for order. Artists, too, in their own way, propose visions of order, just as we all do through our physical possessions. If one asks why some people become physicists, and others novelists, and others collectors, in their drive to find patterns, I would reply that the question is not properly phrased, since everyone is a collector. Why some become astronomers and others composers is indeed an interesting question, involving individual temperaments and experiences, but it is on a different level from a question about the sources of collecting. However else one tries to come to terms with the outside world, one assembles objects and lives among them in one's own created environment. Martin Conway put this matter memorably when he said that "upon most of us a necessity seems to be laid . . . to obtain possession of objects, not always beautiful, by which our lives thenceforward are conditioned, and our goings out and comings in suffer a daily fettered freedom" (The Sport of Collecting [1914], p. 8). Sometimes one's things are related to one's other efforts (as when an art historian collects paintings), and sometimes they are not. But the accumulating of things is always there, manifesting our fundamental search for understanding and illustrating its essential process, the continued attempt to form comprehensible constructions. We all create installations, whether we call ourselves visual artists or not.

The pursuit of understanding through objects has yet another dimension. Since tangible things have lives as well as origins, they take us back to a number of past times, not merely one.[10] Objects not only stimulate us to discover how they came to exist and what their original function was; they also tease us into probing their subsequent status and adventures. Whatever we can learn about how particular objects were regarded over time furthers our sense of understanding our environment by making us more fully aware of the history that every object embodies. We know the recent histories of our current possessions, having lived through various events with them; and we inevitably associate each item with particular successions of events, recollections of which are triggered by the sight, or the thought, of the object. People also know that their things played similar roles for previous possessors and that all other objects as well have survived unique series of events; the desire to learn these stories is an important manifestation of the need for the ordering power of knowledge.

The connections of collecting with narrative have been explored by


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a number of writers. Roger Cardinal opens his essay on Kurt Schwitters, which links collage-making and collecting, with an elegant expression of collecting as narrative: "In its sequential evolution, the collection encodes an intimate narrative, . . . the continuous thread through which selfhood is sewn into the unfolding fabric of a lifetime's experience."[11] This "intimate narrative" resembles the "narrative of interiority" (p. 158) described by Susan Stewart in "Objects of Desire," a chapter in her On Longing (1984). Although Stewart may overstate the extent to which such narratives function "to discredit the present" (p. 139), there is no doubt that she is right to speak of the "capacity of objects to serve as traces of . . . events whose materiality has escaped us" and which can be retrieved "only through the invention of narrative" (p. 135). For Mieke Bal, who sees the urge to bring parts of the outside world into a "subject-domain" as fetishistic, it is "the narrative nature of fetishism" that supplies "a crucial motivation for collecting" (p. 105). Although I do not find fetishism a more fundamental explanation of collecting than the search for order,[12] I do think that Bal's exposition of "the plot of collecting" is useful because of its explicit recognition that objects as well as collectors can be regarded as narrative agents (pp. 110-113)—and thus that the stories collected objects tell may be different from the role they play in the collector's own narrative.

The focus of such discussions is sometimes on collecting as a narrative itself and sometimes on the narratives that people find released by objects. The two naturally shade into each other: all the stories we associate with objects have a significant place in our collecting narratives because they form an important part of our relationship with the tangible world. Benjamin, as he was unpacking his library, recounted some of the episodes certain volumes conjured up, exclaiming "what memories crowd in upon you!" (p. 66). Nancy Hale, in the opening chapter of her classic reminiscence The Life in the Studio (1969), movingly lingers over the objects left in her mother's studio, recalling their associations with her mother, filtered through her own encounters with them while her mother was alive. The most extended such act of recollection is perhaps Mario Praz's La casa della vita (1958), in which the profuse detail of the stories aroused in him by each object matches the richness of his


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self-created environment. This congruence prepares the reader for Praz's feeling, at the end, that he has himself become one of his collected objects. Such an expression of unity with one's collection is a metaphor for the successful pursuit of understanding, the feeling that one has learned so much about certain objects as to make them no longer seem part of a puzzling realm outside the self. One looks at them with a feeling of mastery and deep comprehension.