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The four aspects of collecting that I have been describing—the creation of order, a fascination with chance, curiosity about the past, and a desire for understanding—are all subsumed under the urge to tame the external world. This general idea, in which collecting is traced to a human need for making the environment seem less threatening and more understandable, has been much in evidence in the past few decades, as intellectual interest in the process of collecting has increased. The trend is symbolized by the seminal anthology The Cultures of Collecting (1994), edited by John Elsner and Roger Cardinal, and by the volumes in Routledge's "The Collecting Cultures Series" (1995- ), edited by Susan M. Pearce. One can only applaud the growing tendency for cultural critics to address this subject, for—given its fundamental role in human life—it has been remarkably neglected (especially so outside the fields of psychology and object-relations psychoanalysis). But if there is a kind of consensus that collectors create stable controllable environments as a way of coping with the chaos of the so-called objective world and defining themselves in relation to it, there is much debate about the details of the process. I hope I can offer some perspective on the discussion by explaining my disagreements with one or two of the major commentators.

One of the better-known essays on collecting is Jean Baudrillard's "Le système marginal" (in Le système des objets, 1968). In the words of Roger Cardinal's fine translation (for The Cultures of Collecting), Baudrillard says that objects interpose, "in that space between the irreversible flux of existence and our own selves, a screen that is discontinuous, classifiable, reversible, as repetitive as one could wish, a fringe of the world that remains docile in our physical or mental grip, and thus wards off all anxiety" (p. 15). The act of collecting divests objects of their functions and makes them "participate in a mutual relationship" with their owners: the items in a collection "thereby constitute themselves as a system, on the basis of which the subject seeks to piece together his world" (p. 7). These statements, and others like them in the essay, are


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admirable descriptions of the role of assembled objects in human lives, expressing a general point of view about collecting that one would scarcely wish to quarrel with. But the analysis that supports such generalizations has its flaws. For one thing, Baudrillard asserts, late in the essay, that he has been talking about "collecting proper," which he says is "distinct" from "accumulating"; yet he calls the latter "an inferior stage of collecting" (p. 22), thus placing it in the same realm after all and causing the reader to question whether a focus on only a part of the whole spectrum is the best way to search for the fundamental nature of collecting. It remains unclear whether Baudrillard regards "collecting proper" as an activity engaged in by all human beings, or whether he believes that only some reach that "stage" and others remain stalled at a lower level.

The question of the universality of collecting becomes a basic issue through his negative bias, which seems inappropriate if the activity is indeed universal. His comments on the "collecting impulse" of children and his apparent agreement with the view that "an individual who is not some sort of collector can only be a cretin or hopelessly subhuman" (p. 9) suggests that he thinks of collecting as a natural and universal human activity. But if so, it is hard to see why he treats it as regressive. Much of his discussion deals with collecting "as a powerful mechanism of compensation during critical phases in a person's sexual development," as "a regression to the anal stage" (p. 9), as an "escapist" passion leading to a "neurotic equilibrium" (p. 11) and often to a "sexually perverse pattern of behaviour" in which beauty is jealously savored "in isolation" (p. 18), and as a fetishistic activity, a "discreet variety of sexual perversion (p. 19). If, however, everyone engages in collecting to support "our very project of survival" (p. 7), why should it not be viewed in a positive light? The thought seems to have crossed Baudrillard's mind at the point where he asks, "can one really speak of normality or anomaly here?" (p. 16). This question has the potential to undermine his whole analysis and is not pursued. Instead, he continues to say that "the intercession of objects . . . allows us, albeit regressively, to live our lives" (p. 17), and he ends with the idea that "he who does collect can never entirely shake off an air of impoverishment and depleted humanity." But the essay fails to show why it is not equally possible to see collecting in a diametrically opposite way, not as evasion and escapism but as a human urge to connect with the world, to make sense of it so that one can feel in harmony with it and experience it more richly.

Another writer on these matters, one of the most prolific and thoughtful commentators on collecting and museum studies, is Susan M. Pearce, whose most ambitious work thus far is On Collecting: An Investigation into Collecting in the European Tradition (1995). This book, which


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treats its subject under the heads of practice, poetics, and politics, is notable for its comprehensiveness, its insistent probing, and its command of the literature of the field.[13] Although it suffers from prolixity, it has its eloquent moments. In the particularly sensitive chapter on "Collecting in Time," for example, Pearce says this of objects: "our ability to manipulate them, . . . and their relationship to the thread of memory which they help to constitute, sustains our sense of ourselves as meaningful people passing through time" (p. 254). Scattered throughout the book are sentences that skillfully capture basic ideas about human attention to the physical world, such as the following two: "Objects embody human purposes and experiences, and they invite us to act towards them in ways which may give us what we desire" (p. 166); "Collections are psychic ordering, of individuality, of public and private relationships, and of time and space" (p. 279). Such statements as these—and the point, made in the second sentence of the book, that collecting is a "fundamentally significant aspect" of our relationship with objects, which in turn is "crucial to our lives"—suggest a definition of collecting broad enough to encompass everyone's accumulations.

