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Collection and Detachment


What are the dialectics for collecting:

  • detachment
  • memory
  • fixation
  • nostalgia
  • knowledge
  • noumena
  • other N-grams of collocation

Collecting removes the object from its context to place it with other things of its kind. Collecting changes the relationships - perhaps permanently - by re-making the metonym.

What is decisive in collecting is that the object is detached from all its original functions in order to enter into the closest conceivable relation to things of the same kind. This relation is the diametric opposite of any utility, and falls into the peculiar category of completeness. What is this “completeness”? It is a grand attempt to overcome the wholly irrational character of the object's mere presence at hand through its integration into a new, expressly devised historical system: the collection. And for the true collector, every single thing in this system becomes an encyclopedia of all knowledge of the epoch, the landscape, the industry, and the owner from which it comes. It is the deepest enchantment of the collector to enclose the particular item within a magic circle, where, as a last shudder runs through it (the shudder of being acquired), it turns to stone. Everything remembered, everything thought, everything conscious becomes socle, frame, pedestal, seal of his possession. It must not be assumed that the collector, in particular, would find anything strange in the topos hyperouranios - that place beyond the heavens which, for Plato,' shelters the unchangeable archetypes of things. He loses himself, assuredly. But he has the strength to pull himself up again by nothing more than a straw; and from out of the sea of fog that envelops his senses rises the newly acquired piece, like an island. -Collecting is a form of practical memory, and of all the profane manifestations of “nearness” it is the most binding. Thus, in a certain sense, the smallest act of political reflection makes for an epoch in the antiques business. We construct here an alarm clock that rouses the kitsch of the previous century to “assembly.”

Benjamin placed this entry in Section H: The Collector. Between comment on women's coiffures (“they have been betrayed and sold, and the head of Salome made into an ornament”) and “Extinct nature: the shell shop in the arcades.” It's always useful to note where in the collection the entries fall. (Do they fall? Or were they placed?). What prevails here is nostalgia. Nostalgia is the emotion that drives collection. The great cathedrals of collections and the humble local converted railway stations both feed nostalgia and present it as a way to understand motivation: why the collected object has been removed from context and placed with others. Curation entails giving the new placement a character similar to the original. (They are placed. But placed in dioramas. The Arcades is a grand diorama of Paris - behind glass, never concealing its status as artifact.)

The physiological side of collecting is important. In the analysis of this behavior, it should not be overlooked that, with the nest-building of birds, collecting acquires a clear biological function. There is apparently an indication to this effect in Vasari's treatise on architecture. Pavlov, too, is supposed to have occupied himself with collecting.

Collecting and knowing

Collecting is a primal phenomenon of study: the student collects knowledge.

The textbook becomes valued, then over-valued, until it collapses into nostalgia. Composition texts are the same old stuff re-skinned since 1959, or 1963, or whenever you locate the watershed. Comp teachers confidently collect and curate samples from a Newtonian universe to create a flatland for writing and reading. The comp people weren't going to escape the medium massage just because they taught McLuhan. Which they didn't. They didn't teach McLuhan. The best taught Burke. Modernism. Formalism. Pound, Stein, Richards, L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E. Ann E Berthoff. Dialectics.

Which is to say that collection is not a neutral act but a dialectic act. Collecting commonplaces? Really? That's all?

We value the textbook rather than the stuff that must exist outside the text - the collection, separated from its environment - flatland intersected by objects. Am I creating idealism? Less that then thinking about an inside and outside. The better collections - those that we return to - bring the inside out.

Collecting is binding. From the apocryphal section of The Arcades:

In this historical and collective process of fixation, collecting plays a certain role. Collecting is a form of practical memory, and of all the profane manifestations of the penetration of “what has been” (of all the profane manifestations of “nearness”) it is the most binding. … <See Hla,2 and Gl,7.> <h“,3>. p 882.

Collecting to restore, re-see, re-think

With that in mind, consider that the City of Bristol will do with the recently-toppled statue of Colston:

Rees said on Monday that Colston’s vexed legacy would be noted instead by placing his statue in a museum, along with some of the banners and signs left behind by those who tore it down. Meanwhile, with calls for similar monuments in Oxford, Cardiff, Derbyshire and London to face a reckoning of their own, the implications of the statue’s removal may spread far beyond Bristol itself. Guardian 9 June 2020

Putting the bronze of a local slave trader in a local museum seems appropriate, given the cultural issues of the situation. In this particular case, the move dis-places elegantly by dramatizing the dialectic that placed it there in the first place. “the object … detached from … its original functions”. The city museum as a place of collection serves a local social function of restoration.

And see Forming Thinking Writing, [E-Crit]

Collection as a Modernist Practice

collection_and_detachment.txt · Last modified: 2020/06/09 08:30 by morgan