It is surprising, therefore, that she seems content with a concept of collecting that excludes two-thirds of the population. She begins her series preface, "Nearly one in every three people in North America collects something" (the "Nearly" even implying that the number seems large). Later in the book she speaks of "a third of us" interacting with objects "in ways which result in what we may agree to call a collection" (p. 174). Her preliminary brief definition hints at a requirement of self-consciously purposive selectivity—"the gathering together and setting aside of selected objects "(p. 3)—though this definition would not have to be interpreted in so exclusive a way. But one of her more detailed definitions does make explicit several restrictive elements: collecting, she states, involves "the deliberate intention to create a group of material perceived by its possessor to be lifted out of the common purposes of daily life and to be appropriate to carry a significant investment of thought and feeling, and so also of time, trouble and resource" (p. 23). If only a minority fits this definition, she is faced with the question why those few "choose this way of defining themselves" (p. 174); and her answer, which brings us "as close as we are likely to get to an understanding of what makes a collector," is, "A combination of circumstance, accident and particular traits of personality" (p. 175). This is one of the most unsatisfactory discussions in the book, for this "explanation" could be


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said to apply to all human actions—certainly to a great deal besides collecting. At various points Pearce seems to be aware of the inhibiting role of her definition. For example, she is forced to say that an accumulation of souvenirs, which she distinguishes from a true collection, is nevertheless "a kind of collection" (p. 245). And interior decor, which she is quite right to discuss, can be taken up only after she apologetically allows for "reservations in the exact correspondence between 'room furnishings' and 'collections' in any pure mode, a purity which is in many ways unhelpful" (p. 257). At this point she should have abandoned her definition.[14]

These comments on Baudrillard and Pearce can serve to suggest what seems to me a basic defect in much of the writing about collecting: the act of collecting is often seen as an aberration, if not a disorder, affecting some portion (frequently a small one) of the human population.[15] This proposition is one that I believe breaks down the more one thinks about it. The relative number of people engaged in collecting is a significant matter, for it determines whether one can reasonably speak of this behavior as an abnormality. Defining collecting so as to include everyone makes sense if two conditions apply: if, first, one cannot form clear-cut distinctions between categories of gathering and, second, one hopes to arrive at the most fundamental understanding of the activity. These two conditions are naturally related, for if one continually finds that attempted categories overlap one another, one should perhaps conclude that there is a broader concept linking them and that one has not found a helpful way of subdividing it. (What one may have identified are some of the characteristics, not always mutually exclusive, that are combined in varying proportions in individual instances.) I am not concerned with terminology: I do not care whether we use "collecting," "gathering," or "accumulating" as the most comprehensive term, or whether we treat all three as synonyms (as I have done here) or find yet another word. What is important is that any concepts we choose to distinguish by separate terms be logically distinct, so that the terminology is an aid to clear thinking and not in itself a cause of confusion.

As I indicated at the outset, it is hard to see how logical distinctions can be made according to how active or purposive or focused collecting


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is, or how many hours, days, or years the assembled objects must be retained, or how utilitarian the reasons for retention are—or any similar attempts to cut up a continuum. What holds all individual acts of collecting together is simply the grasping or receiving of a physical thing, a part of the material world, and the subsequent segregating of it, through personal possession, from the rest of that world. And it would seem that the reason people engage in this activity—the most comprehensive reason, encompassing the others—is their need to feel in control of some part of the chaos around them, to feel that there is some order in relation to which they can define themselves. People in general, not surprisingly, furnish other reasons. Most often, probably, they say that they acquire certain objects simply because those objects give them enjoyment, but in so saying they have not fully analyzed the situation. It may be true that aesthetic satisfaction—which itself may come from the ordering power of the artistry—is what draws them to one group of objects rather than another; but the desire to possess the objects, and the pleasure that comes from such possession, stem from the more inclusive urge to achieve a measure of dominance over the environment. (One can experience aesthetic enjoyment, after all, without physical possession; and one can enjoy the possession of objects that do not in themselves give one aesthetic pleasure.) I am glad to see that this general explanation for collecting is now widely accepted, in one form or another. But it is of course only an hypothesis, and its acceptance is not crucial to my main point: collecting is part of the behavior of every person, and by definition it is therefore not abnormal.

From that basic point, one can move on to consider what makes individual cases different, why some people seem to become pathological or obsessive in their collecting, why some are more methodical than others, or focus on certain kinds of objects, or think about the growth in monetary value of their possessions, and so on. The infinite variety of combinations and intensities of motivation, being the product of those great mysteries circumstance and temperament, cannot be fully plumbed. But each unique history can be examined, and generalizations can be framed about the patterns these histories fall into. Studies of both kinds are regularly produced,[16] but investigations on this level do not often penetrate to the roots of collecting. There is an underlying ground that unites the diverse accounts, and the detailed histories and analyses of collectors and collecting take on different meanings and are more


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satisfying when they emerge from an acceptance of collecting as an elemental ingredient of the human condition.